Putting humor into words (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I made some general points about humour in fiction writing.
Humour must:

  • be about people, be people-based
  • have purpose
  • ring true

In particular, what Ricky Gervais calls “decapitated jokes” do not represent humour in fiction and nor do anecdotes.

One other key point in writing humour is that the author must be absent. My axiom is that bad writing draw attention to the writer and good writing draws attention to the story and nowhere is this more evident than in humorous writing.

There is an almost irresistible inclination on the part of authors to try to be funny — after all, we are trying to amuse our audience — and this often leads us into imposing ourselves in our stories, to their severe detriment.

The British comic writer David Nobbs acknowedged this in an interview when he was asked what he felt his failings as a young author had been:

Getting the jokes in and showing people how clever I was and therefore occasionally failing to be clever most dismally.

Nobbs’ best comedy writing is seamless; you never get the impression there is an author there at all, so you stay absorbed in the story. The humour is all generated by the characters, most famously the troubled and put-upon Reginald Perrin, whose view of the world is so slanted that he can hardly help being funny.

We need to separate the creation from the creator, as science-fiction author Ray Bradbury observed: “The one important thing I have learnt over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking oneself seriously. The first is imperative and the second disastrous.

Similar successes are Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and A.P Herbert’s A.J. Wentworth B.A, neither of which contain a single joke but are enormously funny and entertaining, with all the humour generated by the range of believable characters. And in the pursuit of humour, characters must remain believable, or their power is lost.

As the American poet Marianne Moore suggested, as an author “you must put believable toads in your imaginary garden.” And for the toads to be believable, they must have a basis in reality.

The professional speaker David Brooks advises: “The best stories to tell have two unique characteristics. They must be real, and they must be your own.”

That leads to a second point; how to make real events and those you have made up appear to be part of a seamless work. I offered some ideas on this in an interview I did recently.

Another insight was offered by the TV presenter and writer James May, who said: “I will recognise the strangeness of genuine fact when I read it.

It’s a neat point; truth is often funnier than fiction, in a not-easily definable way. We therefore have to make our fiction real, and our realities into fiction.

Our aim must therefore be to create something containing, as Francis Bacon said: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.

Some ideas on how achieve that in the next part…..


Ride of a lifetime

No sooner have I finished a post about how real life is much funnier than fiction, when along comes something to prove me so right, I want to weep. The Daily Telegraph this morning has a story headlined Woman Getting Married to Fairground Ride.


It’s true. This poor woman, whose parents evidently put her out in the sun before the glue had dried, believes herself to be in love with a gondola ride with which she shares a “fulfilling physical and spiritual relationship.”

Putting aside for the moment the question of how this woman is allowed to move about the community freely (she’s American, by the way) instead of being under restraint, there’s the unfairness of the thing.

This woman, with a brain wired up like a pigeon’s nest, can come out with all these loony tunes, but could I use them in a novel? No way, I’d be hooted down the street. And don’t get me started on how she carries the ride’s spare nuts and bolts around with her to feel emotionally closer….

Categories: Humour Tags: ,

Putting humor into words (Part 1)

The world is sometimes thought to be divided into those people who have a sense of humour, and those don’t. Laughter is universal among human cultures, and so we could perhaps infer from that thet everyone has a sense of humour.
road sign

In fact, surveys show that most people think they possess a sense of humour, although other people are slower to spot this characteristic in them.

For example, many people who can remember, and faultlessly trot out, hundreds of standard jokes are usually rather dull people; the same can be said for relentless narrators of anecdotes, who seem to have a story for every occasion. As the late columnist Jeffrey Bernard once wrote: “Anecdote is not a form of conversation.”

These are not the sort of people who are likely to write humorous books; their humour is received, not self-generated, and contains no originality. By contrast, people who spontaneously generate humorous material tend to possess one inherent characteristic — the ability to laugh at themselves. To be able to view the world as absurd, it is necessary to be able to view ourselves as absurd, or what we possess is not a sense of humour, but megalomania.

But what is the basis of humour and how can we best transport it to the written word? A great many serious thinkers have considered the conundrum that is humour. What is funny? Do we all find different things funny, or is there a common theme underlying humour?

The Canadian author and psychologist Stephen Pinker describes humour as an “anti-dominance mechanism”; we laugh with other people in our group and laugh at an adversary whom we wish to strip of their assumed superiority.

Humor is the enemy of pomp and decorum, especially when they prop up the authority of an adversary or a superior. The most inviting targets of ridicule are teachers, preachers, kings, politicians, military officers and other members of the high and mighty,” he wrote in his book How the Mind Works.

The corollary is, Pinker says, that we engage in banter with our friends to show that we can use this mechanism with them in a non-threatening way.

Kidding is a precision instrument for assessing the kind of relationship one has with a person. You don’t tease a superior or a stranger, though if one of you floats a trial tease that is well received, you know the ice is breaking and the relationship is shifting towards friendship. And if the tease elicits a mirthless chuckle or a freezing silence, you are being told that the grouch has no desire to become your friend (and may even have interpreted the joke as an aggressive challenge.)

