The Four Laws of Writing Humor

One of the most frequent questions we get here at Failbetter HQ is ‘How do I write something funny?’ Since we’re a journal and not an advice column, we’ve never responded…until now.

Why now? I don’t know. Why anything? Why do people have two arms instead of four? Why bother getting up in the morning?

Writing humor is a bit like getting a date for Friday night…unpleasant when forced, but if coaxed with the proper tools, feasible at least. We’ve worked up a list of what we call THE FOUR LAWS OF HUMOR that we absolutely 100% guarantee will put you on the path to eliciting giggles if not guffaws from your readers in no time at all.

THE FIRST LAW: Observe and Report

Observational humor is maybe the easiest type to master. Learn to key into the mundane and commonplace. Can you find a new angle on some shared experience that each and every one of your readers will be familiar with? Can you expose a truth about daily life that’ll have them howling? Here’s an example. I’m looking around the room I’m sitting in right now, and across from me is this big old recliner that I’ve had since college. You’ve probably got one just like it, that you hardly think about, right? I’m looking at this recliner, and I’m thinking, here’s a chair that leans way back and has a footrest…so maybe you might say something like, Hey, make up your mind! Do you wanna sit or lay down? Or maybe you might say something like, why does a chair seem so small when you’re sitting in it and your wife is nagging you to lose weight and so huge when she’s gone and you’re sitting there thinking you should turn the lights on because it’s depressing to sit in the dark but you’re too tired to get up and then you do get up to turn the light on only to realize that it’s been on the whole time, that the darkness is coming from inside of you?

THE SECOND LAW: Use Metaphor and Simile

A snappy metaphor or simile can brighten up a sentence faster than Paxil brightens my mood.

Instead of writing, ‘The room was empty’ try something like ‘the room was as empty as he felt inside.’ Instead of writing, ‘He was tall,’ try ‘He was tall as the Rocky Mountains that my wife and her new lover had a nice view of from their fancy cabin.’

THE THIRD LAW: Be Incongruous and Use Juxtapositions

Incongruity and juxtapositions make your reader’s brain go ‘say whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?’ Examples include a tiny baby lifting a huge boulder, a turtle smoking a pipe, or someone vowing ‘till death do us part’ and then taking off with another man long before either you or she is dead.


Humor works best when breaking the rules, blasting taboos and boundaries. I’m not sure why this is, though. I mean, I’m someone who played by the rules. Always did well in school, and after school I got a job and met a woman and asked her to marry me and we bought a house with a yard and planned on starting a family. All the American dream stuff, step-by-step, towing the line. But what’s it got me? Nothing. A house I can’t afford without Jen around to share the mortgage and bills. Maybe if I’d been more cutthroat at the office I could have moved up the ranks a little faster, made a little more money. More money would mean stability. But I thought, tow the line, work hard, they’ll notice. The bosses will see you’re someone they can depend on, and it’ll all pay off. Jen, when she left, she said it wasn’t about the money. Yeah, that’s what she said, but who’d she ditch me to shack up with? Some guy who got rich designing apps, has a place in San Diego, has a place in the mountains…that’s kind of funny, I guess. Yeah, Jen went there. Went all the way. Broke a vow, went outside our marriage by sleeping with whats-his-name while we were still together. That counts as blasting a taboo, I suppose. Yeah, I see how that’s funny. Makes me want to laugh. I will. I’ll laugh. As soon as I remember how.