We all like to laugh. Writers with a knack for humor can find a large and eager audience. But humor can be tricky. If you want to write humor, The Christian Writers Institute has a couple of inexpensive lectures to review (find them here).
In the meantime, writers need to consider at least a couple of elements.
Novelists can use humor to reveal character and truths.
Your mean-spirited villain can poke fun at the innocent. Your jovial aunt can find the silver lining in every situation. Humor will generally be organic in otherwise serious novels. A comedic novel? That takes a special talent and light touch. Some techniques can be taught, but not the talent. If you have the talent to write comedic fiction, hone that gift.
Nonfiction is a different game.
Most people are looking to nonfiction authors either to poke good-humored fun at life with the overall goal of entertaining and cheering readers or for a self-help book that employs a strong dose of humor to make the book more entertaining and the advice more palatable.
Let your audience get to know you through platform.
As a writer, you can put forth your brand with your platform to help people understand who you are and why, as a result, you can write related comedy. Father of eight? A funny look at parenthood makes sense. Married for 50 years? Foibles about marriage might be your thing. Your audience wants to think they are your friend. Then they can laugh with you.
Do you have a clue?
Your audience wants to know you have a sense of what you’re talking about. For instance, I doubt anyone would want to read what I think may be funny about working in an automotive shop. Let’s look at someone with real knowledge and talent. Not current but still timeless in her writing, Erma Bombeck was highly successful. Her books are readily available today, and writers who want to write gentle humor about everyday life would do well to read some of her work. The fact that her readers knew she wrote from her experience as a wife and mother helped her to be successful. Readers relate because she knew what she was talking about. And she was funny.
Will your audience understand your references?
Though this is a verbal example, it’s just as true when writing. I once repeated a joke with the punchline “Live Free or Die.” As a Virginian, I grew up knowing this is New Hampshire’s state motto. I told the joke with great gusto to someone living in the Western part of the United States. The person didn’t know the motto, so the joke didn’t work for my intended audience. With my East Coast sensibilities, I forget sometimes that someone living elsewhere may not have the same knowledge bank to draw upon as I do. On the other hand, when I shared the same joke with my husband, also a native of the original thirteen colonies, he immediately laughed. So shared references, or at least writing broad references, works best to reach the most people.
Does my audience like me?
You don’t necessarily need to be liked when you’re performing angry comedy meant to change the political landscape. But gentle comics will find that being liked goes a long way. For instance, Phyllis Diller was a queen of self-deprecating humor, and people liked her. For example, one quote attributed to her: “My photographs don’t do me justice – they look just like me.” This is funny whether written or verbalized.
Humor has many levels.
So did you smile, chuckle, or laugh out loud at the last quote? Or maybe you didn’t find it funny. Remember, when you’re writing a book, various people may respond differently to the same lines. What may make me slap my knee may only curve your lips slightly. I might like dry wit; you might like slapstick. So don’t be discouraged if your audience doesn’t need knee braces after reading your book. Often making someone smile a millisecond is more than enough.
Who is your favorite humorous writer, past or present?
What humor topics do you like to read about?
What other tips can you offer aspiring humor writers?
Damon J. Gray
My first exposure to Christian Literature, decades ago, included Chuck Swindoll’s “Laugh Again.” I was just a young man with a mild interest in spiritual matters when my mother gave me this book as a gift.
I laughed so hard as some of his stories that I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Swindoll is a master story-teller, and many of his stories are bathed in his gift of humor.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Thanks for the recommendation!
If I start out trying to write humor, I fail miserably. But, it occasionally falls into place in the midst of a scene. I’m finding southern slang isn’t always the best choice either. Like you said, not everyone gets it.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Organic humor works best, as you just said!
Scott Adams is consistently effective in using humor in his books, often using self-deprecation (which is always safest and usually best). In my writing, I use humor (my characters surprise me with their humor) to lighten formerly tense situations and thus demonstrate a character’s steadiness or an otherwise unseen facet.
