Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Moving Along

Thanks to all for the questions. That was terrific! My list is healthy again, but questions are always welcome.

On June 2, 2014, Sunny Smith wrote, Hey, I was wondering if any of you guys have any tips on how to spice up travel scenes so they aren't boring? I'm writing a book where the main characters are doing a lot of traveling and I'm learned quickly that if you don't spice it up it can get pretty boring really fast. So that’s what I've been doing, but I keep wondering how much spice is too much spice. Where's the line between making the reader so interested they can't stop reading and making them frustrated with it because there just too much stuff going on?

Sunny Smith’s question generated a lot of help. This came in from maybeawriter: Well, I know of an older post dealing with road trips called "Enhancing Experience." (April 20, 2011.) Not sure if that helps you, but it might be worth looking at.

And this from Eliza: They don't need a flat tire and a troll bridge every two pages to keep the reader interested. There are simpler ways to spice things up. You know those pesky bits of dialogue you have to put somewhere but too much talking slows down the story? Put the talking with the walking.

And from Elisa: I would suggest reading Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith, and it's sequel, Court Duel. The first has a lot of traveling in it, and the second has some as well, though not as much. Plus, they're fun books. Especially Crown Duel.

And from carpelibris: Is the journey part of the story, or do you just need to get characters from Point A to Point B? If that's the case, you can just say something like "Three weeks later, footsore, sunburned, and in dire need of baths, they arrived at the palace."

Sunny Smith responded to Carpelibris: It is part of the story, it's actually a quest story like Writer At Heart's so it’s pretty major. The worst part is in my first chapter where my POV character is on her way to meet up with the other three mains and she's all by herself in a forest for most of it so there isn't any way for me to put in any juicy dialogue. So I made it interesting because I'm not one to bore myself and I keep wondering if it’s too much for the first chapter.

These are great ideas! I’m with carpelibris in that we can truncate a journey with judicious telling, and her suggestion for how to do it is charming, in my opinion.

Let’s consider this first chapter as I understand it. Our MC–let’s call her Andressa--has to cross a dangerous forest to reach her allies, the other three MCs, who will help her on the next leg of her journey. Andressa’s ultimate mission is to find the mythical roc, the bird that, according to prophecy, will lay a golden egg, and the egg has the power to unite three warring kingdoms. Let’s say that once Andressa possesses the egg she has to get it to the queen of her home kingdom, because this queen is the only ruler who wants peace.

If nothing is going to happen in the crossing of the forest that will have bearing on the discovery of the roc, one choice is to skip the forest entirely and start the book when Andressa reaches the village where her friends are waiting.

Another possibility is to make the forest crossing have bearing on the quest. It could be some kind of test of Andressa’s ability. There are lots of options. Maybe she’s been told that she mustn’t leave the path through the forest. As she crosses, she keeps being tempted. She can succumb once for a reason we choose. Maybe she gets hungry. An apple tree loaded with low-hanging fruit is growing near the path. She reaches for an apple but keeps her feet planted firmly where they should be. Unfortunately, the apple is just a little farther than she expects. She stumbles and her foot comes down six inches beyond the path.

The reader--and Andressa-–worries that she’s already failed at the quest. To make matters worse, when she gets out of the forest, she doesn’t tell anyone about the failure.

The point is that whatever we write in our forest-crossing scene should have some bearing on the quest. If it doesn’t, our reader may be engaged briefly, but he’s soon likely to feel confused about what’s important. He may have trouble following the thread.

What happens in that first chapter doesn’t have to be quite so focused on the quest as the prophecy idea. We can use the forest adventure to shed light on Andressa’s character and her fitness for the task she’s taken on. Suppose there are bearions, a cross between a bear and a lion, in this wilderness.  Andressa’s first mistake is that she leaves crumbs after her evening meal. She curls up to sleep nearby, and a bearion smells the food and finds her. She hears it coming and has time to get ready with her bow and arrow. She shoots off four arrows, but the beast keeps coming, so she runs to a tree to climb. And the reader discovers how bad her coordination is. She can’t climb the tree. The four arrows do finish off the bearion before it reaches her, but the reader is worried again. Andressa has proven herself a good shot but also careless and clumsy. She is a weak vessel for such an important mission.

