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Working the Humor Scale

16 January 2015 | 1 Comment » | Frank Morin

BobOne aspect of character that can be hard to pin down is: How funny should they be?

Most of us aren’t comedy writers. We write fantasy or science fiction or horror or (input genre), but that doesn’t mean humor doesn’t have a place in our stories.

People draw upon their sense of humor in real life, even in dire circumstances. It helps relieve tension and to cope. We don’t need to become the next Terry Pratchett, but sometimes a little humor is the best way to deal with the difficult situations we’re bound to drop our characters into.

Everyone loves a sense of humor. Does our character have one?

Humor has a scale, just like all the other attributes we’re defining for our characters, just as important as their fighting skills, how much they love their mother, and whether they respond to small animals by wanting to pet them or to eat them. We just don’t think about it that way as often.

So I’ve designed a Humor Scale to demonstrate the types of humor we can assign to our characters.

  • Slapstick (10) – Pure comedy. Take some ibuprofen because your stomach’s going to hurt from laughing so hard.
  • Comic Relief (8) – Usually not your main protagonist. These are the side-kicks that we love to laugh at.
  • Deadpan/dry (7) – They say funny things, but in a serious way.
  • Comedy Villains (7) – They’re bad guys, but they make us laugh instead of scaring us.
  • Wisecrack (6) – Always have a comeback, a great one-liner, no matter how dire the situation.
  • Sassy (5) – Cheeky, and full of spirit. Often get into trouble as a result.
  • Snark (4) – Sarcastic, snide.
  • Gallows humor (3) – The more dangerous one’s job, the more refined their gallows humor. Think of the group of crucified criminals in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian singing, “Always look on the bright side of life.”
  • No humor (0) – These are often your serious villains who burned all humor out of their system.
  • Comedic villain (0) – They’re the bad guy, but they think evil is funny. Their sick humor either demonstrates a lack of understanding of the gravity of what they’re doing, or proves they’re insane.

Here’s the Humor Scale in graph form, with examples to illustrate each category.

Humor Scale

 

We can apply the various categories in all kinds of situations. Some examples include:

  • Jokes. These can be woven in just about anywhere.
  • Situational humor. The entire scene is inherently funny (your super-buff warrior hero is stuck in a cupcake bake-off against the evil overlord)
  • Dialogue. Great place for wisecracks, snark, sass, and gallows humor.
  • A funny outlook on life. Either irreverent, bizarre, or just a little bit off. Any of these can produce humorous situations and dialogue. Something funny, and yet totally in character.
  • And of course, slapstick lies in a realm all its own. This is pure comedy. Some characters just have to fall down and break things wherever they go.

In all of these instances, there are commonalities. Surprise is the secret to humor, and usually there’s some kind of set-up, then the punch-line that adds the surprise, the twist, generating the laugh.

Humor often pushes things to the extreme. Think the intro to Captain Jack Sparrow. Standing atop the mast of his ship is a great epic image. Then comes the comedic twist when we learn it’s really a small boat and he’s standing atop the mast because the ship is sinking out from under him.

So let’s talk specific application.

When I first started writing, I included only a little humor in my stories. Even the first drafts of my YA fantasy story, Set in Stone, remained too serious. With some self reflection and encouragement from family, I decided the story needed humor to work. So I rewrote 80% of the novel, making dramatic changes to the plot structure and how I approached it. I ratcheted up the humor while still maintaining an epic feel to the story. It was my first foray into humor-laden fantasy, and response from beta readers is overwhelmingly positive. The novel will be released this spring.

With my urban fantasy novels, I toned down the humor, but I’ve been experimenting with sliding characters along the humor scale, depending on which effect I’m looking for.

It’s not as hard as I first feared. Humor isn’t the story. It’s just another layer, and you can shift characters along the humor scale pretty easily once you determine what effect you’re looking for.

In a recent editing pass over an epic fantasy novel, I decided to shift the protagonist a couple of notches up the scale. So I mixed in a little snark and dry humor, which helped him come across as more experienced, more resilient, and less emotional. The story as a whole is unchanged, but his outlook on life, and his responses to some of the crazy events he’s experiencing works so much better.

Luke SkywalkerIn essence, I shifted him away from the Luke Skywalker end of the scale and more toward Han Solo. Luke is young, idealistic, and inexperienced while Han is tough, world-wise, and irreverent. They’re both heroes, but they approach life and trials differently. I applied a little of Han’s unflappable attitude and great one-liners.

In The Empire Strikes Back, after losing his hand and learning the evil overlord of the universe was his father, Luke’s response always seemed more whiny than heroic:

“Nooooooo! I’ll never rule the universe with you.”

