Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guest Blog Post - Lindsay Buroker

To continue the January Guest Blog Post theme, I'm happy to introduce Lindsay Buroker, who I have asked to write about comedy in fantasy. Lindsay is another OWW comrade-in-arms and has been a great encouragement in my writing. She has, however, been responsible for me repeatedly showering my computer monitor in coffee, so I can safely say she is more than qualified to speak on the subject of humour.

Take it away Lindsay....


Have your characters ever been called flat? Your stories boring? Your voice bland? Adding a splash of humor to your prose might be just the solution. Laughing readers are rarely bored readers.

If you feel humor has no place in your writing (you must write science fiction or “epic” fantasy), then you can skip the rest of this post, but if you’ve ever longed to have sample readers email you LOL about your tales, then read on. We’re going to talk about some tried-and-true ways to add the funny to your stories. They are the Setup and Punchline, the Rule of the Three, and the Callback. Even if you haven’t employed these tactics before, you’ll surely recognize them. Every comedian, sitcom writer, and witty genre author keeps them in the armory.

Setup & Punchline

Every joke is made up of a setup (the straight road) and a punchline (the unexpected curve). Let’s take a look at a Dungeons & Dragons classic (yes, I only quote the best!):

How do you know a dwarf raided your pantry?
Only the bottom halves of the shelves are empty.

How do you know an elf raided your pantry?
Only vegetables and fruits are missing.

How do you know an ogre raided your pantry?
Pantry? What pantry?

The first five lines, while funny in their own right, are the setup. The last is the punchline. You can see how everything before that builds the anticipation. Without the setup, the punchline wouldn’t be funny at all. This format is so familiar, that your readers are already primed and ready to laugh when they see it.

Okay, but who stops their stories to tell jokes? No one, we hope. But you can use the setup/punchline tactic to inspire laughter right in your narrative. Perhaps the dire, serious, tense situation is the setup, and then something unexpected happens (the fierce mercenary army is prepared to storm the hidden passage when the mage stands before the locked portal and cries, “Open Sesame!” and... everyone’s swordbelts unclasp and fall to the ground). Or maybe the personality of one your characters is the setup. Just think of how often you’ve seen the straight-man/funny-man set up. Or the adventuring party’s joke-cracking sidekick. Mixing serious characters with more lighthearted folk is a recipe for fun.

Dialogue provides the ideal opportunity for joke placement. In the vein of not-so-subtle self-promotion, I’ll delve into one of my own Goblin Brothers short stories for an example.

...A rolled piece of light brown paper slid out. Malagach grabbed it before it could fall into the water.
“It’s a map,” he said after a quick perusal. “A treasure map.”
“How do you know?” Gortok asked.
“All the traditional indicators are here: topographical representation of terrain features, a dashed line depicting a route, and a black X marking the final destination.”
Gortok leaned over Malagach’s shoulder to look. “And it says TREASURE MAP at the top.”
Maybe it’s not the instant classic of D&D joke, but it’s an example of setup (everything until the last bit of dialogue) and punchline used within the natural flow of a story.
Let’s move on to the next way to inject humor into your stories, the Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three

Fact of life: things are inherently more funny in threes. The “Rule of Three” is a classic structure in which a joke is set up, the setup is reinforced, and the punchline breaks the pattern.

Why is this funny? Who knows? Mathematically speaking, three is the smallest number you can use to establish a pattern and break it. But math is boring, so let’s just agree to accept this proven method.


You’re reading this post to further your education, to improve your writing, and because you’re bored at work.

Punchline, reinforcement, and unexpected curve.

The perspicacious readers will notice the dwarf, elf, ogre joke from the earlier example not only demonstrated the Setup and Punchline but also obeyed the Rule of Three. Now you know why you were helpless to keep from chortling.

The nice thing about the Rule of Three is that it’s easy to work into your writing without slowing down the pace. It only takes a sentence, so you don’t fall into the trap of having characters banter on for pages without plot advancement (not that I would ever be guilty of this, no, not me...).

Try using it in a setting description; it’s a great way to add zip to what might otherwise be a bland bit of prose. Example: Several indicators suggested this was not the most luxurious ski lodge: the broken hot tub, the peeling paint, the yellow snow.

Now that we’ve mastered the Rule of Three, it’s time to double the laughs with one of my favorites, the callback.

The Callback

The callback is simple; it’s just a reference to a joke you made earlier. It’s easy to implement, and people love it. And why not? If something tickled you once, wouldn’t you be delighted to relive the moment? Also, it can make for a satisfying conclusion to your story.

I’ll plunder my own work again for an example.

The first joke takes place in the middle of the story:

Robhart tilted his head and seemed to truly look at Malagach and Gortok for the first time. “You’re not like city goblins I’ve met.”
“Actually,” Malagach said, “we’re not particularly like mountain goblins either.”
“Ma says we’re especial,” Gortok said.
Malagach looked at his brother. “When did she say that?”
“Last month, when I added that extendable door-flap opener to the hut.”
“The thing she tripped over in the middle of the night?” Malagach asked. “I believe what she said was we were especially trying.”
Next, we’ve got some action, conflict resolution, and otherwise exciting stuff, and then we join the heroes again in a bit of denouement:

“...the stories told about us would have to be named after me, and I’d be the star,” Robhart said. “The hero, the main hero, can’t be a goblin.”
“Why not?” Gortok asked.
Robhart chuckled. “Who’d want to hear stories just about goblins?” He waved a quick goodbye and hustled off to turn in his orc hair.
Malagach and Gortok stared after the human.
“I’m middling sure people wouldn’t mind stories about us,” Gortok said. “Me, for sure.”
“Why you?” Malagach asked.
“I’m the cute, lovable, especial one.”
“That was especially trying,” Malagach reminded his brother.
“Close enough.” Gortok winked.
The callback is an economy of sorts. Set a joke up once and then milk it for all its worth. (If I were a better humor writer, I would have tapped into the Rule of Three and used that joke three times in my story!)

There you go: three humor-writing tricks of the trade that will never let you down. Always remember, laughing readers are never bored readers (and they writer nicer reviews, too).
Three Ways to Add Humor to Your Stories


  1. Lindsay, thanks for such great tips on writing comedy! You've taught me a few things, because I find writing comedy much more difficult than writing anything else. It takes a very delicate touch to pull it off well, but you and Peter really have a knack for it.


  2. Lindsay, thanks I enjoyed the read.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Teresa and Ladonna, and thanks for publishing this, Peter!

  4. You could say I'm "slightly behind" on my blog reading - too much snowboarding and video-editing ;)

    Nice post, Lindsay! I recognize some of this from your OWW stories I've read. Good advice, I'll have to try the "rule of threes" in my next writing!