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What's so funny?

What is humour? Why does something make us laugh? Even comedy script writers can’t explain it. There is no formula or magic ingredient. Humour is such a personal and subjective thing. What makes one person fall off their chair laughing will leave another cold. Writing humour is difficult because if it doesn’t work, it’s dead.

In this article

We all love to laugh, children especially, and what greater reward for our attempts at humour to have children giggling and laughing out loud at what we have written. It is probably the most difficult reaction to achieve. How do you pitch it right too? What we think is funny may be above their heads and go down like the proverbial lead balloon, yet we must not underestimate them either.

As with all writing for children the key word is market study. Read the funny books being published currently. If there’s one genre is always in demand in both adult and children’s books, it’s humour. Try out your writing on children if you can. Ask them what makes them laugh.

What different types of humour are there? How can it manifest itself in a story?

Physical Humour Humour in the situationA humorous characterHumour involving play on language

The so-called schadenfreude, or laughing at someone else’s bad luck, is a type of physical humour, often slapstick –the pie in the face or the slip on the banana skin. It may seem unkind but what we’re really doing is being thankful that it’s not us. Younger children delight in this type of humour, which can give their self-confidence a boost and assures that they themselves are not laughed at.

There is much humour in absurdity, extreme exaggeration, often something unexpected happening in a normal situation. Understatement could be included in this category. This is the situation humour. Surrealism too. Extraordinary or impossible things seen as normal.

Very young children – and not so young – find ‘toilet’ humour amusing. This is when they are discovering their body and its functions and also that these things are talked about, if at all, in a hushed manner. They learn that certain subjects cause a reaction, either when acted upon or talked about.

Following closely behind ‘toilet’ humour, is the delight children have in things disgusting, gross and revolting. I don’t need to spell these out, you know what I mean. Anything which makes you wrinkle up your nose and say ‘Ugh! Yuck’ will have children shrieking with laughter. illustrated with wacky line drawings on every page.

Children find humour in naughtiness, when the characters do things they themselves could not, or dare not, do. There is a wealth of funny books for teenage girls documenting the characters’ scattiness or muddles when dealing with the problems of teenage life such as boyfriends, school, clothes and friends. This is humour based on a character’s behaviour or witty style of talking, perhaps slightly exaggerated but with which readers can readily identify. In other words, it’s the character who is funny in her actions, her dialogue and her thoughts.

I could not find any corresponding books for teen boys so there may be a gap in the market, albeit a tough one.

One of the great sources of children’s humour is poetry. Children love rhyme and the anticipation of it. Poetry says a lot in a few words and if all those words are well chosen, the result can be hilarious. This brings me to play on language such as nonsense words, puns, malapropisms, spoonerisms, irony and onomatopoeias . Children gain a tremendous sense of pride, which adds to the humour, when they can recognise this more subtle humour.

Of course, any good story should include elements of humour, no matter how serious the central theme and this can help balance the action, dialogue and narrative and maintain a good varied pace. Plot elements and obstacles create tension and suspense and humour can be very effective in releasing this tension, sometimes in such a way that we almost feel ashamed to be laughing.

Tips:

  • If it doesn’t make you laugh, it probably won’t make your readers laugh either
  • If you can make people laugh in your everyday life, you are more likely to succeed in writing humour
  • Don’t try and be funny all the time. It can pall.
  • Get to know what types of humour works with each age group
  • Timing is everything, from shock surprise to letting a funny situation build slowly.

About the author

Stephanie Baudet
Children's Writer and writing tutor

With over 34 children’s books published, Stephanie has a wealth of knowledge on how to improve writing skills. She tutors for Writers' News Home Study and The Writers Bureau.

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