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Zestful Blog Post #273

I often find myself, when talking to groups about writing, giving a particular piece of advice, and I’d like to mention it here:

If you read and digest well nothing of Shakespeare but the three main tragedies—Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth—you will have all you really need of the Bard. This of course is arguable. There are Shakespeare scholars who would consider what I just said blasphemy. Isn’t blasphemy a good old word? Aye, ’tis.



[my college-days editions, with crayoned prices…bastards always overcharged...]

You can argue for Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and the popular comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. You can argue for any of his plays; I mean, the guy was a genius with words and stories. Personally, I find his comedies to be kind of tiresome, with all the mistaken identities and blind misunderstandings. They’re like lots of operas in that way, but without the great songs.

I’m talking about a hack that will educate you pretty damn well as to what Shakespeare was all about, and that will give you a solid grounding in what are considered by many to be his top three plays—as in most influential, most popular, most highly regarded by scholars and dramatists. So many cultural references come from those three tragedies I couldn’t even begin to do them justice. But off the top of my head:

“To be or not to be…” Hamlet
“Nothing will come of nothing…” Lear
“Out, damned spot! out, I say.” Macbeth

Ideally, you’ll read and study these plays via annotated versions, which will tell you things like what the hell a ‘chameleon’s dish’ is and what it’s supposed to mean. Right, that’s from Hamlet. Chameleons were thought to live on air, and thus there might be a pun on ‘heir’, involving a possible implication by Hamlet that he might not be entirely satisfied with the promise of succession to the throne. But others differ. You can start to see why Shakespeare is as heavily studied and interpreted and argued over as the Talmud, which makes it an endless source of interest. You can read and reread these plays and notice and learn new things every time. Then you can go to a Shakespeare festival and have the time of your life. Apart from that personal enrichment, whenever you’re in company talking about literature and the Bard comes up, you’ll have a good grounding and be able to contribute.

Part of my admiration for Shakespeare is his economy. He packs so much plot, character arc, and action into so few pages! My annotated copy of Hamlet is only 172 pages long! Lear is even shorter at 147! Macbeth shorter still at 100!

Now, I call this a fast hack, which is a relative term. Compared with skimming a couple of copies of People in the dentist’s waiting room, reading three Shakespeare plays is slow. But compared with reading all or most of his plays, reading these three is fast.

And there ya go. Are you a Shakespeare devotee? Tell us about your experiences with the work of the great Bard. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

Before I go, I want to give a shout-out to pal and Zestful Blog follower and commenter Ona Marae, whose debut novel, Gum for Gracie, is available! 

 

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in. [Photo by ES]
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Zestful Blog Post #272

OK, this isn’t writing advice, but perhaps somehow this post might help you make your writing life easier and therefore more zestful. It’s about analogue tools. I’ve been thinking about such because I recently turned in an article to Writer’s Digest on using old-school tools. I believe it’s going to run in November-December. I had a great time with it, and I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s available.

Pretty much everybody has a desk cup. Whenever I visit somebody’s house, especially another writer’s, I try to get a look at their desk cup, because I’m always interested in people’s tools and how they organize them. I keep refining the contents of my own desk cup, which is fairly small. Here is the story of my desk cup and what I keep in it.

The cup itself was a gift from the Peninsula Singers, a choral group based in Port Angeles, Washington. They had special mugs handmade as a souvenir for everyone who sang or played in a special performance of the Brahms Requiem back in 2005. If you’re not familiar with the piece, it is considered one of Brahms’s masterworks. It’s his longest and biggest as well, involving full chorus and orchestra, with soloists, in seven movements. It takes about an hour or more to perform. [Boast alert!:] I played the timpani, and was gratified to see this email to our conductor from an audience member who appreciated fortissimo:

Dated 12/15/2005  "Dear Dewey, Merry Christmas!  Thank you so much for your gifts to me & the community via music.  I always enjoy the P.T. Orchestra but this year I attended the Brahms 'Requiem'.  It was an epiphany of renewal of faith for me!  I was in tears (two handkerchiefs) through most of it, but especially the 2nd movement.
Please give my especial thanks to the lady timpanist for her verve and emotion in playing.  The ff timpani was the renaissance of my faith.

