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Written By: Eddie Snipes - Aug• 09•11

Using Humor in Writing

Everyone likes a little humor in writing. A chuckle can break the tension and give the reader a mind break. It’s one of those emotions that snap us out of a dull state of mind, energizes us, and opens the door to a positive reading experience – including ones that introduce other emotions.

Humor in writing is like playing peek-a-boo with your conscious mind. There is an element of surprise in every bit of humor. We laugh when our mind is following a normal train of thought, and humor in writing*surprise*, we’re taken into a new direction. It’s like a train derailment in the brain. One minute we’re chugging along, the next minute we’re off the tracks, rumbling through the woods, laughing and asking what happened?

Have you watched a child playing peek-a-boo? Each time mommy says, “Boo!” the child laughs. Even though a child knows it’s coming, they still laugh. Why? Perhaps it’s the same reason why we either know or anticipate the punch line of a joke, but we still laugh. There’s part of us that knows it’s coming, yet we are still surprised into laughter. Of course, the best laughs are when we are caught by surprise.

Translating humor in writing

Humor in writing is more challenging than speaking. Consider the tools of a speaker or a standup comedian. They have facial expressions, timed pauses in their speech, tone of voice, stage prompts, action, and any number of other audio or visual aids. A writer has one tool – the written word. A story or presentation that’s hysterical when spoken is often flat as a used whoopee cushion in print. Any humor that depends on presentation will not work on the page. Therefore, writers have to be more creative in order to get humor across to their reader.

Reasons for humor in writing

Humor in writing is not just for funny stories and silly novels. They are valuable in all types of writing. It’s good in non-fiction because it breaks up the routine. Non-fiction is often the process of passing information along to the reader. Over time, the reader begins to slip into a mental rut and has trouble concentrating. When humor is added, it reengages the conscious mind. The train has left the tracks, and now our attention is on where this choo-choo is going. When it returns to the track, the reader’s attention has been recaptured and they will be more alert.

When a novel has a lot of tension, the reader will eventually need a break. There’s a fine line between tension and stress. We want the reader to feel the tension, but we don’t want the reader to drop into the stress zone. Our minds need a break. Why do high-stress jobs have their own brand of humor? My father is a retired fireman. Sometimes the firemen’s humor was shocking. I once heard a fireman refer to someone who died in a fire as a ‘crispy critter’. I found that most of the firemen used the term regularly. Policemen, emergency technicians, and ambulance workers express dark humor and laugh at situations that outsiders don’t find as funny.

There’s a reason for this. Stress needs an outlet and humor is one of the best ways to relieve tension. It’s a defense mechanism. This is why good humored people thrive in tough situations. Research has shown that couples that use humor get along better. The reason is that laughter relieves tense situations. Angry words do not.

Your reader is human. Take them to the point of biting their nails, but don’t leave them there too long. Drop a funny line in an unexpected place to relieve the tension for a brief moment. The human mind needs this break.

There are so many ways to use humor in writing that I can’t do justice in this post. Good humor isn’t forced. Use your personality and try to be natural. I’m going to show a few styles of humor in writing that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Humor in writing – the Understatement

This is probably my favorite style of humor in writing. I have a dry wit and this is a great way to show it. One problem with understating is that it requires passive voice. Let me give an example:

This section of the city isn’t the best place to walk alone in the day, much less at night. Sitting in a stalled car wouldn’t be much safer, so I started my trek to find an open convenient store. The hairs on my neck stood at attention a moment before I heard voices and saw shadows gathering on the sidewalk. “I don’t reckon you’re from these parts, are you?”

In the moonlight I could make out a yellow shirt with the words, ‘locals only’. I stepped off the sidewalk into the road and tried to ease past.

“You aint goin nowhar,” another voice spoke. He spit and spoke again. “Aint that a government car yore drivin?”

Telling the punk to get some edumacation probably wasn’t the best idea. After that, things escalated quickly. Just as I thought, At least they aren’t getting violent, they did. Something hit hard off the back of my head and then the unedumacated guy jumped in. Then another. I was knocked off my feet and the mob began tearing at my flesh like starving lions. A work boot pushed into my face and ground dirt and who knows what else into my teeth.

Now I was beginning to get annoyed.

