Sunday, August 25, 2013

Private Jokes Are No Joking Matter

Did you hear the one about the hen at the hectic intersection? Yawn. The only thing funny about a well-worn comic moment is someone thinking it’s funny. But genuinely “funny”? That matters. It doesn’t just give novels depth and texture beyond basic plot and theme. Humor makes novels better simply because everybody likes to laugh. And private jokes are the best of all.

So. Take a second to picture yourself with a spouse, partner, or dear friend roaring with laughter over—something hilarious only to the two of you. This is a special kind of funny. Whether slapstick, witty, subtle, or all of the above, it feels personal. No one else quite gets it. That’s the point.

Personal humor (or anything else for that matter) is special. It feels slightly illicit, which most of us find sensual. A private joke involves a clique, if only of two, so it’s exclusive. In-group humor depends on insider information and is thus a commodity. All great, but can you do that in your novel? Of course.

~ Set the scene.
Bad jokes inundate with context. Decent jokes offer almost enough. Great jokes hint what the audience needs to know, preferably in advance and just clearly enough to command attention without being obvious.

~ Plant seeds.
Good jokes, in fiction and everywhere else, build slowly, often in three’s: A vague reference, a slightly more pointed one, then—whomp!—the punchline.

~ Use slightly esoteric references.
If you never ask readers to stretch for dim recollections about Paul Bunyan, Walter Cronkite, the Uncertainty Principle, or Teddy Roosevelt, then no private joke is possible. Private jokes depend on a somewhat arcane reference clicking into place.

~ Suggest rather than state character behavior.
Forget those tedious assumptions about prom queens or neurosurgeons. Instead, give your astronaut or whatever traits that plot forces to the surface. Humor flourishes with the surprise of foiled expectations.

~ Use the five senses.
A good joke is not just something you hear or read, but one you can at least visualize, and, ideally, connect with viscerally.

~ Mix and match.
Blend graphics, word play, irony, and burlesque. Besiege us in more than one way and—we’ll love your book all the more for the fun we’re having.

Tip: Charm your readers not just with public jokes but private ones.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tension and Texture

In fiction, creative nonfiction, or screenplay, a good storyteller adds layers to elevate story beyond plot, infusing it with humor, originality, psychological insight, and deeper understanding of the human condition. If a story seems multi-dimensional instead of flat, that’s texture.

Tip: Texture enhances tension by making what happens more original, empathetic, and thus haunting.

Only so many basic plots exist. But you can add texture in as many ways as there are writers to add layering.

Film is a terrific vehicle for investigating texture. Your commitment is hours instead of weeks, and you can find many free screenplays on line. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a good example.

It opens with protagonist Pat’s main concerns: His biological family and his wife.

~ We know what’s at stake right at the starting line.

The protagonist immediately explains that the situation is his fault—but it’s going to be better. Because he’ll see to it.

~ We immediately know how much we like this guy: He’s honest, responsible, resilient.

The protagonist’s room in the institution appears next: Jar of mayo, black trash bag, and the sign “excelsior.”

~ We know this story might be dark, sad, and romantic: It’ll be funny, too.

Then the group therapy session starts.

~ We can expect realism: We can expect an antidote to grim realism, as well.

After that, Pat’s doctor warns that his mom’s taking him home without medical approval.

~ We know, because we know how stories work: He’s just not ready.

That means trouble. Count on it. 

If you haven’t seen this, do. So the synopsis stops here. If you watch it and/or read the screenplay, notice how playing with expectations creates texture. What’s happiness? What’s sad or funny, sane or crazy? What’s true love? Who deserves what—and why do they?

This film lets you examine ways to open, interweave plot with theme, create likable characters, and transform individual predicaments to universal ones. It does that with texture.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Psyche and Nike

The common meaning of “psyche” is soul—spirit. But its source is a complex myth about the relationship between soul and body, the antidote to another goddess’s envy, and the union of two beings. What’s relevant to the contemporary novelist, though, is the equally complex relationship between “self” and story.

Enter psyche. What makes a story matter is the revelation of an individual spirit. Maybe you love being Irish or Hmong or Norwegian and this story brings your culture to life. Maybe your relationship is so happy that you want to write a romance where every dream comes true. Maybe, like Chad Harbach, you love both "Moby Dick" and baseball and want everyone to see how much they have in common. Psyche provides a way to express “self” through story.

Some consider psyche the “true” self and ego the false one—overly focused on goals, materialism, arrogance. Whether or not you agree, you might think of psyche as the source of your story and ego as the engine driving you to complete that story.
Few novelists can survive without a healthy dose of ego. After all, if you lack confidence in yourself and what you have to say, even the quickest, worst first draft ever is a ridiculous amount of work. If neither you nor your story is worth anything, why bother? Ego—i.e. confidence, gets you started and keeps you motivated through all the revising and strategizing needed to find an agent, a publisher, or a do-it-yourself plan.

~ Only your psyche can originate a novel people want to read because you alone could write it.
~ Only your ego can generate the fortitude to strive until your novel is good enough for people to read.

Ego and psyche are twin sources of strength. At its worst, psyche breeds amorphous images meaningful only to their creator. At its best? Psyche weds individuality to commonality, lets you transform subjective imagination into community property.

At its worst, ego generates the kind of defensiveness that rationalizes away useful critique: You’re always right, of course, and the reader (Why listen to this dolt?) is simply too foolish to see why you had to “tell,” introduce twenty-six characters in your first four pages, or bury any shred of plot or tension beneath exquisite description. But ego also inspires the confidence to strive for excellence, often best achieved by welcoming and implementing intelligent feedback, even when it’s painful or arduous. Ego can actually let you put your story before your “self.”

And Nike? Athena’s sidekick symbolizes flight, glory, victory, triumph. She represents ego, not egotism. You needn’t be a winged deity or fast-mover who relishes competition and hungers for fame. But you do need the energy that unites spirit with ego.

Tip: Those folks are exactly right: “Just do it.”