I will say I did a good job. [Boast alert all-clear.] Sadly, the concert was not recorded, and my sole reminder is the mug. It contains all my most-used implements, and here are photos, followed by the what-and-why.



[My tiny pal Cheetoh guards everything.] 

And now the catalogue:

-        No-brand plastic scissors with metal blades, a giveaway at a trade show when I worked for Borders. The blades have stayed sharp forever; wish I knew the manufacturer.
-        Six-inch steel ruler engraved in inches and millimeters that used to be in my dad’s tool box. This thing comes in so handy, so often, for measuring little things and sometimes scraping a label or carefully prying something.
-        Purple make-up brush, with which I dust off my computer and keyboard every morning. Purple was on sale. One of these also lives in my briefcase, along with a cleaning cloth.
-        Small screwdriver that can be reversed from slot to Phillips.
-        Another trade-show freebie, a snap-off razor cutter for opening packages and slashing pictures of my enemies. [Just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.]
-        Fine-point black Sharpie for addressing packages and drawing mustaches on portraits in museums. [Ditto.]
-        Two ultra-fine-point Sharpies, blue and black, for writing in shiny-coated greeting cards that reject ordinary ballpoint ink.
-        Orange highlighter. I use this most often when prepping my music for the various groups I play with. I prefer pink, because it splits the difference between visible-enough and obtrusive. But my pink one ran out.
-        Faber-Castell TK Fine Vario .7 mechanical pencil, because my sister uses one and I like to be like her.
-        Red Pilot G-2 07 pen, because sometimes you just want the emphasis of red.
-        The same pen in black, for general use.
-        Pilot Hi-Tec-C Maica 0.4 in blue-black, for finer work or just to change things up. The ink in these fine point Japanese pens lasts and lasts and lasts.
-        Ivory Parker Jotter with a strange pale-green-check graphic on it. This model is one of the older ones, with a metal cap and—important for durability—metal ring around the tip. I’ve customized this with a broad-point blue refill by Monteverde. Lovely to write with.
-        Soft-graphite wood-cased pencil such as the Blackwing original or the Faber-Castell 4B. Often it’s a Blackwing 602, which is the hardest Blackwing, but still on the soft side.
-        Fountain pens stay on standby in a drawer; I don’t like to store them vertically in a cup.

You’ll notice there are no multiples of anything. When you have like six pencil stubs, plus four cheap gimme pens from wherever, they crowd up the cup and stuff gets jammed. So, my point today is, you can save yourself a bunch of scrambling around if you just keep a few little things handy, buffered by a bit of empty space.

What indispensables are found in your desk cup? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Zestful Blog Post #271

The most-highlighted passage in the e-book versions of You’ve Got a Book in You is where I tell writers it’s essential to give themselves permission to write poorly. That passage resonates, because self-criticism dwells within all of us. But if you give yourself permission to produce crummy stuff, you will have the chance to improve. You may or may not improve, but you’ll have the chance.

But that’s just theory, right? The doubts and negativity that spew from the little bitch or bastard on your shoulder as you write—or sit there staring at your notebook or blank screen—are real. Yes! Those ugly, hissed words: Who the hell do you think you are? You suck. You can’t. You’ll never amount to anything as a writer because not only do you suck, your work sucks, and there’s so little of it! And everybody knows it. Anybody who says they find value in your work is just being phony with you because they feel sorry for you. What a crummy loser! Honestly. Hey, here’s an idea: Don’t you wanna check how many likes you got on your last post on whatever the hell social media? Right now? Hey, why don’t you just quit writing for now and go buy a tub of that gourmet ice cream? You’ll only eat a little bit of it. You’ll save the rest for tomorrow.

