Unexpected Character Traits Bring In The Funny by @lauriewallmark and GIVEAWAY

Whether your novel is humorous or serious, a bit of levity can add to a child’s reading enjoyment. Let your characters help you inject humor into the story, by giving them unexpected traits, such as:

  • unusual talents
  • competing personality features
  • a unique self-image
  • peculiar behaviors
  • idiosyncratic speaking patterns.  

Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013) is a mentor text on how to bring out the funny through the use of unexpected character traits.

Wallmark_FloraBookIn Flora and Ulysses, Ulysses has talents that are, shall we say, more than a little unusual. Though he’s only a squirrel, Ulysses can fly, type, and write poetry. As a reader, you certainly don’t expect to see a squirrel sitting at a typewriter, his bushy tale waving behind, let alone with his tiny “fingers” poised over the keyboard. The unexpectedness of such an unusual character is automatically funny.

Throughout the novel, Ulysses provides comedic moments through the juxtaposition of competing personality features—his human side and his base animal instincts. When Ulysses becomes frightened by the waitress at the doughnut shop, he tries to calm himself down, as a person would. But eventually, his innate squirrelness takes over, and he attempts to escape. The ensuing mayhem provides several laugh out loud moments, especially when he lands in the waitress’s huge hair. Your characters don’t have to be human-like animals to be funny. All you have to do is give your human characters contrasting personality traits that are at odds with each other.

The other main character, Flora, is humorous in a different way than Ulysses. In her case, it’s not that she has bizarre human talents, but rather she has a unique self-image for a child. She has branded herself as a cynic, so will let nothing about humans surprise her. Here again, the humor comes from the unexpected—a child with the world-weary views of a cynic. The combination of her adult-like cynicism with her childish companion, a doll in a shoebox, provides the same sort of juxtaposition humor as above.

Another secondary character, Flora’s friend William, has peculiar behaviors, in that he presents like a miniature adult, in both speech and action. The contrast between William’s actual and apparent age leads to humor. This type of character, with his unexpected behaviors, provides a perfect crucible to generate humorous situations.

A character’s idiosyncratic speaking patterns can help create a funny scene. In William’s case, his non-standard dialogue is taken to an extreme. While most children would say something like, “I scratched my knee,” not William. He has to elaborate and exaggerate every explanation with his own unexpected way of speaking. William’s over-explanations, so unchildlike, create a thread of humor that runs through the entire book.

Be brave. The more outrageous you are with your unexpected characterizations, the funnier it will be. In addition, it’s your characters’ quirks will endear them to your reader.

Takeaways:

  • You can add humor to any novel by giving your characters unexpected traits.
  • You can apply this technique to any character, not just your main one.
  • The more outrageous the character trait, the funnier.

 

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Laurie Wallmark writes picture books and middle-grades, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College. Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her next book, Dare and Do : The Story of Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code (Sterling Children’s Books) will be out Spring 2017.

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

Laurie is kindly giving away a signed copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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.

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Tipping The Scales Between Heart And Humor by @leezaworks and GIVEAWAY

Recently, I saw Penn & Teller live. It was a riveting show filled with mystical “ooohs,” enlightened “aaaahs,” and of course, plenty of laughs. The magician-entertainers are dubbed as a comedy duo and they delivered right on point—tricks, tension, punch lines, you name it… all tied up into one gratifying package.

When I began tinkering with ideas for this blog post wondering what on earth I could possibly say that you might find helpful in writing/illustrating this year’s theme, I couldn’t help but think about the show. Or, rather, the relationship between Penn and Teller, their relationship with the audience—and their balance between heart and humor.

Penn—aka the tall, chatty one with glasses—took viewers on a journey, spinning tales of yesteryear. He harkened back to childhood, celebrated the pair’s relationship that has spanned four decades and walked us through old-school magic tricks such as the classic pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat number and an impressive fire-eating act. He built up tension in between each illusion, and from start to finish, verbally narrated the evening that culminated with a satisfying ending.

He was the author. He told us a story full of heart.

Teller—aka the silent one—entertained us visually with magic acts. He expertly mimed with comical delight, using a wild array of facial expressions, props and body language (I’m still gaga over the turning-pennies-into-goldfish trick!). And he did it all without uttering a single word.

He was the illustrator. He painted the pictures and gave us the humor. (Not to mention being the epitome of “Show, don’t tell!’)

