By Darlene Cah
Ever read—or write—a story that seems to be trying too hard? To go for a laugh, or to create high drama? To push a theme or a perspective on a particular topic? I know I’ve written more than a few stories that were painfully superficial. What they lacked was truth.
Many of my stories have a touch of humor. Years ago I wrote for and performed with a couple of sketch comedy groups in New York. I love laughing and making people laugh, but just because a piece of writing is light doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be honest. In fact, the reason we laugh at a joke or humorous story is because we identify with it in some way. You’ve either been in a similar situation, and can laugh about it, and at yourself. Or the subject is a topical theme you’re familiar with, for example, a news event or a fad. Or you might have a bit of schadenfreude going on! I don’t have the research to back me up, but I’ll bet the iconic slapstick scenario of the guy slipping on a banana peel was born when some dude walked down the street, stepped on the slimy peel and fell flat on his butt—and hilarity ensued.
In his book, Truth in Comedy, master improviser and co-creator of SCTV among other amazing accomplishments, Del Close writes, “Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually or terrible revelations made emotionally.”
Speaking specifically about performing improvisation, he offers these key points to summarize how to be funny. I think they apply to writing, as well.
- Be honest
- Don’t go for the jokes
- There’s nothing funnier than the truth
When I was attending the MFA program at Queens University, I wrote a short story called “Jesus in the Window.” It’s about a young widow who moves back to her mother’s apartment in the projects with her two kids. Their lives are miserable. You’re laughing already! I can hear you! On Christmas Eve, Jesus appears on their window shade. You might think I wrote the story based on the claims of people seeing Jesus on toast, a Wal-Mart receipt and so on, but no. My mother actually thought she saw the shadow of the infant Jesus on our window shade one Christmas. That’s it. Nothing more. Just another wacky moment in my childhood. For the people who know me, it probably explains a lot! In the story, I exaggerated the situation, threw in some snappy, funny dialogue and created some pretty over-the-top characters, as if a divine window shade isn’t over-the-top enough. In terms of craft, the story is mostly funny, but a mess. However, as I look back on it, there’s a deeper underlying truth. Most people will find something to believe in, whether it’s faith, power, money, a social cause, whatever brings them meaning.
So write without fear. Be honest. Be true to yourself and your readers will connect with that truth. Forget about trends, making a statement, or whether or not the editor of that prestigious literary journal will like your story. Write the stories you were meant to write.