Monday, March 5, 2012

9 Tips for Writing Comedy

During a writers' festival last year, I heard Oliver Phommavanh, author of two children's novels, speak about how to write comedy. Below are some of his quick tips:

1. Be yourself. The closer to that, the funnier you'll be. So you'll need to inject your personality into your writing.

2. Think of your audience. Ask yourself, what is relevant to your audience, what would they respond to? What might be funny to one group of people may not be as funny to another.

3. Use universal targets. While still thinking of your audience, broaden the appeal by choosing comedy targets that most people will be able to relate to. For example: family, relationships, authority figures.

4. Avoid offense. Comedy is most effective if it gives the audience permission to laugh. If you are comfortable about making fun of yourself, or the character you are writing about is comfortable about making fun of him or herself, then the reader is also.

5. Use sympathy. The readers should feel a certain amount of sympathy for the characters. However, along the same lines as the previous point, there is a fine line where the reader sympathises with the characters, but doesn't feel bad for laughing at them.

6. Base comedy in realism. There needs to be truth in comedy. For example, start with something real and then do the unexpected.

7. Exaggerate the truth. Start with the truth and then exaggerate it. For example, "It was this big…" or "My mum's so cheap that she'd drive across town to save twenty cents."

8. Heighten conflict. The more conflict there is in a story, the more opportunity for an amusing situation. For example, if a character hates long queues, then put them into that situation. The more the character cares, the more likely he'll do something crazy to get out of the situation.

9. Be aware of timing. When writing a joke, make sure the last thing you write is the funniest. Putting the punchline in the middle waters it down.

What are some of the funniest situations you've written or read in a story? Who are your favourite writers who include humour in their work?

Oliver has a new book called Punchlines coming out on March 21st. It's about stand up comedy. Check it out here.

52 comments:

  1. My favourite author for humour has to be Terry Pratchett. His satire and comedic timing are perfect, and he's got a certain British quirkiness to him that makes his writing unique. The man is awesome.

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  2. I was just about to say Terry Pratchett too!! Yay! Take care
    x

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  3. yes, I hate it when comedy is offensive, that is why I would arrest Sasha Baron Cohen or whatever his name is.
    I've seen a lot of writers without sense of humor, even some bestselling ones, so they might ask for an advice and help for comedy scenes from someone funny? :)

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  4. Some of Vonnegut's stuff is hilarious...like when the aliens break out into applause when Billy Pilgrim, their earthling captive, goes to the bathroom.

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  5. I like dry and snarky humor, but definitely not offensive. (Especially when it goes against my spiritual or moral beliefs.)
    It's difficult to write. I managed to make my second book lighter but I wouldn't call it funnier.

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  6. I like any author who can inject humour into a serious piece of work to lighten the grim parts. If they can balance it just right then I'm their biggest fan.

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  7. I'm so impressed by people who can write comedy. Gordon Korman & Roald Dahl are both masters. :)

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  8. Karla Telega has to be one of my favorites since I usually read paranormal or horror.

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  9. I try to inject humor in my writing, but only when it comes up naturally in a scene. I don't go after anything funny on purpose. Just like in life, sometimes a serious situation offers up a humorous moment and I go with it.

    I still need to read some Pratchett.

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  10. A friend of mine hired three comedians on NYE. All three routines were painful. I felt so badly for them, still shudder at the memory.

    Recently reread Steve Martin's autobiography, 'Born Standing Up.' It was excellent.

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  11. I like #1. If the writing feels stiff or forced, it's not funny even if joke is there. The funniest writer I can think of is Donald Westlake. His Dancing Aztecs is laugh out loud hilarious.

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  12. I like off the wall stuff like Monty Python, but for reading it has to be Pratchett. I'm envious of anyone who can write comedy and make it look easy :-)

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  13. I write historical fiction which is sometimes hysterical fiction! - not really!

    These are great tips for comedy. I am truly green-eyed over anyone who can write comedy. It's not easy at all.

    Great post.

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  14. Jamie, yep Terry Pratchett is a master of comedy.

    Dezzy, yes, offensive comedy is not funny at all. It's scary how much of it is around too--especially in movies.

    Luanne, I'm the same. I can't force humour anyway so maybe that's a good thing? ;) And yes! You need to read some Pratchett.

    Suze, your poor friend...and those poor comedians.

    Sarah, my husband is a Python fan too. And yes, comedy certainly isn't easy.

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  15. Sometimes exaggerating the truth about the obvious is the funniest to me!

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  16. I definitely wouldn't consider myself a comedic writer, but on occasion I'll throw something in there. It's usually some snark though dialog or in a character's movements.

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  17. I'm terrible with names but the books I found hysterical (I love a good laugh) were A Walk in the Woods and Marley and Me. That last one made me cry too, but there were so many funny parts.

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  18. I think writing comedy is one of the HARDEST things to write... it's so subjective... but this list really helps. I like number one the best. Just be yourself--because this is what's going to carry past the page in the most believable/non-forced way ;)

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  19. Great list! I think the best and funniest is when the writer doesn't sound like they're TRYING to be funny. Then again, humor is so subjective; what's knee-slapping to one person doesn't affect another person at all. I like my humor subtle when I read--often just the use of certain word combos can tickle my funny bone.

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  20. One of the books I'm writing in the near future is a comedy book. These are great points. Thank you.

