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Writing Funny: More from the Muse

June 27, 2013

Quick! Think of a race of humanoids from a Fantasy setting!

Orcs, right? Or maybe elves? Perhaps you picked dwarves, goblins, trolls or just bog-standard humans. Without even so much as knowing who you are, I can make a pretty good guess at what you’ll pick. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s something you can consider when trying to think up a good spin on a humorous story. You can even use this when making a cool twist in your stories, or even getting your characters out of a sticky situation that not even you, the Dungeon Master/Mistress, have set them.

So what’s the secret? Easy. Our brains are lazy bastards.

If you ask someone on the street to name a house pet, what do you think they’ll go for? Cats, dogs, hamsters, the lot. Only a few people will say snakes, but they’re a legitimate pet. The reason we go for the above three is because, well, duh, almost everyone has one of those. It’s a method of thinking that spawned an entire gameshow, for goodness sakes.

So what the hell does this mean for writing humour?

When you come across a potential source of fun in your story, you’ll ask yourself “what can I do here?”. Your muse will immediately spring into life, delivering a funny scene in its hands with a beaming smile on their face. You will take the funny situation, acknowledge that it is indeed funny, and thank your muse.

Now, here’s what I want you to do.

I want you to screw it up and throw it back at them.

Why? Because there’s a very good chance that your muse has been lazy. They just lifted a common-recurring joke from your past experiences with humour and repackaged it for your story. It might be a disguised bit from The Simpsons, or a common comeback line to the dialogue you have going at the moment. The main point, however, is that it’s the low-hanging fruit. The easy sell. The painless procedure.

Let’s go above and beyond that, shall we?

Here’s an example: I recently wrote a flash called A Helping Hand. It features the Midnight Murderer, a serial killer on the hunt for his next victim, when he discovers that his target is suicidal and practically asks him to kill her. This leads onto a scene where the murderer is giving the life-talk to the girl, calling upon past experiences as a full-time killer to help.

The thing is, that story wasn’t thought up instantly. It took a little bit of demanding from the muse before I got it.

Here’s the thought processes I had:

  • I had been reading how to write horror out of curiosity, and wanted a funny story with a horror element to it. One of my favourite video-game streamers had recently done a stream for the Splatterhouse games, so my mind was solid in making your typical 80s-90s serial killer — strong build, hockey mask, nasty weapon. Nice and cliché, ideal to play off of.
  • Then, of course, you have to have him entering the house. So, how does that go? Camera focused on front door, smoke machine pouring a clouds-worth of mist at it. Chainsaw bursts through, cuts open door, there stands the murderer. Zoom in on Ideal American Housewife as she puts hands to cheeks and screams. Perfect. There’s the start. Now for the funny.
  • So, I needed a theme. Let’s see what the muse has.
  • The first idea that came to my head was that the murderer was actually a pizza delivery man, here to deliver her order. There could be some funny post-theme riffs (“why did you saw down my door?”), but it felt too easy. Like, a simple ‘psych!’ on the reader. Send it back to muse.
  • What if he was a birthday surprise, here to wish her a happy birthday? No, still too much like the pizza delivery. Send it back.
  • What if he was a door-to-door salesman on chainsaws? No, still has the same ‘taste’ as the pizza delivery. Back.
  • In fact, the whole idea of ‘murderer isn’t a murderer’ is a pretty crappy theme. Murderer comes in, lady screams, murderer reveals true face, woman sighs in relief, canned laughter, cut to sitcom introduction. Sod it, the murderer is actually a murderer. No psych-outs.
  • What if he got the wrong door? He’d saw it down, realise it was the wrong person, then walk off. Except, that’s really the whole scene, isn’t it? Nothing there to keep momentum. Go back.
  • What if he introduced himself in a funny way? Maybe he was quite a civil murderer. Or maybe he’s bored of it, a burnt-out veteran in the field? Well, no matter how I play it, the lady is getting a chainsaw to the neck. Rather not write that in a humour story. Having a character die ‘on-screen’ can really strip the good vibes a story has.
  • So we want a murderer — who is actually a murderer — break into a house, but for some reason doesn’t do what he came for. What could do that to a man? Maybe something freaks him out? What could?
  • Wait a minute. What if we change the screaming woman? What if we make her something the murderer doesn’t expect?
  • Oh. Oh.

Then I wrote the bastard.

Getting originality and freshness from a scene isn’t about having a brilliant and talented mind. It’s about not being seduced to write the first thing that comes into your head. Sometimes the first thing is utter genius, at which point you can just get cracking and buy your muse a box of chocolates. For those ideas that fall a little flat, however, try throwing away what your muse tells you and demand more. Who knows where it can lead in the end?

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