Monday, September 22, 2014

Humor in Writing (4 of 4) - How to Apply it in your Writing

Now it's time to get some real work done. We had some theory, we looked at some excellent examples of humor in writing and now it's time to look at your writing.

In the first blog post I mentioned that everybody's humor is different and your humor should come out of yourself. Therefore, this last episode of my humor series I focus on guidance and rules as well as pointing out potential pitfalls.

Use of Humor in Characters
The easiest character is the cynical one, because he can be cynical all the time. Did I say can? To be quite honest, he must be cynical. This is nothing he can choose, it is part of the personality and a sign of a deeper scar. You would not expect a cynical character to suddenly be hopeful or simply nice.

However, for every rule there are exceptions. They suit very well for character arks. Being cynical at the beginning, the character's scar is revealed over time and after they experienced new hope or love the wound starts to heal.

Introducing a cynical character leaves a question in the reader. He wants to know the why, the history behind the characters cynicism. If you don't provide it, the character will appear flat.

Sarcastic characters are more ambivalent. Sarcasm usually acts as a outlet for them, for example for fear or pressure. In order to need an outlet, the sarcastic character needs to be committed to something or someone, otherwise they would not need an outlet and simply walk away. As sarcasm is only a facet of this character, it is not the main focus in a character ark.

However, a sarcastic character can very well turn cynical when e looses his faith. It is even possible that a character with a sarcastic note has a cynical moment at a plot point,  when he looses faith and later looses his cynicism again when he picks up his path again.

Irony fits very well with mentors. Usually they show the right kind of distance in order to make the irony work. It can also work with other character types, but they need to have a certain distance or grace. An ironic character can turn sarcastic when he looses distance, but I haven't seen an ironic character turning cynical yet as he would need to loose distance and faith at the same time. It is not impossible, but I think it is very hard to write it in a way a reader doesn't get thrown out of the story.

Cynical, Sarcastic or Ironic Narrator
To let the narrator bring the humor into a story is another powerful option. When talking about a humorous narrator we first have to keep it apart from placing funny comments every here and there in the story. Humorous narrators are that way throughout the whole story - they should not act out of character.

For cynical, sarcastic or ironic characters, basically the same rules apply as for characters - cynical narrators need a scar, sarcastic commitment and ironic distance.

However, when using the narrator POV multiplies the options and pitfalls. Let's take the cynical character as an example. In first person, the author can has to reveal the scar as part of the story. A cynical romance with a happy end in first person doesn't work. It leaves the reader without explanation, kind of "What's wrong with this person? He got everything at the end. Why is he not happy?" 
In third person, the scar is the story, but the connection of the narrator and the story has to be revealed.

Looking at the same romance with a happy end, the cynical tone of the narrator implies that the happiness of the couple is his scar. A reader would probably assume because he wanted to be with the woman. Still, I wouldn't let the opportunity pass to interlace some background story reveal the rival in love as narrator at the end.

A sarcastic narrator in first person gives an interesting tone. It implies that the narrator has to cope with something, e.g. his own fear or tension, and gives the author the opportunity for a later plot point. On the other side it requires to reveal the reason for the sarcasm to a certain extent. Why? Well, a sarcastic narrator will be already sarcastic at the beginning, when the story hasn't taken off yet. This per se creates a tension as well as a promise and this promise to the reader has to be fulfilled. A thriller with a sarcastic narrator in first person creates the promise that the author will throw something at the narrator that will be far out of his capabilities and comfort zone, but gives him also the opportunity to grow.

An ironic narrator immediately creates distance, in first person to the narrators own live and in third person to the story as a whole. I try to stay away from ironic narrators, as they take away tension from a story. For example a thriller with an ironic narrator tells us actually that whatever happens in the story isn't as bad as it sounds, at least when looking from a distance. Same with a love story - if you have an ironic narrator, the love wasn't as absolute or existential as it was felt during the story. Ironic narrators take reduce tension and that is definitively not something you want as an author.

Humor used for Pacing
The variety of options where and how to use humor for pacing are almost infinite. In most cases, humor relieves tension, but in rarer cases it can increase tension. 

Usually, after an action scene or a scene with high tension, a joke works as outlet in order to give the reader time to breath before starting to increase tension again. However, using this technique the writer has to be careful not to release all tension otherwise he is risking to lose momentum. If done incorrectly, these are the moments a reader puts the book away to go to bed. But how do it correctly? Humor after a high-tension scene should include foreshadowing. With this simple technique the tension is kept up. In the movie "Die Hard" (the original) there was this scene, where one of the terrorists was really angry and Holly Genaro McClane says to one of her colleagues "Only John can drive somebody that crazy." Funny line, but it implies that there is coming more.

On the other side, humor increases tension, when it is obvious to the reader, that the scene is not over yet. When the resolution was too easy readers usually get suspicious and a joke at this particular moment increases the tension. Even though it's actually funny, you don't dare to laugh because you expect the hammer to come down any moment. This split between expectation and relieve creates tension.

With regards to the how, the following options are most commonly used:

You should introduce them early and give the an additional role outside of being funny. Also, give them a character ark - something to grow. By doing that, you are not bound to use the sidekick solely when you need their humor for pacing.

When you make funny comments as the narrator, the reason for it should be visible to the reader. Also a narrator has to act within character.

Main Character
The biggest pitfall for using the main character for pacing is the same as for the narrator - he can not act out of character. Keep this in mind. 

The easiest and probably mostly used way is situational humor. The variety has no boundaries, you can use slapstick, ironic or cynical situations. 

Humorous Story 
Writing a humorous story is the showcase. It's fairly easy to use humor for pacing. It's much more difficult to write humor in a character or in the narrator, but to be funny and witty through a whole story on a consistent level is very difficult. 

If you decide to engage in a humorous story there are some guidelines that make live easier. First, you need a topic or a theme. Additionally, if you have a message, it easier that just trying to be funny. Then I highly suggest to plot the story rather than discovery write it. And last but not least you need to decide the tone - is it cynical, sarcastic or ironic and when decided you have to stick to it.

Humor in writing is an art itself. Incorrectly or sloppy applied it is an axe, but correctly applied is a scalpel.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land

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