What I Learned About Humor at the Boldface 2016 Conference

This article is a continuation of the series: Some things I learned at Boldface 2016 about writing Fiction

Today’s focus is what I learned about humor in writing.

At the conference, I went to a discussion on using humor in fiction. Although these techniques can work in pretty much any genre of writing.

Here are a few things I learned about humor:

We take standup comedians at their words. We believe everything they’re saying, even when they exaggerate.

Standup comedians are excellent storytellers. They create a world, a backstory, a setup, a climax and a conclusion all within minutes. And the good comedians have you believing it, even if they’ve got koalas climbing around their living rooms or squirrels who forget they left the gas on. Study your favorite comedians and notice how they set up the world before they give you the punchline. Map out what techniques they use, their rhythms and their setting.

Comedic writers use certain techniques to make their audience laugh.

This is obvious. But what techniques do they use? Timing is a huge one. You’ve probably heard that before. Take your favorite comedians or your favorite comedic writers and notice how they use timing in their work. When is the audience already ahead of the joke based on selective detail given? When is the audience surprised?

They also use misdirection and incongruity to surprise their audience. When someone is surprised or left off guard, often the reaction is laughter. When your reader is ahead of you on the punchline, switch the obvious punchline for a different one. What is the most unexpected thing a character can do that goes against his defining characteristics?

How can you practice with humor in your writing?

  1. Play with words. Don’t worry about logic or order. Just play around with sounds and silliness, like a child. This might lead you to some surprising and funny places.
  2. Expose yourself. Hopefully not in an illegal way. Nothing is off limits. Show off your insecurities and your sensitivities. Make yourself the butt of the joke.
  3. Become involved. Immerse yourself in comedy. Watch your favorite sitcoms, funny movies and stand up comedians. Listen to comedy radio and podcasts. Read funny stories and articles. Surround yourself with funny people. Eventually, you’ll start speaking the language of humor.

I will share more that I’ve learned at Boldface throughout this week. Check back here for tips about, nonfiction, using other art forms in your writing, and using time as a framework in your fiction.


Watch your favorite stand up comedy or funny tv show/movie. What techniques do you see used? What trends are you finding? How are setting and character used to convey humor?

Suggested Reading:

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

The Private Life of Genghis Khan by Douglas Adams

Tenth of December by George Saunders



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