Category Archives: Writing

Avoiding a Catapostrophe

The apostrophe.  Often misused and maligned, but here to stay.  For now.

What is this little piece of punctuation used for?  Only three things.  It’s actually pretty simple:

(1) an apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter.

The primary example here is contractions.  As examples, “you are not” becomes “you aren’t”, and “he is not” becomes “he isn’t”.

What about a contraction for “I am not”?  Why are we missing the first person singular?  Actually, it is not missing, just forgotten: ain’t.  For some reason, ain’t has devolved to become improper English while all the other contractions have survived… including shan’t, of all things.  It just ain’t right.

In English, contractions are a contradiction.  Written language is generally modified to fit spoken language, because people read aloud in their heads.  Why else would you write “an” instead of “a” before a vowel?

So why is it that contractions are used constantly in spoken language, to the extent that not using them makes you sound stuffy — but contractions are considered improper when written?  That is starting to change… I mean… that’s starting to change.

Similarly, the apostrophe is used to indicate regional speech.  Where would Eliza Doolittle be without “all I want is ‘Enry ‘Iggins’ ‘ead”, or Bob and Doug McKenzie without “How’s it goin’, eh?”  And let’s not forget the ubiquitous and universally applicable Southernism — y’all.

Unfortunately, as the language continues to devolve through the influence of texting, the apostrophe-s is becoming a ‘z’.  For example, “Where’s the beef?” has become “Yo grrlz wherez the lolz?”

(2) an apostrophe indicates possession.

This is a shortcut that doesn’t exist in many languages, and is actually pretty handy.

For example, if you want to say “this is Bob’s blog” in French, you must use the roundabout “this is the blog of Bob”.  You can say that in English too, of course, but why would you?

Use of an apostrophe in this way is a leftover from the ancient Saxon (Germanic) influence on English.  Danke Vortigern!

There is a weirdness here.  If whatever you are pluralizing already ends in “s”, you don’t add another one, such as “my parents’ house”.  Else it would look weird.

There is an even bigger weirdness that occurs when possession conflicts with contraction.  There is only one case of this in the English language, as far as I know.  It’s it’s.

People screw this up constantly, not just in emails and blogs but in big expensive things like signs and menus.  Seriously, the rule is really simple:

  • if it’s a contraction, use the apostrophe.  For example, “it’s a contraction”.
  • if you are showing possession, don’t use the apostrophe. For example, “remember to subscribe to my blog so you won’t miss its fascinating facts and perspicacious prose”.

(3) use an apostrophe to pluralize lowercase letters.

This is a strange one, which comes about for clarity.  For example, if you write “the word kerbopple has two ps in it” this would make people try to spell it “kerbopspsle” or something.

So you write “the word kerbopple has two p’s in it” and the meaning is clear.

This practice has also survived in the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s”.  If you wrote “mind your ps and qs” it would change the meaning entirely.  So, um… mind your p’s and q’s.

Note that people used to use an apostrophe to pluralize uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols as well.  This practice has mostly disappeared but it’s still a grey area.

For example, you can write “I love the 80s” or “I love the 80’s” and no one will complain.  However if you write “I just bought two iPod 5’s” you will look so 2000’s.

This is similar to the grocer’s comma, or more correctly, the grocer’s apostrophe (though in this context being correct is missing the point).  It got its name by the greengrocer’s habit of using an apostrophe when they want to indicate a plural, e.g. “fresh tomato’s” or “banana’s by the pound”.

Personally, I have never seen that in my local grocery store, but I have seen it in many other place’s.  I mean, places.  It drive’s me bonker’s.

Wait!  You say.  What about the use of apostrophes to indicate speech, or to set off words for ’emphasis’?  Well, technically those are not apostrophes, they are quotation marks.  Different animal entirely.  The fact they often look the same is purely because of limitations of font.

Bonus fact: did you know apostrophe can also mean “the rhetorical address of a usually absent person or personified thing“, as in: “O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!”  Me neither.  It smacks of Shakespeare.

