How to Write Humorous Dialogue
If you’re a writer who wishes to tell funny stories about your characters, writing humorous dialogue is an unavoidable challenge. Whether or not your work is deemed funny or not will, of course, be a matter of opinion, but there are nevertheless a few steps that can be taken to ensure your dialogue is, at least in part, amusing.
Most writers accept dialogue itself for the particular skill that is: a means of establishing conversations which not just feels natural, but also adds an extra dimension to the way we can interpret characters’ thoughts, feelings and emotions. Dialogue serves to further a story in ways that mere prose cannot by offering a window into characters’ minds. Dialogue should seek to help the reader understand characters’ roles in the story.
Making your dialogue humorous, however, adds another layer of complexity to what is already quite a difficult job, and is not one that should be taken lightly unless you are absolutely sure humour is appropriate in the context of your piece. Too much levity can sometimes cheapen serious-minded works, while too little can make your plot as dull as dishwater. Therefore, humour can indeed be a quality which elevates your work, if it’s done well, so learning how to use it can take time and practice.
Whilst accepting it is not exactly a skill which comes naturally to all writers, there are the three steps that I’ve deemed the most important factors in writing funny dialogue.
1. Build conversations around an inter-character dynamic
Dialogue comes easiest when there is a dynamic at play between your characters. There’s a reason why so many British comedy sketches are set in shops—the customer wants something that the shopkeeper is willing to sell—because that immediately establishes a dynamic and the audience can easily understand why humour would spring from it.
In fiction, this is built around the same understanding—your characters should only be sharing conversations with others who they have a particular dynamic with. If there is trust, such as with close family members, conversations would occur in confidence, so humour may arise from the perspective of the mentor (who perhaps is not as wise as their relative thinks they are).
Or perhaps the dynamic is based upon power—maybe one character is in some way subservient to the other (the boss versus the employee) and the humorous dialogue springs from their disgruntlement or dissatisfaction. Maybe the boss enjoys exerting control over the employee in humorous ways, or maybe they are foolish enough not to understand the passive aggressive but humorous comments their employee makes to subtly undermine them.
You could even make the power dynamic less obvious, such as in situations where characters become blinded by admiration. You see this a lot in school-based stories, where the gang of bullies are usually in thrall to an individual ringleader (e.g. Flashman in Tom Brown’s School Days, Draco’s gang in Harry Potter), to the point where dialogue could portray the gang’s lackeys as unthinking, bumbling and incompetent. Either way, this gives you some idea of how character dynamics can lay the soil from which your dialogue can blossom.
2. Begin a verbal tennis match and establish repartee
Perhaps the hardest part of writing humorous dialogue is creating what is very much akin to a verbal tennis match. The best examples of humorous dialogue involve a to-ing and fro-ing of verbal exchange between characters which can be seen in sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses. Building upon the inter-character dynamic we explored in point one, the way Del Boy and Rodney continually pick holes in each other’s comments, one after the other, and how comic one-liners continually feed off each other best exemplifies this.
In the famous episode ‘To Hull and Back’ in which Del Boy and Rodney are lost at sea—thanks to their discovery that their Uncle Albert isn’t as proficient a seaman as they thought he was—you’ll see in the exchange below how Del picks up on Rodney’s comment, but humorously re-interprets his choice of phrase to express his dissatisfaction with Uncle Albert’s seamanship:
RODNEY: He’s something else ain’t he? And what about all the currents they got round here, eh? We could have drifted anywhere by now.
DEL: Yes he’s right an’ all, ain’t he? We’re in the middle of the North Sea ain’t we? It’s got more currents than a hot-cross bun.
Only Fools and Horses / ‘To Hull and Back’ by John Sullivan
When it comes to writing humorous fiction, you should aim to do the same thing as the above with your dialogue. That same comic principle applies to developing conversations like a verbal tennis match—funny dialogue between characters should be repartee of thrust and parry, resorting to wit in a never-ending battle of over-emphasis, under-emphasis and de-emphasis. Humour should naturally arise from seeing your characters embrace this verbal contest with comic abandon.
3. Keep it real and make it colloquial
Humorous dialogue is useless if it isn’t relatable in some way; comic observation alone won’t save it, so it needs to feel like it could genuinely be uttered from someone’s lips. The use of insults are perhaps the purest example of this. There’s nothing a reader likes more than a series of insults to best evoke your characters’ state of minds in a humorous way:
“You blithering idiot! … You festering gumboil! You fleabitten fungus! … You bursting blister! You moth-eaten maggot!”
Matilda by Roald Dahl
There are other methods, however, to conjure humour from dialogue in a way which feels like someone would actually say it. Most of this involves embracing colloquialisms—this means you should write dialogue the way you would speak it yourself. Try reading aloud what you’ve written and if it sounds like someone would say it exactly the same way then that should be a good barometer for you.
The use of colloquial language can extend to using words such as ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘isn’t’—this gives you a clear idea of how your dialogue can be very different from prose. Using slang and euphemisms also offers a pathway to funny dialogue, largely in how it ventures into clever wordplay. The famous Two Ronnies ‘fork handles’ sketch is a great example of this: one thinks he’s saying ‘four candles’ but the other is saying ‘fork ’andles’—dropping an ‘h’ in colloquial speech is what leads to this humorous misunderstanding.
Having said all this, the painful truth is that you’re either a funny writer, or you’re not, but don’t let this put you off. Not all humour is intended to provoke laughter, but there still has to be a kernel of comic insight in order for your writing to work in your favour. So long as you feel it has the stirrings of something humorous, then that should be enough for you to work with, and learn from.
In real life, as in fiction, some people are naturally funny individuals, while others are less so. It’s unavoidable that this truism can also apply to writers, but unless you try writing humorous dialogue, you won’t get better at it. After all, the fact that comedy joke writers exist should remind us that writing humorous dialogue is also a skill, just like writing itself, which can be learnt and honed.
© 2019 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.