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Friday, June 07, 2013

How to Leave Readers Rolling in the Aisles...

Today I'm pleased to welcome my old friend and sometime Writers Bureau colleague Iain Pattison to my blog.

In his guest post Iain, a successful humorist and author of Cracking The Short Story Market, explains why penning funny stories is always a serious business to him, and shares his top tips for successful comedy writing...

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I adore satire. I love reading anything that makes me laugh. I really appreciate a clever one-liner and or a fiendishly ingenious piece of word play. If you can make me smile I'll follow you anywhere. If you can make me chortle out loud I'll be your slave! And if you make me split my side, I'll ... well, we better not go into that!

The reason I'm so ready to become a funny writer's acolyte or worse is that I understand just how damn difficult it is to be amusing on paper. It's one of the toughest gigs you can tackle as a scribbler. You have to be every bit as entertaining as a comedy club stand-up, have the same crucial exact timing and sense of verve and daring, but without the opportunity to instantly "read" your audience and fine-tune your material - or the fallbacks of facial tics or stage antics to rescue you if a joke falls flat.

Which means no second chances. Your comic writing has to be as perfectly honed and rib-tickling as you can make it. A duff witticism at the beginning of a tale or a silly bit of slapstick that seems contrived and the magic bubble bursts; and you've lost your readers for good.

I've been lucky in the 18 years that I've been writing quirky short stories and pastiches. I've sold a respectable amount, had some on BBC Radio 4 and managed to grab the occasional competition prize or two, but it's never guaranteed. The Gods of Mirth are cruel masters and like to keep our feet firmly on the ground when we get too cocky.

But I've learnt a few rules stumbling along the way and I'm happy to share them with you. Of course, humour is subjective. No two writers tackle it in the same way, so if you don't like my pointers, feel free to ignore them. (I'll get over the rejection eventually!)

Here they are, in no particular order:
  • Always appreciate that the plot - the storyline - is the most vital part of any story. The japes are subsidiary. They're merely the oil we add to assist the flow of the narrative. Your tale should still be gripping, dramatic and make sense - even if all the jokes are stripped out.
  • Also, it's useful to realize that stories don't have to be packed with one-liners to be funny. Some of the most hilarious tales I've ever read (and hopefully written) were deadpan all the way through until an unexpected and ironic twist in the last sentence. Sometimes the laugh comes from the reader's delight at being taken by surprise.
  • Remember that wit is like a gossamer thread - stretch a joke or comic conceit too far and it snaps.  So the writer's rule LESS IS MORE counts double for comedy.  The shorter the length of the narrative, the better. Sometimes a funny will work more effectively as a flash fiction piece than a full blown short story.
  • Ground your humour in reality. Let it emerge naturally from the situations that people find themselves in. Extra-ordinary things can and do happen to ordinary people. But these must be plausible and logical. Forced or contrived jocularity will seem false.
  • Shun crudeness, gross-out shock tactics, profanity, smut and toilet tomfoolery. They may get you a cheap laugh - but they won't win you devoted fans. Don't be afraid to offend - but don't make it your mission.
    Use puns sparingly. Think of them as silver bullets. They can be hilarious but over-pun a story and it rapidly goes from jesting to jaded.
  • Be discerning about your choice of wordplay. Make it clever. Saying: "keep your friends close and your enemas closer still" is an amusing reworking of a famous quotation, but suggesting: "there was an explosion at the pet shop - it was cat-astrophic" is just lame. Stay away from Christmas cracker material.
  • Don't give characters and settings stupid or outlandish pantomime names. It smacks of desperation, of trying too hard, and signals that this is a writer who isn't confident. It also runs the risk of patronizing adult readers who associate this kind of thing with children's fiction.    However, don't be afraid to use mundane names in unexpected or incongruous situations. You can get a good chortle from a demon called Dennis - especially if he is self-conscious and grumpy about it!
  • Even if you can think of three different jokes on a topic, only include one - the best one. Don't let competing gags cancel each other out. You can always use the others in future stories.
  • Never repeat a joke in the same story - even if you think you've cleverly reworked or reworded it. You only get one giggle per gag. The second version WILL fall flat.
  • Avoid over-explaining jokes. Let the reader come to you. Give them a moment's work to do. If, for example, I was having someone being taken on a tour of an ancient library, they would be shown a room where scribes called Colin were creating the texts on geography, scribes called Kevin were penning law tomes, but the histories were being written by the Victors.
  • Always be aware of the dangers or sending off funny stories too soon. When you've just written something you think is hilarious, the adrenalin will distort your judgment. Stick it in a drawer and reread it three weeks later. If the story makes you laugh after the buzz of the original creation has faded, then chances are it will be a winner.
  • Most importantly, trust your gut. If you dream up something that makes you smile - chances are it will make others grin too!   
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Many thanks to Iain Pattison (pictured, right) for an informative article and some great tips!.

I would just add that Iain is one of the most naturally gifted short-story writers I know, and I very much admire (and recommend) his work.

I agree with him too that humour (or humor if you're that side of the pond) is very hard to write well, in addition to being quite personal and subjective. It's a tough challenge to take on, but if you can master it there will always be a market for your work.

Iain's humorous e-book Is That A Pun In Your Pocket?  21 Short Stories To Tickle Your Fancy is available now from publishers Middle England Media. It's also available in Kindle format from Amazon UK or from Amazon.com (both links go directly to the sales pages).

You can learn a lot about the art of writing humorous short stories from Iain's book, or just read it for fun and relaxation. And if you're planning to enter the forthcoming Writers Bureau Short Story Contest (closing 30 June 2013), you might want to note that Iain will be the judge!

If you have any comments or questions for Iain (or me), please do post them below.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Warren Paul Glover (WazMan) said...

Great article. Informative, amusing and insightful. Thanks!

10:26 AM  
Blogger Gibson Goff said...

An upside to humor writing is that if you don't get paid, if your material is rejected, at least it made you happy, possible even got you to chuckle out loud when you wrote it.

And then I can fondly remember it with, "It might not have sold, but that was a funny piece!"

Great post, Iain. I'm bookmarking it for future ref.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Carol Warham said...

Thanks for an excellent insight into the pitfalls of writing humour.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Great post!
Thanks for the valuable insight into writing in an amusing way. I think this is a real skill to master and there are useful tit bits we can all benefit from!
I will be checking out his work.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Iain Pattison said...

Many thanks for the great comments. I'm delighted you liked the blog. As soon as I volunteered to write amusingly about how comedy is a serious matter I realised that a/ I was getting myself into a logic muddle and b/ I was setting myself up for a fall!Thanks Nick for the opportunity - no real pressure at all!!!
Incidentally, Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? surged this weekend by 200,000 Amazon rankings. Now that's definitely made me smile.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks again to Iain for an excellent (and clearly very popular) guest post. Glad to hear about the boost in sales ranking for his book as well!

9:27 PM  

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