Writing funny fiction is hard. Not, like, coal mining hard. I’m fully aware it’s a level of hard you get to do in your jammies, which probably means it’s not especially hard at all. But still, it comes with its own unique set of challenges.
Because the thing is, your toolbox is so limited when you’re writing a funny book compared to a sit-com or a skit. You can’t rely on hilarious delivery from your actors. You lose control of timing – the way dialogue plays out in your head may not be the same in another reader’s mind. Physical comedy loses its immediacy, because describing someone falling over is rarely as funny as seeing it with your own two eyes.
And yet when it’s done right, humour in fiction is something extremely magical. Readers stare at dead trees, hallucinating vividly and laughing as a result. Actual witchcraft.
Here are my top three tips on how to write funny fiction, with the obvious disclaimer that humour is subjective, as is all writing advice, so please take them with an entire ocean’s worth of salt.
The Funny Concept
Half the battle is having a funny concept to hang everything else on. The book’s skeleton should be inherently funny, because it’ll make the rest of your job so much easier. Imagine trying to put someone in a silly outfit. It would just be intrinsically funnier if that person’s legs were on backwards. (Many apologies if you are a sufferer of the lesser known Backwards Legs Syndrome.)
Your book’s hook should ideally spurn countless further ideas for entertaining scenes and set pieces. For example, in my new YA rom-com The Love Hypothesis, an unlucky-in-love science geek buys dodgy pills from the internet that make everyone she meets insanely attracted to her. Now, maybe my brain is broken, but my imagination immediately went to “what happens if she accidentally takes a double dose?” And that’s why there’s a scene in an actual published work of fiction involving an entire football field of dudes incapacitated by their raging hard-ons.
It takes a bit of practice to find a concept that sets off comedy fireworks in your mind, so if you’re a little stuck, try this: take an entertaining set-up (e.g. a man loses the ability to use vowels) and ask yourself who would be the worst person for this to happen to. A newsreader? A speech therapist? A hostage negotiator?
Some of your ideas may feel too small and sketch-sized, but every now and then you’ll land on a humdinger that could be fleshed out into a full novel.
Comedy Is Character, Character Is Worldview
The funniest books of all time are not funny because they’re full of clever wordplay (although who doesn’t love a bit of innuendo or punnage?). They’re funny because of the characters inside them, and the way they engage with the world.
A truly great comedic character has a unique or unusual way of seeing life, often taken to the extreme. Comedy magic happens when this character engages with someone who has totally opposing values and worldviews. My favourite TV show is Parks & Recreation, and it’s a perfect example of this. You have a staunch libertarian who wants to take down the government, working inside the government with a Type A workaholic goofball who loves the government more than anything in the world. And they’re best friends. And their every interaction is gold.
This technique is most often seen on screen, but it’s something I try to use in my books. In The Love Hypothesis, the protagonist has two gay dads: one a class clown with no boundaries and a penchant for phallic vegetables, the other an uptight control freak with a penchant for perfect grammar.
So when you’re brainstorming characters, go beyond their birthday or favourite colour – beyond even their flaws. What are their beliefs and values? How do they see the world? And how do these things make them different from the people around them?
Variety Is The Spice of Life
When I was first starting out trying to write funny stuff, I made a mistake that almost every new comedy writer makes: I had a bunch of characters sitting around and saying funny things to each other. And they all sounded the same. They were all sarcastic, great with puns and wordplay, heavy on the witty observations. But while the things they were saying were entertaining on a surface level, nothing really landed. The dialogue felt forced.
What makes comedy really rich is variety. In real life, not everybody is funny. At least, not in the same way. Some people are sarcastic, yes, and great with puns and wordplay. Others make witty observations. But those people, when put in a room together, rarely make sparks fly. (In fact, they can often be exhausting.)
What makes sparks fly is putting them in a room with people who aren’t funny; people who try too hard, and are too uptight, and say tragic things in a desperate bid to be liked. Not-funny characters are my favourite characters to write, because it’s such a rich field to mine. Why aren’t they funny? How do they feel about the fact they aren’t funny? Are they funny perhaps in ways they don’t realise?
Truly great dialogue jumps off the page because it’s diverse. It uses the minor key as well as the major key; the full paint palette of emotions and feelings and yes, witty observations. It has a funny pun followed by an unexpectedly sharp jealous comment. It keeps the reader guessing and engaged, and feeling like they’re listening to a real cast of characters, not just cardboard cut-outs of funny people being funny.
(c) Laura Steven
Laura is the author of fiercely funny feminist comedy The Exact Opposite of Okay and its sequel, A Girl Called Shameless. The Exact Opposite of Okay was a bestselling young adult debut in 2018 and won the inaugural Comedy Women in Print prize, founded by Helen Lederer, from a shortlist including Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims
About The Love Hypothesis:
An LGBT romantic comedy with a twist from the Comedy Women in Print prize winner Laura Steven, author of The Exact Opposite of Okay. A hilarious love story with bite, for fans of Sex Education, Booksmart, Becky Albertalli’s Love, Simon and Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Physics genius Caro Kerber-Murphy knows she’s smart. With straight As and a college scholarship already in the bag, she’s meeting her two dads’ colossal expectations and then some. But there’s one test she’s never quite been able to ace: love. And when, in a particularly desperate moment, Caro discovers a (definitely questionable) scientific breakthrough that promises to make you irresistible to everyone around you, she wonders if this could be the key.
What happens next will change everything Caro thought she knew about chemistry – in the lab and in love. Is hot guy Haruki with her of his own free will? Are her feelings for her best friend Keiko some sort of side-effect? Will her dog, Sirius, ever stop humping her leg?
Order your copy online here.