word craft


Writing a Funny Book

Ragweed & PoppyWrit­ing some­thing that is funny—that will make read­ers laugh—is one of the hard­est things to do. When I set out to write Rag­weed & Pop­py, that was one of the goals.

The writer sits in front of the blank page (or screen). He/she is usu­al­ly alone. Maybe you are lis­ten­ing to music. (I like absolute qui­et) You are try­ing to invent a joke, a sit­u­a­tion, a phrase, that is meant to bring laugh­ter, or a gig­gle, maybe just a smile, but there is no one to give that response. It’s all in your head.

The Importance of Being EarnestThere is a sto­ry about Oscar Wilde—one of the great wits of all time—and his hilar­i­ous play, The Impor­tance of Being Earnest. It is said that at the first per­for­mance of the play he stood at the back of the the­atre ner­vous­ly pac­ing, lis­ten­ing to the audi­ence reac­tion. Of course there was much laugh­ter at spe­cif­ic lines. But it was not until the audi­ence laughed (in the sec­ond act) at a turn in the plot, that Wilde was sat­is­fied that he had writ­ten a fun­ny work. It was not the gags which were fun—they are—it was the absur­di­ty that was brilliant.

I don’t care how good a writer you are. You may be able to write a sear­ing tragedy, or a heart-thump­ing thriller. That doesn’t mean you can write some­thing that is fun­ny. True fun­ny is rare.

Curi­ous­ly, while that which is fun­ny is treasured—we all love to laugh—it is often con­sid­ered a less wor­thy form of art. That bias is built into the lan­guage. “That’s a joke,” we say of some­thing that is unwor­thy. “He’s a clown,” we offer about some­one who should not be tak­en seri­ous­ly. “It was a farce,” a term applied to some­thing that is bad. “It’s laugh­able,” is a term of rejection.

On the oth­er hand, we can say, “She is a trag­ic fig­ure,” and there is respect built into the phrase. “He’s led a sad life,” evokes sym­pa­thy. “It’s an unhap­py sit­u­a­tion,” calls for com­pas­sion. “They have unhap­py lives,” asks for understanding.

How does one learn to be fun­ny? I’m not sure one can. Rather, I think it is a way of look­ing at the world. A per­son with wit sees absur­di­ty, irony, con­tra­dic­tion, the ridicu­lous in the world. Fun­ny is often a way of fram­ing fail­ure as an inher­ent part of the human con­di­tion. Funny—while it can be cruel—is more often for­giv­ing. We “laugh it off.”

Young people—kids—adore fun­ny. I sus­pect it is because they are capa­ble of seeing—and acknowledging—the absur­di­ty of much that hap­pens in the world. Adults can find it threat­en­ing. Kids are will­ing, indeed wel­come sur­prise, which is a key aspect of funny.

I love writ­ing fun­ny books. The End of the Begin­ning. Who was that Masked Man Any­way? S.O.R Losers. Mid­night Mag­ic. Nev­er Mind. And the Pop­py books. Kids adore the char­ac­ter Ereth, not because he is wise: because he is absurd, full of nonsense.

And now there is Rag­weed & Pop­py. Full of sur­pris­es (I hope). A good dose of absur­di­ty. A few ridicu­lous sit­u­a­tions. And any num­ber of moments that should just make the reader—laugh—aloud.

In these days—a good thing. Enjoy.

Ragweed and Poppy
Illus­tra­tion from Rag­weed and Pop­py, copy­right Bri­an Flo­ca, writ­ten by Avi, pub­lished by Harper­Collins, 2020. Used here with permission.

2 thoughts on “Writing a Funny Book”

  1. Oh, this is spot on, Avi — espe­cial­ly as regards the strange dichoto­my of how much we love good com­e­dy while at the same time hold­ing it in low esteem. 

    Every once in a while when I am work­ing I write some­thing that makes me laugh out loud. Those moments are rare and I tru­ly cher­ish them when they happen!

  2. When I was teach­ing I always tried, espe­cial­ly dur­ing my years in 3rd grade, but in 5th as well, to inter­sperse some books that real­ly brought humor to our class­room life. (I was choosy, it could­n’t be what I thought of as a cheap laugh or at some­one’s expense. Wit­ty, sil­ly, fun. You are absolute­ly cor­rect, of course about how hard it is to get it right. Thank you for all the writ­ing you do. Kids do love your Pop­py books.


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