Posted On August 19, 2016 by Print This Post

How Not to Be Funny in Fiction by Harrison Demchick

I’m excited to welcome back HARRISON DEMCHICK. The title of his post is self-explanatory–and, yes, you read it correctly.

As the saying goes, dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The same applies to explaining it.

Humor, like dialogue, is one of those qualities for which some writers have an innate, intangible gift. Most people who write comedy have never tried to explain how or why it works. They didn’t sit down at their computers one day and say, “Today is the day I’m going to start writing funny.” They probably didn’t take a course on the subject at the local community college. They’re just funny.

A significant part of book editing is explaining how writing works, but even I am at a loss sometimes when it comes to explaining the mechanics of humor. Much of it emerges from a level of creative invention that can’t be taught. But what can be taught, at the very least, is what not to do.

So here are some tendencies you’ll very much want to avoid if you’re aiming for funny in your fiction.

1.) Don’t explain why it’s funny.

Have you ever known a joke in real life to become suddenly hilarious once explained? No? Well, it doesn’t work in prose either.

This is a form of overwriting, and one of the most frequent issues with humor in fiction. Like a lot of overwriting, the problem emerges often from an author’s lack of confidence in her own writing. She isn’t sure the reader will get the joke, so she explains it and elaborates upon the concept. Sometimes this comes in the form of one character explaining the joke to another. Sometimes it’s just narration.

As difficult as comedy is to explain, it can certainly be said that one of the core elements of a strong punch line is that it’s unexpected. Sure, a great joke will make you laugh consistently, but think about it: Do you ever again laugh quite as hard as you did the first time you heard it? Explaining a joke in prose is, in effect, repeating it—each time to diminishing returns. So don’t explain it. Make the comment and move on.

I noted above that one of the reasons this occurs is confidence. But it’s entirely possible that your instinct to clarify genuinely emerges from the fact that the joke doesn’t work. If that’s so, though, elaboration isn’t going to resolve the problem. You can’t make something that isn’t funny funny by insisting upon it. You need to write a new joke.

2.) Don’t start with the punch line.

Pretty obvious, right? But this doesn’t just refer to the joke as a whole. It also refers to the individual sentences that comprise it—specifically, the last sentence.

Let’s look at a classic:

A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

It’s not brilliant, but it’s familiar. (In fact, it’s not brilliant because it’s familiar.) But it’s easy to miss how important sentence structure is even to a joke this simple. Suppose it were written, instead, like this:

A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar. “What is this, some kind of joke?” the bartender says.

This is exactly the same joke. But in this instance, the punch line has been moved from the very end of the last sentence to the start of the last sentence. The joke is still clear. We get it. But it lacks the impact simply because the sentence continues after the punch line has been delivered. It feels less concise. The punch is really more of a nudge.

Of course, in your novel, you’re not likely to be telling jokes in quite this form. But you still don’t want to construct your sentences in such a way that the joke is buried mid-sentence. Every word that follows will blunt the impact. If your lines aren’t reading quite as witty as you intend, tinkering with structure may be the solution.

3.) Don’t sacrifice character for comedy.

Not long ago, I was the book editor of a delightful manuscript that included amongst its merits some genuinely funny dialogue. But the problem was that it was basically the same dialogue, no matter what characters were speaking. The vaudevillian banter, while fun, never felt entirely consistent with the characters or the tone of other parts of the story. Even in characters’ saddest moments, wordplay and repartee were in full effect.

If you want to be funny, you should be. But you can’t let it get in the way of the other elements of your novel. Your individual characters still need to make the individual decisions they would logically make, even if the alternative would be funnier. Their humor needs to emerge from who they are. Humor that undercuts emotional moments and consistent characterization may well provide laughs. But it doesn’t serve an effective story, and that’s more important.
In other words, humor, like anything else, needs to be organic to the narrative.

Another thing that’s not so funny is going back and revising every moment of intended humor you forced inorganically, structured awkwardly, or overexplained. So if you take care as you write, and avoid these mistakes, the result may not be hilarious, but it will be at least a good start.


