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Injecting Humor Plot

For the past two weeks, we have explored Comedy subgenres and conflict layers.

This week we take a look at ways to inject humor into the plot.

1.       Have characters make silly mistakes or intentional mistakes being passed off as funny, shaking off embarrassment.

2.       You can twist and exaggerate stereotypical characters for effect.

3.       Mistaken identity, disguises, and costumes can add laughs.

4.       Physical comedy, such as practical jokes and prat falls, is harder to portray with a verbal camera than an actual one. That doesn’t mean you can’t use it.

5.       Missteps in manners and etiquette work when the audience is in on the deliberate use of them.

6.       Deliberately behaving the opposite of what is expected can be funny.

7.       Fast paced farcical action can be funny.

8.       The situation, overall story problem, or story world can be so exaggerated or off that they become the source of the humor.

9.       Using the character’s behavior and bad habits against him can inject humor.

10.     Sexual content and innuendo can be injected where appropriate.

Do your research. There are many books and classes on humor and comedy.

Watch your favorite comedians and comedies. Take notes about what made you laugh.

When you read a book and find yourself belly laughing, mark that section and go back to it. Examine it closely. What caught you off guard? Study the setup and delivery, the construction of the gag, the descriptions of characters, and the details of the humorous world closely. Identify the triggers.

Consider your targeted audience. How far can you push the boundaries without triggering disgust or anger? Humor that might be appropriate for a novel targeted to adults would not be appropriate for middle school. Middle school humor might bore a young adult audience.

Using profanity can be funny, but too much is not a good thing. One carefully placed expletive can be far more effective that the same word used in every other sentence. The mind skips over abusive repetition.

Next week, we look at ways to inject humor into your dialogue.

Pick up a copy of the latest entry in the Story Building Blocks series: Comedy, Build A Plot Workbook available through Amazon and at local bookstores on request. Also available for Kindle.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

The Comedy Story Skeleton

Last week, we explored the subgenres of Comedy. Let's take a look at the building blocks for the story skeleton.

The Comedy makes your reader laugh while subtly focusing on ideas, ethnicity, relationships, prejudices, social practices, politics, religion, or manners. It uses humor to explore topics without having to be “politically correct.” A Comedy can range from mindless farce to dark satire. It can follow the pattern of other genres, with the rule being that it has to be funny.

The reader asks: What do I think and how has this changed it?

The protagonist is the character responsible for solving the overall story problem. If you stack two separate story frames, you may have two protagonists. If you write a multigenerational or historical epic, you may have a story arc for four separate "protagonists” with different friends, foes, and antagonist or antagonistic forces that are consecutive or interwoven.

In a Comedy, the protagonist it is the person who shines a light on other’s foibles or speaks a controversial truth. The protagonist doesn’t have to be “good” necessarily, but he has to be sympathetic.

The antagonist is a character or entity who has a goal that is the opposite of the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist should also have something deep within that is driving him toward his goal. The emotion  or underlying belief system must be as strong as the protagonist’s for the stakes to be high. The antagonist can be a group or organization but there must be someone who leads the group for the reader to focus on.  

In a Comedy, the antagonist takes the opposite side of the thematic argument or is the one who poses the greatest hurdle to the protagonist’s goal. 
There can be a “friendly” antagonist that has good intentions and acts as the catalyst that prompts the protagonist to make a necessary change. They can be concerned friends, parents, coworkers, or people who think they are acting in the protagonist’s best interest but who are misguided in their beliefs.

External scenes involve all the key players actively trying to achieve or avoid something. External obstacles follow the genre that it resembles, only exaggerated for comic effect.

Antagonist scenes follow an actual antagonist or antagonistic forces keeping the protagonist from reaching his goal. If there isn’t someone specific standing in the protagonist’s way, the antagonistic forces keeping him from solving the story problem have to be compelling and funny.

