Monday, August 22, 2011

Me Write Funny Someday—how to add humor to your writing (part 2)

I have a surprise for you, and it’s a doozy. Are you ready? Here it is:
You’re a comic genius.

Okay, did I see some eyes rolling? Well, it's true. You ARE a comic genius, and that’s because you know how to create the kind of unique surprises that create laughs. Um . . . at least you will after you read this post.

In my last post, I told you that when I was a political cartoonist I invented a very simple formula for creating humor, and it is


I call this formula the House of Funny, and the reason why is that it works like a house of fun.

Look in a house-of-fun mirror, and you will see things in a surprising new way. Likewise, the House of Funny creates surprise by changing your perspective and giving you a new way to look at things. And also like a house of fun, it does this with a variety of mirrors and lenses.

As I said in the previous post, your setup creates an expectation, and you create surprise by taking the setup in an unexpected direction. Which direction? That depends on the mirror or lens you decide to use.

The Mirrors and Lenses of the House of Funny

·        A regular mirror

·        A closed-circuit camera

·        A magnifying glass

·        A reverse magnifying glass

·        Blue, pink, yellow and other colored lenses

·        A wiggly mirror

The regular mirror

A regular, household mirror flips right to left and left to right. We don’t usually laugh at this, because we’re used to it. In fact, when we don’t see this--for example, in the monitor of a closed-circuit camera--we might actually find it funny. You move off to your left, and you see yourself move off to the right on the screen. It takes some getting used to.

The regular, household mirror in the House of Funny, though, goes against our expectations. It flips it. Right becomes left, and left becomes right. While we're used to this when we peer at ourselves over the bathroom sink, we're not used to it in the stories we read.

For example, in so many fairy tales, the handsome prince comes to the princess’s rescue. So what’s the flipside? Well, the flipside of a handsome prince is an ugly ogre, and that gives you the plot of Shrek.

Shrek: The Whole Story Boxed Set (Shrek / Shrek 2 / Shrek the Third / Shrek Forever After)In fact, that’s just one of many flips in Shrek. The charming prince who wants the princess is actually a less-than-charming lord. The princess is . . . . well, I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers. In the second movie, the Fairy Godmother is not the kindly lady from Cinderella. The Shrek series is all about flipping fairy tales from left to right. But that’s not the only possible flipside for the standard princess fairy tale. You could write a story about a brave princess who rescues a prince, or a prince who gets a princess in trouble instead of rescuing her, or a princess who prefers not to be rescued, or . . . the possibilities are endless.

A closed-circuit camera monitor

This shows us things exactly as they are, and this is surprising because we’re used to see things--particularly ourselves--differently. Like I said, every time you look in your bathroom mirror, you see yourself flipped from right to left. It's interesting to note that the only person incapable of seeing you the way the rest of the world does . . . is you.

I think that the humor that comes from exposing the truth behind false assumptions is the greatest humor of all. It shows us what we’ve been missing . . . or maybe something we once noticed but ignored because someone told us it was wrong. It's the little kid from the story of the Emperor's new clothes, the one who points out that the king is naked.

I also think that this is one of the hardest kinds of humor to create, because it requires that you first recognize that a generally held assumption is untrue. The other problem is that some people hold very tightly to their false beliefs. They need them. It gives them a steady footing on reality, and anything else throws them off balance. In medieval times, people were often ostracized or worse for exposing false assumptions. The sun turned around the earth, and people didn’t want to hear otherwise. The Dark Ages didn’t have a sense of humor.  

But there are those who think this is the only kind of standup comedy that’s worth something, the kind that tells the truth. It can also be a fun way to look at fairy tales. While we know they aren’t true, there are some things about them that are just plain out absurd. Like who wears glass slippers? And who has such a weird shoe size that her shoes won’t fit anyone else? And where did Cinderella get her shoes before her Fairy Godmother showed up with the only pair of shoes that precisely fit her very weird feet? And why was the prince so obsessed with her feet anyway?

Looking beyond assumptions can lead to some pretty funny results.  

The magnifying glass

Take anything small and blow it up way out of proportion. In fiction, don’t write small when you can write big. Characters shouldn’t like each other but be madly in love. A nemesis shouldn’t be mildly annoying but outright evil. It makes readers care more, love more, worry more, hate more, feel more, and laugh more. Of course, if you want it to be funny, it has to be surprising, too, not something that has been magnified in that way many times before. And it can’t be viewed as too painful to the audience.

The obvious example from a children’s book of a magnifying glass being used to create humor? Clifford the Big Red Dog, of course!

Clifford The Big Red Dog

The reverse magnifying glass

British humor is often about understatement. It’s Monty Python calling a severed leg, “just a scratch.” Take something huge and treat it as if it’s something tiny. This is the reverse magnifying glass, and it’s great for satire. When something huge and outrageous—like nuclear war—is treated as no big deal, you have all the ingredients for satire or black comedy.

Blue, pink, yellow, and other colored lenses

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMy all-time favorite humorous fiction series is The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and one of my favorite characters in it is Marvin the paranoid android. Marvin’s comedy comes from the blue lens in the House of Funny. For him, everything is depressing. Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh is another funny, blue-lens character.

