How to Punch-Up your writing, even if you’re not terribly funny

What if I told you that even if you’re not terribly funny, you can still effectively punch-up whatever you’ve just written?

In the film and television industry, they pay humorous writers a lot of money to make scripts even funnier – it’s called ‘punching up the script’ – but any writer can do the same thing with their own work. All it takes is an understanding of a few of the methods that funny people use to heighten their material.

And yes, I’m about to share some of those with you right now. Hoo boy.

Even the funniest of writers rarely find the true laughs in their first drafts. It’s usually during the third and fourth drafts where they begin to punch it up by using different heightening techniques that comedians have been utilizing ever since the first cave dweller saw his buddy’s drawing of a Saber Tooth Tiger on a cave wall and added a goofy mustache.

So what do I mean by heightening?

Anything that raises the stakes, boosts the tension, amplifies the buildup, sharpens the specifics, strengthens the visuals, enhances the overall picture or deepens the mental connection of the reader with the material.

And not only does heightening increase the chance for humor, it also makes the writing way more compelling.

First, I’ll give you five of these heightening devices (there are dozens of them), and then I’ll show you how I recently used them to punch-up an article I wrote  called Transmuting frustration-based anger into laughter.

Here are the five heightening devices I’m going to explore:

1. Specifics
2. Metaphors and similes
3. Word and Sound effects
4. Cut To:
5. Call Backs

If you’re a writer, you’re probably more or less familiar with all of those terms, but I’m going to go over each one as it applies to comedy. I’ll explain and then demonstrate how applying each of these heightening devices to your writing can unlock the hidden humor of your piece.

Remember – you don’t have to be funny at all to utilize these, just brave and willing.

1. Specifics

Which of these is funnier?

…and then I got hit with a vegetable.
…and then I got hit on the head with an eggplant.
…and then I got thumped in the face with a boiled eggplant.​

They’re all humorous in a Three-Stooges sorta way, but the more specific imagery is just funnier:

  • Getting hit by a vegetable is funny, but getting thumped by one is funnier because it creates a richer picture, including a sound (thump!)…
  • Getting thumped is funny, but on the head is funnier, and getting thumped in the face by a veggie is funniest because it’s so specific it helps the reader best picture the thumpin’…
  • A vegetable is funny, an eggplant is funnier, but a boiled eggplant tells its own story – I’m warm, mushy and ready to splatter

In the Transmuting Anger article, I went back and added a ton of specifics. Here’s an example:

First Draft: It was the guy who’s walking through Walmart listening to music on his cell phone and the guy in front of me who suddenly stopped his cart in the middle of the aisle.

Final Draft: It was the idiot who’s walking through Walmart listening to Ska on his cell phone at full blast and the idiot in front of me who suddenly stopped his cart in the middle of the aisle and walked backwards for no apparent reason.​

It’s funnier because those sharpened specifics strengthen the visuals in the reader’s head, allowing them to picture the humorous scenarios more clearly.

2. Metaphors and Similes

It’s always funnier when you can give the reader another similar image to picture, especially if it rings true, even more so if it connects in a surprising way.

Chris Rock is great at using these, like in his cruel large woman in high heels bit:

“Fat foot in a pump look like they baking bread in her shoe.”​

Bill Hicks used metaphors and similes a lot, like in his bit about Van Gogh:

“Some guys take break-ups hard…he sent her his ear…that makes a dozen roses look like a booger.”​

Even if a metaphor or simile isn’t downright hilarious, it can definitely help paint a funnier picture, like the one I used in the Transmuting Anger article:

First Draft: Done in the right comical voice with just the right amount of self-deprecating sarcasm, it gets me to laugh every time.

Third Draft: Done in the right comical voice with just the right amount of self-deprecating sarcasm, it gets me to laugh every time, like when a buddy busts my balls for complaining.​

Funnier, but not hilarious (yet), until I add a more specific…

3. Cut To:

The ‘Cut to:’ (made famous by Seth MacFarlane’s The Family Guy) is where you take the reader to a ‘live’ example of whatever you’re talking about:

Lois Griffin: “You know most of the world’s problems stem from poor self image.”
Cut to: a skinny Adolf Hitler struggling with light weights at Das Gym.​

In the Transmuting Anger article, I did a Cut To: with my ball-busting buddy simile:

First Draft: Done in the right comical voice with just the right amount of self-deprecating sarcasm, it gets me to laugh every time.

Third Draft: Done in the right comical voice with just the right amount of self-deprecating sarcasm, it gets me to laugh every time, like when a buddy busts my balls for complaining.

Final Draft: Done in the right comical voice with just the right amount of self-deprecating sarcasm, it gets me to laugh every time, like when a buddy busts my balls for complaining:

Me: Dude, you’re late.
Buddy: Aww, poor baby, did you get scared standing all by yourself? Boo hoo.

Funnier because if the reader can clearly see and hear the humorous Cut To: scenario in their head, they can easily connect it back to the original point, which, if it rings true, always gets a laugh.

4. Word and Sound effects

If something in your writing makes a noise, spell it out:

BAM! POP! Ka-POWIE! Psssssssss…​

If something in your writing deserves a reaction, try writing it out:

UGH! Ooomph! Hoo boy!​

They’re not always so obvious, either. The one I stumbled upon in the Transmuting Anger article was with my sarcastic use of the word ‘hilarious’:

First Draft: As I listened to my children’s hilarious replay of my frustrating afternoon…

When I went back to punch-up, I decided my sarcasm needed to be spelled out more clearly, so I did this:

Final Draft: As I listened to my children’s hee-lar-ee-ous replay of my frustrating afternoon…​

It’s funnier because written like that, it actually forces the reader to read sarcastically, amplifying the buildup and deepening their connection to the material.

And once I did that, I noticed that further along in the article I used the word ‘hilarious’ two more times, so I decided to heighten my hee-lar-ee-ous word effect by adding a couple of…

5. Call Backs

Call backs are simple – you just tell the same joke you told earlier.

Call backs are difficult – if you force them, or the original joke wasn’t humorous, they’re incredibly awkward and terribly unfunny.

Call backs are wonderful – how cool is it to get two (or three) genuine laughs at the same joke?

In the Transmuting Anger article, I added two hee-lar-ee-ous call backs towards the end:

First Joke: As I listened to my children’s hee-lar-ee-ous replay of my frustrating afternoon…

Call Back 1: Calling it out right then and there not only prevents me from getting sucked into the angry-victim mentality, it’s also hee-lar-ee-ous.

Call Back 2: …and when used properly (and hee-lar-ee-ous-ly), I’ve found…​

The laugh you get from a Call Back is boisterous because they’re already in on the joke.

As I mentioned, there are dozens of these heightening devices, and like any tools, in the hands of a master they are incredibly effective.

But practice using them and anyone can begin punching up their writing – if not to make it hilarious, at least to make it more compelling.

Hope it helps – good luck!

P.S. If anyone has a sentence/paragraph that they’d like to punch-up, leave it in the comments and we’ll all give it whirl… :cool:

One thought on “How to Punch-Up your writing, even if you’re not terribly funny

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  1. The funny thing is, a lot of us do these things in everyday life instinctively. I mean, I know I pop #4 and #5 in the toaster now and then without thinking, but before you spelled it out for me, I didn’t even realise… 😀

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