Maco, you’re so right that self-deprecating humour is often the most useful sort.
One of its greatest strengths is that it allows access to subjects that are usually off-limits. I can joke about things like the large and painful tumour in my neck being a kind of poetic justice, but making light reference to that in another would mark me as rather a cad.
Excellent point, Andrew.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Excellent advice, Maco!
Sharon K Connell
I like to write teasing humor between people for the most part. It also serves to break up the tension in a stressful scene. But only when appropriate.
Same! Mine is usually quite sarcastic between MC and love interest.
Great post, Tamela. In a world being consumed in the fires of its own seriousness, we need to throw a bucket of laughter over our heads from time to time.
I recently got around to seeing ‘Titanic’, and while it’s a good film, it’s so dreadfully earnest…you know there’s something amiss when you start rooting for the iceberg.
I therefore took the liberty of writing my own version.
It was unsinkable, so they said,
but iceberg, he had another plan,
so many thought that’s it, we’re dead,
but deliverance came from far Graceland.
Lightning falling from the sky,
’twas Elvis in the Mother Ship!
Soon he had them high and dry;
“Hey folks…enjoyin’ the trip?”
Singing closed the rifts that rent the hull,
he posed for selfies with the crew,
ate caviar ’till he was full,
and then set ship’s course for shores anew.
He made Titanic really fly,
for he had a date in Blue Hawaii.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Oh, mercy, Andrew. I’m afraid the Elvis humor went right over my head. ?
I’m so glad you liked this, Linda!
Tamela Hancock Murray
Rooting for the iceberg? Now that’s funny!
Loved all your advice on humor writing. When I saw the title I almost expected this post to be from Bob! An earlier book by Todd Starnes “They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick” which I read at my first BRMCWC in 2010. It was about his open heart surgery not usually a humor topic. But it was hilarious and my roommate and I got in trouble for laughing during a late night read!
We need more humor these days. I love a good laugh and usually it’s at myself. I think of the job I took when hubby wasn’t pleased that my pay for article writing didn’t equal time invested.
So I was the hot-flashing young grandmother who donned the Chick-fil-A Cow costume at a local mall. Now those were some funny times. Amazing how your personality changes when you don’t talk and are free to be silly anonymously. I’ve been punched in the cow kisser, almost caught fire and tail pulled by kids prodded by their parents. I even had a few fans and the store owner said I was his best cow ever. ?
There’s some good writing material in that experience perhaps.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Sounds like you have a book there!
I like to channel Dave Barry or Garrison Keillor in my blog.
John E Connor
Yeah, right. Just what we need. More “self help” books, and “do gooder” books, with corny humor no less. How boring. This is the kind of writing catapulted into book stores by people who have marketing degrees, the most worthless degree to ever come out of an institution of higher learning, and these shysters have wormed their way into the staff of publishing houses. They know the bottom line, but they do not know manure from Apple butter when it comes to literature. Walk through a bookstore today. There’s a self help book, a how to get rich in a day book, a diet book, what kind of tea and cookies to serve at your Bridge party book… the list goes on and on. What nonsense! Give me literature or give me… well, something. But stop feeding me “do gooder” books!!! And send those holding marketing degrees back to school and out of the publishing houses.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was for being able to write humour well. In non-fiction, it is a real balancing act to teach on a serious subject while adding the odd laugh. It always felt to me like humour was the sugar that helps the medicine, or the life-lesson, go down easier. I know I am more likely to be open to an idea that might shake my status quo if it comes at me while I’m laughing.
Thank you for this, Tamela!
Two humor writers come to mind that I hope I might one day emulate. Dave Barry and Lewis Grizzard both brought humor to life with their words. I loved your key point that humor must be relevant to the audience you hope to share it with. Jokes about cattle don’t go over too well with “city folk.” Then again, folks in the country don’t always understand the dangers of a New York or Chicago taxi driver either.
