A Spoonful of Sugar by @SudiptaBQ and GIVEAWAY

I’ve often described heart as the thing that gives the reader a reason to care about the character and the story. But caring – or, at least, admitting that we care – can sometimes be uncomfortable, especially for children. (Think about the protestations of a teenage girl when someone asks if she has a crush on a particular boy – no matter how obviously smitten she is, there is a great deal of denial!)

When we write the heart of our story, we are giving the reader something to care about. By convincing him or her to care, we are, in some way, trying to teach that reader something about life. That friends always stand by you, no matter what you might (tyrannosaurus-) wreck.

T wrecks int 2

That your family loves you, no matter how much you moose up.

Ddm interior 3

That people who snore make terrible roommates.

SB int 2

As I’ve already mentioned, caring about something – and admitting to it – can be a heavy load for a child to process. In my own life, any time I’ve been faced with a serious, emotional, heavy times, I’ve found it awkward and have responded in one consistent way: by making a joke.

For me, those heartfelt moments are too much to bear without laughter to lighten the load. When I began writing, I had the same impulse – to wrap deeply emotional occasions in the warm burrito of humor. And as it turns out, that impulse was a shrewd one. Because science has shown us a number of benefits to laughing. Laughter reduces the amount of a stress hormone called cortisol in the body, which makes something overwhelming feel more manageable. It stimulates the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which enhances feelings of pleasure. It causes the body to release endorphins, which literally makes pain hurt less.

Laughter makes everything better.

So, how do you accomplish this in your writing? Let’s look at some quick tips:

Be unexpected. The punchline of a joke is more powerful when it is surprising. Here’s an example:

Q: What’s better than Adele?

The expectation here would be to give a straight answer. Like, what’s better than Adele? Kelly Clarkson. Or Weezer. Or a rabid chimpanzee having a seizure.

But here’s the joke we tell in my house:

Q: What’s better than Adele?


A: TWO Dels!

That’s hilarious.

Be logical. In scientific circles, joke comprehension requires the registration of surprise and the reestablishment of coherence. In simpler terms, to “get” a joke, you have to be surprised but be able to see how it makes sense.

To go back to the earlier example, if the question is “what’s better than a SOMETHING” it is logical that the answer is “two SOMETHINGS” – the humor comes from “Adele” sounding like “a del.” That’s a great punchline, but in no way is it the only funny punchline. Consider this:

Q: What’s better than Adele?

A: Any Apple product.

Here, the logic is that “Adele” sounds like the computer brand, Dell. I don’t find this punchline as funny as the first, but it really depends on your audience. When you’re talking to 8-year olds, “two dels” is comedy gold. But if your audience is middle school boys, the tech reference might hit the spot.

Focus on the part of the heart that makes YOU smile. A few months ago, I got married. It was a very emotional day for me, for my husband, and for my children. It brought up a host of feelings, some good, and some difficult. To honor this momentous day, I filled it with meaningful details like these:


When you marry your ex-husband, you have to have the banner custom made. Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

Because what else would you do with the extra bow tie?

Because what else would you do with the extra bow tie? Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/


What would you let YOUR children do in an 8th century Franciscan monastery? Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

Now, these are not the photos you would find in most people’s wedding albums. But then again, most people don’t have their own children at their wedding, so clearly I’m ok with being different! What makes the humor of these photos enhance the emotion of the day is the sincerity of my family’s enjoyment – because we loved these moments, other people can appreciate them as well. This is true in your writing. Just like you wouldn’t try to write an emotion you don’t understand, don’t try to tell a joke you don’t find funny.

Be reserved. Remember, it’s just a spoonful of sugar. A little laugh opens hearts and minds. Too much laughter and your reader will miss the point. Here’s an example:

My son loves Star Wars. It makes me smile how much he loves it. So adding this detail to my wedding was the spoonful of sugar that took that emotional moment and both lightened it with laughter and made it more memorable.

"Luke, I am your father...and you are my best man...get it?"

“Luke, I am your father…and you are my best man…get it?” Photo credit http://www.alfonsolongobardi.com/

However, if we’d added too much sugar…well, this outfit as a wedding dress would be less funny HA-HA and more uncomfortable laughter around the clearly crazy people:

No, I did not stage this photo just for this post -- why are you asking?

