Reviews & Writing

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whatcha Laughin’ at?

A brief, mostly pointless analysis of humour.

Jerry: Osgood, I'm gonna level with you. We can't get married at all.

Osgood: Why not?

Jerry: Well, in the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.

Osgood: Doesn't matter.

Jerry: I smoke! I smoke all the time!

Osgood: I don't care.

Jerry: Well, I have a terrible past. For three years now, I've been living with a saxophone player.

Osgood: I forgive you.

Jerry: I can never have children!

Osgood: We can adopt some.

Jerry: But you don't understand, Osgood!

[Pulls off wig]

Jerry: I'm a man!

Osgood: Well, nobody's perfect!
In the search for funny exchanges in the movies, the one at the end of “Some Like it Hot” is one of the first to come to mind. An ideal manifestation of humour, this back-and-forth between Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown was the punch line to the two-hour setup before it. Of course, taken out of context and translated to the page the joke will not nearly have the same effect, especially for those who didn’t find it funny to begin with (a small and cold-hearted demographic indeed). But this only further proves an important point about the paradoxical nature of humour: it’s both elusive and definitive.

Let me explain.

The Model 

To illustrate, imagine a bungling comedian telling an unfortunate joke in an overcrowded comedy club. Some people laugh but most sit unmoved. The former attest to the humour’s elusiveness; the latter prove its definitude.

Ever die of laughter?
The Explanation

The people who laugh must have discovered a hint of an amusing quality in the comedian’s words (unless they are kind souls providing pity laughs). Like beauty, humour is in the eye of the beholder, and also in the ears. Therefore, in its occupation of another sense, humour can be as sensual as beauty at the very least. No wonder girls like funny guys; or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

The other part of the audience, the ones silently annoyed at the comedian’s reference to airline peanuts, are, unbeknownst to them, demonstrating the second component of humour duality. After all, the comedy club, one of many, is busy for a reason. Those who do not laugh at this joke will have many opportunities later on; furthermore, they still comprise an audience with a collective fascination for observational stand-up. This is a tried-and-true, age-old style of comedy with similar and recurring themes. The implication here is that there must be something universally right about certain forms and deliveries of humour regardless of how it is individually received.

Yes, apparently, there are levels of difficulty.
The Definition

Humour is an ingredient in art, a component of expression, an essence of life. It is also somewhat difficult to define, at least by the traditional, unspoken Rules of Definitions, which are as follow: a definition must not employ the defined word in any of its forms to avoid circularity; it may not consist solely of a synonym or a near-synonym of the defined word; it must neither be too broad nor too narrow; and it may not use words more complex than the word to be defined. Together with the duality of humour, this complicates the quest for a definition, but it’s worth a shot.

Let’s try dissecting humour not based on what it is but by what it results in. If successful, humour usually elicits laughter. Frequently, laughter is called the best medicine; would that make humour, then, a medicinal source? On the other hand, physically, laughter is the audible constriction of the larynx by the epiglottis. This sounds more like a disease, which contradicts laughter’s pathological benefits. Perhaps the humour pill has side effects.

Does this still qualify as a smiley?
In all seriousness, there are some fundamental issues with defining humour through laughter. What if not everyone reacts the same way to a joke, as is rather common, like in the comedy club illustration? Or what if the reaction - nervous laughter, for instance - is not to something inherently funny? Furthermore, not all forms of humour require laughter; some simply require acknowledgment, especially jokes of the wry or dry variety.

Defining humour on its own merits is even more problematic, as it only results in larger metaphysical questions surrounding what is funny, and who is that judge of that, and usually ensues in a heated arguments that culminate with the line “Who are you to say otherwise?” Therefore, I’m going to take the easy way out (leave the water dry, so to speak), and say that humour is, simply, whatever one makes of it.

Oh well. It was worth a shot.

Or perhaps you’d like Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson’s idea of how to elicit laughter? In the documentary “Funny Business,” he claimed that one can be funny by behaving in an unusual way, by being in an unusual place, or by being the wrong size.