Strangely, this meaning doesn’t appear to be related at all to the punctuation mark.  O English, thou art a fascinating subject!

Bonus the second: there is (was?) a movement to remove the apostrophe from the English language.  It was once led by the great author George Bernard Shaw, who hated the thing.  What would he think of the grocer’s comma?  Then again, there are some people who love the apostrophe.  Who knew punctuation could be so divisive?

Which side do you fall on?  Personally, I dig the apostrophe, but I’m a language nerd / nazi (and proud of it).

Reeds, shoots & leaves: a short story on paper

Did you know when you write on paper, you are writing on leaves?

Yep, it’s in the history of our language.

Our story starts a few thousand years ago.  Our ancestors in what are now North Africa and the Middle East wrote on clay tablets.  It was presumably cheap and fairly permanent, but not terribly portable.  Every book created in such a manner is a hardcover.  Very hardcover.  Imagine trying to fit the Old Testament into your camel bags when every page is inch-thick rock.

The Egyptians decided there had to be a better way.  They figured out how to turn papyrus reeds into paper.  In fact, that’s literally where “paper” comes from: “paper” comes from the French “papier”, which comes from the Latin “papyrus”, which comes from… um… papyrus.

In the meanwhile, Buddhist monks figured out how to write on dried palm leaves.  In fact, some anthropologists think the paper caused them to use rounded letters, because angled letters tore the paper.

That’s interesting, don’t you think?  Sumerian cuneiform writing was mostly lines and angles, probably because it was too hard to make curves in clay.  As people started using flattened papyrus reeds and palm leaves, they added curves in their writing so they wouldn’t tear their new paper.

So that means the writing medium directly influences the alphabet of a culture.

And it’s still happening.  Remember PalmPilots and their own funky alphabet?  It was called Graffiti, and they needed it to make use of the new medium.

Graffiti is perhaps a poor example because it died with the PalmPilot, but in the age of text and email we introduced emoticons.  This is because our new electronic media is devoid of emotion.

Back in the days when we actually talked to people, we could tell from their tone or facial expression whether they were joking.  Now, in a text or email, we can’t.  Thus we invented emoticons, so you can still insult your friends and family then tack on a smiley so they know you didn’t mean it.  You jerk.  🙂

Getting back to leaves… the French word for a sheet of paper is “feuille“, which is the same word they use for “leaf”.  It comes from the Latin “folia”, from which we also get the English word “foliage”.

And in English, a sheet of paper is also called a “page“.  The word “page” comes from the French word “pagene” or “pagne”, which comes from the Latin “pagina” which means the surface of a leaf, shoot, or a flattened twig.

So that word “page” brings us back to the beginning of this, when I was talking about papyrus reeds and palm leaves.  (You thought I was lost, didn’t you?)

In case you were wondering, the English word “sheet” comes from the Saxon branch of the language.  It just means a covering or a flat surface.  Nothing exciting there.

Note that some people were also writing on tree bark, especially birch bark.  In fact, the term “codex” which used to mean book (and sometimes still does) comes from Latin “caudex”, meaning “bark”.  That is another leaf reference, sort of.

To complete this historical picture: besides paper, European monks also used parchment.  This is the skin of a lamb, goat, pig, deer, or calf, which is stretched and treated to make a clean and durable writing surface.  In the case of calfskin, it was also called “vellum” which comes from the French “veau”, from which we also get “veal”.

Returning again to leaves… the English word leaf references paper in two ways:

  1. a leaf is a single sheet of a paper with two sides, such as you would find in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  It comes from medieval bookbinding methods, when monks would lay four sheets of parchment on top of each other, then fold them over to make eight leaves.  Since each leaf had two sides, that gave them sixteen pages.  This was called a quire, for “four”, and later called a gathering or a signature.  They painstakingly filled the pages of each gathering with medieval stuff, then bound all the gatherings together into a book.  As they replaced parchment with paper, they could fit more than eight leaves in a gathering, but the principle of binding leaves into gatherings and gatherings into books is still used today.
  2. to leaf through a book, magazine, or newspaper is to skim it by quickly turning over pages.  I assume this is simply verb-alizing the noun in #1.


