Writing humour is a tough gig. Perhaps not quite as tough as stand-up, but hard, nonetheless. What’s going to make people laugh? If it’s a humorous novel, what’s going to make readers pick it up in the first place, and then, when they’ve picked it up, what’s going to keep them reading? How do you shape an opening, when plot and characterisation are all secondary to the main purpose, that of making people laugh?
Title: The Abyss
Language: British English
Synopsis: Jez has an empty weekend to fill and he attempts to fill it as unproductively as possible. However, his epic conversation with a call-centre is only the beginning of his problems which leads to an hysterical mouse-hunt, a broken nose+split head and an incinerated breakfast. Lovely Patsy Renihan though, beckons.
Jez stared at the lonely crumbs of cheese on his worktop then glanced sideways and stared into the yawning abyss of the empty weekend ahead – a weekend which he knew would be devoid of fun and cheese. The cheese was now sadly departed as he had sprinkled the last of it onto a slice of toast and this added to the certainty that this particular weekend would be a 48-hour slog of doing sod-all. In fact, Jez thought that looking at a tin of paint (never mind actually painting it on a wall in the first place) might be fun and so there lay ahead another 48 hours without even Eddie Murphy to lighten the mood. Jez was 35, born and raised in North Greenwich SE10 and was described by his female friends as unconventionally handsome (did that mean conventionally ugly?) and was employed by a thankfully non-hipster firm called Fluence PR in Shoreditch, the 7th circle of hipster hell. He was unmarried and vowed to remain unhitched because Charlton FC had just been promoted to the Premiership so that was at the very least 1, or at a push 2, seasons of top-flight mediocre football-watching and all its attendant activities and deserved at least some of his attention until Charlton predictably went wallop. He wasn’t their most fervent supporter but since they had made the effort of clambering and spoofing their way into the Premiership he resolved to keep an eye on their progress while sitting in pubs watching their games on weekend afternoons with his mates, none of whom were about this weekend – so that was settled, he wouldn’t be watching their progress in pubs this weekend after all. Jez was also starting to experience what his cod-psychologist mate Howley called Twatosis, which was an onslaught of irrational mid-thirties cynicism and irritation at aspects of modern life that wouldn’t normally deserve it. For instance, he considered himself to be left-wing but not a “right-on lefty” and therefore couldn’t abide hippies, especially hippies with bongo-drums and he believed bongo-drums to be the natural enemy of capitalists and bankers whom he also couldn’t stand. During the 2011 Occupy Wall-Street movement when hoards of lentil-munching crusties made pure shite of lovely old St Paul’s Cathedral concourse, he remembered their irony-laden banners which read – “CAPITALISM ISN’T WORKING”. They irritated him to the extent that he wanted so badly to run up to them with a spray-can and add in – “NEITHER ARE ANY OF YOU ARSEHOLES”, before being pursued across the Thames towards the Tate under a hail of mung-beans and Naomi Wolfe books. Other things which got right on his goat were oysters, people who ate oysters, people who swore by oysters and who said, “You mean you’ve never tried oysters?”, especially the ones who put the stress on never, vaping cigarettes that looked like mini lightsabers, the current fad among 20-somethings for nose-rings that resembled metal-snots, Christmas starting around Guy Fawkes day, West Ham FC and cinnamon – the crappiest spice ever to come out of Madagascar. He currently lived alone in Limehouse, East London but until 3 months ago rented the spare double-bedroom to his mate Spock for 2 years. Spock’s real name was Philip Burrage but owing to a horrific mutation in their DNA, Spock and virtually every male in the Burrage family line and probably as far back as the signing of the Magna Carta was bald, baldy bald. Once, when they (not the signatories of the Magna Carta) were in their late teens and knocking about near Chrisp Street Market, Howley used the phrase, “to baldly go where no-one has gone before”, in front of the rapidly de-thatching Phillip, then got a smack across the back of his head for his troubles. Since then, Phillip had become known as Spock and it didn’t help that his ears were of a slightly sticky-outty pointy variety. While renting a room to Spock, Jez realised they were both on opposite ends of the