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This post contains lots of comedy writing tips and advice to help you pen a successful funny short story.
I’ve used some real-life humour writing examples, taking extracts from my own published stories to clearly illustrate how the tips were used in practice to achieve success.
I’ve also highlighted some common mistakes made by authors trying to write humorous tales so you can avoid them.
ha ha ha haaa ha haah haha ha ha hah he heh heeeee ha haaaaaa he
Writing comedy isn’t easy. Many authors struggle to place humour so it sits naturally and unobtrusively within a story.
I run and judge To Hull & Back, a humorous short story competition offering a £1,000 top prize. Because of this, I’m fortunate to read all sorts of different styles of comedic stories from writers residing all over the world. The best funny short stories I read all have the following in common:
The writer uses humour to support a great story.
They do not try to be funny for the sake of being funny.
Think of a story like a roast dinner. The main focus is the meat – beef, lamb, pork, chicken or whatever. Gravy is used to compliment the meal. In this analogy, the story is the meat and the humour is the gravy.
If the beef is chewy, or the chicken dry, an awesome gravy is not going to make the meal enjoyable, even if it’s cooked by Nigella Lawson.
A story is the same. The characters need to be excellent, the plot gripping, the idea original and engaging, the presentation professional. The humour should simply complement the story, giving it style and making it more enjoyable to read.
The same principle can be applied to any style or genre of writing. For example…
Just because you have a vampire, a derelict castle, some screaming virgins and copious amounts of gore, does not mean you have created a horror story filled with suspense and intrigue.
Just because you have a handsome hero who can drive really fast without crashing, stand in the middle of gunfight without getting shot and blow shit up without hurting any innocent bystanders, does not mean you have an entertaining action thriller.
The story itself – its subject matter, its moral, its meaning – is the most important aspect of any successful tale.
me looking stunning with lights on my head, ho ho ho
I find the best way is through:
Let’s look at these individually. I’ll use some real-life examples in this section.
If you give your characters a sense of humour – particularly the central character whose viewpoint you are likely to be writing from – their voice can add a comedic tone to the story in a natural way. For example, they might make funny observations about events, the situation or other characters and use amusing synonyms.
In my story ‘Devil’s Crush’, the main character, Joshua, has a strong sense of humour – it’s all that’s allowed him to keep his mind after losing his legs at war in Afghanistan. This allowed me to add a tinge of dark humour to the story, despite its serious subject matter.
In the story, Joshua encounters a demon. This is his description of the demon when it first appears:
I know the demon is a he because he’s naked. He’s a he with the right to be proud of just how much of a ‘he’ he is. His skin is the colour of burnt rust, his body slender yet muscular and he wears a goatee on his chin more like the animal it is named after than a man. His two horns are long and curved like warped blades of molten rock, his hairline a mass of flickering flames and in his eye sockets are two glowing coals which ping and hiss like the embers of a dying fire in the breeze. He is the source of the acrid stench which fills the room.
The second sentence in this paragraph delivers an element of humour without detracting from the description. This comes from Joshua’s voice – the way he sees and describes things. As the story is told in the first person, I used this tone throughout. It’s not laugh out loud hilarious; it simply adds an amusing undertone that helps engage the reader. Joshua’s sense of humour also helps develop his character, adding depth and believability to a fantasy story in a subtle manner.
The situations characters find themselves in can be amusing. This is often used very successfully in sitcoms.
The danger here is making the situation slapstick in an unbelievable way, with characters acting out of character or a plot being manipulated to generate a laugh. This can feel unnatural and disengage a reader. While common in sketch shows, this is not appropriate for a short story. Readers expect more depth.
When writing, I find it’s the way the characters react to the situation that makes it funny, not the situation itself.
An example can be seen in the video below. This is a very famous scene from the UK sitcom Only Fools & Horses.
Del falls through the bar - famous Only Fools & Horses clip
It’s the way Trigger (played by Roger Lloyd-Pack) reacts to the situation after Del (played by David Jason) has fallen over that makes this so funny.
Here’s an example from one of my stories. In ‘Shot in the Head and Left For Dead’ the main character, Dave, is in a band. He’s playing at Wembley Stadium in London and half the crowd have turned into zombies. It’s the way Dave observes, describes and reacts to what he’s seeing that makes the situation amusing.
There’s a gore-fest of pandemonium going on in the audience that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. Half of the crowd are trying to eat the other half’s brains. The ones who are reluctant to have their heads ripped open are trying to run away and, or, kill their attackers with anything they can use as a weapon, including bits of other people. Things couldn’t be redder – it’s like a tomato puree production factory.
Before I can fully digest the scene, a mass of smoking devilry dives out of the sky and starts munching zombies like a ravenous bulldozer. It’s about the size of a three-bed semi. Its teeth are as big as buses and it stinks like sulphur.
