July 1, 2010 / 6 Comments

Now THAT’S Comedy

Bonus points if you know this week’s historical pop-culture reference.

We’ve all got our own ideas for what’s funny. Mine may not match up with yours and yours may not match up with hers. I loved (500) Days of Summer, but I also love Super Troopers and reading some of Woody Allen’s old essays. On the flipside, I was never that impressed by the Wayans Brothers movies, Beavis & Butthead, or the Three Stooges. Yeah, I don’t know why, but the Stooges just never did it for me. Maybe I got a bad first impression somewhere along the way or something.

Comedy’s a tough thing to define or give lessons on because of this. A few noted funny people have pointed out this little truth– tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall down a hole and die. Several pros say it’s one of the hardest things to pull off. As such, it’s good to be highly skeptical of anyone offering you simple rules and guidelines on how to be funny, because odds are they’re either a scam artist trying to make a buck off you or some idiot rookie who doesn’t know anything.

So, that being said, here are a few rules and guidelines on how to be funny. Please don’t forget to shop the great Amazon links to the right and down below once you’re done reading them.

That made you chuckle, didn’t it? I knew it would, but I couldn’t really tell you how I knew. I’m sure I could write out a few long paragraphs about comic theory and contradictory information and a bunch of other useless stuff that wouldn’t really tell you anything but earned some guy tenure somewhere.

That would be a bit pointless, though, wouldn’t it? I don’t want to write it out, you don’t want to slog through it.

Let’s see if I can give you something a bit more solid to work with.

A quick story…

Who remembers Captain Kangaroo? I grew up on the show. And, awful as Bob Keeshan would find it, one of my firmest memories of Captain Kangaroo was abject terror.

I can’t remember all the details, but there was a Captain Kangaroo special that had the Captain and his friends out of the studio and off on some adventure. There was a story, a mystery, the whole deal. I want to say it was set in Australia for some reason. Anyway, during the course of it, Captain Kangaroo gets sealed in a big oil drum and placed on the back of a truck. Said oil drum bounces off the truck and begins to roll down the largest hill in the world (it may have been Mt. Kilimanjaro, a well-known Australian landmark). Every few moments it would hit a rock or bounce over something and the Captain would let out another pitiful wail or cry for help. After what seemed like about nineteen and a half hours, the oil drum came to rest at the bottom of the hill and his friends pulled the unharmed-but-dizzy Captain Kangaroo free to wobble around on shaky legs.

Horrifying. Thirty five years later and I can still hear his screams echoing inside that drum.

Why was it horrifying, though? I mean, the same kind of gag happened on Scooby-Doo on a pretty regular basis. Abbot and Costello did it once, if memory serves. I’ve seen it on The Simpsons a few times since then, too. Granted, I was a timid little kid, but what about this particular instance made it so scary?

The catch (and the focus of this week’s little rant) is the setting.

Television has the term “situational comedy” better known as a sitcom. It’s the idea that these people in this setting will be funny. Truth is, though, all comedy is situational. It depends on the audience and it depends on the setting. There are jokes I’d tell my friends that I wouldn’t tell my parents. It’s funny when Kenny from South Park falls in a microwave and dies, but it’s a bit cringe-inducing in Kick-Ass. And while it’s laughable when Shaggy and Scooby get rolled away in an oil drum, it’s nightmarish when the same thing happens to Captain Kangaroo.

(insert long, uncomfortable silence here)

Y’see, Timmy, certain types of comedy work in certain types of stories. Once you’ve established the tone of the story you’re telling, you’ve also established what kinds of comedy will work with it. You can’t swap jokes back and forth between different material with no problem. If I try to lift a gag from The Office and drop it into Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or maybe one of Eddie Izzard’s routines, it’s not going to work. On a similar note, you can’t swap funny characters back and forth, either. A writer can’t just add in a bit with a dog or a fart gag and expect that their story is funny now. Granted, Hollywood’s determined to prove me wrong on this, but so far the evidence is stacked in my favor.

