image courtesy: meetmrholland.wordpress.com
You know that feeling when you’ve read a funny piece of writing — you smile and perhaps even laugh. You might share what you’ve read with someone else or refer to it in conversations with others.
Recently I read Scott Adam’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Scott Adams is the creator of the uber popular Dilbert comic strip. The book is packed with Scott’s philosophies on how to succeed despite many failures. And while it’s not intended as a humor book, it has its funny moments. One paragraph in particular had me laugh so hard, my millennial daughter looked up from her cell phone.
I want to write like Scott. And you?
So, I’ve been studying humor in various capacities for half a dozen years (more if you count years of sitcom, romantic comedy, and Pixar animated film watching). I wanted to know what the tricks are to make writing funny.
One of my mentors, travel humor writer Dave Fox, says “Humor isn’t a gift handed down by the gods. It’s a skill anyone can learn.” I trust Dave. He makes me laugh. Dave taught me about storytelling and the importance of editing to get to the punch fast. Dave has a set of twelve humor writing techniques he teaches. A few of those techniques I call simple tricks. Simple tricks #1 and #2 are literary devices I’ve picked up from reading and analyzing what’s funny.
But before we get into the tricks, it’s important to review a few humor rules.
Better safe than sued
Using humor can feel risky. You don’t want to offend anyone, lose your audience, or be charged with humor harassment. So, here are some points to keep in mind:
- Good taste. (If your taste is questionable, get another opinion.)
- Self-deprecation. You are a safe topic to joke about. Just don’t overdo it or readers might find you pathetic. Poke fun at situations, stereotypes, and relatable habits.
- A touch of humor. A little goes a long way.
- Your own brand of humor. Be yourself. Use what makes you laugh. Be original.
- Sarcasm, putdowns or GROSS* (gender-bashing, racist, obscene, sexual, or swearing) humor. *from CleanComedians.com
- Too much humor. We’re talking blog posts and articles, not standup routines. Like adding garlic to pasta sauce without a recipe, finding the right humor dose takes practice. (Better to err on the low side while you adjust to your readers’ taste buds.)
- Humor aimed at other people, your competition, or disadvantages (unless you can speak from experience about the disadvantage, but even then be careful).
- Forced humor. Don’t try too hard to be funny. And never use other people’s jokes.
Now you have the humor rules, let’s get down to the seven simple tricks.
Trick #1 — Psst
Have you noticed writers who use short messages in parentheses as if they are sharing a secret? Sometimes the writer uses an ellipsis (…) or several dashes (- -) instead of parentheses.
This writing device of sharing a quasi secret with readers is known as an aside. The device is similar to the technique actors use on stage to speak in private with the audience.
Humor writers use asides to poke fun at themselves, state the obvious, exaggerate, make a witty remark, add a tongue-in-cheek comment, or ask a rhetorical question.
Sometimes the writer might use the aside to add a sound effect, like the sound of clearing his throat (ahem), or a whisper (psst).
By making the message of the aside a bit unexpected, you can add a bit of levity to your writing. Because the aside is like sharing a secret, it can also help build a connection with your readers.
Here are some example asides (in bold) I’ve found online and in my inbox:
- “Which is why a new page on Wikipedia about, say, twerking will automatically get a higher ranking than a page about it on your Auntie Jean’s personal blog (which is a shame because Auntie Jean is one hell of a twerker).” ~Excerpt from a post by Glenn Long
- “Samar Owais is a freelance writer and blogger. She loves writing (kinda goes without saying), road trips, and helping writers succeed in their freelance writing businesses.” ~ bio from a blog post
- “I swear (under pain of being whipped by a wet noodle) that I meet all five criteria to receive a scholarship from Jon!” ~ Excerpt from an email offer by Jon Morrow
- “Pretend You’re Van Gogh (You Can Keep Your Ear)” ~ subheading from an Ezine article by the managing editor
Trick #2 — Same sound sequence
Alliteration is a writing technique that uses a series of words that all start with the same sound. The words don’t have to start with the same letter, but they must have the same sound. For example fun and phone are alliterative. Cat and chair aren’t.
Alliteration can give your writing a lyrical sound that makes it funnier.
Consider these two sentences.
- Fred watched the crowd of attractive women on the beach.
- Bert ogled the bevy of beautiful babes on the beach.
Okay, maybe you wouldn’t write that last sentence, but it does sound funnier than the first one. Yes?
Alliteration is a fun way to make your content memorable. I notice writers often use alliteration in names. Severus Snape, Bilbo Baggins, and Fred Flintstone come to mind.
Here’s an example from a post by Kevin Duncan on his blog ‘Be a Better Blogger’, where he pokes fun at his blog name using a bit of wordplay and alliteration. (Kevin’s in depth posts, prolific writing, and sense of humor have made him a popular blogger.)
“Gosh… a guest post from this cat would take a lot of time to edit. I’ll just email that Kevin Duncan guy from ‘Be A Bitter Blabber’ and have him write another guest post instead.”
Alliteration also works well when you write a list of items. For example, suppose you are listing a series of names. You might choose names that all start with the same sound, like Charlie, Charlotte, and Chewbacca.
The key is to make sure when you choose your words, your writing makes sense. You don’t want to be alliterative at the expense of clarity.
Trick #3 — Witty words and word tweaks
This trick has to do with the words you choose.
Some words are inherently funnier than others according to humor experts (there’s always an expert). Words that contain the consonants p, b, d, g, t or k (known as plosives for anyone who cares) are funnier.
Some examples of funnier words:
- brouhaha, pandemonium, or hullabaloo instead of chaos
- scamper, bustle, or skedaddle instead of hurry
- hoodwink, dupe, or bamboozle instead of mislead
Make friends with your Thesaurus to find funnier sounding synonyms.
