How To Write a Novel — Humour

Day 12 of writing my novel in public

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

I’ve started something scary here on Medium. It’s something I’ve done before, but never in public. I have a process that I’m going to follow, and I’d like to share it with you.

If you want to follow the journey from the start, go here.

If you missed yesterday’s, you can find it here.

Day 12 — Humour

I’ve reached day 12 of writing my novel and I’m in much need of today’s focus — humour. I think the biggest lesson that I have learned about writing a novel is that it should be fun. If you aren’t enjoying it, then there is something wrong. I’m not saying that it will all be easy, there will definitely be a huge amount of hard work, but if it feels like a slog every day, then the writing will read like they have tortured it out of you.

I am drawn to humourous books, and one of the two I have chosen as guidebooks for the novel I’m writing is Gangsta Granny by David Walliams. This is a funny book.

I have also taken David Walliams course on writing for children on BBC Maestro and can recommend it for anyone interested in writing for a younger audience. I’m wanting the book I’m writing to be funny so today I’m going to explore ideas for adding humour.

Guidebook funnies

Apart from Gangsta Granny, the other guidebook I’m using is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis but that doesn’t really tickle the funny bone, so I’m going to set it aside for today and focus on David Walliam’s book.

From his course he suggests several ways of adding humour:

  1. A joke is often based on a surprise, something unexpected happening
  2. Art of the aside
  3. Rule of 3
  4. Funny lists
  5. Surreal and absurd
  6. Toilet humour with wit
  7. Timing is everything

I’ll have a look at how he has used them in Gangsta Granny.

1. Suprise

The entire premise of the book is based on the surprise of Ben discovering that his Granny is actually a jewel thief, which changes his perceptions of her.

He uses surprise often to tickle us:

  • Ben, the 11-year-old main character, buys a magazine called Plumbing Weekly.
  • Raj the shopkeeper sells out-of-date goods but puts the magazine in the freezer to keep it fresh.
  • Granny tries to break into a jeweler’s, abseils down the hospital wall and uses a getaway mobility scooter that only goes at 3 miles an hour.
  • After Ben makes up the story that Granny is doing naked yoga so that he won’t go into her room, when Mr Paker opens the door, she is in a yoga pose in her bra and knickers.
  • The Queen catches them stealing the crown jewels.
  • In the last line, the Queen flashes her Union Jack knickers.

2. Art of the aside

Walliams adds various footnotes and asides to get a laugh.

In one, Ben has a Venn diagram of who he won’t tell, showing that the category everyone includes Mum and Dad.

In another, he describes his mum’s banoffee pie as including coffee because she thinks the ‘offee’ is coffee, not toffee.

3. Rule of 3

The rule of 3 in comedy is that you can set up a pattern with two examples of something and then create a laugh by changing the pattern and surprising the reader with the third.

An example from Gangsta Granny is when Ben is thinking about why Granny shouldn’t be interested in gangstas. He lists 3 reasons:

  • Gangstas don’t live in bungalows.
  • Gangstas don’t play scrabble.
  • Gangstas probably don’t smell of cabbage.

He does something similar with a list of 5 people locked up in the Tower of London — the future Queen Elizabeth I, the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, the terrorist Guy Fawkes, and my mother.

4. Funny Lists

This is big for Walliams, he loves them!

Some examples from Gangsta Granny are:

  • list of menu — cabbage soup, cabbage pie, cabbage mouse, cabbage-flavoured after-dinner chocolates
  • list of Favio Favelli memorabilia — lime green thong, real fake leather bookmark, athlete’s foot powder, his and hers leg warmers, CD of songs nearly used on the show, small wig in a jar, life-size cardboard cutout of Flavio, earwax in a jar, tan tights, doodle on a napkin, official eggcups, half-full tube of Raljex, poseable action figure, hot pizza crust left by Flavio

5. Absurd and surreal

He often combines his lists with absurd and surreal images.

For example, the list of modes of transport not permitted on the motorway — skateboard, canoe, roller skates, donkey, shopping trolley, unicycle, sledge, rickshaw, camel, magic carpet, comedy ostrich.

