Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Write Humor for Kids

Kids love funny stories.

So do editors! They know that funny stories make reading fun for their readers, even the kids with poor skills or little motivation. They understand that humor can make age-old themes seem fresh. And they appreciate how moral lessons become more palatable and less preachy when served up alongside a serving of laughter.

How can you give editors what they’re looking for? Just write something funny.

If only it were that simple! Writing humor is serious business – and more difficult than most people realize. No one can tell you how to write a funny story, but here are a few practical suggestion for getting humor into what you write.

1) Make your character interact with a "little" kid. In a children’s story, a “little” kid is anybody younger than your readers. From the lofty reaches of your readers’ greater maturity and experience, a little kid’s mistakes, character flaws, and reactions are terribly funny. A further element of humor comes in with your main character’s frustrations dealing with the little kid. The Fudge books by Judy Blume are, of course, masterpieces in the use of this method, but it works well in short stories, too.

For example, the humor in my story, “Horse Fever,” (My Friend, February, 2001) comes from both little sister Ruthie’s belief that she can grow up to be a horse and big sister Amber’s difficulties convincing her of the truth. In the following scene, Amber tries to use a book about horses to get Ruthie to understand reality:

When we came to a picture of a colt, I said, “Why is that horse so little?”
“Because,” Ruthie said, “it’s a baby horse.”
“And one day it’ll be a grown-up horse, right?”
“Unless is wants to be a efelant,” she said.
“A what?”
“Efelant! You know, with a long nose!”
“Ruthie!” I cried. “A baby horse isn’t going to grow up to be an elephant!”
“You’re probably right,” she said thoughtfully. “Being a horse is the best thing. I bet that baby horse doesn’t want to change.”
“It can’t change!” I shouted.
“Amber,” said Ruthie very seriously. “The baby horse has to decide for itself.”

2) Let your main character dig himself a nice, deep hole. Whatever wrong thing the main character is doing, don’t let him get caught too quickly. Build humor by allowing him to succeed awhile, making ridiculous excuses, and fooling himself (but not your readers) that he’s going to keep getting away with things.

For example, in my play “Would I Lie to You?” (Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004) the main character tells big stories to impress the other kids. Of course, they eventually realize that she’s lying, and she loses everybody’s trust. Pretty deep hole, huh? But the main character digs herself in even further by pretending to be her own twin sister in order to get a fresh start! This situation provided lots of opportunities for funny interactions between the girl and the other characters before she had to do the right thing and ‘fess up.

3) Annoy your main character. If you want to really crack up your readers, bug the heck out of the main character while he deals with his troubles. For example, a story about a kid whose parents send her to summer camp even though she hates the outdoors has great potential for humor. But the story becomes even funnier if she has to partner up with someone who’s a camping fanatic. That secondary character can drive her nuts by relishing everything she detests!

A lot of funny things could happen in a story about an only child staying with a swarm of cousins, especially if the main character has a hard time adjusting to being around so many people. However, more humor might develop if the cousins live in a teeny house where the main character has to share a barracks-like bedroom and one little bathroom. The extra layer of aggravation could push the humor over the edge from amusing to hilarious.

4) Writer in first person. In a third-person story, you can report what your main character is thinking and feeling, but you can’t flavor the whole story with the character’s attitude. Compare these two examples, written about the same incident:

For the next week, Sophie’s brothers hid in their room, working on their Christmas gifts for her. They often borrowed art supplies from Sophie. And they told her that she would never guess what they were making. The boys were excited about their gifts, but Sophie didn’t expect to be impressed by anything they made.

Over the next week, the boys acted so-o-o secretive about the gifts they were making. They kept borrowing things from me like crayons and markers and other supplies. And they kept saying “mysterious’ stuff like, “You’ll never guess what I’m making, Sophie!” Like they could be making anything good with old tissue boxes and cardboard! (“A Handmade Christmas,” My Friend, December, 2001)

The second sample has a more humorous tone because every sentence is filtered through Sophie. Her underwhelming enthusiasm for her brothers’ homemade gifts couldn’t be clearer. Her attitude makes this paragraph funny – and sets the stage for later laughs when Sophie’s gifts are even worse than she expected.

5) Use funny event from real life as the seed for a story. The humorous anecdotes that people tell you...the family stories that crack everyone up...the embarrassing moments that eventually become cocktail party stories...Don’t write about them just as they happened. Almost NEVER does a real-life event make a good story when told factually. However, a funny happening can inspire a funny story.

For example, my grandfather visited my parents the night before their first Thanksgiving together. When he found they didn’t have the money for a feast, he insisted on buying them a turkey. The store had closed just before they arrived, but Grandpa got my parents their dinner by flapping his elbows and gobbling loudly until the store workers cracked up, reopened the store, and sold him a turkey.
In my family, we always laughed when my dad told that tale, and I often thought I might write about it. The problem was: it made a nice anecdote, but there wasn’t really a whole story there.

Eventually I realized that I could just use the incident as an inspiration. I wrote a story (and later a play) about a boy whose grandfather moves in and does all kinds of embarrassing things. (“My Roommate - Grandpa!” story - Pockets, May, 1993; play - Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004.) When the family’s financial troubles keep the boy from having the special feast he wants for his birthday, his
grandfather does my grandfather’s turkey act with the same results. The real-life incident became the pivotal moment that showed the main character the love behind Grandpa’s antics.

6) Remember that humor isn't the point. Sure, kids enjoy reading funny stories, but a good story doesn’t just make readers laugh. A good story makes them think and feel. Setting out to “write a funny story” without any purpose or direction usually won’t work. The story doesn’t hold together well, and the humor often falls flat because it doesn’t have a real point. Before you write, decide what you want your readers to get out of your story. If you can communicate those ideas and feelings through humor, then go ahead and write a funny story. If not, stick to a more serious style. Editors need good stories of all kinds!

1 comment:

Sherry Ellis said...

Those are a lot of good suggestions. Thanks for sharing!