A monster-length master list of over 15 tactics for writing humor, with examples from The Office, Trigun, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Emperor’s New Groove, The Fault in Our Stars, Harry Potter, Pink Panther, The Series of Unfortunate Events, Elf, Enchanted, The Amazing Spider-man, and more. Be prepared to laugh.
(Please note that this article is best read on my off-Tumblr blog here so that you can watch the videos that go along with it, embedded into the post. Otherwise, enjoy reading it right here, with links to the videos.)
I’ve been to a few workshops on writing humor, and I’ve read about writing humor, but the funny thing is, none of them really taught me how to actually write humor. But yet they all said the same thing: Writing humor is hard, harder than writing seriously, because if you fail at humor, you fail horribly.
I heard it so much, it made me fear failure rather than strive to develop that writing talent. For years I avoided writing humor, period. But the catch to that is that I also often hear how humor is a huge draw for an audience.
I read recently in Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts that humor is hard to teach and that some writers believe it can’t be taught at all. If you know these writers, send them to this post, send them to this post, or send them to this post about why the concept that writing can’t be taught is bullcrap.
People think writing humor can’t be taught because they don’t know how to teach it. Some people can write humor, but can’t teach it. They don’t know how they are funny because it’s just intuitive and natural to them. I was at one workshop on humor, and the only “how-to” tip they gave was that humor had to just come up naturally in the story. But professional comedians slave away and work their butts off writing their jokes, and then practicing them. That’s not natural. Sure, some comedians do improv (Whose Line is it Anyway? was one of my favorite shows), so they’re more natural, but I believe most comedians have to work to be funny.
Look at shows like The Office. Those writers obviously know how to write that kind of humor. And they use some of the same humor techniques over and over—that’s not just happening, that’s planned out. It’s formulaic. Look at the Marvel movies. They have their own style of humor too. I once read an interview with Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, in it he talked about how insanely difficult it is to come up with jokes sometimes.
So yes, writing humor can be hard. But it’s not impossible. After all the (non)advice I got on writing humor. (Sure, some of them did mention one or two humor tactics, but not how to do them) I decided to take it into my own hands. So I’ve studied humor on my own, and I’ve made my own “How to Write Humor” article that actually tells you (or rather myself) HOW to write humor.
It’s not all-encompassing by any means. And I’m still learning. And note that you might have a different sense of humor than me, but you should be able to revamp most, if not all, of these tactics to suit you. Some of the tactics I will talk about today overlap each other, so one example might actually fit into several of these categories.
15 Humor Tactics
Overstatements and Exaggerations
An overstatement or exaggeration is playing up something—making something seem bigger than it is.
Humor articles I did read said exaggeration or overstatements are a no-no, and then go on by giving examples like “My room was so messy, it looked like a bomb had gone off.” Well, guess what? That’s just a bad example. It’s cliche. And just… blah. (I’ll explain why it doesn’t work in a second.) The articles are right, don’t write that one! But the articles are wrong in saying that there are no good exaggerations. That’s not true. There are loads of good exaggerations and overstatements. Most parodies and spoofs are exaggerations.
the tactics from the list above that make me cringe and want to throw the book out of the window (okay, really I just skip a page. or ten. or a whole chapter. or just put the book away):
– Fish out of Water;
– well at least the post recognizes that Awkwardness as humor often doesn’t work;
– there wasn’t a good explanation of Stupidity humor so maybe sometimes it falls into the category I hate and sometimes it doesn’t idk.
Now, let me list techniques from the list above that do not produce the “ugh NO” effect:
– Understatement (my fave forever) (although lots of webcomics take this so far they aren’t engaging in the least anymore as nobody appears to take situations they are in seriously);
– Predictability and Running Gags (although I did cringe and the queerbaiting that was used as example of that);
– Beating around the Bush;
– Stating the Obvious;
– Defying Expectations;
– Thoughts vs Words;
I didn’t include a lot of them because… well, because they aren’t actually different from the ones above and just serve to be confusing imho. “Presentation” isn’t a separate technique, it’s just pointing out that you should use the techniques above not only for your characters’ voices but also for your narration voice. Emphasis is a part of general writing mastery, not just comedic, and Don’t Laugh at Your Own Jokes is the subcategory of /that/. Overcomplication and Oversimplification are a combination of Stating the Obvious, Defying Expectations, Understatement, Exaggeration and you know what literally anything can go into making overcomplication/oversimplification a joke. They are a trope, but they are not a comedic trope in themselves. Stereotypes are usually just a mixture of all the stuff above I hate, although I recognize they can be funny when played for comedy via other techniques. Again, they are a trope, but not in itself a comedic trope.
And characterization humor is of course a mixture of Predictability and Relatability (it’s amazing how outlandish a thing readers can relate to when properly set up with characterization, which can itself be pointed out and played for humor with Defying Expectations) and Reactionary, accentuating the rest of the techniques.
And I guess when Gutter Humor works it’s usually as a subset of Defying Expectations (and stops working once you start expecting it).
Actually I’m not sure if Relatability and Reactionary are really separate techniques or stably working combinations of the rest of them, but hey, they /do/ stably work *shrugs*
I’d also say Fish out of Water and Miscommunication are subsets of Awkward that I hate, but I don’t care to think about them enough to figure this out. They don’t work for me either way.