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Humor writing guide

Being funny on purpose is difficult. It requires planning, some knowledge of how humor works, and knowing your audience among other things. Many stories benefit from a healthy dose of humor however, even if it's only in the form of a funny character or a few light hearted segments to give readers a breather in between the darker parts. Fortunately there are some ways to help you writing in a funnier way, they're almost like formulas. But unlike scientific formulas, humor isn't as easy as calculating specific parts or combining specific elements. Senses of humor are just too diverse for that.
In this guide I'll sometimes use references to works of fiction, while other times I'll write my own (attempts at) jokes to get my points across. Since I'll also be explaining jokes, prepare for a whole lot of eye rolling as they lose their funniness real quick. With that said, let's delve into it.

Rule of Three

Let's start of with an easy one many people have already heard of: the rule of three. Patterns help with flow and delivery, and three is the lowest number you can use to create a pattern while also being able to offer a surprise within it. Any more makes the joke more complex, which means part of an audience could be lost. There are many jokes who use this rule in some form, like those with stereotypes walking into a bar or those using lists to catch people off guard. Take the following as an example:

"Did you know I'm allergic to three types of nuts? Three of them, and not the uncommon ones either! I can't have anything with peanuts, so I can't eat peanut butter or many curries. I can't have hazelnuts, so no delicious hazelnut spread on my bread. And I can't be around people who are nuts, so I can't be around most people in the world."

In this example I used the rule of three to create a pattern and then subvert expectations with the last example. I added layers of humor and diversions I'll delve in later, but the basic joke is obviously "I'm allergic to three nuts. Peanuts, hazelnuts, and people who are nuts.". Normally you'd expect a third type of nut in this pattern, but because there isn't, a joke is created. Not everything works, of course. You have to subvert expectations in such a way the surprise is still linked to the original premise, while also being humorous to your audience.
It's why "I love walks on the beach, they're so relaxing. The waves rushing back and forth, the wind blowing in my hair, the seagulls screaming in my ear for my fries. So relaxing." works for most people, but "I love walks on the beach, they're so relaxing. The waves rushing back and forth, the wind blowing in my hair, the feeling of glass left by drunk teenagers scraping at my feet. So relaxing." doesn't work as well. The first is a surprise that's both relatable and a contrast to what's actually relaxing, as well as a potentially funny mental image. The second is a surprise that's mostly just nasty in various ways.

Follow Up & References

Sometimes referencing a joke or building upon a joke adds an extra layer that can elevate a joke from one level to the next. This could be done in various ways, including elaborating on something before subverting expectations again, repeating a joke in different ways (perhaps three times) throughout a conversation or written section, or perhaps by involving another element into the joke.

Using my nut example, a follow up could be: "Now there may be people who think that's not so bad, that's really only two nuts, there are worse things to be allergic to. Sure, I'll give you that. There are also some of you who's first instinct may be the point out peanuts aren't even real nuts, they're legumes. You people are the reason I'm allergic to three types of nuts."

This section builds upon the original joke, but does so in a slightly sarcastic and mildly offending way, which is a big part of humor as well, but more on that later. Building upon a joke can be tricky as sometimes it comes across as overdoing it or running a joke into the ground, so it's best to divert expectations or shift the focus of the conversation before bringing it back again. It works even better if you manage to bring back a joke at a much later point in a smooth transition, but this is obviously more difficult to pull off.

Offensive

Most jokes are offensive in some shape or form, but I don't mean offensive in the sense of feelings being hurt. Humor often comes at the cost of something or somebody. Sometimes this happens in an entirely innocent form, other times it can be hurtful to one or more people or entire groups of people. It doesn't matter if it's dumb blondes, yo momma, politicians, yourself, or seagulls trying to steal fries. Obviously seagulls aren't offended by seagull jokes, they're seagulls, but that's where innocence varies from joke to joke.
Self-deprecating humor is often seen as fairly innocent as well, but some of such jokes would be quite hurtful if directed at anybody other than the person making the joke. Disabilities, mental health issues, failures, and any other topic can be laughed at through self-deprecating humor because the person making the joke essentially gives you permission to laugh at their misfortune. If the joke was directed at anybody else, it'd be a mean spirited joke where permission wasn't granted.

In my previous follow up example I made a joke at the expense of those who are quick point out facts. This is fairly innocent as many agree it can be obnoxious behavior, even those doing it are often aware their facts aren't always appreciated. Still, some may feel a little hurt, and this is where losing parts of an audience often happens. The more offensive the jokes, the more niche an audience usually gets. At the same time, some people prefer jokes that aren't innocent; you'll never be able to please everybody.

