Funny Way to Put It: Writing Humour, Part 1 -- Conflict

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Vision 74

 

Funny Way to Put It:

 Writing Humour, Part 1 -- Conflict

By

S.E. Batt

Copyright © 2014, S.E. Batt, All Rights Reserved

 

Writing humour is a wonderful thing. It’s a lot of fun to write, and it’s even more fun to read. While the art of telling jokes is a very rewarding and entertaining one, people often assume that the talent of writing humour is something that you either have, or don’t. Either you come out of the womb with a sense of humour and a deck of cards with knock-knock jokes on them, or you’re not.

This isn’t quite the case.

While it’s true that a passion for being funny definitely helps, it is by no means some sort of arcane and mysterious power, of which only The Chosen Few are allowed to perform such an exclusive talent. Like everything else in the world, humour has logic, rhythm, and reason behind it, and it’s definitely something that someone can learn and hone as time goes on.

So, what are these aspects that make up a humour piece?

Unfortunately, given that the topic of humour is quite wide, coupled with the fact that I am a sad bastard who actually spends time sitting down and thinking about all this in great detail, I cannot contain all my thoughts in one issue without Lazette Gifford throwing her hands in the air and handing the magazine over for me to publish instead. Therefore, I will keep these articles in parts, with each one handling some topics that relate to writing humour. The first part will deal with something that every story writer will have drilled into the back of their minds ever since they asked for advice as to how to write a story.

Conflict.

It’s a strange topic to bring up when discussing humour writing. When people usually discuss conflict in a story, they usually relate to blood-pumping action scenes, nail-biting horror scenes, or teeth-clenching drama scenes, inflicting their readers with high blood pressure, short nails, and toothache. Those three don’t seem to fit very well with being funny, and it’s very easy to think that conflict has no place within a humorous piece. This is, actually, something that I assumed was the case when I first began humour writing.

The problem is, however, is that writing humour without conflict means that you have to rely on other means to deliver the fun. It’s very possible to write a story that’s cram-packed with one-liners, toilet humour, double entendres, puns, and other devices, but the problem with those kinds of stories is that the story stops being a story, and starts being a vessel through which you crack gags from. It is entirely possible to write a funny story, and yet keep it a story – something I am only just coming to terms with after two years of solid writing.

The best way to do this is with our good storytelling friend; conflict.

So, how does conflict fit into the grand scheme? Simple. A humour story can be (but by no means exclusively, or totally) based on one of the following:

Conflict with Self – This is where the character is feeling morose about something, such as failing to become something or wanting to achieve something they haven’t earned yet. The character feels internal strife about this, and seeks to rectify it, with humorous results. For example; imagine a story where a father is worried that he isn’t giving his son a proper fatherly figure to look up to, and takes on a wild variety of careers in order to prove himself. A fireman, a policeman, a jet pilot; it doesn’t matter if the options border on the strange or the realistically doubtful. Sometimes, the absurdity can actually add to the humour. Humour works well with a happy ending, so it could end with the child telling his father that he loved him as he is. Before then, however, you could have a lot of fun thinking up all the careers the father tries out, and think of all the funny things that could happen during that job.

The humour here stems from the relatable struggle we all have with wanting to be better people. Of course, the storytelling rules of conflict say that you must knock back your main character several times before they strike gold, and there is no exception in this case. The best bit, however, is all the funny things you can think up that holds the MC back. With our father-son story, as the fireman, the father might have to resort to using a shower to fight off a fire, only to find the person that was hiding within it when the fire broke out. Maybe as the police officer, he could try to stop a robbery, get into a mess, and end up being the one holding the loot when the SWAT burst in to apprehend the criminal. Maybe as the pilot, he accidentally finds the afterburner button. Go mad with the possibilities, and always make the worst and funniest things happen.

Conflict with Other Self – A little more complex. In this story, the character is trying to maintain two personas which viciously conflict with one another, struggling as they try to keep one finger in two pies. These are the kinds of stories you see in typical comedy films; the nun who is also a rock star, the politician who keeps company with anarchist friends, the lawyer who also commits bank robberies. The humour comes from our desire to bake two very different and conflicting cakes, and trying to eat them both at the same time while trying not to be discovered. And trust me, the main character will be. The scene where the nun is caught doing air guitar and head-banging in front of a mirror would be a lot of fun to write.

Conflict with Other Person – This one is the bread and butter of a lot of humour and comedy writing. This is the simple case of one person just not getting along with another. The real-life examples of this kind of humour span from cartoons like Tom and Jerry, to sitcoms like Friends. You could have this between hero and sidekick, antagonist and protagonist, or mash your current adventuring group together and see what happens when the sparks fly. The possibilities are endless – just squish two people together who very clearly don’t get along, and make their interactions fun. One of my own personal staples is the ‘logical person’ against the ‘illogical/silly/weird person’, much like how the Dead Parrot sketch in Monty Python works. Have a play-around by mashing all kinds of people together, and see what comes out of it! An army commander has to look after a hyperactive child for a whole (and seemingly endless) weekend. A businessman who is keen to succeed on a project to earn a promotion is partnered up with someone who doesn’t even know what the company does. A drunk, bar-fighting dwarf finds companionship with a paladin (to the paladin’s chagrin) in order to defend a town under necromancer invasion. Anything, anywhere.

Conflict with Reality Itself – Now we’re jumping into some rabbit holes. These ones are similar to the Conflict with Other Person, except the ‘other person’ is the entire world around your main character. Usually, you can take this two ways; a sane, reasonable man is dumped into a world where nothing makes sense and everything is fantastical, or someone who has a few screws loose is put in a situation where they need to act like a normal adult. If you go for a crazy, surreal world, the reader might have a few questions about why the world is as it is. If you can detect your reader asking a question at a point in the story, have your main character ask it to the people within that world. Bonus points if the answer that comes back only hurts the main character’s head even more. Some examples of this style of conflict could be a cynical slob finding himself in Wonderland, or a pixie from another realm trying to cover her bills with an office 9-to-5 job. Get creative!

So there you have it – a few ways to help bring your humour piece to life. Of course, every craft requires practice, so don’t worry so much if your first piece couldn’t get a laugh out of someone being tickled as they read it. Part of the process of humour is throwing stuff at the audience and seeing what sticks and what flies over their head, and it’s very embarrassing the first couple of times your humour bombs. Keep at it, however, and you’ll find yourself writing some pretty great lines to amuse your audience. The best part, however, is that you have a fantastic excuse to grab comedy movies, humour books, and stand-up routines to learn from, meaning you get to laugh a lot more in your day to day life. Pick out movies and books that look like they follow one of the above styles and give it a try. See what sticks and what doesn’t, and ask yourself why that’s the case. At the very worst, if you waste your time and learn nothing from it, you would have spent an entire evening watching Monty Python sketches, which – as wastes of time go – is a pretty good way to go about it. When you’re confident enough to try your skill, write a simple flash or short. Focus on a single scene with the minimum amount of characters needed if you really have to. Keep it simple, sharp, and to the point. Explore the dynamics of the conflict within your scene, finish it up, give it to people to read, and ask what their favourite part was. It’s a lot of fun, honest!

Next issue, I’ll be covering the two comedy-based topics of defying expectation and the list rule, both of which can be used to bring laughs to your audience. Until then, go out there and identify the conflicts in humour pieces that have you cackling, then use them in your own writing.

Most of all, do the ultimate key to writing anything funny; have fun with it, dummy!

Good luck!