My character had reacted more like that. Now he could now respond more like Han Solo who, after being tortured, just said, “I feel terrible.”

Or who snapped, “Never tell me the odds,” when flying into an asteroid belt.Han Solo

Or, when Leia confessed she loved him just prior to his getting frozen in carbonite, he glibly replied, “I know.”

Another example of the effect of the Humor Scale decision is comparing Battlestar Galactica to Firefly. Both have spaceships, fighting, life-and-death situations but, where Firefly is enhanced by the humor woven into it – making it a cowboys in space adventure – Battlestar Galactica was left very straight-laced – a little too much so in my opinion.

So play with this layer. After writing your story and making sure all the other elements are in place, check where each character falls on the Humor Scale, and where that takes your story as a whole. Then decide if that’s where you want it. Perhaps poll some early readers and discuss if the story would benefit from either more or less humor.

Tweak accordingly, and have fun with it.

* * * *

Here are a few humor-related links you might be interested in:

Scott Adam’s Dilbert blog, where he talks about writing humor.

The Writer’s Dig by Brian Klems – Another good blog post, with links to other articles.

Tabloid Reporter to the Stars – This is a short story recommended to me as an example of one that successfully added humor. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to.

Love it. Do it.

25 December 2014 | 1 Comment » | Frank Morin

Do What you loveMerry Christmas!

This is my favorite time of year. I love Christmas and everything it stands for. It is a time of good cheer, family, and giving, regardless of religious belief. I am religious, so I celebrate that part too.

It struck me this week that Santa represents one of the best examples of someone making a crazy career choice and turning it into a successful, long-term enterprise. Many people regard writers in the same not-quite-connected-to-reality category as Santa Clause. And when we first start out, it can be hard to see past the detractors and the naysayers and keep pursuing a passion that has absolutely no promise of producing any financial return.

I’m a perfect case in point. I’ve been writing for almost ten years, and my expense-to-income ratio so far is so lopsided, it’s laughable. And yet here I am, still writing.

I love it.

I love stories. I love consuming them in every form, and I love creating them. Not only do I love to write, but I’ve set ever-challenging goals to drive myself along this writing path. It may be a long road, but it’s a road I’m happy to travel.

I’m not the only one who believes that working at what we love is the best possible work choice.

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Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.

~Ray Bradbury

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There is no scarcity of opportunity to make a living at what you love; there’s only scarcity of resolve to make it happen.

~Wayne Dyer

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If you are not doing what you love, you are wasting your time.

~Billy Joel

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2014 was a banner year for me. I set extremely high goals, and succeeded at many of them. But what really made the year was that I managed to work more hours writing than I did at my consulting job. I’ve been working toward this milestone for years, but I reached it almost without noticing. I was so busy writing and doing, that I didn’t pause to reflect until I had already made the shift in my schedule.

The purely pragmatic side of me admits to nervousness as I allow my consulting business to trend downward to make more room in my life for writing. My computer work is still how I pay the bills and support my family, and it’s a job I really enjoy. However, I LOVE storytelling. Despite long success in computer-related fields, I made the choice to move toward writing as a full-time career. It’s taken a very long time to get to this point, but to me it’s worth the effort.

Loving this work means I Work at it. This year, I completed three new novels (I set the goal to complete four), along with a lot of other work, including a frantic juggling act preparing novels for a fast-approaching publishing blitz.

2015 will be even bigger. Eight novels published in eight months is the goal, and I’m doing everything in my power to reach it.

I love writing.

So I’ll work harder at this job than any other.

Do what you love. Commit to it and let nothing stop you or convince you that you can’t.

It may take a while, but the time’s going to pass anyway. Why not use it working toward a goal that means something to you?

Don’t Break Your Promises

26 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | Frank Morin

Break PromisesAs authors, we make lots of promises to our readers. What genre is this book? Is it going to be a fast-paced adventure or a slow, character-focused drama? Is it funny, horrific, or simply entertaining? We set the tone in the opening of the book and the reader picks up on those hints and sets certain expectations for what to expect.

Betraying those expectations shatters a reader’s bond with a story and leaves an angry residue, no matter how good other aspects of the story might have been. This happens both in books and in movies. Sometimes false expectations are set in movie trailers or book jackets as a marketing ploy to suck in a wider audience, but any short-term gains will be lost in the long run as people realize the trick.

One movie that did this to me was Cowboys vs Aliens. The trailer made it look like an action comedy and I entered the theater with that expectation. Some parts of the story were well done, but I kept waiting for the punchline that never came. It wasn’t an action comedy. It was more like an action horror movie. Despite some quality acting and a halfway decent plotline, I left the theater feeling betrayed.

