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!

Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Smile Induction

My best wishes to all of you who are bravely writing away on you NaNoWriMo projects. Hope it’s going along swimmingly!

For any of you in my neck of the woods, I’m going to be part of a kids’ book author panel and then a signing on the evening of Monday, December 8th, from 6:00 to 7:30 at Fox Lane Middle School, 632 South Bedford Road, which is in Bedford, New York. If you can come, I’d love to meet you!

Also, at the suggestion of Lydia S. last week on the blog, we’ve added a new feature right to the right of these words: FOLLOW BY EMAIL, which will let you know about blog updates, if you’d like. Strictly voluntary. Thank you, Lydia S.!

On July 24, 2014, Kenzi Anne wrote, I’ve noticed that while I’m usually a very goofy, lighthearted person, my stories always end up being dark and fairly heavy. I know I need some humor and comedy in there, but it always sounds forced and unnatural. How do I lighten my stories but still keep them serious?

Elisa suggested, Have there be a character for comic relief, like Razo in the Goose Girl and Enna Burning, both books are by Shannon Hale. (I LOVE[!!!!!!!!!!] Razo.)

And Michelle Dyck weighed in with: I second what Elisa said. 🙂 That, and a bit of sarcasm or even slapstick humor can help.As for humor sounding forced… it might help to show it to another set of eyes and ask for an opinion. And if you know someone witty, he or she could help you out too.

These are great suggestions. Not only Shannon Hale includes humorous characters for comic relief; Shakespeare did it, too. In his tragedies, he gives minor characters entire funny scenes. If it’s good enough for the bard…

You might introduce a character, say Salli, who sees the bright side of everything. Your MC, Carole, takes a drubbing at the hands of a bully. Her nose and cheek are bruised an interesting shade of purple. A dance is coming up the next day, which will also be Carole’s first date with Mark. Salli says, “Wear the blue dress. Blue and purple–very pretty.”

The mood is further lightened if Carole smiles and says, “Mark will know I have good taste.”

Things get worse, since this is a story about bullying. Carole loses a tooth. She’s weeping. Salli says, “Wow, the space is just the size for a straw. Handy.”

Again, it will help if Carole goes along. She says, “You think?” Only it comes out, You zink? She adds, “Oh! I can’t say tee aitch or even tee–” though the words don’t come out that way.

Salli, cheerful as ever, says, “It sounds like Transylvanian. A vampire would say that.”

The seriousness of the situation hasn’t changed. The bully is still increasingly dangerous, but the reader enjoys what’s going on more, and he likes these characters better and better. He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to these endearing people.

Salli’s crazy optimism doesn’t pop up unless something bad has happened. When the worst happens, whatever it is, Salli’s consolation is so far-fetched and pathetic, it breaks the reader’s heart even while he’s aware of the humor.

Mishaps, even tragedy, can have a humorous side, usually do in real life. For example, I was a plump child, and once, ice skating on a frozen lake, I fell through after two of my (thinner) friends had skated safely across the same spot. I’d have died if my father hadn’t pulled me out fast, but all I was thinking about was that I was fat and that my friends were more aware of it than ever. The contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the frivolity of my thinking is where the humor lies–but only if I’m aware that my worry is silly and the danger is real. Decades later I reconnected with Michael, one of the friends, and he remembered me falling through the ice. When I told him what I had been worrying about, his jaw dropped. He was a sweet boy, and that never occurred to him.

There’s the scene in Ella Enchanted when the parrot Chock commands Ella to kiss him and then keeps flying away when she tries. It’s funny but also powerful, because it highlights the crazy things the curse forces Ella to do–and she’s perfectly aware of this.

So how do we get these deep but humorous moments?

Look for the contrast. Let’s say our villain, the bully, has managed to push Carole into a lake (not frozen). She’s soaked from the waist down and running for her life. What she’s aware of as she runs–one of the things she’s aware of–is that her skirt is clinging and transparent now that it’s wet. She isn’t sure which she hates more, being so afraid, or having her knock-knees revealed as well as the print on her panties: black bunnies leaping across a red background.

This is serious humor, but I love humor that’s silly, too, and I love word play. My Princess Tales books are full of this kind of humor. For example, in The Fairy’s Return, one of my MCs, Robin, loves to pun. They’re groaners, but I enjoy them. Here are three examples:

What’s the best food for a dwarf?  Shortbread.
What’s a jester’s favorite food?  Wry bread.
Why do elves taste delicious?  Because they’re brownies.