Another way to add humor through word choice is to use specific words. When writing, it’s easy to opt for weak words. And that’s okay when you’re in draft mode. But when you edit your writing, try to replace those unimaginative nouns with more specific ones.
For example if you’re writing about the last experience at your auto repair shop. Describe your car. What type of repair did it need? Discovering your 2003 Ford Focus had loose lug nuts seems funnier than taking your car in for a rattle. (Almost true experience. I don’t drive a Ford Focus, but my car did suffer loose lug nuts.)
Be specific. Unless you’re writing about the Dr. Seuss characters in his book The Cat in the Hat, find a better word than thing (or its relative something).
Trick #4 — Surprise ending
The Rule of Three is a popular humor writing technique based on the setup and punchline formula comedians use to create jokes. You start with two straight items (the setup) and add a third item that is a comedic twist (the punchline). The effect of the twist is a surprise.
We use three items because three is the smallest, and most memorable, number that forms a pattern.
You find series of three everywhere:
- In titles like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles;
- in expressions like “lights, camera, action”;
- and in classic jokes like the Englishman, Irishman, and Canadian.
With this technique, people are expecting a certain pattern. You throw them off track when you break the pattern.
You can use the Rule of Three anywhere:
- In your bio: John Cleese — “writer, actor, and tall person”
- In your tagline: Mother Reader — “The heart of a mother. The soul of a reader. The mouth of a smartass.”
- In a list: The Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader
The key to using this trick is to break the pattern with an absurd ending to your list.
You can extend the rule of three to include sentences as your list items. Start with two straight sentences and make sure the last sentence has an element of surprise. To demonstrate, here’s an example from blogger Kevin Duncan…
“For four months, I was in limbo. Paychecks stopped being deposited. Savings accounts started dwindling. Ramen noodle consumption skyrocketed.”
Trick #5— Gigantic proportions
Exaggeration is one of the most effective ways to add humor. But to be funny, the exaggeration needs to be extreme. You need to create a mismatch between reality and the exaggerated image your words create.
Dave Barry, Miami Herald newspaper columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner for humor writing, is the master of using humorous exaggeration. As an example, here’s a paragraph he wrote to describe men’s concern over their ability to handle laundry. Notice the extreme condition Dave uses to describe shrinking a woman’s bra.
“We worry that if we get just one variable wrong, we will find ourselves facing a wrathful spouse, who is holding up a garment that was once a valued brassiere of normal dimensions, but is now suitable only as a sun hat for a small, two-headed squirrel.” ~ Dave Barry
So when you use exaggeration, stretch it as far as it can go to make it absurd. If you succeed, your readers will enjoy the humor.
Here are some other examples I found online:
- “About two years into my blogging career, to my surprise and delight, my dream came true. One of my blog posts was tweeted by marketing superstar Guy Kawaski, who has a Twitter following roughly the size of France.” ~ from a post by Mark Schaefer on his blog
- “But any 30-second ad about generalized “build quality” in barns is likely to suck harder than a Dyson vacuum.” ~ from a post by Brian Clark on Copyblogger
- “It only got worse after I turned 50, as my metabolism seemed to have taken an early retirement. I now have to jog five miles just to work off a tic-tac I ate in the 90’s. The only things that fit from my earlier years are my earrings.” ~ from a post by Judy Carter on the Psychology Today blog
Trick #6 — Twisted cliché
A cliché is an expression that was once clever but has lost its original impact due to overuse. You can twist a cliche to add humor by adding a surprise ending. Here are some examples from well known personalities:
- Cliché: Where there’s a will there’s a way. Twisted: “Where there’s a will, there’s a family fighting over it.” — Buzz Nutley
- Cliché: A fool and his money are soon parted. Twisted: “A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.” — Harry Anderson
- Cliché: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Twisted: “If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving isn’t for you.” — Mel Helitzer
Want to make your reader smile? Take a well-known phrase (Google can help you search for clichés) and change the ending to create a humorous twist.
Trick #7 — Déjà vu
Déjà vu is a sense of familiarity or previous experience. Comedians use a callback to make a clever association at the end of their set with a joke made earlier in the set. In a sense, the callback is like a déjà vu for the audience because they are reminded of a funny bit they heard before.
You can use a callback in your writing by referring to a notable point or topic you wrote earlier. Here’s a small example to illustrate:
“The marathon is over and, I must say: I accomplished what I wanted to….
I didn’t die.
I kickstarted my health journey.
I raised money for Ronald McDonald Charities.
I didn’t die.” ~ Excerpt from a Huffington post article by Jennifer Bertrand
In this excerpt, the sentence “I didn’t die” is repeated at the beginning and the end, resulting in a sense of repetition. I find it funny because the author is exaggerating how difficult the marathon was by repeating that line.
The idea of a callback though isn’t to repeat the words verbatim. Instead, you reintroduce the reader to a funny point you made earlier in your writing. The callback is an effective trick to end a piece of writing. For examples, read some of Dave Barry’s work.
Dilbert, Dave Fox, Dave Barry. What if your name doesn’t start with the letter D? Can you still write funny? Yes, even the Dave’s had to start somewhere.
And you don’t have to become a full blown humor writer to add a bit of humor to your writing. You can apply the seven simple tricks I’ve shared to give your blog posts, your emails, or your Dear John (or Jane) letters an element of levity.
Try one or more of these seven simple tricks to lighten up your writing. Follow the guidelines to avoid offending anyone.
Humor gets attention. Humor makes people laugh and feel good. And if it’s done its job, humor makes writing memorable and share worthy.
Let me know if you’ve tried any of these tricks. Which ones do you use? Which ones will you try?