Monday, August 22, 2011

Writing Humor: Parallels with Advertising

by Pam Smallcomb

Hello, my name is Pam Smallcomb, and I have been hitting my head against the writing wall for twenty years (even more, but that would make me feel really old to admit). I have the dents in my forehead to prove it. I work really hard at coming up with ideas that don’t make me cringe. Maybe some of you have that problem, too, or your students do. So, in the spirit of piggybacking on to Joan Waites’ great post about Story Starters, I thought I would share part of a presentation I did for an SCBWI workshop.

My inspiration for the workshop came when it occurred to me that writing a humorous picture book has some parallels to advertising. The original brain jiggling thought I had was this: advertisers cram a lot of story into a short amount of time and space.

Advertisers are highly creative and innovative. They get a message across in a fresh way. Advertisers love humor and are very good at it.

So how do they go about making their advertising magic?
First, they decide on their target market. They define who their product is for.

As a picture book writer,  our target is a young child. But we have another target, too, because it is an adult that buys the book. Having something in your humorous picture book for a parent or an adult to chuckle over is a big bonus.

Think about Knufflebunny by Mo Willems. Both target markets are touched with this story. If you are a little kid and you lose your lovey, it’s like the world has ended. If you are a parent, and your kid loses his lovey,  you know you are in for a rough ride.

Advertisers also focus on the message they want to get across.
As writers, we should think about our ‘message’ or theme, too.

Here are some things to ask yourself when developing the theme of your humorous picture book:
Is my story of value to a young child (will it resonate)?
What are the worries of young kids?
What are some things that parents have to help their kids with (sleeping through the night, etc.)
Is the humor something a child will ‘get’?
Did you leave a little nugget for that parent/adult who is reading the book to the child?

Another thing that advertisers do when they get a new project is to brainstorm ideas.  We can brainstorm to generate ideas for humorous picture books as well. There are lots of ways to brainstorm. One way is to blend two unlike things.

Think of the Geico Caveman ad: cavemen and insurance. Not at all alike, which is why it is funny. Make two lists of items (just let your imagination run wild!). Then draw lines between unlike things. Connecting unlike things can help you find a jumping off point for a funny story. There is humor in incongruity. Take two things that are incompatible and build a relationship between them.

Here are some picture books that blend unlike things:

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick
This is a fun book about the first day of kindergarten with one's own buffalo. Buffalo and kindergarten – couldn’t be more different!

Todd’s TV by James Proimos
An affable TV takes over the parental duties of busy parents with hilarious results.

Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton
An humorous imaginary battle between a shark and a train. Two unlike things pitted against each other, and two things that boys will especially love.

So the next time you get stuck trying to come up with an idea for a funny picture book, break out a pencil, make two lists, draw lines between unlike things and see what happens! All our brains need a good jiggle now and then.

P.S. Don’t forget! To enter our book giveaway, just leave a comment here. A winner will be picked on September 30th!

Win a signed copy of I'm Not by Pam Smallcomb
To enter, leave a comment on a Pencil Tips blog post
Random winner contacted September 30th

"...a fresh take on friendship/reassurance stories and is, for sure, not boring"
- starred review Kirkus Reviews December 2010

Leave a comment at any Pencil Tips blog post between now and September 30th
for a chance to win a signed copy.


  1. Great post, Pam. And what a not-daunting approach to brainstorming--I'll definitely try that. (Penguins and ceramics! Honeydew and calculus!)

    If nothing else, I'm quite sure I could amuse myself for a long day...

    I always appreciate new ways to think about the stuff I think about. Thanks!

  2. Wow what wonderful info & tips. Ok I admit I have dabbled in writing now I am inspired. Now if I only could remember where I put it. Perhasps the closet monster knows!

  3. Great tips! I always wanted to be a writer but that passion sort of fell by the wayside. Maybe in my dotage I'll discover it again. ;0)

  4. I'm adding a comment for Maria, who had trouble posting here. :)

  5. Kids will love the technique of creating unusual pairs! Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. I would ne REALLY stupid not to enter this!!!

  7. pam, what wonderful advice!! I need to get writing again after this inspiring post :0

    Count me in on the giveaway please, Ms. halloween!


  8. Hi Pam!

    (great post! I think sometimes I blend unlike things but it's always by accident. Now I'm gonna say you told me to! LOL!)
    XOXO - Cindi

  9. oh do i love being here! and the challenge of listing unlikes: i'm all over it! i LOVE this 'prompt'

    notice to everyone here i don't know; i am a huge fan of ms. smallcomb, also known as prudie1. besides for being very very talented, she has the soul of a silly saint. ♥

  10. Hi Pam! Any old comment will do.

    (How'zat? :~)

  11. Holy Moly, Pam!! I love this've got my literary creative juices going!! Wish I had come up with the idea of Adam Mansbach's book about the frustration of young parents trying to get their children to sleep...yikes, I could write volumes about that!! LOL I have to get a copy of that for my collection.

    I already have a couple of your books...the last one you sent to my grandies, my oldest one, Sean, read it to us...forgot to give it to them and still have to ship.

    I wrote and illustrated a children's counting book back when I was taking a children's lit course in college (remember it wasn't too long ago for me, I was the old fart in every class) and my prof thought I should publish it...never did it! However, you've inspired me. As for that bucket of sanity, pass it down here to friggin' hot West relief in sight and I don't think winter is EVER going to arrive..we don't have Fall, just hot and then a little cooler!! Also, making dinner now for my mother...oy, and almost have to force feed there's a subject for a book...trying to maintain your sense of humour during a time when it's not so funny...ya know me, I have to make jokes and laugh about it.


  12. I just learned of this blog from a post at From the Mixed-Up Files. I read enough to decide I must subscribe and so I look forward to following you regularly. Please enter me in the book giveaway. Thanks!

    Linda A.