Humor sells. We’ve all heard that before. But how do we write something funny? As authors, making people laugh can be challenging. We can’t use physical humor and pratfall our way into chuckles like Chevy Chase. Neither can we rely on Amy Poehler-like wacky facial expressions to get the giggles. And, unfortunately, we can’t use inflections in our voices to hammer humor home the way Chris Rock does.
The only tools we have in our comic tool chests are words. And that’s where the Rule of Three comes in.
The Rule of Three is a tool anyone – picture book authors and novelists alike – can use to
evoke humor! There are multiple reasons to use this technique, and volumes written about why to use it. I’m going to focus on just one of them: using the rule of three to set up your funny moments. One of the most common mistakes I see when critiquing manuscripts is a tendency for writers to rush through the funny parts. They create funny moments, but don’t spend enough time preparing the reader for them. So the moment is gone in a blink, which doesn’t allow the humor to reach its full potential. The rule of three offers one way to fix that problem.
Employing the Rule of Three is like putting a pedestal under your trophy, a frame around your picture, or showing off your summer legs by accidentally tucking your skirt in your underwear.
Did you see what I just did there? That’s the Rule of Three in action. The concept is very simple, and it works. You are laying out a sequence of events so that when the big moment comes – that laugh-worthy moment — your reader is ready to fully appreciate it. This does not mean that they should be able to anticipate that moment!
The trick is to establish a pattern, and two beats are usually enough to do that, so that when you add your third beat – your twist – you break the pattern by offering something unexpected. Then you’ll be rewarded with a laugh, chuckle, or smile.
So how do you use the Rule of Three?
There are so many ways! Let’s look at a tale you’re all familiar with. An age-proven fairy tale that has been re-told as a picture book many times: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This story uses the Rule of Three perfectly, and is therefore the perfect vehicle for humor. Don’t believe me? Ask Mo Willems, who won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award for his retelling of this classic a few years ago with Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.
In the fairy tale version, Goldilocks gets to experience three bowls of porridge, three chairs, and three beds, and each of these actions provides three beats, so there is opportunity for humor on the third beat. Then the bears come home from their walk and we see the Rule of Three used in dialogue. Papa bear speaks, then mama bear speaks, then baby bear delivers the unexpected punchline!
The original author made sure we were prepared to enjoy Goldilocks’ actions and Baby Bear’s punchlines by offering us enough beats to pull us in before the twists are delivered. So the story has been enjoyed for hundreds of years!
Try giving this classic tale a rewrite. Use its perfect Rule of Three structure to get used to delivering humor in three beats!
Now… how do I use the Rule of Three to create humor?
When I want to employ this technique, I usually start by thinking of the funny moment – the punchline – first. Then I think backward to set it up.
Sometimes this is done by placing all three beats close together in a single sentence, like I did earlier. Sometimes I drop them in further apart like I did in this scene from my book, The Boy Problem, where Tabbi is invited to the skate park by her crush and her best friend Kara is advising her to stay off of skateboards. (If you click on the image it should enlarge enough for you to read it.)
You can even have your beats span several pages. I illustrate this in today’s exercise.
Whether you’re writing a funny story or a more serious one that includes a comical scene, humor is going to offer your reader something everyone loves: a feel good moment. So set that moment up, put a frame around it, then serve up the unexpected with the Rule of Three.
Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem and The Boy Project, which is being newly released in paperback July 2016 as part of Scholastic’s WISH series. Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals for children and adults. In addition to her professional critiquing services, she is a SCBWI mentor, and often leads writing workshops at conferences and in schools. She is a co-founder of Kidlit Summer school. You can find out more about her by visiting her visiting her website www.kamikinard.com, liking her Facebook Page, and following @kamikinard on Twitter.
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