What about collective nouns?

Well, we call a handful of paper a “sheaf”, and we buy it in reams.

Sheaf also comes from the Saxon branch of English, as a bundle of grain or straw.  That ties into papyrus, a bit.

Ream, however, comes to us through French and Spanish, originally from Moorish Arabic for “collect into a bundle”.  It was around 480 pages, but varied all over the place.  There is an international standard ream now, which is exactly 500 pages, but apparently reams of a little less and a little more are still around.

So the next time you come home from Staples with a fresh ream of paper, before you pull out a sheaf and stick it into your printer, give a thought to its five thousand year history and all those monks that came before you.  Scribing, illuminating, and bookbinding was high art — something a laptop and printer will never replace.


A Parable of Parallels

This is the story of Robby and Tommy, and of the strange way in which their society valued their lives.

They were born in the same year and lived on the same street.  Naturally they became best friends.  They were always together, playing in one or another’s front yard, or riding their bikes around the neighborhood.  In school, their teachers said they were twins who acted alike instead of looking alike.

Robby’s father was a lawyer.  He went to work early every morning, and spent many weeknights working in his study.  He expected his son would go to college like he did.  On weekends he often took both boys to the museum, or the zoo, or the movies.  Once in a while he took them to his office to play with the photocopiers.

Tommy’s father was a Ford salesman.  He was a star football player when he was in high school, but he wasn’t quite good enough for a college scholarship, and he wasn’t that interested in college anyway.  He was liked by everyone and made a good salesman.  On weekends he often took both boys to a ball game, or the park, or the video arcade.

Both Robby and Tommy wanted to be deep sea divers when they grew up, then astronauts, then fighter pilots, then ambulance drivers.

But one year Robby’s mother got very sick.  The doctors said it was cancer, and she started wasting away right before their eyes.  One doctor gave her an experimental treatment, and she got better.  One year stretched into two, and everyone started to forget she was ever sick.  But suddenly she got even sicker, and began wasting away even faster.  A priest went to her in the hospital, and Robby began to understand that his mother was really dying this time.  He told her he didn’t want her to go, and she said she would always be watching him from heaven, and then she died.

Everyone they knew came to the funeral.  As Robby watched his mother’s casket lowered into the ground, he said to Tommy that he was going to be a doctor.  He wanted to make sick people well again, like that doctor with the experimental treatment, only he would do it better so it would never stop working.

Fast forward a few years.  Robby became Robert, and Tommy became Thomas.  Robert got a new mother, and he thought she was okay.  He called her Karen instead of Mom though, and she was okay with that.  Thomas said she was pretty, and Robert thought that was gross.

Thomas still came around for supper sometimes, but he didn’t sleep over anymore.  Every night he had football practice or basketball practice or baseball practice, and he usually hung around with his friends from the team.

Robert read lots of different books because he knew doctors had to know a lot of different things.  His dad bought him a set of encyclopedias, and he sat cross-legged with them on his lap for hours, going from one topic to the next.  Thomas sometimes came over to read them too, and then they used Robert’s chemistry set to make stinkbombs.

Fast forward a few more years, to high school.  Robert became Rob, and Thomas became Tom.  Rob was the school brain, good at every subject, captain of the debating team, and winner of all the science fairs.  Tom was the starting quarterback for the school football team, and star center for the basketball team.  They didn’t see each other much.  If they passed in the hallways, sometimes they would say “hi”.

In fact, Tom hung around with the “in” crowd, who made fun of Rob and his nerdy friends.  Tom went quiet when they did that.  Tom got a new girlfriend every month.  Rob was awkward and shy around girls.  He never got a date and took his cousin to the senior prom.

