Perhaps my greatest pleasure is making people laugh. Which is why pretty much everything I write is anchored in humor. It keeps my readers engaged. It allows for higher highs and lower lows. But how to create humor? Heck if I know. Writing this post forced me to think the question through. I’ve come up with a few suggestions. Maybe they will help you.
1. Write blind. The key to all humor is surprise—a turn of phrase or twist of events that feels unexpected, and sometimes delightfully so. As a writer, I seek humor by creating voices that reflect the world with a pleasing slant. But for these voices to surprise my readers, I also have to surprise myself in creating them. Too much thinking makes for plodding prose. The more calculating I get, the less natural (and therefore, less funny) the writing becomes. For me, the trick is finding a way to think less, not more.
A few months back, I stumbled on a tool that makes it nearly impossible to censor and judge yourself while writing that first draft—because it sweeps away the fruits of your labor before you have a chance to realize how bad they might smell. I describe how it works in our exercise. It might be the simplest, most elegant way I’ve ever encountered to get the mind out of the way so that intuition can steer the writing process in the direction of fresh, uninhibited, funny prose. It’s also a fail-safe cure for writer’s block. And it’s free.
2. First Things First. My best jokes usually don’t show up until the end of a writing project. First I lay the foundation (character, plot arc, etc.), then I frame the structure (the specific business that makes up the story), and only then do add the siding and the windows, the molding and the mailbox. My brain has to do a lot of thinking to build the house. But once the guts are in place and relatively watertight, the imps are free come out and romp, elevating the voice and the dialogue, making the tiny adjustments that transform a solid manuscript into a delightful one. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be hilarious at the outset. Toil all day, then play all night.
3. Humor Loves Company. It’s impossible to be funny in a vacuum. Landing a joke is completing a circuit. It’s a gamble, a gambit, a leap of pure faith. If you are struggling to write humor, find someone to laugh with. It could be a friend to read your draft and tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Or it could be someone to help you build your jokes by making their own contributions. (Remember that comedic TV shows are written by groups of funny people sitting in a room making magic together.)Every book I write is created in close collaboration with my wife, the illustrator Robbi Behr (she who decided to electrocute me above). Sometimes, Robbi’s drawings elevate and extend my jokes by making them visual. Other times, the humor results from tension between the written and visual takes on a given situation. But Robbi is also my first editor, giving me an early gut check on my manuscripts and helping me develop jokes by lending an extra ear.Finally, just spending time with funny people can help get you into the right frame of mind. Humor depends so much on timing and pacing and instinct. Soak it in, and then channel what you’ve learned. Watch funny shows and standup. Read funny books. Be humor’s companion. Call it research. It’s not such a bad way to pass the hours.
Writing humor: the really short version:
Turn off your conscious thinking, judging brain. Humor comes from someplace deeper. If you can’t force yourself to be funny, let the app in our exercise help.
Don’t feel pressure to make your manuscript funny until you have the basics in place. Funny is the icing. Once you bake the cake, you can turn off your boring old brain and start to play.
Commune with humor, whether through collaboration or seeking feedback, whether by hanging out with funny people or gorging on funny material.
Husband/wife, author/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr have collaborated to create the picture books Babies Ruin Everything (July 2016) and Everywhere, Wonder (February 2017) and the middle grades series The Real McCoys (Fall 2017), all with Macmillan Kids. In addition to speaking and leading workshops on collaboration and creative entrepreneurship, they have produced three small children and more than 70 self-published picture books for children and adults. You can follow Matthew at https://twitter.com/writingmatthew and Robbi at https://twitter.com/drawingrobbi and visit their website at www.robbiandmatthew.com and their Babies Ruin Everything page at http://robbiandmatthew.com/babies-ruin-everything/ and their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Robbi-and-Matthew-819948174807508/?fref=ts
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Matthew and Robbi’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
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