Sunday, September 14, 2014

Humor in Writing (3 of 4) - Learn from the Masters

In the last two blog posts we went through a bit of theory on humor in writing. Let's look at some good examples, before we talk about how to apply humor in your writing. 

1. Humorous story

1.1. Don Camillo
After WWII, Giovanni Guareschi created a series of short stories combined in several books with Don Camillo, a priest sent to a small Italian town in the Po valley, as main character. The stories largely paint the rural live of the area and they mainly live on the rivalry between Don Camillo and the communist mayor of the town, Peppone. They had gained a mutual trust for each other as they had fought the fascists together during the war, but find themselves on opposite side of politics after the war. The stories are ironic, sarcastic, sometimes affectionate, sometimes biting, but the connecting facet is humor.

For example the part, where Peppone wins the lottery, but as communist mayor he can't admit that he had played. So he uses an anagram of his name to cash it, but Don Camillo finds it out and forces him to split the lottery win with him - half of it for the communist community center and half of it for the catholic play school.

Another beautiful example reveals the rivalry-friendship when Don Camillo has to leave town in order to serve in another parish. Peppone threatens everybody so nobody would appear at the train station to say goodbye to Don Camillo. However, Don Camillo's supporters would wait at the next train station and at the train station afterwards, his adversary Peppone and the communist party would wait to say goodbye.

The whole series is a declaration of love to his home country reflecting its struggles to grow together after the war.

1.2. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adam's five novels already have reached cult status. Although it plays in the vast space of the universe and even in distant times, for example when they have dinner in the restaurant at the end of the universe, it holds up a mirror to ourselves nowadays.

It already starts in the introduction, when it describes that most people on earth were unhappy an they tried to solve it by moving around small green papers. The author is using a metaphor to show us, money does not make you happy. I don't want to enter the philosophical discussion, whether this is true or not, but the humor he is using gets the point across.

In an other part, he shows us three spaceships that have been sent away from a distant planet with the useless third of the population on board, consisting of tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitisers and the like. The joke strikes, when one of these ships is landing on prehistoric earth implying that all problems we have on earth are caused by tired TV producers, insurance salesmen etc. but this one is a double dip, as the people on said planet are extinct afterwards by a decease caused by an unsanitized phone, implying that society needs a "useless" third. In this case, the technique used is a farce.

Last but not least my favorite one;  the build-up of a gigantic computer to find the answer to "life, the universe and everything". 7 1/2 million years later, the computer finally got an answer "42", which might have been the perfectly correct answer, but absolutely useless. The author makes the point clear, how important it is to have the question right in order to receive a valuable answer.

1.3. Animal Farm
The whole story is a satire, set up as a kind of a long fable, and uses a variety of methods, especially metaphors and farce. By using humor, George Orwell tried (and achieves) to reveal the route the Russian revolution took as a warning sign to beware of false promises.

Every animal reflects a different role or person, Old Major is a mix between Karl Marx an Lenin, Napoleon is Stalin, boxer is the working majority of the people and the puppies are the security police.
One of the centerpieces are the commandments for animals on the farm after the humans have been banned, including "All animals are equal". The original commandments were more and more bent by add-ons, but the most important one  is the change to "All animals are equal, but some are more equal."

1.4. The Innocent Abroad
Mark Twain's book is another wonderful example of this category. Sometimes with a pinch of irony, sometimes with a tablespoon of sarcasm, he reports the journey of a ship of American pilgrims that want to visit the Holy Land. He uses humor in order to lighten up a basically boring travel report - with success.

I especially love the moment when he realizes that the kingdoms he was always imagining himself as large were actually quite small and the distances Jesus travelled were not that far at all. Obviously if you think about it, but to be honest I found myself in the same spot, when I was at bible class as a kid.

2. Humor Used for Pacing

2.1. A Short Stay in Hell
A Short Stay in Hell starts with a hilarious scene at entry desk of hell, which seems more to be like a first day on he job in a large corporation. Hell continues to be a fairly nice place, except for some violent extremists that built up their little kingdom. The horror comes slowly to the reader when he starts realizing how long he will have to stay there and what eternity actually means. 

In this story, humor serves as pacing instrument. With the funny start, the author keeps the reader in a light mood, so the horror hits him even harder at the end. 

2.2. La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful)
In know, this is a film, but when I thought about the how humor is used in "A Short Stay in Hell" I realized, that I've seen this before. La Vita E Bella (Life is Beautiful) is a tragic story about a family that got into a concentration camp in  the Third Reich. The father tries to hide the tragic reality from his son, by telling him it was all a game and making fun out of everything. Despite the tragic story you are actually laughing a lot watching it. But there is this one scene, that pulls you down, when the protagonist turns around the corner and stands in front of this mountain of dead bodies.

