I am currently working on a revision of a novel. It’s a fairly humorous piece and someone pointed out to me recently that humor works best when the punch is saved for the end.
I wasn’t completely convinced, but I thought I should at least give it a try. As I worked on it, I started noticing this technique in books and movies. Once I started looking for it, it cropped up all over the place.
Humor (or really any kind of emphasis) works best when you save the punch for the end.
For example, in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, the first two paragraphs read like this:
Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show—it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.
Cimorene hated it.
By putting “Cimorene hated it” at the end, that line gets the emphasis. It gives the whole thing a humorous tone. But imagine if Wrede had switched things and written something like:
Cimorene hated where she lived. Linderwall was a large kingdom…All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.
That doesn’t work nearly as well. It doesn’t have nearly the same effect as the actual beginning of the book. Plus, in this version, the emphasis would be placed on Linderwall rather than on Cimorene. The main character gets lost.
In the book Space Case, Stuart Gibbs uses that technique with individual sentences:
Living in Moon Base Alpha is like living in a giant tin can built by government contractors.
That sentence is a lot more amusing than if Gibbs had reversed it and written something like:
If government contractors had built a giant tin can it would be like living in Moon Base Alpha.
Or a few paragraphs later, while talking about the moon-base toilets:
In zero gravity, you have to take extreme precautions to ensure that that whatever comes out of your body doesn’t fly up into your face.
Ew, yes. But also funny. By placing the punch at the end, Gibbs amps up the humor instead of letting the funniness get lost in the sentence.
While I’m not an expert at this, something simple like rearranging sentences to shift the emphasis has really helped me achieve the affect I want in my scenes. Even when I’m writing about something like traveling facial hair.
What tips do you have for writing humor? What are some of your favorite humorous books?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.