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Anatomy of Fiction: January/February Thread

Discussion in 'Novels & Stories' started by Heliotrope, Jan 2, 2017.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hi, Everyone!

    January is upon us and it's time to start discussing the books on the reading list for these months!

    Our focus for this period is "writing funny" and the book choices included:

    The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
    The Princess Bride
    Good Omens

    If you have read any of these books and want to join in the conversation please feel free!
     
  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Ok, so I read Hitchhiker's guide over the holiday and really enjoyed it. I found the writing style to be witty and charming with just the right amount of sarcasm and satire, especially combined with the not very clever characters.

    Did I find it funny?

    That is a good question, one I find myself asking over and over again. I can't pinpoint it... I found it funny as in "oh, that was clever" but I don't think I ever actually laughed out loud, which is too bad because I was hoping to be able to do that. There were times in other books, like The Martian where I found myself snorting a little bit, and that just wasn't the case with this book. However, I found the social commentary about man's constant need to try to make sense of the Universe (when there just isn't any... it is obvious that the writer is an atheist) to be very amusing and smart but I found that the characters were really dumb and got out of situations more through Deux ex Machina than their own wits... which maybe was the point?

    I'm reading Good Omens now and finding it harder to get through. The language is almost biblical at times (again, maybe the point?) But I'll keep reading to see what I can get out of it.

    Thoughts on these books? Anyone find some of the same issues with Hitchhiker's guide? Or did you love it?
     
  3. spectre

    spectre Sage

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    I began reading The Princess Bride, but my Kindle crapped out so I opted for the sequel to Hitchhiker's, And Another Thing. Technically it is volume 6. Here, we often talk about believability and one thing I noticed is it all goes out the window in these types of comedies. It seems the very nature of humor as an emotion to want some amount of believability to be removed. Reading comedy is new for me so I look forward to seeing this discussion unfold.

    "The eye that sees cannot see itself."
     
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  4. I've read only the Princess Bride of those three. I must say I skipped the long, drawn out introduction thing framing the story and went straight to the story itself, though, lol...
     
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I tried reading Hitchhiker, but it was so relentlessly clever, so arch, I tired of it rather quickly. It's something I have noticed in fantasy comedy--there's very little real comedy. Mostly it's just self-aware meta-commentary and in-jokes. Nothing wrong with that. I've been reading that sort of thing ever since Bored of the Rings, but I surely would like some genuine humor.

    Princess Bride comes close. The framing story is indeed odd, and is very much a commentary on Hollywood. In that regard I think the movie handled it better than did Goldman himself. But the main story is so much fun, and is so sweet, I'm willing to overlook all else.

    What did Goldman do, specifically? Two things: surprise, and exaggeration. I leave it to my fellow readers to provide examples.

    It also occurs to me that humor is not a thing but a range of things. Some things make me smile, some make me snicker, some make me guffaw. Perhaps there are techniques for each?
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Another interesting aspect for humor is timing. Comedians talk about this all the time, but they're delivering to a live audience. I suppose the same works for TV, etc. The punch line has to be delivered at the right moment.

    How does that work in writing? I don't really know. Maybe that's why written humor relies more on irony than on slapstick. No sight gags!
     
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  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Thanks, Skip, I'm not really sure either, which is why I picked this topic for the first round :)

    Yeah, I may order Princess Bride and read that one as well, maybe in February, because I'm finding the meta-commentary sort of old...

    I agree that comedy is a mixture or even a spectrum maybe? And there must be different techniques for each.

    I think that there is always a certain dramatic irony to comedy,

    (article on irony for those who want a brush up: Five Ways to Use Dramatic Irony in Your Writing | Pub(lishing) Crawl)

    Like, often times the outcome is the opposite of the expectation... like a reaction to something is either bigger or smaller than one would be expected... some examples from Hitchhikers guide might be something like the alien's using really bad poetry as a weapon, and the really bad poetry can literally make your intestines explode. Or like the alien guard who just really likes yelling for no other reason than that he is good at it and may be promoted to head yeller.