If we're being scientific, this tells all the jokes.
The Summary

In some instances, humour is misplaced; in others, it’s complementary. Sometimes it’s desired and sometimes it’s required. What would we be without some relief from the general seriousness of day-to-day life? A sense of humour and an opportunity to experience it is one of the few things some people have left. At its best, humour pleases us; at its worst it offends us. Some may criticize comedies or jokes about taboo or sombre subjects like war. Then what subjects should be acceptable and what should be off-limits? What are you laughing at? Answers will vary. After all, humour is in the eye and the ear and the mind of the beholder.

And nobody’s perfect. 

This scares me.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hammer or Stiletto?

Yes, this hammer is awesome. But it's not a good writing tool.
A Guest Post by the Ranting Griffin

Are you driving your point home with a hammer, or stiletto? Are you overindulging in the use of his, hers, and theirs? Yeah, them possessive pronoun-thingies.

I struggle daily with the over-utilization of his, hers and theirs. They choke the first draft, make it constipated, bloated with words that do nothing to further the tale.

In the end, I am left with a stinking pile I must reform, refine, pick the corn from, and make into something resembling a tale someone might wish to read (And even buy, perhaps? Please, pretty-please, God?).

Cutting the use of such words makes for leaner prose and makes me search for another, possibly better, way to say what I mean to convey. This can stimulate writing to new heights.

An Example:

He stepped into the cold, his jacket his shield against the elements.

Now, tighter:

He stepped into the cold, jacket a shield against the elements.

Now, the first use of 'his' we can do away with because the reader knows and understands we are only talking about one person. The second 'his' I slaughter simply because I can. Besides, 'a' is shorter than 'his', and shorter is often tighter!

Wolves and writing always coincide.

The wolves howled, their song unwinding along the valley floor, their warning to their enemies and their greeting to their friends.

Now, for the joyous slaughter:

The sound of wolves howling unwound along the valley floor, a warning to enemies and greeting to friends.

See, I removed all five of the 'theirs' in that original sentence. (Mind you, I was being extreme, putting all those theirs in there in the first place.) I even did away with an 'a' I might have used, just to show that meaning can be conveyed with fewer words. We already know we are talking about wolves, we don't need to be hammered in the head with the who or what.

A last, longer example of this:

Gerard was almost surprised by how well he fought, his blade flashing through the weak defense of his opponent with the ease his teachers had told him his training would provide.

The other man kept trying, though, his clumsy strikes easily parried away by Gerard's superior defense.

Eventually Gerard slipped in the bout-ending blow, his blade sliding past his guard and into the other man's belly.

This armor would have helped Broog.
Now, fixed, fast:

Gerard's blade flashed through the weak defense of his opponent, just as Broog told him it would every time they trained together.

The man was game though, and kept coming, clumsy strikes easily parried by Gerard's superior skills.

Eventually Gerard's sword slipped past the other man's guard and into his belly, ending the bout.

You may now say, "Wait a sec, he just used a his there!"

To which I reply, "Yup, sure did."

I did not, however, over-use the word. I do not use a hammer. I use a stabbing point, to penetrate, add value. The speed and flow of the narrative is preserved, without confusing things as to what belongs to whom.

You must have confidence that your writing will be understood without the crutch of identifiers and qualifiers, as such words can detract from the flow of the piece. This is especially important for action sequences and dialogue.

Stab this in the heart every time, and you'll be hammering out quality work in short order.

Stab your page with this for maximum results.
The Ranting Griffin:

Born in the seventies, lived in more than one country, more than one time. I speak more than one language. My day job with a major municipality involves guns, cuffs, writing reports, and criminals.

I have been an avid roleplayer most of my life, and it was writing for Twilight 2013, a 93 Games Studio product, that I was first published last year.  I've been writing novels for the last five years, I have an agent, and The Last Captain, my science fiction crime thriller/police procedural, is currently resting on a publisher's desk, ready to be read.  I don't claim to be a writing genius, I just know what worked for me in securing representation and those all important first publication credits.

Trust me. Griffin is awesome. Check out his equally impressive site: