When is a joke not a joke?

By Jo Franklin

When is a joke not a joke? Answers on a postcard please.

Funny stories are often cited as a great way to get children reading, yet many authors claim they can’t write humour. I’m not sure I can write anything else!

The first thing to sort out is the voice. 

Jo Franklin's business card
It doesn’t matter how funny the action is–if it is told in an unimaginative way, it will fall flat. 

I prefer to write in the first person. The protagonist becomes the narrator and I give them a quirky view of the world. It means they can also send up their own actions and feelings. The same words could sound bitchy or mean coming from another character.

Gordon stroked the Thin Crust laptop and sighed as he lifted the lid to reveal the keyboard. He whispered little snatches of baby talk and giggled coyly as he tiptoed his fingers over the keys. He was flirting with the laptop. My laptop.                                                –Help! I’m an Alien

Next, set up characters who are at odds with each other. Yes, humour is another form of conflict. Put a crisp-eating slob and a ‘don’t touch me’ neat freak in a top-secret meeting in a tiny Wendy house and something funny is bound to happen.

Keep the humour going. This is the hardest thing of all. Sitcom writers tick the jokes on a page to ensure they don’t have a dry spot. It’s a good idea, but I end up arguing with myself about ‘when is a joke not a joke’, so ticking jokes ends up being another form of procrastination. 

The humour needs to be everywhere. In the language, the action, the situation and the tone.

It needs to be children’s humour aimed specifically at your target age group. And no adult jokes or Adult jokes. And absolutely no politics. 

Last but not least, don’t forget the plot. Too many funny books are nothing more than a string of gags loosely tied together, which results in a very unsatisfactory reading experience. I believe the payoff is critical for the reader to enjoy the story, whatever the genre. That means your character needs to overcome the funny problem you give them in the first place, and grow a little along the way–while still being funny. 

Not much, then!

Photo by Liz Emerson
Jo Franklin has been a SCBWI member since 2010. She offers counsel and cake to many SCBWI members. Jo writes funny, feel-good stories for 8-to-12-year-olds about children who are not normally centre-stage, like misfits, geeks and tomboys. 

Help! I’m an Alien will be published by Troika Books in May 2016.

Twitter: @JoFranklin2



  1. Great tips, Jo! I like your idea of a catalyst forming from two opposite character types.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Humor will bring people together with shared laughter to defuse tense situation. It will be very useful if the story involved is tense or upsetting.

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