Teachers Write! 7/2 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning! It’s time for a Monday  mini-lesson, but first, let’s announce the winner of Friday’s giveaway.  Congratulations, Margaret Simon!  You’ve won an audiobook of Rosanne Parry’s SECOND FIDDLE.  Please email me your mailing address (kmessner at kate messner dot com) so that Rosanne can send along your book.

Today’s featured author guest is Jo Whitmore, the author of funny middle grade books like D IS FOR DRAMA, ODD GIRL IN, and FRONT PAGE FACE-OFF. Visit Jo at her website: http://www.jowhittemore.com/

Good morning, ladies and gents!

This week we’re pushing back our sleeves and getting up to our elbows in humor.

Let’s start with this statement: HUMOR IS ABOUT THE UNEXPECTED

This is true 80% of the time. The remaining 20% is humor that you know is coming but is still ridiculous enough to make you laugh (A toddler carrying a whiffle ball bat with Dad walking behind him? You just KNOW what’s going to happen)

But for the most part, we laugh at something because we didn’t expect it. It’s an interesting twist on an ordinary situation. You’re taking something familiar to the reader and letting them see it in a new light. That’s humor.

Keep that in mind throughout this lesson.

The four important things to remember about writing humor are:

  1. Setup & Execution
  2. Timing
  3. Word choice
  4. Audience

1. Setup & Execution

The setup is the lead-in to a joke. The execution is the punchline.


In riddle form, setup is usually a question. “What flowers are the best kissers?”

With the execution being the answer. “Tulips.”

In novel-writing, we see setup as narration (in the form of an observation) or dialogue (in the form of banter). Oftentimes, the setup will give no sign that there’s humor ahead (remember: humor is in the unexpected) and may simply be a statement of fact.

Setup: It’s really hot outside.

Execution: I saw a chicken lay a hard-boiled egg.

Was that setup funny? No. Just a simple observation. It’s up to the execution to bring the fun. Setups…so lazy!

When it comes to dialogue, the rule is usually the same, the first character offering an observation that the second one turns into a joke. If the first character poses a question, it’s usually rhetorical OR the answer provided by the second character is a humorous but indirect response.

“Do you think people treat me like a baby?” I ask.

She eyes my plate. “You’re eating pre-cut steak with a spork.”

2. Timing

Timing encompasses both the pause between setup and execution AND the rhythmic beats WITHIN the setup and execution.

If you’re setting up a joke, the execution should follow in the next one or two sentences. Otherwise, the tie breaks down between the two.

Example of bad timing, using an earlier joke:

It’s really hot outside. I know because I went for a walk, seriously craving ice cream…Rocky Road, which is my favorite. But they were out so I got Bubble Gum instead and then on the way home I saw a chicken lay a hard-boiled egg.

We lose the joke.

Just set it up and knock it down.

Your sentence structure should also have a rhythm to it, like poetry. If a setup/execution is too short, it falls flat. If a setup/execution is too long, it falls flat. Read both parts aloud and pay attention to the number of beats you use and how it flows.

And don’t forget the importance of the pause at the END of a joke. It gives the reader a chance to process it and realize you are hilarious.

How do you pause in writing? By letting the characters react. That’s a sign to the reader that they should react too.

3. Word Choice

It’s not just how you say something, it’s WHAT you say. If you’ve heard the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke, you know there are dozens of answers, some funnier than others. Why? Because of the words chosen for the response.

You want your punchline to be unexpected but not far-fetched. You want ridiculous but not impossible. Readers will suspend disbelief for humor, but only so much.

Okay: My mom cooks the weirdest things. At least no one can say they make a better squirrel pie.

Too far: My mom cooks the weirdest things. At least no one can say they make a better unicorn pie.

Why is that too far? Because if this is a contemporary novel, unicorns don’t exist (sorry, kids). You’re making a joke about something that couldn’t possibly happen.

Also, to bring timing back up…did you notice the rhythm seemed better with the squirrel punchline? It was only one beat off from unicorn, but it flowed better.

Back to word choice.


You can, and usually will, make a joke better by switching out words in the punchline or going for a completely different punchline. Sometimes, you may have the perfect punchline but the setup just needs to be tweaked to meet it. That joke I wrote about the steak and the spork? I knew that’s what I wanted the punchline to be. I just had to reword the setup to lead into it.

4. Audience

All jokes will not work for all audiences. You have to take into account the age of your reader/gender/intelligence/pop culture awareness/etc when writing any joke. For example, if I’m writing for tween girls, I’m not going to throw in humor about the stock market because most aren’t old enough to know/care what that is. Your setup can usually work for any reader. It’s the execution that will vary. And be careful with sarcasm, especially for younger audiences that haven’t yet grasped the concept. If you MUST use sarcasm with them, make sure to include a gesture that shows the speaker isn’t serious, such as an eye roll.

