Comedy In Fiction

LaughterOne of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.

Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.

LaughterIn another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.

Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."

I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:

"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."

And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

LaughterDouglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:

"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"What?"
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”

Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.

I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?

I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.

Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.

An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?

"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."

This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)

Now consider this physical scene:

"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."

Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.

One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.

What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.

Writing Decisions That Affect Readers and my Reader/Writer Hats…

First, this article is for Working Writers WHO WANT TO SUPPORT THEMSELVES BY WRITING.

My Reader Hat: I buy books that sound good, mostly romance (all sub-genres), fantasy (most genres), some mysteries and YA. Less often I download a sample. And I rarely read something NEW when I'm far behind deadline, as I was from November through May. So I've been opening up the purchased-last-year books to find something, particularly a series to read. Not having much luck. As follows:

A book starting with teenage date rape (probably not the heroine but I gave it NO chance). Just. No.

Writer Hat, Note: I HATE opening with a Victim’s Point of View Just To Show Us The Bad Guy Deserves A Hideous Death, which is what I think the writer was going for (but I don’t know because I stopped and moved on to the next book).

A mystery written by a man with a female first person point of view that he gets wrong. Writer Hat, Note: No, women don’t think that…or that…or that. Can you run it by a female that age and that career, please?

A romance written by an urban fantasy writer with a plot conflict that is so cliche, I can't handle it. Writer Hat, Note: Excellent characters, interesting twist, BUT this conflict over Save The Ranch/Sell The Ranch to Developers has been done a zillion times, and I don’t think you’ve read widely enough in romance. KNOW YOUR GENRE.

A couple of first person present point of view books that just aren't good enough with plot and characters to make me forget about first person present. Sorry, you have to work harder for me. Writer Hat, Note: I’m not the only person who finds First Person Present Point Of View a challenge, especially when you write/dialog about a past event and you go into Past Point Of View, then have to yank us back to Present. That also makes it challenging for you, the writer (sort of like Initial Caps of Words, yes I can poke fun at myself and these pronouncements).

A 18th century historical set in England with: “Failure was not an option.” That ripped me straight from the lush setting to the white counters and male scientists of NASA and Apollo 13 and I probably won’t go back. Writer Hat Note, KNOW YOUR HISTORICAL SLANG/ANACHRONISTIC PHRASES.
********************
Reader Hat: An okay book with sort of interesting characters up to the half where I realized the guy I didn't like was the love interest.

Reader Hat: The next book in a mystery series where the heroine gets pregnant. Not for me.

Reader/Writer Hat: Now, the last two are just a matter of personal preference. Nothing that really irritated me into stopping reading. The author did his/her job.

Personal Preference: I know this issue. I've had people say, "I don't like reading about intelligent/talking animals." And I reply "You will never like my work." I accept that.

And no story will please all of the people all of the time.

And I may be a little harsh right now, but the book's gotta hook me, have good characters and plot. I can deal with a slower historical/high fantasy plot, or one that zooms along at light speed. I can deal with ramped up, graphic violence. Off-scene romance, erotic romance, all okay by me. I can suspend a modicum of disbelief.

But, as WORKING writers, we must all be aware of our choices, and what will cause someone to put the book down, for a moment, or forever…and whether that reader will ever buy us again. And, for me, I will never buy the author of the date-rape book again. NOT a good place to start.

I AM a WORKING WRITER, I MUST SUPPORT MYSELF (and two cats) BY MY WRITING, so I DO think about the above when writing, or, more likely, revising.

That said, Reader Hat, I AM up to a very promising YA/paranormal school series. Which, like a marriage of convenience, can pretty much always hook me.

That's my musing on writing today.

Critiquing Can Be Hard Work, But…

When critiquing the work of colleagues, whether in a critique group or just between friends, the hardest thing is when it's a topic, genre or style you don't normally enjoy reading in your leisure time. It isn't often spoken about, but it's true. It can sometimes be an interminable slog to try to read and critique a colleague's work when it's not something you would have chosen on your own to read. It's not that they're a bad writer, in fact, they could be the best writer in the world, and it would still be like a trek through a vast, barren, hard-pack, salt-flat desert.

