Through a Pen Darkly

Before the post, I want to mention that I have a couple of appearances coming up in New York City and the nearby town of Chappaqua. You can check them out here on the website by clicking “In Person” and then “Appearances.”

On June 26, 2018, Raina wrote, Does anyone else have the problem where a simple, relatively lighthearted story gets so bogged down by serious/heavy themes that it becomes a different story altogether, and not necessarily one you want to tell? My WIP started out as a relatively simple adventure about Snow White being resurrected with dark magic, but then it got complicated and went into some pretty deep issues about power, human nature, and society. And even though those are interesting themes that would be great to explore in a book, it’s not what I want to do right now. Is there any way to dial back the “seriousness” of a work without losing the general story?

Poppie answered, I’ve been wondering about that myself lately. One idea which I’ve been using in my WIP fairy story is to make sure there is plenty of humor. My MC Lio and his friends are being trained to rescue fairies from dangerous situations where they could end up killed. But Lio is a coward, which can add a lot of comedy to the situation and still have a message to send. I also have a character who isn’t totally comic relief but still has a lot of smart answers for every situation.

You could also NOT kill off beloved characters that play a big part in the story (although you can absolutely kill villains, and unimportant characters can die). In my WIP, fairies can (and do) get injured, but no one dies. You can have consequences, but not have them get dark, such as having a character struggle with survivor’s guilt the whole novel.

Raina wrote back, I agree, humor is a great way to lighten things up. For some reason humor comes harder for me when I’m writing YA (as opposed to when I’m writing MG), but I think this book might need it so I’ll definitely give that a try.

I’m with Poppie that not killing off characters allows the mood to stay light. Death is such a buzzkill!

And what Raina says about YA versus MG humor is interesting. Young adulthood is a daunting time. The complexities that pre-adolescents may not see jump out at teens, and ways to cope aren’t as developed as they (usually) become in adulthood. So the humor is different for the two groups. Here’s a joke I completely adore that I think is perfect MG humor, though it works for all ages: A snail, attacked by two tortoises, is unable to describe the incident to the police. “It happened so fast!” it says.

No sarcasm, no irony. We pity the poor, benighted snail even while laughing at its predicament.

By contrast, the saying, “Life is short and then you die,” is packed with irony and, I think, goes to the YA sweet-sour spot. I just googled “ironic jokes,” and some of the ones I found work to my ear, like this one: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.” Some are just nasty and unpleasant–I’d stay away from those.

There’s a marvelous, very old (1939) romcom called Ninotchka, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The female lead, played by Greta Garbo, is a super-serious Soviet emissary of some sort. The male lead, played by Melvyn Douglas, tries to get her to laugh and fails utterly until he takes a pratfall. When he goes down, she laughs her head off. In my opinion, his spill is MG humor, and his humiliation at falling is YA.

Of course, these are gross generalizations. Some younger kids appreciate sarcasm and irony, and some teens continue to prefer slapstick and lighthearted humor.

But the message is that we can go dark and still be funny for the YA crowd. Black humor abounds in tragedy. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Shakespeare:

∙ Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost, asking his son to avenge his murder. Dad is dead, but at last he’s confiding in his son. Mom conspired to kill him, but see how pretty she is when she smiles at Claudius. Hard not to be happy for her.

∙ Romeo and Juliet are both dead at the end, but some other people never find true love. Aren’t they really the ones to be pitied?

That was fun!

(Shakespeare does usually lighten his tragedies with comic interludes, but these are carried by minor characters, not the principals.)

Let’s darken a different fairy tale than “Snow White” so we don’t mess with Raina’s plot. Cinderella marries her prince and on her wedding night finds out he’s a vampire. She should have noticed his eager expression when one of the stepsisters cut off her heel to squeeze into the glass slipper (I don’t think this is in the Disney version). After she’s a vampire, too, Cinderella decides to get revenge on her stepfamily. She showers them with jewels and invites them to live at the castle. But sweet Cinderella still lives inside the vampire, and her two natures are constantly at war. Meanwhile the stepfamily members are as awful as ever. Everyone in the castle is vampiric. Cinderella goes back and forth between feeling she should protect them and maybe just scare them a little and remembering how beastly they were to her. I think this can be both funny and compelling.

