Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CRAFT: Finding the Funny II

An article by Apprentice Writer which recently appeared in RomANTICS (the newsletter of her writer's group):

"Finding the Funny, Part I looked at breaking writing down into micro- (word) and mid-level (sentence and paragraph) writing to locate spots with potential for comic zing. Part II concentrates on the macro-level.

Macro Level: Scenes, Chapters, Characters, and Recurring Themes.
As scope of writing widens, humor insertion becomes more challenging. Writers can experiment with different techniques.

The well-known actor’s ‘rule’ of avoiding scenes with children or animals since they tend to steal the thunder can be put to good use:

“(For my blind date I decided to) borrow (St. Bernard) Mother Theresa. As soon as the leash hooked on to her collar, Mother Theresa grabbed the other end in her mouth and walked herself out the door. At the puppy playground, she lumbered off (until) a tiny yelping whirlwind of tricolored fur exploded from a tunnel. Mother Theresa froze. ‘Clementine, sit!’ the man who wasn’t Harrison Ford ordered. Mother Theresa sat. ”(Claire Cook, ‘Must Love Dogs’)

“Telephone: was Magda. ‘Bridget, hi! I was just ringing to say in the potty! In the potty! Do it in the potty!’ There was a loud crashing noise followed by the sound of running water in the background. ‘Magda!’ I yelled. ‘Sorry, hon’ she said, ‘I was just ringing to say tuck your willy inside the potty!’ ‘I’m in the middle of work’ I said pleadingly. ‘Fine, rub it in, you’re very glamorous and important and I’m stuck at home with two people who (don’t) speak English.’ “
(Helen Fielding, ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’)

Running gags can be effective, especially when turned on their heads after readers become accustomed to them:

“’You’re going to be okay, sir’ said Detective Mary Mary, yelling over her shoulder for a medic. ‘Call me Jack’ whispered Chief Inspector Jack Spratt (of the Nursery Crimes Division), ‘We’ve been through enough. I’ll be honest, Mary-‘ ‘-You should call me by my first name too, Jack.’ ‘Sorry. I’ll be honest, Mary-‘ ‘That’s better.’ “ (Jasper Fforde, “The Big Over Easy”)

Daring writers can try tweaking reader perception:

“The entire crime writing fraternity bade farewell to the last ‘locked room’ mystery at a large banquet held in its honor. (Then came) shocking news - the ‘locked room’ concept had been murdered – and in a locked room. The banquet was cancelled and police are investigating.”
(Jasper Fforde, “The Big Over Easy”)

Then there is the rich source of humor to be mined from the fact that a large percentage of all laughter is based on incongruity; something unexpected happens. Incongruity can take multiple shapes.

Physical humor – This is the earliest form of humor to develop, proven by babies as young as eight months laughing when someone falls down. For obvious reasons physical humor is easier to achieve in visual rather than literary media, but carefully done it can add a burst of flavor:

“I’m crouching under the utility sink in the laundry room, clutching Doug’s socks. Not all his socks, just one from each pair, to slowly drive him insane or better yet, drive him back home. I consider trying to stuff myself into the one empty dryer, I consider standing next to the wall (to) blend in with the surroundings, (then I) dive to the floor, pull the stacked laundry bags out (of their shelf), tuck myself in, and pull them back over me. The door opens and Doug walks in.” (Eileen Cook, “Unpredictable”)

“Somebody pushed her out of Heaven. She could have landed anywhere in the earthly realm; pavement, grass, the middle of the ocean…MarineLand in Niagara Falls. Or more precisely, the killer whale tank in MarineLand. PLOP.”
(Michelle Rowen, ‘Angel With Attitude’)

Dialogue/actions contrary to stereotypical gender/age/appearance expectations:

“I start crying again, and the grandmotherly old lady lays a gentle hand on my arm and brushes past, muttering ‘Move it, you feeble lush.’ Resolve in future to keep my airborne Marys virginal.” (Lee Nichols, “Tales of a Drama Queen”)

Under- or over-reaction:

“Bill and Enid were walking through Tadger's Wood one day, when suddenly they saw the collapse of Roman Imperialism. ’Gosh’ said Bill."
(Monty Python’s Flying Circus)

“Lord Berne gazed in the general direction of France.”
(Loretta Chase, “The Devil’s Delilah”

Juxtaposing a highly charged moment with something ordinary:

