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What Is Humor?
“Humor is that moment where you see something that you’ve always thought, but somebody has articulated it. And they’ve articulated it in a way that you’ve never seen before. [...] It’s the joy of the unexpected. Whether it’s broad or whether it’s subtle, is always vital.”— Neil Gaiman
Humor is, above all, subjective, but is anything illogical or comedic that causes amusement. One person might love slapstick, while another can’t get enough of the wry cartoons in The New Yorker. Humor writer David Sedaris’s sardonic, deadpan approach to real-life funny stories made him a bestseller, for example. No matter the circumstances, you can think of humor as a pleasant deviation from an expectation.
Why Write Humor?
There are few things as powerful as making someone laugh. If you can translate both timing and wit across a static collection of words on a page, and make them hear the joke in their own mind, you will leave an impression on your readers. Making people laugh is a great way to create a bond between your readers and your characters, helping make the characters more believable.
Humor is also a crucial tool in setting the tone of a work. Funny writing isn’t just reserved for comedies. It crosses genre; It often involves subverting reader expectations, and so leans heavily on surprise and the unexpected. This requires a basic understanding of cliché and how to twist it, essentially allowing you to generate a reader expectation and then undermine it. In horror writing, humor can keep things from getting too scary with a little levity.
6 Tips for Better Humor Writing
Humor writing isn’t all about landing a good joke (except for when it is). In creative writing, the effect is usually a bit more nuanced. Here’s a few writing techniques to get you started:
- Subvert expectations. Try to undermine the audience’s expectations or reform them with structural elements. For example, Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie took a staid, nineteenth-century character and added CGI to make him a Matrix-style fighter, which many audiences found amusing.
- Save the best for last. Humor is often a release of tension, so the sentence builds that tension, and the pay-off—the punchline—happens most naturally at the end. This is also sometimes referred to as the “rule of three,” where two thoughts act as a build-up to the final humorous closer.
- 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.
- Use good wordplay. Sometimes words themselves are funny, and just as often, their placement in a sentence can make a difference. Some words are just funnier than others, so make a list of those that amuse you the most.
- Take advantage of cliché. While clichés are something most writers try to avoid, it’s important to recognize them,so you can use them to your advantage. 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.
- Use humor as a counterbalance. If you just pile on one terrible thing after another, it starts to become ridiculous, and people won’t buy it. Using humor is a great way to achieve the proper balance between fantasy and real life. Remember, if a roller coaster only did twists and turns the whole time, it wouldn’t be as fun to ride.
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