Using Pacing & Page Turns to Amp Up Humor

Earlier this year, I asked on Twitter if writers would be interested in a blog post like this. I got a resounding “YES!”, so here goes…

First things first: I always paginate my manuscript before I start writing a first draft. Then, I write in between the page numbers. This helps me to think intentionally about pacing and page turns right from the start.

It looks something like this:

[3]

So-and-so character loved such-and-such.

[4-5]

Character did this.

Character did that.

Character did some other things.

Until…

[6-7]

Something went terribly wrong.

To me, paginating from the start is much easier than writing the story, revising several times, then creating a dummy and hoping I can fit the story into a standard picture book layout in a way that makes sense.

(If you aren’t sure about standard picture book layouts, check out this helpful example from Tara Lazar’s blog).

Let’s look at some specific examples of how pacing and page turns can punch up the humor in a picture book. First, we’ll focus on how you can vary the number of words per spread.

On Account of the Gum, written and illustrated by Adam Rex, provides a great example of using sparse text on select spreads to punch up humor.

On Account of the Gum cover, showing a child with several household items and animals stuck to their head.

If you aren’t familiar with this story of a kid who gets gum stuck in their hair, here’s what you need to know:

  1. It’s written in second-person POV verse.
  2. As family members attempt to help the kid get the gum out, the problem gets worse—with additional items becoming stuck in their hair.

Rex sends us on a rollicking, rhyming ride about “the gum that you got stuck in your hair” for the first four spreads. It looks like this:

[Full spread 1]

Rhyme.

[Full spread 2]

More rhyme.

[Full spread 3]

Rhymey-rhyme.

[Full spread 4]

Rhyme all the time.

…and then, boom! On the fifth spread, after Rex has told us (in rhyme) how the MC got gum in their hair, then subsequently got additional items stuck in the process of trying to get the gum out, Rex gives us a spread featuring only these words: Don’t give me that look.

The result of switching from rhyme to prose, plus having significantly more words on each spread up until this brilliant 5-word zinger? Hilarious!

The first time I read this story, I cracked up when I got to this page. If you haven’t read the book, check it out from your local library and study it.

Of course, not everyone writes in rhyme, but you can still learn about varying the number of words on a spread from reading Rex’s work. Pay close attention to where the story bounces along at a quick clip and where it pauses on a particular moment.

Next up, an example from Tammi Sauer’s book I Love Cake!, illustrated by Angie Rozelaar, to show how using more words on a particular spread can amp up humor.

Cover of I LOVE CAKE!, featuring a moose, porcupine, and rabbit sitting around a table.

This is the story of three best friends: Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose. It’s Rabbit’s birthday, so she invites her pals over for a party. All is well, until Moose gets a whiff of something delicious, and his friends get suspicious. Where did Moose go? And where’s the cake?!

If you’re familiar with Tammi Sauer’s work, she typically uses fairly sparse text because she is an absolute wizard at making every word count. This is why it’s extra hilarious when, on page 27 of the book, Moose lets out a rambling 69-word confession about what happened to the missing cake. After Sauer gets us comfortable with a story paced to have roughly the same amount of info on each spread—for 11 spreads—this word-vomit from Moose is totally unexpected and therefore absolutely hysterical. Honestly, if you want to study pacing, give any of Sauer’s books a read.

Let’s talk about one more trick to hone in on an impactful moment: the wordless spread.

I included a wordless spread in my forthcoming debut, Vampire Vacation, a story about a little vampire named Fang who desperately wants to visit the beach (illustrated by Micah Player and out in May from Viking).  

Cover of Vampire Vacation, featuring a young vampire sitting on the beach.

In this case, I actually wrote

[wordless spread]

in the text and described what I envisioned taking place.

This particular plot point was a) critical to moving the story forward and b) outlined in a way that didn’t dictate unnecessary specifics for the illustrations.

I really wanted readers to savor that special moment without being distracted by any words on the page. Micah Player’s art made it absolute perfection. (To find out what the moment is, you’ll have to read the book!)

Okay, so there’s three examples of how you can play around with the number of words on each page to amp up humor in your story. But what about page turns, specifically? Let’s dive into those.

Ame Dyckman creates tension—and amps up humor—with intentional page turns in her book You Don’t Want a Unicorn, illustrated by Liz Climo.

Cover of YOU DON'T WANT A UNICORN!, featuring a child riding a unicorn who is jumping over a rainbow.

Dyckman uses a combination of em dashes and ellipses to entice readers to turn the pages. In the fourth spread of the story, we learn how unicorns shed and scratch, which is just so very funny in itself. The author goes on to tell us,

“and no matter how hard you try…”

[page turn]

“unicorns can’t be house-trained.”

Dyckman’s words paired with Climo’s illustrations got me in a fit of giggles when I turned the page. (Read the story to see why it’s so darn funny.) But I love how readers were primed to turn the page with the ellipsis before the big punchline. It made it so much funnier than if this joke was on the same page as the shedding and scratching, because the page turn gave readers that brief moment of suspense.

Another way to get readers eager to turn the page? Eliciting curiosity. Think about lift-the-flap books. They’re exciting for kids because there’s the surprise of seeing what’s behind the flap. But how can you do this solely with words?

You’ll find an example in Dozens of Doughnuts, written by Carrie Finison and illustrated by Brianne Farley.

Cover of DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, featuring a bear in an apron carrying a plate of doughnuts as other animals trail behind her.

LouAnn, a bear who’s getting ready to hibernate for winter, is making some doughnuts to eat before her long sleep. But every time it seems like LouAnn is going to get to munch on some of those delicious doughnuts…

Ding-Dong!

…the doorbell rings, and readers must turn the page to find out who’s at the door. I love this for two reasons:

  1. My kids have so much fun shouting “Ding-Dong!” every time it comes up in the text (and Finison cleverly cues us that its coming).
  2. It’s a great way to make readers want to turn the page lickety-split, to see who’s behind the door.

So what’s the moral of this blog post? I’m going to quote a dear pal of mine, the hilarious Becky Scharnhorst, who said it best in a post she wrote for this blog last year: “Almost all humor comes down to surprise.”

It’s true! Think about how you can build in surprises for your readers via pacing and thoughtful page turns. (And if you want to read Becky’s latest, This Field Trip Stinks!, illustrated by Julia Patton, is on the way in August.) 

Photo of author Laura Lavoie

Laura Lavoie is the author of several forthcoming picture books, including VAMPIRE VACATION (illus. by Micah Player, Viking, 2022) and MONSTER BAKER (illus. by Vanessa Morales, Roaring Brook Press, 2023). She can also tap dance, tell terribly cheesy jokes, and bake a mean chocolate chip cookie. When she isn’t writing or reading books, Laura can usually be found in the kitchen, cooking up something delicious, or playing outside: gardening, kayaking, or hanging out in trees. Laura resides in upstate New York with her husband, daughters, two irritable cats, and several sagging bookshelves. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @llavoieauthor

VAMPIRE VACATION is now available for pre-order! You can learn more and order from your favorite bookseller here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/634093/vampire-vacation-by-laura-lavoie-illustrated-by-micah-player/

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