I look at the rest of the band. None of them seem to be zombies, although it’s always hard to tell with the rhythm section. At the side of the stage I notice two of the roadies eating one of the sound guys, while my guitar tech is using a spare Les Paul to try and behead what used to be our A&R man. Everything is turning to shit faster than swill through a pig.
I grab Maiden’s arm. "Fuck the fuck," he says. "What the bastard?" Eloquently put. Kind of sums up what I was thinking.
"Noise," I scream. "We need to make lots of it."
He looks at me like I’m mental. To be fair, he might be right. Bollocks to it. This zombie-monster-fest is coming to an end. Now.
The events that are occurring are fantastical. Dave’s voice brings humour into the situation. The characters are confused, not acting quickly, which seemed believable to me. While the situation might be so ludicrous it’s amusing, the characters remain in character – they don’t act how I want them to act; they act how they should, given what’s happening around them.
I often write without excessive plotting as I find this allows me to develop characters naturally in this manner. I always write with an end in mind (it helps steer a plot in the right direction) but don’t plan the detail. It works for me. Why not try it yourself?
What characters say and how they react to what is said can be very funny. Dialogue is the method I use most frequently to add humour into a story.
‘Death of a Superhero’ is a story that contains a lot of amusing dialogue (it isn’t available to read online, but is in the 1st To Hull & Back short story anthology or you can hear it on YouTube). While what is said is amusing, the main purpose of the speech is to reveal the story and develop characters.
In this story the main character is Death. He is faced by a recently deceased woman who is pretending to be Batman.
“You’re listed here as Doris Claymore,” he said.
“Never heard of her,” said Batman.
Death reached out and stroked the decaying blade of the scythe that rested against his desk. “This is quite simple, Doris. To progress peacefully into the afterlife, you need to confirm your name. It means I can be certain of who you are, what you’ve achieved in life and, therefore, where you should spend eternity.” Death dished out his best glare. As glares go, it was pretty impressive. In the past, it’d made stars think twice about shooting. “Can you tell me your real name please?”
“Already told you. I’m Batman.”
“How can I put this politely?”
“No need to be polite,” said Bat-Doris. “Got skin as thick as armadillos, us crime fighters.”
Given the invite, Death decided to be blunt. “Not only is Batman fictional, he…” Death left a pause which he hoped would scream with meaning, “…is a man.”
“You have breasts.”
“No, they’re breasts,” said Death, “and Lycra does little to mask their magnitude. I feel I should add that Batman was always depicted as an athletic individual, at the peak of physical fitness. Clearly, you’re not.”
A tear trickled from beneath Doris’s mask, suggesting her skin might not be as thick as she’d led Death to believe. “OK,” she whispered, “point taken.”
Despite the scythe, the rotting cloak and the distinct lack of flesh coating his crumbling bones, Death was a sensitive individual. He disliked causing upset. Most people found the experience of dying traumatic enough, without him being disagreeable.
In a more gentle tone, he said, “Good. What’s your real name?”
As you can see, the dialogue in this extract helps to develop character and reveal the plot, making the reader want to find out what happens next. Death and Doris have clear voices – Death has an underlying sense of humour, while the humour is Doris’s words come from her defiance to admit the truth. The question is, why is she behaving like this? Well, if you read (or listen to) the whole story you’ll find out.
'Death of a Superhero', a funny short story performed by Christopher Fielden
Don’t try and be funny for the sake of it. Humour needs to evolve and present itself naturally. If you chuck in a slapstick moment when your story doesn’t need it, it can disengage the reader.
Arthur is the central character in a story. He’s having to come to terms with how he’s slowly losing his wife to Alzheimer’s. The story is written in a humorous style – Arthur is an amusing character and his sense of humour allows him to find ways of dealing with the pain his wife’s situation is causing him.
If, during the story, Arthur is at B&Q and needs to urinate but is so desperate that he decides to use a display toilet and gets caught by a member of staff, is that funny? Does it fit?
Well, it depends how it’s handled.
If the situation is placed in the story to generate a laugh via bared willies in a busy shop and inappropriate torrents of urine, then no. The reader will not be able to suspend their disbelief. They will disengage from the story and ask questions like:
The act Arthur is performing wouldn’t seem realistic or believable. Yes, I’ve seen very similar situations presented in stories submitted to the short story competition I run many times.
However, if Arthur acted like this on purpose, to gain attention or help, and the B&Q staff member was a kind young man named Jim who wanted to help Arthur, then the situation and their conversation could be presented in an amusing manner. It would have a point and add to the story, revealing character development and plot. In this situation, it’s not the bared willies and public urinating that’s funny, it’s the resulting conversation and reason behind the situation occurring in the first place.
In everyday life, farting, poo, wee and snot will always be funny. However, in writing, these subjects have been covered comprehensively for decades by extremely talented writers and actors. It’s very hard to come up with an original way of inserting amusing bodily functions into a story.
I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m simply saying be very careful if you do – make sure your story requires Grandma to fart, for example, rather than just putting it in there for the sake of it.
