Funny in Black and White

Since writing is a different form of communication from conversation, its strengths and drawbacks have to be considered accordingly. On the plus side, writing enables a reader to peek inside a character’s head to see what he is thinking, which adds more depth than merely the spoken words. On the minus side, writing strips away much of the facial and vocal enhancements of the person speaking. Trying to describe, for instance, how a character screws up her face to describe her utterly horrible blind date would take so many words, the story would lose its thread.

In no area is this loss more marked than in trying to write humorous prose. A funny line down on paper can be read multiple ways if the reader is not cued by a jokester’s physical embellishments. One of the worst interpretations is that the character is stupid. We read in the hopes of discovering entertaining characters, not dopes. One depressing outcome of reading an entire scene in which you didn’t realize the character was supposed to be funny is that you hope that character never shows up in the novel again.

Woe betide the inexperienced author who sets out to make the protagonist funny. In real life, we all know that a joke told by one person can be hilarious, but told by a bumbler (or, worse, hyena) can be a painful exercise in patience. Same words, but the timing, the facial expressions, the guttural inflections, provide a world of difference. Good luck inserting any of those three qualities, except in the broadest form, onto the written page.

By contrast, humor in skillful hands can be a great joy. Novelists from Mark Twain to Saul Bellow to T. Coraghessan Boyle have led readers into the curious side alleys of America, finding all sorts of odd creatures and customs. Yet they employ an entirely different narrative strategy. They operate on the level below the spoken word, for the most part. In revealing what the narrator is thinking—in fact, providing a running commentary on everything that occurs in the novel—they are working in that realm from which writing draws its greatest strength. We often find, as readers, that the narrator is expressing exactly what we know we have thought ourselves in a similar circumstance. This experience is so striking, it is close to magic. So if you want to express your ribald side, get below the surface. That’s where your readers want to reside anyway.

Exercise: As you are reviewing the material, be honest with yourself. Are you getting the jokes? Do you see how they’re falling flat because you have not provided enough context to cue the reader? Better yet, see if you can find ways to make the narrator of the scene assume a certain posture so that the entire scene can be imbued by a humorous point of view.

“Humor is just another defense against the universe.”
— Mel Brooks

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.