In my opinion, this is one of the big tricks to being funny, and also the reason most attempts at comedy fail. Writers set up one type of world and then pepper it with a different style of humor that clashes with that world. It’s mismatched ideas and tone.

Okay, I know I said I wouldn’t talk about comic theory, but let me dip my toes in it just for a moment…

Comedy needs to be believable, by which I mean within the context of the given world or story. Just like a good mystery or most genre stories, the audience has to believe in the situation and the characters–again, within this context– in order to relate to it. Something unbelievable isn’t funny. It’s just odd and it usually gets a very different response then what was intended.

This is when “humorous” bits become aggravating or disgusting or even terrifying. They’re alien forms of comedy for the established world, so they aren’t seen as comedy. A slapstick gag is awkward and out of place in a serious dramatic story. Likewise, a touch of wry, understated British humor isn’t going to go over well in an episode of Jackass.

Which is also what happened to poor Captain Kangaroo. He existed in a world of storytime, simple lessons about friendship, and Mr. Greenjeans stopping by to visit. It was a world where the biggest threat he had to deal with is getting a shower of ping-pong balls. When he suddenly gets stuffed in a BP oil drum and rolled down Mt. Kilimanjaro, that’s breaking the rules of that world. It’s not supposed to happen and so it isn’t funny–it’s just a pleasant, grandfatherly man being subjected to a horrific experience.

Know what type of story you’re writing and make sure the tone and type of jokes match the world you’ve set up. I’m not saying following this rule makes all writing funny. I do, however, feel safe saying that not following it will stack the odds against a story. Consider it more a rule of thumb that you’re probably safer going along with than not.

(insert second long, uncomfortable silence here)

(wait for laughs)

(even longer silence)

Next time, I’d like to introduce you to my cat, Cheap Shot.

Until then, go write.

February 5, 2010 / 7 Comments

Being Punctual

Dellman, your nose was on time but you were fifteen minutes late.

Pop culture reference for old people.

So, I said way back at the beginning of the ranty blog that I wasn’t going to bother with the absolute basics. I was not going to discuss grammar, proper formatting, or page counts. These are the absolute basics of writing, the grade-school stuff. If you’re reading this, I’m going under the assumption you already know the correct way how to string a handful of words together into a coherent sentence.

All that being said, I’m going to take a moment to talk about three punctuation issues that are probably the most common ones that get misused, overused, or not used enough.

Apostrophes — I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but I’m going to bring it up again. The apostrophe has nothing to do with plurals. Nothing! Say it with me. No-thing. Using it for plurals will get your novel, script, or short story tossed almost immediately. You’ll get one pass on the off-chance it was a typo or fluke mistake. The second time your manuscript goes in the big pile in the left. It’s a sure-fire sign you haven’t mastered the basics of writing, so why should a reader go further? Would you trust a mechanic to rebuild your transmission when he’s baffled by how to check the oil?

On a similar note– its and it’s. If you don’t know the difference, stop writing query letters or downloading contest entry forms. You’re just wasting time and money. Know the difference between these two. It can’t be something you’re pretty sure of or something you can figure out. You have to know this. It should be unconscious and automatic.

The Exclamation Point This is an easy one, right? You use it for emphasis. Problem is, many beginning writers don’t know when to use emphasis. They think if this is an exciting moment or a loud moment or an important moment, it needs to be emphasized!

Of course, most of the moments in your story are important. If they weren’t, you probably would’ve cut them already, right? Which is why some people feel free to scatter exclamation points throughout their action scenes or their shouted dialogue or their urgent reveals.

This kind of ties back to something I said a while back about using cool lines in dialogue. If every line is cool, none of them stand out and the dialogue is monotonous. The same holds true here– the more things are emphasized, the fewer of them carry actual emphasis. An exclamation point needs to be applied with care and thought. Just because someone’s shouting they don’t necessarily need one. They’re also not required for all angry dialogue.

