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Writing Funny: Themes and Riffs

June 1, 2013

This is a new segment on my blog which I call ‘Writing Funny’. It turns out that I have a lot to talk about when it comes to writing humour, and I’d love to get it out there for others to read. I haven’t settled with a schedule yet, but we’ll see how it goes.

Before you read on to this short lesson on writing humour, a disclaimer:

I am by no means a super-established author! I, like many others, am still trying to build my empire. As such, I cannot claim that my tricks are The Truth, The One True Way, or The One Magic Bullet (nor can I claim any of the above even exist). This article is intended to be used to help people if they want to write humour; this is, by no means, intended to demand people to write a specific way. I will not think less of you if you drop this entire article and forget you even read it!

Sorry about that.

Today, I want to share my process in writing a short or flash fiction. It works with bigger pieces too, but works best when condensed as much as possible.

There are two elements to my humour writing: the theme, and the riffs.

Have you ever had a funny conversation with a friend? (If you say no, I’m so very sorry.) How do they usually go? For me, it begins with a “wouldn’t it be funny if…” statement, that drags into a funny idea. For example, “wouldn’t it be funny if a death metal enthusiast went into work at a call centre?”. Everyone has a chortle, but the joke isn’t done yet. One friend pipes up, doing a small roleplay of someone ringing up to get tech support on their faulty router, only to be told to turn it off, turn it on again, and then spill the blood of the innocent on it until it surrenders to your might. Another might do a wicked death-metal styled scream of “YOUR CALL IS VERY IMPORTANT TO UUUUUUUSSS” and cause everyone to roll around laughing.

This is, generally, how I start an idea for a story.

First, let’s dissect the above example into its theme and riffs. The theme is “wouldn’t it be funny if a death metal enthusiast went into work at a call centre?”. The riffs are the blood on the router and the screaming down the microphone to the caller. The theme is the general core of the idea, the funny thought in its raw, unrefined form. The riffs are when that general idea is then put into practice, deriving further humour from the outcomes of the theme.

This works great when writing a story. When you write a funny story, the theme usually isn’t quite enough to carry the story past the 100-word mark. In fact, “wouldn’t it be funny if a death metal enthusiast went into work at a call centre?” is pretty much the entire story if you use just the theme. If you have a funny concept like this pop into your head (or is currently buzzing inside!) grab hold of it and try to spin off as many riffs as you can, as the riffs themselves are usually what makes a funny story both humorous and content-rich. Put yourself in the shoes of all people involved in the theme. For the above example, pretend you’re a metalhead on the phone at a boring desk job, AND pretend you’re the caller. What kind of things would you, the metalhead, say to people to screw with their minds? What kind of things would you, the caller, would make you feel weirded out or even mildly scared? What would enrage you?

So, after the riffs are made, what do we do with them?

Simple. Every story has a POV —  the character telling or experiencing the story. Choose which POV you think you can riff off the best — for me, I’d pick the caller, as it’s a good anchor point to the reader’s real experiences with tech support. Choosing the metalhead is also very valid; you can show off a lot of his weird traits, even show him harassing the other people working at the call centre.

Now that you have your POV, you can mess about with your riff and theme structure.

In my humour stories, there’s usually one character who is discovering the theme for themselves. They come into the situation thinking it’d go a certain way, only for the theme to present itself, throwing a spanner in the works. In the above example, the caller is expecting a nice man to help them through the steps, and instead gets our heavy metal enthusiast. During the call, the caller will find out that the person he’s talking to is not exactly kosher, and is actually a metalhead. This moment in the story is the discovery of the theme, where the seed of an idea (“wouldn’t it be funny if a death metal enthusiast went into work at a call centre?”) becomes apparent to the character you’ve chosen. Working off of this, you can then assign the riffs that you made as pre-discovery and post-discovery riffs, depending on if the riff in question happens before or after the character discovers the theme.

With our caller, a pre-discovery riff is when they phone up the call centre. They hear the click of the phone, and then a deep guttural voice say “MY NAME IS INCENDIO, LORD OF FIRE. HOW CAN I TAKE YOUR CAAAALL?”. The caller doesn’t yet know the theme — that the call centre worker is a death metal fan — so they act accordingly. They might ask stuff like “Is everything alright?”, or they might choose to soldier on and ask about the problem they’re having with their router, which only lands them into more confusion. All these riffs are pre-discovery, as the caller doesn’t yet know about the metalhead.

post-discovery riff is when the character discovers what the theme is (either by self-deduction or someone telling them), and acts accordingly. In the above example, the caller might be asking stuff like “Who on earth hired someone like you to take calls?” (“Satan, Lord of Hell, slayer of the non-believers. Basically, my boss”). They’re trying to grapple with the reality presented to them, but they’ll almost always lose to the absolute silliness going on.

When broken down like this, you can see an easy structure. Laden on the pre-discovery riffs, reveal the theme, and then deliver the post-discovery riffs. Try to structure the riffs so that it flows like a natural conversation, and make sure to keep your character’s emotions flowing as well. Have people get more and more angry, scared, or mischievous, and filter the riffs through that emotion.

If you can have it so that the reader is also discovering the theme as they read along, this is great! While you can reveal the theme to the person reading it and then have a character discover it for themselves, keeping the reader as confused as the character and sharing the epiphany between the two of them makes for some really great stories.

Also, you might note that some ideas are pure pre- and post-discovery. Tower Troubles is pure post-discovery, with the reader and the main character discovering the theme as soon as possible. Most of the riffs were based on the fact that there’s such a job as a dragon-keeper for maidens in towers, and plays on a few zookeeper/pet enthusiast tropes as riffs.

One great pre-discovery example is the Morny Stannit sketch by Morecombe and Wise. The theme in this skit is “what if the butchered English that newspaper salesmen sometimes say is actually the name of the paper?”, and the discovery is made in the last few seconds of the clip. While there is room for post-discovery riffs (“Why is it called Morny Stannit?” “Saves on ink”) the joke works well (or better!) without them.

So, the next time you have a funny theme roll into your head, play the roles of the characters within it. Think of how they’re mystified by the theme, how they discover it, and how they react to the discovery. Who knows — it might just be your next work in progress!

Most of all, though, have fun. The key to writing a funny piece is to tickle yourself with your own work before anyone else reads it. If you’re not having fun, up the ante and the silliness until it becomes highly amusing to write!

From → Writing Funny

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