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Writing Humor (As Demonstrated by Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
by Eugie Foster

Return to Writing for Children · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

What's hot and what's not in the children's publishing biz fluctuates, and for a writer, staying on top of what's in and what's out can be the last straw in a long line of . . . straws. But there is something that has remained consistently in demand in not only children's publishing, but fiction markets across the board.


Funny sells. Kids love to laugh. (Don't we all?) And there's an ongoing need for material that gets young readers giggling and chortling out loud, whether the market is picture books, chapter books, or novels.

However, funny is hard to write. Humor is subjective and personal; a joke that one person will laugh at until they're blue in the face and twitching on the floor, another won't even crack a grin over. While we all know what makes us, personally, laugh, when asked to break it down and explain the nuts and bolts of our senses of humor, we end up scratching our heads. Something is either funny or it's not.

Humor is also hard to write about, and, as my opening "last straw" line should have convinced you, I need help. So, to assist me in exploring the nature of writing humor, I've enlisted the aid of one of my favorite television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, renowned for its brilliantly written wit and humor.

"Y'know, with that kind of attitude you could've had a bright future as an employee at the DMV."
--Xander ("What's My Line, Part One," Season 1)

There are three traditional theories of humor1: superiority, incongruity, and relief. The superiority theory espouses that humor takes the form of schadenfreude,, enjoyment obtained from someone else's misfortune2. Essentially, other people's mistakes, stupidity, or misfortune gives us a pleasurable feeling, which elicits laughter.

As uncomfortable as this is to contemplate--for we don't like being reminded that we're not always compassionate and kindhearted--who hasn't giggled at an inappropriate moment at someone else? Pie-in-the-face gags, softballs to the groin, kittens tipping face-down into a bowl of water--people laugh at these. And children, without the veneer of civilization acquired through maturity and empathy realized through experience, often find cruel jokes funny. It boosts their self-assertiveness and bolsters their burgeoning sense of self and belonging3. Adolescents and teens, particularly, are going through an awkward and intense developmental time, and humor is a way to reinforce a group's solidarity by mocking deviants and insulting outsiders. It can also be a protective mechanism, laughing at someone else to keep from being laughed at4.

"I laugh in the face of danger. Then I hide until it goes away."
--Xander ("The Witch," Season 1)

However, when writing for kids, malicious humor is really not going to be well received by editors and publishers (or parents, teachers, and librarians). But a way to tap into this facet of the human funny bone is with self-deprecating humor5. The ability to not take yourself seriously is a virtue in our society, and characters who can mock themselves are both funny and easy to empathize with. Characters who are able to see their own shortcomings and express it with wit and candor allow readers to laugh with instead of at them.

Buffy: "He's a vampire. Okay? Demon? Preternaturally strong, skilled with powers no human could possibly ever--"
Vampire (trying to get out of his grave): "Excuse me. I think I'm stuck."
--"Lessons," Season 7

The relief theory views humor and laughter as a sort of pressure valve release. Life's stressors create excitement and mental agitation, which build up, creating pressure, which, in turn, is relieved by humor and laughter6,7.

Every writer knows (or should know) that pacing is essential in creating an engaging story. The proper balance of action, dialogue, and narrative results in a compelling tale that provides readers with enough information to ground themselves, a reason to care about what happens, and a satisfying reading experience. However, if your pacing is off, readers may become bored, confused, or overwhelmed.

Humor, in its release valve capacity, is a time-honored strategy for establishing and maintaining good pacing. Plot elements and obstacles create tension and suspense, which, without some relief, may become too intense. A well-placed joke releases this tension, which in turn, allows you to build more tension.

"For a thousand years I wielded the powers of The Wish. I brought ruin to the heads of unfaithful men. I brought forth destruction and chaos for the pleasure of the lower beings. I was feared and worshipped across the mortal globe. And now I'm stuck at Sunnydale High. Mortal. Child. And I'm flunking math."
--Anya ("Doppelgangland," Season 3)

The incongruity theory suggests that when expectation is turned around, when we anticipate one outcome and another happens, it's funny8. By replacing logic and familiarity with the paradoxical, the ludicrous, or the absurd, our thoughts and emotions switch gears, and the result is humor.

The basis of another popular strategy in writing humor, incongruous humor leads with a set-up which is familiar or expected, and then undercuts it with the unexpected. As a strategy, writers figure out what's "normal" and then come up with the opposite. But when writing this kind of humor, it's important to keep yourself grounded in reality. If you distort the situation too much, objectives and emotions don't resonate, and you end up with a puzzled audience rather than an amused one.

