Monday, May 20, 2013

Writing Middle Grade: It needs HUMOR!

I taught a presentation at a conference a week ago about writing middle grade. I've had a lot of people ask if I would post some of the information from my presentation here. It's a ton of information, though, so I decided to do a MG Needs feature. Each Monday for the next while, I'll talk about some of the things a MG novel needs to be most satisfying to the reader, and cover all the same stuff that I covered in my presentation. With me? Let's start!

Let’s say you love salty food. When given the choices of food, you always go for the salty ones. Like dumplings with soy sauce. When you sit down for a meal, do you usually only want salty foods on your plate? Or do you like a little variety in your sides and dessert?

photo credit: haleysuzanne via photopin cc

The Chinese have a theory that there are five different elements of flavors— sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, sour. And that if you have each of these five elements in a meal, it will leave you much more satisfied than when ones are missing. Certainly more satisfied than if you have just one element.

photo credit: wEnDaLicious via photopin cc

Books are the same way. A kid might like mystery, for example, but that doesn’t mean he/she wants mystery as the only element in the book. A book will be more satisfying when it has the five elements that kids crave. Your book will likely have one of these five that's more prevalent. But just like everything else— if you get too much of anything, it becomes monotonous. Your book needs a break from the main genre that it is to slip in another element when it’s appropriate to make it more fulfilling.

I'll talk about each of the five--- one each Monday. Today it's...... HUMOR!!

Photo credit:

(Is this dog impressive, or what? He cracks me up every time!)

Scientists say that the fact that we laugh and that we want to laugh does two things: It helps us to bond with people, and to lessen tension and anxiety. Two things that are VERY important in MG fiction. We want our readers to bond with characters (which will in turn help the reader bond with you as the author). And at key points, like right after an intense scene or even during a stressful scene, we want to lessen tension and anxiety.

So let's talk about the kinds of humor kids like. They like:

(misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound).
  • “He had to use a fire distinguisher.”
  • “Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination.”
  • “He's a wolf in cheap clothing.”
  • “Don't is a contraption”
(a statement containing an illogical conclusion).
  • “Sleeping in a tinfoil suit keeps me warmer and helps prepare me for my voyage to the moon. Would you care for some licorice?” -- Jarod Kintz
Things that are out of place.

The rule of three works particularly well with kids this age.
(Especially when you do it with things that are out of place)
  • Paper, pencils, and a penguin
Things that are taboo.
(Which is one of the reasons that books like Captain Underpants are so popular.)

Words with the K or the G sound.
So if you are making up words or names and want to add humor, try to use those sounds in the word, and it will make it inherently more funny.

MG kids don’t usually get written sarcasm.
Some kids, if they don’t grow up with moms like me, might not get it at all. I try to make sure my kids are growing up well-versed in sarcasm, but even kids this age who do grow up with those kinds of advantages ;) don’t usually get written sarcasm.

People like characters with a good sense of humor. So if you want a reader to dislike a certain character, then get rid of their sense of humor. You can take humor away from your bad guy, but that’s not really what I’m saying. For example, Dr. Doofenshmirtz on Phineas and Ferb: he brings a LOT of humor. But we aren’t meant to dislike him. Take humor away from any character that your MC doesn’t like, and that you want the reader to dislike as well. Like the mean kid in school. Or an awful teacher. If you give them a sense of humor, your reader won’t be totally on your MC’s side when they dislike that character.

A book will always be more satisfying when it has some of each of the five elements that kids crave, and next up, we'll cover BEING SCARED! :)


JeffO said...

K and G sounds make things funnier? I've never noticed that....

I think the five elements are important to include in any work, not just MG. It's all in the balance.

Emily R. King said...

So I DO need that line when the monkey throws the nut at the boy's head.



Robin said...

So glad you're doing these. I'm looking forward to checking out your posts each morning. The Chinese have it right about food, (and about reading).

Malapropisms is a new word for me. I've used them in my own writing, but I didn't know what they were called.

Great post.-and the video cracked me up.

ilima said...

Wow. This is so cool. I don't write MG (and maybe throw in too much sarcasm into my YA) but these are great tips. *bookmarks page* I can't wait for next Monday.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Humor is definitely important, and if a book is funny I'm much more likely to buy it and read it. I started reading Dave Barry when I was in middle school; he's not a YA author, but I loved him anyway because he was so funny. If I had read more MG books that were funny like he was (and still is), I would have been in heaven.

Jenilyn Collings said...

Your presentation was fantastic! Such good information. Thanks so much!

S.P. Bowers said...

Wow, I've never really thought about it before. Thanks for the breakdown. I've got some pondering to do.

S.P. Bowers said...

PS now I'm craving Chinese food. Guess what I'm making tonight?

Janet Johnson said...

Great post! I LOVE humor. And that dog cracks me up too.
And now I'm craving Chinese food. :)

Janet Johnson said...

Great post! I LOVE humor. And that dog cracks me up too.
And now I'm craving Chinese food. :)

jenniferannmann.JAM said...

Humor...I'm a fan! Great post, Peggy!

Morgan said...


You rock, Peggy.


Natalie Aguirre said...

This is a great series. Wish I were better at writing humor but I'm not very funny as a person. Thanks for the tips.

Maya Prasad said...

Great tips! Now for a sandwich, an apple, and toenail painting.

Leigh Covington said...

You are so incredibly awesome! I loved your lesson at Storymakers, and I can't get over that video. LOL! Hilarious!

Richard Hughes said...

I love those "malprepositions."

Tracy Campbell said...

Love this, Peggy!
Can't wait until next Monday.
The dog clip is priceless. What a great writing prompt. :-)

Rob Polk said...

The best example of humor in the tri-state area! And that's my favorite show on TV - ALL GENRES INCLUDED! (Has anyone seen Perry?)

Shallee said...

What a fabulous breakdown of humor! This is one of the best posts I've ever seen on it-- bravo, Peggy! Off to apply these things to my own manuscripts.

Cindy Dwyer said...

How awesome that your seminar went so well. Great post - I love your examples which really show your point.

T. Drecker said...

Great list of types of humor and thanks for adding the examples. I'm going to copy this. Can't wait for the next 4 senses :)

Aritha said...

This is really a great blog. Useful. Thanks.

Kelly Polark said...

I love putting humor into my stories! Thanks for the great tips!!

Angela Cothran said...

I'm so behind checking these out. So glad I can book mark them and read your posts anytime. I love stuff broken down like this. SO HELPFUL :)