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  21. You've been awarded an 'Awesome Blog Content (ABC) Blog Award!
    Claim it here:
    http://melissamaygrove.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-first-award.html
    = )

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  22. zerg! Writing comedy's hard! I'm not sure if I'm very good at it--MS being revised is supposed to be funny, but after all these revisions, I don't laugh at it once. LOL! Hmm... I guess ask me again in six mos~ :D <3

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  23. I DO NOT like vulgar comedians. I don't think a comedian needs to swear to get laughs. My favorite comedians are the ones who have been on Bananas Comedy Show. Some of them are: Issac Witty, Tim Hawkins, and Taylor Mason. There are lots of others.

    I'm not good at writing comedy into a story, but there are many authors who are.

    Susanne
    PUTTING WORDS DOWN ON PAPER

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  24. Great tips! I found them really helpful because I'm told I'm a really funny guy (note - you're only ever funny if other people think so), yet I've struggled to translate my humor to my writing.

    Partly, I'm sure, because I'm not a very good writer! :) The other part because I'm trying to write characters who AREN'T me. However, I do think it's something I'd like to get better at.

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  25. Comedy and humour which comes up naturally in a story is better than forced hilarity. Sometimes some dialogue betwen H/H just makes you laugh.

    Great advice list Lynda!

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  26. Honey, I haven't read Marley and Me but I saw the movie and yes it made me both laugh and cry.

    Morgan, totally agree.

    Carol, yes! Comedy can't be trying too hard otherwise it's just not funny.

    Clarissa, wow, a comedy? That's a big break from mystery/crime. Good luck with it.

    Melissa, thanks so much for the award!

    Susanne, I'm not familiar with Bananas Comedy Show. And I totally agree, vulgarity in comedy is just bad.

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  27. Peter Mayle has made me laugh out loud, Laurie Notaro, too. The funniest I've ever heard is a local lady who had me wiping tears off my cheeks in December.

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  28. My top favorite writer of humor would be Terry Pratchett; and while it's darker, I also love the humor in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

    Great post!

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  29. OOooooo, I love that advice!

    I think the funniest situations are in the books my kids like. Diary of a Wimpy Kid and My Dear Dumb Diary. They crack me up. ;)

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  30. I love reading comedy and fun dialogues!

    Thanks for these great tips.

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  31. Remember Harry Potter's giant spiders? The text went from frightening to funny when they all got roller skates and couldn't stand up. That's what I call great writing. :)

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  32. I love humor in books.

    The Adrian Mole Diaries had me in stitches. And even though John Green writes about serious issues, some of his passages bring out a chuckle.

    In my latest WIPs, the readers have laughed at parts of the drafts. They all involve realism and a fun teenage voice.

    Awesome tips to follow. :)

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  33. nice post thanks for sharing...blessings...

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  34. Terry Pratchett, Rose Cooper, Jeff Kinney, MT Anderson (Whales on Stilts), and Derek Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant series).

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  35. I would add a tip to make sure to use a references that will last in the long run.

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  36. I thought of more. Roald Dahl. There's a lot of Humor in Harry Potter too.

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  37. No matter what the genre, I absolutely love when a book makes me laugh. I just finished reading a Dean Koontz book, and even though the end got way too far-fetched for my tastes, it did make me laugh out loud, and I can forgive a lot for that.

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  38. I love writing comedy and also reading it. Thanks for the wonderful tips :)

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  39. I like mixing in comedy with serious stories. I think Joss Whedon does this the best in film.

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  40. I don't have a favorite comedy writer. One of my crit partners has me in hysterics quite often... Hope she gets published!
    Great tips.
    Thank you

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  41. Golden, I'm not surprised Terry Pratchett is a popular choice.

    Medeia, that's fantastic to hear your readers are laughing. Best compliment in my opinion--especially since humour is so hard to write.

    Theresa, great point about using references that will last. The surest way to date a story is to have its humour target specific current events.

    Susan, I'm curious about which Koontz book had you laughing.

    Mark, Joss Whedon is a master of doing that.

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  42. Thanks for sharing these great tips! You're right about not being offensive. I usually seek a second opinion on my humor to make sure I don;t say something I shouldn't.

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  43. Your tips are always soooo excellent! Thanks for sharing all your wisdom with us :)

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  44. Great tips. Thanks for commenting on my blog this week for Alex's guest post.

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  45. Great post. And based on these comments, I need to read Terry Pratchett. : ) Humor always enhances whatever I am reading, but it is hard to do well. I think it has to come naturally or it turns out awkward, which can be very uncomfortable to read.

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  46. Wonderful topic. Comedy is hard to right and have it come off funny. There are only a handful of authors that can may be laugh out loud. Of course, their names escape me right now.

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  47. Great tips for writing comedy! I have a hard time with it, though I can typically have certain characters come out funny if needed (it takes input from my funny hubby, usually). I can't do straight comedy, but I think all these tips are great for including humor in general in our books.

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  48. Thanks again for all your comments. I really appreciate them.

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  49. I like this list of general rules for writing comedy.

    The last time I really laughed while reading a book was while reading Confederacy of Dunces. I will admit that I haven't read a lot of comedy since I was a kid.

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  50. Such a great post! I used to try way too hard to be funny in my writing as well as in day-to-day conversations. But I stopped trying so hard and just focused on being myself, and now people always tell me that I am hilarious. I honestly don't know where they get that, but I must be doing something right! Like you say here, it's important to just be yourself and use any universal targets that would be funny to pretty much anybody.


    -Wendy Lu

    The Red Angel Blog

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