Top tips on writing humour

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Advice on how to be a funny writer from Abigail Mann (shortlisted for the 2019 Comedy Women in Print Prize)

At times like this, we all need a good laugh. If you’re writing humour into your fiction, you’re essentially performing a much needed public service. I’ve scribbled down eight tips for writing humour that will help you on your comedic quest.

1. Find your voice

In my novels, I don’t write ‘jokes’, so to speak, but it’s the voice that makes people laugh, or so I’ve been told! I write in first-person present tense, and so my readers are seeing, hearing, and reacting to everything at the same time as Elissa, my protagonist. I think this helps with the immediacy of humour, as when Elissa has a pithy thought about her boss, or the obscure behaviour she sees on London’s streets, my readers are on board with her way of interpreting the world and mirror her reaction to it.

2. Draw from funny things that have happened in your own life

Everyone has experienced embarrassing things happening to them or to someone else that were funny in hindsight, and this can be worked into your writing. If your friend laughed when you told her about it over coffee, it’s likely that a reader will too. Readers take a huge amount of pleasure in vicariously living through a character’s awkward meeting with their unhinged boss, or a scene that features an unfortunately timed mid-jog asthma attack whilst running with a handsome colleague. Jot it all down. You never know when it’ll come in handy.

3. Use biting specificity in your descriptions

This can be a good way of taking something funny and turning it up a notch. Describing the appearance of your main character's colleagues can be funny when they’ve got distinctive features, but it’s the detail that you use that can really make someone laugh. Is their hair greasy or does he look like he’s had an accident with a vat of chip oil? Is she athletic, or does she look like she left the womb wearing Lycra? I’d recommend not doing this all the time, or the impact will be lost. One every couple of pages should do it.

4. Use unconventional comparisons

We use comparisons all the time when we’re chatting to friends and family as a way to help them visualise something they haven’t seen by anchoring it to something they’re familiar with. Depending on what your comparisons are, this can be a great opportunity for humour. For instance, if you’re describing a character and don’t want to run through a plodding description of them, use comparisons that are more revealing of what they’re like as a person. For example, ‘he resembled the love child of Steve Jobs and a boiled egg.’ One of those gives you an indication of how that character views themselves, whereas the other is a funny comment on what he actually looks like.

5. Use the voice of supporting characters

Supporting characters should offer alternative, fresh (positive or not!) perspectives for your reader. They might have a unique pattern to their speech or talk about a sensitive topic in a refreshingly candid way. Quick, realistic back-and-forth conversation is immersive and offers great pace leading up to a punch line or big reveal.

6. Conflict and tension is great for injecting humour

Just like in life, awkward, painful, embarrassing, or stressful moments are often funny when you look back on them. Each time you put your protagonist in a tight spot, make it tighter. Characters can have conflict with themselves, with others, and with their environment, so there’s plenty there you can exploit. Your character hates exercise? Sign them up to a charity fun run! They can’t stand public speaking? Bring forward a meeting they haven’t prepared for properly!

7. Funny lines might not work first time and that’s ok

There’s a lot of pressure to ‘write funny’ first time round, but no matter how spontaneous it seems, comedians never perform their material from scratch and you shouldn’t either. Get to the end of your draft, then go through and see where sentences can be tightened up, whether reactions can be altered, and if reveals can be shifted around for greater impact. There’s a rhythm to comedy. Write, read aloud, see whether the beats are falling in the right places, and re-write as and where you need to.

8. Don’t try too hard

This might seem like an odd one, as everyone knows that writing is meant to be hard, right? But don’t force your humour as your reader will see right through it. Trust in your voice and don’t overthink it.

Mini writing exercise: Why aren’t you taking me seriously?!

First, you’re going to come up with a protagonist. Answer the questions below, expanding where you feel necessary, to build a picture of your main character for this piece.
Set a two-minute timer and… go!
• What do they do for money?
• Do they ever waste time at work?
• Do they avoid confrontation or thrive from it?
• Do they ever feel overlooked?
• How do they get on with the boss? (or are they the boss?)
• Are they in a job they love?
• How do they get on with their colleagues?
Now, set a ten-minute timer and write a conversation between your protagonist and a friend. Your protagonist has been asked to do something at work that they think is unfair and is complaining about it, but the friend isn’t taking them seriously.
Your protagonist may use sarcasm, exaggeration, and comparison to try and emphasise their point.
Don’t worry about punctuation or formatting whilst you’re writing. You can add speech tags and description later!

The Lonely Fajita by Abigail Mann is out in ebook and can be purchased here (price £2.99, published by One MoreChapter).

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