Right.

I mean, did you laugh? Because it’s so ridiculous when you see it all laid out.

Here’s the thing: You can never shut up the bitch or bastard on your shoulder by force. In fact, they love it when you try to force them to shut up. It just gives them more dramatic attention, more strength. So, what do you do? Welcome them. Listen coldly, then go, “Thanks for the shit, pal. I’ll listen to you again soon, but now I’m getting back to work. Chillax until we meet again.”


[When I tried to look at her objectively, in order to draw what she really looks like,
she disappeared. Baffling.]

The fact is, every master started out a klutzy, anxiety-stricken novice. The novices who prevailed to some level of competence learned a key mantra: “So what?”

And that’s all there really is to it. Your work is imperfect. So what? Mine is too. You didn’t get as much done as you wanted. So what? Neither did I. All that matters is that you do it. If the little bitch or bastard hammers at you, so what?

“So what?” is an incredibly freeing mantra.

Do you have any tips on how to work through a self-inflicted shitstorm? How do you pick yourself up if the bitch/bastard gets you down for a while? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Zestful Blog Post #270

Buckle up for a fast rant on spelling and usage. I know the dictionaries have given up any pretense of prescriptiveness. But here at Zestful Writing, we can still mount the barricades against the onslaught of phonetic spelling and sloppy usage.

·       The side rails of a boat are gunwales, pronounced ‘gunnels.’ They are not spelled as they are pronounced.
·       I wanted to make some wine, so I stomped some grapes and let them ferment for a while. My quilting group was getting too set in their ways, so I tried to foment revolution by making a quilt from Tyvek.
·       The cheerleaders waved their pompons. This is such a losing battle. Pompon is from the French, meaning ornamental tuft. The wide usage of pompom is a result of mishearing and not bothering to look anything the hell up.
·       The wagon wheel fell off because the linchpin failed. The linchpin of Bob Hope’s comedy was self-deprecation. The word does not relate to the verb ‘lynch.’
  

Let us unite.

  
·       The thing you put around your neck to keep the sun off is a bandanna. Many writers hesitate, then decide it must be spelled like ‘banana,’ because, well, it rhymes. No. Bandanna.
·       Although envision and envisage are similar words, few writers really know the difference. I envision that someday I might buy an RV and drive around North America. Oh, hey, I just bought an RV, and I envisage a series of trips to the national parks. Looking at it simply, to envision is to imagine something in the distant future, and to envisage is to contemplate something more immediately possible. Kind of a slippery distinction. Also, to envisage is to sort of have an opinion. I envisage Home Depot as a treacherous gauntlet that reminds me of unfinished projects.
·       Here’s a sneak peek at the finished product. It is not a covert mountain, which would be a sneak peak. The whole process piqued my interest. It did not peak my interest. When someone writes that their interest was peaked, I slam my desk in a spasm of pique.
·       One slips gaiters over one’s boots before hiking up a dusty, muddy, or covert mountain. One does not put on gators. While gators are generally docile, they don’t like to be treated so roughly. The way to remember this: you walk with a particular gait. You put on gaiters to help your walk go more comfortably.

I have more, but I feel better, so I’m gonna call it good. Do you have any peeves like these that make you seethe? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [Photo by ES.]

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Zestful Blog Post #269

I picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine a couple of months ago, interested in the cover story on Pablo Picasso. A curator of his work was quoted as saying that Picasso’s greatest talent was “assemblage”—or synthesizing, if you like. From the article: “to sift through layered memories—a conversation with a poet, the haunting expressions in an El Greco painting, the medley of sensations from Malaga, a pot of paint in his studio.”

The curator mentioned the French expression, faire feu de tout bois: to make fire of all wood. In rural Washington state, where Marcia and I lived for seven years, most people heated primarily with wood harvested from their own property. I once commented to a neighbor that I wished we had more madrone on our property, because it was so dense and burned so well. He shrugged and said, “You burn what you got.”

