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Putting humor into words (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I made some general points about humour in fiction writing.
Genuine
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…..

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The Invisible Man

Richard Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type…his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.” – review of The Manchurian Candidate.

That seems to be the ideal stance for a satirist to adopt. Satire is fuelled by anger and a sense of injustice, but if the satirist becomes too involved, and loses the ability to maintain a lofty perspective, then the satire deteriorates into simple rhetoric and even abuse.

As the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun observed: “The artist and the polemicist need to be separated if both are to thrive.

As an example, take the work of the American satirist Carl Hiaasen. His first solo novel, Tourist Season, published in 1986, was a comic treasure. He managed to keep the reader’s sympathies evenly divided between the dull, plodding hero and the flamboyant, larger-than-life antagonist (who also happened to be a mass murderer, in the service of ecology).

His second, Double Whammy, and his third, Skin Tight, were a little more black-and-white, baddies versus goodies, but still excellent fare. As was his fourth, Native Tongue, but there was a growing feeling that his characters were dividing into two camps — the corporate greedheads, who were vile in every aspect, and the valiant environmentalists, whose sex lives were as healthy as their ethics.

The harder that Hiaasen trumpeted the green message, the more obvious it became that he was pushing this barrow, and the less effective his satire became. The trend continued with Strip Tease (remember the awful Demi Moore/Burt Reynolds film?), Stormy Weather, Lucky You and Sick Puppy. You could spot the baddies a mile off, because not only were they anti-green, but their entire characters were vile, from personal habits to lack of intelligence.

Hiaasen seemed to realise this, after 15 years as a novelist, and changed the formula somewhat in 2002’s Basket Case, which dropped much of the polemic and reintroduced Hiaasen’s high-energy style. Sadly, he returned to type in Skinny Dip and to awful effect in the appropriately-named Nature Girl, which even his greatest fans couldn’t find many good words about.

Hiaasen has written 11 novels, and this isn’t one of the best 10,” an Amazon reviewer wrote.

In part, Hiaasen was a victim of his own success. When interviewed about his early work, he said: “The stakes are so low when you start — you’ve got nothing to lose — so you just cut loose and have fun.

Satire in fiction is the art of delivering a message without seeming to deliver one; the more the author’s hand is visible, the less effective the satire.

As Elmore Leonard said, he makes an “attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

The writer has to get out of the way and let their words do the talking.

That’s a premise

Lajos Egri. That’s the man.

It was he who said you must always believe in what you write. If you don’t, he says, how can your writing have any feeling of authenticity? And if you are not authentic, the reader will find out very quickly.

As I write satire, the temptation is always there to stick in some outrageous barb aimed at my satirical target. But, thanks to Egri, I have learned that jokes have to have a purpose (if not, they are what Ricky Gervais calls ‘decapitated jokes’), and they also have to be true to the story. If they’re not, they have to go.

“Kill your darlings,” said William Faulkner. In other words, don’t ruin your consistent voice for a the sake of a snappy phrase.

Egri had an even more direct rule, which is simply:

“Every story must have a premise.”

Say what?

Egri said that if you can’t sum up your book in 10 words or less, then you don’t know what your own book is about, so how can you expect to write consistently?

“If there is no clear-cut, active premise, it is more than possible that the characters were not alive. How could they be? They do not know, for instance, why they should commit a perfect crime. Their only reason is your command, and as a result all their performance and all their dialogue are artificial. No one believes what they do or say.”

I was about one month into writing Forward O Peasant when I came across this advice, and it stopped me in my tracks. What was my story about?

Following Egri’s guidelines, I was eventually able to sum my book up in the premise: “Greed contains the seeds of its own downfall.” Suddenly, I knew what my book was about, and all the characters’ actions began to make more sense.

Egri, by the way, never wrote plays or novels, and was a true nuts-and-bolts writing mechanic. He wrote two famous books: The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing, snippets of which can be found lurking on the Web.

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