Thursday, April 03, 2014

Guest Post: Lisa Doan on Writing Humor: When Worlds Collide…

Lisa scuba diving.
By Lisa Doan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The phrase ‘When Worlds Collide’ sounds dramatically epic – something that should come with its own background music. Maybe a YA dystopian. Or a tragically doomed romance. Or a tragically doomed romance in a YA dystopian.

But for my purposes, When Worlds Collide is the underpinning of character-driven humor.

Each sentence uttered by every person on this planet is a tiny Morse code flag signaling a complicated internal world that has been carefully built. Facts supporting the world are filed away, facts challenging the world are rationalized or discarded.

This is the nature of the beast, and the beast is us.

Humor writers create larger-than-life internal worlds and then crash them into each other.

Mangrove Bight House - where Lisa lived in the Caribbean.
I’m always surprised when somebody tells me they can’t write humor. I have heard this from some of the funniest people I know.

Mainly I’m surprised because it’s not true.

We all watch When Worlds Collide in our own lives every time we think something like:

When (person I know) did/said (bizarre thing), I couldn’t imagine what (person I know) was thinking.

You know you can fill in the blanks to that sentence.

As humor writers, we can imagine what (person I know) was thinking - we built the internal world that led to the thinking.

And because of that, we can construct future (bizarre thing) did/saids that will be consistent with the character’s internal world, while at the same time inconsistent with societal norms.

One of the most effective vehicles to collide worlds is dialogue in which it is clear that multiple characters are coming at a situation from entirely different directions.

No explaining, no describing, no setting up – just let the characters have at it.

In The Berenson Schemes first book, Jack the Castaway (Darby Creek, 2014), when Jack’s parents have done something particularly egregious in Jack’s eyes, they often conclude with something along the lines of, “Now don’t thank us, son. We were happy to do it.”

Place those larger-than-life internal worlds in a plot that lives in its own unique world by skewing or super-sizing a truth about the real world. The Berenson Schemes series idea occurred to me after I heard about “helicopter parents.”

I thought, what about a helicopter kid who is saddled with very un-helicoptery parents? They could lose him.

No, strike that. They could lose him in foreign countries.

No, strike that. They could lose him in the wilderness in foreign countries. There we go.

One last thing I should mention about preparing to collide some worlds - look fear of failure in the eye and make it blink first. If it doesn’t blink, hit it over the head with a mallet or kitchen appliance - whatever is handy.

Fear produces tepid and time-worn jokes. Fear causes writers to water down an original idea.

Readers can smell fear.

And anyway, there’s nothing to be afraid of. You would never be that (person other people know) that did/said (bizarre thing), that other people couldn’t imagine what (that person who may or may not be you) was thinking. Right? ‘Cause I’m pretty confident that I’m never that person.

Aren’t you?

Beach Roatan in front of Lisa's Caribbean's house.
Cynsational Notes

Learn more about The Berenson Schemes Book 2, Jack and the Wild Life, and Book 3 (title to be determined).

2 comments:

Luciferadi said...

I love this, Lisa. We so often see humor as this magical, elusive thing -- and in a sense, I think it can be, in the same way any exceptional example of art contains an "it" factor -- but it can also be broken down like any literary technique. (And I think any VCFA students/grads interested in humor should absolutely listen to your fantastic grad lecture!)

Barbara Younger said...

Love "When Worlds Collide." Will make that one of my going forward mottoes!

Congrats on Jack!

Neat to see your photos.Looks a little different than Vermont...

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