I guess that’s just another way to say, quit wishing things were different and use the brains you have to make the most of the materials at hand.


 [OK, not a Picasso, not a Van Gogh, but the best I could do during an “I can paint!” phase…]

Like a homesteader, Picasso sure did make the most of what he had. Although reportedly he wasn’t such a nice guy to everybody, he was one of the most productive artists who ever lived. I admire that deeply. Lessons? You keep going, you don’t resist change. You throw things together; you stay open to the relationships between people and things. If one well runs dry, you dig another. If you get bored of one crop, you plant another. You’re open. You trust the process blindly.

Go, us.

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Zestful Writing by Elizabeth Sims by Elizabeth Sims - 1M ago
Zestful Blog Post #268

It’s rare for me to stray off the topics of writing and the writer’s life, but today I kind of have to. If you read no further than the period at the end of this sentence, I just want to say you never know how profoundly your friendship might affect someone.

Folks have been talking a lot about the recent celebrity suicides, and therefore suicide in general. I was taken aback to read a social media post by an old friend who mentioned my name among a few others as friends who helped her, during some very dark times, stay away from the brink. I’d known she was struggling on and off, and just tried to be a good friend. But I hadn’t known how much my simple friendship meant to her. What’s a good friend? Just someone, it seems, who gets in touch and wants to do stuff together. Someone who listens. Someone who can laugh. That seems to be it.


Sometimes, though, that’s not enough, and it’s not your fault. So far in my life I’ve had one friend who committed suicide; no one knew how bad things were for her until it was too late. The worst social gathering I ever attended was her funeral, where all the wonderful hundreds of people who loved her were there. Beautiful day. Everybody was there except her. She was still lying on a slab in the morgue with a purple face and a groove around her neck from the rope. The family was too shattered to decide what to do with her just yet.

I read another social media post where someone pointed out that when an airplane decompresses, they tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others. So yeah. Check on yourself. How are you doing? Breathe normally.

It’s one thing to be there if a friend reaches out when they’re staring into the abyss. Naturally, you go. You do everything you can. But somehow, I guess it’s important to listen to your gut too. Even if things don’t seem that bad, your friend needs you to suggest grabbing a cup of coffee. Or get out for a walk. Just a little something.

You might never know.

What do you think of all this? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. [And hey, yeah, a bit of a new look for my blog; wanted to make it look a little more like my web site. Thanks, webmaster extraordinaire Marcia!]

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Zestful Blog Post #267

When I was about 12 years old, I got into a phase of wanting to explore religion. I decided a good first step would be to read the Bible from beginning to end, because it seemed that’s the way you’re supposed to read a book. Front to back. Being an experienced consumer of novels by then, I knew that skipping ahead was a sign of weak will.

Moreover, it seemed people knew the Bible stories, but nobody ever sat down and read the whole thing straight through. Nobody I knew, anyway. My family had a so-called Catholic Bible, or the Douay version, which I somehow understood to be ‘not the real thing.’

I reasoned that checking a Protestant-issue Bible out of the library would be counterproductive, because the library only granted two renewals, and I figured that such a long book with such thin pages and such small print would take me half the summer to get through. So, with some allowance money, I bought my very own pocket-sized King James version, opened it up, and started reading. As I went, I underlined passages that seemed especially relevant with a blue ballpoint pen.

As you may know, Genesis starts off with the creation story, which is halfway decent reading. But as soon as Cain slays Abel and gets banished, we learn about Cain’s wife and kids, which, who cares? This comes around the end of Chapter 4, and the chapters are pretty short in through here. We learn about Cain’s kids, and their kids, and more generations of kids. To be accurate, though, we don’t learn aboutthem, we just learn they got born and named.

But don't even talk to me about Chapter 5.