After the end of the movie and mainly while discussing it with friends I realized that this scene would not have been as powerful without the funny scenes before.

2.3. Funny Side-Kicks as Pacing Instrument
A lot of stories have funny side kicks in order to be able take tension out when necessary. They can be full of jokes and a little sarcastic like the Weasley twins or innocent like Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck. However, there are also bad examples of silly unnecessary side-kicks like Jar Jar Binks. The list of these side kicks can probably extended to infinity. Every Disney movie needs a funny sidekick, some we love some we hate.

3. Humor in Characters

3.1. The Cynical Character
The cynical character is maybe the most one seen in stories. It seems to be easier to write as he can be blunt and straight forward. But he is usually also the most interesting one, because behind cynicism there is a backstory - more than behind a sarcastic or ironic character. To get cynical somewhere something broke within a character, a dream, a heart, a hope.

3.1.1. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
He hides the pain of loss behind a cheeky cynicism. The whole book is filled with sentences like the following.

"Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."

"Who wants flowers when you'r dead."

3.1.2. Rick in Casablanca
Rick hides his broken heart behind dry cynicism. 

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine..."

"I'm a drunkard." (When asked for his nationality).

3.1.3. Nick in The Great Gatsby
Nick's cynicism is more difficult to catch because it doesn't come up when he speaks, but through the narrator's voice. His cynicism sources out of the disappointment of the class he dreamed or hoped to be part of. The best example for the following:

"I couldn't forgive or like him (Tom), but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They are careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

3.2. The Sarcastic Character
The sarcastic character is much more difficult to draw then the cynical. You have find the fine line between biting humor and a positive view on the world. As with cynical characters, there are much more books with a sarcastic narrator than a purely sarcastic character. As a narrator you can add much more comments than a character can speak. Imagine how many sarcastic dialogs you would need in order to shape a character and how difficult it would be to let them say anything else that is not sarcastic.

A very good example for a sarcastic character is Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. He also shows a very crucial difference between the cynical and the sarcastic character; while the sarcastic character doesn't have to be sarcastic all the time, the cynical character is cynical to the bone. Ron Weasley uses sarcasm to cope with fear, for example when they were trapped in devil's snare and Hermione tells them to relax otherwise they will only get killed faster, he replies, "Kill us faster? oh, now I can relax!" Or his all famous sentence, "Why spiders? Why couldn't it be follow the butterflies?"

3.3. The Ironic Character
The ironic character needs a certain distance from the subject in order to look at it with mildness. Usually age gives a good distance. Good examples of ironic characters are,

3.3.1. Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter
He is a very good example of an ironic character. Here are some quotes:

"What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally the whole school knows."

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

"Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."

However, even an ironic character can turn sarcastic, when he loses the distance. Dumbledore realizes that he has to sacrifice Harry and it hurts him. He buries it inside him, but when Snape questions him, it breaks out as sarcasm. "But this is touching, Severus... have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"

3.3.2. Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
His irony is more difficult to get, but he always talks with a scent of a smile on his lips, which let every of his quotes appear ironic. However, some examples:

"If you spent as much time practicing your saber techniques as you did your wit, you'd rival Master Yoda as a swordsman."

"Why do I get the feeling, you're going to be the death of me."

3.3.3. Andy Dufresne in Stephen Kings' short story Rite Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Before he escapes, Andy writes in the bible he got from Warden Norton,"Dear Warden, You were right. Salvation lies within." and leaves behind for the warden.

Andy's distance is not based on age, but on the knowledge of his innocence.

3.4 Character development
In the same short story, Stephen King shows us an interesting character development from a cynical to a ironic character. Red turns from being a cynical character in the beginning to a be ironic in the end, infused by Andy's hope.

He went from comments like "I hope he dies of intestinal cancer in a part of the world where morphine is as of yet undiscovered." to "I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged..." at the end of the book.

The author even names the spell at the very end, "I hope."

4 Other Uses of Humor
Besides the mentioned instances there are many other reasons or ways to use humor in a story, be it to underline foreshadowing, as a cliffhanger or as simple as an easter egg.

In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez introduces a simple sentence at the end of a chapter, "...that was, when he [the dictator] sold the sea." This obviously farce-like sentence is used a cliffhanger to keep the reader in the story.

Easter Eggs are hidden jokes or insider jokes in stories. If you look for examples,  J.K. Rowlings is a master in placing easter eggs. Just enter easter eggs and Harry Potter in Google search and you will find tons of examples.

Well, so much from the masters. Next week, I'll talk about how to use humor in your story and the pitfalls to avoid. 

Until then, happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

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