    These things are a social commentary, for sure, about the ridiculousness of certain social constructs, but they are also examples of irony at work, and the irony is funny?

    Thoughts?
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I think one reason why I am not pursuing the social irony angle is because I have no use for it in my own writing. In fact, I sort of can't do it. My story takes place in the late Roman Empire. I tried throwing in a couple of jokes like what a Roman aristocrat might make, and none of my readers got it. I didn't expect them to, but I thought I'd try--a joke for those who got it, but not trip up the average reader. Didn't work.

    The point I'm trying to make is that humor is very culture-specific. You trip a blind dwarf in medieval Europe and you'll get huge guffaws. Nowadays, not so much. This makes fantasy world humor problematic. I think that's why the irony angle is used most commonly, as it is essentially anachronistic (unless the setting is contemporary).
     
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, I feel like companies like Disney do it really well... maybe because the audience is kids so they can't use anything too narrow in focus like politics or social commentary? Because kids just wouldn't get it?

    Maybe that's why Princess Bride does it better too, because it's more broad? I'm willing to place a pretty high bet that I didn't get two thirds of the jokes in Hitchhiker's guide.

     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 10, 2017
  10. spectre

    spectre Sage

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    Yes, I see a lot of fantasy humor relying on either, and I'm serious lol, personal flaws (the necromancer who is afraid of undead) or farms. Farms, throw an animal in there lol. Also timing and pacing are a factor. All the jokes seem to want to hype you up for a moment not just make you laugh, and pacing is like believability, it's the author's flavor. Conformity is out unless it is a political or religious kind of satire.

    "The eye that sees cannot see itself."
     
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  11. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I'm reading Good Omens. I'm still a little nervous about where the themes will take it, but so far I'm enjoying it.

    I've been looking at some articles on humor for the Reading Quest article, and some of them draw a distinction between humor and comedy. Humor shoots for the wry smiles while comedy shoots for the belly laughs. I thought that was an interesting take on it. It's perfectly fine to be "funny" and not quite make you laugh. But I think maybe modern comedy has raised our expectations about how funny we expect things to be.
     
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Good distinction Devor, I hadn't thought of that but it makes sense. I think that Hitchhikers and Omens fall into the "humor" category then for sure. Wry smiles indeed. But yeah, Omens has some testy themes that I'm wondering about as well... But still slogging to get through it. It's weird because I LOVE Gaiman and feel his books are really easy to read. They aren't so "dense" I wonder if that is the Pratchett influence? I've never read any Pratchett.
     
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I've read a little Pratchett and I'm not crazy about his style. Going Postal proved to be worth reading, but I found Guards! Guards! to be a chore to get through. I can see his influence in Good Omens. It's.... I wouldn't say dense.... but it's like he's trying too hard to be clever in the narrative that it often feels awkward.

    I haven't read any Gaiman.

    To talk about the comedy, though, Good Omens marks the first time I've seen any real situational comedy in writing. I mean, the kind of comedy where different characters have a different understanding with what's happening in the scene. I'm talking about the baby switch at the hospital. Pratchett and Gaiman pulled it off, but just barely. It really illustrated the limitations of writing as an art form. They had to go into an omniscient POV, use phrases like "Baby A" and "Baby B," and even say they were "slowing down the narrative." I don't know how they could have done it better, but I mean, talk about clunky.
     
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  14. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Right? Oh my gosh I'm so glad you said that! It did feel clunky! That's exactly the right description for how weird it felt. It really bothered me too, to the point where I just haven't had the "energy" to pick up the book again because it's hard to pay attention lol! That sounds so awful, but it is like work to pay attention to what the heck is going on and keep all the pieces straight and part of me just wants a straightforward narrative. I'm not even sure I found the situational comedy to be that comedic really... like, they were switching a baby... I found it to be more tense then comedic? Strange. I'm going to keep going with it to see if it starts to get "humorous" in other ways.

    Like, I'm pretty sure I laughed at some of Gaiman's other work that was not really supposed to be funny, it was just lighter or something... like the cross dressing pirate in Stardust... but maybe I just have a very immature sense of humor?
     