What do you find most challenging about humor in fiction? What other authors handle it best?




Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than sixty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as women’s fiction, literary fiction, mystery, young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir at the Writer’s Ally (

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12 Responses to “How Not to Be Funny in Fiction by Harrison Demchick”

  1. Great post. I find Johanna Lindsey does humour well with her Malory family, probably because it comes from the characters, who are behaving naturally.

    William Murdoch can be funny in Maureen Jennings’s Murdoch Mysteries, because William is so straight-laced, and he gets this priceless thought in his head, which makes the reader laugh.

    One author is a romance writer, the other a mystery writer. Both have a knack to bringing humour to a scene naturally.

    For me, I find it starts with the character. William is stuffy, while James Malory is blunt and cheeky.

    Posted by Mercy | August 19, 2016, 10:10 am
    • That’s definitely going to be part of it. I find that grounding humor in character brings to it weight and depth that transcend simply being funny. In this way you can develop character *and* advance story *and* be funny simultaneously–and the most effective writing in fiction is that which works at once on multiple levels.

      Thanks for reading, Mercy!

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | August 19, 2016, 11:10 am
  2. My favorite humorous romance writer is Jennifer Crusie, without a doubt. I’ve read lots of books in all genres that have made me laugh, but with Crusie books I embarrass myself by laughing out loud.

    I love the silliness of P.G. Wodehouse books, although there’s a limit how much I can take of those.

    In the mystery genre, Spencer Quinn’s books come to mind – they feature a dog, and he gets the dog’s thoughts so right (based on my own experiences with dogs) that they make me laugh.

    When it comes to writing humor, that is soooo hard. Sometimes after writing a really dark scene I’ll react by writing something funny/goofy. And then I end up with this weird bouncy vibe. Besides, I’d never make it in stand-up comedy!

    Thanks for joining us, Harrison – great post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 19, 2016, 11:06 am
    • Thanks for having me, Becke!

      The instinct to lighten the mood after a dark, dramatic scene definitely isn’t a bad one. Odds are it’s a matter of extremes. The situation may call for something gently lighthearted versus off-the-wall or silly. I’m editing a novel right now that nails this in one particular scene, following a period of tension with an entertaining, awkward character moment that follows naturally from the previous exchange. It feels appropriate to the situation and it relieves some of the tension at just the right time. If the author had pushed it any farther, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

      Posted by Harrison Demchick | August 19, 2016, 11:29 am
  3. Hi Harrison!

    Writing humor is so hard. What I find humorous may seem just weird to others. You made a good point about not sacrificing character for humor. I can appreciate a funny line or comedic situation, but humor should be used judiciously as it interferes (at least for me) pacing.

    I’m a fan of witty humor, like Thurber. I also like Bill Bryson and A.A. Gill.

    Great to have you back!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 19, 2016, 2:44 pm
  4. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today, Harrison! Come back again soon!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 20, 2016, 5:34 am
  5. Another tip — don’t have your characters laugh hysterically in reaction to a joke. I’ve read humor that was amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. When the characters laugh so hard they fall on the floor or start crying, it makes the joke less funny, because I’m busy thinking, It’s not *that* funny, instead of sharing a chuckle with them. I guess this is also an example of show, don’t tell. If the joke is funny, let your reader laugh. Don’t have your characters laugh to prove the joke was funny.

    Posted by Kris Bock | August 22, 2016, 6:37 pm
  6. I think Mary Janice Davidson does some hilarious comedy in her books. Meanwhile, the hardest thing when it comes to writing it myself always seems like pacing. Pacing a plot is hard. Pacing a joke? By the end of it the joke’s not even funny to you anymore.

    Posted by Patricia Eimer | August 28, 2016, 12:54 pm
  7. When does humor become goofy? I like silly names and situations, but wonder if it comes across as nonsensical. Example: the Valentine Vacuum cleaner company has a slogan, “Suck it up!” Too much?

    Posted by Kathleen Day | December 19, 2016, 3:03 pm


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