Personally, I try to think of them like adverbs. Use them, but use them sparingly, and more in dialogue than prose. I almost never use an exclamation point outside of dialogue. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I did. I think the last time I poked at a screenplay, I may have used two.

There’s a related point for screenwriters. In scripts it’s common to capitalize something in the action blocks that’s important. For example, the first time we see WAKKO, his name is capitalized so the reader understands without question that this is a new character. When, out of nowhere, Wakko suddenly STABS his partner, that gets emphasized to make sure the reader registers the abruptness of it. Same thing if Wakko finds A SMOKING GUN on the floor by a puddle of blood, we want to be sure the importance of this sight is noted.

A common rookie mistake, by the way, is to capitalize such things in dialogue. Capitals in dialogue blocks means someone is shouting, and few things look as silly or as bad as coming across a character talking with his friend about how much he’d like to ask PHOEBE out on a date.

Now, here’s the catch to this. Much like with the exclamation point, a writer has to know how often to use these capitals. If they start cropping up in every action block–even if it’s an action script–they have less and less power. After a while they aren’t an emphasizing, they’re distracting. Wakko stabbing his partner is unexpected and needs that extra emphasis. Wolverine or Jason Voorhees stabbing someone… not so much.

I read a nice little gangster script a year or so back that started grating because the screenwriter emphasized every single gunshot. Every time someone fired there was a BANG. I’d fire twice and there would be BANG-BANG. Then you shoot back at me BANG BANG BANG. I got you BANG but there’s another guy up on the landing shooting down at me BANG BANG. Stay down, I’ll draw his fire. BANG BANG BANG. He shoots back BANG BANG…

As you can see, this gets old really fast. Can you imagine the lobby scene in The Matrix if that script was written this way?

Choose your emphasis the way you would choose your battles.

By the way, one last point. The all-caps thing was much more common in the past. If you’re seeing it in a lot of old scripts (or hearing it as advice from a lot of old gurus), just be aware that it’s no longer the convention, and hasn’t been for almost two decades now.

The Oxford Comma— This last one will be a sticky point and I’m sure it will get the comments section flowing. Debate over the use of the serial comma, also popularly known as the Oxford comma, has started two wars since Magna Carta, and countless minor skirmishes. They teach it in school, but most modern publications in America make a point of not using it. Oddly enough, I hear it’s the exact opposite in Great Britain, where they teach kids not to use it, but journalists insist on it.

I am of the school that you should use one. As a writer, my job is clarity, and while less punctuation might make my work feel like a slightly faster read, it also makes it less clear.

Here’s a great example of why you need an Oxford comma.

“Let’s split up. Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne and Velma, pick a door and see where it leads.”

How many groups did those meddling kids just split up into, three or four? Would you be caught off guard when, in the next chapter, you found Daphne alone? Or when you find her with Velma? You’ve probably heard of the apocryphal legal battles that result from wills written this way, when the inheritance is supposed to be split evenly between Tom, Dick and Harry. Does it get split two ways or three?

Here’s another one.

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Either this author has a spectacular lineage or he dropped a comma he really shouldn’t have. Is the existing comma separating items in a list? Or is it an implied breath, a pause replacing the understood words who are named in that sentence? In this case, we’re probably safe saying Ayn Rand and God are not the author’s parents. But suppose it was my book and I had this.

I dedicate this book to my parents, David and Colleen.

Is it still so clear? It is to me. My parents supported and encouraged me, my friend David offered a great deal of fantastic editorial advice, and Colleen is the love of my life. How could this dedication possibly be misunderstood?

This is my main argument for using the Oxford comma. Y’see Timmy, there aren’t any optional rules in grammar. There isn’t a single punctuation mark where the rule is “use it if you think you need it.” Either the mark goes there or it doesn’t. Since we can come up with solid examples where the comma must be there for clarity, but there aren’t any examples where it can’t be there without causing confusion (I’ve yet to see one, at least), you have to go with using it.

