Whenever I tell my family a joke that doesn’t land, I get blank looks and silence. In a rush to fill the void, I clarify: “See, sloths are slow, so they can’t interrupt.” This is met with, “If you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny.” It might be that I need to learn patience, though it’s also possible (however remotely) that interrupting sloth jokes just aren’t funny.
Appeal to Your Audience
For the sake of this post, I’ll concede the victory to my family. You must trust your audience. This is true whether you’re on stage or writing a short story. Start with the belief that your readers will get it, and you’ll be fine. Even if you love obscure facts, you can still make humorous references to them. Provide context for the facts within the writing, but don’t be a snob. The goal is to make your readers laugh rather than condescendingly display your vast knowledge of tsarist Russia.
Characterization Is Key
One of the best ways to build humor into your writing is to create fully developed characters. Humor often springs from incongruities, so if you know your characters well, you’ll be able to create scenarios that heighten these clashes. If, for example, your character is irrationally afraid of dogs, try putting him in a room with a flirting Pomeranian or a coquettish bull dog.
But just as you should take a humble approach with your readers, you should also do so with your characters. Don’t laugh at them. The above scenario wouldn’t be funny if the pups weren’t being kind. A dog giving doe eyes is much different than a dog giving the side eye.
Toil and Trouble
Ultimately, being funny isn’t the starting point. Humor comes after the work of building a story is done. Get to know your characters—where they live, their preoccupations, their aspirations—and humor will grow from there. Oftentimes you won’t even see it coming.
Abby is a writer, editor, and mental health advocate who does stand-up from time to time. She blogs at https://ocdocdocdocdblog.wordpress.com/.