[Other people's family trees are so boring. Photo by ES] 

Here’s where the begats really come thick and fast. And you’re like, why? I’m never going to remember these people, I’m probably never going to see them again, and yet I have to read that they existed. The narrative picks back up again in the next chapter, featuring Noah and all his cubits, then things get sloggy again. You realize, oh, hell, Noah’s got to re-populate the planet! I am in for so many more begats.

I put the book down for a few weeks and returned to Nancy Drew. When I picked it up again I stuck with it fairly well, but stalled out once more in Numbers. Yet more begats. When I got to college and took a course in the Bible as literature, I understood things a lot better. And when I asked the professor why he didn’t make us read the begats, he just shrugged and said, “Everybody skips the begats.”

So we see time-honored lessons for authors:
·       Get right going with some action on page one.
·       If you front-load your story with characters, you’ll risk losing your reader.
·       Give every character a purpose, for God’s sake.
·       Be nice to your brother and animals.

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Zestful Blog Post #266

I predict that someday soon we will be able to load the master file of our novel into a program, and the artificial intelligence therein will fashion and spit out a compelling back-cover blurb in .4 seconds, as well as a coupon for half off that rib roast you were looking at in the grocery store the other day. And I’m sure that six months after that, AI bots will write all of our novels for us, collect our royalties, and spend the money on themselves. Until then, we wrestle with all of this. (Zestful friend B, it’s been a long time since you made this request, but I didn’t forget it.)

Using my own ALI (admittedly limited intelligence), I spent some time analyzing back-cover blurbs for a bunch of bestselling novels, and have come up with three foolproof formulae, which you may use at will.

Mystery/thriller:
[Name of protagonist] is [doing something normal] when [extraordinary thing happens]. Now, [specific danger lies ahead] unless he gets involved in solving truth behind extraordinary thing. Meanwhile, an old [friend / associate / romantic connection] shows up, with [an entirely different problem / an unexpected gift / an astonishing proposal]. [Protagonist] is reluctant to get involved, but because of [a debt owed / a guilty conscience / an old grudge / a dying request], he can’t say no. His quest takes him from [dangerous location] to [dangerous situation]. As the tension ratchets higher, the two [seemingly separate plot strands] converge. Along the way, [protagonist] learns [a life truth, like things are more complicated than they seem] as well as the fact that [morals can be ambiguous / he never really knew what loyalty was before now / a person we love the most can be toxic].


[Spend less time on troublesome crap so you can get out and play once in a while. Photo by ES]

Cozy suspense:
Everything’s going great in [name of happy place]! Everyone we meet [the three or four main people and how they’re related] think they’ve got life figured out, as they go about their business of [running a resort / managing a farm / being the city council]. Until, that is, [a messenger arrives with a disturbing piece of news / a family secret springs out of hiding / someone dies under strange circumstances] and everything is turned upside-down. It’s up to [name of main character or pair of main characters] to dig into [the past / a scary neighboring ranch / the deepest computer databases of some government agency] to find the truth. Along the way, they discover [ancillary weird stuff], and they come face-to-face with their own [demons / prejudices / comforting yet creepy family myths]. Shocking revelation follows shocking revelation as they grapple with [their own thirst for revenge / the fact that things aren’t what they seem / the knowledge that love can be toxic] —and begin the healing process.


Romance:
[Name of protagonist] is having a bad day. Everything’s wrong, from [crappy thing] to [disappointing event]. Now, to make matters worse, here comes [name of antagonist], who is the [new hire / lead detective on the case / biology class lab partner] and with whom she must cooperate or [some consequence will happen, like get a bad performance review / blow the case / get a bad grade]. [Protagonist] and [antagonist] are at each other’s throats day and night. Until, that is, [event happens, like a shared crisis / a new enemy appears against whom they can unite / one of them gets in a dire situation that can only be solved by the other]. Suddenly their petty grudges don’t seem so important anymore. Love molecules fly, and as the two discover true passion, [another serious event occurs]. Can they continue to build their love and trust even in the face of [dire happenings which require one to betray the other]?