Tom got a college football scholarship, signed a contract for a major league team after his third year, and dropped out to play pro.  Many top colleges offered Rob scholarships, and he chose the one with the best medical and biotechnology programs.

Tom got a vintage Corvette as a signing bonus.  Rob kept driving his father’s old Tempo, the one his father had bought from Tom’s father fourteen years before.

Rob completed his undergraduate degree with honors and applied for graduate studies in biotechnology.  He was accepted immediately.

Tom was named Rookie of the Year and he tore up his contract to get a better one.  He got it.

Later that year, Tom wrapped his Porsche around a streetlamp and bought a Ferrari, but then got arrested for cocaine possession, suspended for a month, and was committed to rehab.  He tried to punch a police officer on the way out of the courtroom, and Disney had to cancel their advertising contract with him.  Fortunately, Mennen and Schick found his new rough image appealing, especially since it was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the developed world.  They offered him new contracts.

Rob’s old Tempo finally died and could not be resurrected.  He started taking the bus.

Rob finished his Master’s degree in a year and went on to Doctorate studies.  The faculty put Rob’s professor in charge of a privately funded research project looking at new cancer treatments.  After a year, the professor was spending more and more time flogging for additional grant money so he let Rob lead the research team.  Rob couldn’t have been happier, despite his girlfriend of six months leaving him for a phys-ed student.

Tom was arrested again for cocaine possession, but the judge was a huge football fan.  Tom was sentenced in absentia to one hundred hours of community service.  He never served it.  No one expected him to.

Over the next two years Tom’s addictions and erratic behavior began to affect his play, and he started to slide in the league standings.  He was traded to a small market team and his adoring public forgot about him.  The celebrity endorsements dried up, leaving him with only his base four million dollar salary.  He was very unhappy, and he fell further into excess.

Rob and his team made worthwhile discoveries and published three papers, but they didn’t make the big breakthrough that the private backer was hoping for.  They pulled their funding, which effectively killed the project.  Rob was disappointed, but not so much.  He knew he was close to something.

Later that year, Rob completed his Doctorate degree and became a professor at the same university.  He pulled together a team of graduate students and restarted his previous research project.  His old professor found him another corporate backer and Rob borrowed against everything he owned, and more besides, to buy better equipment for his lab.

Tom kept looking back at all he had lost.  He grew despondent as he watched his cars and his summer house in France go up his nose.  His girlfriend left with his Corvette, his friends dropped by less and less often, and he was suspended from the team for missing too many practices.  He gained ten useless pounds and looked fifteen years older.  He felt like the has-been the football pundits were calling him.

Rob followed his childhood dream with a fervor that left his fellows in awe.  They rarely saw him outside of his laboratory.  He even installed a cot in his office.  Which he occasionally shared, as it turned out, with an attractive young graduate student on his team.  She was caught up in the vortex surrounding the handsome young doctor with the soft belly and unruly hair, and a fire in his eyes that left her smitten.

The next year, Rob made a breakthrough that made international news.  His discovery was credited with saving potentially millions of lives, and he was nominated for the Nobel prize in Medicine.

Tom’s agent told him his contract would not be renewed.  Tom was deciding whether to go work for his father selling cars, or to put a gun into his mouth and end a lifetime of wasted potential, when his eyes happened to fall upon an article in USA Today.  It was about a boy he once knew.  The boy had grown up to accomplish everything he had promised to do.  Tom looked at himself in the mirror, then threw up.  He followed that by flushing the envelope of cocaine he had taped beneath the bathroom sink, then he went through his house gathering the rest of his caches.  He flushed them too.  That afternoon he called some friends in the league.  He managed to get himself traded to an expansion team that he thought could be a Superbowl contender.

Before the end of that season, Tom rediscovered his love for the game and outran even the rookies.  His star began to shine again.  The endorsement contracts began to trickle in, and the sports pundits stopped calling him a has-been.  As much.