No, I did not stage this photo just for this post — why are you asking?

As a general rule of thumb, push the humor of a situation as far as you can take it – and then go two steps back. That will keep it funny without going off the deep end.

Well, those are just ducky general suggestions, you’re thinking to yourself. But how does that help me write heart with humor?

Yeah, that’s the hard part. I wish I could give you a formula guaranteed to succeed in every situation, every genre, every age level, all of the time. Unfortunately, I can’t. But let me take you through a few processes I use to brainstorm these situations.

Strategy #1: When the moment is significant, go for big laughs.

When you’re writing the culmination of a chapter or of an entire picture book, you want to pack a real emotional punch – and then get to the punchline. So think about humor in words and dialogue, but also think of the visual and physical humor of the scene as you’re going through the steps below:

1. Visualize the meaningful moment.

Write a description of or sketch the emotional highlight of your story/scene.

Moose step 12. Add some heartwarming details.

Build on the emotion and add written details or sketched details that make the reader go AWWWWWW.

moose step 23. Now, add something funny.

The “banana peel” moment, so to speak, that will lead to #hilarious!

moose step 3

Strategy #2: The little laugh that tides you over.

Often, your story needs a little laugh to relieve the tension as your character moves through the plot. This is an excellent opportunity to think about wordplay, puns, or, my favorite: new punchlines to old jokes:

1. Read some classic jokes. (If you can’t think of any, do a google search and browse through the results). Choose one and create a new punchline.

For example, What’s black and white and red all over?

Possible answers:

  • An embarrassed skunk
  • A zebra painted red
  • A sunburnt penguin

2.Take a regular, not-funny line from your manuscript. Brainstorm a response to that line that is unexpected and hilarious.

For example, this is from a manuscript I’m working on about characters under the sea:

Coral swam closer to get a better look. She saw a beautiful orange and white fish zipping between the fronds of the sea whip. “It’s a clownfish!” she whispered.

“Where’s the rest of the circus?” Shelly laughed.

Another example (from the internet):

There are two muffins in an oven.

One muffin turns to the other muffin and says, “Boy, it’s hot in here.”

The other muffin says, “OH MY GOODNESS, A TALKING MUFFIN.”

Strategy #3: Don’t be Dane Cook (or for people my husband’s age, he says, Don’t be Carrot Top. Whoever that is.)

Humor helps get to the heart of things. I have no doubt of that. But if humor isn’t your thing, then don’t do it.

Have you ever seen a comedian who is trying way too hard? It’s never funny. Even the funny parts become un-funny because of the effort being made. So if a joke isn’t working, JUST STOP. Emotion can stand on its own, and it’s much better by itself than propped up by a faulty foundation. In conclusion, be real.

And be funny if you can.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Duck Duck Moose (a CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (a Junior Library Guild Selection), Orangutangled, and Chicks Run Wild. She in the founder of Kidlit Writing School and frequently speaks about the craft of writing at schools and conferences all around the world. You can learn more about her and her books on her website www.sudipta.com or at her blog www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Kami.

Also, she’s only worn that Leia costume twice. Really.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Sudipta’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

GIVEAWAY! Sudipta is giving away a 20 minute telephone or Skype manuscript critique. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

242 comments on “A Spoonful of Sugar by @SudiptaBQ and GIVEAWAY

  1. Anna Gateley-Stanton says:

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and your great photos!


  2. Thanks for this awesome post, Sudipta!


  3. Sandy Perlic says:

    So much to think about here! I’m definitely going to have to bookmark this post so I can consider it with my various stories in mind. Thanks, Sudipta!


  4. Natalie Lynn Tanner says:

    [For some reason my comment didn’t post earlier, so I’m posting again.] Thank you for the advice on how to balance humor in our writing. There is such a fine line, and keeping our audience in mind is SO VITAL! THANK YOU!!


  5. Elizabeth Saba says:

    Great ideas and thank you for sharing!


  6. Aimee Haburjak says:

    Great brainstorming on layering laughter in a story! Congratulations 💕


  7. Jocelyn Rish says:

    I tend to go overboard with the humor and end distracting from the emotion, so this advice is really helpful: push the humor as far as you can take it – and then go two steps back.


  8. Sharon Giltrow says:

    Thanks for showing me how to add humour to my stories laughter is the best medicine.


