Writing for Kids: Balancing Humor and Horror

Guest post by Frank Cole.

Frank L. Cole lives with his wife and three children out west. When bio-picnot writing books, Frank enjoys going to the movies and traveling. The World’s Greatest Adventure Machine is Frank’s ninth published book and his second with Delacorte Press. His first was The Afterlife Academy.

You can learn more about his writing at frankcolewrites.com or find @franklcole on Twitter.

There’s something truly brilliant about the recent Pixar movie, Inside Out. Aside from being another well-written masterpiece and just beautiful to watch, the story touched on something very real. insideoutThe movie focused on five key emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Those were the five emotions that drove the characters, triggered action and reactions to situations, and helped them make a connection. Even sadness, though at first seemed to be an annoyance, played a significant role in making the movie great. I feel the key to writing something memorable and readable is discovering a way to ignite one or more of those emotions within a reader.

Fear is an important one. We feel fear in a number of ways. Embarrassment. Shock. Terror. We all have our phobias and when you can write something that touches on some of our fears in a way that’s safe and perhaps triumphant, we’re drawn to that. Why do we ride horrifying roller coasters? To be afraid? Maybe. But we don’t want to feel that queasy, unsettling feeling all the time. There are limits to our fears, but most people love to feel accomplished. When they conquer their fears something important happens to them. They grow and become stronger when they stare the opposition in the face and overcome it.

Writing horror or scary books for children is tricky because you have to understand the limitations of the intended audience. Kids’ fears are more palpable than adults because they’re able to believe more and accept more as truth. That’s why we love to write for children. Their imaginations are so vivid and powerful, that when we create a successful story it becomes real to them. Thus, the importance of understanding how far you can go with the scares in your book. When you don’t take this into consideration and you write something that’s too scary, it can have an adverse response within young readers and they’ll readily detach themselves from the story. Trained editors and agents know how to recognize this, and they’ll rain down rejections swiftly and painfully.

I have an example from my book, THE AFTERLIFE ACADEMY. Throughout the story, there are chapters written from the perspective of the demons, particularly one named Hoonga. I wanted to give the reader a chance to see things from his eye (Hoonga’s a cyclops). I made the demons have very human personalities, likes and dislikes, and I placed them in humorous situations to lighten the mood a bit. I wanted the book to have a creepy element, but I still wanted it to feel safe.

In one of these chapters from my initial draft, Hoonga becomes angry with a demon servant, and decides to punish him by torturing him. Hoonga’s office has several terrifying contraptions scattered about and he makes it a game to decide which device he’ll use on the poor victim. This was a big no-no. My editor wanted this removed from the book immediately, even though nothing actually happens to the demon. She said it was too dark, and too much for young readers. At first, I wanted to push back because I liked the idea of giving a glimpse of how terrible Hoonga could be despite his sense of humor, while not actually showing the act of torture. But she insisted it be taken out due to the target age of my book. Middle Grade is written for 8 to 12-year-olds. And while many 12-year-olds can handle somewhat intense situations, the book needed to be age appropriate for all children within the range. Now, had I been writing a YA or an adult novel, there are very few limitations. Ultimately my editor won, because she was wise. We did, however, come up with a compromise. My editor understood that Hoonga needed to have a way to punish bad behavior and it needed to be more than just a dock in pay or a firm scolding. These were demons after all. We decided to give the demons an unusual fear. In THE AFTERLIFE ACADEMY, creatures from the underworld are deathly afraid of board games. Yeah. Weird, I know! But it allowed me to develop these creatures’ personalities a bit more, add humor into a scene where it was otherwise absent, especially when one of the demons is forced to play Monopoly, and keep the story age appropriate.

There are other moments in the book intended to raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck and that’s okay. Fear is important, remember? It causes a connection, especially when the reader discovers how the main character overcomes those scary instances. But terror if not controlled, can cause a disconnect.

As mentioned above, one of the keys to writing horror for children is knowing when you’ve pushed the envelope a bit too much and then, without removing the fear completely, introduce a secondary emotion. In my books, I use humor. Laughter, silliness, or wit add so much to any situation. It allows the reader a chance to catch their breath, to take a break, and maybe gain control of their emotions. But, and I think this is key, humor doesn’t automatically diffuse the situation. It doesn’t eliminate the threat. It’s like the small, witty kid squaring off with a bully. Wit and humor may lighten the mood, confuse the bully, and even buy the main character some time to come up with an escape, but ultimately the bully still remains. A sidekick in a scary story can provide comic relief, but in my book the demons don’t fizzle into puddles of goop due to a cleverly-delivered joke. Still, if a young reader can snicker, or take a brief moment to grin at something whimsical they’ve read during a particularly intense scene, they’ll hopefully be more apt to turn the page and read on. That’s the end goal. Keep them reading. Keep them interested. Fear, delivered in appropriate and manageable chunks, can accomplish this goal.

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

Visit Jen’s blog at: http://www.jjbennett.com/