Turtle catching frisbee

A smiling reader turns the page. Somebody said that once. I’m pretty sure I’m not the first. But it’s true. If you’re making your reader smile, they’re likely to stick with you.

Like any form of writing, humor takes practice. What’s funny in conversation doesn’t always translate well to the page. Here are 10 pitfalls to avoid when trying to amuse your reader.

  1. All About You

I’m sure you’re wildly interesting, but your story should be varied enough that it’s not entirely about you. Introduce other characters; show conflict. The funniest of autobiographies tell stories that involve diverse casts. Other characters are still connected to the narrator, but allow for a shift in focus from time to time.

  1. Mean

It’s okay to make fun of other people in your writing, but not so much that you end up coming across as an asshole. No one wants to read a book by an asshole. Embarrass yourself the most. If you poke fun at others, make sure you bring the story around so that ultimately, the joke is on you.

  1. Overselling the Punch Line

Give your reader credit. She’s probably smarter than you think. Construct your punch line, place it well, and then leave it alone. Don’t keep hammering it home, because you risk losing the audience. As well, resist the urge to tell the reader it’s coming.

  1. Chronology

Your story need not be told in the order that it occurred. If there’s a beginning, conflict, precarious situation, and punch line/resolution, consider starting out with the precarious situation. Then back up to set the stage and explain how the situation came to be, followed by the punch line/resolution.

  1. Telling the Reader What’s Funny

Avoid the words: funny, hilarious, laugh-out-loud, amusing, et al. It’s like watching a movie with someone perched at your shoulder telling you how the next part is so good. Nobody likes that.

  1. Lack of Dialogue

Good dialogue is one of the most effective ways to communicate humor as well as character. I could tell you that my eight-year-old is morbid and sugar-crazed. Or I could show you through dialogue:

“Mom, do you know what a sad old man could do if he didn’t want to live anymore?” Ivy asked.

“Um… what?”

“He could just fall off the back of a boat and not swim.” She smiled, as if pleased with herself for solving a common problem. “Also, can I have a doughnut?”

  1. Predictable

Misdirection is key. Your reader should not know where the story is headed. If it feels predictable, it might not be the ending that needs to change, but the beginning. Set the stage differently and the conclusion will feel fresh again.

  1. What’s the Point?

Writing humor is not about knock-knock jokes. What is the point? Are you using humor to reveal insight on an issue? Does your character change in some way as a result? Aside from making the reader laugh, what is it that you want to communicate?

  1. Sloppy Style

Though you want to avoid predictability in your story, your style of writing and humor should remain consistent. If your first two chapters are funny, but readers feels like those chapters could have been written by two different people, you lose a chance to endear yourself to them. Find your voice and style and stay in character.

  1. Failed Sarcasm

Not only does sarcasm sometimes fail to translate to the page, but too much of it comes across as strictly snark. Use sarcasm sparingly and make sure it reads as you intend it to. Test readers are invaluable at letting you know when you’ve gone too far or missed the mark altogether.

Writing humor is not about being funny on demand. It’s practice and revision and revision and revision. The good news is that if you succeed in making a reader laugh, you’re likely to have gained a fan for life.

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