Actually, I take that back a little - I enjoy reading the writing of a really talented writer whatever the topic. But let's face it, most of the critiquing we do is for fellow travelers on the journey to becoming great writers, who, like us or like we once were, may not quite be there yet.

So how do we get through the torture of reading for critique something that, to our tastes, is either bitter or bland? I have five suggestions below. These are the same tactics many of us used when studying in school, reading chapters of a dry technical manual or textbook. Maybe they won't make it easier, but they should help us stay motivated to get through it.

  • Sooner begun, sooner done. It's as simple as that - the sooner we just knuckle under and get through it the sooner we will be finished and on to something we do enjoy. Don't watch the clock, stop glancing at your watch and just do it.
  • Set goals for yourself. If you're doing a full-manuscript critique, set goals of, say, one chapter, then take a break and do something you enjoy. BUT be sure to set a time limit on that break, and stick to your schedule. A half hour of TV, then back to the next chapter. Eat lunch, then back for the next chapter, etc.
  • Imagine someone who enjoys the topic or genre. What might they be thinking as they read this piece? How might they feel, what might strike them as exciting or interesting about the work?
  • Play archaeologist. This a text you found in a deep dark tomb somewhere, and inside it you just know is a single nugget of truth that could cure athlete's foot (or whatever) and if you read it you might be the one to find it.
  • Pretend you are an Audiobooks performer. Read the text out loud like a narrator, adding tone, accent, and timber to each voice, making the dramatic moments breathless and the moments of discovery triumphant.

Can you think of other ways to make the slog more palatable? I'd love to read your ideas in the comments below.

A Few Notes on Discoverability

Discoverability is one of those newish buzzwords that tries to describe the process by which a reader finds a book to read. The problem with the generally accepted view of discoverability is that the goal is not to have people discover a book. You can't build a career on a book. As an author you need readers to discover you. That may feel really scary but fight it. If you're an author, it's the reality of your chosen work. You can't be a concert pianist if you never get out of your living room.

Discoverability Only Matters Once

What we tend to lose track of is that most of an author's fanbase is made up of people who discovered him or her just one time. Once a reader knows your name and what you write, you don't need to be discovered by that reader again.

If you're smart and if you write something that that reader likes, you'll keep him or her reading your stuff forever—or at least until you piss them off by charging too much, writing too much stuff they don't like, make them wait too long between works, or toss some other sand into their gears.

How Does A New Author Do That?

Lean on your network.

There’s a difference between network and platform. Your network is a collection of your peers. Writers, artists, editors, and others engaged in the creative endeavor of bring literature to the audience. Your platform is your audience. They're the people who support you by buying your stuff.

Your network doesn't need to discover you. You need to build the network. You've already started by being a member of RMFW. Your network should have members who like and respect your work. It should have at least a few members whose work you like and respect. They don't all have to be in the mutual kumbaya society, but having a half dozen people with whom you share sensibilities is important.

Individually, new authors have very small audiences, perhaps as few as a hundred readers garnered over months of frustration. Ten such authors—with similar sensibilities and writing in related genres—have a thousand.

A thousand true fans represents critical mass. Once you get there, discoverability is a function of how fast your true fans share. It is no longer the author's problem.

The combined audience of ten authors won't give you that thousand true fans, but it's a nice start. Use that group to prime the pump by giving them something positive to talk about.

Give Them A Reason

My friend Evo Terra regularly says something like "If you want people to talk about you, do something remarkable." Having people talk about you means you get discovered by people who hear the talk.

One book is not remarkable. One book a year is not remarkable. One really OMFG book? Not remarkable for more than one news cycle.

What’s remarkable?

  • Regularly recommend somebody from your network.
  • Participate with readers in social media.
  • Build a body of work as fast (and as good) as you can.
  • Earn the reputation you want to have by being willing to build it one reader at a time.

