19 October 2009

Spec Fic Tools III: Humor

The Electric Spec editors are feverishly at work putting together the new Oct 13, 2009 issue. It looks excellent. This time around, I'm lucky enough to edit two humorous stories which makes me think...

One tool in the spec fic author's toolbox can be humor. Terry Pratchett has mastered humorous writing. Let's examine how he does it by looking at one of his books, Monstrous Regiment (MR), as an example.

Humor is based on the unexpected. As it says in How to Write Funny (HtWF) "…people laugh at two things: surprise and misfortune. We laugh in surprise at the union of two things that don't fit together…"(HtWF p36) Pratchett clearly realized this when he concluded the Borogravian National Anthem with "The new day is a great big fish!" (MR p11)

General comic elements include repetition, switches, exaggeration, extremes, indecision, convention suspension and wordplay. Pratchett makes use of many of these elements. For example, "A woman always has half an onion left over, no matter what the size of the onion, the dish, or the woman." (MR p132) is an example of convention suspension.

Let's focus further on literary humor. Award-winning speculative fiction author Connie Willis says the two most important techniques of humorous writing are exaggeration and understatement. (HtWF pp61-63) Pratchett makes excellent use of these tools. Specifically,
"The pigeon thought: 000000000. But had it been more capable of coherent thought, and knew something about how birds of prey catch pigeons,*And allowing for the fact that all pigeons who know how birds of prey catch pigeons are dead, and therefore capable of slightly less thought than a living pigeon." (MR pp115-116) is a wonderful example of understatement.

In fact, Pratchett is master at understatement: "'…we appear to have zombies in the lower crypts. Dreadful things…' 'Really? What are they doing now?' Clarence raised his eyebrows. 'Lurching, sir, I think. Groaning. Zombie things. Something seems to have stirred them up.' " (MR p13)

Pratchett often combines exaggeration and understatement together as with The Book of Nuggan:

"It's what they call a Living Testament…"

"This is a holy book with an appendix?"

"Exactly, sir."

"In a ring binder?"

"Quite so, sir. People put blank pages in and the Abominations …turn up." (MR pp15-16)

These abominations include: chocolate, garlic, cats, dwarfs, the color blue, oysters, babies, barking dogs, shirts with six buttons, and cheese.And a little later, Pratchett writes:"'Nuggan, sir…um…is rather…tetchy,' he managed. 'Tetchy?' said Vimes. 'A tetchy god? What, he complains about the noise their kids make? Objects to loud music after nine P.M.?' (MR p16)

According to David Bouchier "A Funny Character is a Caricature.
Funny characters are unusual, strange, odd, perhaps obnoxious and always extreme." (HtWF p23) Montrous Regiment is chock full of humorous characters, from plucky Polly Perk, determined to find her brother, to gruff macho Sergeant Jackrum to their effeminate fear-ful leader Lieutenant Blouse.

In fact, literary humor begins with an author's voice as Jennifer Crusie writes, "Humor in fiction is based in voice, which is why humor is so different from writer to writer and why a strong voice is essential in writing comic fiction." (HtWF p46). Pratchett definitely has a unique and humorous voice. For example, Pratchett writes, "Forget you were ever Polly. Think young male, that was the thing. Fart loudly and with self-satisfaction at a job well done, walk like a puppet that'd had a couple of random strings cut, never hug anyone, and, if you meet a friend, punch them." (MR p3)

Prattchet also utilizes exaggerated or unlikely comparisons in metaphors and similes, e.g. "…but Igor had to be a boy, with those stitches around the head, and that face that could only be called homely. …And even then it was the kind of home that has a burned-out vehicle on the lawn." (MR p138)

Humor in speculative fiction obeys these same rules and has a few extra tools at its disposal. In "Take My Wizard...Please!" Esther M. Friesner advises humorous speculative fiction authors to "Upset the Reader's Expectations". She claims speculative fiction includes "…easily recognizable types…the wizard, the witch, the dragon… When the reader encounters one of these types, certain expectations click into place…The writer of funny Spec Fic often operates by taking these reader expectations and setting them on ear."(HtWF p76) Pratchett makes good use of this idea, namely, the so-called soldiers in Blouse's regiment do not behave as typical soldiers (with good reason).

In conclusion, in Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett has created a humorous, imaginative and unconventional world by utilizing a variety of comedic tools. Kudos, Terry.


Pratchett, Terry, Monstrous Regiment, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Kachuba, John B., Ed., How to Write Funny, Writer's Digest Books, 2001.


Deb Smythe said...

I'm working on a humorous short right now. So this is timely. Thanks!

writtenwyrdd said...

I can do snarky, but I don't think I've come close to mastering humorous. So this is really helpful.

lesleylsmith said...

Thanks, Deb and writtenwyrdd. :)

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