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Behind-the-Scenes of Humor Writing

Posted by Didi Gorman on

By Didi Gorman 

Didi Gorman, Wise Choice Market's blog writer

I’ve been writing a humor column for over a year now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the process, it’s that humor writing is much more complex than meets the eye.

Let me take you behind the scenes.

First, what is a humor piece?
A humor piece is a short, witty, comical text published in a newspaper column (or on the web), with or without the goal of making the reader reflect on a certain subject.

A special type of humor
The humor I use in my pieces is based on the principles of parody (exaggerating things until they become absurd). The text, therefore, should not be read at face value. I write these pieces as farces, not as accurate representations of reality. On the part of the reader, this requires a fair dose of suspended disbelief.

Straddling the line between reality and fiction
Though usually sparked by something that happened in real life, my humor pieces are mostly imaginary.

That said, since the stories do contain a grain of truth, the line between reality and fiction is somewhat blurred, just enough for the reader to wonder whether some of it really happened – which is part of the fun of reading a humor piece (and certainly of writing it.) In A tomato soup like no other, for example, the preparation of the soup was real; the blowing up of the kitchen in the process, was not.

Similarly, and while we’re at it, I’ll confess the following:

I did NOT join the wrong family on zoom (The Zoom Call). This piece was inspired by a real family zoom call, where I did not recognize one of the participants (who turned out to be a cousin’s friend.) (COVID series)

Nor did I start a green onion therapy (My Green Onion Therapy). I do grow an onion on the windowsill but I use it for salads, not for therapy.

I don’t support totalitarian regimes (Say What?). In this piece, I just goofed about the funny misunderstandings caused by talking through a facemask. (COVID series)

No one ever proposed to me in the grocery store (Who’s that behind the Mask?). I was just having fun with the idea of wrong identities – again, a farce about mask-wearing. (COVID series)

So there, the creative license at work.

Are the characters real or made-up?
As a general rule, I don’t include real people in my writing unless I have specific permission from them. Most of the characters in my pieces are, therefore, the fruit of my imagination, even if some of them have originally been inspired by real people (in which case the character will be heavily edited, to conceal any resemblance to the individual who inspired it). I prefer to make up a character than to risk offending someone.

Even the first-person narrator is not entirely me but rather a persona that I assume for the sake of the story. The Didi in the stories does all sorts of ridiculous things that I’ve never done in real life: She dyes her aunt’s hair with green tea (The Hair Dye), she organizes a horrible surprise party that ends up in the hospitalization of her colleague (The Surprise Party), she starts a duel in the grocery store (Wrong-Way Aisle); she’s a caricature. The real me pales in comparison, not to mention that in real life I’m quite introverted.

More to it than meets the eye
Humor is often a means rather than a goal unto itself, aiming to wink at the reader with a subtle message that needs to be read between the lines (such as social commentary on current affairs), rather than to make the reader roar with uncontrollable laughter.

All my COVID-related pieces are, in fact, satires that contain some kind of a deeper reflection on the current situation.

I wrote Tales of our Times: The Sneeze of Doom as a cautionary tale. What sparked my imagination was the recent involvement of the police forces in the enforcement of COVID regulations. I just thought to myself, what if we started criminalizing coughing in public? How far are we from a dystopia where folks tattletale on one another for sneezing in a store?

Similarly, Tales of our Times: A Radical Safety Measure (where I propose to ban the letter ‘D’ due to its virus-spreading potential) is a farce about rushed solutions.

The pieces are never longer than a few hundred words. This is not necessarily due to limited space in the newspaper (non-issue on the internet) but also because parody, to be impactful, needs to deliver the message poignantly – short and to the point – rather than to wear the humor thin over a lengthy stretch of text.

Literary tropes & formulas
My pieces incorporate various short-parody tropes, and follow a certain formula, common in this literary genre: a quirky narrator, a concise, fast-paced story, a sequence of ludicrous events (often akin to a comedy of errors), a pivotal moment where the stakes are the highest, and an element of surprise towards the end.

There are several possible variants to this formula:

Variant A: The narrator leads the reader to assume something that turns out to be wrong.
The Surprise Party, The Snow StormGone too Soon

Variant B: The whimsical narrator sets about to do something, only to reach a silly conclusion at the end.
Time ManagementThe SleepoverDrenched in North Hatley

Variant C: The narrator wittily winks at the reader. In this variant, unlike the previous two, the narrator is clever, rather than clumsy. 
Fifty Shades of Pink, I’m Going Viral on Social Media!What’s that Word Again?Mission Impossible: Don’t Touch your Face

How does it work, then, from the original idea to the final piece?

Humor-writing, 101:
a) Original trigger: something in real life attracts my attention.

b) Brainstorming: I toy with the idea in my imagination, pushing the boundaries of the prospective plot, asking myself all sorts of what-ifs (what if I exaggerate even more, what if I add another sub-character, what if I place the story in the countryside instead of in the city, what if I make a character male instead of female, etc). I write all my ideas down, unedited, including the most outlandish and improbable.

c) Editing: this stage, by far, is the longest. This is where I narrow the story down, re-organize it for consistency, edit out any element that doesn’t fit or that might be offensive, embellish the plot twist (the grand finale) to make it as gripping as I can, and voilà, a humor piece has just been born!

Not so simple
But wait. It’s quite common that I start writing a piece with one idea in mind but as the writing progresses, I change course.

My original idea for A tomato soup like no other, for example, was to write some kind of a cooking contest between me and another cook (possibly a family member) that goes horribly wrong. But as I progressed in the writing, the humor just didn’t come together. It had two focal points –the contest and the kitchen shenanigans– which only diluted its impact. In the end, I edited out the contest part in favor of the shenanigans. I did leave a hint at some kind of competition at the beginning of the piece where I mention a phone call from my cooking expert mom as the trigger for my sudden interest in soups. So I didn’t leave the contest element out completely; and I’m happy with this compromise.

Want to read more?
I post all my pieces on the Wise Choice Market blog. The link will take you to the blog’s main page where you can scroll down and read as many of them as you like.

I hope you enjoyed our tour behind the scenes.

Happy reading,
Didi, Wise Choice Market’s blog writer