Surprise and Misdirection

Humor revolves a lot around surprises and misdirection as I've partially covered so far. Monty Python is a great example of this in a whole range of their jokes. For those familiar with their works I only have to mention coconuts, Romani ite domum or one particular rabbit. For those unfamiliar, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the main characters are on their way to face a monster described as "so vile, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived. Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair. [], for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth."
The characters eventually encounter this terrifying beast, only to find out it's a little bunny. They then find out it's not a mere innocent bunny, but one capable of killing brave knights with ease. This surprise and misdirection was very effective to many viewers, which is helped by the absurdity of it all.

Absurdness in and of itself can lead to funny moments too, but it can be really tricky to pull this off without practice, especially in written form. Moments of absurdity intended to be funny tend to run the risk of being just absurd and seemingly out of place, but in the right story it can definitely work. Absurdness also works great with visuals, some of which can't always be translated well into text. To use Monty Python again, the Ministry of Funny Walks wouldn't work well in text form, for example, but the Dead Parrot sketch could albeit less effectively.

That's So True

On the other end of the spectrum are jokes based on relatable moments. They work well because it's easier to adapt them to the intended audience, as long as you can actually relate to the targeted audience of course. Novels about teenage love will often contain jokes and humorous passages about teenage awkwardness, hormonal changes, and so on because they're relatable to the majority of people, especially those who generally read these types of books. The same holds true for many other genres, as well as stand-up comedy, tv-shows and movies.

These jokes usually work by combining a funny premise with something most people consider to be true, hence responses like "That's so true!". Common embarrassing moments can work especially well for this as people don't want to acknowledge them. Heck, most people want to forget these moments ever happened to them only to be reminded of it by your brain 5 years later while trying to sleep on a random night. Those moments can provide a moment of humor mixed in with a moment of connection or even relief of not being the only one who went through any given embarrassing moment.

Metaphors and Comparisons

Somewhere between absurdity, surprise, and relatable moments are jokes based on metaphors and comparisons. They can be incredibly absurd, they can be incredibly relatable, or a mixture of both at the same time. They often involve a funny mental image or a surprising link. Exaggeration comes into play a lot here as well because it adds to the surprising element.
For example: The other day I stubbed my toe against a coffee table. It was one of those heavy ones made from some type of oak. Never in my life have I felt such pain. It's a good thing dinosaurs have gone extinct, because my scream sounded like a dying pterodactyl choking on a cat. A nearby t-rex would've killed me simply to put me out of my misery.
To those eager to point out a pterodactyl isn't a dinosaur, but a pterosaur, and that they died out over 80 million years before the t-rex was even alive, please think of my nut allergies.

So, putting the subjective funniness of this aside, the way these types of jokes work is by comparing one thing to something only vaguely related (or not at all), like the pain of stubbing your toe to the scream of a pterodactyl, while also exaggerating on this (by adding the screams of a cat the pterodactyl is choking on). The joke would've (arguably) worked fine without the cat, but the cat makes it more bizarre and surprising, and thus more funny (in theory).

To bring it back to relatable moments for a moment, most people know what it's like to stub their toe against something and how much this can hurt. Most people also know what a pterodactyl is and what it may sound like, so these two elements work from a relatable point of view. I could've made a joke about the table, perhaps something along the lines of "It was one of those old and heavy tables from the 1930's made from old oak, heavy steel and an unhealthy dose of oppression.". But since not even my parents were alive at that time, and most of the people using my site are quite young, a joke like this doesn't work well. If this were a guide on history instead, the joke could've worked.

Sarcasm, Puns and Culture

Sarcasm and puns are two types of jokes that are very hit and miss. I personally love puns, and sarcasm is simply part of the culture I grew up in, so to me sarcastic jokes can be funny. To some others, sarcasm may go right over their head as they're incapable of spotting it, they're simply not used to language being used this way, so those jokes can seem like mean comments or just regular sentences. Puns and sarcasm generally rely more on language use than many other types of jokes. Because of this, their intentions can be lost or have the opposite effect depending on the reader, so it's important to keep this in mind and what this might mean in your writing. Obviously you can add something like "she said sarcastically." after a sarcastic comment made by a character, but ideally the jokes you write can stand on their own.
Does this mean you shouldn't write sarcastic jokes or make puns? Of course not. It all comes down to your audience as always.

The K Rule

It's thought words with k-sounds and g-sounds are often seen as funnier than other words. So jokes are sometimes written with such words in the punchline to add another layer of potential humor. How true this is relies a lot on your own dialect, language, and accent. How relevant this information is to you also differs. You don't have to try and find words with k-sounds or g-sounds in all of your jokes, for example, but if you can substitute one word for another, you could test this for yourself. How true this rule is to you can be tested by comparing the following animal group nouns: a gaggle of geese, a clutter of cats, a dule of doves, a harras of horses, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, and a shiver of sharks.
A gaggle of geese sounds funny to me, a dule of doves doesn't, so there may be merit to the K rule theory. But a rhumba of rattlesnakes also sounds funny to me, but part of that could be due to the link between the word rhumba and the rumba dance.
Not a whole lot of research has gone into this, but it's thought that because the letter k is one of the least used letters in English, they're less expected and thus potentially more funny. The same goes for some other letters and letter combinations. Obviously this means it works different in other languages.

