Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 2, 2010

Writing Humor

Humor can be used in almost all aspects of writing: in conflict, in character development, in story structure, etc. Just as in dramatic writing, humor uses: man against nature (global conflict), man against man (local conflict), and man against himself (inner conflict).

Build character flaws.  A good way to build on your character’s personality is to make the character flawed. People are more drawn to characters that have recognizable flaws – nobody is perfect, and if your character is imperfect in a funny way, you’ve got the beginnings of relatable humor.

Reveal your character’s humanity. Use your character’s positive qualities to build sympathy and empathy and make your audience care about your character. Humanity unites your character with the audience. It’s important in all aspects of writing, but comedy depends on the audience having any emotional bond with the character in order not to fall flat.

Build tension and release. Go over your scene to ensure the payoff is positioned to optimize the humor. If you read the scene and it doesn’t make you laugh, then maybe you can fix it by rearranging the parts. Put the funniest thing last. The longer you can build to tension without the audience losing interest, the bigger the payoff.

Surprise the audience by using a clash of context. It is a tried and true comedic concept. In general, the unexpected is what takes us by surprise and makes us laugh – clash of context takes advantage of this effect by taking something from where it belongs and places it where it does not. There are a few ways to incorporate clash of context into comedy writing. Physical juxtaposition puts the items that clash physically close to one another. Emotional juxtaposition would place something emotional in an impassive setting or vice-versa – for instance, a street vendor selling cotton candy in the aisles at a funeral. Attitudinal juxtaposition has to do with the aforementioned conflict development strategy comic characters in opposition.

The clash of context between the character’s personalities is what makes this strategy humorous. Make sure it is not too painful or too offensive or the audience will be turned off and not laugh. Create comic distance between the reader and the character. If the reader identifies with the character too much, the reader will feel the character’s pain, but distance will leave some room for laughter. Another way to keep things funny is to have the character see the humor or irony in his situation, as painful as that situation may be. The best comedies distance the audience at times and then bring us right into the character’s shoes and make us laugh and cry at the same time.

Use the rule of threes to shock or surprise the reader: setup, setup, and payoff. This method is best used in lists. Start with two seemingly normal things that go together and add something completely outrageous as the third. As an example, “I’ve got to run some errands … the bank, the grocery store, and the crack house.”

Exaggeration takes your character’s perspective to the end of the line, which is what will make that character funny. As such, comic perspective and exaggeration go hand in hand. Everything your characters do should have some level of exaggeration -mannerisms, understanding of the world (or lack thereof), responses, and so on – exaggeration keeps the character interesting and makes everything a little bit more outrageous.

Sarcasm let’s you tell the truth to comic effect or tell a lie to comic effect. If one way isn’t particularly funny, try the other. Telling the truth to comic effect has to do with pointing out the truth and the pain of a given situation explicitly. Telling a lie to comic effect is a little bit like. For example, if a friend were to ask you to accompany him for a day trip to the DMV, you might say, “I can’t think of a better way to spend my day!” Obviously, it doesn’t sound like a very good time at all, but saying the opposite is what’s funny.

The running gag is popular in sitcoms. Use a joke several times, but tweaked in new directions each time. Tweaking the joke, change some details each time – the circumstances surrounding the joke, the lead-up to the joke, and so on. Escalate the importance of the joke each time it’s told, so that by the end it’s a proper laugh-riot. Lastly, change the source of the joke – have a different character make the joke.

Group humor is when there isn’t one main character, but rather the emphasis is on a group and how they interact. This is good for multiple intersecting storylines and is most apparent in sitcoms such as Friends or Seinfeld. While there are main characters to each of these sitcoms, the larger emphasis is placed on interpersonal character interaction.

Satire and parody can be the most challenging types of stories to make original and hilarious, but the payoff is great if you can pull it off. These are not only funny and relatable, but are often socially relevant. A good example of this is the wildly popular cartoon South Park, which often satirizes politics and parodies cultural phenomena.

Here are some situations to consider:

Place your character in a situation with a person who is the opposite of themselves. With a comic character in the normal world, the viewer experiences what life is like when you’re new to the everyday.

Place a realistic character in an absurd world or an unusual situation. Examples: In their father’s body, on an alien plant.

A “fish out of water” approach places a normal character in a comic world. With a normal character in a comic world, the viewer experiences life in this new, hilarious world through the eyes of the normal, relatable person.

Create a love/hate relationship for your main character. Have something or someone strange or absurd fall in love with your main character. What would happen if a skunk fell in love with your MC?

Character has a conflict and at the end the original conflict is resolved, but a new one takes its place.

Remember to keep your audience in mind while writing.  Think about the things they would find humorous.  A young child might find salpstick funny, where a teen will not.  Hope you found this helpful.  Have a humor tip?  We’d love to read it.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy, this is VERY helpful information! Thank you!


    • Donna,
      Did you get my e-mail?


  2. Awesome, I need to apply this, too!


  3. Kathy, This post is so timely for me! I’m writing a humorous MG novel for NaNoWriMo. I’ll never reach 50,000 words, but that’s ok. Just the challenge of writing something brand new is exciting. I’m going to print out your tips to help my funny bone.
    thanks, Mary


  4. As always, good stuff, thanks!


  5. Is it just me, or do you also hear Mork-from-Ork’s voice when you see the word, “humor”?

    Oh, I see. It’s just me.


    • Yep, Ame…just you! lol


  6. I use humor all the time, in so many different ways (but I missed one or two, so thanks for the list!).

    One of my fave ways to be funny (especially writng for MG/teens) is the classic misunderstanding, like with a word (think homonyms) or situation. Brittany on GLEE is the Queen of this comedy. I channel Brittany when I need comic relief. And honestly, it’s not a huge stretch for me-:-)


  7. […] and how to use it in your own writing. . […]


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