Rob won the Nobel prize for Medicine.  He graciously shared the cash prize of ten million kronas, roughly one point three million dollars, with his research team.  After paying off his debts he still had enough money to buy a nice house.  The award presentation was not televised in North America, so he bought a ticket to Stockholm for his father and stepmother to watch it in person.

The next year Tom led his new team to the Superbowl finals and the league named him Player of the Year.  He received a million dollar cash bonus.  His face was again front page news.  His team renewed his contract for twenty two million dollars over three years, and new endorsement contracts came in at double that.  He married a supermodel and divorced her a month later.  She kept his new summer house in Italy and two of his cars.  He then married an actress.  That marriage lasted nearly six months, but fortunately she had signed a pre-nuptial agreement.  Naturally she contested it, but his lawyer assured him that the case would be tied up in appeals for another ten years, giving him plenty of time to hide his assets.

Rob’s breakthrough was considered one of the top medical discoveries of the century.  No one knew his face, and his name was quickly forgotten by the people whose lives he saved.  Instead, they thanked their doctor, or the pharmaceutical company who supplied the drugs created from Rob’s research.  Incidentally, that company’s stock split after the university sold them the patent.

Rob became a legend in the scientific community, and shared his time with as many research teams as he could.  He preferred to stay near home though, in his four bedroom house that he shared with his wife – the attractive former graduate student – and their two children.  He wrote in his memoirs that except for losing his mother at an early age, he was the luckiest man on Earth, and he would relive his life in exactly the same way.

Tom’s name lived on forever in the minds of sports fans and in games of trivia.  He blew out his left knee at age 30 and decided to retire.  He was wealthy enough to live better than royalty for the rest of his life, despite squandering millions on high living and failed marriages.  If he decided to write his autobiography – which he never would, but if he did – he could have remarked that throwing a ball and running around pays very well for those who are good at it.

One warm autumn day, Tom suddenly remembered that article in USA Today, and he found himself wondering about his childhood friend.  He nearly had his assistant look for Rob’s number to invite him over for a barbeque.  Rob nearly accepted.  And their society nearly wondered if it should value those who save lives more than those who entertain.  But it didn’t.

A dramatic Rule of Three

Three is the magic number for fiction.  It shows up everywhere.

For example, there is the classic “three act structure“.  Dramatic theory says every story ever written can be broken down into three parts called the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.

Another obvious example is the trilogy.  Books just work well in threes.  The Lord of the Rings is the most notable example, which set the standard for Fantasy in particular — most editors who deal in Fantasy want trilogies, and it’s probably Tolkien’s fault — but it’s catching on for popular books too (The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Hollywood also likes trilogies.  Think of Amazing Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire and the Batman reboot with Christian Bale.  Most egregious is Star Wars, which started with a trilogy and will become a trilogy of trilogies.

If a movie is successful enough for a sequel, they usually add a third.  Sometimes they add a fourth and everyone agrees they should have stopped at three.

You may say that is because three is the longest Hollywood can milk a franchise, or because the principal characters get too old (it was getting harder to buy Tobey Maguire as a college kid), or too bored (after three turns as Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford wanted to do other things… at least until twenty years later when he made Crystal Skull, and see the above comment about “adding a fourth”).

All true, sure, but it’s also because of the mystical properties of three.

Yes, three.  It’s not too big, it’s not too small, it’s ju-u-u-st right.

Wait… where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah.  A certain moppet called Goldilocks and her adventures in B&E, trespassing, and vandalism beloved by children everywhere.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Or I just snuck in a tic of foreshadowing as a clever segue to my main topic.

In this post I wanted to talk about the Rule of Three in drama.

In previous posts I explored two Rules of Three as used in humorous fiction: first, as a way to create Humor in the Unexpected, and second, adding a third character to save a humorous scene.

In drama, you routinely encounter what one of my earliest creative writing teachers (okay, my only creative writing teacher) called the try/fail.

In fact, one could argue drama requires a try/fail or it just isn’t drama.

