In Writer's School, Writers' Academy

Humour as a Writing Tool

All human beings have five bodily senses; the sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste and touch. But besides these,we have another sense, and no, it’s not common sense, this one is called sense of humour.

Why do we call Humour a ‘sense?’ As with the other senses, humour helps us in forging connections to the world and providing meaning to life. In the same way we are able to see and smell, we are also able to experience (perceive and receive) humour. However, unlike other senses, humour is specific to each individual. That’s why what one finds humourous may not be so to another.


So what exactly is Humour?

Besides being a sense, Humour is also a tool. Humour is a tool in literature that intends to amuse or makes audiences laugh. It’s a tool of trade that must be employed by all writers not just those who write fiction. As a carpenter needs a hammer, wood, nails, etc to build, as a doctor needs a patient and stethoscope; a writer needs humour besides other elements. Whether you’re writing an essay on cancer or a poem on cancerworts, you need to try and incorporate humour in your write ups. Even if your subject is a serious one, the subtle use of humour can ease tension. Don’t force your readers to feel sad or serious all through.


You don’t have to be Trevor Noah’s cousin or Mr. Bean’s godchild to write a humorous piece. You don’t have to be funny to write humour. Humour is not comedy.



There are various ways in which you can employ humour. So these are just but a few examples;

1. Hyperbole/overstatement

This is extreme exaggeration; an overstating of the truth which is not supposed to be taken literally e.g. I’m dying to meet the founder of WSA or I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant or I will cross the ocean for you, etc.

Men are internally graced with hyperbole (even the wise poetic king Solomon in the songs of songs couldn’t help it) while women have always been recipients- in the field of seduction.


This is the opposite of hyperbole. Its when a writer deliberately represents something as less important or serious than it really is. What the writer downplays is always what they want to bring to the reader’s attention to. E.g., ‘I know Bill Gates has some little money with him’ or ‘Corruption is not a problem at all’.

3. Misdirected clichés

Take a well known cliché and misdirect it. E.g. when you write ‘and the last…’, everyone knows you will say ‘shall be the first’ you can instead say ‘and the last will always remain last’. Instead of writing ‘you can take a cow to the river but you can’t force it to drink water’, you can say…’you can take a cow to the river but it won’t stop the fish from swimming’. With misdirected clichés or sayings, you can be as creative as you want.

4. The rule of three

This is done by creating a rhythm or pattern in the readers mind then throwing them off by breaking the pattern with something humorous. We pair like ideas and then go off track with the third. E.g. A young man must work hard so as to secure his economic future, inspire the younger boys and most importantly- to attract more girls. Or Politicians use our taxes for service delivery, infrastructure development and most of all sustenance of their mistresses.

Others includes:

5. Slapstick- A form of low humour that is marked by violence or pranks.

6. Wordplays- As the word suggests, we play around with same words with different meanings or different words with same meanings.

7. Wit- This is a biting or insightful kind of humor which is often cynical or insulting. It makes a humorous situation more humorous. An example of a witty statement –  if money doesn’t grow on trees why do banks have branches?

8. Irony

9. Sarcasm

And on and on and on…….


What to do when incorporating humour.

Incorporate humour;

a)at the right time

b)in the right tone

c) With the right vocabulary

d) with the right length of words.

Why? So that it doesn’t seem forced and artificial.

Let it come unexpectedly, as a surprise- let the reader not anticipate what going to happen or what you are going to say.

Find it humorous- be your own audience, if it doesn’t make you laugh or smile it probably won’t amuse your readers. Humour is subjective but if it can make you laugh, then you are on the right track.



Don’t narrate the humour; Don’t describe it, Show it. Let the reader experience it first hand in the writing.

Don’t overdo it- unless you are Trevor Noah’s cousin and you are trying to keep the family candle burning. Humour should be limited to selective references.

Don’t throw it carelessly- Know what to use where and when.

Don’t use jokes you don’t understand.


So someone will ask… Why Humour? This is the answer

1.Arouses interest in the write ups

2. sustains attention

3. Helps reader connect with character

4. Helps create images in reader’s mind,

5. Makes story more memorable.

6. Helps one broach uncomfortable subjects.


I’ll conclude by saying; if you must send your readers to the grave by writings of grave nature, please remember even the devil throws parties down there.


Written by Edith Knight,


Edith’s forte is African Historical Fiction.

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