Originally Published: February 2014
by Kristi Olson
Writers and illustrators who have attended a SCBWI national conference already know that Lin Oliver is one funny lady. The New York Metro Chapter was thrilled to welcome her to a Professional Series lecture, on the heels of another successful SCBWI Annual Winter Conference.
Lin Oliver is not only the Co-Founder and Executive Director of SCBWI, but she’s also a leading children’s book author and writer-producer of family films, television series, and movies for children. Of note, with co-author Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, HANK ZIPZER: WORLD’S BEST UNDERACHIEVER, which has sold almost four million copies worldwide.
At the February Professional Series lecture, she offered helpful tips on how writers can use humor in their writing. She also noted that editors are almost always on the look out for books that use humor. Here are some highlights of the talk:
Are you writing a humorous book or are you writing a book with humor?
Books that aren’t pitched as funny books may have humor within them. Oliver noted John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as an example of a novel where the subject is far from funny—the main character is a teen cancer patient, but comic relief is used throughout to lighten the darkness in the story.
What’s funny to you?
“There’s nothing less funny than trying too hard,” Oliver said. “Know what makes you laugh and go to that as your strength.” People have different tastes when it comes to humor. Humor in books comes in many forms including: physical comedy, sarcasm, parody, verbal wit (puns, jokes), the unexpected (physical or plot humor), quirky characters, taboo subjects, funny names, teasing people (relationship humor), character voices, visual humor (picture book), and observational humor. “It’s crucial when writing humor to read it out loud,” she also suggested.
Humor is the details.
“Humor comes from the details,” Oliver said. Specific details about a character can make humor thrive. For example, a character with ripped pants or their undies showing is funnier than a character with a general description.
Comedy is the reaction as well as the action.
The way other characters react to the funny part is just as important as the humorous incident. An example is the reaction shot of how characters react in funny moves.
Comedy is telling the truth in a funny way.
Things that are really funny to us resonate as a truth. The emotional effect on the reader stems from the combination of the humorous action and the empathy we feel for the character.
Kristi Olson holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Children from The New School University. She is currently working on a young adult novel.