Empowered by Embarrassment: The Value of Adding Humor to Your Manuscript

You know those times when you wish you were completely alone? Not because you wish for peace and quiet, but because you hate the fact that others witnessed what just happened to you? I’m talking about those embarrassing moments, the ones when your face burns so hot that you feel like you might just melt down into the ground – and you wouldn’t mind if you did! You know, those moments!

Here’s my advice for what to do next time you have a mortifying moment: harness it. Use it to fuel your writing. Allow yourself to be empowered by embarrassment. It can add humor to your writing and boost audience appeal. Trust me, humiliation is hot. It is!

GIVEAWAY: Kami is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite.)


 the-boy-problem-cover    kami-kenard-writer-author

Column by Kami Kinard, who enjoys humor writing. Her latest novel,
The Boy Problem: Notes and Predictions of Tabitha Reddy released from
Scholastic in April 2014. (See the book trailer here.) Her first novel,
The Boy Project: Notes and Observations of Kara McAllister, debuted
from Scholastic in January 2012 and was a 2013 Children’s Choices
Reading List Pick. Kinard’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces have
appeared in and been purchased by some of the world’s best children’s
magazines including Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, and Jack And Jill.
A former educator, she enjoys speaking at conferences and teaching
writing courses for children and adults. Kinard lives with her family in
Beaufort S.C. See her blog, Nerdy Chicks Rule, or connect with her on Twitter.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard editors or agents at writers’ conferences say they were looking for humor. The fact is, humor sells because people love to laugh. And most people find it humorous when humiliation happens…as long as it happens to someone else! I can convince you of this with four letters. AFHV.

Because what is America’s Funniest Home Videos other than a video catalogue of embarrassing moments — moments so awkward that all you can do is laugh? This television show has held a prime time slot almost continuously for over two decades – proof that embarrassment sells!

(What should you do after rejection?)

Need further proof? Consider this: The teen magazine YIKES is entirely focused on embarrassing moments. It contains celebrity bloopers collected by the editors and embarrassing reader moments submitted by the audience. I hate to admit it, but each issue of YIKES magazine sells more copies than my first novel sold in its first year. Yikes indeed!

So now that you’re convinced there’s something better to do with your embarrassing moments than to push them out of your memory, try to work them into your writing. Start with your own embarrassing moment and project it onto one of your characters. There, that feels better, doesn’t it? You can apply that moment many different ways. Use it to evoke empathy for a main character, or to make the audience cheer when a villain gets what is coming to him! Want some hilarious examples? Check out one of Carl Hiaasen’s humor novels like Nature Girl.

Now ask yourself what could make the moment even more embarrassing? You write fiction, you’re allowed to embellish! Here are some tips for heating up the humiliation:

1) If it looks funny, it is funny! Alter your character’s appearance in a way that heightens the humiliation. Could your character be wearing a ridiculous costume? Be barely dressed? Author Robin Mellom takes full advantage of this strategy in her novel Ditched, where most of the action for the main character takes place while she’s wearing an 80’s prom dress her mom found in a consignment shop then guilted her into wearing – with shoes dyed to match!

2) Bigger audience = more embarrassment. You can easily raise the embarrassment quotient by raising the number of people who witness the moment. Tom Angleberger uses this technique in his best-selling book The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda. Tommy, the main character, is embarrassed by his friend Dwight who acts particularly odd at a school dance where everyone witnesses his antics. Mortification is multiplied by the number of viewers!

(How to help an author promote their new book: 11 tips.)

3) Eyes matter. Increase the intensity of the moment by ensuring key people are there to see it. The eyes of a love interest, boss, or celebrity make embarrassment even more awkward than it already is! When Tabbi, the main character of my novel The Boy Problem, trips over the cymbal stand in band and falls, of course her new crush is there to see her crash to the floor. (Plus the crashing cymbals amplify the anguish!)

4) When it comes to embarrassment, more is more. Extend the moment. Drag it out. In Sarah Mlynowski’s Bras and Broomsticks, the main character, Rachel, is klutzy. But her klutziness is taken to a whole new level during a fashion show when she steps on the skirt of another model, toppling an entire line of girls “like dominos.” Then things get even worse. There are screams, gasps, and a demolished Eiffel Tower prop.

Put all this together and you have one single piece of advice: apply your own real-life embarrassing moment to your characters, and ramp it up until it’s SO bad we just have to laugh. Next time you fall down the stairs after rejecting someone, or knock over a full container of straws in a packed McDonalds’s, don’t feel embarrassed, feel empowered! Your audience will love you for it!

GIVEAWAY: Kami is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: burrowswrite.)


Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.



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14 thoughts on “Empowered by Embarrassment: The Value of Adding Humor to Your Manuscript

  1. Debbie

    My favorite thing in life is laughter, seriously. I love humor and sharing it. Your insight in relating it to writing is so appreciated. I’ve done some of that, but your tips give me ideas to do more. I wrote a 750-word story called Snowflakes and Sneezes (no two are alike) — now I just need to do something with it. Thank you again for your advice. I would love to read your work.

  2. dawnw

    I love the idea of using embarrassing moments as writing fodder. You could just up the stakes for the character so much more by amplifying events…I’d like to see your book!

  3. identity

    I can’t find the author of the essay now, but in How to Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba, there was a suggestion to observe other people and try to imagine something funny that could happen to them as you were watching. An example: the author and his son saw a man squatted down changing a tire, his pants pulled down a bit from the squat. They decided it would be pretty funny if his pants fell the rest of the way down.

  4. Glynis

    Hahaha! That is my life – embarrassing moments. I wrote a column in our little hometown newspaper for 11 years highlighting some of my more (ahem) interesting moments. A fantastic way to glean character traits for stories, too. Wonderful advice!


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