Do you need some help on how to add humor to a novel? We’ve put together 9 tips for you below.
1. Understand the different types of humor
There are a few different types of humor that you can use in a novel: irony, sarcasm, self-deprecation, situational humor, and surprise.
Irony, in its most basic form, is letting the readers know something that the characters in the scene do not. It can also be a contrast between what is being stated vs. what it is (overlapping with sarcasm). For example, a character stating that the day is lovely when it is in fact raining.
Sarcasm can come in the form of both dialogue and narration. As a type of humor, it is the most jarring one because in essence, it is mocking and contemptuous in nature and tone. For that reason, it should be used sparingly.
Self-deprecation is when a person “puts their own self down”, or criticizes themselves or some aspect of their own self. It can overlap with irony and sarcasm, but it is less jarring because it is aimed at oneself, rather than at another person (like in sarcasm).
Situational humor is humor that depends on a situation. This type of humor is present in most jokes, for example, because they start with a premise that is already funny.
Surprise humor is when you set up the characters (overlapping with irony if the readers are aware of it) and the readers to expect something, and then subvert those expectations by having a scene take the funniest direction possible.
You can use all of these types in your novel, although you need to be careful to balance the use of each. Using too much irony, too much sarcasm, too much self-deprecation, and the other types will make the readers bored. Shuffling around between the different types will make your novel funny without giving a feeling that humor has been overused.
2. Use banter in dialogue
This one is a tried and true way to add humor in a novel and also make the dialogue interesting. When two people are conversing and simply agreeing with each other, there is no discourse and no banter.
Bantering can be achieved by combining irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecation while two people are having a conversation on a certain topic and have conflicting views, but instead of arguing, they are using humor to make their personal points.
Bantering is possible between two people who are enemies, or two people who are friends, family members, or close enough to have developed such a banter. In romance, it is used to establish a certain connection between the two romantic leads.
However, overusing it can be tiring to read, as people in real life rarely banter all the time, so use it in a clever manner when it makes sense for the characters to speak that way.
3. Create funny situations
Situational humor in a novel can be used to create funny scenes – even whole funny chapters, by using a premise that is funny under the circumstances. All you have to do is put the protagonist and/or the other characters in a situation that is unfamiliar to them, and have their reactions to the situation be the obstacle they have to overcome to reach the goal they set out to do.
For example, let’s say that three characters, who have lived sheltered, comfortable lives, suddenly have to flee in the middle of the night and survive in a forest. Their reactions to the forest, the sounds of the forest, the utter darkness, their ability or inability to light a fire – it can all be used to create humor for the reader.
Situational humor is usually funny to the reader, while the characters themselves are not particularly enjoying the situation themselves.
4. Subvert expectations
Another way of adding humor is by making the reader expect something big, scary, dramatic, or dangerous, and then subverting those expectations by giving them something of the opposite nature – small, not scary at all, not dramatic at all, and not dangerous at all.
For example, perhaps a trio of characters have been captured by some rangers and are now being brought to the ranger’s leader. The protagonist, the other two characters, and the readers are expecting this leader to be a big, scary villain, but this leader turns out to be a small child, or an elderly, crotchety lady, or even perhaps a smart animal of some kind (a cat, for example, if you’re writing fantasy), and most importantly, the characters are not actually in any kind of life-threatening danger.
5. Use funny words in the narration
Adding funny words in the narration of the novel can help to add humor. It is actually easy to do, in terms of the words. Just seek out a funnier synonym for the word you wish to use. For example, use the word “ogle” instead of “stare”.
But you need to be careful, because the narration depends on the point of view you are using, as well as your own writing style. For example, First person point of view does allow you space to use funny wors in the narration, especially if your protagonist has a penchant for sarcasm and self-deprecation, and you can do similarly with third person limited point of view.
On the other hand, there is omnipresent narration. It can come in two types: invisible (when the narrator is a disembodied voice with no personality), and visible (when the narrator is a character in their own right).
The first type, invisible omnipresent narration, does not normally allow for the use of funny words in the narration – unless that is your writing style specifically and it is present throughout the novel. Normally, invisible omnipresent narration is more objective, and it is more often used in literary novels that tackle serious topics. The aim of using it is usually to create a so-called elevated, literary writing style.
The second type, visible omnipresent narration allows for the use of funny words, and side commentary on what is happening, because in this case, the narrator is a character in their own right. They may or may not be directly involved in the story itself, but we are still getting their personal, subjective view. As such, the narrator being funny, sharing their opinion on the characters and what is happening, helps with the characterization of the narrator themselves.
6. Make weird comparisons
A specific way of adding humor in the narration and in dialogue as well, depending on the character who is speaking, is to make weird comparisons that are outside of the box and convey a funny idea.
For example, a person eating after being hungry for a long time might be compared to a dog who is wolfing down their first meal of the day. Or, a person who has been hungry and is finally eating might say they have “inhaled” their food because they ate it so quickly.
The idea here is to not just describe an action that is happening, or a state of being, but to also compare it to another situation in a funny manner. An overused example of this is how a person responds after they wake up sick and they might say “I feel like I’ve been hit by a car.”
7. Break up a pattern
This manner of adding humor means describing something or someone, using two adjectives that are of a similar nature, and then breaking up that pattern on the third adjective.
For example, a protagonist describing their boss might say: “Maria Johnson, the CEO of our company, mother of three, and my own personal nightmare entered the office. She looked as happy as the day was sunny outside. Spoiler alert: it had been raining all morning.”
In the above example, we have the use of both breaking up a pattern and making a comparison as well.
8. Repeat for funny emphasis
Repetition for funny emphasis means repeating a word, or a sentence to describe something to emphasize how important it is. In first person point of view, it can also be repeated with the phrase “And did I mention…”
For example, let’s say that an astronaut character who’s been to space describes how they felt during lift off. “First, I peed myself. I felt the safety straps pin me in place, all of my organs hit my spine as the rocket gained even more speed, and did I mention that I peed myself?”
This type of humor is often used in retrospect by the protagonist or the character who is speaking. It can also be used in dialogue, when two people are talking. The first person is sharing multiple things, and the second one repeats one of them as the most important one often accompanied with the phrase “not to mention…”
For example, let’s have two women discussing a man in whom one of them is interested in.
“He is tall, handsome, and very annoying. Most days, I want to rip his head off. He is constantly trying to tell me what to do. He is rude, annoying-“ she said.
“Not to mention tall and handsome,” her friend replied.
9. Do not overuse humor
When it comes to humor, unless you are specifically writing in the genre of humor, less is more in any story or novel. Overuse of humor, especially in genres that are more serious in nature can lead to the readers being thrown out of the story. Even romantic comedies have only a healthy dose of humor balanced out by serious moments.
A sarcastic or self-deprecating narrator in first person point of view can become boring to read about if they react to every single thing with a sarcastic remark or a self-deprecating joke. As such, you should use humor sparingly in any kind of narration.
The same applies to situational humor as well. Unless you are specifically writing satire or a comedy (like for example, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which is full of one ridiculous situation after another), then your novel needs to have more serious scenes.
You can have some funny situations sprinkled about here and there to add some levity to the plot and allow the readers to take a breather in the reading experience. But, if all of the situations the protagonist faces in a thriller, for example, are funny, then you’re not writing a thriller, you’re writing either a comedy or a satire of a thriller.
Of course, some genres, like science fiction, fantasy, and romance, allow for more comedic situations and more humor in the narration. As such, it’s best to understand the genre you’re writing in well, and then determine how much humor you wish to add.