And Robin’s father is a poet. Here’s one of his poems:

Royalty and commoners must never mix.
Do not forget or you will be in a predicament.

Also a groaner, but I had fun writing it.

I also like writing subtle humor that doesn’t make even me crack a smile, but that causes an interior nod of recognition, a little spark of pleasure. In a poem I wrote this week, I wrote about forgetting things when I went shopping. Then I wondered in the poem if I should list what I forgot, and I wrote, “Lists are good in poems but these aren’t interesting, just soy milk, eggs, and almond butter.”

Do you get it? If not, doesn’t matter. The pleasure is for me and anyone else who notices.

Here are four prompts:

• Write the story of Carole and Salli and the bully. His or her target is Carole, and Salli is the eternal optimist.

• Write the story of Carole and Salli and the bully, only in this version the funny one is the bully, and this makes him even scarier.

• In the version of “The Frog Prince” that I know, the frog turns into a prince, not when the princess kisses him but when she throws him against a wall as hard as she can. This scene is begging for comedic treatment. Write it!

• Carole is a punster. The dance date with Mark is handicapped for two reasons: Carole’s face is bruised, and she keeps punning. Decide how Mark handles this and write the scene, including at least five puns.

• I listen to a comedy-news quiz on the radio every week. One of the segments, called “Bluff the Listener,” presents the contestant with three goofy solutions to a problem, one of which actually happened. The topic might be increasing tourism or winning customer loyalty, but last week it was getting kids to eat their vegetables. Figure out your own wacky solution to this age-old problem, and write a scene in a family in which it plays out for good or ill.

Have fun, and save what you write!

What’s funny

On July 13, 2014, Writer At Heart wrote, I’m having problems with my MC. I feel as though she isn’t very developed. How do I get around to do this? Maybe it’s because I don’t think that she has a great sense of humor.

carpelibris responded with these questions: Why doesn’t she have a sense of humor? Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded? The reason might give you clues to her personality.

Is she in a situation where humor’s important? Why? How does she respond? What problems does this cause for her?

And Writer At Heart answered, No, she’s not overly serious or any of that other stuff you said. Like, she can be awkward at times or serious, it’s really just me. I can say a joke pretty well, but I just can’t write it down on paper or on the computer. She’s actually very outgoing. It’s not only my MC who I want to be funny, but my MC’s ‘boyfriend.’ I want him to be very funny, someone who can make a girl laugh. 

The school teacherish side of me has to say that if we’re not good at writing a particular kind of thing and we want to be, the remedy is practice. We can write down the joke that we told out loud, which had our friend clutching his sides and weeping with laughter. We can tweak it until we think it’s pretty good. Then we can show it to another friend and see what happens.

Not even a smile? Revise and repeat.

We may never cause the uproarious laughter that accompanied the spoken joke, because our timing, our inflection, our own suppressed hilarity will be missing, but we should be able to get a smile.

If this aspect of writing is as important to us as it is to Writer at Heart, we can read joke books and see which ones make us laugh and figure out how the effect was achieved.

So now I’m tempted. I recently heard a joke on the radio that I loved and want to share. (It’s not mean.) It’s also not funny to everybody. The radio person who told it said that the smartest person she knows didn’t get it. Here’s the joke:

I’m walking down the street and see my old friend, but, surprisingly, he now has a big orange head. I ask him what happened. He says he was in an antique store and bought an old lamp, which he cleaned when he got home and a genie appeared and offered him three wishes. His first wish, he says, was for a beautiful house. He points at an enormous, gorgeous mansion and says that’s it. His second wish was for a beautiful wife. He points at a stunning woman who’s pruning the roses along the fence and says she’s his wife. He goes on. “Then I made my mistake. For my third wish I asked for a big orange head.”

I’m laughing right now. My telling is nothing special. I just wrote it down more or less as I heard it. The surprise and the absurdity tickle me.

I want to assure you all that I’m not violating anybody’s copyright by telling this joke. When it was told on the radio, the person who heard it already knew it, so it’s out there. But we do need to be careful with jokes that come from joke books, which  probably are copy protected. We can repeat them to friends, but we shouldn’t include them in anything we hope to publish.