When it comes to writing, this theory of humour translates to one important point. We laugh at people, not things. And we laugh with people. Humour is a people-based business. So any attempt at written humour must bear this basic truth in mind.

In the first place, it means not throwing in humorous material, or a piece of coruscating wordplay, if it doesn’t fit the story.

British comedian and writer Ricky Gervais wrote: “I’ve seen so much stuff that’s been ruined by writers’ getting carried away with getting a good joke in. We threw jokes on the floor if they made someone look too clever or undermined the story.

In similar vein, talking about his TV writing, Gervais wrote: “You can’t just have decapitated jokes. Then what you’ve got is a sketch show.

Another universal truth about humour is that it has to be true to be funny. Again, this relates back to the notion that we laugh at people, not things. If we cannot make the connection between the humour and real life, if the humour doesn’t ring true, it fails. One of the problems for humour writers is precisely that real life is funnier than our imaginations.

Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the British comedy shows Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, said: “After we wrote each episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up.

Jay added, about a particularly humorous episode: “I can’t tell you where, I can’t tell you when and I can’t tell you who was involved; all I can tell you is that we knew that it had actually happened. That’s why it was so funny. We couldn’t think up things as funny as the real things that had happened.

This is undoubtedly true. We only have to look at the depths of idiocy (and consequent humour) on websites like E-mails from Crazy People or Failblog, to see that real life has reserves of humour that far outstrip the imagination of the poor author.

The final requirement for humour is that it must have a purpose. Humour without purpose takes us back to the joke-telling and lengthy yarning genre or the “decapitated jokes.” The purpose can be satire, or the humour can operate in its own right to construct character and environment in a novel.

It can even work as a plot device. Talking about the writing of the British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said he tried to make the most important plot moments the funniest in the show, to disguise the plot and make it less visible.

In the episode Communication Problems, the plot turns on a bet that Cleese’s character (Fawlty) has made, and this is wonderfully created (but obscured) by a hilarious dialogue of misunderstanding between Fawlty and his hapless Spanish waiter Manuel.

Humour must be about people, must have purpose, and it must ring true. Humour is not just jokes and stories. Plus humour is usually predicated on an us-versus-them basis, “us” pricking the ego of “them“. The controversial Dutch cartoonist, Gregorius Nekschot, sums this last up as: “Harmless humor does not exist.

He may be right, but humour can vary from the gentle (P.G. Wodehouse, David Nobbs or Garrison Keillor) to the harder-edge satire of Tom Sharpe and Carl Hiaasen, to work like Nekschot’s own, which many people consider deliberately offensive.

But all of these forms of humour need to be well treated and well crafted in order to stand up in a book, a topic I’ll discuss next.

(to be continued)

Categories: Humour, Technique Tags: , , , ,

Weasels loose in the building

It is easy to identify agenda journalism because of its extensive use of Weasel Words — “may”, “perhaps”, “can”, “likely”,”is thought to have been”, combined with references to usually unnamed “experts” and “concerned groups”.

Agenda journalism always occurs in -isms — sexism, racism, ageism, environmentalism. It is written in victim-speak, and you would think, green ink.

Consider this recent piece from The Independent in the UK.

New El Niño threatens world with weather woe [World doomed! Oh no!]

“A new El Niño has begun. The sporadic Pacific Ocean warming, which can [Weasel!] disrupt weather patterns across the world, is intensifying, say meteorologists. [How many?]

So, over the next few months, there may be [Weasel] increased drought in Africa, India and Australia, heavier rainfall in South America and increased extremes in Britain, of warm and cold. It may [more Weasel] make 2010 one of the [double Weasel] hottest years on record.

The cyclical phenomenon, which happens every two to seven years, is a major determinant of global weather systems. The 1997-98 El Niño combined with global warming [unsupported assumption displaying the writer’s agenda] to push 1998 into being the world’s hottest year, and caused major droughts and catastrophic forest fires in South-east Asia which sent a pall of smoke right across the region. [They were equally bad in 2002, why?]

At present, forecasters do not expect this El Niño to equal that of 1998, but it may be [Weasel] the second-strongest, and concerned groups [well, obviously] , from international insurance companies to commodity traders, to aid agencies such as Oxfam [Violins, please] , have begun to follow its progress anxiously. [Of course concerned groups are anxious. If they weren’t anxious, they by definition wouldn’t be concerned groups]. Its potential for economic and social impact is considerable. [Meaningless weasel to the max. What is considerable?]

Professor Chris Folland, of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research [Big Name to hang our story on], said: “We are likely [Weasel] to see more global warming than we have seen in the past few years, which have been rather cool. In fact, we are already seeing it.”

[Warning! Possible facts ahead!] El Niño is a periodic warming of the normally cold waters of the eastern tropical Pacific, the ocean region westwards out from South America along the line of the equator. Since the Pacific is a heat reservoir which drives wind patterns around the world, the change in its temperature alters global weather. [Congratulations! No link with disaster, though.]

