The Ultimate Guide to Writing Literary Comedy for Beginners
It’s one thing writing a story… it’s a whole different ball game writing a funny story.
Some of the greatest literary minds that have ever graced the world filled their works with wit and laughs. It is such a great talent, to be able to bring a smile to somebody’s face through words on a page – but it’s by no-means an easy talent to master.
Comedy, in literary form, can be a very difficult thing to get “right”. When done well, comedic literary writing can be wonderful. When not so good… well, it can make for difficult reading (and not difficult like reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, difficult like “… I want to stop reading this”).
This ultimate guide to writing literary comedy for beginners will look at writing comedy from several different perspectives. Whether you want to write a short story, a novel or some non-fiction accounts, this guide will hopefully point you in the right direction.
The guide will begin with tips and rules that apply to each of the above, and later in the guide, there are more specific guidelines and tips for writing them.
Table of Contents
- Know your audience, know your comedy
- Layers of humour
- Know what you’re writing about
- Make yourself laugh
- Mean it
- Think about your details
- The comedy of conflict
- Adding humour to short stories
- Writing a comedic novel
- Writing humorous non-fiction
- A recap of the main tips and tricks for writing literary comedy
- Understand your audience and your comedy
- Layering humour
- Know your topic
- Make yourself laugh
- Incorporate surprise
- Brainstorming and mapping your idea
- Use a structure
- Make your writing meaningful
- Cover the details
- The humour of conflict
- Writing a short story
- Writing a novel
- Writing non-fiction
Know your audience, know your comedy
A good place to start when it comes to writing something comedic is to immerse yourself in the world of comedy. There is so much fantastic comedy that can be easy to find – be it writing, performances, videos or audio recordings – which you will never be far from finding something to perhaps derive inspiration from.
Reading funny literature will put you into a mind-set for writing comedically, and looking at different works may be a contributing factor in developing your own unique comedic writing style.
Layers of humour
Going in hand in hand with knowing your audience, when writing a comedic story, don’t hesitate from adding layers to your writing.
Layering a story makes it work on several levels. Layering means trying to make your work as appealing to as many people As possible WITHOUT jeopardising the quality of the work.
You want as many people as possible to read and enjoy your work, don’t you? You need to find a way to make your humour appeal to different people and age groups, and layering is the way to do this.
Physical humour will appeal to all age groups. Slapstick, absurdity and outrageousness are sure-fire ways to get laughs, even in print.
More abstract humour devices such as wordplay and punning will start to appeal to people from around the ages of 8-12 and onwards.
More advanced abstract humour devices such as sarcasm, irony, parody and innuendo start to really kick-in for most people in and around their early teens and onwards.
After around 15, pretty much anything goes – don’t underestimate your readers – allowing you to set up more complex things like elaborate running jokes.
The best and most memorable stories you will read, in any genre, will be layered. Whether it’s your first time reading or your fifth, you’ll still be noticing new things; little details that add together to make a better story.
This works well with comedy writing, in that you can throw in what may seem like an aside, a minor detail without relevance, and reintroduce it for comedy later in the story.
That kind of layering comes with subtlety – just one of many different types of layering, and one that may particularly appeal to those who like to really observe when reading something.
Know what you’re writing about
Knowing about your subject matter puts you in a position to write a more-informed piece of work, and will give you endless sources of rich material.
Here’s an extreme example to stress my point:
Ricky Gervais worked in an office for 10 years. He then started writing and performing comedy, and drew from his life experience – what he knew and had lived through – and created one of the greatest comedy programs of all-time.
Knowing about life in an office obviously didn’t make the show what it was – but it certainly enriched it. If you can find your “office”, or become informed about whatever your subject may be – a rural town, a university, a hotel – you will have as much material to work with as you please, and will know how and why to poke fun and parody something.
Publishers and magazines have certain things and subjects that have been done to death and they will more than likely have no interest in, even if it’s done well. An informed approach to a subject matter can put you ahead of the crowd and by turning conventions and clichés on their head through knowledge will both stand in your favour and help you create better, funnier work.
Most importantly of all, bar none, is that you start writing. Just write and keep writing. What you write could be absolute drivel – the kind of thing you look back on in a day or a week or a year and ask yourself “what was I thinking?” – Or it might just be great.
Putting pen to paper (or however you choose to write) can not only get work done, but help fuel your creativity and actually seeing your story take shape can make your mind wander off in tangents that you may not reach otherwise.
Keep writing and writing and when you’ve got something that resembles a finished piece, then you can start to rework. The editing process can streamline; make funnier what needs to be funnier; add more; cut entire sections… once you’ve got something to edit, you can edit. It’s just a matter of getting to that point.
Make yourself laugh
If you’re writing completely stone-faced, even upon reflection, there might be something wrong. Comedy is subjective, but at least you know what YOU find funny, so why not try to create something that you would enjoy as a consumer.