I love reading Dave Barry!
If anyone has a couple of minutes, the opening scene in ‘Star Trek: Beyond’ is a technically wonderful example of well-crafted humour, and ‘beyond’ that, it’ll put a smile on your face.
I take cues from movies seriously. My favorites come the MCU. Loki becomes the recipient of a punchline. For instance “Get help” in Thor: Ragnarok and when Hulk smashes him into the concrete in The Avengers. (Puny god)
The timing of the humor is inspiring and reveals characters in their personalities. We can use humor in fiction to make characters relatable.
My two favorite humorous authors are Janice Thompson and Jennifer Beckstrand. Janice writes books where the characters are folks in Texas. Jennifer Beckstrand writes Amish novels with characters you wouldn’t expect to see in Amish fiction, such as eccentric aunts who name their cats after movie stars.
great info here and on the Christian Writers Institute.
I love humor. I am so-so at it, so off to that site I go!. I break up the drama of whatever I am writing about to make a reader laugh & cry. I don’t want my MC et al to be so full of drama that there is no room for real-life comedy.
Some of my favorite writers who use humor are, of course, Erma Bombeck, John Eldridge, Wild at Heart… and Christy Barritt. I cannot get enough of the Christian fiction amateur sleuth, blundering about and always in a humorous manner.
My favorite humor writers have been Erma Bombeck and Patrick F. McManus. When all our kids were growing up, we would sit around and read McManus stories aloud, and guffaw. If you’ve never read one, get whichever book contains “Deer on a Bicycle.” Your sides will ache!
I’m fortunate to have a newspaper editor who allows me to write a humor column in our city newspaper. As long as he thinks I’m a good humorist, I’m in good standing. And maybe a few others will, too.
Oh my goodness! I have not met anyone in years who has mentioned Patrick F. McManus! His book “Never Sniff a Gift Fish” was one of the first books I ever remember reading, and I must have read it so many times I wore it out. His humor is some of the best, for sure!
Thank you for helping me to remember how much I loved that book!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Like Roberta, I enjoyed Patrick McManus. My husband read the rest of the articles in his decades of subscriptions to Outdoor Life, and we both read McManus. One of his was such a gem I read it aloud to my junior high social studies students every year on the last day of school–a tradition, and they loved it, too. ‘Hadn’t thought of that in years, and have moved four times in two countries since then, so wouldn’t know where to look for my copy. But now I REALLY want to read it again. The title was a play on words, and the protagonist was a boy, but I can’t remember more. I ran a search, found a web site and index of his stories, and already filed a search request. ;-D https://mcmanusindex.com/quick-find-a-story/
My favorite humorist was Mark Twain. I re-read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” a few months ago and laughed out loud, especially at the Bible scene when Tom is asked to name two of the apostles. I laugh just thinking about it.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Erma Brombeck is my all-time favorite.
He’s not necessarily a humor writer, nor a Christian one, but I enjoy reading Bill Bryson. I used to write a personal interest/humor writer at the newspaper where I worked. Columns on singles awareness day , also known as Valentine’s Day, and on being sick with the flu won statewide awards, but I have trouble writing it in fiction. I like characters who have a wry sense of humor, I just don’t know when it’s appropriate.
Me too. Bill has a “bad mouth” sometimes, but his wit is the bread kind: wry.
Linda Riggs Mayfield, Thanks so much for the link to Pat McManus stories! I can’t wait to tell my kids.
Tamela Hancock Murray
I love all the fun and recommendations here! I have the best group of blog readers ever!
Without being too obviously a brown-nosing sycophant, gee, Tamela, why do you think that might be? lol
I’m rereading Fragile Beasts by Tawni O’Dell, which and whom I adore. Her portrayal of Candace, who reminds me Very Much of my own mother, has me laughing out loud at least twice each page when it’s her POV in this first-person narrative. Well worth the study: how to put snarky, hysterical truth in the mouth of “a character”!
I love this book.