It'll take a couple of years. Maybe three, maybe five.

If you write good stuff, if you build a good network, if you pay attention to the details of your craft, then readers will discover you and--through you--your work.

It's up to you to make sure they only need to discover you once.

Image credit:By Stewart Butterfield (flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Random Thoughts

1. In the latest review on Amazon for The Asphalt Warrior, the first book in the eight-book series by the late Gary Reilly, a reader wrote:

"Writers, good ones, create their readers. And this book does that.”

Do good writers “create their own readers?”

I love that idea. Are you going after your readers? Or someone else's?

2. On a similar note, I’m currently reading Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott. It’s a finalist for an Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original category. So, it’s a mystery. And mysteries are supposed to have a body (a victim) near the beginning. There are bodies in Shot in Detroit. In fact, lots of bodies. But the first half of this book is all character development. It’s a slow burn and a gritty build-up. The main character is dour and down—and interesting. She's different. She sees the world in her own unique way. And halfway into the book, we get the shift into that sort of “who done it?” format. It’s great to see the rules being broken—and broken so well. But I don’t think Shot in Detroit is for everybody. What book is?

3. Did "Moonlight" deserve Best Picture? I thought so. (Haven't seen "La La Land," though.) Could the story be any more…simple? More straightforward?

Does every story need layers and layers of complicated plot to pull us in?

Didn't you feel like you knew these characters, particularly after that long scene in the diner at the end?

4. I’ve had some great guests on the podcasts recently, but I highly recommend the one with Marc Graham. He makes some excellent points for up and coming writers about connecting with mentors. He talks about making a concerted effort to emulate success and how he “reverse engineered” the accomplishments of others. Marc also talks about the advantages of being “relentlessly helpful” along the way. These were some powerful insights from a guy whose first novel, Of Ashes and Dust, is being published two weeks from today. Listen here. Or check your favorite podcast provider.

5. Can reading make you happy? Have ever heard of The Novel Cure? Can you match a book to what ails you?  Can reading make you happy? Alter your mood?

There is an excellent article in The New Yorker about this topic.

The article cites the example of George Eliot, "who is rumored to have overcome her grief at losing her life partner through a program of guided reading with a young man who went on to become her husband." (Now, that is healing!) Eliot is quoted as saying: “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Agreed.

Enthusiasm Refill

The festive holiday season fills us with excitement, hope, cheer, enthusiasm, optimism. For several months we have something to look forward to. For many of us it is the excitement to see family and friends we haven't seen is a long time, for others it's seeing what Père Noël left for us under the Christmas tree, and for still others, like me, it's the anticipation of watching loved ones open presents we chose and wrapped just for them.

Inevitably after the holiday season there is a period of blahs, the unavoidable doldrums as we look ahead to what can't help to be mundane pursuits after the bright tinsel and blinking lights of such a heart-warming and lighthearted time. The lingering hangover from New Years Eve doesn't help.

Santa WritesHere's a perfect way to reignite your enthusiasm: write. Whenever I write, even when I have to force myself to sit down and put fingertips to keys, whenever I allow myself to be transported into the world I'm creating in my own stories, my spirits are always lifted, my heart lightened, my mind liberated.

It's safe to say the time-constraints of the season have necessitated that many (most?) of us have had to neglect our writing, even if only for a couple of weeks or so. This is the perfect time to get back to it. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it's productive.

And it will keep at bay the post-holiday blahs.

“The Silver Moment”

It's a term I made up to describe a twist in fiction that can make the "black moment" more shocking to a reader. The black moment is a part of the basic structure of fiction that has been knocking around for centuries.

  • The inciting incident.
  • The mounting tension.
  • Complications.
  • Climax.
  • The black moment.
  • Denouement.

There are as many variations on this structure as there are writers who write about writing, but roughly this is the basic formula for your plot in fiction. Everything else is a refinement on this.

The black moment is the part of the story just before everything is resolved when things seem to be as bad as they can get for our protagonist, when all seems lost and the antagonist is about to win.

