Sunday, April 4, 2010

How to Write Funny (or at least how I do)

Happy Easter!

This month our focus is on humor. Lucky me. I love to write funny. Strangely enough, I’ve always been a witty writer but am not witty at all in real life. I don’t know why that is, but it’s led me to think a lot about what makes a book—or my books—funny.

1. Voice.
Some writers prefer not to write humor because their voice is more serious or emotional or…unfunny. Some writers will never write serious books because their voices are too humorous. The lucky writers are able to develop a well-rounded voice and can do both.

2. The humor comes from the characters.
Someone once asked me how she could make her book funnier. I immediately asked about her characters. Did they have any quirks? Likes? Dislikes?

You can easily pair a serious hero with a bumbling heroine and invent tons of funny interactions.

You can also take essentially unfunny characters and put them in funny situations. Think about Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. He’s afraid of snakes, right? We learn early in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark he hates them. So what happens before the end of that film? He has to face a whole pit full of snakes. Indy looks into the pit, sees the snakes, and groans, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes.” Funny line. Why? We know our character, and we know he hates snakes.

3. Universality
The above example shows something else about humor. People often laugh at what they can relate to. Most of us probably haven’t had to face a pit of snakes, but who among us hasn’t had one of those days where the exact thing we didn’t want to happen, did? You hate spiders and one falls on your head, or birds nest in your chimney, poop all over your house, and get stuck in your sink. Hasn’t happened to you? Oh, that must just be my life.

4. Quirky secondary characters.
Often the hero and heroine in a book aren’t funny. They’re too busy being heroic. That’s when you have the opportunity to bring in amusing secondary characters. A mother who doesn’t know Italian but who insists on speaking it all the time (WHEN DASHING MET DANGER), a stodgy British valet with a flair for drama (PRIDE AND PETTICOATS), a friend of the hero who avoids marriage at all costs (THE MAKING OF A DUCHESS).

5. Fish out of water
Often different plots lend themselves to humor. It’s almost always funny to take a character who’s comfortable in one place, uproot them, and drop them into another. A lot of the humor in my next book, THE MAKING OF A DUCHESS, comes from Sarah. She’s a governess forced to become a spy. She makes a lot of mistakes, and some of them are, hopefully, funny.

But if the fish out of water makes too many mistakes we just feel sorry for him or her, that’s why I had to give Sarah lots of smarts so she could learn quickly. And never underestimate the importance of the straight man (or woman) in humor. Often his or her reactions are what takes something from amusing to laugh out loud funny.

These are just five techniques I use to create humor. There are so many more (but I can’t give away all my secrets, now can I?).

I gave one example of a funny scene in a movie. What’s your favorite? Any idea what makes it funny to you?


  1. I love a hero and heroine who can see humor in situations, whether it results in a smile or a laugh. A comic character as a secondary are fun too. I loved Mummy where the weasel of a guy brought out all kinds of religious chains, trying to convince the mummy not to kill him. He was a bad guy in a bad situation, but he added comic relief.

  2. Terry, I loved that scene in The Mummy too!

  3. Fantastic tips, Shana! Thanks so much for sharing. And Happy Easter to you too!

  4. Harrison Ford is great with that type of scene and lines.

    There's so many funny moments in any film or book I can't pin down just one.

  5. Happy Easter! Fabulous, Shana! What a great blog. So many people ask me how I write funny, but I've always been kind of afraid to look at it too closely. It just kind of happens and as long as it keeps on happening, I'm good with it. After reading your blog, I have to agree with every one of your points.

  6. Hi Shana,

    I think you've hit the nail on the head with your examples of funny quirks through characters! And Harrison Ford has two great roles that do this well--Indiana Jones and Hans Solo from Star Wars.

    I also think adventure/caper films offer themselves well to humor, too. The characters find themselves in such over-the-top situations, a little humor brings everything down to earth!

  7. Writing humor is not something I could do very well, at least not in the sense of writing a romp or caper or absurdist story. But I do love writing the "normal" conversational humor that easily flows between people who know each other well. And I like quirky characters! I have a few of those in my novels. Sarcasm comes easy for me too, go figure. :)