6. Toilet humour with wit

Shakespeare and Chaucer used toilet humour in their works. Why can’t we?

— David Walliams

Children love toilet humour, but he suggests you use it inventively.

For example, Granny has bum squeaks when she walks that sound like ducks quacking.

Lord Davenport burps in his sleep, just as Granny is about to steal from him.

7. Timing is everything

A joke does not have to be big, it can be slight, if set up correctly and delivered with perfect timing.

When Mr Parker first appeared, Ben and Granny suggested he was spying on Granny doing naked yoga to get rid of him. When they find Mr Parker again spying on Granny in the hospital, Ben asks him what he’s doing there. Granny plays the same trick again. She says, “Hoping to see me take a bed bath, no doubt!”

Neil Gaiman on humour

Humor is that moment where you see something that you’ve always thought, but now somebody has articulated it. And they’ve articulated it in a way that you’ve never seen before. And sometimes it’s just the joy of the unexpected.

— Neil Gaiman

As C. S. Lewis and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not known for its humour, I’ll look to another of my favourite authors. Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass course on The Art of Storytelling is fantastic. I could listen to him all day, and he gives generously from his vast experience of writing. On humour, he has the following techniques, some his own, and some borrowed from the great humourist Terry Pratchett:

  1. Twist a cliché
  2. Defy genre expectations
  3. Put a funny expression at the end of a sentence
  4. Use contrast
  5. Use funny words
  6. Figgin
  7. Sherbert lemon

I’ll look at how Gangsta Granny uses these techniques:

1. Twist a cliché

At the start of the book Granny is a cliché grandma, but Walliams twists that around one eighty by making her a jewel thief.

2. Defy genre expectations

Gangsta Granny is a heist novel, the subgenre of crime that focuses on a significant robbery. But this is not a normal genre for a children’s book, and so it already defies the genre expectations. By using the combination of a child and his Granny, Walliams takes the familiar and twists it.

  • Granny’s getaway vehicle is her mobility scooter, which can only go 3 miles an hour and is dangerous to ride on the motorway
  • Ben’s special ability that makes him a good fit for the crime is not explosives or lock picking. His fascination is with plumbing.
  • Granny uses her herbal sleep tonic to knock out the guards.
  • Granny uses her pink wool as a fuse.
  • Granny only brings one plastic bag to take the jewels away in because they cost five pence each.

3. Put a funny expression at the end of a sentence

The last sentence is an example of this:

Then, with a mischievous grin, the Queen lifted up her skirt to the entire country and flashed her Union Jack knickers.

Walliams, David. Gangsta Granny (p. 296). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

4. Use contrast

Add something light in a tense moment.

After Ben has returned from the heist, his parents are anxious about him. They tell him they don’t mind that his dream is plumbing, and not ballroom dancing. But they say they want him to have a fallback — ice dancing. Then they crack up at their own joke.

When Granny has passed away and Raj comes to console him, he brings him a present, which seems out of character. But the gift is a bag of murray mints. Ben is disappointed but tries not to show it. Then Raj delivers the kicker — it is just one mint.

5. Use funny words

Walliams uses funny words with his toilet humour — bottom burps and bum squeaking.

6. Figgin

A figgin is something in the story that promises to be something horrible, but then turns out to be something funny. Later on, there is a pay-off when the item is important to the plot.

The nearest to this I could find in Gangsta Granny is his mum’s Flavio Flavioli life-size cardboard cut-out with Mum’s lipstick smudged around the mouth. Later on, she gives the real Flavio the kiss of life, even though he is still breathing, because he is unconscious.

7. Sherbert Lemon

Sherbert lemons are minor details added to make the reader smile. They don’t add to the plot or have a pay-off later.

An example is how Ben’s mum and dad met. His dad worked as a security guard and wrongly accused his mum of shoplifting a bag of crisps. Within a year they were married.


Day 12 has been about researching how Gangsta Granny uses humour techniques described by David Walliams, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I haven’t made any progress on my own book.

Tomorrow I’ll focus on generating as many comedic ideas for my book as I can using today’s work as a guide.

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