And there you have the bare bones of humor.

Now go out there and make ‘em laugh!

Assignment choices for this week:

Take the setup for a joke from your current WIP and write three different punchlines for it. If you’re writing a serious piece, take the observation below and write three different punchlines for it:

I don’t get the appeal of clowns.


This adorable picture is your setup.

Caption it with something funny (your punchline)

Want more to write about today?  Check out Jo’s Monday morning warm-up, too. Happy writing!

34 Replies on “Teachers Write! 7/2 – Mini-Lesson Monday

  1. (This is completely fictional. Humor is difficult to write, isn’t it?)

    Two years ago, I took my young daughter to the Pigtop Circus. We walked there, to the fairgrounds, hand-in-hand, me with odd memories of my own visits to a similar show (but with cows, if you can believe it) and she with dreams of cotton candy and piggy antics. My wife had insisted that I be the one to take her.
    “You love those kinds of things,” she said, as she gathered up her ice tea and book for a day of lying in the sun. To be honest, I would have loved to join her on the deck with my mystery novel and a beer, but the look on Samantha’s face was too much to ignore.
    “Fine,” I replied, “we’ll go see the Pig Circus.”
    “Pigtop!” my daughter reminded me, as if it mattered. In the back of my mind, though, I had doubts. A circus of pigs? What’s that all about? Well, it became obvious once we were inside that indeed it was pigs. Just pigs, nothing but pigs. Pigs running races. Pigs balancing balls on their heads. Pigs dancing. Pigs driving little scooters. Pigs, pigs, pigs.
    “Ooooo,” my daughter said at one point, pulling on my hand as three little pigs tossed a stuffed wolf around the ring in some odd twist to the fairy tale. “Look. Clowns.”
    Indeed, they had sent in the clowns. Two overgrown porkers and a human trainer dressed like a clown, who eyed the crowd for volunteer. I looked down at my shoes. My daughter grabbed my hand and lifted it high. You know the rest of the story. I was the chosen one. “No thanks,” I tried to mutter but the look at Samantha’s face was too much to bear. “Fine.”
    My humiliation in the ring won’t be shared here. Let’s just say that among other things, I would suggest you not find yourself in a situation where you need to kiss a pig or dance the cha-cha-cha with a large animal. It’s not all that enjoyable. The crowd loved it, of course. As did Samantha. As I left the ring to applause, the head clown pulled me over to the side. His big red nose almost touched my face.
    “Thanks, man. You were a great sport. Here. Take this.”
    I looked down at the sheet of paper. It was a certificate for a free breakfast. All the bacon you could eat. I looked at him, and he smiled. “Enjoy,” he shouted and clapped me on the back. I never did get the appeal of clowns, and I wasn’t about to start now.

    — Kevin

    1. For saying that humor was hard to write, you had me smiling/laughing a lot. It is always fun to stretch ourselves as writers and to realize that we can surprise ourselves with something new/challenging.

      I especially loved the wife encouraging the husband to go because I could picture a couple of times that I did that to my husband. Then in general your word choice such as the play on big top, the repetition of pig in the initial description of the circus, funny combos like “two overgrown porkers”…

  2. 1.
    “I don’t get the appeal of clowns,” Batman said tightly.
    “How ’bout you put me down, and we discuss this like two normal people?” said the Joker, dangling by his collar, 30 stories up.

    “I don’t get the appeal of clowns,” the man muttered to himself.
    “Finish your make-up and do your job,” said the ringmaster, rushing by.

    “I don’t get the appeal of clowns,” the man said to the boy standing there.
    “I want a balloon dog,” the boy said and stomped on the man’s big red shoe.

  3. I love humor in books. Aside from giving me ideas to experiment in my own writing, this post will help me to view mentor texts differently by noticing how authors set up the four areas that you mentioned. Thank you!

  4. Photo caption:
    “We aren’t chickens. No one cares why you crossed the road.”

  5. Great suggestions Jo! Humor is tricky. It’s really hard to make people laugh. If you’re looking for a great example of humor in the unexpected, Blue Hat Green Hat by Sandra Boynton is spot on for kids from about 18 months to 2 1/2 years old. Why? Because they’re just learning how to get dressed so the turkey who doesn’t know how to wear clothes is hilarious. Great pacing in that book too.

    I heard a comedian speak once about working up a monologue and he said for every joke he picks he tries 50 to 100 versions of it, auditioning every single word in the joke. Jo did a great job with her example. Squirrel pie is funnier that skunk pie, hedgehog pie, buffalo pie, mouse pie, rat pie, eel pie, hummingbird pie, kangaroo pie, raccoon pie, possum pie, and ground hog pie. On the other hand porcupine pie and cuckoo bird pie might also work. Or if you reworked the set up or added on a follow up joke you could probably figure out how to do something with cutie pie.

