Funny Way to Put It, Part 2: Defying Expectation

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Vision 75


Funny Way to Put It, Part 2:

Defying Expectation


S.E. Batt

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

Q: Why did the dwarf not buy a round of beer for his dwarven friends?

A: Because he was a little short.

Okay, so it’s not the best joke in the world, but it helps set up what we’ll be tackling in this second part of Funny Way to Put It: the skill of defying expectation. While it’s always good to discover that you’re a better writer than first thought, that’s not the kind of expectation we’ll be defying here. This is the art of setting up a trap, waiting for your reader to step in it, and then setting it off. Except with far less pain and far more laughs.

A lot of humour can be done with playing on your reader’s expectation. Last issue, I mentioned that while one-liners, innuendos and other tropes can be used to be funny, they’re often treated as quite shallow forms of humour. Sure, they’ll work, but defying the expectation will make a joke less of a chortle and more of a memorable event. It is, after all, how all jokes like the above one work.

Our minds, conditioned to the normalities of society, love patterns. We love to see things go a specific, logical way, and – if we can -- try to predict what will happen. It’s why we like clothes and fabrics that have patterns on it. It’s why we have schedules, and why things like the 12/12/2012 date became so popular, with people exclaiming ‘it won’t happen for another hundred years!’ all because three numbers came out as 12/12/12 that one day and proceeded to change absolutely nothing in the world. We love patterns.

Humour can be used to defy this. When asked a question as to why a Fantasy dwarf can’t pay for a round, our minds subconsciously find the patterns that relates to this. We expect a normal answer, such as ‘well, he has spent a lot on the griffon racing the day before, so he was hard on cash’ or ‘he got a bit drunk and got kicked out of the pub’. What we’re generally not expecting is for the answer to relate to the size of the dwarf, and hence why the joke is funny. It also explains why it immediately loses its humour the moment after we hear the joke. Being told it a second time doesn’t have the same reaction – it’s no longer a surprise.

Defying Expectation

So, how does this relate to writing? Simple; try to defy reader expectations when you can. Want an example? Here’s a paragraph which hooked the editor of Vision, Lazette Gifford, into reading Wyrd Sisters , and then the rest of Terry Pratchett’s work:

The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills. The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel's eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: "When shall we three meet again?" There was a pause. Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: "Well, I can do next Tuesday."

This is funny because it sets the scene very nicely with a Macbeth-styled opening, and then subverts it viciously with the very normal, plain response. It takes a dark, Fantasy realm and thrusts it into the modern day with something that you’d hear in everyday life. You can’t see it coming, and that’s why it’s so funny – it subverts the expectation and surprises you with something that is totally different than the pattern forming in your head.

A lot of humour can be done this way, in a term I call ‘dropping the ball’. It’s where you lead your readers into believing that something brave, horrible, or surprising is about to happen, and then deliberately drop the entire feel in the funniest way possible. You have to be super careful, as dropping the ball without impact or surprise will just end in disappointment rather than mirth. If you can, try to make the dropping of the tone spark the main driving conflict in your story. That way, not only is the dropping of the theme actually funny, but it also becomes ‘worthwhile’, and not done just for a quick gag.

If you don’t feel you can safely do this, you can always try cliché subversion. Play your readers into a predictable, stereotypical trope in the genre that you write, and then suddenly divert away from it. This is a term that I call ‘flipping the table’, because not only do you ‘destroy’ the scene you were writing, but you then turn it upside-down on its own head and let your characters figure out what the hell is going on. This is a little different than dropping the ball, because while dropping the ball usually lasts for a scene, a table flip will often be the driving force of an entire story, a reoccurring theme. Make sure to flip the table as soon as possible so that people don’t shelve your story assuming that the rest of it is cliché, but also give the start enough time to establish the pattern of a typical story, so you can defy it later.

I used flipping the table myself for one of my stories, A Hero Unto Death . In it, the story starts in a very typical town where a hero is about to embark on a quest with two female entourages. The table is flipped when one of the assistants accidentally drops a very heavy bag on him, killing the hero before he even begins his quest. What follows is your standard cliché Fantasy story, except the hero is dead throughout, with the two assistants desperately doing all they can to stop people discovering that their chosen one has already passed his time. It was a lot of fun to write, and definitely an idea that lasted a good amount of time before I ran out of steam.

Rule of Three

There is one fantastic tactic that you can employ in your writing that utilises expectation defiance, which is called the Rule of Three. The reason it’s so good is that it allows you to invoke a pattern in pretty much any place in your story, which you can then defy to provide humour. This is a tactic used a lot in comedy sketches, jokes, and other humour works.

The rule is simple; you establish a pattern yourself by making a list. The list is usually two or more items long; any shorter than two and it stops being a list! The object of this list is to establish a pattern, which your reader will follow and start forming a mental path with. Then, when you finish the list, you add a final item that defies the items previously on the list. You want the previous items in the list to hold the same weight, and then have the coup de gras be the total inverse of the other items, or an inverse of the reason why the list was being made in the first place. The reason this is called the Rule of Three is because it usually works best when the third item on the list is the payload, but if you have to go for more, it can also work. Try for three, but don’t be afraid to go over that if you have to.

Some examples of the Rule of Three:

A short-sighted man decided to get a dog to help him around the house and roads. He picked out his new pet, Fido, at the local animal shelter. Fido was intelligent, brave, and actually a cat. He still hasn’t noticed, although he occasionally comments on how funny its bark is.

Overlord Harrak was renowned for his three qualities; the ability to scatter the armies of lesser men single-handedly, his disdain for the begging cries of the weak during the few diplomatic talks that he had, and the quality of really bringing out the best in children at the local school he taught at.

An Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman find a genie who gives them all one wish. The Englishman wishes to be in the Bahamas. The Scotsman wishes to be in the bedroom of his movie actress crush. The Irishman says he feels lonely, and wishes that everyone came back already.

Gareth brushed his teeth, got dressed, drove to work, waved to the receptionist, turned on his computer, sat down in his chair, and fell into Narnia.

As stated, you can invoke these little lists in pretty much any point of the story. Describing a character’s appearance, detailing their actions, talking about the setting the scene is in; the possibilities are endless. If you can, try to mask the list-building to the best of your ability, to try to catch those in the know off-guard.

So, that’s it for defying expectation, as well as the Rule of Three. Next issue, I’ll be covering how you can use personification and exaggeration to your advantage; for now, write some stories that pull the rug under your reader’s feet, whether it be through the Rule of Three or on the entire scene altogether. Have fun!

‘Wyrd Sisters’, by Terry Pratchett, published by Corgi, ISBN 978-0552152631

‘A Hero Unto Death’, by S.E. Batt, self-published, ISBN 978-1301964864