The Hilarious 2-Step Plan for Writing Humor in Fiction

This week’s video talks about the successful premise of comedy in any book—and the two crucial steps to writing humor in your story.

Video Transcript:

Somebody once said the key to writing humor is realizing comedy is just tragedy turned on its head. In fiction, the success or failure of this technique largely comes down to tone. A man going slowly insane is horrible in Crime & Punishment and uproarious in What About Bob?


This is true also on the much smaller scale of individual moments in your story. Even within a tragedy, you can slant the tone to allow for genuinely funny moments—and vice versa for poignant moments in otherwise light and funny stories.

So with that understood, what is the key to writing humor in your story? There’s actually two steps that you need to be aware of. I like to call them setup and switcheroo.

Setup is basically just foreshadowing. You’re shaping your story’s events to indicate something hilariously bad is going to happen.

In Vincent Minelli’s classic movie Father’s Little Dividend, he does this beautifully when Spencer Tracy’s and Joan Bennett’s characters head to the hospital for the birth of their first grandchild. Joan’s driving like a madwomen, breaking every traffic law in the book.

Father's Little Dividend Spencer Tracy Joan Bennett Driving to the Hospital

Father’s Little Dividend (1951), MGM.

Then when they arrive at the hospital, she jumps out and tells her husband to park the car. Naturally, we expect there to be repercussions for her reckless driving.

Then comes the switcheroo. As they’re leaving the hospital (turns out their daughter’s going into labor was a false alarm anyway), who should be waiting for them but a traffic cop.

Spencer Tracy Joan Bennett Father's Little Dividend Traffic Cop

Father’s Little Dividend (1951), MGM.

The audience is delighted by this payoff to the earlier setup. But it’s not hilarious yet. Meekly, Joan asks if there’s anything wrong—fully expecting, just like us, that she will receive numerous tickets for her crazy driving. But, nope, the cop pulls a switcheroo.

Turns out good ol’ Spencer, who was an innocent and protesting bystander to his wife’s recklessness, parked the car in front of a fire hydrant.

It’s a joke that’s set up perfectly with its foreshadowing, paid off just as the audience expects—and then switcheroo’d into something unexpected and therefore very funny.

Tell me your opinion: Will you be writing humor into your story?


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Sheryl Dunn says

    Although I have some humor in my novel, that humor doesn’t come from a “plot” switcheroo. Actually, I have no idea where it comes from, because when I try to write something funny, I FAIL (in capital letters.) For me, it either comes or doesn’t, and it’s always a surprise to me, but my themes don’t really lend themselves to much humor.

    One of our authors, Kerry Dunn (JOE PEACE, optioned for a movie, and Kerry is no relation to me) is funny, even in a neo-noir crime novel. His humor often does involve switcheroos, but within a single sentence, not in the plot.

    In the manuscripts I’ve reviewed that are meant to be funny, the writer too often is so enthralled with his or her scene of humor that it distracts from the actual story, proving that in all things, balance is important, and THE STORY IS KING.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, the switcheroo definitely works just as well on a sentence level as it does on a plot level. Robert’s quote about lies (below) is a great example.

  2. This is an aspect of humor I have never thought about before. Thank you for the great post!

    The Rule of Three is a useful tool in comedy. (For instance the saying: “There are lies, d**n lies, and then there are statistics.”)

    Another common tool is the exploitation of misunderstanding. The 1960’s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies was superb at this kind of humor.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The rule of three is handy in just about any aspect of writing, but that opportunity for something unexpected at the end of the list does create some great comedic opportunities.

  3. I’ve found helpful (particularly when it comes to farce) that so much is dependent on your character’s perspective. Like writing in any genre, this means establishing their beliefs and attitudes and how they’re reflected in behaviors and actions because ultimately what happens on the screen itself isn’t always necessarily funny – it’s what the characters perceives has happened and their subsequent reaction to it that draws the laughs (all within context of the set-up and pay-off.) Those perspectives in turn, from the audience’s perspective itself, allows for tons of dramatic irony because we’re privy to all the perspectives of the players involved whereas they are not (think of the wonderful Arsenic and Old Lace where we know more than Moritimer who subsequently ends up knowing more than Jonathan; who knows what and when ends up having a profound impact on the characters, their perspectives and their actions/reactions.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very true. This is the basic difference between the tone in Crime & Punishment and the tone in What About Bob?. It’s all about perspective.

