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.