February 7, 2019
If you flip through your market guide or read writer's guidelines online, there's one word you'll see over and over: humor. Kids love humor, so publishers do too. But for many writers, the word "humor" is intimidating. How do you be funny? And what if your story is dramatic and serious, doesn't that make humor off-limits? And how about nonfiction writers, isn't it enough to just share interesting facts? Let's look closer at humor.
What is Humor?
Humor is primarily about expectation. When we expect one thing and get something totally different, humor happens. Now if the something we don't expect is a serial killer, that's probably not so funny (though such things have been used in dark humor) but surprise without threat is a cornerstone of humor. So for a writer, the key is to set the reader up to expect one thing and then give them something totally different. For example, imagine a quiet character who is consistently the voice of reason and peace in a story, but the antagonist pushes and pushes and finally goes too far, so this sweet, soft-spoken child snarls, "Let's hang him up by his thumbs." Well, readers will laugh. The humor is a bit dark, but when we've set the reader up to always expect this character to behave one way but then do something totally different, readers will laugh (especially if you can understand the character's transformation if you think about it a bit. Humor works best when it's real to the story and not just contrived.)
Humor can also come from absurdly distorting normal expectations. So your story may not "set the reader up" to expect something, but our understanding of the way the world works could do the set up instead. For example, young children know that adults tend to know more than children, so when you have child characters who have to rescue the adults, kids tend to think that's funny because it is so different from what happens in the world. We can also be set up to expect something by tradition. For instance, superheroes have traditionally been very rugged, serious, and brave, so when Captain Underpants came along with his round baby body and underwear on the outside, he was hysterically funny to children because he ran so contrary to expectations. Plus, “underpants” is the funniest word to kids!
Can Nonfiction Be Funny?
Interesting facts are a huge draw to nonfiction, especially for middle grade readers, but when you add the allure of humor, it does tend to crank the appeal up even further. This is why humor is mentioned as often in submissions guidelines for nonfiction markets as it is for fiction markets.
Humor takes real life and pushes it farther. For example, I once took a swim class in college. On the first day (after Christmas break where I'd been basically laying around and eating, the tiny little angry swim teacher ordered us into the pool to do laps. Lots of laps. In all kinds of different styles. I made it through the laps but it was not easy and I was puffing. Then she told us to tread water while she gave us the rules for the class. Treading water was not my best thing even when I had spent weeks in sloth mode. But I did it. And just before I was pretty sure I was going to drown, she told us all to get out. I got out. As I puffed and whimpered, she began telling us what we'd be doing next which involved swimming more laps but faster. I decided to get out while the getting was good, especially since I was sitting outside the scary instructor's line of sight. I scooted further to be directly behind her. Then I tried to get up. Nope. Noodle legs. No standing for Jan. So I began crawling toward the door to the showers. I figured that I'd be able to stand by the time I got to the little "foot bath" indentation right outside the dressing room door. Nope. I crawled through that too, pulled open the shower room door and crawled inside, never to return to class again. When I tell that story, there are a lot of laughs. It's real life and it really happened, but it takes real life and pushes it a long, long way further than most folks can imagine. And no one actually got hurt. So it's funny.
I can also add humor to nonfiction simply by the way I set up expectations and then run around them. I can look at a subject and ask myself: is there any way this is contrary to what someone might expect? Say I'm writing about an ostrich farm. There is plenty of potential humor in that because when we think of farm birds, we picture chickens and turkeys, maybe ducks. We don't picture a creature that can stand between 5 feet and 9 feet. We don't picture an animal that can run up to 43 miles per hour and weigh over 200 pounds. And we certainly don't picture something that can successfully defend itself against a lion, cheetah, leopard, or hyena by kicking. All of these contrasts to "normal" farm birds could be used humorously when the differences are pointed out in a surprising way. For example, imagine turning a chicken into an ostrich. They're both birds who don't fly, so what would you have to do? Well, he'd have to eat a lot since the average ostrich weighs more than forty chickens. And you'd want to stretch his legs and neck a long, long way. As you can see, as you encourage children to see the ridiculous transformation from chicken to ostrich, you have a good chance at making them laugh.
Where to Be Most Effectively Funny
If humor isn't your best skill, it makes sense to use it in small doses where it will do the most good. A clever title might be such a place. Titles with lively alliteration can be funny (especially if you employ "k" sounds, which many comics argue is the funniest sound in the English language). Subtitles can allow you to continue playing with the humor of the title. Humor can also sneak into comparisons (such as the ostrich/chicken example above) or anecdotes (like my near-drowning in college).
Definitely avoid mean-spirited humor or humor that somehow disparages a group of people. That is not only problematic for readers but will often prevent a publisher from considering your piece, so keep the humor positive and uplifting. In fiction, humor from a character who is self-deprecating will often work better than humor a character uses against other characters. Some publishers will consider the second kind of humor if (1) reader age is high enough, and (2) the humor is only directed at "bad guys," and (3) if the humor isn't insulting to a group of people (for instance, humor based on laughing at fat people used to be common in kid stories, but that kind of hurtful humor has fallen radically out of favor. That doesn't mean you'll never see it, but it does mean that if a publisher picks it up, you're likely to get some very bad reviews).
Humor is one way to make your writing more appealing to publishers, so if it's something you're comfortable dabbling in (or something you're willing to be brave and try) it can help super-charge your submissions this year. And that kind of success is something we can all use.
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? Show us a sample of your work here.