Sunday, November 28, 2010


Most kids love humor. They love reading funny books, telling jokes and seeing funny movies. Kids in middle school refine the art of sarcasm; practicing this skill with deadpan remarks to their parents (who are amazed to find a stand-up comedian lurking inside their child).

But when you sit down to write a humorous story, where do you start? Understanding the different kinds of comedic stories can help students to focus, and as a bonus, it will help to give them ideas for their plots. One type of story is the ‘fish out of water’ variety.

In a ‘fish out of water’ story, a normal character is plunked down in a humorous world, or a humorous character is thrown into a normal world. In the first case, your normal ‘fish’ could be a regular guy who has just landed on a planet populated by intelligent ducks. It could be your average kid who finds out the survival camp his parents have sent him to is run by zombies. Wherever a writer sends his normal ‘fish’, it should be somewhere that he will be given the worst time of his life. From adversity springs the opportunity for humor.

In the second case, where you have a humorous character thrown into a normal world, your ‘fish’ can be an alien who visits our world.  Or a mummy from ancient Egypt could come back to life in Kansas. Whoever your ‘fish’ is, put him in the ‘normal’ place that will cause the most mayhem and misunderstanding all around. Mayhem and misunderstanding are also opportunities for humor.

An exercise for students (to help them to understand the ‘fish out of water’ structure) is to have them list movies and books that follow one of the two types.  Here are some examples for younger kids:

Examples of a normal person in a humorous world:
Freaky Friday
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Planet 51
Princess and the Frog
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
James and the Giant Peach
Alice in Wonderland
The Phantom Tollbooth

Examples of a humorous character thrown into a normal world:
School of Rock
Herbie, the Love Bug
Aliens For Breakfast
Amelia Bedelia
Mrs. Piggle-wiggle
Mary Poppins

Of course, many tall tales have a ‘fish out of water’ element. Paul Bunyan is a comic character thrown into a normal world, as is Pecos Bill. You could even say some modern legends, like Bigfoot, follow the formula. ‘Fish out of water’ stories, don’t have to be humorous, of course, and students will be able to spot many other examples (Gregor the Overlander, Twilight, Star Wars, Tarzan, Avatar, to name a few).

A book on writing that I have found immensely helpful in writing humor and writing in general is The Comic Toolbox by Peter Vorhaus. Older students (middle grade and up), and adult writers will find it contains many useful writing nuggets and is a fun read, as well.

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