The last El Niño, comparatively weak though it was, is thought to have been [Weasel] partly responsible [Weasel. A pack of weasels!] for the extraordinarily warm weather in Britain between the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2007: July 2006 was Britain’s hottest month, autumn 2006 (September, October and November) was the warmest autumn, winter 2006-07 (December, January and February) was the second warmest in Britain, and April 2007 was our warmest April. [I wonder how March was].

People have forgotten this [Really? Who says?] because there then began our recent cooler and wetter period, with Britain’s two “washout summers” of 2007 and 2008, and they may [Weasel], in turn, have been associated with the counter-phenomenon of La Niña, a cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific waters, which followed. The start of the present El Niño was one reason [Weasel] the Met Office predicted a “barbecue summer” for 2009. [Which turned out to be utterly wrong. Any more?] . ENDS.

This is agenda journalism at its worst. Every trick has been used to fit facts and comments into the writer’s agenda, which is of the extreme global warming scary variety, elementary division.

He doesn’t have to prove that he is telling the truth; he simply has to prevent anyone proving that what he has said is false. He also works hard to give the impression that it is not even open to discussion. Thus his agenda is allowed to project itself unencumbered.

Utterly dreadful: D-

Categories: Journalism Tags:

The crown of creation

Authors (and other creative artists) often have a tortured view of their craft. Literature has been called “a curse” (Thomas Mann), a way of exorcising personal demons (Vargas Llosa), “a dark place [where] you have to go through all that grief” (Bryan Ferry) and a way to understand that ” ineluctable defeat called life” (Milan Kundera).

Rollo May

To be fair, some writers see their calling as a joy — Stephen King says “Every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy“, and the cartoonist Bill Tidy “Drawing gives me as much pleasure today as it did when, as a four-year-old, I produced my first efforts of laboriously pencilled cowboys on jam pot lids.

A third view, and perhaps a deeper and more challenging one, is that put forward by the American psychoanalyst Rollo May, who believes that a desire to create heads the list of qualities desirable in a human being.

The creative process must be explored not as the product of sickness, but as representing the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of the normal people in the act of actualizing themselves,” he wrote. “[I]f you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.

In May’s view, it is not inner demons which drive people to write, rather that the act of creation and of expression is intimately bound up with anxiety.

Joy is the zest that you get out of using your talents, your understanding, the totality of your being, for great aims,” he said in an interview. “Musicians, men who wrote music — Mozart and Beethoven and the rest of them — they always showed considerable anxiety, because they were in the process of loving beauty, of feeling joy when they heard a beautiful combination of notes.

That’s the kind of feeling that goes with creativity. That’s why I say the courage to create. Creation does not come out of simply what you’re born with. That must be united with your courage, both of which cause anxiety but also great joy.

May believed that freedom, courage and anxiety are different elements of the same thing — the symptoms of a human being engaged in fulfilment and a search for truth.

If [art] were easy, it wouldn’t be effective. It’s not easy. Life is difficult, and I believe has many conflicts in it, many challenges. But it seems to me that without those life wouldn’t be interesting.

I believe in life, and I believe in the joy of human existence, but these things cannot be experienced except as we also face the despair, also face the anxiety that every human being has to face if he lives with any creativity at all.

Categories: Attitude Tags: , , ,

Dialogue Dont’s and Do’s

Dialogue in a novel is like acting in a film — you don’t notice when it’s done well, but you sure do when it’s done badly.

word use

And dialogue is crucial; readers may skip your description of a 10-course meal at the Countess’s chateau, but they will never skip dialogue, according to the king of dialogue, Elmore Leonard.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

The last three novels/manuscripts I’ve read have all made the cardinal error in dialogue of including characters’ names, thus:

Well, what do you think of that then Julian?”

“I don’t know Barry. How about you?

Clunky dialogue like that torpedoes a novel instantly. It comes from authors believing that dialogue is supposed to sound like real speech, or believing that their readers are so dim that they can’t figure out who’s talking to whom.

If there’s any confusion, have one of the characters do something, like scratch their nose or play with their pen. But leave their names out of the dialogue, please.

A similar, though less extreme, fault is over-tagging of dialogue, adding “he said”, “she said” to the end of each piece of dialogue. That clunks badly, too. On that subject, Elmore Leonard believes passionately that authors should never use any verb but “said” to tag dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled’, ‘gasped’, ‘cautioned’, ‘lied’.

And, he says, you should never embellish “said” with an adverb: “. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Dialogue is not meant to sound like normal speech; nor is it meant to be a vehicle for the author to stick their noses into the action.

A sure way to check if your dialogue is making the grade is to read it out loud to yourself. This hurts; even on your own it tends to be embarrassing.

But how much better to embarrass yourself in the confines of your garden shed, or wherever you compose your masterpieces, than to embarrass yourself in public when your clunky dialogue is published.

Linky time


First, I found an excellent summmary of how and why authors should remain invisible, in a blog post called Writing vs Blathering, which discusses both why authors (particularly inexperienced ones) tend to blather, and what are the effects on their story. It also underlines why every writer, inexperienced or not, should have their work thoroughly and professionally edited.

Second, a prominent book reviewer, author and blogger asked me some questions about my approach to the writing process, satire and publishing in general, and he posted the results here.

Categories: Technique Tags: , ,