In my stories, Amber from Why My Love Life Sucks: The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer generally dances through life (and un-death) with rose-colored glasses. That’s the pink lens of the House of Funny, and it works because it contrasts nicely with Amber’s less-than-rosy circumstance.

Colored lenses are all about seeing the world with one very specific attitude, one that’s often at odds with the setup or the character’s situation.  Many standup comedians use colored lenses to give their onstage personas a focused, unified character. Steven Wright, for example, is deadpan. He’s the Eeyore of stand up, and his lens would be blue. Kate Micucci is always perky. Her onstage persona definitely wears rose-colored glasses.  The next time you see a great standup act, ask yourself, “Does the persona the comedian plays see things through a colored lens? And if so, which color?”

The wiggly mirror

As I wrote in an article on my website, the wiggly mirror is great for writing fiction, because the humor in it comes from conflict. Look in a wiggly house-of-fun mirror, and you’ll see a too long neck with too short legs, or a too thin body with a too wide head. This mirror is all about putting together things that don’t belong together--and that’s what conflict is all about. Since conflict is a necessary element in fiction, this mirror is the perfect mirror for creating fiction.  Put a character with another character who doesn't fit him, in a place or situation that doesn't fit him, or have him want or be or believe two things that are mutually exclusive, and you have both a story and the potential for humor. (Click here to read more.) 

One thing I didn’t mention in that article is that the wiggly mirror can be used in another--almost opposite--in the House of Funny. While this mirror puts unlikely things together, it also shows us how something is like something else. People who look in these mirrors in a house of fun often say, “I look like a giraffe!” or “I look like a penguin!” By changing certain parts of your appearance, you end up looking like something else.
Airplane! (Don't Call Me Shirley! Edition)
This aspect of the wiggly mirror is great for adapting stories, whether in funny or dramatic ways. I could use it to adapt the news of the day when I was a political cartoonist. If someone reminded me of a captain of a sinking ship, I could draw him as a captain of a sinking ship. This aspect is also the one used for creating puns, because puns are based on things that are different but sound alike. It can also be used in parodies, like the movie Airplane!

And when it comes to writing fiction, this aspect of the wiggly mirror can let you use anything--from your life, to the news, to old classics--as a springboard for creating new stories.

DON QUIJOTE - II (94 min.) Spanish audio / English SubtitlesFor example, when I wrote Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey, I looked at the classic story of Don Quixote and asked myself what it might be like in today’s world. Don Quixote, with his love of reading and his desire to become a storybook hero, reminded me of a kid who wants to be Harry Potter or Prince Charming. Don Quixote’s trusty servant, Sancho Panza, reminded me of a faithful friend. So I turned Don Quixote into 13-year-old Dan Tyler; and I turned Sancho Panza into his best friend Sandy.  I went through the rest of Don Quixote asking what in Dan and Sandy’s lives could be like the elements of Don Quixote’s story. And that's how Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey came about. 

Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey

In conclusion

If you want to write something funny or add humor to something you’ve already written, try to look at your setup through the various House of Funny mirrors and lenses.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1.       What is the expectation your set up creates?

2.       What is the opposite of that expectation?

3.       Is your setup about an assumption, and is that assumption false or plain out absurd? If so, what’s the unrevealed truth about that assumption?

4.        If your setup is something small, what happens when you magnify it?

5.       If your setup is something huge, what happens when you understate it?

6.       What is the expected attitude people have about your setup, and which colored lens might create a surprisingly different perspective?

7.       What conflicting thing can you put together with your setup in a surprising way that makes sense? (In fiction, this can be a conflicting character, a conflicting external situation, or a conflict a character has with himself or herself.)

8.       If your setup is something that’s been done to death (variations on Cinderella, for example), what does the setup remind you of? Is there something similar but very different that’s never been done before?  

Brainstorm this out on paper. In the center, write down the setup you intend to use. Put a circle around it. Now write or draw (when I was a political cartoonist, I often drew) the answers to these questions. Sometimes one question will have several promising answers, and sometimes a question will not lead to any answers at all. When you find an answer you like, put a circle around it. If you like, you can even rewrite your answer at the center of another piece of paper and use that to brainstorm the next part of your story.
Not only will this method help you add humor to your writing, it can help you come up with an infinite number of story ideas, or brainstorm solutions to all sorts of problems by giving you new ways to look at them. After all, anything can be a setup.

So now you know how to add humor to your writing in ways no one else has thought of before. See, I told you you were a comic genius!


I hope this was helpful, and if so I hope you'll use it to create humor wherever and whenever you find a need for it. As always, I welcome your questions and comments.  As the tagline for Dan Quixote goes, life and laughter are better with friends.


Patricia Green said...

This is wisdom I will absolutely use. I have ideas already! I've been putting some slapstick into my books for awhile, but more subtle stuff has eluded me. Now I'm ready! Thanks for your help.

Shevi said...

Glad to help, Patricia.

Billy Elm said...

Great tips here, concisely put, easy to remember.

Shevi said...

Thank, Billy. Glad to help.

Ruth Madison said...

Thanks for this post. I have been wanting to learn how to be funny. I will try your methods! :)