Now, because it is a hotly debated matter, let me say this…

If you are absolutely, 100%, stake-your-life-on-it sure that the sentence could not in a million years ever be interpreted another way if that comma wasn’t there…

…and you are entirely, with the sum of all your being convinced that having the comma there utterly destroys the flow of your sentence to the point its meaning is lost…

…then, and only then, should you feel free not to include it.

By the way, if a particular editor (who wants to buy your work) chooses to remove the Oxford comma, that’s their prerogative. Don’t argue with them. It doesn’t mean they’re right, but they’re paying you after all. Heck, the magazine I write for tends to remove them.

And I continue to use them.

Next week it’ll almost be Valentine’s Day. So we could talk about love and feelings and relationships. Or we could skip straight to the sex. Which do you think will get more readers?

While you ponder that, go write.

So, enough with the ranting about only-loosely-writing-related matters. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

A few weeks back I went on about some of the tricks to writing a solid mystery. Today I’d like to talk about mystery’s fraternal twin– the twist.

I say fraternal twin because they look a lot alike at first glance, and share a similar DNA. It’s not uncommon for a mystery to have a solution that’s a bit of a twist. A good twist may also result in a few minor mysteries. They’re two very separate things, though, and each can exist without the other.

A correctly done twist makes a reader say something out loud (what depends on your own personal favorite interjective). It sucks all the air out of the theater as the audience takes one huge, collective sharp breath.

That’s also why it’s always apparent when a writer can’t tell the difference between the two and is using them incorrectly. Which happens far too often, in my experience. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that confuse a mystery with a twist, and a twist with someone going “HAH!!” really loud for no reason. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, or how to do them, things can get ugly (and confusing, and pointless) very fast.

So, let’s stand the two of them next to each other and take a look.

As hinted at before, a mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece (or pieces) of information has been hidden or kept from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who murdered Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe? How did the killer get out of this locked room? What the heck does “Rosebud” mean? How did that ancient mummy come to life, and why is it so eager to get that old coin? At its simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

A twist, on the other hand, is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. When a twist appears, it comes from out of the blue, a complete surprise to everyone. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.

That’s part two of a correctly-done twist. It’s very relevant to the story. The fact that I have a mother and father is not really a twist. Neither is the fact that I grew up within a mile of a large amusement park, nor that I like Doctor Who. They are revealed information, yes, but that doesn’t make them twists. This newly revealed information should not only affect everything that happens from here on in, it should also make the audience look back at everything that’s already occurred in a new light. As the term implies, it should twist how they see things. Stories and novels with a well-done twist are great to read a second time because all those earlier chapters take on a different meaning. The same goes for re-watching films that have a great twist in them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is the usual example of a story with a great twist. While it does meet every one of these criteria, for my personal taste, that twist happens too far into the story. That’s just me, but I’m the one writing this so I get to pull rank. I personally prefer the wonderfully theater-vacuum-creating Dead Again, by genius screenwriter Scott Frank and starring/ directed by Kenneth Branagh. I’m about to spoil it for you to give examples, so if you haven’t seen it you probably want to stop reading. Seriously. Just go watch it first, because it’s a phenomenal story and the reveals will make you scream.

So, two parts for a successful twist—

First, the audience doesn’t know the information is being withheld. In Dead Again, neither Mike Church (Branagh) nor the audience have any reason to wonder who Madson was as a child, so they don’t. I mean, he was just a young version of himself, right, like everyone else was?

Second, the twist changes everything. Once we know little Frankie and Madson are one and the same, every scene takes on a new light. His eagerness to help. The attempts to seperate Mike and Grace. The history of the antique scissors. Watching Dead Again the second time makes for an entirely different movie than the first time you see it.

If you’ve put a twist in your writing, just check and see if it meets these two simple requirements. It’s withheld information the character and the audience are completely unaware of. It’s also a relevant fact (or facts) that changes their perspective of all the story elements that have passed and alters the flow of the story with its reveal.

Two step process. Nice and easy. Feel free to take it on a test drive.