(Deciding whether to help release an aristocrat from chains and possible torture in an Egyptian dungeon:) ’That man is an idiot.’ ‘Yes, madam, but he’s all we’ve got’ said Beechey. ‘I may be stupid,’ Rupert said, ‘but I’m irresistibly attractive.’ ‘Good grief, conceited too’ she muttered. ‘And being a great, dumb ox’ he went on, ‘I’m wonderfully easy to manage.’ ‘He’s cheerful, madam’ Beechey said, ‘Is it not remarkable how he’s kept up his spirits in this vile place?’ Obligingly, Rupert began to whistle. ‘Obviously he doesn’t know any better,’ she said.
(Loretta Chase, ‘Mr. Impossible’)

Mix-ups are a useful device:

“This morning (I) got my antihistamine and spermicide sprays confused. I now have a vagina that can breathe more freely and nostrils I can safely have sex in for at least six hours.” (Kathy Lette, ‘A Stitch in Time’)

Unusual perspective:

“…this was right around the time endive was discovered, which was followed by arugula, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three M’s – mesclun, mache, and microgreens – and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the last forty years from the point of view of lettuce.” (Nora Ephron, “I Hate My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman”)

The Wrongest-Possible-Person can be tailored to fit many scenarios:

’Dear Sir, You sound too good to be true, but perhaps we could have a cup of coffee together anyhow.’
‘Dear Madam, Might I have the privilege of buying you coffee at Morning Glories at 10:00 a.m. this Saturday? I’ll be carrying a yellow rose.’
(at Morning Glories): ‘What are you doing here and where’d you get that rose, Dad?’ (Claire Cook, ‘Must Love Dogs’)


Obviously, this is only a starter list for humor-seekers. More can be found in workshops, advice from favorite comedy writers, and, not least, by stopping to analyze “Why and at which writing level?” every time you read something that makes you laugh.

May the comedy muse smile on you in your quest to brighten your readers’ day.

(Some quotes modified to fit article format)"

Any favorite funny quotes from Gentle Readers?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

CRAFT: Finding the Funny

An article by Apprentice Writer recently published in "RomANTICS" (the newsletter of her writer's group) and containing some favorite quotes:


Do humorous scenes, characters and dialogue simply flow from your keyboarding fingers whenever your manuscript needs them?

Me neither.

Those lightning bolts from the comedy muse are rare and unpredictable. In between, the funny often needs to be coaxed along. Sometimes, breaking the writing down can help locate hidden spots with potential for comic zing.

Micro Level: Words
The smallest writerly building blocks often offer an easy way to inject humor.

Names have unlimited possibilities:

Hallelujah Clegg (Janet Mullany, ‘The Rules of Gentility’)
Grimauld Place (J.K. Rowling, ‘Harry Potter’ series; refers to a grim old place)
Village of Toot (Laura Kinsale, ‘My Sweet Folly’)

Nouns can be systematically examined for switch from a regular-type one to a more amusing one. Rubber boots are funnier than shoes, camels are funnier than horses, a cactus is funnier than grass, and so on. The same logic applies to verbs, adjectives and adverbs:

“Freya’s voice, prematurely leathered from smoking, scratched its way through the line.” (Lani Diane Rich, ‘Crazy in Love’)

“The other man gave Vimes a smile of manic friendliness. (His) pullover had a queasy zigzag pattern in many strange, unhappy colors.”
(Terry Pratchett, ‘Thud!’)

Sometimes, it’s possible to poke gentle fun at specific time periods and the obscure vocabulary unique to each:

“Where is your friend?” “He is exploded.” “Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?” “No, I meant to say he was found out.”
(Oscar Wilde, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’)

”The hero, a handsome, well-bred man, pursued the heroine, crushing his lips to hers in a hansom cab and rumpling her pelisse. The villain, equally well-bred, did just about the same thing, except that in addition he thrust his hand inside her fichu.” (Margaret Atwood, ‘Lady Oracle’)

At the most creative extreme, inventing a word can up the humor quotient:

“Gabe ran hell-bent-for-leather holding a panful of lasagna, intent upon a pastafarian act of self-sacrifice. Theo caught him, but eight pounds of steaming cheesy goodness sailed through the window, scorching the (attacking zombies) and pollocking the wall with red sauce. ‘That’s it, throw snacks at them!’ shouted Tuck. ‘Fire a salvo of garlic bread next!’ ”
(Christopher Moore, ‘The Stupidest Angel’)

Mid Level: Sentences and Paragraphs
Many frequently occurring sentence/paragraph types are good candidates for amusement.

Physical descriptions of people, places and things offer loads of opportunity:

“What he looked mostly like was the part of the rocket that gets jettisoned over the Indian Ocean, plus a black homburg.”
(Donald E. Westlake, ‘What’s So Funny?’)

