I was struggling to think of some jokes for a particular scene in my latest book so I did what I usually do when I’m stuck. I asked twitter.
The answers varied from “Lego tiger butthole” to a serious and useful list of comedic techniques.
My own answer is, “Whatever makes you laugh.” Or at least, that’s where you should always start.
When I’m writing funny books, the most important test for each bit to pass is, “Does this make me laugh?” If I don’t find it properly laugh-out-loud-or-at-least-chuckle funny, it’s unlikely that anyone else will.
One of the pitfalls of writing funny stuff, I think, is spending too much time worrying if anyone else will laugh and not enough time making yourself laugh. Once you’ve got that right, you’re halfway there. When you feel comfortable making yourself laugh, that’s when to worry about your audience.
When you’re writing for children you then need to think about what makes children laugh. That requires remembering all the things that they won’t know or care about, whether that’s references to TV shows from the 90s or workplace jokes. But, to make your life easier, children are mostly just the same as adults when it comes to what’s funny.
If you’re a technically-minded person, having a list of comedy devices might be useful to you. Here are a few I like:
- Person in authority being made to look silly, especially if they don’t deserve their authority. For example, an evil headteacher having to do something embarrassing in front of all their pupils.
- Slapstick, AKA people falling over.
- Bums or poos (Some publishers don’t like bum or poo jokes but I think they’re quality and will
- defend them forever as will most children)
Understatement (Soldier with an arrow through her eye: “I appear to have a slight problem.”)
- Exaggeration (Soldier who’s got a bit damp in the rain and has run out of clean socks: “War is hell!”)
- Repetition (sometimes saying the same thing multiple times, calling back to a previous time you said it is funny. I can’t explain why, it just is.)
- Mistaken identity: again, I’m not sure why this is funny, but people thinking someone is one person and they’re another is just funny. The bigger the mistake, the funnier it is. (EG aliens invading and someone thinking it’s the second coming of Christ because the alien leader has a beard.)
I think that’s part of the trouble with humour. The second you try to explain why something is funny, it stops being funny. But funny, luckily, is something you know when you see it. So my top tip is to experiment. Try out different ideas and see what tickles you.
I’ve watched a lot of stand up comedy, and what seems to be the difference between a funny performance and one that dies in silence is that the comedian fully believes in what they’re saying. I think if you genuinely find what you’re writing funny, that’s much more likely to bring the reader along with you. Now, on the page, you don’t have the advantage of things like tone of voice or comedy pauses. You’re not there while the reader reads to react to their reactions.
I mean, personally I’m glad of that. There’s a certain freedom in not knowing how your audience is reacting. You only have to amuse yourself. Of course, you can get others to read your work, and I definitely recommend it. Sometimes, it’s painful. I’ve definitely had feedback saying that a book needs more jokes and it stings. But I think the best comedy is collaborative, so whether you’re getting suggestions from a friend or an agent or an editor, it might be just what you need to add the missing pieces.
When I’m writing my Loki books, a lot of the humour is fish out of water based. Loki is a norse god forced to inhabit the body of a mortal child. That’s humiliating and alienating. He’s able to observe human life from the outside, and point out its foibles. He’s also completely lacking in self knowledge, and there’s a lot of comedy mileage there. Plus, lots of opportunities to make jokes about why school is annoying and parents suck.
So, in your own writing it’s a matter of asking yourself what’s funny about your concept, about your character, about their life. Is your book or idea best placed to provide situational comedy? Absurdist jokes? Slapstick? Satire? Is it going to be a rich seam of comedy of embarrassment? Whenever you run out of ideas for jokes, you can come back to your premise. What’s funny about your premise? About your character’s life? About their problems? Are they just a funny person who observes the world in a unique yet hilarious way? Or are they quite deadpan and the humour comes from the things the reader understands but they don’t? I sometimes write lists of situations that I could use later for jokes, even if I don’t have ideas for specific jokes yet. So, for example, experiences children go through that would be especially humiliating for a god, such as learning to ride a bike when everyone else can already ride one. Keeping lists like that for your characters and situations can be helpful so you’ve always got something to dip into.
If you start overthinking everything, go and read some funny books for kids. Laugh at them. Then think about what makes them funny. Dissect them. They’ll immediately become less funny, for a while at least, but it’s a great way to learn techniques.
Before I go, in my research (OK, hasty twitter begging), a friend unearthed some of Jeff Kinney’s tips for writing funny things. Feast your eyes.
Millions of children agree that Jeff Kinney is funny, so worth listening to him I reckon. Now I’m off to try to think of funny jokes about Norse mythology, perhaps with some added bums.
Credit for the Lego tiger bumhole mentioned earlier goes to @sorrelish on twitter. I’m still laughing about it.
Louie Stowell started her career writing carefully-researched books about space, ancient Egypt, politics and science but eventually lapsed into just making stuff up. She likes writing about dragons, wizards, vampires, fairies, monsters and parallel worlds.
I live in London with my wife, our dog Buffy and a creepy puppet who has no name.