So this rule of three goes like this:

  1. hero tries and fails
  2. hero tries and fails
  3. hero tries… and success!

Not complicated, right?  Well, no.  How complicated is e=mc2?  But that doesn’t make it any less important.  (Notice I didn’t say ‘explosive’ — I am working through the ten steps of PunAnon.)

In fact, now that you know about the Rule of Three you will see it in every book and movie from now on.

So here’s an example:

  1. the first bed is too hard
  2. the second bed is too soft
  3. third bed is ju-u-u-st right

What would happen if Goldilocks found the third bed first, and passed out there?  Scene ends, no drama.  Or say she found the best bed second, and passed out there.  Again, scene ends, no drama.

Just as in humor, once is an incident, twice is a pattern, and then you break the pattern.

No pattern, no audience expectation, no drama.

Also consider: what if the Three Bears’ cousins Ned and Myrtle were staying with them, and Goldilocks tried their beds too?  By the time Goldi gets to the fifth bed, your kids are bored with this story and want to play Xbox.

As Goldilocks has proven by experiment, three is ju-u-u-st right.

Short stories generally only have enough time for one plotline, so they generally only have one brace of try/fails.  However, in longer fiction, there are usually several plotlines with their own try/fail, try/fail, success.

For example:

Sam and Frodo first try to get to Mordor through the Misty Mountains, but the company is forced to try the Mines of Moria instead, and we all know how that turned out: Gandalf buys it, Boromir betrays them, orcs attack, Sam and Frodo get pissed and strike off on their own.  So that’s a pretty big fail.

Sam and Frodo are forced to ally with Gollum to use him as their guide, but Gollum leads them into a trap and Frodo dies from a massive spider bite.  Sam carries on alone.  That’s another big fail.

Fortunately Frodo was not dead, he’s getting better and he thinks he will go for a walk, so he and Sam re-team and carry on to the Crack of Doom.  But Gollum catches up to them at the worst possible moment, and the last try/fail is a literal cliffhanger that will decide the fate of the world, and we are turning pages as fast as we can, and… and… this time the bad guy fails, and the good guys succeed!  Main plot resolved.

Of course, there was another major plot line running at the same time starring Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails.

And we have another major plot line with the battered remnants of the Fellowship trying to catch up with Merry and Pippin, and they have their own set of try/fails.  What would have happened if Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli caught up with Merry and Pippin on the first day?  Booooring. Plus it would have ended Merry and Pippin’s subplot before it began.

And yes, as with any rule, there are exceptions.  Sometimes an extra try/fail can work, and sometimes a single try/fail can work.

However, just like gravity, it’s easier to follow a rule of nature than spend all your energy figuring out ways to beat it.

And before you trot out examples of storytellers breaking the rule of three, make sure you aren’t looking at try/fails in subplots, or setpieces that contribute to an upcoming try/fail.  I’ll bet you are.

Another humorous rule of three: characters

Regular readers may remember my discussion about the Rule of Three when it comes to humor, when I explored Humor in the Unexpected.

It occurred to me that there is another Rule of Three about humor: three characters.

For drama, the magic number is two: two characters discussing, arguing, competing, fighting, et cetera.  A third character disrupts the flow, and saps the energy from the conflict.  In drama, you do not want a “distraction from the action”.

However, for humor, a distraction from the action is exactly what you want.  A scene with two people joking back and forth can’t go on for long, because the scene loses focus.  No matter how funny the scene, it has to accomplish something for the story.  It has to advance the plot, or reveal something about a character, or both.

So a third character can add some levity to a scene while the two other characters keep the action going.  If the scene is tense, the third character can add some breathing room, otherwise known as comic relief (see Humor Under Stress).