I’d say that one adventure is probably enough for the forest part of the story unless we decide that more of the plot should take place there. After the event we’ll probably want to go into Andressa’s thoughts about what happened. If she doesn’t realize that leaving crumbs was a mistake, the reader is going to worry even more about her. If she does realize and beats up on herself too much, he’s going to worry too. If she thinks about the importance of her quest for, say, the people she loves, he’s most likely going to like her. If she pities the dead bearion, he is certainly going to.

We can also use thoughts to eat up the miles and set up the trouble to come. During day one she can think about each of the friends she’s going to meet if this interminable forest ever comes to an end. She can assess their strengths and shortcomings while her opinions also inform the reader about her. During day two she can think about the war that’s raging outside this interminable forest. And during day three she can recall everything she knows about the roc. On day four she can arrive.

A Tale of Two Castles begins with a boat ride to the town of Two Castles, where the body of the story takes place. On the cog (medieval boat) Elodie observes her surroundings. She thinks about where she’s going and what her mission is. A lot of thinking goes on. She also gets seasick and receives bad news from a fellow passenger that threatens her plans. Nothing is earth shattering, but the journey fills seventeen pages. It establishes Elodie’s character and begins to build the world of the story.

If we don’t have dialogue we still have actions and thoughts. And we also have a setting for our MC to interact with, all in the context of her quest. Now let's start down that yellow brick road!

Here are four prompts:

Write the scene in which the bearion attacks Andressa. Go on to write her thoughts after she discovers that she isn’t going to die.

Write Andressa’s thoughts as she crosses the forest, and have her consider the issues I named: the other MC’s, the war, the roc.

Imagine the roc. Write a scene about it in its natural habitat. Reveal something that will make Andressa’s quest much more difficult.

Write the whole story of Andressa, her three companions, the roc, and the golden egg.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Defined by decisions

Before the post, this is a call for questions. My long list is running down. I know I don’t add every question that comes in to my list. Some I don’t have a lot to say about, or I may have answered something similar recently. But if there’s anything about writing that plagues or confuses you or that you’ve always wondered about, this is a good time to ask. Poetry questions also welcome.

On April 5, 2014, Farina wrote, If you have a character's, well, characteristics down in a description of him, can you give some advice for then writing that person in their own character, showing off their characteristics and personal traits? So often I feel like my characters are all blandly similar in my writing even though in my own 'Character Bible' I have varying personalities and flaws for them all! 

In response, Bibliophile wrote, Putting them in situations where their values are challenged would be a good idea. That way, you can see how true they are to what they say they believe, and everyone is going to react differently. Use the (it doesn't have to be in your story) 'A house is burning down and you can only save one of these two things: a priceless painting or a murderer.' Then have a conversation with your characters and ask them why they chose what they did. Keep in mind, there is no true right and wrong answer to this question, it's just a great way see where your characters’ priorities are. (The question is borrowed from Shannon Hale's Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.)

Interesting suggestion. We can move the idea behind Bibliophile’s suggestion into our story, that is, we can look at the moments in our plot when our character faces a choice.

Let’s go with the choice Bibliophile and Shannon Hale suggest. Let’s imagine a strange combination of events that might present our MC, Tania, with this exact dilemma. A civil war is raging in her country, where she works as a prison guard. Because a high-security prison was bombed, the provisional government has moved the surviving prisoners into the only structure still standing that’s big enough to house them, the fine arts museum, which holds the cultural legacy of the land. Unfortunately, one of its new inmates is an arsonist. The museum is burning. Tania guards the wing where both the murderers are penned and the masterpieces of the golden age of portraiture are displayed. She can save a murderer’s life or a cultural legacy. She may even be able to rescue more than one painting but only one person. What does she do?

We can consult our character bible to see what she cares about, how she reacts in a crisis, what her life has been up to this point. With that, we may be able to decide what this particular character will choose.

Suppose we know, for example, that she’s judgmental. Right and wrong are clearly defined in her mind, which is one reason she became a guard. Even so, this particular choice may move her into unknown territory. She believes in preserving life although she thinks murderers are the lowest of the low. She’s not much of an art lover, but she’s a patriot and she regards the museum’s holdings as a national treasure. Her values are in conflict.


The choice will be brought into sharper relief if we write the scene as it unfolds. The writing itself is likely to reveal Tania to us and will help us help her choose.

Which particular murderer is in danger of incineration? Does Tania know the details of his crime? Did he poison his own mother? Or did he kill the man who killed his sister, who got off on a technicality? What’s he like? What’s he saying to Tania while the flames lick the walls? How frightened is she? How clearly is she thinking?