The antagonist’s POV is rarely explored in these stories, rather he acts as a foil for the protagonist. If the protagonist is the straight man, the antagonist is the fool. If the protagonist is the bumbler, the antagonist can be the straight man.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes
show the friends and foes intensifying the complications. They are either the overly serious people or the complete dunces that cause hysterical complications for the protagonist to overcome. They can wittingly or unwittingly help or hurt him. If you veer off into their point of view, you can show them solving their own problems or working behind the scenes to assist or complicate the protagonist's goals.

Internal Conflict scenes
can be funny or the serious thread that runs throughout the piece. The protagonist can have a serious personal goal but go about achieving it in ways that cause funny situational difficulties. Or he can have a laughable goal that ends up with serious consequences.

Next week, we take a look at ways to inject Comedy into your plot.

Pick up a copy of the latest entry in the Story Building Blocks series: Comedy, Build A Plot Workbook available through Amazon and at local bookstores on request. Also available for Kindle.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Comedy Subgenres

Let's start our exploration of genres with Comedy. From parody to dark satire, the intent can be to poke gentle fun or outright skewer the tropes of a genre, emphasize the points made through comedy, or refute an existing "truth."

Don't underestimate the power of comedy. Using humor can lower resistance enough for a pertinent point to sink in when people would otherwise refuse to hear it.

Most of the examples I could think of were movies, but the same definitions apply to fiction.

1. Black or Dark Comedy: Sarcastic or
 mocking and cynical stories that examine serious subjects such as war, death, relationships, or illness.

Example: Men Who Stare At Goats.

2. Parody or Spoof: Mock serious topics with unconventional riffs on psychology, religion, government, technology, etc. The point is to illuminate flaws in our thinking, behavior, or systems using humor as a glaring spotlight. 

Example: Blazing Saddles.

3. Romantic Comedy: Has a little fun with the Romance genre, either making fun of it, or making the romantic complications comedic. 

Example: The Proposal.

4. Mystery Comedy: Pokes fun at the mystery genre. 

Example: The Pink Panther.

5. Con/Heist Comedy: Fills the Con/Heist with humorous complications and/or goals. 

Example: The Tower Heist.

6. Light Horror Comedy: Imbues the Horror genre with comedic complications. 

Example: Snakes On A Plane.

7. Science Fiction Comedy: Makes light of the Science Fiction genre. 

Example: Spaceballs.

8. Fantasy Comedy: Adds humorous twists to the Fantasy genre. 

Example: Princess Bride.

9. Western Comedy: Exaggerates the tropes of the Western genre for comedic effect.

Example: True Grit.

10. Historical Comedy: Highlights the mores and manners of yore with comedic effect.

Example: Men in Tights.

11: Road trip Comedy: Takes the serious lesson-infused journey on a fun-filled ride. 

 Example: Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

Next week, we will examine Comedy building blocks.

Check out the newly released Comedy Build-A-Plot Workbook available on Amazon. Also available for Kindle.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Story Frame

Last week, I recirculated an older post about A versus B story. While working on the new genre workbooks, I have expanded on that idea. There is a difference between a layered story and a multi-structured story. I have broken them into frames.

In addition to the four layers of conflict, you must decide how many story frames you need to tell the story you have in mind. There are several options to choose from.

The majority of stories have one frame. They are easy to follow and keep your reader submerged from page one to the end.

1. Single Frame: A single story block has four layers of conflict and follows one cast and one overall story problem. The verbal camera can pan stage right and left to follow the antagonist, love interest, friends, and foes who have their own goals and stakes. These can constitute subplots, but there is one main stage. The story can have labyrinthine twists and turns and a killer surprise ending within a single block. Single stories are quite satisfying. A reader is easily immersed until the final page. You don’t have to have a second story frame. Unless both frames are intriguing and relate in a coherent way, you lose your audience. If they have to flip past boring bits to get back to the good bits, you will earn a bad review whether they finish reading the book or not. The same is true of boring subplots.