    1. Thanks for the book suggestion! And yes, revision is everything with good writing.
      And baking a cutie pie. Hahaha! Disturbing. A Cannibal Family Christmas. 😉

  6. Photo caption:
    “Help me, Mom! I’m drowning!”
    “Pip, you’re not even in water! And how many times have I told you to stop practicing your backstroke in the road?” Mom yells.
    “But you won’t let me swim in the pond without my life preserver,” Pip replies.
    “And you follow rules so well. You’re not even supposed to be in the road without your helmet.”

    Jo, thank you for today’s mini-lesson!

    1. Hahaha! That’s one overprotective mama bird!
      And you’re welcome. I hope some of that information comes in handy!

  7. Caption:
    “Oh sweetie, get up quick,” Momma Duck said to her duckling, “or instead of why did the chicken cross the road, people are going to start asking why did the duck fall off the curb!”

    1. Ha! That would be an awesome new set of riddles. 🙂
      Why did the duck fall off the curb? There was a quack in it!

    1. Thanks for sharing your emotional, well-written Story Stew. You did an amazing job of capturing the scene, and developing your characters. My eyes are still trying not to cry.

  8. I didn’t get to try this out today but hope to make it part of Wednesday’s workout. Humor is harder to do than seems. It takes lots of practice. Thanks to all who posted ideas to share. You had me laughing!

  9. “I don’t get the appeal of clowns.”
    It seems that their every day is a bad hair day.

    I remember a great pillow fight, and I see that they don’t call it ‘duck down’ for nothing.

  10. Jo – thanks for this great how-to lesson. My WIP is historical fiction but there are a number of scenes where my young-teen characters banter and tease that are meant to be funny – will keep this lesson in mind and revisit those scenes.

    1. You’re welcome! And humor definitely builds character…literally in this case. 😉

  11. Caption for the photo:

    “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Ducklings don’t lead! Ducklings FOLLOW!”

  12. NOW do you believe me?


    Mm-Hmm, had to see for yourself, didn’t you?


    Get up! We don’t have change for the meter!


    I’d give that a 7 out of 10.

  13. Humor comes easy to me so that is why I didn’t participate in the activity. I did the Monday morning warm-up. LOVED IT!


    • An elderly woman
    • A young girl
    • A hat
    • A piece of paper
    • A hospital waiting room
    • Nostalgic
    • Anxious

    She never says it, but I can feel it and I can see it. Those warm brown eyes are now cold and tired of the burden she keeps experiencing. First, my mother drops off me off for one night that turned into now twelve years. Now I sit in this waiting room anticipating my doctor to tell me what is going on with my pregnancy. Supposed to be graduating from high school, first in my family, on my way to a college but that seems impossible with a baby on the way. Yes, I am fourteen years old and expecting my first child. No, I didn’t plan to be with child. Most teenagers don’t. We just want to see what all the hype is all about. Does it really feel the way the song makes it feel? Apparently, it feels better than I expected because I let who used to be my boyfriend do me without a condom. He promised he would pull out, but I will never trust a guy again. Matter of fact, I will wait until I am married. At least try to . . . Sometimes I wish I can push the rewind button back to that moment. Life was so more simpler without worrying about motherhood . . . I should be worrying about buying tickets to a Diggy concert or how to wear my hair on the first day of school instead of which shirt will hide the belly better.
    As she reads her bible, I watch her look up to God for answers. Every now and again she moves the wisps of her hair from her bun out of her face. I wish she would push the glasses back up to the top of her nose, but she has claimed for years that she reads better with them resting in that spot. I pull my Yankees’ hat further down on my face, hoping no one else will notice a baby carrying a baby.
    “What is taking the doctor so long?” I asked impatiently.
    “Sweetie, we are in an emergency room with whole bunch of brown faces,” she replied without looking up from her reading. “They are not in a rush. They need to stop calling this an emergency room.” She shakes her head then looks over the room at the other patients waiting to be seen.
    “I guess I have to be shot to be rushed through those doors, huh, moma?”
    “Yes, sweetie. I reckon so. How you feeling,” she makes eye contact with me.
    “The cramping has stopped, but I am still worried. What if something is wrong with the baby?” I asked rubbing my pregnant belly. I am six months and know that I am carrying a girl.
    “That is why we are here to see the doctor. Let me go see what the holdup is,” she then scoots to the edge of chair and uses the armrests as leverage.
    To stop the bible from hitting the floor, I grab it and realize she doesn’t even notice. Neither does she notice the letter that fell out. I see my name on the envelope and wonder why I never say it. It is from my mother.