5 Tips for Writing Humor by Becky Scharnhorst

When Laura first asked me to do a guest post on humor for her blog, I had just finished a giant mug of chamomile tea. So, of course, my chill self immediately answered, “Yes, of course, I’d love to!” After all, my favorite picture books are the funny ones. 

But after the tea wore off and reality set in, I started to panic. 

How do I explain humor?

What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said? 

And, worst of all, am I supposed to be funny while saying it? 

Part of what makes it difficult is that humor is subjective. My husband thinks the slapstick humor found in movies like Naked Gun and Dumb and Dumber is hilarious, but I’d rather run a marathon in moon boots than watch one of those. Not every type of humor is going to appeal to every individual. 

With that in mind, I’d like to share 5 tips for writing humor. Some of these may have you reaching for your own pair of marathon moon boots, and that’s okay! Study the books YOU find funny and try incorporating similar humor into your own writing.  

Tip #1 – Surprise Your Reader

Almost all humor comes down to surprise. In fact, every example in this post surprises the reader in some way. But I’m going to share one specific technique writers can use. In the following books, the writer sets an expectation using two or three examples, and then breaks it on the last one. 

Stegothesaurus, written by Bridget Heos and illustrated by T.L. McBeth, brilliantly utilizes this technique throughout the entire story.  

Stegothesaurus cover: a pink background with a blue dinosaur wearing a pink bow tie.

On the opening spread, we are introduced to two stegosauruses who both greet the reader with a simple “Hi.” Then we meet one Stegothesaurus who says:

“Hello! Greetings! Salutations!”

Afterwards, the author points out the obvious (another great humor technique!) and tells us Stegothesaurus was a little different than his brothers. 

In A Little Chicken, written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Dan Taylor, the author introduces us to Dot by listing a few things she’s afraid of. 

Cover of the book A Little Chicken, featuring a small chicken, who is wearing glasses, appearing scared of a nearby butterfly.

“She was scared of lots of things. Wolves. Bears. The occasional lawn ornament.”

Personally, I think gnome lawn ornaments are scarier than bears and wolves, but it’s still really funny because it’s unexpected!

Oliver Jeffers does something similar in his book Stuck, but instead of breaking the expectation, he doubles down on it. 

Book cover of "Stuck", featuring a child, standing on the ground, looking up at the top of a tree.

When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he starts throwing other objects to knock it down. When those items also get stuck, Floyd brings out a ladder. The reader is led to believe he’s going to climb up and get his kite… but he throws that up too. Even though the author doesn’t break the expectation, we are still surprised because of the object he throws. 

Tip #2 – Don’t be Afraid to be Absurd

One of the best ways we can add humor to our writing is by being as ridiculous as possible. Kids love this kind of humor because it’s silly, and kids are some of the silliest humans on the planet. 

In Dibs!, written by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Marcin Piwowarski, a younger sibling follows his brother’s lead and starts calling “Dibs!” 

Book cover of "Dibs", featuring two boys appearing to fight over various objects.

Soon, Clancy is calling dibs on everything from their parents’ bed to The White House. This is an excellent example of taking a normal activity (calling dibs on a toy) to an entirely absurd level (calling dibs on NASA). 

The premise itself is absurd in A is for Another Rabbit by Hannah Batzel. 

Book cover of "A is for Another Rabbit", depicting several rabbits and one surprised owl.

It’s an entire alphabet book about only rabbits! One of my favorite spreads is N – P, which starts like this:

“N is for Nowhere near as many rabbits as I could have put on this page! I wanted ten, but I’ve only drawn nine for your sake. You’re welcome.”

What makes this book especially funny is the back-and-forth dialogue between the absurd narrator and an owl who desperately wants to make a “proper” alphabet book. Including an odd couple pairing is a great way to add humor to your manuscript.

Tip #3 – Be Specific

You may have heard specificity makes your writing feel more universal. The same is true when writing humor. The more specific your details, the funnier your writing will be. 

In Truman, written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, the author takes us through a young girl’s routine as she is getting ready for school. 