It will really shine through in your humour writing if what you’re writing about amuses you. With this comes the risk of becoming self-indulgent, so once you’ve finished writing, be sure to give to someone else – literally anyone – and see if they find it funny or if you’ve just gone down a wormhole and started making something that only you find funny.
Test your material on anyone willing to read it, and if you’re getting a positive response, that’s a good sign. If you’re not getting 100% positive responses, but some strong ones, don’t worry. Everyone’s different and everyone finds different things funny. What one person finds hilarious could be the least funny thing that’s ever happened to someone else, so don’t be disheartened if one person likes your writing and another does not. At least one person likes it.
Surprise can be one of the essences of literary comedy. It can be different to visual or spoken comedy, but the old tropes of pull-back and reveal are as relevant and funny today as they ever were, if done right.
Surprises in writing can come in any shape or form. It can be something really simple – an unexpected climax to a scene, an event or even a paragraph. Wit and laughs can be raised by treating a reader to an unexpected turn-of-events.
Boiling down comedy and why something is funny can seem like one of the most boring things in the world to people, but as a writer, sometimes you should ask yourself “why is that funny?”. You may surprise yourself with how often the answer is surprise.
You’ve got an idea – even if it’s just the remnants of the beginning of a thought – make sure to get it down. Have you ever thought of something that, at the time, you thought was funny, but didn’t write it down, and then for the life of you can’t remember it later? It happens to everybody, so you’re going to want to get into the habit of stopping it from happening to you: write it down!
Once you’ve written down something that you can come back to, you can start brainstorming it. Whatever your idea is, you can start expanding it. We will come to structure next, but essentially to begin with, you’re going to need an idea, and that’s about it.
The idea can be funny in principle but it doesn’t need to be. Humour can be added afterwards, as long as you’ve got something. Perhaps the idea is the end of the story – that’s fine, work backwards: how did the character end up where they ended up?
It could be a throwaway moment in the middle of the story – work both ways: how did they end up in the situation, how does the story progress after it.
Or indeed, it could be your start – how your story begins. The same process applies, just start expanding your ideas. Again, your ideas don’t have to be hilarious from the start; there is comedy to be found in pretty much everything, you can add it later.
Every story should have structure. A beginning, middle and an end – sometimes when people talk about writing, the “middle” is replaced with the “muddle”.
The beginning of a story, in any genre, is generally used to set things up. There’s no set amount of pages that define a beginning, just how long it takes for a story to be set up; introducing character, setting, and importantly in humour, writing tone.
In many respects, the beginning of your story, regardless of how long it is, is the most important part, as if a reader isn’t interested or doesn’t enjoy it, they will more than likely not keep reading. The same can be said for publishers.
Go back to your brainstorming and work out what NEEDS to be included in your beginning and make sure it’s there and presented well. Set the story up in all respects.
Once you have this done, you can begin to muddle. This is where your story can tangent and twist -the bones of the story.
It can seem oblique and blunt to say stories are as simple as A-B-C, with A being the start, B being the middle and C being the ending, but in most cases it is true. The B gets you from the A to the C, and it’s the journey that will define how good your writing is.
In this regard, the middle of your story is going to be the longest part. Whereas the beginning and the ending can often be set piece events, anything can happen in the middle. If you want a character to do something, make them do it. All you have to do is find a way to make it relevant to the rest of the story.
Whatever takes place in the middle of the story will link your beginning to your end. With this being the case, the middle of a humorous piece is where a lot of the humour can be found, as it doesn’t necessarily do anything but be funny, in the way the beginning of a story has to set things up and the end has to bring events to a climax.
It’s not enough to be funny in your writing. It can work in the short-term, but in anything more than a few sentences, you’re going to have to be meaningfully funny.
Even the best one-liner jokes are memorable and work because they rooted in something more and seem to suggest a deeper, more personal meaning. People can relate to people – so even if your story is crazy and ridiculous, it’s worth assigning some human characteristics.
The character of Alan Partridge played by Steve Coogan, is in most aspects, ridiculous. Yet, he harbours many realistic tendencies, and allow viewers (or indeed readers) to laugh with him as well as at him. They are able to sympathise, empathise and criticise him.
In humour writing, there are two ways you can go, and they are both acceptable: having the plot support the jokes or the jokes support the plot. Whichever side you opt for – and it usually is one or the other – centre your writing around some semblance of humanity – something relatable – and it will pay dividends.
Think about your details
One huge difference between reading and viewing or listening to comedy for a consumer is that reading requires a lot more effort. With this being the case, even when writing humour, your story needs to have some coherence.
Your story can be filled with humour and absurdity, but don’t make it the joke.