The magic here simply is that you can easily analyze and appropriate for yourself what, in many cases, was put together by people who are specialists in blurb-writing, such as the editing staff at major publishers.
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Zestful Blog Post #265

Recently an aspiring novelist asked me for help in writing her synopsis. Then another one did, and I figure it’s time to say a few more things about doing synopses, beyond last year's Zestful Blog Post #206, "Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis." The Web abounds with good advice on how to write a synopsis for your book project, and you can google around. Here is my minimum advice for maximum success.

A synopsis is a short document that tells what happens in your book. Agents and editors want them so they have to do less work, like reading your manuscript. The format they expect is third person, present tense, so do that, no matter what you’ve used in your story. They also expect that when they see a character’s name for the first time, it will be in all caps and/or bold. That’s it. Don’t add pictures or curlicues.

Relax and decide you’re gonna have fun doing this, goddammit. Even though writing a synopsis feels like a matter of life and death, getting tense just becomes its own problem.


Forge your material with an iron will and a light heart. Photo by ES
 Here we go.
  • Accept the fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect synopsis. Just as you need to dump perfectionism while writing, you need to dump it here too. You might need to write a long synopsis (thousands of words) and a short one (hundreds), because agents and editors ask for different things. Start with the long one. Then just cut it down to make the short one. We’ll talk about back-cover blurbs some other time.
  • In your rough-out session, flip through the manuscript and write down the heart-clutching moments. You’ve just created your synopsis framework. In "Magic Cure," I advise talking it into a recording device instead of writing it. This works for some writers but not others, so you can do it whatever way suits you.
  • Flesh things out by writing how each heart-clutching moment is connected to the next. If you get stuck, just tell what happens next as simply as you can.
  • Prompt yourself with these two questions: What does your main character lose (or expend) during the story? What does he win (or gain) at the end? Because that’s basically your plot. Keep that character’s wins and losses in front of your reader.
  • Give yourself a short amount of time to do this. You can and will dick around with this forever, unless you decide something like, “I’ll get it roughed out between 2 and 3 this afternoon, and come what may, I’ll get it finished before meeting Joe and Rose Ellen for cocktails on Saturday.”
  • Break up your time on it. This might sound counter to what I just said, because won’t more work sessions add up to more time? Not necessarily. If you try to get the thing done in one long session, you’ll glaze over and stop being able to tell what sounds/reads good. But if you let it sit overnight and come back to it, maybe even three or four times, you’ll keep bringing a fresh perspective to it, and you’ll save time in the end. Spend no more than an hour at a stretch on it.
  • Cut anything that doesn’t sound peppy.
  • Declare victory and move on.

Before asking for comments, I want to congratulate my friend Alison Solomon on her new book:


Now, what do you think? Do you have any tips/tricks for writing synopses? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Zestful Blog Post #264

In the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine we find a feature by yours truly on writing comic characters. I focused on classic types of funny characters, looking at how master writers handled them, and how we can do it too. There are other great articles about writing humor, including an interview with one of my fave authors, cover boy George Saunders.

Here’s the intro and first section of my article, "Funny People":


[Magazine excerpt begins]
It was 1975, and I was a nervous freshman unpacking my Samsonites in my university dorm room when a strong voice behind me said, “Hey.” Standing in the open doorway was the darkly beautiful girl who was already establishing herself as the floor’s alpha. She looked at me with a stern expression and demanded, “Are you hip?”

Unsure what the hell she meant, I thought a moment, then responded, “I wouldn’t think that’s for me to say.”

She looked stunned, then burst into uproarious laughter. “Oh! You are a character!” she cried. “That was deadpan! You will be my jester!” I hadn’t meant my answer to be funny, but it must have triggered some humor receptor in her brain. I have a feeling she’d been interviewing other girls, who probably sought her approval by asserting that they were, yes, sure, hip. So my answer probably contrasted with theirs, and that’s what seemed funny. This young creature was trying to build a story for herself, in which she was the head of a sort of aristocratic court, right there in the midst of everybody’s textbooks and popcorn poppers and Cosmoissues.