Book cover for "Truman", featuring a girl looking down at a tiny turtle.

“She strapped on a backpack SOOOOOOOOO big, thirty-two small tortoises could ride along in it – but zero tortoises did.” 

Saying the backpack could hold thirty-two small tortoises is much funnier than saying it could hold a lot of tortoises. I don’t know why. It just is. In fact, it’s exactly 87.35% funnier. 

I use the same technique in my upcoming debut when I mention how many porcupine quills Stuart needs to have removed from his rump after recess. 

"My School Stinks" book cover, depicting a boy wearing classes, who is standing next to a skunk. Several other animals are peeking out the windows of a school building behind the boy.

If you want to see the world’s most adorable porcupine (and find out how many quills were removed), check out My School Stinks, written by me and illustrated by Julia Patton. It will be available on July 6. Hooray!

Tip #4 – Pay Attention to Your Page Turns

Humor is all about timing, and one of the best ways you can control the timing is through a page turn. One of the most brilliant examples I’ve seen of this is the book Find Fergus by Mike Boldt. 

Book cover for "Find Fergus". A yellow background with a beer who is looking over his shoulder and wearing glasses.

In this book, the narrator offers several tips to help Fergus improve his hiding skills, and on each of the following pages we see the humorous result. Trust me when I say every page turn is a punchline.

Another book to study for effective page turns is You Don’t Want a Unicorn written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Liz Climo. 

Book cover: "You Don't Want a Unicorn". A boy rides a unicorn with purple mane. They are flying past a rainbow.

In one scene, the narrator is warning the child that unicorns call other unicorns when they get lonely. After several more “Poof!” onto the scene, the narrator says:

“Great. You’ve unleashed the most destructive force in the universe -“

We want to turn to the page because we can’t wait to find out what the most destructive force is.  The answer, of course, is a unicorn party. (Remember what I said about being absurd?)

If you can find a way to finish a joke on the next page, do it! Not only will it add humor by increasing the anticipation, it will also keep your story moving forward. 

Tip #5 – Layer Up

The more you can layer different humor techniques on top of one another, the more effective it will be. My daughter is a huge fan of potty humor. All you need to say is “Poop” and she erupts into fits of giggles. But if you want your joke to be more effective, you need to do more. 

In Don’t Feed the Coos, written by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox, there is a three-spread build-up about coo poo that is exceptionally well done. 

Book cover: "Don't Feed the Coos". A person is looking up at several birds.

Part of what makes it funny is it doesn’t rely solely on potty humor to get the laugh. It also uses several other techniques.

Sure, these spreads talk about poo (A LOT of poo) which is enough for my daughter. But the author also uses building chaos/absurdity (coo poo is everywhere!) and he surprises us on the third spread when it switches from the physical items you’ll lose to the coo poo… to something completely different – your mind. (Surprise!) 

In addition, he uses word play! I don’t know anyone who can say “coo poo” without laughing. 

Well, maybe you can say it without laughing because as I said, humor is subjective. But hopefully at least one of the above examples did make you laugh, and now you can work on incorporating similar silliness into your own manuscript. 

I’d love to hear about your favorite funny books, so please drop them in the comments below. If you’d like to connect on Instagram or Twitter, you can find me at @beckyscharn. Thanks so much for having me, Laura! I know I’ll be using all your upcoming books in my next post about humor.

Black and white photo of the blog post author, Becky Scharnhorst.

After graduating from Luther College, Becky spent a year working as a Children’s Bookseller at Barnes & Noble and soon discovered she enjoyed reading picture more than anything else. Much, much more. Now, Becky spends her days writing children’s books and working at her local library. Her debut book, MY SCHOOL STINKS, will be published by Philomel in July 2021. Her second book, THIS FIELD TRIP STINKS, comes out in 2022. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two kids, and a few too many pets. 

Follow Becky on social media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/beckyscharn
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/beckyscharn/

Hiya, reader! Laura Lavoie here. If you like my blog, be sure to follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram: @llavoieauthor, where I share teasers for upcoming posts, pictures of over-sprinkled cookies, and plenty of bad puns.

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