2.  Multiple Frames: Sometimes a story requires multiple frames. A multiple frame structure contains two or more story blocks that have access to each other. This is different from a subplot. Your verbal camera cuts between separate casts and stages. It successfully focuses on past versus present, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. You develop four layers for each frame. The second frame should intersect the first frame. Otherwise, it is a distraction. Each story block could be taken apart and stacked in inventive ways as long as you don’t make it too confusing.

 In the hands of a master story weaver, you could have a three, four, or five frame structure. For anyone less than a master, you have a mess. If readers have to stop reading to take notes, they give up.

3. Sequential Frames: You may choose a series of sequential frames, each with their own cast, setting, and conflict layers. They follow multiple generations of a family or multiple protagonists in different times or places. Each segment has its own cast and conflicts. You develop four layers for each story block. These should transition in a satisfying way. Each segment must carry its own weight to avoid losing the reader’s interest.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website. In the coming months, I will be releasing workbooks for each of the fourteen genres covered in the series.

Do You Need A B Story?

When I first studied the craft of fiction writing, I was bemused by the term subplot, aka B-story, which is defined as: A plot subordinate to the main plot of a literary work or film.

I examined the story I wanted to write and could not come up with a subordinate plot. I was not plotting a past versus present story. I was not following a secondary character's trajectory. I was not braiding two or more story threads together.

I went back and dissected some of my favorite stories and realized the majority were linear, focusing on one main set of characters going about one specific story goal. I set aside the term subplot and spent more time dissecting stories.

Hunger Games is a linear story. 

Agatha Christie mysteries are linear stories.

The Harry Potter books are linear stories.

A linear story starts at point A and winds its way to the end. There can be twists and turns, but you essentially follow the protagonist, perhaps with a few detours to follow secondary characters or the antagonist. There is a central problem with layers of conflict along the way: internal, external, interpersonal, and antagonist. Linear stories are quite satisfying. Your camera stays focused on the main stage. The camera can travel to view secondary characters interacting with each other and the antagonist to create obstacles.

A B-story is a side plot that runs along and intersects the A-story. Your camera moves between two casts and two stages. It should inform and complicate the A-story, otherwise it is a distraction. A satisfying B-story braids two separate threads together: past versus present mystery, two lives intersecting, or two worlds colliding. It should not be confused with consecutive timeline stories that follow generations of a family, etc. Those are a string of A-story pearls.

In the hands of a story master, you could have an A-, B-, and C-story.

You don’t have to have a B story. In fact, it can sometimes interfere with your readers’ enjoyment.

I recently watched a television series called The Bridge. The A-story was a riveting, multiple murder mystery concerning the border between Texas and Mexico. It shined a light on the dark world of border crossing criminal activity. The B-story involved a rancher who owned a tunnel running under the border. The rancher was murdered, which is the tie in to the A story. They kept up with the rancher's wife in the B-story throughout. The problem was, the B-story wasn’t interesting. The characters were unlikable and the subplot did not add tension to the A story. I fast-forwarded past those segments.

Readers hate distractions. Every distraction you offer gives them a reason to stop reading. If you choose to have a B-story, make sure it complicates the main story in some way instead of running alongside it as a distraction. If it is organic to your story, include it. But don't come up with one to shore up a weak middle.

It is far better to have a strong, well-developed linear story than attempting to stuff in a B-story to pad your plot.

A weak middle can be remedied by layering conflict. Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict explains how.

Shifting the Narrative

I responded to a Facebook post by Donald Maass, of Donald Maass Literary Agency, with this observation: "My hobby horse is that writers, and other entertainers, are responsible for the messages we send and the mental viruses we perpetuate. A little exposure to toxicity isn't fatal, but a steady diet would explain why we are where we are."

He asked me to elaborate. I could not do that in a short post, so I am answering here with a slightly longish answer.