The court situation didn’t exactly work out (for one thing, no one was into being a lady-in-waiting), but this incident got me thinking for the first time about the power of a type. I had long ago learned that being funny can be an asset. Side note: ‘Deadpan’ is a combination word, made up of ‘pan,’ slang for face, and ‘dead,’ meaning expressionless.

Not all authors employ humor; bookstore shelves real and digital are populated with fiction that takes itself deeply seriously. But many authors use humor to brighten their stories, give their readers an emotional escape valve, and add a layer of fun. Comedy can fit into suspense, romance, literary, fantasy, horror, you name it. Why? Because it’s like real life. We’ve all experienced countless humorous moments, even amidst sadness—like the one time I attended a burial where the backhoe fell into the grave.

If you’re considering using humor in your story, play, or novel, I’ll bet it’s because you have a keen sense of wit yourself: You can laugh at the absurdities of life, and you enjoy the humor in the stories you read and ingest via other media. It’s as simple as that.

There are lots of ways to write funny moments. You can put wisecracks into the mouth of your detective or write action sequences where a little kid puts a peanut on the train tracks and changes the course of history. But long-haul comedy—that is, comedy that can develop and sustain a story—starts with characters. The comic character is unique in that he or she can be counted on to deliver humor and truth together.

Just as comedy itself tends to fall into types—slapstick, dark humor, farce, satire, irony, and so on—so too do comic characters. Types are a handy way to understand comedic characters—and to consciously create them. I’m not talking about stereotypes, which most readers recognize as clichéd, unimaginative, or even offensive. The types discussed here are classics. They’re successful because they allow flexibility in a story, and because readers and writers alike recognize them as old friends.
Now let’s break down some of these entertaining breeds and see how to use them.

The Jester
It was no coincidence that my dorm-mate dubbed me jester, as it’s arguably the earliest form of the comic character.

In medieval and renaissance times, royal courts employed entertainers to tell jokes, sing, and dance. We have history that some of these jesters also became confidants of—and advisors to—the monarch, finding a way to speak truth to power under the safety shield of jest. “My lord, the one you banish will gain cunning in the punishment! Haha, just kidding!” And the king may reject that warning, or not.

Shakespeare made liberal use of jesters, also known as fools, in his plays both comic and tragic. Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprinkles his love potion on the wrong handsome sleeping dude, thus pivoting the plot in a way both humorous and disastrous. Audiences love the “Uh-oh” moment! The Fool in King Lear explains things with biting, rueful wit and provides a voice of reason from which Lear can still learn, even though he’s made a mess of things.

Randle P. McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a more modern jester. He swaggers into the asylum and flings around his brand of street-criminal wit and wisdom—effecting change, comedy, and tragedy all in one story.

How to do it:
·       Give your jester a low place in the socioeconomic pecking order. This sets the character apart, for when he subtly speaks truth, your audience will be surprised—and a little apprehensive. If your jester doesn’t have much in terms of status or resources, he doesn’t have much to lose. That’s an opportunity right there.
·       Make your jester a character of some complexity. Plain silliness falls flat here. Feigned ignorance, however, can work, as when a jester pretends not to understand something while making a sly point. Whether you show much of it or not, your jester does have an inner life. He goes home to his family, makes love to his wife, gets angry at the TV. Your jester might resent his role and strive to change it, or he might relish his role and strive to make the most of it.
·       Show other characters learning from the jester. The school custodian is often hilariously clumsy, but the kids trust her with their secrets because she never tells, and always gives the best advice.

You’ll notice a pattern emerging: A key to successful comic characters is contrast. That’s why pairs of characters can work so well.
[Excerpt ends; for the rest, visit your local newsstand or here.]

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