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?

Adele_-_25_(Official_Album_Cover)

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:

S&J_1501

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/

S&J_0760

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!

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The Real Housewife of Kidlit: Daily Life Holds the Key to Humor with @TaraLazar

Oh, remember that old saying “write what you know”? Scholars have been trying to simultaneously support and debunk that adage for millions of years. (Yes, it dates back to the early Jurassic period and Shakespearasaurus.) But me? How do I feel about it? I can confirm and deny the statement with equal fervor, depending upon which story I am writing.

LazarT_headshotFor today, I will tell the tale of how my own life informed the humor of NORMAL NORMAN. I will support “write what you know” even though I had no idea what kind of animal Norman was when I began writing. That little tidbit I will leave for later…

One of the most common phrases overheard at Chez Lazar is, “Mommy, you are NOT NORMAL.” So that is how Norman came into being. I created NORMAL NORMAN with every intention of making him ABNORMAL. His opposite-than-expected antics are the basis for the humor throughout the book.

Then, I gave this strange animal his own stuffed animal. Guess what I named that stuffed anteater? Something soft and cuddly which would sound funny when Norman referred to his pal. I stole the name “Mr. Scruffles” from my daughter’s favorite plushie and had Norman call him “my wovey-dovey Scruffle-di-poo.” Again, real Lazar life crept into my story.

Then at one point Norman tries to escape. I wanted something hilarious for him to race away in. It triggered a memory of my husband’s favorite stuffed toy as a child, a koala named Rufus Dunebuggy. So what did Norman hop into? A dunebuggy. Think of it, a purple orangutan driving a dunebuggy—what’s not to love?

NNFinally, there is a line in the book when the junior scientist tries to pretend that all the previous madness did not happen. She tries to gloss over her major meltdown. So she says, “Please pardon that interruption. We were experiencing temporary technical difficulties.” Once again, I mined my mind for that humorous little pause. A similar thing happened to me in elementary school. I was being filmed but made a mistake and I asked the teacher to start over. She shook her head NO in that very authoritative teacher way and I had to think quickly to cover my goof. So I said the line above. And I’d also like to say that I got an A on that project!

So try it—comb through your own experiences to find humor for your stories. You don’t necessarily have to come up with something out of nowhere. Take it from somewhere. If it happened to you and it made you laugh, that’s good material. It’s gold. Write what you know!

But I am going to be abnormal (and a pain in the butt) by telling you that you can also write what you don’t know. Like, what kind of animal your character is. I did not know what species Norman was when I wrote NORMAL NORMAN. I thought the illustrator would have a far better idea than I would. There had to be some visual humor at play, and I did not know how best to approach that, so I left it up to him. And guess what happened? S.Britt created a character so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined!

In conclusion—write what you know…? Or don’t? That is for you to figure out in your next manuscript, my friend!

tarafall2011picTara Lazar loves writing bios that make her sound witty and interesting, but often fails. Her picture books play with puns, irreverent humor and irresistible characters. NORMAL NORMAN, featuring a nerdy purple orangutan, released this spring from Sterling. Tara is the founder of Picture Book Idea Month, affectionately known as PiBoIdMo. She is a RUCCL council member and a speaker at SCBWI events. Tara guffaws with a unique laugh that is often mocked by her two daughters and husband. If you’d like to bribe her, Manchego cheese and Rice Krispie Treats will do the trick.

To stay in touch with Tara, follow her on Twitter @taralazar and check out her website at taralazar.com