Her choice will give the reader an idea of her. She can take the painting or the murderer, or she can be a ditherer and try to take both: advance five yards with the murderer, run back for the painting, and so on, possibly too slowly to get out alive with either. A tragedy. But whatever action she takes, her character will be much clearer if we write her thoughts as well, and if there’s an opportunity for dialogue, too, so much the better.

Thoughts first. We can make a list of possibilities, like this:

I wish they’d given us fire training. Am I supposed to close the door or leave it open? Do I take the stairs or the elevator? Which is worse, first degree burns or third? I don’t want those puckery scars on my face.

He looks a lot like Mr. Pollack. If I leave him, I’ll have to live with killing Mr. Pollack. He’s whimpering. Mr. Pollack would probably whimper, too, if he were here. This painting looks like Maria when we were in the third grade.

Aaa! It’s so hot! We’re both going to die. I can hardly see. I’ll take whatever I touch first, the prisoner or a painting. We’ll die together.

Our characters’ thoughts help define them. We find out something about each version of Tania from what’s going through her mind. The first Tania may be a tad vain. The second Tania is more sympathetic, if no more competent. The third tends to panic, although she has a good reason in this case. Your turn. Write three more stream of consciousness moments for Tania.

On to dialogue. She can have a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. There may be other guards in the building, and she may be shouting to them. She may be talking to the murderer. In her frightened state, she can also be talking to the painting. Here are some possibilities:

To her best friend on the cell phone: “Tell me you’ll take Susie if I don’t come out of here. I don’t want to die worrying about her. Tell her every day that I loved her, and remember to mix wet food in with the dry. She won’t eat otherwise.”

To the murderer: “One move I don’t like and I will leave you and take the picture. Hands in the air. High. Keep them up.”

Another possibility to the murderer: “Don’t kill the lady who’s saving your life. Don’t be like the scorpion in that story. We’re in this together.”

Your turn again. Write three more bits of dialogue for Tania. See how they define her.

I find character bibles most helpful once I start writing, and I don’t use them for every character. It’s only when my character has to do or think or say something and I can’t figure out what that should be that I create a character bible. And usually I leave it unfinished the minute I know what to put in my story. I may go back to it, though, if I get stuck again.

Using the choice between the murderer and the art is useful if our story includes that very decision. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise. When we get back to our story we may find that whatever we came up with in our hypothetical situation doesn’t fit.

One more thought: The more detail we include in our scenes, the easier it will be to make Tania come to life as a lively personality.

Naturally the prompt is to write the scene in the burning museum/prison. When you’re finished, if you’ve gotten fascinated by Tania, continue with the rest of the story, which may start with the lead-up to the burning building and go on to include her role in the civil war. If the murderer interests you, too, keep him in. Tania may not save him, but he may manage to survive anyway.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Subplots and Slow-Cooking Romance

On March 29, 2014, maybeawriter wrote, I noticed that I tend to rush through subplots. For example, in one story, I have my two MCs falling in love. They meet the first day, then they're already friends with hints of romance by the end of the second. I know shared life-threatening experiences tend to help people bond quickly, but it seems somehow too fast to me. In the same story, I have a (fundamentally good) character who considers himself a super villain, and I think he abandons his life philosophy too quickly. I think both subplots need to be slowed down. Any thoughts on how to pace subplots so they don't get rushed?

And Eliza responded: It isn't unbelievable to fall in love after two days. Just to act on it. Hints are okay, things like MCs looking at each other for too long, going out of their way to help each other, and giving compliments. Readers pick up on hints. Just hold off on things like kissing for a while. The longer you hold off, the more readers will want them.

Let’s talk about subplots first, because I recently gained a new understanding in that area. I used to think that a subplot had to be an entirely separate side story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is full of this kind of subplot, set off when the fellowship splinters. Various characters leave Frodo and have complete adventures on their own. These subplots come together in the grand resolution of the ring, but they work themselves out in isolation.

Stolen Magic has this kind of subplot, but most of my books have a simpler kind. Let’s take Ella Enchanted as an example. The main plot is Ella’s quest to rid herself of the curse of obedience. Her experiences with ogres would be a subplot. So would her run-ins with Hattie. Her father’s romance, if we can call it that, with Dame Olga would be. Even her relationship with Char would be. Ella, as the POV MC, is there for all of them, but they’re still subplots, which braid together to make trouble for Ella and to finally contribute to the story’s resolution.