  9. Nicola says:

    This was an enlightening post. I like the part about being real. I think that is the most important part. I think kids can see a fake from a mile away 🙂


  10. Laurie L Young says:

    What’s better than Adele? Hello—nothing! Thanks for the great strategies!


  11. Lotus Ivak says:

    Thank you Sudipta!


  12. Shirley Johnson says:

    Great ideas. Thanks for sharing.


  13. Kim Chaffee says:

    As always you have offered so much amazing information here! Thank you so much!


  14. Thanks so much. This is my first year attending and I love the daily lessons. Great advice and it keeps me motivated.


  15. Sheri Radovich says:

    Thanks so much. I love these posts. Is there some reason why I am getting these posts a day later and my comments are not registering when I go to the site and read the current ones and put them on there?


  16. Diane Bradley says:

    Thanks for the insight. I love being a nerdy chick!


  17. Wow, a whole workshop in a blog post! Thanks!


  18. Sue Heavenrich says:

    awesome post! like Leslie says: between the post and the exercises it’s an entire workshop. Thanks Sudipta! I’ll be looking for banana peel moments.


  19. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    Great guidelines – will proceed to sprinkle with sugar or drizzle with honey. But no saccharine or aspartame!


  20. Love the photos (and the real life in them) and excellent explanation of how to be funny — missing the mark is so sad.


  21. Ashley samson says:

    This is exactly what I needed for my current WIP! Thanks for posting this, so good!


  22. theresenagi says:

    Thanks for showing us how to place humor in my manuscript. Humor makes the reader want to read it again.


  23. Thanks for the great advice – as usual! 🙂


  24. Monica Stoltzfus says:

    Love love LOVE this post. Thank you for addressing the idea of trying too hard! I consider myself to be funny, but interestingly enough, I’m finding my humor to NOT be translating as well as I’d hoped! I will back off a bit, and try ” less”😋 Your pictures rocked by the way!


  25. Lynne Marie says:

    Enjoyed your unique brand of humor! XOXO


  26. 01chicchick says:

    Love this post and your sense of humor!


  27. Thank you for the thoughtful post, Sudipta! These are helpful tips. I’ve been working on writing and illustrating a sweet/funny story and when a critique partner read the dummy to my writing group this week, everyone laughed out loud in all the right places!!! I never really thought of myself as a witty person, but I’m discovering that mixing humor in with the sweet might actually be a “sweet spot” for me, ha! 🙂 Thanks again!


  28. I’m not “on time” but thank you for the post! You crack me up. Probably why your books are funny . .


  29. Linda Crowley says:

    I love the idea of inserting a little humor into a highly emotional scene. I can recognize how often we do it in real life – now I understand more about why. Can’t wait to use this technique!


  30. paulinetso says:

    Great post, Sudipta! We have a saying in the animation industry – “Funny is money!”


  31. Karen Leiby Belli says:

    Love this idea! Always love your info and your humor!


  32. Susan Cabael says:

    The Stance socks are awesome, and you’re rockin’ the Leia bikini. Only twice…psh. 😄


  33. Lauri Meyers says:

    I love being wrapped up in a warm burrito of humor.


  34. Ohhhhhhh… we love our silly socks!
    Of silly socks we sing!
    We can’t live without ’em.
    Silly is the thing!


  35. ericaanne2000 says:

    I tried your advice about using a little humor to break the tension. My WIP is an action-adventure YA novel with a lot of intensity. So I gave it just a touch of humor in the final rising action to climax and I really like how it came out. Thanks for this great information.


  36. Patti says:

    Being funny is kind of just allowing yourself to be free. For some of us more serious folks, it is a worthy challenge. Thanks.


  37. Gabi Snyder says:

    So many nuggets of wisdom — and humor — here. Thanks, Sudipta!


  38. Leah Heilman Schanke says:

    Thanks so much for a such practical guidance in using humor. I am really thinking how to apply it to my writing.


  39. donnacangelosi says:

    Another fantastic post, Sudipta! I always learn so much from your unique sprinkling of humor, information and wisdom. Thank you!


  40. Dawn says:

    Laughter does make everything better! Thanks for sharing.


  41. Maria Marshall says:

    Great post Sudipta. Thank you for the advice on layering humor.


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