Articles and books about how to write for children always start with (or include) that gnarly nugget ‘read some children’s books’ and this one is no different.
If you want to find success then you need to know about the kinds of things that are successful, and it will help you a lot if you can work out why they are successful.
I could list a few authors and titles at this point but instead I suggest that you go down to your local library or bookshop, find the types of books you’re interested in writing and pick up a few. If you want to write a funny story for children aged 7-11, then peruse the fiction aimed at that group. Check the blurb and see if words like ‘funny’, laugh’ and ‘humour’ are mentioned. If there are several titles in the series then they’re probably doing well. Borrow or buy one or two and read them. Ask yourself some pertinent questions:
- What makes the reader keep turning the pages?
- What makes this work for children?
- Why is it funny?
You might find those questions easy to answer and you might not. If you don’t ‘get’ the book at all then writing humorous fiction for children may not be your purpose in life!
Another thing that every author, agent or publisher will tell you is that there is no formula for writing a successful book. Indeed, you may find completely different answers to the above questions for two different books. But, despair not, there are certain rules, strategies and tips which can help you turn your manuscript-with-potential (or idea-with-possibilities) into something that a publisher might get excited about. Here are some of my pointers:
- A funny story is first and foremost a story. It has to have the essential ingredients that draw the reader in and keep him/her reading. Children like characters they can relate to, they like to see them doing exciting or daring things and they like to see them overcoming adversity, for example. A story needs a dilemma, it must pose a question, and then it must allow the hero or heroes to tackle their problem with wit, originality and perhaps a quirky companion or two. A good setting helps, as does an eccentric baddie and a twist.
- The story is often best delivered in digestible chunks. Short chapters help to maintain interest, especially if you can end each one on or near an edge (don’t overdo the cliffhanging though, or you might fall off). Most children do not possess a great deal of patience, bless 'em, so you will need to keep the action coming fairly thick and fast. ‘Pace’ is one of those publishing buzzwords that it’s worth understanding. Go back to the books you borrowed/bought/nicked and see if you can eke out how the writer prevents the story from slowing too much. But beware making your tale too breakneck or the reader will feel sick…
- As well as a plot that weaves and bobs through both the expected and unexpected, a cast of appealing characters and a juicy ending, you may need to consider some of the elements that children enjoy in a story. They like to imagine that they are on this adventure – being daring, beating the baddie, tricking those silly adults and generally doing lots of things that they’ll never get to do in real life. Everything’s often larger and dafter than life in funny children’s books: the rewards are big, the dangers horrid, the challenges outrageous. Not always, but often.
- Humour. For some people it comes naturally and for others, well, you know… Another problem is that what makes adults laugh isn’t always what gets kids giggling. And it’s certainly not just a case of mentioning poo and farts, although they do have their place in small measure.
So, what are the ways that funny children’s authors make their stories funny?
- Cheeky dialogue goes down well, with a mix of realism and exaggeration.
- Amusing names, titles, places, labels etc.
- Wordplay, if you can pull it off – but beware that kiss of death called the bad pun.
- Idiosyncratic characteristics such as giving your protagonist or villain a curious or comical habit.
- Crazy happenings (again, can easily be overdone, though).
It’s not so much a case of writing jokes into your books as settling up situations which have comedy potential. It’s just like we never laugh as much at a gag on TV as we do when, at home, Great Aunt Gloria does something unexpected with a bassoon.
Be prepared to tweak and tweak again. You have to have the right blend of fantasy and reality, of sanity and mayhem, of chase and chat. The world you’ve created must be recognisable but it also needs to be intriguing. You can have too much new stuff but, likewise, too much mundane conventionality will make it boring. So, how do you judge? Ah, well, you could read more books, you could seek professional feedback and you could apply those three questions. Happy tweaking!
Andy Seed writes for both children and adults and is the author of The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff (Bloomsbury) as well as the popular ‘All Teachers’ series of memoirs. He is a regular visitor to schools where he greatly enjoys inspiring children to read. Find out more about Andy and his latest funny novel for children, Prankenstein, on his website.