Five Humor Tools for Your Writing Toolbelt

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens
June 23, 2016


Is laughter really the best medicine? I don't know, but I do suspect that
laughter is a great way to get published. If you spend much time listening
to acquiring editors or librarians or agents, you'll soon discover that
humor is very much something they desire. Kids love books that make them
laugh. Humans, in general, appreciate humor, even in the darkest times.
Unrelenting horror or pain is hard to survive, so being able to step outside
it, even a little, to laugh can be life-saving. And readers will appreciate
a story that allows them to do that. But for an author to find the way to do
that takes a little understanding of how humor works.

In Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, the alien character tries to
understand laughter and comes to the conclusion that it's about pain and
wrongness. In some ways, there is truth there. But, as a writer, I'm looking
at humor as a technique and "pain" isn't really a helpful answer for me. So
I began to look for what really makes something funny. What is a basic
foundation of written humor that I can build on to lighten up my writing?

Fundamentally, humor is about surprise. Why do very young children laugh at
the word "underpants?" It's because it's such a naughty surprise to see a
book throw that word at them. Underpants are meant to be hidden. You
definitely don't show them off. Most of us learn that in our toddler years,
so very young children can be surprised at the casual use of "underpants"
and they'll laugh. Captain Underpants not only uses the word in his name, he
wears his underpants right on the outside. To very young children, the
surprise of that unconventional, socially naughty behavior is hysterical.

This exact same mechanism is in play in movies stuffed with crude humor and
aimed at teens. To a teenager, underpants aren't quite as funny anymore. To
a teenager, you have to get a little more extreme to surprise them by social
naughtiness, and plenty of teen movies are more than willing to go there.
But is social naughtiness the only way to inject humor into a story for kids
or teens, thankfully not.

Humor tries to step in whenever you have a surprise, when you set up the
reader to expect one thing and you give them something different. Or when
logic or experience would cause the reader to expect one thing and you give
them something else. This is one (of many) reasons for the popularity of
picture books with animal protagonists who wear clothes and drive cars and
live in houses. The absurdity of a bear in a three piece suit or a little
boy with a pet T-Rex is inherently funny, because it's surprising.

So, how can that help us to be funnier? We have to look for ways to
surprise. And how you do that can vary based on the age of the reader. So,
let's look at five tools for the humorist's work box:

1. Misunderstanding

This is the foundation of the Amelia Bedelia books.
Amelia takes absolutely everything literally and so the characters around
her are constantly saying things that can be taken two ways if you really
think about them. Young children find Amelia funny because of the surprising
ways she misinterprets things she is told. They find her appealing because
of the superiority they feel by the fact that they (the young reader) aren't
confused by those commands. But misinterpretation can be used as a one-off
bit of humor as well. Confusion about medical terms can add a little dark
humor to a teen story about serious illness. Confusion about duel meaning
words can add funny moments to a story about children in early elementary
school. For example, Beverly Cleary's Ramona was once told to sit in a
specific seat "for the present." Ramona thought if she sat there quietly,
she'd get a present. She was fairly disappointed when she didn't get it.
Although the reader almost certainly figures out Ramona's mistake before
Ramona does, they tend to sympathize because most children by school age
have made that kind of mistake at some time. (Mine was when my second grade
teacher told us to line up to go to the lavatory and I thought she said
"laboratory." Imagine my disappointment when we just went to the bathroom
instead of the mad scientist's lab that I envisioned.)

2. Distortion

We expect certain things in life. Elephants will be huge.
Children will be smaller than adults. When things don't fit the "rules" we
have set in our heads, the result is surprise, and that can be funny. In the
George Shrinks picture books by William Joyce, we have a protagonist who is
a normal (if slightly adventurous) boy in every way except that he is teeny
tiny. (Boss Baby by Marla Frazee is another great example of this.) And the way
he deals with everyday life as a tiny guy is both ingenious and funny.
At the opposite end of the distortion spectrum, we have the old Looney Tunes
cartoon about the drunken stork, we have the stork delivering giant babies
to normal-sized parents, and hilarity ensues as the parents try to deal with an
an infant who is bigger than they are.

If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!


3. Mismatch

Whenever we combine elements that realistically would never
come together comfortably, we get humor. This is the basic joke of most
"buddy" movies. You take two people who flatly cannot possibly get along or
understand one another and you force them together. In picture books, this
can be a visual joke, such as Jamie Michalak's  Joe and Sparky chapter books
which bring together a very quiet natured turtle with an adventure loving
giraffe. The humor in the books works both visually and in the mismatch of
their natures.

4. Slapstick

This is the comedy of physical surprise. In real life, when we
see someone approach a flight of stairs or walk down a sidewalk, we expect
them to accomplish it with relative ease. In slapstick, the stairs might
suddenly (and unexpectedly) begin moving - and moving in the wrong
direction. And the person might have to try to make it up (or down) while
fighting the unexpected movement. In slapstick, the person strolling down
the sidewalk might be pooped on by a bird or run over by a skateboarder or
trip on a banana peel. As long as the person sustains not terrible injury,
the surprise of the encounter becomes funny. Slapstick can be very effective
humor, but it really only works as long as it plays on our sense of
surprise. One of my favorite instances of slapstick was in Dustin Grubbs:
One Man Show
by John J. Bock. At the birthday party of Dustin's granny, the
old lady's dentures fly out of her mouth. The surprise of the moment (which
is wonderfully written) made it truly laugh-out-loud funny.

5. Language Humor

The twisting of language in new and inventive ways can
surprise and amuse readers, but the humor inherent in playing with words is
especially age specific. Very young children rarely get most puns because
they don't have the vocabulary fluency to find them funny. However, very
young children can often be amused by the "sound" of a word. This is why you
see so much onomatopoeia in young children's books. It's also one reason why
Seuss's love for making up silly sounding words worked so well with young
readers. They are constantly encountering new words and so Seuss gave them
some, only his had silly sounds and ridiculous definitions and whimsical

So keep these tools in mind as you write so you can look for places to
employ them. Surprise the reader with new ideas from your humor toolbox. You
may just find yourself laughing all the way to publication.


If you want more writing instruction like this, plus lots of tips and great resources, click here!


Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Take the free aptitude test here.

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