Next week, some important tips from this Nigerian prince who just contacted me. Until then, get back to writing.

December 16, 2008 / 2 Comments

It’s Mister Haversham, the Carnival Owner!!!

Most everyone loves a good mystery. Some people like having the puzzle to solve as the clues are doled out one by one, or perhaps as it becomes apparent they were sitting out in the open all along. Other folks love getting the big twist they should’ve seen coming, but the writer managed to slip it past them. Solving mysteries makes people feel clever, a good part of the reason this storytelling form has survived for well over a century.

A great example of the mystery story and structure is Scooby-Doo. No, seriously. In the classic series, it wasn’t unusual for Scooby, Shaggy and their pals (anyone mentioning a much later “puppy power” add-on to the cast will be banned from this blog) to go off somewhere and encounter a ghost, a haunted deep-sea diving suit, or even a reanimated mummy seeking its magical coin. However, as the story progressed, clues would be found, motives revealed, and what seemed eerie and impossible at first began to look more mundane and plausible. In the end, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to finally find out the reanimated mummy was really Doctor Najib in a costume, trying to steal the coin so he could sell it to a collector.

That’s the point of a good mystery. When all the pieces fall into place and everything makes sense. Readers (and agents and editors) love that beautiful moment when all the clues line up and they can look back over the story and say “Ahhhhhhh… I see.”

Now, here’s the one real catch, in case you missed it. Just having someone speak cryptically doesn’t cut it. Neither does deliberately withholding a ton of information from the audience. Nor do piles of weird occurrences or clues which don’t seem to mean anything but your characters treat like the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. If you want your story to have that cool, odd air of mystery that makes people wonder and question and remember your story…

Well, you need to actually have a mystery.

A fairly common flaw I see is writers trying to convince readers there’s a mystery going on in their story. They don’t actually have one, mind you, but they know Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie became famous with them, plus shows like LOST and movies like The Prestige got people talking. So these writers will have an aloof man in a trench coat who drops one-line, indecipherable comments. An unusual reference that keeps cropping up again and again throughout the story. Sometimes (wooden as it sounds) just a character who keeps repeating lines like “What does that mean?” or “Who are you?” or “I don’t understand!”

Again, there’s no actual puzzle, just the implication there’s one the reader can’t see. The best sign of this is that nothing is ever solved or revealed—the story is just an ongoing series of empty, random events attempting to evoke a sense of mystery.

There needs to be something behind the words on the page, even if it’s something your readers don’t immediately get to see. When Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby find that smear of white paint on the wall, they and the audience all need to believe this is something important and not just a randomly inserted MacGuffin the writer stuck in to fill a few script pages. As the writer, you need to know what that smear of white paint means long before those meddling kids even see it.

In my oft-referred-to work The Suffering Map, the character of Bareback often talks in a deliberately vague, roundabout way. He also subtly displays a knowledge of future events. When the full workings and history of the Polynecronious Transporter are explained, Bareback’s prescience suddenly has an eerie logic behind it, and his earlier, obtuse way of speaking now makes sense. It’s a mystery, but it’s a real mystery.

What you want, as a writer, is to be a magician rather than a con artist. The magician shows you empty boxes and hats, a cage full of rabbits and a deck of cards. Then he or she does something amazing with it and you know they’ve done something amazing. Maybe you even have a vague sense of how it was done, even if not a complete understanding. You’re left feeling thrilled and excited.

The con artist, though… when he or she shows you those empty boxes it’s for a very different reason. It’s because they don’t really have a trick, and they’re hoping they’ll never have to show you something in the box. They’ll just take your money and you’ll be left standing there waiting for something to happen. They’re the ones who know the truth of what’s going on will just annoy their audience.

It sounds silly, but if you want your story to have a mystery, then it needs to have a mystery. It has to be smart. It has to be hidden for a reason within the story. It actually has to mean something.

If it isn’t… you’re just another con artist.

And we all knew what happened to the con artist at the end of Scooby-Doo.