I agree with Eliza. I’m on board with quick-developing romantic feelings, because I think they often arise this way. Electricity sizzles between two people, and they like each other, too. They’re both their best selves when they’re together, at least on the first few occasions.

If our story is a romance and we want it to be longer than five pages, we do need to slow it down. What are the possibilities? Can we bring in subplots?

Complications can be external or internal or both. Let’s call maybeawriter’s romantic duo Ginnie and Max, and the guy with delusions of super villainy Warren. And let’s imagine that Ginny and Max enjoyed each other so much on their first meeting that they agree to a repeat the next day at the local historical museum, because they’re both history buffs. Here are a few external events that might intervene:

Max’s mother is in a car accident. Things look dicey for her. Max is so involved, waiting in the emergency room with his dad and comforting his little sister, that he forgets the date. Ginny waits an hour for him with rising feelings of disappointment and anger.

Ginny discovers when she gets home that her father wants her to go fishing with him the next day. He rarely has time to spend with her and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. She calls Max and gets his voice mail. She leaves a message and also texts him. He doesn’t get back to her because he left his cell phone on the bus on his way home. He waits for her for an hour the next day. He’s worried, rather than angry, because he realizes she may have left him a message, and he thinks something may have happened to her.

One of them is in a car accident on the way to the museum.

Stuart, an old friend of Ginny’s shows up unexpectedly. She reaches Max, and he suggests the friend come along. He does, and his presence throws off the chemistry between Ginny and Max. By the end of the day neither is sure there ever was a spark.

Max is abducted by a ring of diamond smugglers, or he’s carried off by a hungry dragon.

Ginny falls, strikes her head, and has amnesia.

See if you can add three (or more!) more external interrupters to my list.

For internal forces we have to make decisions about these two. There are lots of possibilities. Here are a few:

Max is thorough. When he gets home he googles Ginny. He finds her Facebook page, where he learns about her hobbies, sees her friends. Thinking he’s just expressing interest, the next time he sees her he quizzes her on what he saw. She feels spied on.

Ginny is enthusiastic. When she gets home she texts Max to say what a great time she had and how she told her girlfriend what a great guy he is. Max is reserved and not sure he likes being discussed with Ginny’s friends.

Max tells his friend Jay about liking Ginny. Jay knows Ginny and opines that Max can do better. Ginny isn’t cool enough for him. Max, who cares far too much about the opinions of others, feels ashamed of his feelings for Ginny. His hesitation shows the next time they meet.

Ginny doesn’t trust her luck. She can’t believe how nice Max is, and she worries that he’s going to stop liking her, because great things just don’t happen to her. She works herself into such a state that she cancels the date, not wanting to be there when he loses interest.

There. Your turn to write down three or more internal obstacles.

Note that these delaying elements can give rise to subplots. For example, we can develop subplots involving the families of Max and Ginny. Likewise, one about a ring of diamond smugglers. Or a hungry dragon! On the internal side, the relationship with Jay can be a subplot. Or Ginny’s easily discouraged state of mind can be.

As for Warren, the character who misguidedly believes himself to be a super villain, I’d suggest some scenes that confirm his idea of himself and some that confound it. A friend can try to prove to him that he’s a decent person but he refutes the arguments, bolstering his opinion of himself. Another friend, who actually is evil, can act badly, and Warren finds himself angry with her. His friend Ginny can beg him for advice about her relationship with Max, and he tells her he’s too busy to help. After she leaves he feels awful, but he tells himself that he doesn’t have time for such a trivial thing as love. Then he goes to a store for equipment he needs for his YouTube filming, which will prove his badness. On the way, he’s the only witness to the car accident involving Max’s mom. He calls 911 and stays with her until the ambulance comes. Then he hurries off to complete his purchase, ignoring his contradictory actions.

Ginny can be a subplot in his story. So can the car accident and its aftermath. Also the other friend who tries to reason with him. And let’s not leave out the YouTube performance and what comes of it.

This post is full of prompts:

Write a story about Ginny and Max. Try several of my suggestions and your own for slowing down the momentum of their romance.

Write a story about the confused non-super villain Warren. Write the scene in which he makes his YouTube video. Write the scene of the car accident and the scene with Ginny.

Write a story or novel that combines Warren's confusion about himself with the romance between Ginny and Max.

Have fun, and save what you write!