spider-loving spectrum. Spock was petrified of spiders whereas Jez thought they were the business and his house’s age and lingering dampness made it prime breeding territory and rutting ground for a standing army of spiders who were in residence before he moved in 10 years ago. He once set up a twitter account called @JezsWeeklySpiders and set about taking 1 photo every week of the biggest, hardest, bastard spider he could find. He had originally set up @JezsDailySpiders but deleted it when the workload of trying to find and photograph a new spider every day became too much hassle. The best ones were to be found in the warmth of the airing-cupboard and some would even rear up on their back legs when he had the flash on as if to say, “Oi wanka! If you post a picture o’ me i’ll chew you right ‘ap.” This was the dog-rough East-end after all. @JezsWeeklySpiders reached 4,384 followers and it’s high-point was when @Wayne_Sleep retweeted a picture of a spider the width of a donut with the word, “Eeeeeek!!”. He deleted the account when the hard snows and frost of 2014 all but wiped out their airing-cupboard manor which left precious few Cockney-gangster spiders left to photograph. His house was on one of the older Limehouse streets near Limehouse Cut – one that wasn’t bombed to buggery during WW2 and when he bought it the auctioneer’s brochure boasted (they’re always bloody-well boasting!) – “Cosy end-of-terrace, 2 bedroom house with generous living area. South-facing rear-aspect with shed”. The shed put the fear of God into him and there was a vacant malevolence to it that he couldn’t quite put his finger on and the one that took up space in his South-facing rear-aspect was no exception: it had a crooked wooden-door which sat between 2 grimy windows.
“They look like eyes”, as Howley pointed out once, and every time Jez looked out into the rear-aspect for past 10 years they stared at Jez. Spock eventually upped sticks and took his exquisite vinyl collection with him because he’d gotten careless and somehow became himself engaged to Louise, a real beauty from Streatham. Louise had supermodel looks which were let down by a dodgy haircut that no-one ever mentioned for fear of inflicting a nervous breakdown on the girl. In fact, it was so bad that Jez was convinced she may have visited her hairstylist one day and asked,
“Give me the Harpo Marx”
Editorial critique: Although humour is a class apart from other genres, in that plot and characterisation are somewhat ancillary to generating laughs, I think there are still some general writing principles that apply. The biggest clue that there is something dramatically wrong with this opening can be seen, literally, on the page. This entire opening of 1077 words is just two paragraphs. In fact it’s largely one huge paragraph of dense text, utterly intimidating to the reader. There’s a physical problem here. It’s very easy to lose your place when reading dense text. Publishers generally left and right justify, so the average page, of 250 words, 10 words a line, 25 lines, will appear as one enormous block of evenly spaced type. It’s physically demanding to keep your eyes focussed on one line amongst so many others. It’s hard to do for half a page, let alone a full page, let alone four full pages.
Okay. So why has this happened? Partly it’s because it just hasn’t been broken up into paragraphs. You could easily split it, starting with a new paragraph at “In fact …”, and another then at “Jez was 35 …” and so on throughout the text. However, that conceals a more fundamental problem. It’s all backstory. One sentence after another begins with “Jez was” this, or “Jez wasn’t” that. This is all “telling”. We’re not being encouraged to be Jez, to recognise him in ourselves, to understand his motivations or interests. We’re just being told about him, and it quickly becomes a mere catalogue of Jez’s likes and dislikes. That might be interesting, if we already had some kind of connection with Jez, but we don’t. We know nothing about him really. We certainly don’t know him well enough to care if he likes oysters or not.
It might be possible to argue that the piece still works because the reader might find the observational comedy about, for example, oysters, amusing. Well it might, but then you’ve got to pick your targets very carefully to avoid the twin pitfalls of picking easy targets (everyone hates hipsters and bankers) and picking targets that might well alienate your readership (quite a few of your readership might actually be hipsters and bankers). Without the gently knowing acknowledgement of this irony in a live audience, the references might just come across as plain insult.