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I saw the movie for Stardust. It was okay but I didn't really laugh there, either. But I read an article that claimed Gaiman has at least one "awesome" (or something) joke in every book.

    Does anyone know of some comedic novels outside the genre? I think we're seeing a pattern with these books, and I'm wondering how much of it is the medium or the genre.
     
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  16. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    I've read hitchhikers guide but technically I listened to it. Since I haven't actually read the text, I think my experience is significantly different. It was read by Stephen Fry and anyone who knows him and likes his humor can probably understand how much he lent to the book. He could probably read a recipe and make it sound funny.

    However, I don't think of it as a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book. I think of it as a humor book with a sci-fi theme. It is full of British wit and that is not typically the type of humor I would be going for in my own work. I enjoy it but I can't write it. At least not yet. And I'm not sure I want to.

    I see myself leaning more toward Sanderson's nerdy wordplay in his Reckoners series.

    As for Princess Bride, I want to read that next but with the movie so ingrained in my soul, I'm not anticipating enjoying it as much as I may have if it were entirely new. I think it will be a learning experience though.
     
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  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hmmmmmm, I'm interested in this concept of "nerdy wordplay"... can anyone illuminate me on Sanderson's use of such a thing?
     
  18. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    This could be a very minor spoiler but I'm not putting it in a drop down because it's just that minor.

    Well, the first thing I think of is his MC's predilection for making bad "metaphors." Throughout the books he is always trying to come up with unique metaphors and they're terrible. So terrible that not all of them are even funny but many of them are, in a very nerdy kind of way. Well, most readers most likely notice that his "metaphors" are in fact similes because every single one includes 'like' or 'as' but no one ever corrects the MC until the very end of the series. Since Sanderson, while not especially appreciated for beautiful prose, is known for great endings, he uses this correction of the MC as one of the layers to his ending. The humor of the nerdy MC is a definite personality trait, if not a minor flaw, that makes him identifiable but also slightly irritating. It works for the reader (for me at least) because the other characters are clearly annoyed by his idiosyncrasies as well. I can tell you for myself that it added a higher degree of satisfaction when the MC learns he is not bad at metaphors. He's actually bad at similes, which is all he has been trying to come up with the whole time. I honestly laughed at that moment.

    EDIT:

    I would add that Sanderson does this in more than the Reckoners series. In the follow up books to his Mistborn Trilogy, (the three books sometimes called The Wax and Wayne Trilogy), The character Wayne serves the purpose of sidekick and would be a formidable MC in his own right for short stories but he is also the comic relief. He is odd and socially overt about it. You never get the sense that he doesn't know it, but the people he interacts with think he's a buffoon. He acts that way and garners laughs with his wit and behavior but only the MC really seems to know that it's an act. Which suits Wayne because he's a chameleon - becoming any kind of person and imitating any accent whenever he needs to and obsessing over clothing choices to fit the part etc. He's quite hysterical in the modern sense. I would be his friend. You eventually learn that he is a much deeper person than he seems but I think his comical presence in the otherwise serious series is equally important to the other functions he serves. And most of his humor is slapstick or witty wordplay.
     
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2017
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  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Comments here about Good Omens reflect my own. I read just the sample from Amazon and decided to go no further. Straining for cleverness. All I was doing was watching two authors say see how very witty we are, and how awfully meta meta.

    Now, it's not fantasy, but Keith Laumer's Retief managed humorous social commentary, and Robert Sheckley's books (e.g., Mindswap) were downright hilarious. If you don't know Sheckley's Theory of Searches, I very much recommend it as an example of how to be funny within a genre without resorting to punning or mocking the genre itself. Or the foibles of modern society.
     
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  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying it a bit more than that. But what's funny is that the forward, where they were literally doing that, is the only place I've laughed so far, and I mean that in a good way.


    I'll be happy to look into Mindswap a bit. All of the goodreads lists for funny novels list Good Omens, Hitchhiker's Guide and Princess Bride at the top, along with Catch 22. I'm curious to see if Mindswap offers a little contrast.
     
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