105 Ways to Give a Book

Funny Writer Tips for the Carnival

Me: Ask me what makes me so funny!

You: Okay, what make you so f—

Me: Timing!
Today’s tip is about writing humor. I’m not even sure that I should be giving suggestions here, given that my process tends to involve an ongoing internal monologue about what I think I want to write that occurs throughout the mundane events of the day. I’ll be running the Swiffer WetJet over the kitchen floor, or retrieving a Mickey Mouse magnet from under the refrigerator with a spatula, or plucking the stray hairs on my chin, and the ideas just come.

But within that internal monologue, I revise until it’s funny. Okay, maybe just funnier than it was, but sometimes I crack myself up. There are tricks to make things just a touch more humorous, and I share them with you now. Lord help me.
  1. Specific things and names are funnier than the generic. So “running the Swiffer WetJet” is more amusing than “sweeping the floor.”

  2. Some imagery will just hit the right chord. It’s funnier to think of someone lying on the floor fishing around under the fridge then washing the dishes.

  3. Revealing personal things is funny. So if I tell you about plucking stray hairs on my chin, you have an “Omigod, I can’t believe she said that!” reaction, and it’s funny.

  4. Truly, some words are funnier than others. Spatula is better than broom. Swiffer WetJet is like a gift from the comedy gods.

  5. Showing an awkward personal experience that others share is amusing, like digging under the refrigerator or plucking chin hairs.

  6. Generally, the rhythm of funny is in threes. Two normal phrases, and the last punch line. But not always.

  7. References to current events or trends is funny, but it has to be current. You don’t want to look oh-so-two-minutes-ago. Retro can also work, but anything before the late seventies isn’t retro anymore, it’s just old-people funny.

  8. Tone can really change how funny something is. I’d pledge my lifelong allegiance to the person who comes up with an ironic font — and no, the little winking emoticon isn’t enough.

  9. Everyone loves a good inside joke. Well, everyone on the inside does anyway.

  10. Setting up for the unexpected is funny.
Here’s an example. My husband had a project to write and film fake public service announcements for “problem behaviors” at his workplace. They were going for a satire of those “The More You Know” ads on NBC. One of the ads was about jaywalking from the office to the Starbucks across the street. When I thought about this, I came up with the idea of a squirrel running across the street and getting hit by a car on the way back, and using that as a word of warning to the employees. Here’s what I wrote:
Squirrels are amazing creatures, built for speed and agility. Once I saw a squirrel running across M street, darting in and out of traffic. It got to the Starbucks, and came back just as quickly. That is, until it was flattened by a Hyundai. You know, people aren’t as fast as squirrels. Just something to think about.
Now look at it with the rules applied.
Squirrels(4) are amazing creatures, built for speed and agility. Once I saw a squirrel running across M street,(9) darting in and out of traffic.(2) It got to the Starbucks,(7) and came back just as quickly. That is, until it was flattened(4) by a Hyundai.(1) You know, people aren’t as fast as squirrels.(10) Just something to think about.(8)
You’ll see that it wouldn’t have been as funny if it had been a cat — far too personal, and not a funny word. Using flattened evokes old cartoon images, and is funnier than run over by. Of course, Hyundai is better both as a specific — instead of car — and as a funny word. The whole fake ad was an inside joke and was said in a casual tone.

So, now I’ve gone for broke on my trade secrets. And all in honor of the November Carnival of Children’s Literature, where the theme is tips, tricks, and advice. Yes, for this month I want a tip as a reader, writer, illustrator, reviewer, publisher, or editor of children’s literature. I want a lesson learned from a teacher, librarian, author, or parent with regards to kids’ lit. It doesn’t have to be a post that you did in November or October, though you may consider tweaking and re-posting an older entry to use; you can pick a post from any point this year. If you have something from last year, polish that baby up and repost it. I’ve got a good part of the Carnival ready now, so if you want to send something, get it to me by Tuesday evening. Send your links through my email (see the Email MotherReader! button). I have some great submissions so far, but I want more. Because I give and give and give to this relationship, and I need to take. I need to take something for myself. Or for, you know, the Carnival.


Anonymous said...

That was really interesting, especially the example with the notes about how the rules apply. It's was cool of you to share your wisdom with us not-funny people.


jules said...

Now, that is an awesome post, and you're brave for writing it, since people always say that analyzing humor is very un-funny. Your post was still funny.

Should I close on a joke? Ah, I'll spare you.

MotherReader said...

Actually, I feel brave for writing it. I feel like I'm giving away my secrets, even though they aren't that secret, really.

There's an essence to funny writing that I didn't even try to get into, but these rules can help "punch up" a post, an email, a script, or an essay with some simple basics.

Robin Brande said...

Wow, this is like an episode of How Things Are Made, or whatever that series is.

Writing funny is so tricky, because if you go back and rework it too many times it totally loses its heat. But being funny in print is easier than being funny in person. You at least have that split-second (or more) to think about the kinds of things you talked about here, whereas in person you've either got the witty comeback or you don't.

I think we've all had the experience of knowing five minutes too late what we should have said that would have cracked someone up, put them in their place, shown how cool we are, etc. It's much easier to pull that off in print, don't you think?

Don Tate II said...

Great! I tested my post for tomorrow against your tips. I did a few things right, and will fix a few other things.


Kakie said...

Fabulous post. Writing about funny, yesterday my son was grounded and tried to do everything in his power to get unpunished (of course right before bed time) but I didn't give in.

He was trying just about every tactic in the book and it took an hour and a half. He would come out of his room, tell me he couldn't sleep, go back in, slam the door saying "I'm so angry at you mommy!" Come back out to tell me he needed me to sign a form for his teacher and follow it up with, "I'm not comfortable mommy" to which I would respond calmly with a smile, "okay, get back in bed honey" again SLAM "I'm so mad at you mommy" Come back out, "I'm hot mommy" etc.

The clincher happend towards the end. He screamed from inside the bedroom with his closed door; "I'm so frustrated with you right now mommy, your just a GREAT BIG DORKUS!" (Bless his little heart)

Dork, Dorkus? OMG! I was dying with laughter. I don't think I have heard that one since I was six years old!! I don't think he knew that I know that word and what it means. I had a chuckle and called my sister and we laughed.

I am glad he can tell me that he is frustrated with me and while punishment is no laughing matter;

Is that what you mean by funny?

THIS is the kind of writing I love. I should probably work on it more often. Thanks for the laugh!



Becky Levine said...

Yes, yes, yes! SPECIFIC! When I critique or edit, I'm constantly pushing for this.

Here's a line from one of my son's stories that he read me last night. This followed a very specific description of all the alien thingies his character found as he walked into one of those other worlds...

"...and things so strange no human could possibly describe them."

So many people would have written "nobody" or "no one" could possibly describe them. "No human is so much more concrete and just pins you down to the fact that to be human is a DIFFERENCE here.

I love all your other ideas, too. Thinking I need to print this off & stick it up on my computer at home!