Our Tuesday Quick-Write guest today is Kim Baker, the author of Pickle, a hilarious middle grade prank novel with a great, diverse cast of characters. Kim’s sharing not just a quick writing prompt today but a look inside her humor toolbox so we can all develop new strategies to get readers laughing.
It’s been said that you can’t teach humor. To those people, I say HA! Humor is essential to a good story, and sometimes we are able to reach kids through humor that are otherwise reluctant to read. I may not be able to teach you (or myself) a quick wit, or a catalog of one-liners, but have you ever thought of something funny you could’ve said in that conversation you had with that one guy three weeks ago? You stewed on it and you came up with that zinger that would have been HILARIOUS, once you were home alone. It’s like how you mull over your story. You can weave humor in after the fact as you draft and revise.
Nobody knows when you put it there, and it can serve your stories in many ways. There’s no universally accepted reason for what makes something funny, but we have some likely suspects that are hit or miss depending on the situation (and in our cases, the development and age of our readers). Before writing, I was a children’s crisis counselor and took a lot of psychology classes, so bear with me while we look at a few quick theories on why humans find things funny.
Superiority/Humans are Jerks Theory: People feel amused when they feel superior over others (Hobbes). Slimy, but kind of true, especially for kids who are struggling with their abilities and looking for that carrot on the stick that they’re doing something right (e.g. reading comprehension, social relationships, etc.). Superiority is assurance.
Incongruity/Wait…what? Theory: People laugh when what happens doesn’t match their expectations (Aristotle).
Benign-Violation/Absurdity without Danger! Theory: Expectation threatened + benign situation= Funny (McGraw and Warren).
Relief/Laughing at Inappropriate Times Theory: Things are funnier when we need to reduce tension (Freud).
I have been known to laugh in inappropriate situations. It’s a curse, but even in the most dramatic stories, humor is a great way to cut the tension a bit when the reader is ready for a little break.
We need readers to empathize with our characters, and humor can be a result of that. The best novels (IMHO) find a balance between drama and humor because, ideally, it’s similar to real life. Your character wants something, needs something else, and moves through the plot arc toward a satisfying resolution. But you can’t solve problems for them, or too quickly, and the next best thing can be to find some humor. Kid readers can come to terms with what concerns them, like emotionally stressful situations, indirectly through humor. Stories should be unique, but for empathy’s sake, the character’s emotional reaction should be pretty universal. Here are a few areas (with some minor spoilers) where a writer (read: YOU.) can play with humor in your manuscripts.
PREMISE: A humorous premise is a great springboard.
Examples: In THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, two sisters move from a South Carolina trailer part to New York and attempt to win a million dollar cooking contest. In Linda Urban’s fantastic A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT, the main character wants a piano, but her dad buys her a wheezebag organ. It’s universal that parents can be absent and/or disappointing.
TENSION AND FORESHADOWING: Along with relieving tension, humor is a great way to build it.
Example: The cheese touch in Jeff Kinney’s DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. This running joke is revealed early in the story, and tension rises as the reader grows to suspect that Greg will eventually intersect with the dreaded cheese.
SITUATIONAL: Opportunities for humorous situations abound, as long as they serve the story. Humorous situations can move the story along and lead us to empathize with the protagonist. And the more characters we can empathize with, the funnier a scene will be.
Examples: The main character in DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos gets nosebleeds when feeling stressed. In Judy Blume’s classic TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, the protagonist’s pet turtle is eaten by his little brother, supporting the universal truth that little brothers can be a pain.
SHOWING INSTEAD OF TELLING: You’ve heard the adage “Show, don’t tell” and humor offers ways to do that.
Examples: In Kate DiCamillo’s MERCY WATSON series, she never tells us that the Watsons are unabashedly devoted to their pet pig, Mercy. And she never says that Mercy is…self-absorbed. She shows it through actions throughout the story. Readers can identify with pet devotion and possibly having overly devoted caregivers. It’s an empathy-o-rama.
The protagonist in Adam Rex’s THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY is hiding from an alien while trying to find her mom. The alien shouts, “There is no to fear! The Boov are no longer eating you people!” There’s no lengthy backstory on how the aliens initially ate people when they first arrived or their struggles with language, it’s all implied in one funny line.
DIALOGUE: Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to add humor to a scene. The overall tone of the story needn’t be humorous. If you want to add a bit of levity to an otherwise serious story, it won’t disturb the general ambiance. And if you can think one of your characters as funny (as opposed to you as the writer), it breaks down inhibitions. A sarcastic kid will mostly be sarcastic with a few trusted, safe people but maybe not everyone. Dialogue humor is nuanced. What can you show by how your characters use humor? Does she joke when nervous? Does he show his intelligence through sly references? Personality comes through in humor and response.
Jackson glanced at the open padlock by his feet. “03-22-33. Captain Kirk’s birthday, right?”
Hashemi scratched his head. “How did—“
“Seriously? You’re carrying a Star Trek battle axe.”
“It’s called a Lirpa.”
“All I’m saying is, your lock combination is way too easy to crack.”
— THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson
“Funny you should ask about my mom, sir,” I shout. “I figured you might do that, figured this might be the first thing you bring up when somebody as little as me— as little looking as me— walks up to your Greyhound ticket counter, a counter you’re doing one heck of a job manning, to request a ticket out of here.”
I’m losing him. I’m losing him. “It’s downright ludicrous, I’ll admit as much, but on the topic of my mom: She’s just in the bathroom. And I’m sure she’ll be out in just a moment, but she’s going through a bit of a stomach ailment and asked that I please take care of my ticket, alone, before she gets out. Because it could take quite a while.”
Libby and I had rehearsed this speech, and perhaps even over-rehearsed it.
—BETTER NATE THAN EVER by Tim Federle
CHARACTERIZATION: Think about what makes a character is funny. Intentional and unintentional humor are pretty different. And at the start when you thought about whether or not you’re “funny,” maybe you consider yourself funny, but only in specific situations, or with certain people. Characters are like that, too.
Examples: Doug Swieteck in Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now and Jocelyn in Heidi Schulz’s Hook’s Revenge.
Snark and sarcasm may have their place, but (especially with a 1st person narrative), proceed with caution.
Avoid clichés. If you must tell a tired joke, do it in a fresh way.
Watch out for humor “signals.” If you feel like pointing out how your characters laughed at something, make it stronger so that your reader knows they laughed without being told.
Scatological humor should be used sparingly, if at all. Kids get grossed out, too.
You can also convey humor through setting, interaction, expectations, obstacles, threats /challenges/conflicts, confusion, misunderstanding, antagonism, surprise, satire, and the juxtaposition of a character’s wants and needs. There’s SO MUCH rich potential. And the more funny stories we write, the more we can read.
So, on to the exercises!
P.S. You can find a list of additional funny books on my website, and please let me know if you have any recommendations!
#1: Write down five favorite funny passages, scenes, sections of dialogue, etc. from books, TV, movies, etc. and take note of how the humor worked.
#2: Create a scene of short dialogue between two characters when they each think they’re talking about something else (e.g., Chunk’s confession to the Fratellis in The Goonies, the interogation scene in My Cousin Vinny, etc.).
#3: Write down three funny events from your childhood. Think about why and how they were funny. Now embellish and expand.
Note from Kate: Feel free to share one of your responses (1, 2, or 3) in the comments today – just be sure to let us know to which of Kim’s prompts you’re responding!