I adore funny books, plays, movies, but not everybody is into humor or is interested in writing it. Most writers, as far as I can tell, are, sadly (so to speak!), not funny. We can write a career’s worth of serious stories, and that’s fine. It’s like some artists aren’t good at drawing hands but they’re great at other aspects of visual art.

So let’s work on making our MC funny, and let’s call her Marie, and let’s call her boyfriend Jonas. They can both be funny in the way that Writer at Heart would like, that is, they can be witty. In a social situation, people can wait for one or the other of them to make the remark that surprises and brings the smiles. Also, for them to be likable to the reader, they can’t be mean. Their jokes shouldn’t be at someone else’s expense.

Suppose they go together to a Valentine’s Day party. They make their entrance a little late, and everyone is delighted to see them, because they’re the life of every party. On the way in, Jonas picks up a big heart lollipop from a bowl. With everyone watching, he lunges like a fencer at Marie. She steps back smiling, instantly getting the joke. The two of them bow to everyone and say in unison, “Heart attack.”

Not sure how funny a heart attack is, but Marie and Jonas are clever. They’re witty, and no one’s feelings have been hurt.

How did I come up with the heart-attack joke?

It happened to come right away, but if it hadn’t I would have written some notes, which might have gone like this: They’re at a party. A theme party provides more opportunities and more interesting props, could be Halloween, a birthday, Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day. Which of them will make the joke?

• Marie holds a heart doily to her ear. Jonas gets it and says loudly, “Heart of hearing!”

• Heart is also hart. Can I do anything with a joke about the deer? No. Nobody will get it.

• Something with endearments: sweetie, love, dear, darling, sugar, honey.

• Stick with heart. I got it! Heart attack. How do I write it so it isn’t making fun of a terrible illness?

Or you may prefer heart of hearing. Or the endearments may have gotten you thinking.

In a story, a series of jokes will quickly grow tiresome. If Marie’s and Jonas’s repartee continue at length, the reader may stop reading and switch to something that has story momentum. So suppose we leave it at one joke in this moment, and suppose the reader knows that half an hour ago the lovebirds were arguing and even on the point of parting. They’ve made up, and the relieved reader sees that they’re back in sync. The joke isn’t just funny now, it also makes the reader feel good until the next crisis.

Or, suppose either Marie or Jonas is really not a nice person, and the reader is alarmed that they’re happily together again. The joke is still clever, but the tone is ominous.

Or, the reader knows somehow that they’re about to be separated forever, but the two of them are blissfully unaware. Now the humor is tinged with tragedy. The reader smiles through his tears.

Let’s consider other ways Marie and Jonas can be funny, and let’s reprise carpelibris’s questions: Is she overly serious? Socially awkward? Too literal-minded?

Writer at Heart said no, but a character’s foibles can help with the humor. Marie can be overly serious and too literal-minded. People are being witty all around her, and she doesn’t get it. The reader hears the soundtrack of her thoughts. She’s trying to figure out what’s funny, and she has a fake smile pasted on her face. Finally, she thinks she understands. She says, “I get it!” And she comes out with a wild interpretation that nobody meant. They laugh, and she’s mildly puzzled. The reader sympathizes and smiles. But if she’s really hurt it stops being funny.

Jonas can be socially awkward. He always says the thing everybody else is tiptoeing around. He means no harm, but he misses a lot of cues. There can be comic relief when he blurts out the obvious.

In both of these, unlike the witticisms, we’ve made our MCs vulnerable, which probably makes them more likable and certainly makes them funnier. If we think about stand-up comics, many present themselves as vulnerable, and there usually is a dark side to their humor. For example, I heard a comedian named Mike Birbiglia perform a piece on the radio about his sleepwalking. Part of the story involved him walking through the plate-glass window of his hotel room. It was very funny, since he’d lived to tell about it.

There are, of course, many ways to write humor. I suggest you also look back at my other two posts labeled “writing humor,” and you can also check out the chapter “Writing Funny, Writing Punny” in Writing Magic.

These prompts are based on the post:

• Jonas and Marie are going to be separated forever as soon as the party ends. Write the party scene with both at their wittiest, most charming, and most obviously in love. End with the tragedy that separates them.

• Rewrite the scene, but make the romance ridiculously over the top. Their pet names for each other are embarrassing. Jason feeds Marie a heart-shaped cookie, and they’re both dusted with powdered sugar, which they don’t see. Marie is wearing a long scarf, which gets tangled in something while they dance. They’re not nearly as charming as they think they are, but they may be twice as funny. Then have the separation occur.