Now let’s examine dark humor. Something has to really be at stake. If we’re talking about the premise of a novel or a story, what’s at stake has to be important: a relationship, a life, a way of life. Whatever.

If we want to illuminate a dark story with humor, one way to get there is with an MC who sees the funny side of things, whether she wants to or not. We’re not lightening our story. What’s bad continues to be bad. For example:

∙ Our MC is on a spaceship with mechanical difficulties. The likelihood of survival is slim. She can still have funny thoughts: death just when she’s figured out how to brush her teeth without getting toothpaste all over her forehead.

∙ She’s on planet earth. The love of her life breaks up with her. She still cares about him and decides to set him up with the perfect person for him. She even thinks, What can go wrong?

∙ I’m on my train home, as I often am when I write the blog. I imagine the conductor falling asleep and somehow (I don’t know what conducting a train involves) making the train go faster and faster. People are flying about the train car. I’m wedging myself under the seats because I’m small enough to do that. I hope no one’s been killed. I wonder if I’ll survive–and also wonder if we’re going faster than the bullet train in some parts of the world. Are we breaking any records? I hope we are! I hope the famous black box is getting it. We may die, but we’re making a contribution to humanity, and isn’t that what everybody wants, for their life to have meaning?

You may not be rolling in the aisles, but you see the humor. It’s all in the perspective of the character. Doesn’t have to be the MC, can be a secondary character or more than one.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try “Cinderella with Vampires.” Cinderella doesn’t have to be the only character with a sense of humor. The prince can have one, too. So can some of the castle vampires and a stepsister.

∙ Try any of my tragicomic ideas above, including, if you dare, a re-envisioning of a Shakespearian tragedy to make it funnier but still sad.

∙ Write a scene between siblings. One is ten and the other sixteen. Somebody in the family is gravely ill. Show how the middle grade child and the young adult approach a serious situation. Make both of them seek relief in humor. Show how they do it.

∙ The most troubling fairy tale I know is “Hansel and Gretel,” since child abandonment sets off the story. Try your hand at a darkly humorous retelling for the YA crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To Be Or Not To Be Funny

First: CONGRATULATIONS to all you NaNoWriMo’s! Double kudos to those who met your goal. But whether you made it or not, the effort is a big deal. A lot of back patting is called for.

And I bet you’re relieved it’s over–and maybe feeling a little let-down, too . But, hey, there’s still all that revising to do. In recent posts I’ve gotten questions about revision, and I’ve referred people to my post on the topic from 11/18/09. If you have questions that I didn’t cover there, please ask.

Second: A reminder about my signings in Connecticut on Saturday, details on the website. If you’re in the area, I hope you come.

Third: With the glow of poetry school still hanging over me, I want to say something about how poetry affects my prose. Chiefly, it makes me more aware of the sound of my words as I write. For example, in the last sentence I happened to write the alliterative makes me more. (Alliteration: identical initial consonant sounds or double consonant sounds, like stay still. Write well isn’t alliterative, even though both words start with w’s, and cautious king is, even though one word starts with a c and the other with a k. It’s the sound that counts.) In the example, makes me more, I didn’t alliterate intentionally; it just came out that way, but I could have changed the wording to increased my awareness. Same meaning but not as appealing to me (in a very minor way).

Same thing with assonance, similar vowel sounds, like keep and sweet. Also words that happen to rhyme. I notice them more nowadays. Sometimes I add in alliteration or assonance, and sometimes I take it out. In prose, I often find it annoying when I accidentally rhyme, so I revise and remove.

