Post 31

Author: Nola Published: about 5 years ago
Tags: humour, funny, comedy, exaggeration, understatement Category: Writing tips

Humour Techniques Part 3: Exaggeration and Understatement

Last week we considered how metaphors and similes can be used to add humour to your writing. One reason they work so well is that they often exaggerate the truth for comic effect. However, understating the situation can also convey a lighter mood. Let’s look at the basics of these techniques.


Exaggeration involves enlarging or overstating the truth (Willis, 2002). It can heighten the impact of a statement, bring a smile, or even highlight a more serious point. It differs from lying because your reader knows it’s not meant to be taken literally.

In his bestselling book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson details his trek along the Appalachian Trail. When he first mentioned his intention to people, he got some interesting responses:

“Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering ‘Bear!’ in a hoarse voice, before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness.”

Of course nobody literally had a bobcat attached to their head, but Bryson certainly gets across the idea that this isn’t going to be a ‘walk in the park’. We laugh with him and learn some important information along the way about conservation and the American way of life.

However, Willis also warns that you need to be careful not to stretch the truth beyond breaking point. Sometimes less is more and that’s where understatement comes in.


Understatement is a more subtle type of humour in which you downplay a situation. There are lots of brilliant examples in the Australian movie The Dish, based on the true story of how the radio telescope near the country town of Parkes was used to relay the first television images of the Apollo 11 moon walk. In the following exchange, one of the women from the local hotel asks the mayor about the NASA representative who’s come to supervise the Australian technicians.

Pearl: And the American chap? Settling in? Bob: I think so. Quiet fellow. Pearl: Came in here yesterday. Wanting pretzels! Bob: Pretzels!? Yep, it’s a world event.

One of the greatest scientific achievements of all time is about to take place, but Pearl and Bob are marvelling over the exotic international cuisine. Lines like this give the movie a gentle, offbeat feel.

Is your manuscript as dry as A Pub With No Beer? Then see if a little overstating or understating can perk it up. Rather than saying someone is tall, why not say “he was so tall he had to wear a flashing light on the side of his head so planes wouldn’t fly into him”? Before you know it, you’ll be tickling people’s funny bones with the whole rooster rather than just a feather.


Bryson, B. (1997). A walk in the woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. London: Doubleday. To read Chapter 1, click here.

Cilauro, S., Gleisner, T., Kennedy, J., & Sitch, R. (Producers). (2000). The dish [DVD]. Available from Roadshow Entertainment.

Willis, C. (2002). The more and less of writing humorous fiction. In M. Leder & J. Heffron et al. (Eds.), The complete handbook of novel writing (pp. 177-182). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.

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