Because Pauly (a good friend of mine) is a teacher, I’ve been lucky enough to judge a children’s humorous writing competition for his school. 95% of the stories kids aged 7-9 write involve farting, poo, wee, vomit and/or snot. That’s what children find funny.
Bear that in mind when writing for adults. While some of us still smirk when we drop a violently aromatic guff in a confined space shared with a loved one, it doesn’t always translate into a gripping focus for a story’s plot.
When I judged the competition for the school, I did this short video for Pauly to show the kids. I thought I'd include it here as it's about humorous writing.
me, talking about comedy writing
Avoid clichés. When you read a lot of short stories, like a magazine editor or a competition judge might, you encounter a lot of clichés – the same hackneyed phrases, used time and again (see what I did there? I’ve highlighted it in blue in case you missed it…).
Clichés become clichés because they are commonly used. This means they are not original. They do not help a writer create a unique voice. They do not engage a reader. They are unlikely to help you become a published author. More often than not (I did it again, did you notice?) they will lead to stories being rejected.
Cliché doesn’t just refer to common phraseology. It also refers to overused themes and subject matters. For example, I find a lot of older writers tend to write about people struggling to come to terms with retirement:
I see these types of stories a lot in the competition I run. If you’re going to tackle a subject matter like this, you must come up with an original angle.
Below is a video by InkTears CEO Anthony Howcroft. It’s entitled ‘How to Win a Short Story Competition’. It’s worth watching the whole thing, but pay special attention to tip number 1.
Exclamation marks do not make your writing funnier. If you use more than 1 at a time, they do not exponentially add hilarity to the previous sentence. In fact, they can have the opposite effect.
In my experience, many writers overuse exclamation marks, especially when trying to write comedy. There is plenty of advice on this elsewhere and opinions do differ. Still, the best comments I’ve seen are by Terry Pratchett and Elmore Leonard which were shared by the Guardian on Twitter.
The humour in a story should be natural and obvious. Exclamation marks should not be necessary for a reader to understand the joke. I don’t use exclamation points at all in my own short stories. When I edit the To Hull & Back humorous short story anthology every year, I remove them all. Am I right to do so? Feel free to discuss in the comments below.
You can learn a lot from others. When you read a funny book, or watch a comedy film or TV programme, enjoy it, but ask questions:
I find watching funny scenes a second time allows me to appreciate the techniques used to make someone laugh. First time through, it makes you chuckle. Second time through, ask yourself why you found it funny. You can then apply the same techniques to your own writing.
The authors I’d suggest reading are Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt and Douglas Adams. Yes, I like funny fantasy stories, and these gentlemen are the best in the field. Whether you like their style or not, you can learn from reading their work.
Here are a list of the funniest books I’ve read:
I think Only Fools and Horses is a great TV series to study. The stories are good, the characters incredibly strong. It’s usually the way they interact and talk to each other that makes the situation funny. John Sullivan had a talented way of switching from quite an emotional scene to something funny in a natural way. You can learn a lot building character from watching that programme – Del Boy and Rodney are incredibly strong and identifiable.
Others that have wide appeal and have been very successful:
Well, there are many. The ones that make me laugh the most are:
It’s worth mentioning that humour is subjective. What one person finds hilarious might irritate another. You can never hope to please everyone when writing a funny story, so don’t try to. Select an audience and try and appeal to them.
For example, I tend to write fantasy stories, and add the humour via the methods described in this post. It’s not ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious humour, it’s more subtle and underlying, often giving the stories a dark undertone. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I have been successful with the style and had a lot of stories published.
So don’t give up if one person doesn’t like your work. Listen to a wide range of opinions before deciding whether your use of comedy works or not.
There are a lot of comedy short stories available to read for free in the short stories section of the site. Many are written by me, but there are some by other authors. I am now publishing work from other writers. Please visit my submissions guideline page to learn more.
As a measure of quality control, every story featured on my website has been previously published, either through short story competitions, magazines or writing journals. So each story has been successful and deemed as being publishable by professional editors and competition judges.
Accompanying each story you will find information about how and why it was successful. This is to help other writers learn and apply tips and advice that are proven to work to their own writing.
You can also read lots of humorous short stories in the To Hull & Back anthologies. So far I’ve released two. At the time of writing I’m currently in the third year of running the competition.
You can learn more about the anthologies via the links below:
Below are some useful links to other posts about writing humour.
If you found the information in this post useful, you might like my book ‘How to Write a Short Story, Get Published & Make Money’.
It contains lots of very detailed information about my experiences of writing funny short stories and getting them published. I use a lot of real-life case studies in the book, showing the reader whole stories rather than extracts, so they can fully understand how I used the different tips and advice to achieve success. I also share details of how much money I’ve made through writing, giving readers a clear idea of how much work is involved and what they can expect to earn from their own writing.
As always, your comments are welcome and I do my best to reply to everyone.
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