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Monday, January 24, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Last week I started writing about evoking emotions, calling drama and sadness the easiest ones to evoke in a reader. Despite the ease with which a writer can evoke drama and sadness, as long as the writer does a halfway reasonable job evoking those emotions the reader will probably remember the emotions evoked longer than they may remember the plot of the story. That's just the way the world works; easy to evoke emotions can have a lasting effect on readers. Conversely, the hardest emotion to evoke is the one most easily dismissed by readers as something trivial.

What is this "hardest emotion to evoke" I'm referring to? What is so hard to write and so easy for readers to dismiss? Humor is the answer.

Why is humor so hard to write? Let's see, humor is variable. What one person finds funny, another person may simply find tasteless. Humor is situational. Humor must be carefully setup; characters must be portrayed so the humor is in character, the scene must be set so the humor is appropriate. Humor is topical. Not all humor is topical, but many of the things we find funny are only funny because of something going on in our lives or in the news. (Anyone who saw the Woody Allen movie Sleeper when it was initially released in the early '70s and who later saw it again just four or five years later knows exactly what I'm writing about here. I found the movie hilarious when first released but painfully unfunny just five years later.) The worst thing about humor is that if the writer is just a bit off, it falls completely flat. And nothing is worse than an attempt at humor that just doesn't work.

Any reasonably good writer can write a funny line. To write a funny story or even a funny novel takes a lot of work. And even when the writer succeeds, some readers will have a different sense of humor and simply not find the work funny.

The worst thing about writing something funny, though, is that it is so easily dismissed. Everyone cracks jokes. Everyone manages to fire off one-liners every now and then. Besides, no matter how hard the writer works at being funny, they just evoke a laugh from their reader. It's not like a child has fallen in a swollen stream. No character is facing a life-changing situation. Humor doesn't even have to result in a change in the character (though really good humor will result in that). The reader reaches the humorous part, chuckles, and keeps on reading.

Laughing may be a primal response, but the things that cause us to laugh aren't usually primal. Readers may enjoy funny lines or funny stories, but in the end they're just have a quick laugh, nothing more.

Using movies as an example again, consider the parody movie Galaxy Quest compared to any of the (good) Star Trek movies. Let's pick Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as our good Star Trek movie. It has drama and adventure and lots of good, primal evoking going on. It's even got just the right touch of humor to go with the action. In comparison, Galaxy Quest has some funny adventure bits, tossed out some really good one-liners, but the common complaint among viewers is that the movie loses steam when the characters have to actually be the heroes they've been pretending to be. Which movie took more talent to write?

Obviously, I'm going to say Galaxy Quest. The timing of the humorous situations and the one-liners is perfect while also being absolutely faithful to the source material. I know a bunch of Trekkers (see, I didn't even call them Trekkies) who enjoyed Galaxy Quest but none of them consider it nearly as good a movie as any of the "real" Star Trek movies. They all agree Galaxy Quest was funny but that's about it. They got a laugh and had fun watching it, but that was all.

So, am I saying not to try to write funny stories? No, I'm just warning you to be prepared to have your stories dismissed as lightweight amusements. Yes, that's a generalization, but it's a pretty accurate generalization.
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