Writing Advice

Writing Comedy: Lin Oliver on Humour with Heart

Lin Oliver and her dog Dexter

Lin’s breakout session at this year’s SCBWI British Isles conference in Winchester was inspirational.  I’m grateful and delighted to be able to share her FIVE BIG THOUGHTS and TWELVE SMALL TRICKS on my blog.

Lin began her session with some observations:

  • Graphic funny novels give you pace, speed of reading and entertainment – funny writing needs this
  • Humour often comes out of pathos – when you write something funny you may also be writing something sad.
  • Illustrators can add a comic element to a picture book text.
  • In middle grade  books you can have some character attitude and word play but be aware at 7+ that children are just getting familiar with language – think about comic inventions of plot instead and avoid puns
  • Steve Martin wrote: writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it’s the same for comedy.


  1. Writing comedy involves taking risks – follow your weirdness – kill the side of your brain that’s linear and logical – as long as the world you create is consistent you can do whatever you want. Push boundaries – look for humour coming in from all angles.
  2. Comedy must come from the truth – you have to recognise something in it – feel like ‘that could happen to me’. We are all one banana peel away from disaster. When writing – mime your own embarrassment. What resonates always has a kernel of truth.
  3. Comedy must evoke empathy – your comic villain can be one dimensional but the villains we all love, we have empathy for – Gru from Despicable Me

    Gru – A villain with heart
  4. Don’t try to struggle uphill when you’re writing comedy – invent a situation that has inherent comic potential – a vampire rabbit or a zombie goldfish (you can’t have those, they’ve already been done)
  5. You are only writing for one audience and one purpose to amuse yourself – if you try and write to make kids laugh it will backfire on you. So think, who are you – what makes you laugh? Is it visual comedy;  the victory of the underdog;  contradiction; playing off how people see themselves to how the world see’s them; listening to the things children do? Find out what it is and work with it.


  1. Think of funny titles – set up the expectation of laughter.
  2. Use character names to announce your character but that are also funny use character, quirks or unusual professions Professor Haddock, Fish Doctor.
  3. Use surprise – banana peel – sudden turn of events
  4. Use incongruity – like Kindergarten Cop – either in character or plot
  5. Use discomfort – like getting the giggles at a funeral – works for kids because they’re always expected to behave in a certain way but life can divert their attention
  6. Use reversal of roles – where there’s an expectation of a role and character get them to perform the opposite –e.g. a gourmet chef judging a junk food contest
  7. Exaggerate – language and what happens – e.g. it was so cold sounds froze in winter – so what happens in spring – havoc! This is comic exaggeration – embellish stories with it.
  8. Play with nonsense and comic rhyme e.g. pelican/bellycan – the longer the rhyme the better – and nonsequiters
  9. Be specific – specifics are funnier than the general -e.g.: ‘fish’ is not as funny as  ‘flopping flounder’ or mowing grass is not as funny as drawing an image of someone sitting on a mower with bum hanging over the seat.
  10. Give your characters attitude; very important for teens or tweens – doesn’t work so much for younger kids unless you can write it very clearly – read out loud – act it to make sure it works.
  11. Use funny sounding language – k is funny – pickle is funny – consonants are funnier than vowels because they bang up against each other – it might just be a theory but trust your ear.
  12. Be aware of timing – keep it snappy and pacey – use dialogue and think about language

Will these tricks make you funnier? Try this example

Rowing a boat isn’t funny

Rowing a boat upstream – more interesting

Lose an oar and add some strange characters – mix in the unexpected and you’re starting to be funny.

Good luck – have fun and thank you Lin Oliver!