The rhumba of rattlesnakes part I mentioned is also explained by some research projects, even if only by a handful of them. Words that remind us of others, especially swear words, can evoke either a funny mental image or a sense of relief of getting away with almost saying a swear word. In my case it's the mental image of rattlesnakes dancing the rumba.
On the swear word side of things you can have funny words like focky, sheettas or dekphase. They mean nothing, but because they may remind you of swear words, they can sound funny. If nothing else, it at least offers a way to use swear words in your writing without actually using swear words.

Delivery

The delivery of a joke is incredibly important as well, perhaps more so than the joke itself. The exact same joke can range from hilarious to awful purely based on how it's delivered. Delivery is also more than just the way you say the punchline, the build up is part of it too. In my earlier nut allergy example I could've used the simple form: "I'm allergic to three nuts. Peanuts, hazelnuts, and people who are nuts.". But I added layers instead to subvert expectations a little, to make it seem like a more serious piece even if that doesn't exactly work when I specifically stated I was going to show an example of a joke, and to sadd some padding. Just so you don't have to scroll back up, here's the joke again:

"Did you know I'm allergic to three types of nuts? Three of them, and not the uncommon ones either! I can't have anything with peanuts, so I can't eat peanut butter or many curries. I can't have hazelnuts, so no delicious hazelnut spread on my bread. And I can't be around people who are nuts, so I can't be around most people in the world."

I first added the "Did you know" and "not the uncommon ones either" parts to make it seem more like an actual piece of dialogue rather than the setup of a joke. You obviously still expect a joke, but there are different ways the joke can go now, rather than just one. I then mention peanuts, but build on that by mentioning the peanut butter and curry part. This adds another path the joke can delve into, perhaps the punchline will be something silly I can't eat or do with nuts. The same goes for the hazelnuts to establish a pattern, and then I mention people who are nuts. I also then add a secondary punchline to say most people in the world are nuts, something many people would agree with, to finish the already established pattern.

An actual comedian would likely rewrite this joke over and over to make it funnier and funnier. They'd try out different words, different deliveries, and even test it out on smaller audiences to further improve upon it. Does this mean you should? Not exactly. It can help to test jokes on a few people the same way it helps to have people proofread what you write, but as long as the jokes aren't too distracting, you can often get away with a bad joke here and there. It depends a lot on whether the jokes are aimed directly at the reader, from one character to another, or as a general comment on what's happening in the book. The more the joke is directed at the reader, the more important it is the joke is good. Jokes you can get away with easiest are those from one character to another, as you can simply write how the character responds. It's still best to have at least a decent joke for this though, unless the character is supposed to be known to make or laugh at bad jokes.

Make Yourself Laugh

At this point you may be wondering how on Earth you're supposed to write a joke for an audience you can't interact with or perhaps you're thinking about ways to kill off your funny sidekick early on in your story to avoid having to write jokes. There's no need to worry though, simply write what you find funny. Your jokes don't have to make somebody cackle when reading your story, a smile is enough to add to the enjoyment of it. So pay attention to what makes you laugh and use it to write jokes or funny moments. Anecdotes of funny events that happened to you or somebody else are usually among the funniest things in the world too, funnier than even the best written jokes. It's part of why there are so many compilation videos on the internet dedicated to these specific moments.

Are all anecdotes funny? No. For some you simply had to have been there for it to be funny. Are anecdotes necessary? No. You can write whatever you want. I did. I'm not actually allergic to any nuts. While I do love walks on the beach, I've never had seagulls scream in my ears for my food, and I've never screamed like a pterodactyl regardless of whether it was choking on a cat or not. Now you might be thinking "I've got no funny anecdotes." or "Yeah well, none of your jokes were funny. I'm going to stick to something else." and that's totally fair. Using jokes or events you know people have laughed at is a safe way to use humor. There's always multiple ways to go about writing something, humor is no different. But making sure you at least enjoy the jokes you write will help a lot with making them funny to your audience.

Don't overdo it

My last piece of advice is to not overdo it. Don't make too many jokes, don't take a joke too far or use it too often, keep things balanced to the overall story. Too many jokes can take away from the seriousness of scenes or become annoying like that one person who cannot stop making jokes at every given chance. Don't be afraid to rewrite or cut jokes either, it's part of the process of writing in general.
If you're inexperienced, simply practice writing jokes and have others read your practice pieces. See what works and what doesn't while keeping in mind your eventual intended audience, and you'll be well on your way to writing funny characters, descriptions or other elements of your story.

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