That last line is quite an understatement. Shouldn’t he be afraid, furious, or have rage boiling over into a battle frenzy? Nope. The gang of attacking punks is about to get on this guy’s nerves.

Notice the passive voice. Subtle humor often depends on the passive voice because it lacks real action. He’s not grabbing the boot and trying to twist someone’s foot off. He’s passively thinking when we think he should be doing something. It’s not often that passive humor puts the reader in hysterics, but it’s great to break the tension. In the right situation, it can be funnier than other forms of humor.

Your critique partners won’t like it. Nor will editors. Once I submitted a story for a publication. The editor liked the article, but didn’t like the passive voice. I received the article back with suggested corrections which put everything in active voice. And stripped the life out of the article. Without the passive voice, it had no humor and became a boring story. I was a little annoyed.

Humor in Writing – Over exaggerating

Too much exaggeration can strike the funny bone of readers. Sometimes the best humor is in a short statement. In May of 1897 Mark Twain went to visit a dying cousin. Someone misunderstood someone’s explanation and the rumor mill began. Before long, it was Twain that was supposedly the one with the serious illness, and soon was reported as dead. Word of Mark Twain’s death reached Mark Twain. He wrote a brief note to a friend that ended with this famous quote:

The report of my death was an exaggeration.

Exaggeration can be a great tool for humor in writing, and the possibilities are limitless. You could have a man starving and describe something like, “His stomach was filled with anticipation.” Or, “The woman was terrified by the enormous gnat.” How about, “The debt was burning a hole in his pocket.”

A word of caution. Exaggerations can come across as amateurish. It’s important that exaggerations come across as illogical. Contradicting exaggerations can surprise the brain and create humor. Exaggerating something that over compliments won’t work in most circumstances. “Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” is fine for a children’s book that is playing off a child’s over reaction, but it won’t work in normal writing. “The robber had an angry, frustrated, terrifying, enraged look on his face,” doesn’t quite work in writing. Exaggerate with caution. Otherwise your humor will come across as horrible, no good, terrible, and lousy.

Humor in writing – Using Contradictions

Contradictions are great for humor in writing. It’s the stuff that mental derailments are made of. Here’s an example:

Jim should have listened to his wife. Borrowing money from Rocky was a bad idea. Jim watched Rocky walking on the sidewalk, heading toward him. Brudo the enforcer was with him. Brudo looked like a gorilla in a suit, only not as skinny. And with more hair. The two men turned up Jim’s sidewalk.

“Didn’t I tell you to have the money in my hand by Tuesday at 5:00,” Rocky said. “I think you’re late. Brudo, what time is it?”

The gorilla tore his angry eyes from Jim and turned up his wrist. “5:25,” he said.

“Give Mr. Jim a late notice. I suggest his watch-wearing arm. That will remind him to look at his watch.”

The gorilla stepped forward and his nostrils flared. He grabbed Jim’s arm with vice grip hands. His eyes softened and one hand released. Brudo pointed to the yard behind Jim. “Is that what I think it is?” Jim shifted around to see what had captured the beast’s attention. Brudo’s voice raised to a fever pitch. “I’ve never seen fuchsia begonias before!”

It looks like Jim may have another option for settling his debt. Contradictions are used successfully in a lot of humorous settings. Like many other writing ventures, this can be done poorly. There must be a good setup. The key to using contradictions is to set up the reader. They need to expect one thing and have the rug yanked out from under them.

Humor in Writing – Irony

Irony is using a word or situation in order to convey the opposite meaning. Irony can be verbal or situational. Bill Engvall gives a great example of verbal irony. His father looked out the window just in time to see his brother hitting him. The dad ran out of the house, walked up to the offending child, whacked his bottom and yelled, “No hitting!”

Irony is powerful for humor in writing. There’s a joke that asks, “Do you know why they put a fence around the graveyard? Because people are dying to get in.”

Or the unexpected twist. Did you hear about the tornado that hit the graveyard? Five hundred were found dead.

Many years ago, we would sit around and watch the Johnny Carson show. He was the master of irony and the dry wit. Occasionally, the producers would poll young children with various questions and share them on the air. One such answer provided a great example of irony. The kids were asked to explain what salt is. One child answered, “Salt is something that makes food taste bad when you don’t put it on.” Salts absence causing food to taste bad is a statement of irony.

