How to Write Funny Dialogue
You can’t become funny overnight. But you can use these comedy writing tips and techniques to create dialogue that is both humorous and convincing.
- Quote funny people: In nonfiction writing, one technique for getting laughs is simply to quote people with a sense of humor. When the people around you are funny, you can bring them into your work. They know they are being witty, and you are taking them with you into the essay (or other piece of writing) as part of the humor. In fiction writing, you can create funny characters to introduce jokes into the text in a way that feels natural and not forced. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, some characters in your story are bound to be funnier than others.
- Exaggerate: Stretching a real scenario into the most ridiculous version you can imagine can be another way to get a laugh in nonfiction writing.
- Compress: People don’t speak in real life like they do on the page, so there’s an art to writing speech to make it feel real. When quoting a funny person, one of its important tools is compression. By trimming down your characters’ speech, you can convey realistic sounds without dulling the reader. This is important for all types of dialogue, but especially humorous dialogue. A lot of funny dialogue comes from one-liners, humorous responses to situations that are short and punchy.
- Keep a diary: Keeping a diary where you write down funny things that happen to you, dialogue you overhear and love, and character traits, will help you see the world differently. Tuning in to your surroundings will open you to moments that could become stories and the parts of your world that belong in your writing.
- Be self-deprecating: When you’re writing a scene in which you’re a main character, deploy a trusty humor tool: being harder on yourself than any other character in the story. When you make yourself a relatable character, your reader will feel connected to you. Let go of thinking about how you come across and just try to be honest—learning how to laugh at yourself is crucial.
- Twist a cliché or undermine any expectation you’ve set up: Humor relies in part on twisting a cliché—transforming or undermining it. You do this by setting up an expectation based on the cliché and then providing a surprise outcome. In humor writing, this process is called reforming.
- Put your funny lines at the end of a sentence or scene: Humor is often a release of tension, so the sentence builds that tension, and the pay-off happens most naturally at the end (the punchline).
- Use contrast: Are your characters in a terrifying situation? Add something light, like a man obsessing about his briefcase instead of the T-Rex looming behind him.
- Find funny words: Some words are just funnier than others, so make a list of those that amuse you the most. When working with compressed text, word choice is especially important. Wordplay is one kind of humor writing that can make your dialogue funnier.
- Manage expectations: It’s especially difficult to make people laugh when they’re expecting you to be funny—never set the expectation that you’re about to try to be funny. It’s much easier to be funny unexpectedly. Make these attempts to be funny a quiet side effect; think of humor as a pleasant deviation from an expectation. Then create a context where laughter is easily produced.
- Use body language: A large part of real-life dialogue is non-verbal, and these cues make their way into fiction through the use of stage direction, which is any textual reference to the physical movement of the speakers. The term is borrowed from theater, where such directions are necessary tools to help actors and directors envision the physical set-up of a play. In fiction, stage directions can often do just as much as dialogue to convey a character’s mood, frame of mind, or responses. If your dialogue starts to feel repetitive, put your characters in motion—walking, driving, or distracted by their environment. In comedy, you can use gestures to enhance the humor of a scene, or you can take body language to the maximum of physical comedy: slapstick.
- Use Gossip: Gossip makes excellent dialogue because people unconsciously dramatize events for the benefit of the listener. They narrate not what happened, but the essence of what happened. When you gossip, your listener suspends disbelief. This is a great way to introduce exaggerated funny stories.
- Pay attention to rhythm: Your dialogue should be rhythmic because human speech is naturally rhythmic. When you listen to people having a conversation, they’re creating rhythmic poetry; pauses are filled, sentences are capped by the other’s interruptions, all amounting to a patterned cadence. A play is essentially a poem written for several voices. When writing humorous dialogue, delivery and timing are especially important. Don’t be afraid to rewrite each line of dialogue in your first draft until you get the rhythm just right.
- Read your work aloud (to an audience, if possible): Reading aloud is another layer of the editing process—kind of like live workshopping. Make notes on the page as you read, demarcating where the audience laughs and where there is silence. Even without having an audience’s reaction to gauge, reading your work out loud can be an invaluable tool in the writing process. Whether you do stand-up comedy or share a short story at an open mic night or reading, pay attention to your audience’s reactions: where people laugh out loud or where your jokes fall flat.
- Use funny dialogue for character development: Dialogue serves the triple purpose of revealing character, advancing plot lines, and providing entertainment. The entertainment part will come more easily if you’re a naturally funny person, but it’s important not to sacrifice character development in dialogue-writing. Dialogue should always be appropriate to the character and should take their point of view, beliefs, and backstory into consideration. People’s desires motivate them to speak, so when writing dialogue, ask yourself what your characters want. Ideally, you will know your characters well enough to sense not only what they want but how they would express their desires verbally. Good jokes often hinge on subverting expectations, and the best jokes—the ones that will stick with your readers—tie into the story as a whole.
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