Basic Tips for writing humor

1- The worst case scenario rule.
Never give into the temptation of making life easy for your characters. The worst of disgraces must fall upon them in the worst possible way, without remedy. Only at that point should you ask yourself what the funniest way to solve that situation is.

2- The plot itself should be humorous.

This is the hardest part. It is what takes true comedies apart from the “slightly humorous” books. The premise of the plot should be funny per se.

3- Situations should be original and… well, funny.

Intensity should vary, of course, to give the reader a break. Going back to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: What if… humans were not the only ones experimenting on animals in the name of science? What if mice were experimenting on human beings? What if… the answer to the life, the universe and everything is the number 42?

4- Pick a funny fact to repeat.

Repetition is one of the most effective ways of making comedy. Readers look after that moment in which they know the main character will do something familiar, something they have read before but that is always funny. That is the base of TV comedy; the more you know the characters the funnier it gets when they do what we already know they will do. Take as an example how Sheldon reacts whenever somebody takes his spot on the couch in The Big Bang Theory.

5- The characters have to be funny.
By their own merits or by contrast. It is the most used comic resource and there are tons of examples. Going back to Master Douglas Adams, I believe that Marvin the paranoid android is one of fictional comedy’s greatest assets:

“- Let’s go – he said in monotone-. I have been commanded to take you to the bridge. Here I am, with a brain the size of a planet, being asked to take you to the bridge. Would you call this a satisfactory job? I would not.”

“- I’m sorry, did I say something wrong? – Said Marvin while walking slowly and with indifference -. Pardon me for breathing, which never do anyway, so I don’t know why bother to say it. Oh, God, I’m so depressed! There it is another one of those self-centered doors. Oh, life! Don’t talk to me about life.”

6- Do not let the pace decline (at least not too much)
It is true that you cannot go full-speed all the time but the “comedy pace” is usually soft. Whenever you need to slow down the pace you can intertwine humorous phrases with comic descriptions and dialogue.

7- Play with words.

Language is your tool and it can be comic on itself. You can use word play, surprises, sarcasm, exaggeration, double entendres, and veiled references. For example:

  • I got the flu once. It was awful. I could not eat anything for almost three hours.

One would expect to read: “I could not eat anything for almost three days”. But we get surprised by the word “hours”, which is also an exaggeration and funny by itself. But wait, make these words come out of an obese person’s mouth and it becomes self-criticism: Three for the price of one.

Need help finding words? Use the following resources:


8- Make use of life experience.
Taken from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy too: The Vogons have invented a unique kind of torture. They read out loud their newly written poetry to their victims. It is unbearable. I have been to improvised poetry jams and I laughed out loud while reading this. Douglas Adams wrote that for people like me, who have attended poetry jams and (most probably) shared his reaction to them. Not everybody will appreciate that kind of humor and that is fine. Not everyone will be appreciative of every line you write as well. And it is necessary to accept that.


9- Learn from the Masters.
Do not over explain. Do not try to justify a joke, just let it go. You do not even need a reaction from the rest of your characters. Some readers will get the joke and some others will not but the ones who do will find it very funny, for sure.


10- Warnings.
Humor needs context. Much of what makes us laugh depends on our experience, education, age and gender. That is why some people find The Monty Python, Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy funny and some others do not.


b. Can you withstand the pressure? Not everybody will look at your kind of humor with sympathy, especially when talking about satire. In fact, many people might get upset if they feel you are making fun of something they value. There is a fine line between humor and offense. It is a blurry and slippery line that you will notice only after having crossed it. Stand-up comedians do it often and throw themselves into the void when confronting people from the audience. If you will write humor you have to be able to withstand the heat after going a bit too far.

This is an introduction to comic novel writing.

What are “false friends”?

False friends are words from different languages that have a very similar form (morphology), but which have very different meanings.

False friends are often used in translations made by amateurs or by people with little education or experience in the field. It’s common to find them in literal translations where whoever is translating gets carried away by the form of the word (morphology), and doesn’t research the meaning of the two words in each language (semantics). This leads to inexact communication.


If the readers don’t know the mistranslated word’s original language, they don’t have the tools to detect the error. As a result, the bad translations – present in both books published by publishing houses and newspapers – irremediably become general knowledge, and a lot of people mistakenly adopt a false friend for expressing a concept.


The problem is worse when the false friend manages to be introduced in a community of speakers in a specific class. For example, a group of researchers, a college, professors in a faculty, and professionals in an area… Then, in no time, the members of that community are using a false friend when talking to each other, and they all seem to understand the meaning of the false friend. They ask philologists why it is necessary to correct it if they all understand it.