Hernandez_PennTeller

Setting Up

The warm-up act was a jazz musician who played piano for an hour during which, he invited the entire audience to inspect a large wooden barrel and box set up on stage. It was an unexpected surprise to me. I realized he had deliberately set the tone for what lay ahead in the show. Was that orchestrated by the magicians? Of course!

Clearly Penn and Teller’s success is rooted in the strength of their working relationship with one another and knowing how to composite great live entertainment. For me, the performance had just the right balance of heart and humor, interspersed with tension, drama, and unexpected twists.

This led me to thoughts of the working relationship between author and illustrator—and how we find just the right balance in our work between heart and humor. Maybe you can have a lot of one, but need a little of its counterpart to create harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly equal parts. I doubt you would paint a room exactly half black and half white. But rather, when you work up a first draft, dummy or outline, you step back and see where to emphasize your main focus (heart or humor), pepper in a little of the other where it’s needed most and perhaps round out with some tension, drama or unexpected twists—with the idea of delivering one gratifying package to your viewer: the reader.

Invite your audience to inspect the wooden barrel and box

Front matter of a book—endpapers, title, copyright and dedication pages—offer valuable real estate that can help set the tone of what lies ahead (heart, humor, or both) before your story begins.

It’s easier, yes, if you are the illustrator or illustrator/author, but even if you are not an illustrator there’s nothing to stop you from making suggestions. Be sure to give whatever you’ve suggested a reason to exist, not just because it’s funny or sweet, but that it contributes to the storytelling. As well as thoughtful illustrations, cleverly-written dedications, disclaimers, or special notes to the reader can set up the tone of your book.

Know When To Lighten Things Up

When your story’s scale tips toward sweet or sad, offer up some subtle comic relief to give your characters and readers hope—plus a way to stay engaged. If you have kids, or recall your own childhood, think about an emotional time when you or another family member used humor to help them (or you) snap out of a mood? Or did someone discover you actually cared all along, but you wouldn’t admit it and immediately you made fart sounds with your armpit to create a diversion from … you know… your ‘feelings’?

Give Reason To Care Beyond the Jokes

When the manuscript’s scale tips to the funny or silly, make sure you pull on that heartstring once in a while to strengthen the bond between your character(s) and story. A book filled with a list of one-liners won’t give your readers any real reason to care—or desire to know how it all turns out—basically it’s just a joke book.

Add Surprises

Once you’ve established your basic structure, look at where you can then: add a dash of tension (even when a comically-clumsy magician thrusting swords into the box that currently contains the beautiful assistant can still cause a reader to catch his/her breath); sprinkle drama to create some anticipation to wild shenanigans (cue the page turn, or cliffhanger); or feature an unexpected twist that can cinch the deal to that satisfying ending.

Think Less is More

And, if you’re caught trying to shove the playing cards back up your sleeve in hopes that no-one notices, you might be trying too hard. Keep it simple. Take a break. Deconstruct your work then build it back up. That’s what revision is for, right?

With the Penn & Teller show, the comedy was expected. The tricks looked simple and effortless (although I am sure countless hours were spent perfecting every nuance of the performance). In the end, the heartfelt narration was a nice surprise that made me care about these two in a deeper way, far more than I did before walking into the theater.

So, whether illustrating or writing: Get all your props together, find that balance, hit the stage and deliver a gratifying and magical package to your favorite audience—your readers!

HernandezL_HeadshotLeeza Hernandez illustrates (and sometimes writes) picture books including Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! and Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo written by John Lithgow—as well as The Eat Your Homework series by Ann McCallum. She’s currently on lockdown in her studio illustrating Amy Parker’s This Is Your Day (Scholastic, Fall 2017). No really, she’s been locked in and no-one will let her out until she meets her deadline! You can find Leeza on Instagram and Twitter @leezaworks or visit leezaworks.com

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

GIVEAWAY! Leeza is giving away a magical goodie box filled with surprises (including a 20-minute chat coupon where she’s happy to answer any of your burning questions) and fun props that may make you laugh, cry or both, plus three runner-up note packs. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win a 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.

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!

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.

Amy Fellner Dominy: Let Your Character Create Plot and GIVEAWAY

amy d1Plotting a book is one of those things that many writers struggle with—including me.  As much as we might want to dive in to a book and just write, one of the first things we’ve got to do is plot, right? That’s our job.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if we could leave the plotting to someone else and create better stories in the process?