Another movie tried the same ploy. The trailer showed a hilarious scene that made it clear, this movie was a comedy. It wasn’t. It was a terrible flick with no redeeming qualities. Unlike some of those dumb comedies I remember fondly only because they made me laugh, this one was just dumb. Another betrayal.

Books are worse though, because we invest so much more time in them. A couple examples jump to mind. One novel, by a well-known author, started as a very interesting fantasy adventure with high stakes and a hero in deep trouble. I read on, drawn by the intrigue of how this hero could ever escape the predicament. I was looking forward to being amazed by the character’s wit and cleverness in escaping certain death.

What a huge disappointment when the climactic showdown resolve itself without any of that. The ‘magic’ saved them, the same magic that had been blocked in a thoroughly explained way that prevented it from coming to the rescue. The lame excuse offered by the author was that the hero just figured it out and boom – the magic solved all their issues.

I’m a fan of great magic systems. I read and write all types of fantasy, so magic is an integral part of many stories I love. But this was a cop-out, a deception, a betrayal of the contract the author made with me as a reader. Since then, I only ever started one other book by that author. In that one too, I picked up on a different deception. I put that book down unfinished, and that author lost me as a reader forever.

Is that harsh? Maybe. But it’s reality.

When we set expectations, we have to fulfill them. We can’t take the easy way out. If we set up our heroes with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, we’d better have an equally awesome solution. The hero has to figure it out, often in a split-second flash of understanding as they put all the pieces together we’ve worked into the script. We have as long as we need to figure it out and craft that moment so that readers exclaim in wonder at the hero’s creativity and then think, “Yeah, I can see how they figured that out, but that’s clever. I get it now.”

If we can do that, we’ve got a winner and readers will come back to us again and again.

Because they know they can trust us to entertain.

Not Another Edit!

13 October 2014 | 2 Comments » | Frank Morin

EditsMost non-writers, and many new writers, have no idea that finishing that manuscript and typing END is anything but the end. I know when I started writing, I couldn’t see beyond reaching that final scene. Of course, that first novel was a 300,000 word monstrosity that took me over two years to complete, but the principle is universal.

The first draft is not the final draft.

That truth is even more daunting when we consider how few wannabe writers actually reach the end of their first draft. Of those who do, many lack the determination to see the project to its full completion.

It’s easy to assume the tragic artiste pose and proclaim in an awful imitation of an accent from some European country, “This is my Art and the muse must be honored. The words were given to me like this for a reason.”

Not if you want to sell it and actually have someone read it.

This becomes the dividing line between those who like dabbling in writing as an enjoyable hobby and those who are serious about becoming a Writer as a career.

Some first drafts are pretty good, but pretty good isn’t enough. Every successful author I know recognizes they will need to make several editing passes through each novel before it’s ready. One of the reasons we’re encouraged to write what we love is because if we don’t LOVE our stories enough to work through them at least half a dozen times, we’re going to HATE them before the process is complete.

Many new authors don’t understand this and unfortunately in today’s ebook world, it’s all too easy to complete that first draft and throw the book right up on Amazon.

I for one have read some of those stories. After wading through the piles of novels that make me cringe when I look at the cover or read the first page, I’ve selected one that looked like it had real promise. Many times those ebooks turn out to be pretty decent, maybe have a great concept and tons of potential, but where the author wasn’t patient enough to really finish the work.

I find it tragic when I complete an ebook like that. When I think, “You know, that could have been a really good book. But it was only about 90% finished and needed more polishing.”

What a waste.

Not only of my time, but of the author’s time. They worked so hard bringing that novel to life, only to not put in the effort to get it that last 10%. It’s like Frankenstein stitching together the perfect monster only to not bother raising it up on the platform during the lightning storm. That last 10% is what infuses the story with it’s real life.

That’s one of my fears: that my novels won’t be ready.

I cringe when I think back to my first monstrous novel. With how little I knew about the industry, about editing, I was convinced it was a great work and totally ready to go. Had the ebook revolution already been underway, I probably would have self-published it.

I would have destroyed that story.

I’m glad I didn’t have that option and that the dozens of rejection letters finally clued me in that there was something missing. I’ve since thrown that novel away and rebuilt it from the ground up. The resulting story is ten times better and is one of the eight books I’m preparing for publication in my upcoming “Eight Books in Eight Months” publishing blitz.

Before I pull the trigger on those novels though, I’ve dedicated the time to rewrites, I’ve gathered honest feedback from beta readers, and I’ve worked with professional editors (including Joshua Essoe and Evan Braun) to make sure they’re really ready.

Even so, I still have to wonder, are they really?

This time I feel a lot more justified in saying, “Yes.”

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