“…after much panicked scanning of the Scottish mainland, (he) discovered the location of the wedding somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. ‘I thought it was in Edinburgh!’ Seb roared. ‘It’s practically in Iceland,’ his stabbing finger a good quarter inch off the far northwest coast of Scotland. Anna stared at the island whose shape bore a startling resemblance to a hand making an uncomplimentary gesture with its middle finger.” (Wendy Holden, ‘Bad Heir Day’)

Units of measurement and timelines are great:

“(He’s) not a cop, Tiny. Not for seventeen months.” “I think the transition takes a little longer,” Tiny suggested. “Maybe three generations.”
(Donald E. Westlake, ‘What’s So Funny?’)

“7:15a.m. Hurrah! (Am) in functional relationship with adult male thereby proving not love pariah…Maybe Mark Darcy will wake up and talk to me about my opinions.
7:30a.m. Has not woken up. I know, will get up and make him fantastic breakfast with eggs Benedict or Florentine.
7:31a.m. Depending what eggs Benedict or Florentine actually are.”
(Helen Fielding, ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason’)

Variations of well-known quotes can be effective:

“If you keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.” (Erma Bombeck; refers to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ending with “…then you’ll be a man, my son!”)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer.” (Janet Mullany, ‘The Rules of Gentility’; refers to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride &Prejudice’ opening lines)

Lists are wonderful because they can either start out reasonably and become increasingly silly, or can include one item that sticks out like a sore thumb:

“There were trolls in the Watch, plenty of dwarfs, one werewolf, three golems, an Igor and, not least, Corporal Nobbs (that was a bit of a slur on Nobby, [who] was human,[but] he was the only one who had to carry a certificate to prove it) so why not a vampire?”(Terry Pratchett, ‘Thud!’)

“No reprieve. In a world full of wars, famine and Bratz dolls, the angels or gods or whoever had bigger things than her to deal with.”
(Lani Diane Rich,‘Crazy in Love’)

Writers are often warned against inclusion of clichés. But clichés can work well in comedy, especially if given a twist:

“(The welcome party was) packed with people dressed in various interpretations of luau wear. Hawaiian shirts dominated, but there was also a healthy contingent of sarongs and one grass skirt. The guy in the grass skirt didn’t have the legs for it.” (Jennifer Crusie, ‘Manhunting’)


Part II will look at the macro-level of writing.
(Some quotes modified to fit article format)"

Any humor location techniques Gentle Readers may care to share?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Non Book Reviews

2007, directed by John Curran

"Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people."

On leave from his post as bacteriologist in 1920's Shanghai, Walter (Edward Norton) is drawn to the beautiful, spoiled Kitty (Naomi Watts), who accepts his almost immediate proposal so as to prevent her younger sister from marrying first. Having been bored in London, Kitty proceeds to be bored in Shanghai, and soon begins an affair with a local member of the diplomatic corps. Walter discovers her infidelity, and reacts to the blow by volunteering to travel inland to stem a chlorera outbreak and by offering Kitty a divorce on condition that her lover likewise divorces his wife and marries her. The lover refuses under the guise of not wishing to drag his innocent wife into the situation; Kitty has no choice but to accompany Walter into the eye of the storm.

Both are soon forced to consider much larger issues than their personal miseries. Familiar with disease only within a clinical research context via the safe and controllable barrier of a microscope, Walter is violently confronted with the unspeakably intense reality of human suffering that defines an epidemic. Initially thinking her biggest problems are living in the backwoods and learning that she is one of many fleeting female amusements for her lover, Kitty is confronted with the desperation of evergrowing numbers of orphans taken in at the convent when their parents fall victim to the outbreak.

Adding layers to the story are compelling secondary characters, including the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) in charge of the convent and orphanage, the young doctor who must choose whether to side with British science (in the form of Walter's educated opinion of steps necessary to contain infection) or Chinese tradition (in the form of local customs regarding burial), a member of the diplomatic corps who has become a fixture in the area, and the highly educated General (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) who foresees the imminent death of the old ways yet bitterly resents a foreigner descending into his country to 'fix' its problems and presumably look down on its backwardness.

As the story moves its way through the dance Walter and Kitty go through discovering more about one another, it also highlights how few issues in life are truly black or white. Is a relationship between an older, influential British man and a young local woman necessarily exploitative? Is the good done by saving orphan children diminished by the expectation that they become Catholic in return? Is understandable feeling that a country should be in the power of its own citizens sufficient reason to reject outside expertise and allow local warlords and hazardous supersition to continue unchecked? And most of all: how can such a stunningly beautiful landscape contain such profound ugliness as epidemic disease?

"I think China should belong to Chinese. It seems most of the world disagrees with me."
"That doesn't concern me. I came here with a microscope, not a gun!"