My answer is always halfway between respect for the rule, and good communication: a false friend, usually, is the result of human mistake; this mistake can only become general knowledge if people involved in the media don’t correct it in time. If we’re part of the media (whether we’re editors, publishers, style correctors or writers of any kind, journalists included), our profession requires us to use words responsibly. It’s sad when a non-specialized reader uses a bad translation in a recognized publication to back and legitimize the use of a false friend.


On the other hand, if we find a community of speakers where a false friend has been introduced without warning, it’s always good to rectify its meaning, even if it’s done slowly. If we want our language to change, it has to be done properly: it should be because speakers are adapting to new communication needs, and not because of the inevitable and unconscious introduction of mistakes that weren’t corrected in time.


Recommended readings

To expand upon the topic of false friends, I recommend reading the entry for “false friends” in José Martínez de Sousa’s Dictionary of Redaction and Style (2003), where he explains the origin of the term and proposes alternatives for its name.

False friends: “facilities” are not “facilidades”

In the tourism field, there’s a false friend that’s infiltrated into all kinds of texts: using ‘facilidades’ when meaning ‘facilities’.


This use has been so generalized that it’s even found in careless translations done by prestigious publishing houses (I know at least one case with a Mexican publishing house whose name I won’t mention), and in all kinds of informative documents like brochures, posters and websites.


For example, a poster at a national park in Costa Rica says the following: “Servicios y facilidades.” Under this section are listed, among others, the following points: “Nine different trails, suspension bridge, guided walks, lodging with amenities to accommodate 47 people.” In the same poster, you can find the English translation of this information. There, the title is “Services and facilities”.


This is a clear example of a false friend where ‘facilities’ can’t be translated as ‘facilidades’. We’ll now see why.

If we’re editing a book about tourism, it’s our responsibility to properly translate the terms and to correct our authors when, once the false friend has become popular, they keep writing ‘facilidades’ when talking about facilities and services. A generalized translation error is not an excuse to endorse the use of a false friend when there are correct and viable alternatives in our target language.


The difficult task of learning to read and write

Reading is one of the most important tools for adapting to the social and educational contexts. A failure in learning this will quickly generate a series of negative effects on the child, like a negative attitude, grade repetition, dropout and, ultimately, the association of learning with anguish and a feeling of incompetency with regard to a task.

Speaking is made of sounds; these sounds are called phonemes, and are classified in consonants, vowels, consonant clusters and diphthongs.

Learning to read and write requests that one have the cognitive resources that will help them associate in their mind the sound, or phoneme, with the corresponding graphic or visual symbol, called grapheme. This implies that the person can recognize the letters and groups of letters, so that they can understand what that word means.

However, this process that seems so trivial and that is carried out almost automatically, is the cause of much grief and difficulties for some children.

There is a group of difficulties in the development of language that are not sufficiently explained by impaired auditory perception or a faulty phono-articulatory apparatus, nor by intellectual retardation or other psycho-patological disorders and socio-emotional deprivation. These disorders are grouped under the name “specific developmental language disorder” (SDLD) and are subject to different clinical procedures, depending on the level to which the phonological, syntactical and lexical capacities are affected, with regard to comprehension and expression. These can, in turn, be associated with communication disorders (autism) or with a background of learning disorders, like dyslexia or dysorthographia.

The dyslexic-dysorthographic child is biologically different, because he has a special genetic component that formed his perception of the world before any formal learning did. According to recent studies, the origin of this is in the brain, so he is different from birth; therefore, when the time comes to teach him how to read, he has already interacted with his environment differently than the others. From the first words, his mother tongue has been perceived by his brain in a different way. From the first contacts with his visual environment, the image that he makes in his mind about the surrounding world and his perceptions about time and space are different, too.

The development of neuropsychology allowed us to discover that the brain of a child, as well as that of an adult, is organized in a modular way; that is to say, it consists of interconnected networks, each one commanding a different part of the intellectual process. The well-functioning of each of these networks can be damaged in at least two ways: either by suffering a lesion, an injury close to a cerebral area (like, for instance, a serious head trauma), or due to the fact that the respective area has developed incorrectly from the first moments of life in-womb, or from birth.

In both cases, the consequences are usually the same. When the damaged networks need to be used for an intricate activity like reading, the person faces specific reading difficulties, thus matching the general term of dyslexia. When dyslexia appears at an adult who has previously learnt how to read properly, it is called acquired dyslexia (or alexia). But when the condition is present before reaching the age appropriate for learning how to read, then it is the learning that will be perturbed, so then we talk about developmental dyslexia.


What happens in the brain of a dyslexic child?