A story, regardless of length, needs to have its own consistent logic and laws to make it feel immersive and real. This logic can be rooted in reality or can stray away from it, like in a fantasy novel for example, but it needs to be regulated. If something happens, there must be some form of explanation – otherwise it’s poor storytelling.
Think about your story’s history; think about the characters – who they are, what they do, why they do it – and then create them, and make them detailed. With detail comes good storytelling, and once you’ve got that, you can add the comedy in later.
The comedy of conflict
When one thinks about comedy, perhaps the first word that comes to mind isn’t always conflict. That’s not to say that forms of conflict can’t be a fantastic source of humour.
By building some of your characters around ridiculous and obtuse struggles, you make them flawed and relatable, which are terrific comedic traits.
There are three sources of conflict devices – character versus character, character versus environment and character versus itself. Regardless of the length of your story, it is wise to include at the very least one of these devices, and if possible, all three, as they can make for hilarity in abundance if done correctly.
The most engaging of the three mentioned conflict devices is normally the character versus itself. This device is the most emotionally engaging – audiences tend to relate to seeing a character fighting internally as this is something that everyone comes into contact with in one way or another.
Settling on a source of conflict and amplifying it to comic proportions (or making a character ridiculously biased) can be a nice additional element to add to your comedic story.
Adding humour to short stories
If there’s one particular difference between writing a short story and a longer one – and this may seem obvious – it’s the length. Regardless of your story’s genre, the way the story is told will vary due to its length.
This isn’t to say a short story need be any less detailed, immersive, and importantly in this case, funny.
There is no space for unnecessary information in a short story, and while this may seem like it makes it more difficult to write, it can oftentimes turn out that the story is better as a result.
At the planning stage of your writing, try to think about what the reader NEEDS to know. If there’s something that is integral to the story, be sure to include it and not leave the reader confused. There’s nothing wrong with ambivalent details or stuff left “up in the air”, but be aware that you’re doing it on purpose and that when the story is completed you only notice them as an afterthought.
When you’ve got your characters and plot formed, you can begin adding comedy to your writing.
The condensed form of a shorter story means that it is likely you won’t be able to include many regular jokes, but that certainly doesn’t mean that your story hasn’t the potential to be funny.
Funny characters and settings/scenarios can provide humour from the outset, while witty dialogue and set piece events and pay-offs can turn your story from an enjoyable read to a hilarious must-read.
Whether your story is a one-off or part of a series, it’s important not to underestimate your reader, regardless of age, and not spoon-feed information and overtly explain why things are funny or are meant to be funny, as this is an easy “trap” to fall into and can detract from the reading of a story.
Writing a comedic novel
Writing a novel can be a long, enduring and tough – but ultimately rewarding – experience. Many published authors advise potential writers to stop worrying about the little details and just get down to creating fiction rather than dwelling or worrying, and this is generally good advice to take on-board.
You will need to have a fully-formed and informed plan when approaching writing a novel of any description, as not having this will only make your already difficult job a lot harder.
Inserting comedy into your novel writing can be done in a variety of ways.
The large nature of a novel allows the writer freedom to take characters and scenarios and run with them, with the long form style of the story making it easier for readers to relate to situations and emotions. A lot of comedy can be found in empathy, and it is a trait that can make for an essential inclusion.
Ridiculousness and slapstick are always a good source of comedy, but it can be difficult to drag these comedic devices for the entire length of a novel. Unless you specifically set out to write a ridiculous story, perhaps it could be better to just occasionally pepper your tale with hijinks or lewd and loud actions.
Whichever way you choose to write your story – first person account, multiple narrators, third person storytelling, etc. – will obviously have an impact on the way you can add humour to your story. It’s up to you as a writer to identify what the sources of your laughter will be, but this can be easier than one might expect.
If you have your novel plotted out, try to think about how it will appear to a reader. Sometimes it can be difficult to do this as you find yourself attached to your work. It may seem funny when it’s not, or more positively, it may be hilarious and you’re unable to see as you have become frustrated with it.
A major comedic element that differs from shorter story writing is your opening. There are hundreds and thousands of novels out there, and for a reader to decide they want to invest their precious time into reading your book, they’re going to want to be impressed from the offset.
By beginning with a bombastic scene, you can really get the reader hooked. Be sure to really think about how you want your story to open, and what vibe you want it to give off. If hilarity ensues from the start, it is probably a good sign, and could very well hook a reader who’s sitting on the fence. Early precedence is important in all novels, and humorous ones are no different.
A lot of people read humorous novels to relax and unwind, so it may also assist you to remember this. Comedy can be therapeutic, so put yourself into the mind of the reader occasionally when writing and ask “would I find this funny?”. If the answer is yes, then that’s a good sign, and you may potentially be onto a winner.
Writing humorous non-fiction
It can be very difficult to get writing comedic non-fiction right. One must think of how the tone will dictate where the comedy will come from, and how it may be received. A badly written comedic account of a war, for instance, could be in poor taste if done incorrectly.