Superbly acted, gorgeously filmed, with an excellent musical score, and telling an intensely dramatic story without melodrama, 'The Painted Veil' is a movie well worth the viewer's time.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Being a Mom Means....

In honor of the second Sunday in May (i.e. the day that pays the mortgage of florists, chocolatiers, and restauranteurs), some philosophy from '1001 Things it Means to be a Mom: the Good, the Bad, and the Smelly' by Harry H. Harrison Jr.

"Being a mom means suspecting that your happiness is totally dependent on the washing machine working."

"Being a mom means developing a strange fascination with refrigerator magnets."

"Being a mom means being absolutely certain about your parenting principles. Until you have kids."

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Laughter Reviews #17 - KEEPER

Time for another review with the focus: funny or not?

by Lindsey Davis

Sleuth in ancient Rome is commissioned by the newest Caesar to investigate fraud and murder.

What Works
What a delight, stepping into the pages of this superbly entertaining novel. The story is meticulously researched and replete with descriptive (but never overdone) historical detail that makes the challenge of everyday survival in A.D. 70 seem to spring to three-dimensional life. The effect is only enhanced by having the highly irreverent hero tell the story in first person.

Marcus Didius Falco is a young man living in a seedy part of Rome during the rise of Emperor Vespasian. He completed his military service, but had the bad luck of being posted to Britain which was not only horribly cold and far away but underwent a native revolt, put down not by his legion but its successor. Consequently he must endure derision rather than basking in military glory as he tries to eke a living as a private eye. His art-dealer father abandoned the family years ago to live with a younger woman and his brother died a reckless hero's death in Palestine, making Falco the nominal head of the family. Falco grapples with resentment of these two male figures, while attempting to deal with the daily demands of his mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, landlady, pickpockets, gladiators, bureaucrats, clients, senators, slaves.....

Falco is a mass of contradictions. He gripes about family but lives in near desitution due to giving all his money to his mother and his late brother's girlfriend to support his brother's child. He praises the bachelor life but is always on hand to shepherd numerous nieces and nephews at family gatherings, public celebrations, and on trips. He contends with beggars and prostitutes but is multilingual and an amateur poet. He often plays the clown but is fast and tough in a fight, and smart enough to see beyond what individuals with much greater power, wealth, and position may want him to see. He makes fun of everyone, including himself, but somehow always ends up taking the part of the underdog, even to his own detriment. Someone this smart and unusual deserves a worthy love interest; when she comes along, that woman is Falco's equal and then some.

So: the settings are compelling, the main and secondary characters fascinating, the mystery intriguing, the scholarship superb. Can the writing keep pace? It can indeed, moving along at a fast and entertaining clip.

' mother did something rapid to a vegetable.'

'...I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. It they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or else, in my line of work, they are usually dead.'

"...she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me. 'Excuse me -' she gasped. 'Excuse ME!' She dodged, I dodged. She was a slight thing; I prefered them tall, but I was prepared to compromise. While we sashayed on the steps, she glanced back, panic-struck. I admired her shapely shoulder, then squinted over it myself. Two ugly lumps of jail-fodder, jellybrained and broad as they were high, were pushing through the crowds towards her. 'Get out of my way!' she pleaded. I wondered what to do. 'Manners!' I chided thoughtfully. 'Get out of my way SIR!' she roared. She was perfect!'

What Doesn't
Apprentice Writer can't think of anything.

Since its inception, the Falco series has grown into numerous volumes, giving the intrepid sleuth and his faithful life- and detection-companion many cases to solve all over the farflung Roman empire. They investigate with the occasional aid and more frequent obstruction of their families and friends. The many, many fans of this series look forward to catching up with developments in the lives of popular recurring secondary characters as much as puzzling out each new case. Some go so far as to recreate the dishes mentioned in the stories with painstaking attention to historical detail, and try to outdo one another in asking obscure questions of the author at her extensive website. To date, this immensly fun series shows no signs of growing stale.

But does it make you laugh? ABSOLUTELY
The humor is drawn in equal parts from Falco's skewed way of looking at life and his habit of verbal thrust and parry with almost everyone he meets, as well as from the way the author portrays ancient Roman customs (the goat that Falco drags across half the empire because he can't bear to ritually slaughter it, the headache he has caring for the Eternal City's sacred geese, the ticklish business of figuring out how to interact with Vestal Virgins, the indignities he suffers travelling as a seasick non-swimmer, the impetuous use to which he puts a Minotauran frieze....etc. etc.) The Roman Empire of these books is no dusty, dull place of boring senatorial discourse or theoretical military strategy. It is vibrantly, gloriously alive. This first volume kicking the whole thing off has no trouble clinching a spot on Apprentice Writer's Keeper shelf.