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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pay attention to pop culture.
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.
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Copyright © 2007 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.