Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding My Inner Comedian, Part 2

In Finding My Inner Comedian I blogged about my reasons for trying to understand humour, and outlined a few definitions of humor and situations that make us laugh.

Surprise seems to be the key to humor. It's about things not going/acting/being said as people expect them to. The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept. The main point of the theory is not the incogruity, per se, but its realization and resolution (i.e. putting the objects in question into the real relation) - the surprise.

There are several different methods of delivering humorous surprise:

1. Hyperbole, the use of exaggeration to create emphasis or effect as a rhetorical device or figure of speech, which evokes strong feelings or creates strong impressions, but isn't meant to be taken literally. "I've told you a million times, don't exaggerate".
2. Metaphor, the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. A metaphor creates an analogy between two things or ideas, which is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word. "It's raining cats and dogs". A metaphor is not to be confused with a simile, which uses "like" and "as". For example, "the goalkeeper was as solid as a rock" is a simile, whereas "the goalkeeper was a rock" is a metaphor.
3. Farce, a type of comedy in which one-dimensional characters are put into ludicrous situations; ordinary standards of probability and motivation are freely violated in order to evoke laughter. An example would be a comedy of a bank robber, who mistakenly wanders into a police station to hide.
4. (Comic) Timing is also an important element of humor. Delivering the punch line before the end of a joke ruins the surprise. Giving away the key element before the end makes the story obvious.

So, that's some humor theory for you. The trick is to apply it well. Many articles and blog posts have been written on the subject (just type "writing humor" into google). I forged my way through many of these articles and decided to pick out the things I think will help me best.

In The Secret to Writing Humor, Brent Diggs makes the suggestion, coined by Dave Barry, to put the funniest word at the end of a sentence, and the funniest sentence at the end of a paragraph. Brent Diggs personal mantra on writing humor is "great humor is not written, it is rewritten", with which he means to say that you have to edit and revise to be consistently funny in your writing - a rough draft usually doesn't cut it.

Brent Diggs also points out that writing humor is painfully difficult to do, if you want to do it well (hence the necessity for rewriting), because nearly every tool of comedy is denied the writer. A writer's humor rests exclusively on the power of his/her words. Jan Hornung, in her post Seven Steps to Better Writing Humor elaborates on this by saying: "A writer must create an image in the reader's mind that makes him chuckle, giggle, and smile. A writer cannot shove a pie in the reader's face, trip over his own feet and go sprawling, or make goofy gestures. A writer must use only words to conjure up situations and dialogue that bring rib-splitting, bone-tickling, knee-slapping guffaws, or at least a snicker, from the reader."

Jan Hornung also tells us that "whether or not a writer is personally funny is not important. What is important is that the writer can make the reader think that the characters and situations are funny". I like this statement because it means there's hope for me and my desire to create more humorous prose. Revising, rewriting and practicing seem to be important, all things I can accomplish.

Jan Hornung's first step to finding your funny-bone is not to tell the reader that something is funny, but to let him/her discover this for himself. This is another purpose for the "show don't tell" mantra every writer should internalize. She also encourages writers to find new ways to say the same old thing, f.e. describing a thin man as having to run around in the shower just to get wet. I find phrases like this extremely funny yet particularly difficult, because I never seem to be able to come up with them.

Kris Neri has several suggestions in her post Humor Writing Tips. My three favorites are:
1. Abandon your dignity: You can't be funny if you're afraid of embarrassing yourself.
2. Don't sacrifice truth for a funny effect: Good humor always contains a grain of truth; without truth, it's just  playing with words.
3. Don't let your characters laugh at their own jokes: This is the prose equivalent of a sitcom's laugh track. Let the reader decide what's funny.

So, the insights I've gained after this research on humor and applying it in my writing are, in no particular order, the following:
1. Writing good humor is difficult but can be conquered by practice, revision and rewriting.
2. Don't just throw your rough draft out there; it could confuzzle readers.
3. Surprise is the key to humor.
4. Good humor always contains a grain of truth.
5. Abandon your dignity.
6. Show, don't tell - create an image in the reader's mind.

Over to you: Do you have other suggestions or methods for writing humorous prose? Do you have to work at it like me or are you blessed with a natural knack for it?

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