The human brain consists in two hemispheres – right and left – that communicate with each other through a structure that acts as a bridge between them, called corpus callosum (the colossal commissure).

Each hemisphere specializes in several functions. The left hemisphere controls the language processes, while the right one handles processes concerning visual and spatial information.

The two cerebral hemispheres function differently; the left one processes the information sequentially, some data after the other, while the other one does this simultaneously – that is, a great amount of data at the same time.

In reading, the two types of strategies are combined in order to manage the information. However, when it comes to dyslexic children, the dysfunction or failure of the left hemisphere affects the information processing speed, which makes it difficult for the child to be able to process rapid changes of successive stimuli, both in the auditive and in the visual area.

A report written by Kaufman and Galaburda in 1989 thoroughly display the evidence of anatomical and functional abnormalities in dyslexia. There, the authors prove that in the brain of the dyslexic, there are specific abnormalities of the cerebral cortex, as well as different asymmetries in the parietal, temporal and frontal lobes, and an abnormal metabolism in the right cerebellum. (Figure 12)

Since dyslexia is primarily a learning problem, the characteristic personality will stand out in the classroom either by shyness and seclusion, or by a disruptive behaviour, talking, fighting, not working, as ways to achieve the acknowledgement that he or she cannot obtain through his school performance.


Exercises that can help you study

Breathing exercises

They can be done at night, before going to bed, while standing up and having relaxed muscles. You have to close your eyes, try to clear your mind, and inhale and exhale slowly, keeping the air inside your lungs for a few seconds. This exercise lasts about 5 minutes.

Relaxation exercises

Lie down on your bed or on a rug and close your eyes, taking deep breaths and releasing air slowly, trying to clear your mind. You need to tense and relax all your muscles, one by one, starting with your feet.

Stretch the tips of your toes, as if you were to stand on them, keeping this position for about 10 seconds, and then relax by putting them in their normal position.

Then, try to use your toes to point up, tensing your leg and keeping this position for about 10 seconds, and then relax again.

Now you move to the knees, flexing your legs, putting your calves and thighs together, making pressure (another 10 seconds), and then back to the normal position.

Next, work on the whole leg, stretching the most you can, holding it for 10 seconds, and then going back to your normal position.

Keep working your body up, tensing and relaxing the different muscles (belly, chest, back, arm, hand, neck, mouth, eyes, etc.).

To get more information, you can consult your counselor.

Only study when you are not tired

When you’re too tired, you are not very efficient, so continuing studying is a waste of time (the mind barely assimilates it).

The student has to respect sleeping times.

Sleeping hours (minimum 7, preferably 8) are “sacred”. You can’t sacrifice yourself thinking that you don’t need much sleep and that you can stay up and study more, because in the end, this will cost you.

The student starts getting tired, and intellectual performance is considerably reduced.

When you don’t have exams, you can use the weekends mostly to get some rest and do some leisure activities.

However, when you have exams, you need to find the strength to give up on these other more pleasurable activities, and focus on studies.

It’s only a few weekends a year, so this sacrifice is easy to make. You’ll soon get other Saturdays and Sundays to enjoy.

It’s good to do complementary activities (sports, languages, music or anything else), and not focus exclusively on studies.

This lets you disconnect and find other incentives, which helps your mind be “fresh” for when you have to work.

These activities should be complementary, so you have to do them with a certain level of relaxation, trying not to turn them into an obligation for the student.

These activities can be done both on weekends and during the week, as long as they’re not incompatible with the study plan. It’s just a matter of organization.

Lastly, we need to say that it’s good for the student to learn some relaxation exercises, something that can help him lose tension, especially during exams.

Breaks during study time

During study time (those 2 or 3 hours a day), you have to take regular breaks to clear your mind and get strength for the next “round”.

Each hour, you can take a brief 5-minute break.

There are students who don’t make these brief stops, thinking they’re using most of their time wisely, but they don’t get what they expect. Without noticing, they start getting tired, and their performance decreases.

We need to use these brief breaks to go out of the room and stretch our legs.

We can do something relaxing (walking around the house, peeking through the window, chatting with a sibling or classmate, watering the plants, etc.), or something that demands low mental effort.

We need to avoid doing something we especially like (for example, watching part of a game that’s on TV), because then it would be difficult to go back to work.

The student has to be really strict about his breaks, not even going one minute over what was established.

If during the work session, you feel like you’re too tired, or you are not very efficient, it’s best to stop, even if you haven’t completed your study hours. If you feel fresher later, you can continue your work. But if you don’t, you can make up for the lost hours another day. You shouldn’t strain your mind.