For example, take C3PO in The Empire Strikes Back, when he is stuck with Han and Leia on the Millennium Falcon.  His constant nattering irritates Han in particular, which is amusing to us, and adds comic relief because our main characters are in terrible peril, being bashed about by asteroids and whatnot.  But then C3PO accomplishes something very important: he breaks up an attempted kiss between Han and Leia.  He brings great news, but the timing was terrible.  It’s funny because he has no idea what he did wrong — but the main purpose of his intrusion was to create a try/fail with Han and Leia’s romance, so Lucas and Kasdan could draw that subplot out for a whole other movie.

(What’s a try/fail?  Actually it’s part of another Rule of Three!  Stay tuned to this channel for more.)

Another example is Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.  Unfortunately Jar Jar is only funny to audience members who haven’t outgrown Yu-Gi-Oh and Hello Kitty as high art, but without Jar Jar’s presence, the scenes would have been dry as dust because Jedi are supposed to be flat and unemotional.  And unfortunately, they were.

Oh what a movie that would have been if Lucas had hired a cowriter, like he did with Empire…. Sigh.

Of course, it is certainly possible to create an engaging and downright hilarious story where the two principals are flat and unemotional.  Take The Blues Brothers.  Jake and Elwood had a couple of weird habits, and a weird childhood, but that’s about it.  The humor came from the situations they created while they were “on a mission from gahd”.  Plus there were some wacky characters like Carrie Fisher’s character.

That’s right.  Princess Leia was in The Blues Brothers.

Conversely, if two characters are funny, add a third character to act as the foil.  The foil makes the funny characters seem even funnier.  He is the straight man… or woman, since in stories women almost never get to be funny.

As examples, Moe of the Three Stooges acts as the (relatively) straight man to his outlandish brothers, and Groucho fills the same role for the Marx Brothers (yes there were five of them, but you get the idea).

Note the second or third character doesn’t have to be an actual character.  It can be a thing or an obstacle, or even the goal itself.  Just something to lend a presence.

For example, take Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If it was only Don Quixote versus a windmill, it would have been amusing.  But when Panza joins in and acts the foil while Quixote acts the fool (hey, that’s pretty good, I’d better trademark that), the scene is amplified to hilarious.  The scenes where they are traveling together move the plot and reveal character, but aren’t terribly funny.  However when they encounter other people, or windmills, that’s when the humor starts.

However, like I said above, even a humorous scene must accomplish something toward the story.  It should have some action or conflict to keep it moving, and it must advance the plot or reveal something about a character.  Or why not all three?

Scenes that accomplish several things at once and still get a chuckle out of the reader are the ones people will remember forever.  Like the aforementioned kissing scene in Empire.

As another example, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, there are several scenes when Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are talking with Marvin, the paranoid android.  These scenes are funny because Marvin is playing the straight… er… robot in bizarre situations while Arthur and Ford try to extract some information from him, or get him to do something.  With the humor Adams manages to advance the plot.

For example, remember the scene (one of my favorites) when they are plunging into the sun, with the dialogue:

Ford, how many escape capsules are there?


Did you count them?


It ends with poor Marvin being “volunteered to” …. well I won’t spoil it for you.

But wait!  You say.  What about a story told in first person by an amusing narrator?

Well, think about it.  A story told in first person involves a second person: you.  The narrator is including you in the story!  However, if all the narrator does is tell you jokes, it’s a comedy monologue, not a story.  How long would that last?

But now the narrator only needs one more person to complete the triad.  For example, Slippery Jim DiGriz in The Stainless Steel Rat series has a delightful narrative style that is amusing by itself and keeps the reader’s interest, but the scenes do not become actually funny until he encounters other characters.

For example, there is the scene where he is trying to steal Get-stuffed candy bars from a shop, and he is fighting his invention while his schoolmates are fighting the shop owner.  If it was only him stealing candy bars, it would not have been that interesting, no matter how clever the dialogue with you, the reader.  The other characters, the distraction to the action, is what makes the scene work.

So my point is, if a scene doesn’t accomplish something for the story, if its only reason for being is to get a snicker from the audience, it has to go, no matter how funny it is.

However, you can save it by introducing a third character to keep the focus on the action, where it belongs.

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