January 9, 2020
Much of the humor in the books I write, both the children's books and the adult mysteries, involve the dialogue. Because dialogue reveals character, it's a perfect opportunity for the characters to show their funny side.
On the part of the character, humor in dialogue can be intentional or unintentional. A character may intentionally tell jokes or have a passion for playing with words. Or a character may be a bit clueless and thus say things that the character takes seriously but the reader sees as funny. (Amelia Bedelia or Wordy Birdy would be examples of a clueless funny characters in classic and current children's books.)
Humor can occur in normal dialogue or inner dialogue (through thoughts the characters have while listening to others but wouldn't voice aloud.) Many (if not most) books for young people use humor at some point in the story and the dialogue is often the place it lands. Why is humor so ubiquitous? Well, it can do a lot of jobs for us.
Humor in dialogue can help us like and connect with a character.
Not every character is likeable in the sense that you'd want to hang out with this person in real life, but every character needs to be someone we want to hang out with in the story. That means a character doesn't need to be a good person to be a likable character. Some villains are extremely likeable as we look forward to seeing what they will do or say next. We like them on the page because they are entertaining. Characters like this are often funny as well. Consider Loki in the Avengers movie franchise. He is technically a villain (he has killed people for fun, so a villain is the status he gets), but he is a trickster and he's funny. Moviegoers looked forward to what he would do or say next because it was always going to be surprising. Readers love to be surprised and the core of successful humor is surprise. We laugh when a character says something that surprises us.
Let's consider some dialogue from a children's book, The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey. When we are introduced to the Big Bad Wolf, he desperately wants to reform his image. So he gathers some other creatures who don't have a great reputation and tries to talk them into being good guys. The dialogue's humor plays on the wolf's desperation to be seen as good vs. the other creatures who are not exactly falling in line.
Wolf: "Aren't you tired of being the villain? Aren't you tired of the screams? Aren't you tired of the fear?"
Piranha: "Not particularly."
Snake: "Not in the slightest."
So the humor in this dialogue from this comes from the contrast between wolf's efforts to convince and the other characters' response to it. The reader comes to like the wolf for his goal of becoming good, but we also like the piranha and the snake who are unrepentantly bad. They're perfect foils for the wolf, and they're blunt and funny. We know there will be considerable conflict here and that is interesting, but the humor in the dialogue assures us that's it's never going to be too bad.
Humor in dialogue can give us a rest during a tense story line.
In The Bad Guys series, every book is funny from beginning to end, but humor is also important to serious books. Humor can offer the reader a moment of rest from a book full of danger or simply full of stressful situations. Consider this bit of dialogue from John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, a book about the life of a young cancer patient (so obviously a book full of serious and painful moments). In this moment, the main character and her mother are arguing about going to a support group for young cancer patients.
Mom: "Hazel, you're a teenager. You're not a little kid anymore. You need to make friends, get out of the house, and live your life."
Me: "If you want me to be a teenager, don't send me to Support Group. Buy me a fake ID so I can go to clubs, drink vodka, and take pot."
Mom: "You don't take pot, for starters."
Me: "See, that's the kind of thing I'd know if you got me a fake ID."
It may not be belly laugh humor, but the main character's unique life view offers us little funny surprises throughout and keep the book from being horrifically morose and grim. Humor can be used in the same way to give us a break in a very tense story. That's why adventure story main characters so often have a humorous outlook or humorous dialogue. Those breaks of humor help avoid a story that is too tense. Readers can only handle the ramping up of tension for so long before it become unpleasant, so humorous dialogue can be a way to ease that.
Humor in dialogue can offer a bit of truth without being preachy.
There is a reason why comedians are often political or given to social commentary. It's because humor offers a way of making important statements without sounding preachy. In children's writing, one of the most frequent warnings in guidelines is that the publisher isn't looking for preachy stories, but they may be looking for meaningful stories. So how does a writer manage to speak important truths without being preachy? Humor is often the way in. A writer who makes a reader laugh will get the reader to listen.
Let's consider a classic humor book: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In this story, the main character is thrown into a Christmas pageant with the worst kids ever, the Herdman siblings. The main character is funny, but clearly judgmental of the Herdman kids. As the absurd and funny story unfolds, the main character's viewpoint changes. The book is absolutely crammed with lessons about accepting others and passing judgment. If it were written in a very serious tone, it definitely wouldn't pass the "preachy" test, but because the book is written with so much humor, the reader never notices they’re being taught lessons. In The Gift Inside The Box by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, comic style art and dialogue balloons convey a package's search for a less greedy owner. The lively illustrated action and dialogue help soften the blow of the clear lessons about giving and getting in the story. In both of these examples, and many more, humor is used to work around the problem of making a strong lesson more palatable.
What are some things to keep in mind with humor?
Humor that works tends to be aware of the maturity level of the reader. For example, sarcasm doesn't work for young readers who are rather literal. They may get sarcasm when it's spoken but not when it's written. But sarcasm is almost a staple of teen humor. Teens often don't need the "help" of hearing the speaker's tone to know it's sarcasm, but younger readers will struggle. Very beginning readers will usually have trouble with humor based on puns as that kind of word play adds an added level of difficulty to the challenge of reading. Also, keep in mind that mean-spirited humor can be hard to sell to some publishers. Highlights, for example, won't buy any story where a character calls another a name (even if it's funny or realistic kid dialogue).
Humor in dialogue is a powerful tool but must be carefully used. It needs to work for the maturity and reading ability of the child. It needs to work with any possible taboos of the publisher (for example, many educational publishers won't buy a book where young characters makes fun of teachers, even though we know that kids actually do that sometimes).
Humor needs to serve the story, just as every other element. So when you consider a piece of dialogue, ask yourself, "Why did I use that?" If the only answer is "because it's funny," that may not be enough.
- Does it make a character more engaging?
- Does it help us know this character?
- Is it in line with how I've written this character's personality?
- And does it add to the story by moving along the plot?
It may not do all of these things, but it must do more than simply be funny. Humor is a valuable dialogue tool, but like all of our writing tools, it must be wielded skillfully and with purpose. Do that and you'll be chuckling all the way to an acceptance letter.
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? Click here to let us help you write your book.