This being the case does not mean that there are not pros to writing non-fictional comedy, however; there is a litany of pros to doing so in fact.
Non-fiction, by definition, means that you’re writing about a realistic account of something that has genuinely occurred. This can be a comedic goldmine, as depending on the event, all you will need to do is recount events in an appealing and immersive way. You can also rely on sources that are unavailable when it comes to writing fiction, such as interviews, media and information libraries.
Having ready-made sources for your story’s background allows for you, as a writer, to focus on what the best – and funniest – way to tell the story is.
If you’re unsure of what you want to write about, but know that you’re interested in writing non-fiction, test yourself by thinking of somebody or something famous, and how you, in theory, would approach writing about who or whatever in a humorous way.
Oftentimes, the potential is endless, but it’s important to think about taste. It is easy to offend when writing about a true person or event, as there will always be somebody or something related to the subject that could draw offence from a humorous retelling of events.
Don’t let this dismay you from writing non-fiction, however. Equally, comedic storytelling can be the perfect way to encapsulate an event or story, be it a biography, a catalogue, a journal or whatever.
A recap of the main tips and tricks for writing literary comedy
In conclusion, we will go over some of the advice that has been mentioned above.
When writing a comedic story, regardless of form, it is important to:
Understand your audience and your comedy
Listen, watch and read as much comedy materials as you can find and put yourself into a comedic mind-set. It may also help you nurture your own unique comedic voice.
Adding layers to your comedic writing can make it appeal to as many people as possible while not jeopardising the quality of the work.
Know your topic
Being informed about a subject matter is a sure-fire way to improve the quality of your writing, and as a result of this, be funnier.
Just start writing, and don’t stop till you have something. You can edit when you have something to edit.
Make yourself laugh
If you don’t find what you’re writing funny, it is not a good sign. Write something that you would like to read and that appeals to your own sense of humour.
One of the most essential components of comedic writing is surprise. Keep your readers guessing (and laughing) by embracing the element of surprise in your writing.
Brainstorming and mapping your idea
Regardless of the length of your piece, it is important to have a firm idea of what exactly needs to be done, and when it needs to be done, within the story. Plot out your entire story beforehand and then you’ll be more prepared to introduce comedic elements.
Use a structure
Your beginning, middle and end – know what parts of your story go where, and how you keep it ticking along and keeping the reader invested and entertained.
Make your writing meaningful
Funny writing needs to come from a meaningful place. Try to root some of your characters, settings and scenarios in reality – possibly relating to your own experiences – this will serve you well in terms of your writing.
Cover the details
You can’t go into undertaking the writing of a story without being fully immersed in the world you’re creating. Creating backstories and histories adds to depth of a tale and can also be a source of great humour.
The humour of conflict
Conflict is a realistic and relatable trait that brings with it a lot of laughs if pulled off correctly. The three forms of literary conflict are: character versus character, character versus environment and character versus itself. The latter is possibly the most relatable, as everyone battles themselves in one way or another.
When you’re writing a specific form of literary comedy, it is important to keep in mind:
Writing a short story
It’s important to be weary of what you’re going to include in a comedic short story. You want the story to be as funny as possible, without it becoming too long or convoluted. This isn’t to say you should scrap minor details altogether – just be selective in the ones that you choose to use.
Inform the reader of what is essential to know early in the story and then build from there, adding humour from the outset with your characters, setting and dialogue.
Try to avoid spoon-feeding your reader information when writing a short story. It can detract from the experience of reading something and will add unnecessary length to your writing.
Writing a novel
Writing a novel is a big undertaking, regardless of genre, so you will want to be fully prepared before you begin writing.
Plan out your story: how you want it to begin, where you want it go, and how it’s going to get there.
Don’t stress yourself with minor details and just try to make your novel as good – and as funny as possible. To do this, you will want to be knowledgeable about your subject matter and have an understanding of what motivates your characters.
The size of a novel means you can approach it in a different way to shorter stories, so don’t be afraid to test your readers as well as make them laugh.
Give particular consideration to your tone when writing humorous non-fiction. It can come off as offensive in done incorrectly, and not in a good way.
One of the biggest pros to writing non-fiction is you will have a readymade collection of sources available (interviewees, libraries, media) so be sure to use them.
Do justice to the story you’re telling by writing about it tastefully and hilariously.
And that’s that!
Hopefully you found this guide to writing literary comedy for beginners helpful and it has given you some tips on how to write comedy, which will be read by others.
It was mentioned above, but it’s important to reiterate:
The single most important thing you can do when it comes to writing literary comedy is to START writing it. Getting started can often be the hardest part, but once you get over that hurdle, you will only see your writing get better and better because of it.
The Ultimate Guide to Writing Literary Comedy for Beginners is an article from Writing Tips Oasis.
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