Friday, January 2, 2009

Humor: It Only Hurts When They Laugh

omniscient point of view--a narrative technique for conveying the essential goals and sensations of story through the lenses of more than one character in the same scene; a vision of story simultaneously seen by numerous eyes. A major effect of the omniscient point of view is its suggestion of a crowd, even if there are only two characters on stage at the moment; they appear to be speaking and thinking and behaving at the same time, which in fact they are. An omniscient scene with three or four points of view evokes the sense of being at a party or gathering, with voices clamoring to be heard.

One of the resident difficulties accruing from the use of the omniscient point of view, particularly in shorter narratives of five to six thousand words or less is the problem readers will have determining whose story it is, then subsequently what that character's goal is.

Since the omniscient point of view is the least used of the spectrum, the shifts from person to person may produce a bumpy narrative ride unless closely managed. The writer who uses this approach is well advised to spend time in revision checking for a seamless switch from character to character, making sure the reader has a reasonable clue who the next narrator has become. The significant modern writer to observe for his use of this technique is the Irish writer, William Trevor, who uses it exclusively in short stories, mid-range narratives, and novels. Omniscient point of view is not an easy technique to control; reading Trevor makes it appear that it is. Caveat emptor.

An ideal theme for an omniscient point of view narrative is a family or group gathering event in which a number of front-rank characters gather to celebrate, mourn, or render a necessary decision, each bringing to the gathering a different agenda. Trevor has managed to expand on this trope by bringing romantic, filial, or sororal relationships involving two persons into the tent.

habit words--words favored (often unconsciously) by writers who use them repeatedly to the point where they become distractions for the reader. All writers have habit words; many make a point of a special seek-and-destroy mission during revision to root them out and change them. One of the many habit words shared by large numbers of writers is the innocent connective "and." The writer uses and in place of a comma, to connect independent clauses, a technique most famously used by Ernest Hemingway and now parodied at his expense some fifty years after his death. Another habit word in frequent use is a tense variation on the verb "to walk," as in he walked over to, she walked by, they walked up to, he walked into.

Accordingly, the verb "said" might seem to be a habit word thanks to its use with attribution in dialogue, but here things differ in ironic perspective. The need some writers feel to supply synonyms for said, such as averred, opined, intoned, rebutted, growled, barked, shrieked, moaned, etc help make the point that repetition of said is scarcely noticed, is largely considered a blind word, not an obvious repetition, rather than a habit word.

True enough, the reader may misinterpret, gloss over, or take text to have a meaning completely foreign to the author, but the reader is as well an amazing computer, able to detect anomalies missed by copyeditors and fact checkers, all too eager to hold these anomalies against the author. Overwhelmingly, readers are not offended by "said" as it is used in dialogue.

humor--a sudden, painful awareness of exposure or vulnerability; a force aimed at an individual, institution, or tradition with the intended goal of ridicule and possible destruction; a view of reality and a redemptive philosophy for dealing with that view; a sense of justice in which the emperor is revealed to have hand-me-down clothing but nevertheless insists it is Ralph Lauren.

First principal: there is no such thing as victimless humor.

Second principal: the target of humor always believes he has the moral high ground.

Third principal: the moral high ground is mortgaged for more than its actual value.

Fourth principal: when someone tells you "That isn't funny," it probably is.

Humor is explosive, irreverent, undemocratic, a splendid example of the unthinkable come to pass. Suspicious and anarchistic in nature, it asks the wrong questions, makes the wrong assumptions, creates a shambles of disorganization, the only thing left standing it the truth for all to see--not the truth you are told to see; the only truth you can see after the dust settles.

Humor is separate from comedy in that humor is situational and dramatic, a punctilious, super-orderly person squeezing too much toothpaste from the tube then trying to dispose of or hide the waste while comedy is more physical, trying to force the toothpaste back into the tube and, of course, bungling the operation.

How to initiate humor:

1. Select a target, which may be any institution, profession, or attitude, also an individual who thinks or feels entitled, justified, or merely right.

2. Place that institution, profession, or attitude, also said justified or entitled individual in a situation where it/he/she feels it appropriate to behave as usual, then apply pressure in the form of a question, challenge, or time constraint-type pressure. Then push the subject to defend itself.

3. Watch for the results.

4. Think dramatically, along the lines of the three-act play format of old, where act one presents the challenge, act two presents the attempt(s) to cope with it, and act three brings the venture to a combustion that blows up in the target's face.

5. Remember Wile E. Coyote. The reward is humiliation, which the target may not yet be able to see--but the audience can.


1. A major goal of humor is humiliation.

2. Memorably successful humorists often used themselves and their foibles as targets.

3. Even though the goal is humiliation, don't kick the target unnecessarily when it is down, lest you shunt the force of humor onto yourself.

4. Ignore the warning that a particular subject is not fit for humor.

5. Remember, humor is not jokes; humor is exposure of facades and hypocrisy, reversal of positions.


Anonymous said...

You know that dance people do when they think something is crawling on them but they can't find it and every stray hair and thread makes them slap themselves and dance more? That's me and those damn habit words--only they really are crawling on me.

Now if I could just make a joke about it.

Lori Witzel said...

:-) Regarding my real-life lab work yesterday on the topic of humor...

1. Check.
2. Check.
3. Ah. I tried not to; perhaps this means my trash bin is also a humorist.
4. Check.
5. Re: reversal of that, no joke. *snork*