The use of inherently funny topics and words, at least one person, a little exaggeration and a touch of curiosity and danger: these are just some of the essential ingredients for successful humourous writing, says Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.
In an essay very similar to a post he wrote almost four years ago (previously), Adams tells us an amusing story about sex and French fries before dissecting it and explaining how to “write like a cartoonist” (i.e. with humour):
The topic is the thing. Eighty percent of successful humor writing is picking a topic that is funny by its very nature. My story above is true, up until the exaggeration about the French fry in the sinus cavity. You probably assumed it was true, and that knowledge made it funnier.
Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy. I picked the French-fry story specifically because it is too risqué for The Wall Street Journal. You can’t read it without wondering if I had an awkward conversation with my editor. […]
Humor is about people. It’s impossible to write humor about a concept or an object. All humor involves how people think and act. Sometimes you can finesse that limitation by having your characters think and act in selfish, stupid or potentially harmful ways around the concept or object that you want your reader to focus on.
Exaggerate wisely. If you anchor your story in the familiar, your readers will follow you on a humorous exaggeration, especially if you build up to it. […]
Let the reader do some work. Humor works best when the reader has to connect some dots. […] The smarter your audience, the wider you can spread the dots. […]
Animals are funny. It’s a cheap trick, but animal analogies are generally funny. It was funnier that I said, “my cheeks went all chipmunk-like” than if I had said my cheeks puffed out.
Use funny words. I referred to my two schoolmates and myself as a troika because the word itself is funny. With humor, you never say “pull” when you can say “yank.” Some words are simply funnier than others, and you know the funny ones when you see them. (Pop Quiz: Which word is funnier, observe or stalk?)
Curiosity. Good writing makes you curious without being too heavy-handed about it. My first sentence in this piece, about the French fry lodged in my sinus cavity, is designed to make you curious. It also sets the tone right away.
Endings. A simple and classic way to end humorous writing is with a call-back. That means making a clever association to something especially humorous and notable from the body of your work. I would give you an example of that now, but I’m still having concentration issues from the French fry.