6 (More) Ways to Improve Your Book by Writing Humor

6 (More) Ways to Improve Your Book by Writing Humor

6 (More) Ways to Improve Your Book by Writing HumorHumor is like any other type of writing: setup, payoff, setup, payoff, lather, rinse, repeat. That’s all there is to it!

Okay, that’s not all there is to it. Humor is a craft that can be learned and perfected. With that in mind, let’s look at how a joke is crafted.

How to Write Funny: Set It Up and Pay It Off

The formula is: For any given setup, the payoff is the negation of the setup.

To wit:

The setup: Babies are inherently cute.

The payoff: That is one ugly baby.

The joke: A woman boards the bus with her infant, and the driver cannot help himself: “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman sits down and tells her seatmate the driver insulted her. The seatmate is horrified: “You give him a piece of your mind! Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

It’s just that simple. And that’s no joke.

Here are some (more) examples from the recent Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok.

The setup: Thor thinks he’s all that.

The payoff: Thor is not all that.

The jokes: This is used to great comedic effect multiple times.

  • At the opening when he is preternaturally cheery despite being captured.
  • When Mjolnir does not respond to his call.
  • When he insists his girlfriend didn’t dump him.
  • When he screams in fright while being dragged to meet the Grandmaster.
  • When the Grandmaster keeps referring to him as the Lord of Thunder.
  • When he sees his opponent in battle is the Hulk, his “friend from work.”
  • When he assumes his login is “Strongest Avenger” when it actually is “Bodhi from Point Break.

In his special Equanimity, comedian Dave Chappelle has a joke about his high-schooler son going to parties. Dave tells his son if the son ever found himself in a situation where his ride was drunk to call Dave.

The setup: Dave is a responsible parent.

The payoff: Dave is not a responsible parent.

The joke: Inevitably, the son calls from a party, and Dave is upset: “Do you know what time it is? It’s 1 AM! I’m drunk!” Dave tacks on two more payoffs to extend the laugh:

  • Dave decides to drive his son anyway.
  • When Dave gets the address, he realizes they’re at the same party.

In extending the joke, Dave uses both shock (driving drunk to stop drunk driving) and the unexpected (Dave is also out partying that weekend).

6 Types of Humor You Can Use in Your Writing

1. Stakes and Identification

In the early 2000s, Ashton Kutcher developed a show called Harassment, with the premise of doing shocking things to regular people. The pilot featured an ordinary couple who returned to their hotel room only to discover a dead body surrounded by a pool of blood. “Security” arrived and refused to let them leave the room.

One $10 million lawsuit and countless therapy visits later, Kutcher retooled the show as Punk’d.  This time, it was a hit, and the only difference was that it lowered the stakes (the higher the stakes, the less humor).

Finding a dead body in your room and facing prison… the stakes do not get much higher. Punk’d lowered the stakes. One prank featured a jealous man who took a baseball bat to a replica of a star’s new car. It’s okay to laugh at the star’s anguish and confusion because we know the car is fine. This is a technique known as dramatic irony, in which readers know more than a character does about a situation, which transfers our identification to the prankster.

2. Callbacks

After the initial payoff, another payoff to the same setup is known as a callback. Callbacks are a great way to increase comedic momentum. For this reason, comedians almost always end their sets on a callback. In Ragnarok, Loki’s ecstatic reaction to Hulk stomping Thor is a callback to the climax of The Avengers (which, as you may recall, ends on a callback of its own: #Schwarma).

3. Incongruity

When an element does not fit expectation, it is incongruous or counter to expectation; we react to this by laughing. The mighty Thor screaming in fright does not line up with our expectations. Nor does Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster meet our expectation of a fearsome character.

4. Absurdism

Absurdism defies literal explanation, temporal logic, sometimes even physics itself. One of my favorite examples is when the Beatles are tormenting a banker on the train in A Hard Day’s Night. After being in the corridor to his left, a second later they are on his right—-and off the train, banging on his window. Absurdism is truly unexpected, a key element of comedy. The more unexpected the payoff, the bigger the laugh—which is why when Thor is hit in the head by the metal ball, it gets the biggest laugh in the film.

Because of absurdism’s disregard for niceties of plot and logic, it is best used judiciously. Too much absurdity can disrupt plot mechanics and make the piece too frothy. However, a moment or two of absurdity can lift an overly serious work.

5. Slapstick

Slapstick is a huge component of humor. Wherever characters are falling down or running into walls, slapstick lives. The Three Stooges personify slapstick, as does Thor and Loki when they play “get help.”

