Understanding Comedic Devices
If you feel the urge to write something humorous but aren’t quite sure if you’re funny enough, you might find you hit a wall of self-doubt before you even begin. Isn’t the prerequisite for all humorous fiction to make the reader laugh? What if people don’t find your attempts at ‘comedy’ amusing? Should you learn how to become a comedian before you start writing just to make it easier on yourself? After all, how hard can that be? Well, very hard, as it happens…
The truth is, not every writer is well-suited to writing jokes, punchlines, or gags, but that doesn’t mean you should let fear take over and steer clear of comedic elements altogether. Humour comes in many different guises, and ‘funny’ is in the eye of the beholder. Once you accept this, you can unburden yourself from the pressure of being laugh-out-loud funny—this is the only way to break through that uncertainty barrier so you can learn how to endow your story with some comedic qualities, however subtle they might be.
To face down this challenge, understanding the different comedic elements will offer you a way in. Here are some devices to get you started.
An overstatement—otherwise known as hyperbole—uses extreme exaggeration for humorous effect. It is usually found in an everyday figure of speech which over-emphasises a point that would normally be considered less significant. This inflates the importance of what is being said so it appears somewhat more ridiculous, for example: “I nearly died laughing.”
An understatement, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, does the opposite to an overstatement, in that it is used to underemphasise a point which you would normally expect to be more significant. It tends to get most of its humour through ironic context, with a famous example being the scene in which the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail has each of his limbs cut off but says, “It’s just a flesh wound!”
Juxtaposition finds its humour by placing two seemingly incongruous elements together in order to make an amusing comparison. Very often, it conveys a sense of irony by offering up seemingly contrary associations to humorous effect, as demonstrated by much of Ambrose’s Bierce’s work in The Devil’s Dictionary, including: “Love, noun. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
Repetition is one of the most vital ingredients in humour. From catchphrases to call-backs, it’s not easy for writers to master, but the general principle is if you repeat something often enough—a word or a phrase—eventually it will become funny. For example, if a character keeps being asked the same question by each person he or she meets in your story, over and over again, their eventual exasperation can be exploited for comic effect, all thanks to repetition.
We all love a good pun, as I’m sure most tabloid journalists would agree, but in literary fiction it’s hard to use them in any other context than a deliberate joke. By making your character crack a joke to a friend, perhaps, or simply having them play on the similarity of words, there are some who may find levity through this device, like someone saying, “What’s it called when a duck’s afraid of spiders? Aquacknaphobia.”
5. Double Entendre
As a kind of pun, of sorts, a double entendre is a word or phrase which initially has a relatively innocent meaning but its ambiguity lends itself to a more risqué interpretation. The resulting humour stems from sexual innuendo, insinuating some kind of lewd connotation which may or may not exist, for example: “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”
Any subject which is deemed taboo, or socially frowned upon, is ripe for humour. Sex, death, religion, bodily functions—anything which makes people feel uncomfortable can be rendered humorous if you can highlight something disarming about a controversial topic and hit upon a truth people will recognise, in spite of how uneasy it makes them feel.
8. Mistaken Identity
The comedic device of ‘mistaken identity’ has been a mainstay in humorous writing for centuries—it is used to place a character in a situation where they are wrongly identified by others, and for whatever reason they fail to correct this misconception. False assumptions will often follow, lending itself to farce, which can lead to much hilarity if executed well.
With the above comedic devices in play, a writer should be able to identify topics, perspectives, or even methods, which lend themselves to humour. How funnily this is executed, in a sense, is irrelevant. You should only be aiming for a knowing smile, not a belly-laugh. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. If you regard comedy, therefore, as a mere affectation, then as long as the reader can detect a whiff of a comedic element, your job is done, irrespective of how funny it actually ends up. If people don’t get it, well, that’s not your problem—it’s theirs.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.