In my five-plus decades on the planet, I have seen the narrative in entertainment shift dramatically. From the lovable Sherriff Andy Taylor in Mayberry to every cop is crooked in Chicago Blue. Gang bangers went from being the bad guys to being the misunderstood hero. Entertainment tells us there is so much gang violence we can't stop it. Body counts in movies and television have risen to ridiculous numbers and there are never any consequences shown. So apathy sets in. We hide in our homes and stream and let the wars run amok on our city streets. Cops are being shot daily and citizens are being mishandled weekly. Children are victims of drive-by shootings. This is a reality, but we rarely see the other 98% of people behaving with civility. It skews perception to the point where the focus feeds the problem.

We have gone from the racist and hateful Archie Bunker illuminating our biases to dysfunctional friends and families normalizing name calling, emotional, verbal, even physical abuse all in service of a good laugh, especially in "reality TV." We dig under rocks to find the most bizarre and damaged and hold them up for ridicule so we can feel better about our lives instead of getting them psychological care. We push them to act worse to get better ratings, damn the real-world consequences. We crow with outrage when they prove to be worse than we originally intended. But still thousands tune in to The Kardashians and Real Housewives to watch rich bitches muck wrestle.

We raise arrogant, entitled, narcissistic people to celebrity status and reward them for notorious behavior to the point where we now have kids fighting, making bomb threats at school, taking weapons to school, and shooting up schools to get attention. Again, as long as it makes You Tube or the nightly news so that everyone knows their name.

We have normalized stranger danger and violent sex scenes to ramp up the ratings. I mean, we all trash rooms, tear up clothes, and stop elevators to express our passion, right?  And then we have The Bachelor and Bachelorette franchise to further lower the tone. Then we wonder why our children are searching for love on telephone apps.

College life is depicted as a series of drunken bacchanals that would rival actual rites of Bacchus in too many to count motion pictures. And if a girl passes out and they photograph it while manhandling and raping her or a boy gets sodomized in the back of a school bus, it's just boys being boys or Animal House locker room talk. We give them a little slap on the wrist and move on. Men have always been that way, right? Wrong. That is an insult to all the good men out there and poor role modeling for our sons, but hey, as long it trends on social media. This is a perfect example of writing about something that needs to change instead of glorifying it.

Second place has become the first loser. Everything is a "battle" or "war" now and winning is the ultimate objective. Greed is good and everyone is corrupt from corporation heads, to our government officials, to the president, so why try to fight it? Once more, apathy sets in and we stay in our homes and pop popcorn and enjoy streaming House of Cards and Scandal.

There are rational people who see this stuff for what it is, sure. But there are masses of people fed this steady diet of garbage that never "read healthy." For every person who reads The New Yorker or Discover or National Geographic, there are thousands that read check-out tabloids. Therein lies the demise of our culture and the danger of encouraging apathy.

So, yes, I believe that writers and entertainers are responsible for the messages and mental viruses we perpetuate in our books, magazines, newspapers, movies, screenplays, and scripts. When we look at our content, we should consider the theme, tone, and message we wish to convey. Just because you can, should you?

I am not saying we shouldn't write about what is real or call attention to the problems in our society that need fixing. I would say that is our highest calling. However, you can write about something that is without suggesting that it should be.

I am not saying everything should be superficially happy happy joy joy. Rather, it is time to shift the narrative to reward and focus on people working toward being their best self and modeling healthy behavior in support of the betterment of our species. They need more screen time. Shows like Blue Bloods portray characters with character. You can add enough dramatic tension to good stories with admirable heroes to make them entertaining without drowning your audience in treacle.

I could write a thesis on this topic, but I will let this post stand as my "short" answer to a deep question.

I explored the topic in previous blog posts:

Toxic Messages Part 1

Toxic Messages Part 2

Subliminal Messages in Romance

Bad Romance

Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled exploration of genres.

Love or Money?

This week, I am over at the Blood Red Pencil discussing whether it is worth writing even if you are not raking in the cash.