Showing posts with label Louise Penny. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louise Penny. Show all posts

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard


I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.


A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

24 December 2019

My Secret About "Alex's Choice"


This column is about my newly published short story "Alex's Choice" in the anthology Crime Travel. If you plan to read the story, I recommend you do so first before proceeding here. What I'm about to reveal isn't a plot spoiler but it may impact your reading experience.

Okay. Let's get started. (And if you just read the story, I hope you liked it!)

When you start writing a short story or novel, you have some basic decisions to make. Who will my main character be? What will this person's name be? Job and hobbies if relevant? Appearance? What journey will the character face? And perhaps one of the biggest questions, what will the character's gender be? Maybe that question shouldn't be important, but it is, as it can (though it doesn't have to) affect so much in how a story is told.

It's a decision I've made for the main characters as well as the minor ones in all of my stories, except for one. When I wrote my story "Alex's Choice" (published earlier this month in the crime/time-travel anthology Crime Travel), I purposely chose not to make that decision for the title character. I chose the name Alex because it was the most gender-neutral name I could think of. Alex could be short for Alexander or Alexandra, for Alexi or Alexa or Alexis. Or the name might not be a nickname at all. I polled Facebook friends, asking if they thought someone named Alex would be a boy or girl with no other clues. For those who hazarded a guess, the results were pretty evenly split. So is Alex in my story a twelve-year-old boy or girl or perhaps even nonbinary? I never tell you. The answer is up to the reader.

Actually, I wrote the story hoping the reader would not consciously make that decision. Given that the name could be viewed as male or female, I hoped it would lead each reader to assume--without realizing it--that Alex is of the same gender as that reader. That was important because I wanted readers to remember stories they read as a child, fantasies or adventures that swept them away, and to get that same feel from this story. By not telling the reader Alex's gender, I allowed every reader to identify with Alex and perhaps picture themselves as Alex. At least I hope I did.

While I've done no research on this, I'd guess my decision not to tell the reader Alex's gender is similar to the gender-neutral approach to the Choose Your Own Adventure books popular when I was a kid. "You" were the main character, as I recall. The books were oriented toward every child. The main character's gender was never mentioned, likely because the author and publisher wanted every child to be able to see themselves as that character and go on that adventure. (Illustrations in some the books unfortunately depicted the main character as a boy, but I believe the stories themselves never did that.)

This no-gender-mentioned approach added challenges to the writing process. For instance, when talking about toys Alex had when younger, as well as activities Alex enjoys now, I chose things that I hoped readers wouldn't  associate as male or female. This was important because, while boys can play with dolls and girls can play with action figures, for some readers, a reference to dolls will automatically make that reader think the character is a girl, and a reference to action figures will automatically make the reader think the character is a boy.

One choice I made that made the writing process a little easier was telling the story in first person. I didn't have to avoid using pronouns in reference to Alex.

Of course I'm not the only writer to have ever written about characters' whose genders are ambiguous throughout the entire tale. Most such novels and stories, it seems, have been penned in the science fiction realm. As for crime fiction, my research has turned up the Detective Hilary Tamar four-novel series by the late Sarah Caudwell. Tamar's gender is never revealed in any of the books. In Steven Rigolosi's novel Androgynous Murder House Party, the author never reveals the gender of any of the seven main characters in the book. He hints near the end about some of their genders, but they are only hints. And Louise Penny has a character in two of her books, Bean, whose gender is never revealed.

So now you know a big secret about "Alex's Choice." If you read the story before you read this column, did it work--did you picture yourself as Alex? Did you assume Alex was the same gender as you? I'd also love to know if you've read any of the other books/authors I've mentioned above. If so, did not knowing the characters' gender affect the reading process and your enjoyment of the works?

And if you're now intrigued and are dying to buy Crime Travel or are at least thinking about it, here's some helpful information. It has fifteen short stories. The authors with stories in the book are: Melissa H. Blaine, James Blakey, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, Brendan DuBois, David Dean, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Barbara Monajem, Korina Moss, Art Taylor, Cathy Wiley, and, of course, me. We've had some solid reviews. To find them, just Google Crime Travel and my name. (I edited the book.) The anthology is available in trade paperback and ebook. (A hardcover version is coming but hasn't been shipped from the printer yet.) You can buy Crime Travel from the usual online sources. Indie bookstore Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, also has copies they are happy to mail to you.

I wish you a wonderful holiday season and new year. And happy reading!

13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"


By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China MiĆ©ville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!