Xander: "What, and suck all the spontaneity out of being young and stupid? I'd rather live in the dark."
Willow: "You're not gonna be young forever."
Xander: "Yes, but I'll always be stupid."
--"What's My Line, Part One," Season 1

When writing for kids, it's imperative that you know the sensibilities and aptitudes of your audience. It's even more important when writing humor. The expectations and world view of adults is different from that of young readers, resulting in a sense of humor that is typically more subtle, more tolerant, and less judgmental about differences. What adults find funny, young kids may either not understand or may not find funny. But on the other hand, writers who underestimate their audience, mistaking lack of experience for a dearth of sophistication, risk alienating their target readers.

Xander: "What if she vomits?"
Dawn (very muffled): "I won't vomit."
Buffy: "Do you think she'll vomit?"
Dawn (very muffled): "Stop talking about vomit!"
--"Same Time, Same Place," Season 7

We're laughing by the time we're four months old. Young readers are learning about and discovering their world around them, and a lot of what's funny to them is their surroundings. It's why "toilet humor" is so popular with this audience; it's another, unexpected way of exploring their world. As such, humor for toddlers should be concepts that are short and simple.

Cordelia: "Well, does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?"
Xander: "I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex."
--"Innocence," Season 2

Older kids have a more developed sense of humor, reflecting the increased maturity of their minds and their greater experience. Teen humor often focuses on sex, food, authority figures, and anything that adults consider off-limits. Humor for young adults should resonate with their world view.


Xander: "We're goin' up against a god. An actual mightier-than-thou god."
Willow: "Well, you know what they say. The bigger they are--"
Anya: "The faster they stomp you into nothing."
--"Blood Ties," Season 5

  • Read funny stuff geared at all ages, and get to know the type of humor that works for various developmental stages.

  • Watch standup comedians to study their timing and delivery. Make a list of authors who write material that kicks your funny bone into overdrive and study their technique.

  • Don't try to make everything funny. One killer line is better than five so-so's or (worse) misses.

  • Set up your humor carefully, hiding the payoff or punch line until the end. Don't be the guy laughing so hard at your own joke that you ruin it for your audience. And when you deliver the punch, for best effect, end the sentence or paragraph with it.

  • When you're stuck, when you think you've run out of ideas, dig deeper. Come up with another one, then another. Keep going until you get that great line.

  • Keep it real with your characters. Relationships and connections are essential to nearly every joke. Even your comic relief characters still have to be three-dimensional in order for your readers to care about what happens to them.

  • Reality is funny. Delve into your own life experiences, events that happened to you growing up, to hit a personal and humorous chord with your readers.


Buffy: "What is this?"
Willow: "A doodle. I do doodle. You too. You do doodle, too."
--"Gingerbread," Season 3

Words are funny. Play with words and their meanings, sounds, and spellings. Become familiar with homonyms, onomatopoeia, and rhyming words. A rhyming dictionary is a great creative tool. Use words that sound silly to make your writing funnier.

"Besides, I can just tell something's wrong. My spider sense is tingling."
--Buffy ("I Robot, You Jane," Season 1)

Pay attention to pop culture.

Willow: "It is nice. He's great. We have a lot of fun. But I want smoochies!"
Buffy: "Have you dropped any hints?"
Willow: "I've dropped anvils."
--"Phases," Season 2

Exaggeration, extrapolation, and absurdity are effective tools when writing humor. Make things bigger, brighter, and bolder.

And remember, if you aren't laughing, chances are, your readers won't be either.


1Monro, D. H. (1988). Theories of Humor. In L. Behrens & L. J. Rosen (Eds.),
Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum (3rd ed). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.

2Hobbes, T. (1840). Human Nature. In W. Molesworth (Ed.), English Works, 4. London: Bohn.

3Tierney, J. (2007, March 13). What's So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing. New York Times. http://tinyurl.com/2zhlby

4Brain, M. (N.D.). How Laughter Works. How Stuff Works. http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter.htm

5Solomon, R. (2002). Are the Three Stooges Funny? Soitainly! (or When is it OK to Laugh?). In J. Rudinow & A. Graybosch (Eds.), Ethics and Values in the Information Age. Wadsworth.

6Freud, S. (1928). Humor. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9,1-6.

7Spencer, H. (1860). The physiology of laughter. Macmillan's Magazine, 1, 395-402.

8Schopenhauer, A. (1969). The World as Will and Representation, II, E. F. J. Payne, trans. New York: Dover Publications.

Find Out More...

Knock 'em Dead... Laughing! - Stephen D. Rogers

Copyright © 2007 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.


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