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4 Ways to Make Your Readers Laugh

By
Erik Deckers, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #789
The Quick And Dirty

Try these four proven tools to make your readers laugh:

  1. Iceberg theory
  2. Surprise
  3. Relatability
  4. Exaggeration

Adding humor to your writing is more than just telling a few jokes or dropping in some funny sounding names. It's more than relying on tried-and-true tropes and truisms.

It's more about creating unusual situations for characters to react to, or catching your readers pleasantly off-guard with unexpected connections.

A law firm called Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe is only going to be funny once. Two dentists named Ketchem and Pullem has a limited shelf life.

Ken Jennings explained the secret to good humor writing in his book, “Planet Funny.” He wrote, "Don't say funny things, say things funny."

There are as many as 12 different theories and practices you can use to get a laugh with your writing that go beyond advice like “use words that end in K" or “use funny names.”

You can find rich sources of humor if you can tell a story where normal people are in an unusual situation, or unusual people are in a normal situation. That's a comedy screenwriting technique called “Fish Out Of Water,” and you can see it in TV shows like “Schitt's Creek,” “Community,” or “Big Bang Theory,” or even great movies like “Back To The Future.”

You can tell stories like that all day long, mining a variety of situations for all kinds of humor, and never once resort to a name like Harry Plopper.

Let's look at four of the most frequently used sources of humor you can use to get your audience laughing.

1. Iceberg theory

The first is called iceberg theory. It isn't officially a humor technique, but it's important to most good writing including humor.

Iceberg theory refers to the fact that the portion of the iceberg that you can see is supported by the much larger portion that's underwater.

The American author Ernest Hemingway created the idea of the iceberg theory, telling writers that they needed to have all kinds of knowledge and details in their minds when they wrote about a subject. As he said in his story, "Death In The Afternoon”:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Humor works on the iceberg theory, because you're only describing the parts of the story that are needed to get a reaction out of your reader. You can leave out the extra details, and the readers will think for themselves and fill in the details with their own knowledge.

This hidden knowledge becomes important with the next three theories.

2. Surprise

Surprise is one of the most important elements of humor. It's technically called expectation violations theory, and it's based on the premise that a joke is really a lie.

When we hear a punchline or are confronted with the funny part of a story, we're surprised by it, which makes us laugh.

That's because when someone tells us a story or the beginning of a joke, our brain predicts what's about to come next. But when that prediction fails to come true — when we're "lied to" and our expectations are violated — we're surprised, and we laugh.

For example, if you were to lay all your veins out in a line. . . you would die.

Now, when you first heard that sentence, your brain probably thought, "This is a reference to distance. Mignon is going to tell me how many veins I have in my body." Instead, it took a surprising (and dark) turn, which probably made you laugh.

So one way to add humor to your writing is to catch someone off-guard. For instance, if you were describing a haunted house that was all dank, dark, and dirty, and then mentioned a Hello, Kitty! poster on the wall, that would be surprising. And if you write it effectively, you can get a laugh from your reader.

3. Relatability

The other side of the surprise coin is relatability: When we recognize a situation or a setting — when we can relate to it — even if it's unexpected, it's that relatability that makes us laugh.

"Did you hear that the guy who wrote the 'Hokey Pokey' died? It took two weeks to put him in his coffin."

That joke is relatable to anyone who knows what the Hokey Pokey is and remembers singing it when they were kids. Our recognition of that old song — "You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out" — makes the punchline work. If you don't know the song, then it doesn't make any sense at all. I was 42 the first time I heard this joke, and laughed so hard I cried.

The recognition of the song happened in the split second after I said "Hokey Pokey" — you remembered the melody, you remembered the lyrics, and you remembered the hands and feet going in and out. You may have even had a brief flashback to singing the song in school. 

Then, when I said "it took two weeks to put him in his coffin," all of those memories about the original song told you exactly why it took so long.

It was the relatability of the original song lyrics being applied to this particular situation that got the laugh. There may have been an element of surprise there too, but the main tool was relatability.

This is also an example of the iceberg theory at work because the joke relies on you knowing something we didn’t directly tell you: the song lyrics.

You can use relatability in your writing by describing situations where you or your characters are doing something we've all done.

For example, if you were writing about going to school, you could talk about that one kid who ate paste when you were in first grade, and how they said it tasted better than the lunch they served. Not everyone would get it, but then again, not everyone will get anything you write.

4. Exaggeration

Exaggeration humor comes from taking something fairly common — relatability — and then exaggerating an aspect of that thing to the point of unlikelihood or impossibility. The new image is something so ridiculous as to be silly, but still remains funny.

For example, "I knew a guy who was so creepy, his van had a basement."

Clearly, vans don't have basements. But when you think about a van, what kind of van did you imagine? Was it a white van without any windows, like the kind kidnappers might use? And when you think about a basement, was it the creepy basement from “Silence Of The Lambs”?

Now, can you imagine a van with stairs leading down to the “Silence Of The Lambs” basement? It couldn't exist in real life, but we can imagine it, and that exaggeration will get the laugh.

The British comedy troupe Monty Python was known for the exaggerated comedy in their movies and TV shows, as were shows like “The I.T. Crowd,” “Community,” and even the old Coyote & Road Runner cartoons.

You can exaggerate the characteristics of people, places, or things. You could talk about how you grew up in a small town, and your neighbor was so nosy she knew about your parents' divorce before they did. Or how the town's mayor was also the barber, undertaker, and owned the gas station. Or how the signs that said you were entering and leaving town were across the street from each other.

There’s obviously a lot more to humor writing, but these are four of the biggest ones you'll see, read, or hear, and they’re a great place to start if you want to add some zing to your writing. Also, the next time you read or watch something funny, see if you can spot when the writers used surprise, relatability, or exaggeration, and how they relied on the iceberg theory to get you to laugh.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Erik Deckers, Writing for Grammar Girl

Erik Deckers is a professional writer and the co-author of four social media books, including "Branding Yourself." He recently published his first humor novel, "Mackinac Island Nation," and celebrated his 25-year anniversary as a newspaper humor columnist. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida.