Brian Dean Humor

How to Write Limericks: Part 3

Start with a Funny Idea

What makes a good limerick? Some limericks rhyme properly and have the correct number of syllables, but they somehow fall flat. They are not interesting or funny, because they are not based on a funny idea — they are just some words that happen to rhyme.

When you write a limerick, try to work out the idea before you start composing the words. Some ideas are naturally funny and have great limerick potential:

Other ideas are interesting or unusual, but require more work to find the humor:

To translate these ideas into limericks, we need to ask questions like, "What happened then?" The next step is to come up with an interesting or funny answer, instead of a boring one. For example, the zombie cafe must serve something more interesting than burgers and fries.

I went to the zombie cafe,
It was windowless, musty, and gray,
Just one look at the menu,
Made me want to change venue,
For a brain was the Catch of the Day.

If we think about a sadist at the TSA, we might ask ourselves, "What does he do there?" and "How does he feel about his job?" — logical questions that lead to a logical, but funny, last line:

A charming young sadist named Ray,
Took a job with the great TSA,
He makes passengers strip,
Tasers those who give lip,
And in general enjoys every day.

A sneezing man doesn't seem funny at first, but with a little thought, we can think of a situation where sneezing is a definite no-no:

A young man with allergies, Grant,
Wants to work in his town, but he can't,
For his sneezing, quite stunning,
Takes him out of the running,
For a job at the dynamite plant.

A limerick that uses the LB abbreviation is an example of the kind of limerick that uses unusual spellings or wordplay. For this challenge, we'll ask the question, "What rhymes with POUND?" Then we write the limerick using real abbreviations and made-up ones.

Terry Higgins bought meat by the lb.
And he shared it at lunch with his hb.
Then they walked for a mi.
'Til the hb. made a pi.
Just to prove his digestion was sb.

You'll learn more about limerick construction in a moment. Now it's time to...

Think Silly

If you're going to write limericks, you have to put yourself in a silly frame of mind. For example, I can admire the Spanish dance form called flamenco, with its intricate guitar work and complicated dance steps — like tap dancing on Fast Forward.

However, when I'm in a silly frame of mind, I see the lady stamping her feet to step on a bug — lots of bugs, in fact. And because it's a limerick, I think of disgusting bugs — cockroaches — and then I realize that ROACHES rhymes with the Spanish phrase for "good night."

Seniorita Juanita De Boches,
Does flamenco to get rid of roaches,
Nita claps a nice beat,
Stamping bugs with her feet,
Singing sweetly to them, "Buenas noches."

Here's another example of a limerick that started out as a silly idea. I was writing limericks about pirates, and I wanted to do one about a pirate with a hook, like Captain Hook.

A real hook isn't very funny — its pointed and dangerous looking. Then I thought, "What if the pirate had a really BIG hook? What would he do with it?"

A pirate named William the Crook,
Serves his crew with his gigantic hook,
"I impale some marshmallows,
Toast them up for the fellows,
Make some cocoa, and read them a book."

A pirate using his hook to toast marshmallows — now that's a truly silly idea. And since I was being silly, I decided to have the captain reading these big, nasty pirates a book, as if they were children.

This limerick also illustrates another technique: exaggeration. Make something (or someone) much bigger than normal, or much smaller. Imagine a million mosquitoes, each the size of a hummingbird. Let your imagination soar, then ask, "What would happen?"

Begin Your Limerick with a Setup

Before you can start writing the actual limerick, you need to think though your idea, to decide how your little story begins and ends. You may even write the idea down in a non-poetic form, e.g. "An airplane pilot chases birds, so they get sucked into the engines and cook. Then those birds are served as meals to the passengers." To write the setup, you need to express part of this idea in a little two-line poem-let we'll call the setup.

Here's the setup for the pilot idea, along with two other setups:

A helpful young pilot named Bret,
Chases birds with his twin-engine jet,

At the zoo, where the bears have a lair,
There is one that requires great care,

In his Santa suit, Charlie DeVry,
Climbed down chimneys, avoiding small fry,

The setup doesn't have to be funny, but it does need to introduce the idea of the limerick, so the reader says, "Oh yah? Tell me more."

Write the Punch Line

The punch line ends the limerick by answering the question, "What happened?" in a funny or clever way. There's a good reason for writing the punch line just after the setup: the punch line must rhyme with lines 1 and 2, and if you can't find a third rhyme to finish the limerick, you're stuck!

When you get stuck — everyone does — you need to rewrite the setup, using a different rhyme. (More on this in the step-by-step examples.)

Here's the punch line for the pilot limerick:

A helpful young pilot named Bret,
Chases birds with his twin-engine jet,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
They're the meals first class passengers get.

Here's a punch line with a fiendish addition — a pun:

At the zoo, where the bears have a lair,
There is one that requires great care,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
For old Ralph is a bi-polar bear.

Here's the last setup and punch line:

In his Santa suit, Charlie DeVry,
Climbed down chimneys, avoiding small fry,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
---- --- ------ ---- --- ------ ,
His disguise didn't work in July.

Unless you know the entire story, this punch line is confusing. Why was Charlie wearing a Santa suit in July? This is an example of a limerick that needs lines 3 and 4 to help the punch line make sense and be funny.

Write Lines Three and Four

Lines 3 and 4 have a specific purpose: to set up the last line of the limerick. They answer our basic question, “What happened then?” in a way that continues the story and leads right to the punch line.

Let's revisit our incomplete limericks to see how lines 3 and 4 work to complete the limerick. Remember, lines 3 and 4 have their own, different, rhyme:

A helpful young pilot named Bret,
Chases birds with his twin-engine jet,
“Through the engines they glide,
Coming out plucked and fried,
They're the meals first class passengers get.”

In this example, lines 3 and 4 explain how the birds become meals. If you read the limerick from lines 1 to 4, you have something like an extended setup, with the last line as a punch line.

In his Santa suit, Charlie DeVry,
Climbed down chimneys, avoiding small fry,
His career as a thief,
Was predictably brief,
His disguise didn't work in July.

In this example, we need 3 and 4 to describe Charlie as a thief, climbing down chimneys disguised as Santa. Again, lines 1 to 4 act as the extended setup, with the punch line explaining why his disguise didn't work.

At the zoo, where the bears have a lair,
There is one that requires great care,
He'll be happy, then scary,
He makes zookeepers wary,
For old Ralph is a bi-polar bear.

For this limerick, readers need to know that bi-polar describes a condition where someone's mood changes wildly. For the punch line to make sense, we need line 3 to describe Ralph's bi-polar mood swings. Line 4 adds to line 2 and 3: not only does Ralph require great care, he makes the zookeepers wary.

So far, we've learned that writing a limerick is about having an idea, organizing that idea into setup and punch line — with help from lines 3 and 4 — and expressing everything with the correct meter and rhyming scheme. Someone who can do all that can take pride in that little five-line poem!

Now that you've seen how the basics work, let's go on to see how an actual limerick was created.

NEXT: Writing an Idea-based Limerick