Here’s a prompt: Pick a paragraph of your current story, any long paragraph, not dialogue. Underline the alliterations, the assonances, the rhymes. See if you can create more of each by changing words. Do you like the result better or less well? There’s no right or wrong answer. You decide. The advantage is just more consciousness as you write.

I also recommend reading poetry, because poetry is wonderful, and you can learn a lot about language from it. I get a daily poetry fix from Writers Almanac, As a subscriber, a poem arrives in my email every morning, along with a short narrative of major historical events of the day. I click listen and read the poem along with Garrison Keillor’s resonant voice.

Now for today’s topic. On July 25, 2010, Rose wrote… How does a writer decide whether to make a story mainly funny or mainly serious? I’ve been writing a story that I saw as humorous, but it’s been getting very serious already, and I’m not sure if this is a bad thing. If so, can someone help? My tastes naturally tend towards the dramatic, though, so it’s probably just that. . .

Often the decision is made for the writer, who is either a writer of humor or of serious fiction. One or the other usually comes naturally, no decision involved.

Not that it’s necessarily so cut and dried as that. Serious drama can have funny moments, hysterical ones, even, and funny stories can turn temporarily dark or be uniformly dark and funny. Serious writers can pull off comedy occasionally, and humorists can write tragedy once in a while. But I think most writers know which camp they find themselves in.

I generally prefer funny. I’d rather read funny and write funny, and I think humor isn’t taken, er, seriously enough as literature. It’s just as hard, maybe harder, to write good light as to write good heavy. I frequently look for a bit of levity to add to my stories. Doing so just makes me happy.

Some of my books are more serious than others. Ever is the most somber book I’ve written, but even it has funny moments. And after I finished it I had to escape to something lighter. A Tale of Two Castles is lighthearted. The sequel I’m working on now is more serious, so I may cycle back and forth.

Of course subject matter helps determine whether or not a story is serious. I challenge the funniest person on earth to write a comedy about the abuse of dogs. If this is your subject, you probably have to be serious.

But even dire topics can be spoofed. Think of disaster movies. And, while dog abuse may be off limits, pet abuse probably isn’t. For example, you might write about a character who keeps pet cockroaches and isn’t nice to them. The reader wouldn’t know which side to sympathize with.

There are also topics that most lend themselves to comedy. One of my students once wrote a story about toe jam. Tragedy and toe jam do not mix, or do not mix easily.

And there are many topics that can go either way. Romance, friendship, coming of age all leap to mind.

Whichever you’ve chosen, you can nudge it temporarily in one direction or the other. Imagine even a hospital scene. Your main character’s mother has something terminal. A clueless doctor comes in and says all the wrong things, maybe putting a weird spin on a conversation that was just taking place. The dying continues, but the characters have laughed and the reader has smiled. Or you can make the scene funny by going overboard with the sadness, intense lugubriousness, so over the top that the characters notice and the tragedy lifts for a moment.

Comedy can tip into drama too. Suppose Essie has given her best friend Riva a joke gift of hand puppets. They’re in Riva’s bedroom, acting out the behavior of a tyrannical teacher, having a fine time, being clever and funny until Riva has the teacher puppet say something hurtful to Essie that Riva has wanted to say. The remark goes back to an old incident that’s been festering. In a single line of dialogue the story’s mood shifts. It may shift back just as quickly in a page or two, but for the moment the reader has stopped laughing.

Even when stories stay funny they can have serious meaning. Think of Mark Twain, one of my favorites. His Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for instance, is wonderfully humorous and touching at the same time. Think of Jane Austen, one of the funniest writers ever, in my opinion, who was writing not only about finding love, but also about finding a life. Think of your own examples.

Here’s a prompt: Write about a camping trip. Can be a family trip, a scout troupe, a gathering of elves, whatever. In as many pages as you need, take it from humor to drama, back to humor, back to drama. End on whichever you like. Do the same for a bank robbery. Now do it – aaa! – for an airplane crash. Don’t worry about being ridiculous. Go for it!

Have fun and save what you write!