Well, that’s what I’m going to suggest here, along with a different way of thinking about plot. Here’s the basic idea:

Plot doesn’t come from the mind of the author. Plot comes from the character.

 At its most basic, what is plot? Plot is action. Plot is action taken by a character. Now, why does a character act? Well, for the same reason you and I do in our daily lives. We want something. Or, we have a problem that must be solved. So:

Character + Problem/Goal = Plot (Action)

Which brings me to my snake story. One day, I was home with my son (who was about 15 at the time), when suddenly he screamed. There was a snake on the stairs. (Apparently they can come in through air vents.)

We both leapt into action.

Which meant more screaming.

As it turns out, he and I are both unreasonably afraid of snakes—even this one that wasn’t poisonous.

Being the rational Mom, I called animal control, Googled snake sites and posted a “HELP!” message on Facebook. No luck.

            At the same time, my son, always ready to dive into action, retrieved “weapons” from his room. A baseball bat. A trashcan. He got a broom and a dust pan but as soon as the snake squirmed, we screamed again and leapt back. Finally, he called a friend. Ten minutes later, a girl came over. She calmly picked up the snake and carried it out back. End of story.

But I often think about that snake because it’s such a vivid example of how differently each of us reacts when confronted with a new situation.

How we act/react is what creates story.And what we do is based on who we are

It works the same in a book.

            One of my favorite books on craft is by Stephen King. This is one of my favorite excerpts:

king“I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I love this way of thinking about story like a situation. Putting your characters in some sort of predicament and then watching them try to work themselves free.

I think the danger of creating a plot and then plugging in the characters is you can end up with a story that isn’t believable. It’s like the girl in the horror movie who goes into a dark basement with a serial killer on the loose. Who does that? Every time I put down a book unfinished, it’s because the characters are doing things that the author wants them to do—not the things they would actually do.

Now, here’s where the hard work comes in. (You didn’t think you were getting off easy, did you?) You, as the author, have three very important jobs.

  1. In order to force your character into action, you must give them problems—bad ones.
  2. You must create high stakes for failure so the reader cares if they succeed or not.
  3. You have to flesh out your character so well that you know what they would do next. Because they have strengths and flaws and fears and dreams that motivate their actions—the same way that ours do.

amy dIs your character acting within reason and with a reason?

Here’s an exercise I often turn to when I’m not sure what should happen next. It also comes in handy when I’m starting a new project.  At the top of a page, write out the predicament your character finds himself/herself in. Then, write down five to ten things that your character might do. Here’s an example of how this turned out for me in my latest book, A Matter of Heart.

PREDICAMENT: Abby’s heart falls out of rhythm and she faints after competing in a swim meet.

  1. She hides it.
  2. She decides it’s electrolyte imbalance and vows to drink more Gatorade
  3. She tells her coach like she knows she’s supposed to.
  4. She asks her dad to call 911.
  5. She pulls herself from the next race; decides to rest a few days.
  6. She’s happy—fainting means she’s putting out maximum effort.
  7. She wonders if she’s pregnant.
  8. She uses it to get sympathy from her boyfriend.

So, some of those are ridiculous. (Abby has never had sex so number 7 is pretty far-fetched.) But the exercise got me thinking about Abby and exactly what type of person she is. Also, it helped me focus on what Abby wants. (Remember, characters are motivated by what they need/desire.)  Abby’s only goal is to keep swimming. Knowing that, the only possible action for Abby is to hide it if possible and if not, blame the fainting on electrolytes. And keep swimming.

Of course, there’s Abby’s mom. Abby’s mom also has one goal. And that’s to keep Abby from swimming until she’s checked out. It’s a little bit like Dominos—one falls and that pushes the next one and the next one.

Now, as the author, you will have to jump back in with more obstacles on occasion. If your character is succeeding, then what else can you throw at them? Which is why creating a worthy villain will make your job that much easier.

Give it a try and see if it works for you. Choose any predicament at any point in the book.  If you’re feeling brave, post it here in the comments! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Amy DominyAmy Fellner Dominy is the author of  OyMG (2011) a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens, and Audition & Subtraction (2012) a Bank Street’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.”  A former advertising copywriter, Amy earned an MFA in playwriting in 2004.  Her plays for adults and children have been staged across the country. Amy lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find her at http://www.amydominy.com.

Amy is giving away a copy of A MATTER OF HEART. 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. This prize cannot be shipped internationally. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Amy’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.