Our top ten comedy writing tips from the experts
Find out how to write something funny in our guide to comedy writing techniques
We all love reading books that make us laugh out loud, and many of us would like to write them too. If you’re blessed with the ability to make people laugh at your jokes, chances are you’ve thought about writing a funny book, or script, or stand-up routine. Making people laugh is a skill in real life, and in print it’s easier said than done – comedy writing is one of the hardest tricks for a writer to get right. But we can help you polish your comedy writing techniques and learn the craft of how to write funny.
The Comedy Women in Print Prize was launched by comedian Helen Lederer to celebrate and support funny novels by women writers. They’ve sent us their top tips for how to write something funny, and we’ve rounded up advice on comedy writing techniques from some of the funniest women writers and comedians in the business to go with each point. These women all know how to make people laugh out loud, so their advice on writing comedy is well worth taking!
1. The main character needs to have, or appear to have, an authentic voice. If the reader doesn’t connect to the tone, the laughs won’t come.
Exercise: Write an account of a time when you stood up for something you believed in strongly and in some way fell short. It could be a story about not taking part in a demonstration you really wanted to be on because you missed the bus, or how everyone laughed at your indignant emails about the dirty office kitchen. Remember the pain and let the humour come from your own situation.
2. Comedy occurs with the meeting of two or more clearly identifiable ideas that don’t match – ie are incongruent and it’s the juxtaposition of contrasting elements (ie the odd couple/cougar and youth/posh and less posh) Laurel and Hardy that make things funny. So think ‘incongruent thoughts!’
Exercise: Write a list of clichés. Then write at least three variants on each one. Being utterly ruthless with yourself, discard all the variants that aren’t actually funny. When you have come up with one that gets a laugh, write a flash fiction to bring it to life.
3. Comedic scenarios often start with pain (enjoy yourself…)
Exercise: Think back to your teenage years and think of something that seemed really ghastly at the time. Start writing (without trying to be funny) and after 30 minutes, put it away. Do a new rewrite of the piece on several consecutive days and see how it changes. Is anything funny coming out of your bad experience?
4. Comedy dialogue needs to be believable to connect (read it out loud? Small words are very effective punctuation points to elicit laughs).
Exercise: Go to an café, or pub, or sit on a bus – anywhere where you can sit behind people who are talking and eavesdrop on their conversation. At some point you will overhear something that makes your ears prick up with its oddity or – even better – makes you snort with laughter. Remember the key lines of dialogue and write them down. What is is about the particular word use that got the laugh? Can you identify it? Now try and write an imaginary dialogue continuing from the phrases you overheard.
5. Ensure that conflict and jeopardy build… until you think it can’t get any worse… and then it does.
Exercise: Create a scenario where a minor detail goes wrong for a character. Then build it up, bit, by bit, into the worse possible outcome that could plausibly be linked to the first thing that went wrong.
6. Just when things are going well, introduce a left field element - unpredictability is fun.
Exercise: Start writing something observational about everyday life. Something based in common experience – maybe of shopping, or relationships, or the internet. Then add something related that is unique to you. It can be as off-the-wall as you like – ie, a piece about car boot sales that veers off into how your obsession with collecting 1970s troll dolls has ruined your love life.
7. Why not leave your work for day and go back to it – edit and edit until the page is really lean – a good edit can turn normal prose into a very mean and witty piece.
Exercise: Take a piece you have written for one of the above exercises and ruthlessly set about covering it in red editing pen. Everything that does not actually contribute to the humour of the piece has to go! Then, after you’ve had a good cry and treated yourself to a misery doughnut, read it back. Is it leaner, meaner and funnier, or do you wish you’d never bothered?
8. Although surprise is needed throughout, if only to catch the reader unawares, be predictable in providing a three-act structure no matter how loose: Set up, Conflict, Resolution.
Exercise: Take one of the pieces you’ve written for these exercises – one that you haven’t hacked to bits. Your job is to turn it into a story with a beginning, middle and end. Aim for 1,500 words.
9. Explore and enjoy character foibles and weakness – this will win sympathy and connection. A person in denial of their weakness is funny.
Exercise: Write a description of a person with an obvious character flaw or foible. So far, so easy. But your job is to write it to try and discover what makes this person tick. Once you have got under their skin, write a piece of interior monologue from their perspective – bearing in mind that they are not aware of the flaw or foible you are exploring.
10. Show don’t tell – the reader is intelligent and will lose interest if spoon fed or if the prose is over explained… key placement of comedic words are jewels, whereas trying hard is annoying (sorry to sound strict but you did ask!)
Exercise: Think of something that has recently made you laugh and write it as if you were telling it to a friend. How are you going to convey it in writing? Give yourself 500 words and impose a ban on unnecessary elements (perhaps adverbs, adjectives, words that sound as if you ate the dictionary).
The Comedy Women in Print Prize will announce the winners in its published and unpublished novel categories in July. And way beyond then, these top tips on how to write funny will help you brush up your comedy writing techniques and be the funny writer you want to be!