The silver moment, as I call it, is infrequent in fiction but you should recognize it when you see it. It comes just before the black moment. It is the part of our story when, in contrast to the black moment, everything seems to have worked out for our protagonist, when all seems to have been resolved as it should have been and the good guys have won. The silver lining of the cloud that has been hanging over our protagonist throughout the book has, in effect, been found.

In this case, the black moment comes when the antagonist, thought defeated, reappears out of the blue with one last card to play, one last-ditch effort at accomplishing his goal, or at the very least, at destroying those who prevented him from achieving those goals in the silver moment.

Rogue Agenda by Kevin Paul TracyFor example, in Rogue Agenda the terrorists have all been rounded up by the Feds, the Al-Serhemni family have successfully escaped to Canada, and while Lainie still has an arson/manslaughter rap hanging over her head the reader knows she is innocent and, if there is justice, will be exonerated. But wait...what about the hit man who started this whole mess by trying to kill the CIA agent and has been stalking Lainie ever since? For god's sake, check the closet before you go to sleep!

Presence of Malice by Kevin Paul TracyIn th conclusion of my book Presence of Malice the villain, Dr. Gerald Gannery, is wanted by several Federal agencies and our heroes - Jet, Gregory, Patricia, and Paul - are enjoying their victory and have let their guards down. Unaware - but about to find out - that Gannery has found the brownstone where Jet has hidden his paraplegic brother and is aware of the money that his henchman tried to bribe the fixer with...and is now driven by a murderous thirst for vengeance.

The silver moment can definitely be overused. If the reader comes to expect it, it loses its impact to make the black moment come as a greater surprise and seem even blacker. But if used judiciously, it can be an effective tool in bringing a shocking and satisfying story to your readers.

Audio Books

I love audio books.

One of the reasons is that I live alone and I like someone to read a story to me before (or while) I fall asleep. For these, I choose books I've already read/heard before (and I DO reread and re-listen to books in my library).

Like many people, I enjoy listening to books while driving, particularly on long trips.

And I also use new books and/or new audio books as a reward for doing good work, or making wordcount.

Last night I gave myself a guilty pleasure and listened to an audio book, Sweep In Peace, by Ilona Andrews.

Advice first, then ramblings. Audio books are GREAT for getting the feel of the language, of different accents and rhythms of speech from Jane Austin's upper class British to an east Texan twang.

When I first started listening to audio books, I listened to old favorites of Jayne Ann Krentz. To my surprise, the reader put the emPHAsis on different words and phrases than I did. It was both disconcerting and illuminating. There's old common wisdom that you should read your work aloud (I don't have time with the schedule my publisher wants), and we do this at my critique group. It can help immensely, particularly if you have a run-on sentence or one of the made up words (like chwisge – whiskey) to see what works and doesn't. Sometimes I won't change a very alliterative sentence or an awkward one, but most of the time I do.

The best audio books I've ever listened to are the Elizabeth Peters historical mysteries read by Barbara Rosenblat. They are just incredible, particularly the ones that have the boy Ramses growing up, Ms. Rosenblat ages his voice...(and one of the best titles ever is The Last Camel Died At Noon). The Harry Potter audio books are exceptional, too.

I won't say the worst I've listened to – mostly because of the books themselves, not the authors' best works – but sometimes the actor screws it up. I listened to one where the actor made the hero's voce sort-of upper crust nasal, this was a ROMANCE and the hero didn't sound acceptable.

My absolute favorite audio books are romances where a husband-wife team read the hero/heroine's point of view, such as Smoke and Mirrors by Jayne Ann Krentz, and Linda Howard's Kiss Me While I Sleep. When Dick Hill makes the car noises, it had me rolling...

And since I love audio books, I am more aware of dialogue in my books, providing enough tags or movement so that my narrators have the cues they need to change their voices for different characters.