Story telling can be a great opportunity to introduce irony and can be effective in both fiction and non-fiction writing.

Humor in Writing – Unexpected Details

The last example of humor in writing that I’ll be discussing is introducing unexpected details. Douglas Adams was very good at using this method. Well, he might have overused it a little. Okay, a lot. His books were too silly for most people, but he has a great line that explains the unexpected detail.

One of his main characters was named Ford Prefect. At one point, Ford walks into a situation where he wasn’t supposed to be. It was an alien bar. When he was noticed, Douglas Adams delivers the classic line with unexpected details.

“All eyes were on Ford. And some were on stalks.”

Adams uses both irony and the unexpected detail. “Eyes were on,” becomes a double meaning. Readers are already envisioning everyone’s eyes upon Ford. Then he drops the bombshell – some were on stalks. No first time reader would have expected this detail. Because the double meaning was unexpected, it catches us off guard and makes us laugh. If stalked eyes were introduced first, it wouldn’t have been funny. Unveiling the hidden surprise creates the humor.

As with all humor, too much of a good thing spoils the appetite. Even comical writing has to sprinkle it on. Humor is like salt. No, it doesn’t make writing bad if it isn’t there, but it does add flavor when present. It can also overwhelm writing when too much is applied.

Humor shouldn’t be so overpowering that people only see the slapstick. Great humor in writing introduces irony, unexpected details, contradictions, and other methods in a way that keeps the reader wanting more, but not completely satisfied. Carol Burnett was asked how she became successful on the stage. She said, “Give them enough to enjoy the performance, but don’t satisfy them completely. Leave them begging for more.” I’m sure I’ve paraphrased her a little. It’s been about forty years since I heard this quote, but I believe this is the heart of what she was saying.

The same applies to humor in your writing. Sprinkle just enough to keep the reader’s appetite going, but not enough to where they are satisfied. Or even weary of it. Writers can get away with a heavy dose of humor in short work because it isn’t enough reading to over satisfy. However, full length books are a different game.

Use humor to break the tension or to pull the reader’s mind out of stagnation, but don’t beat them over the head with it. When used correctly, humor is a powerful tool in the author’s arsenal.

Do you have any tips? Share your humor in writing tips with readers in the comments below.

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8 Comments

  1. Tracy Krauss says:

    You did a great job of ‘dissecting’ and categorizing. I think humor is one of those things that just comes naturally for some people. Like most things, anyone can ‘learn’ to paint, sew, build, play piano … but there are some people that just have a ‘knack’. Almost any writing can use some comic relief, but Forced humor is usually not funny.

  2. steve miller says:

    Benjamin Franklin was great at entertaining people to more effectively educate them. I think we underestimate its importance. People love to laugh. Our pastor seems to get people laughing at some point in almost every sermon.

    Sometimes looking at the different elements of humor help us to think how we could bring it into a situation. Thanks for trying to dissect it a bit for us.

    Now I should try to think of something funny to say, to help me make my point, but it’s just not happening. Drat!

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      Thanks, Steve! I’ve heard some say that jokes don’t belong in the pulpit, but I agree with you. While it shouldn’t become a comedy, humor in the right way wakes up the minds of listeners. Most sermons start with a little humor and then go to the points. I’ve wondered how effective it would be to add humor in the middle when people start zoning out instead of the beginning when everyone is listening.

  3. Debby Alten says:

    Wow! Awesome post. I was just thinking about adding humor to my WIP. I’m bookmarking this.

  4. Eddie, I LOVE humor! I’ve always used it in my speaking and just assumed I’d use it in my writing, too. What a shock to discover how hard it was to write humor well! No pauses, no facial expressions, no intonations, no body language. But I realized that with lots of reading aloud, rewriting, reading aloud, rewriting, on and on and on, I could get a story to work. Humor writing–at least for me–takes a long time to do well. But it’s well worth the time. Thanks for the post.

    • Eddie Snipes says:

      You are completely right. And you manage to do both well. I enjoy your talks and writings. In both you do a good job of using humor to drive points home. It keeps people engaged to the end.

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