Slapstick is the easiest form. One moment your character is walking and talking, and the next they have fallen down a manhole—while the other person continues the conversation. A moment of slapstick instantly changes the tone of any scene.

6. The One Technique All Decent Folk Hate

Black humor is the most vital, life-affirming humor there is—because it is the one that laughs in the face of death, pain, and suffering. For example:

Setup: Danger should be avoided.

Payoff: I want it to be dangerous.

Joke: My Craigslist date stood me up and I was really hoping to get murdered tonight. (Via Twitter user Mr. Bea Arthur.)

If you do not gasp and sputter in shock at that joke, you’re a terrible person, and you need to friend me on Facebook RIGHT NOW.

When we laugh at something scary, it robs its power over us. Four Lions, a film about inept British terrorists, is a great recent example of taking an existential horror and letting us laugh at it by making it ridiculous.

Making Humor Work for You

Effective humor is on-theme humor. Cracking a joke just for a laugh weakens your story.

Humor can act as counterpoint. Since the stakes are generally lower in a subplot, making it humorous is a good way to increase the entertainment value of your work.

Humor can foreshadow in an entertaining and unexpected way. Make your beats do double duty.

Make a story beat surprising by making it a joke. A laugh is a great way to alleviate growing tension without changing the underlying mechanics.

Humor can be used to reveal character. Having characters act in ways diametrically opposed to their words can be effective and funny.

Mastering humor can seem daunting, but it is just a craft, and a craft can be mastered with practice. When your audience laughs, they won’t be wondering how hard you worked on that joke, they’ll be too busy laughing.

Which reminds me of a joke: Why did the writer write? To get to “the end.”

I didn’t say it was a good joke.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you included humor in your story? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About Usvaldo de Leon, Jr.

Usvaldo de Leon, Jr., is a screenwriter who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for his screenplay Let Us Hold Hands and Sing Folk Songs. Most of these statements are true (Usvaldo is so obviously a fake name).


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Usvaldo!

  2. There is quite a difference between telling a joke and creating a funny situation. Watching sitcoms gives one many examples of humour structures – e.g. having a series of something, and then after the context has changed have another member show up. (Let’s say – leaving meat on the table has attracted many cats; some time is spent getting the cats out, and much later, after the reader/watcher has forgotten about the cats, another cat jumps out when a cupboard is opened). Such structures often do not correspond to joke structures.
    Writing is different from filming, in that information comes sentence by sentence – there is no immediate reaction to a complex scene. Is it “in between” joke telling and comedy, or is there humour unique to novels?

    • That’s a fantastic question!
      Oh you wanted an answer. I would agree that humor is easier with a face than on the page. Has anyone ever said, it’s not what you said it was how you said it when they laugh?
      That being said, while it can be more difficult, it is certainly possible to write humorously. You can scatter context clues to indicate a tonal shift from serious to funny, for example. Or your character can crack a joke. The rhythm of your sentences can switch.
      Don’t forget that every joke you see on a sitcom or film started life on the written page.

      • Joe Long says

        I commented to my wife the other day about my continued appreciation of writing that went into “Frasier.” All the cable channels show all these sitcoms, new and old, and I realized that many are just a string of gags with very little actual story, perhaps just a topic that the jokes revolve around. Frasier was great at creating multiple threads that all converged by the end, often quite absurdly.

        • Usvaldo de Leon says

          Frasier won the Emmy for Best Comedy a then unprecedented five times and each one was deserved. As you say, Fraiser’s comedy was based on character and situation and the jokes did build organically to a hilarious climax. You can do a lot worse than studying Fraiser to learn how comedy works at the highest level.

  3. Robert Billing says

    That was interesting, particularly your classifications of humour.

    On the one hand I have written a stage show which was intended to be humorous, and I think it succeeded because the audience laughed and the last performance sold every seat. Most of the jokes depended on sudden shifts of meaning. For example there is a character called Euston Haddock, and a complicated explanation of how he got that name. But in one of the last scenes another character, realising that an explosion is coming, says, “Euston, we have a problem.”

    On the other there is some very dry humour in my SF. One variety of this is the female protagonist sitting quiet and aloof watching two male characters trying to impress her and making complete idiots of themselves instead.

    In the second case I think it is necessary to give the readers relief from the serious themes of the book, and at the same time highlight the way that very evil people have a serious problem recruiting competent henchmen.