• Let’s imagine that the story is going to turn sinister when two heavily armed men and one heavily armed woman crash the party, hoping for a place to evade the police. Make Jason and Marie laughable as they were in the last prompt, or make one socially awkward and the other overly serious and too literal-minded. Before the situation turns deadly they are vulnerable objects of fun. When these desperadoes come in, Marie and Jason accidentally notice the danger. They can’t tell anyone or the baddies will realize. (The phone lines have been cut, and cell phone reception is terrible here.) It’s up to our doofus duo to save the day. Write the scene, and use detail to make it funny. I’m rooting for a happy ending, but it’s up to you.

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!

Getting funny

My happiest writing moments are when I’m writing something funny. I’m happy reading, too, when what I’m reading is funny, although maybe not happiest. I adore a good book in all its aspects.

Writing funny means keeping an eye out for opportunities. We writers make our characters miserable, and one of misery’s faces is humor. After our mother died, my sister and I flew to Florida to sell Mom’s condominium. We rented a car, and I backed into a police car. That was pretty funny.

So was the time I smashed up a coworker’s brand-new car in the office parking lot on my first day on the job. (And confessed, naturally.)

One of my earliest dates, when I was about fifteen, was with a boy who stood about six foot three. I’ve never made it to five feet. We went to a museum, and afterward, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he held my hand, which I had to reach up to grasp. For blocks, people pointed and laughed. I didn’t laugh along, but we were funny.

When I was even younger I loved the verse about Ooey Gooey. I used to repeat it to myself over and over with a mixture of horror and delight. For those of you who missed the sad saga, it’s this:

Ooey Gooey was a worm,
a mighty worm was he.
Crawled out on the railroad track,
the train he did not see.
Ooey gooey!

Death at its silliest.

Mark Twain said, Humor is tragedy plus time. I agree, although I wouldn’t agree that all humor is tragedy based. Some humor is clever and some is goofy without a hint of darkness, and there may be more ways to be both comical and sunny that I can’t think of right now. But to stay on the tragic side, I’d suggest two additional equations. One is, Humor is tragedy plus willingness. In an awful situation, if we’re open to laughter, it will leap out – and provide lovely relief. My friend Joan, who had a brain injury, sometimes thinks it’s funny that she can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. She’s not horrified, she’s amused.

The second equation, a geometrical one, is, Humor is tragedy turned on its side. Take “Hansel and Gretel,” one of the least funny fairytales out there, although there’s a lot of competition. For anyone who doesn’t know the tale, Hansel and Gretel’s parents want to leave their children in the woods and let them starve to death. There’s nothing lighthearted about that.

Or is there?

Suppose Mrs. Hansel-and-Gretel says to Mr. H&G, “If we move the children out of their room in the cellar and into the forest, we’ll have more space for our colony of giant slugs.” And Mr. H&G says, “Superb idea, dear, and I can conduct my colorful mold experiments down there, too.”

The pain of being unwanted flips over. Being left behind by Mr. and Mrs. H&G is probably a step up in the world.

It can get funnier if Hansel and Gretel know what their parents are up to. Suppose the first day they case the gingerbread house without nibbling. Suppose they follow the stones home only because Hansel left his stuffed rat behind.

Then, of course, the bumbling witch will be lots of fun. And the ending even more so, with Hansel and Gretel deciding to stay in the gingerbread house. Gretel says, “We won’t make the same mistakes as the witch.” Hansel replies, “How many children do you think we’ll catch today?”

Gross, maybe, but I think it’s funny, and of course humor is personal – in case you’ve soaked seven hankies reading this.

Sometimes it’s a stretch. Back to auto mishaps. I once walked away from a car accident that could have been very bad. Luckily the span of highway I was on was empty at that moment. I was unhurt, and no one else was involved. How to make that into comedy? The only thing that comes to mind is to personalize the road and the guardrail. If the road is ticklish and the guardrail grumpy, possibilities start to emerge.

So here’s a prompt: Make a tragedy or a misery funny. Try “The Little Mermaid” (not the movie version) or King Lear. Or delve into history, which abounds with misery. Rewrite the destruction of Pompeii or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which is in my distant family history. Have fun, and save what you write.