Thursday, September 26, 2019

Finding the Funny : Five Proven Ways to Add Humour to Your Story

Unless your day job is stand-up comedy, delivering a punchline on command while you’re writing is almost as tricky as coming up with a perfectly timed repartee at a cocktail party (not three hours later, at home, when you’re trading your heels for a pair of comfy socks).

But, unlike the uselessness of a perfect comment thought up long after the moment has passed, humour can be edited into a story at any point in the process. Here are five ways to find the funny.

Make a Humour Heat Map

Image via Wikimedia Commons
Highlight the humorous passages in your manuscript in a way that suits you best. In a word processor you can use a text highlighting tool, change the font colour, or add a comment or note in the margin, either flagging these pieces as you write or going back to read for them at a later stage. (If you’ve sacrificed a tree, an old fashioned highlighter pen works just as well.)

Once this process is complete, scan through the manuscript and identify the “cold” areas as well as those sections where you might have a concentration of humorous scenes. Now determine whether you can spread the laughs out more evenly by moving certain jokes around or if you need to come up with more funny moments for the bare spots.

Tap Into Your Audience

Who are you writing for? It can help immensely to observe a group of your target demographic experiencing something funny. One of the best ways to do this is to pay attention to the audience reaction in the theatre while watching a comedy stage play or movie. Children love physical and body humour, prat falls, and silliness. Adults might respond better to witty dialogue and subtle innuendo.

Try a Different Medium

Now that you’ve noted what your audience appreciates about humour delivered via a visual medium, give it a go yourself. I recently adapted my latest children’s book as a stage play and came up with a wealth of additional banter in the dialogue and physical slapstick to go with it.

You don’t have to convert your entire book into a play or movie, though – just pull out a few of those “cold” scenes that need warming up and create a two-minute skit. Visualise your actors walking on set or stage. How do they move? Are the characters themselves humorous, or do you have to apply funny situations to uptight stick-in-the-muds? Can you add a character who is witty? Or give an existing character a deadpan delivery of desert-dry humour?

If you’re exceedingly lucky or well-networked, you might have access to a real-life actor or two who can perform your skit for your appraisal. This is particularly helpful when writing for children, because watching (or even imagining) a child delivering the lines will show you where your text is too grown-up and difficult for a young reader to manage successfully.

Take your skit back to your manuscript. Naturally you will need to make some changes to fit it into a traditional narrative, but hopefully you will find that this technique breathes new life into your characters because you have seen them fleshed out.


Another realm of humour can be found in the setting itself. This doesn’t only apply to fantasy and science fiction; even a contemporary story can have an amusing location.

Humour can be added in the names of places, the types (and names) of animals or creatures that inhabit them, and the reactions of people to both. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is, of course, the quintessential use of an exceedingly well-drawn setting as a humorous character in its own right. Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis are also particularly good at evoking amusing impressions of their Map to Everywhere series fantasy world. Here are just a few examples:

Places: Bintheyr; Khaznot Quay; Sellitall District; Nosebleed Heights; West Bublestuck; and Gutterleak Way.

Creatures: plantimals; glowglitters; giraffilisks; pirats.

Food: plummellows; toad butter; trogs’ eggs; pointimelons; prollycrabs.

If you’ve already decided on your setting, mine Google for “funny things that happen in [place name]”. Otherwise, search for “unusual travel destinations” or “weirdest places in the world” and see where your wanderings (and wonderings) take you.

Listen to (Many) Audiobooks

Train yourself in the rhythm of well-timed humour by listening to bestselling books similar to what you wish to write. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) it doesn’t help to only read these silently to yourself; the cadence is in the delivery of the line, and this has to be listened to in order to be absorbed. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, however, a visual reading will also work if you are able to lip read, and you will have the additional benefit of facial and body language cues.

As Diana pointed out earlier this month, touches of humour add value to any genre. So go ahead and slip an extra banana peel or two into your book.

Elle Carter Neal is the author of the chapter book The Convoluted Key, picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or


  1. Really a great post, Elle. I'm the subtle humor in dialogue type, but my one foray into more broad comedy, though in a serious book, came out quite well, methinks. Your post is definitely a roadmap to locating and inserting places in our novels that need a lighter touch.

    1. Thanks, Polly. I, too, find it easiest to let my characters run off with the dialogue. I always seem to have at least one who likes a good bit of banter.

  2. The tip about what your audience will find funny is critical to success.

    1. It really is. Some popular children's books contain very subtle humour and innuendo, which makes them a lot of fun for adults to read aloud to kids, but then the joke either has to be deconstructed and explained or just passed over.

  3. I think it's harder to write humor than any other form of prose, so I have the highest regard for those who do it well (and it often seems they do it effortlessly). Personally, I always come up with the best humorous least an hour after my response would have been perfectly timed. Just think how long it would take for me to write a funny novel.

    1. I find most of my elements of humour creep in during the editing phase. It seems my brain has been mulling over the perfect one-liner for several months ;-)

  4. Humor can definitely be a challenge to write. I bought numerous tapes from the Erma Bombeck series of instructions, and that was an invaluable lesson in writing the humorous column I did for a number of years.

    Adding touches of humor to a novel takes a different approach entirely. For me, it usually comes organically from a particular character who leans a bit toward snark and wit, while others don't. Having that contrast is good, I think, because it would be irritating if everyone in a story tried to be funny.

    I liked your suggestion about finding the humor in what I've written and highlighting it for the rewrite. That is a good tip.

  5. I love this post. Your suggestions are 24K gold. Thanks, Elle!

  6. You suggest ways of testing humor to be sure it's effectively and appropriately placed in a story——ways I never thought of. Well done, Elle. Thank you for sharing.


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