Did you hear the one about the hen at the hectic intersection? Yawn. The only thing funny about a well-worn comic moment is someone thinking it’s funny. But genuinely “funny”? That matters. It doesn’t just give novels depth and texture beyond basic plot and theme. Humor makes novels better simply because everybody likes to laugh. And private jokes are the best of all.
So. Take a second to picture yourself with a spouse, partner, or dear friend roaring with laughter over—something hilarious only to the two of you. This is a special kind of funny. Whether slapstick, witty, subtle, or all of the above, it feels personal. No one else quite gets it. That’s the point.
Personal humor (or anything else for that matter) is special. It feels slightly illicit, which most of us find sensual. A private joke involves a clique, if only of two, so it’s exclusive. In-group humor depends on insider information and is thus a commodity. All great, but can you do that in your novel? Of course.
~ Set the scene.
Bad jokes inundate with context. Decent jokes offer almost enough. Great jokes hint what the audience needs to know, preferably in advance and just clearly enough to command attention without being obvious.
~ Plant seeds.
Good jokes, in fiction and everywhere else, build slowly, often in three’s: A vague reference, a slightly more pointed one, then—whomp!—the punchline.
~ Use slightly esoteric references.
If you never ask readers to stretch for dim recollections about Paul Bunyan, Walter Cronkite, the Uncertainty Principle, or Teddy Roosevelt, then no private joke is possible. Private jokes depend on a somewhat arcane reference clicking into place.
~ Suggest rather than state character behavior.
Forget those tedious assumptions about prom queens or neurosurgeons. Instead, give your astronaut or whatever traits that plot forces to the surface. Humor flourishes with the surprise of foiled expectations.
~ Use the five senses.
A good joke is not just something you hear or read, but one you can at least visualize, and, ideally, connect with viscerally.
~ Mix and match.
Blend graphics, word play, irony, and burlesque. Besiege us in more than one way and—we’ll love your book all the more for the fun we’re having.
Tip: Charm your readers not just with public jokes but private ones.