Ideas taken from the article ‘How to Write Better Using Humour‘ by Leigh Anne Jasheway in the Writer’s Digest of August 9th 2011
[Legend: R=Reader(s); attn=attention; p/u=pick up; esp=especially; imp = important; pt = point]
Effective humour can be just as much about creative misdirection – engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go & subtly choosing metaphors & words that make Rs giggle without even knowing why. And a smiling R is one who’s paying attn & eager to read on.
Humour lessens tension & anxiety – both excellent reasons to incorporate humour in your non fiction. Humour can humanize you, cement your bond with Rs. It can also help your work to stand out in a crowded market. Humour enhances how much we like what we’re reading & how much we remember it afterward.
Learning the Basics of Subtle Humour:-
1/ The K Rule: Words with ‘k’ sounds (cadillac, quintuplets, sex) are perceived as the funniest, & words with hard ‘g’ (guacamole, gargantuan, yugo) create almost as many grins: US humour has it roots in Yiddish humour. The k rule is widely used; a good convention is naming things & making word choices that are self-consciously or subtly amusing to Rs. Esp. handy in crafting attn-grabbing titles or subheadings.
2/ The Rule of Three: Writing comedically usually requires establishing a pattern (with the set-up) & then misdirecting the R (with the punch line). One simple way of doing this is to pair two like ideas in a list & then adding a third, incongruent, idea. Three is the # of things we can most easily remember (two if we haven’t yet had our coffee or been tasered awake by our boss). Example: losing weight is simple – eat less, exercise more & pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber.
This is one of the most flexible ways to naturally incorporate humour into a narrative; particularly useful in crafting catchy article leads like this opening, Jean Chatzky’s ‘Interest Rates Are Going Up. Now What?‘ in MORE, “Let me predict a few things that will happen in the next year. Brad & Angelina will add another baby to their brood. The day you spend $175 getting your hair done is the day it will rain. And the variable interest rates – on your savings account, mortgage, & credit card – will go up.” Here she uses two amusing, less imp ideas as the pattern & throws in her pt at the end, as the ‘punch’.
3/ The Comparison Joke: Think of these as simply metaphors chosen specifically for comedic affect. Example: “This stupid gown is riding up my ass. I try to pull it down & it snaps right back up like a window shade. I cross my legs & suddenly I’m Sharon Stone.”
To craft a comparison joke, simply brainstorm metaphors & then choose the 1 that is funniest & makes the pt well. Example – if you want to convey that quitting smoking is difficult, you might first mentally list things that are tough, such as reading without glasses, flossing the cat’s teeth, getting a teen to tell you about his day, getting a cat to tell you about its day while flossing its teeth, etc. Then, simply choose the comparison that makes you laugh. In comedy writing, we’re always our first audience.
4/ The Cliché Joke: If comedy relies on misdirection, what better way to achieve it then with a phrase your Rs already know? If you write, “You can lead a horse to water…”, every R will assume the finish. Taking the cliché elsewhere can be both attn-grabbing & amusing: “…but you can’t make him think.”
Don’t limit yourself to old idioms. Cliché jokes can work with any widely known catchphrase, title, lyric, pc of literature (ex Dr. Seuss). Example: How to Succeed at Aging without Really Dying. You also don’t need to confine your creativity to just replacing a word or 2. Expanding upon it also useful.
5/ Funny Anecdotes & Stories: Most of the things we laugh at in real life are true stories, sometimes exaggerated for effect. In fact, experts say we laugh far more at these types of everyday happenings than at ‘jokes’. Makes sense then to illustrate your pts as you write. My Example: Young woman cuts off top of ham before roasting. She does this because her mother did. She asks her mother why. Mom says she does it because her mother did. Mom calls her mother and is told, “I had to. It was too big for the oven.”
Putting It into Practice:-
Don’t overdo; don’t come on too strong. But don’t stifle your creativity.
1. Be strategic. Don’t scatter jokes willy-nilly; instead think of humour as parenthetical info. Many non-fiction writers find the best places: titles, sidebars, visual illustrations/cartoons, & anecdotes to illustrate their point.
2. Use it sparingly. Unless writing on an inherently funny topic, you should limit the humour to selective references. The purpose is to grab the R’s attn & help you make pts in creative ways. Don’t confuse the R by coming across as a comedian.
3. Keep your focus in mind. Be sure your use of humour doesn’t distract from or demean the true purpose of your project. Have someone give you a candid critique with this in mind.
4. Let your readers know you’re laughing. When using humour in writing about a difficult subject – your own illness, for example – your 1st response is to give your Rs permission to laugh. Find subtle ways to let them know that not only is it OK to laugh but you want them to.
5. Steer clear of sarcasm. This humour style may work in some areas but many Rs find it hurtful, mean, & because it often relies on tone, it can be esp hard to pull off in writing. Sarcasm is a tool most of us p/u at a young age as a way of feeling.
by Elaine Coish in the December Writers’ Ink session devoted to writing tips