    • I like that Euston example. It’s a double entendre – in that it has two meanings, both funny. If you are familiar with Apollo 13, you will groan/laugh at the wordplay but if you are not it is still funny because Haddock is so enraptured they do not see the impending threat. Very nice.
      The latter is an example of situational humor. Is it a life and death struggle for domination- or is it two guys being idiots? It depends on your viewpoint into a

  4. christam says

    I use humor quite a bit in one of my stories. I am, however, having a lot of trouble adding humor to another one, even though I want to. I’m only on the first draft, so I’m thinking I could go back and find a way to add it, but I’d feel more comfortable if it came out naturally the first go around (as it has with the other story), but I just can’t seem to get there.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      Humor is best when it’s organic and yes, sometimes it can take a while to find the humor in a situation. Once this draft is done, you may, in reviewing it, find where the humor can fit in your story. When you can see all the setups and payoffs together the humor might reveal itself. Good luck!

  5. My favorite types of jokes are in-jokes, the sort that repeat over time and get funnier because of the repetition. It doesn’t even have to be funny the first time, but by the end, it can be hilarious and make the reader feel included as a part of the story.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      Absolutely. In jokes are a form of call back and you are right, they do get funnier with repetition, even if they weren’t very funny the first time. I had not thought about how they can make a reader feel included in the story but I think you are spot on with that.

  6. Thank you for putting this post together. I grew up in a family that always felt offended when people teased and I think had a hard time laughing at themselves. I adore humor, and you’ve really helped spell out the concept here. Fun to see responses too, people thinking, working out the complexity of applying humor in a book vs. visually, and chipping in with their experiences of humor that works. Thanks again, Usvaldo “obviously a fake name”—LOL.

    • Thanks Kate, I’m glad you got something out of it. The most powerful gift we have to offer is laughter. Not the smug laugh of condescension but the rich laugh of appreciating another’s predicament. When we can laugh with others about our problems is when our problems lose their power over us.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Usvaldo. As always, your insight and clarity are much appreciated. I think incongruity, or rather the element of the unexpected, is my favorite aspect of humor.
    A fine example:
    There are two muffins in an oven. The first muffin says, “Hey, it is just me or is it getting hot in here?” The second muffin replies, “Ahh! A talking muffin!”
    I suppose that’s got some absurdism thrown in as well. All the better, says I.

    Anyhow, looks like we’re already facebook friends so that’s taken care of. Good writing, my friend.
    Whether or not the joke’s on us, at least there is laughter.

    • That joke is hilarious. It satisfies Mamet’s requirement that a story be pursued to a surprising, yet inevitable, conclusion.

  8. Nice post, Usvaldo! Some of my favorite books break up the tension with humor, and if deployed correctly, that kind of humor doesn’t have to dampen the tension.

    I’m thinking specifically of Cloud Atlas: Timothy Cavendish sitting on his toilet when a group of thugs break into his apartment, Cavendish trying to retain a small bit of dignity as they threaten him, until a “cannonade” gets away from him and hits water. Ridiculous and hilarious. And yet the tension is still there.

    This is another reason why it’s so important to master dialog and to become attuned to the rhythm of language. It makes scenes like that so much more effective.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      This is exactly right. They play essentially the same scene to the exact opposite effect (funny but tense instead of tense but funny) in The Big Lebowski.

  9. Tom Southern says

    This is an excellent how-to piece on what can be a tricky device to put into a story. I’m writing a thriller at the moment and after a horrific event sets the story off in Chapter One, I pulled back in Chapter Two and put in some (relevant) humour as a pause for breath.

    Perhaps the most effective device in any novel is slapstick. Taking it to the edge but not toppling over in any genre is a talent that makes the difference between brilliant read and okay.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      That is a tricky balance between the horrific and the comic. It is indeed necessary (you can’t stay in the red for the entire novel). Getting that right so that the reader feels the weight of the drama but does not lose that gravitas while going through a comedic scene is indeed a rare and welcome talent.

  10. The mind is amazing. I’ve met some of the most serious people you’ll ever know and they can write the funniest things you’ve ever read. I’ve read about actors and stand-ups who are brilliant in front of the camera or on stage but in private they are shy and sometimes mean.

    I discovered by accident when I write a novel it tends to lean to the comedy side. It is unintentional. It’s just the way the characters speak and act. When I write short stories they are dark and weird.

    As with anything do not try to force comedy. If it’s part of your writing that’s great but if you feel it’s something you have to do it may not work.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      I hear you Bryan. It’s important to remain true to the tenor of the story and the overall mood. Off the top of my head, Sophie’s Choice would be the least funny film I could think of, but Roberto Benigni did somehow make a comedic analogue with that subject matter with Life Is Beautiful.

      Not a lot of people could do that. As Dirty Harry says, “A [person’s] got to know their limitations.”

  11. I think I have used some hilarious remarks in my superhero novels, and I do like sarcastic humor.


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