RUMINATIONS ON THE WRITER-READER RELATIONSHIP

As I write this I am still days away from the most traumatic experience of my life - surgery. But by the time you read this, not only will it all be over, I will be well on my way to recovery, if not fully recovered. I will know whether or not the mass they found in a CT scan one fateful day while looking for something else entirely, was cancer or not. The worst, whatever it turns out to be, will have passed.

This bifurcation of time is extremely odd to me. It is backwards from what a writer usually experiences. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, whether writing in present tense or past, the events the writer retells have already passed for him/her by the time the reader reads their words.

It almost feels as if you, the reader, have the advantage on me. For the first time the reader has the benefit of foreknowledge of events the writer has yet to experience. Does that make any sense to you? Would that you could tell me how it all turned (turns?) out.

Honestly I'm not entirely sure what bearing this has on writing or why RMFW members should read this blog entry. There is some insight here about our responsibility to our readers, as the ones conveying to them events they have yet to experience. Something about teasing their eagerness to know what happened, and why, while at the same time respecting momentary lack of knowledge until you eventually enlighten them through prose. Something like that.

All I know is this momentary reversal of roles, me the ignorant writer, you the all-knowing reader, is delightfully disorienting, and that fascinates me.

Things I Hate to Admit to Myself

There's nothing that turns me off of a keynote speech at any gathering of writers - be it conferences, workshops, retreats, whatever - more than when the speaker starts out by telling you how impossible it is for you to become a successful writer. When they say that less than 1% of all books submitted get published, and fewer still make any profit, and yet fewer still become best sellers and launch an author's career. Or when they point out such cold hard facts as: it takes sales of 500-1000 books in the first few days of release to even get on most book-lists' radar. I could go on, but I'm guessing you hate these statistics as much as I do.

I finally sat down the other day and asked myself a very hard question: Why? Why do I hate such statistics? They are facts, after all, facts based on very real hard data, and as such they are inescapable. Resenting a fact is like hating a peach pit - you can go on hating it all you want, but every peach you eat is still going to have a pit, no matter how much you hate it. You can have someone remove the pit for you before you eat it, but this is only hiding the pit from you, not changing the fact that every peach has a pit. (Those of you who read last month's post may well wonder what's with this author's obsession with fruit. Well, mind your own business.)

We can hide from facts all we want, but that doesn't make them any less implacably true.

But I still hate these publishing statistics. And after some self-examination I know why, and why you do, too. Such statistics are like the bully who joins a pickup game of stick ball only to hit the ball over the fence and across the highway where no one can retrieve it. They are the arrogant young punk who gets on the light rail train with death metal music booming out of a portable speaker. They are the one spoiled shrimp in an otherwise delightful shrimp cocktail that makes you sick all night. They are...well you get the idea. They are spoil sports, the thorn in your side, the burning vomit that comes out of your nose as well as throat.

We hate these statistics because they ruin our fun. The fun is writing, and having others read our stories. We have been conditioned to think that we are failures if we don't have thousands and thousands of readers, and more often than not it interferes with our ability to continue writing. But is that really true? While we may dream of that, how many of us, realistically, expect to make an independent living on our writing these days? Even writers you consider quite successful continued to work other more conventional jobs during the height of their success. And many others who didn't could hardly have been called wealthy or even well off. Many more died in obscurity.

My point is, why let these statistics and reality spoil the fun? Most of us who started writing didn't do it to become wealthy (and I submit, as has been said many times on this blog, that if you did you're in the wrong business.) Most of us got into writing because we had stories to tell, we love telling stories, and we can't stop. There is nothing wrong with tracking your sales and aspiring to stardom, but for God's sake don't let lagging figures and disappointing ciphers on a page beat up on your muse. It isn't her fault readers are a fickle lot, and there's no telling what may grab their fancy at any given time. Compartmentalize your business aspirations - thousands upon thousands of sales - from the fun you have when you write. I promise you, even if you die tearing tickets at a theater, or pushing rocks with your backhoe, or building submarine sandwiches for hungry briefcase warriors, or even if you're one of those warriors yourself, you'll never regret the stories you told when you could, even if only a small circle of close friends and colleagues were your audience.