I think this gets to the crux of the issue. What might work in a live audience doesn’t necessarily work in print. When talking live you’ve got delivery, facial expression, body language all working for you. You have an audience, probably primed with a few drinks, expecting a night of comedy, prepared to laugh. In print, you have nothing but words. Readers might be sitting up awake with a crying baby in the middle of the night, looking for a bit of light relief. They might have their nose stuck in someone else’s armpit on the tube or train on a dull commute early on a rainy Tuesday morning. I’ll change my earlier position. I think you might even have to work a bit harder in a book.
I’d be generalising if I said that situational comedy probably works better in print than observational comedy (I’d also generally be commenting on comedy above my pay-grade – I’ll freely admit I’m no expert), but I think that readers need a context for humour. Before you start delivering the observations about oysters (with which I entirely agree, as it happens), I think you need us to get to know Jez a little first. Unless it’s a book of “101 gags you can tell your new father-in-law”, any kind of humourous observation has got to have a context to be funny. That context is character, or situation. Here we don’t really have either.
I’m not an expert on humour, but I’m fairly confident that an editor who was would have similar observations about your opening. Without knowing Jez, or having a situational context, the long list of observations you have here about modern life, while amusing in an intellectual sense, would not be engrossing for a reader. No-one reads a joke book from cover to cover. Even readers who pick up a novel in the humour section want a story. I don’t think there’s anywhere near enough story in this opening.
Thanks for posting.
Thanks for the feedback. Yep, a lot of what you said is common sense and needs a chunk of work to get it right.
Read some British novelists who deal in humour (Ben Elton and Stephen Fry are the only two to come to mind off the top of my head) to get a feel for how they balance the gags with the story. Although funny writers, I think you’ll find that the humourous observations are incidental to the story. Good luck!
Hi, Just a few more questions,
Aside from the fact that I carelessly omitted paragraphs and readability I just wanted to ask: if one is telling a story in the past-tense then isn’t that, by definition ‘backstory’?
When you say, “This is all “telling”, do you mean this in the sense that they say of movies, “Show, don’t tell”?
Also, and maybe I’m displaying my lack of writing experience but I thought at the start of the chapter that I was describing Jez well enough so that the reader gets to know him, i.e. where he lives, age, status, job etc, because you write, “We certainly don’t know him well enough to care if he likes oysters or not”. Am I not getting under his skin enough to make him real?
I agree also that the starting segment I submitted contains a lot of Jez’s likes and dislikes but it’s not all like that for the rest of the 63K words.
Thanks for any advice,
No. Backstory is nothing to do with tense. It means information about a character that is narrated, rather than turning up as part of normal plot and dialogue, within the story. “Jez was 35, born and raised in North Greenwich, SE10…” is a good example of backstory. It’s part of the same problem of “telling”, which answers your second question. Details about a character that we need to know are better shown organically, within the story, than narrated by you the author. Do we need to know his precise age? Do we need to know the postcode of the address where he was born? I don’t think so, but if we did, have this come up in conversation.
As to your last question, do you think, by describing “age, status and job” we know Jez? We have no clue who he is. All we know is what age he is, what he does for a living, and his economic (or was it social?) status. These are facts, not matters of character. You ask, are you getting under his skin? Well no. How could you be? Our skin, our social veneer that we construct around ourselves, consists pretty much of job, and economic and social status. (Age is a factor, but we try and conceal our age, because sometimes being our age can be a disadvantage.) You have described how Jez would like other people to see him, his “skin”, if you like. You haven’t begun to describe the real Jez at all. I think you’re instinctively aware of this because you then try and tell us what makes him tick. But when you do (via his long list of likes and dislikes) we don’t care, because we don’t know Jez. Show Jez in action. Get him talking to someone. Get him making a phone call. Anything but Jez sitting there telling us he doesn’t like oysters.
And I’m sure that the rest of your book isn’t like the beginning, but the trouble is, the beginning is all that an agent will read until (if and when) they decide they like it and want to read the whole MS. Getting your MS over that hurdle is what this site’s all about.
Ok, thanks again for the invaluable advice. It gives me somewhere to start. J