  4. Love the bit of advice. I have a terrible time with writing humor. It’s not that I don’t enjoy humor, because I do. It’s just that I could never deliver a joke without flubbing it up. I’m as goofy as can be, though, and love to make people laugh. Advice that helps me write humor is much appreciated! 🙂 Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes the best way to write humor is just to let it flow (or not). Let the story dictate what needs to be said.

      • Larry Blumen says

        Every week, I look at the cartoon caption contest on the last page of The New Yorker. I can never think of any caption that isn’t lame, but I can make a roomful of people laugh, and I can write funny. I agree that funny should be allowed to flow, or not. It can’t be forced. The humor should arise out of the story’s characters and the things they do or say to each other.

        Would you like to read a funny story about syphilis? Try this:

        Maybe you won’t think it’s funny. Maybe you will. I will say this: announcing that something is funny in advance is often a kiss of death.

  5. Thank you for this! I’m writing a women’s fiction with comedic and dramatic elements. It’s been a real stretch to be funny, although a great exercise. I’m writing through the POV of my female protagonist, who is befuddled by her own gullibility in the men department and working through a bruised ego via some poor relationships (one that produced a teenage son who barely knows his father).

    It’s fun, but it’s hard!

    Thanks for all you great posts!

  6. I’m in edits for my second book, so I’m back in my favorite character’s head. I don’t intentionally write funny.

    But A’yen is hilarious, according to my readers. He’s a snarky little smart-ass who says whatever’s on his mind, no matter how ridiculous it is. It often gets him in trouble, but also allows him to navigate through all the changes being thrown at him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The best humor always arises from the core of the character, his personality, and his journey. We can’t shoehorn it in; it has to be inherent.

  7. Most of the humour in my books comes from the characters, rather than the situation.

    Cute dialogue and speech patterns, an over-the-top regional accent here and there, characters who finish each other’s sentences (anticipating incorrectly).

    The mentor who explains something and tells the protagonist its name, which the protagonist thinks is stupid, and the mentor agrees rolling his eyes that his more sensible suggestion was outvoted; and that one companion who comes out of almost every hair-raising encounter with a completely unexpected and irrelevant “yeah, but did you see —“

    • I often find humour comes unexpectedly – I’ll be writing something that I’ve outlined, and when I get to it there’s a completely random and irresistible way to put a comical spin on something otherwise mundane.

      I have a scene in Chapter 6 of my first book where on the spur of the moment what was originally going to be a note on a desk became a suspicious imp in a miniature suit with a thick Geordie accent, who was never quite sure the character he had to pass the message to was trustworthy. A few moments of completely random enjoyment and what otherwise would have been dull became one of the funniest (at least for me) passages to write.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Unexpectedness really is the heart of fiction. So it totally makes sense that it would also be at heart of the process of *writing* fiction.

  8. There’s generally humour in my stories, probably at least partly because they tend to be dark.

    Most of the time it’s asides, character thoughts or character dialogue that my beta readers say cracked them up. I apparently have a funny narrative voice.

  9. It’s one thing to get laughs in a movie, quite another to get them with nothing but words on the page. In the end, I tend to think “writing funny” is not something that can actually be taught. But when the writer finds himself smiling or even laughing at something in a book, that scene should be earmarked and studied.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true: words that are hilarious coming out of Bill Murray’s mouth aren’t necessarily going to be funny standing by themselves on the page.

  10. thomas h cullen says

    ‘The Representative’ does feature humour….

    ….the sentence to best feature it will come to be regarded as one of the most iconic of all sentences in the history of literature.

  11. I agree with a commenter above, whenever I try to be funny, no one laughs. It is when I am not, when I am just stressing a point, that there is humor. It happens frequently when public speaking, so I have just learned to trust that the humor will come when it is meant to and I don’t need to know when that is…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s how I write as well. But it’s useful to know the mechanics of humor. There actually is a structure to it.

  12. A great example of writing humor is Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl.” I laughed out loud several times throughout that book, and I haven’t done that in a long time.


  1. […] “Writing humor is realizing comedy is just tragedy turned on its head.” quotes K.M. Weiland in this insightful piece about introducing some light-hearted elements into your writing. It’s actually a transcript of a […]

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