2023, A Funny Sort of Year

We all beat our drums about what’s important to us. Humor is important to me, in life and in writing. Not surprisingly then, a drum I beat when talking writing is the serious business of humor. To write with humor’s lens is to load more rocks into the burden sack, whether that’s a conscious choice or not. 

There are a gazillion ways a humor story can go wrong. Banana peel slapstick rarely clicks on the page. Fiction is an appeal to the imagination, not a pratfall on a movie screen. Or a writer might mistake sarcasm for wit or stand-up material for narrative, or the jokes might punch down insensitively, or the work might be stale. Or the whole thing oughta work except it dies by the whimsical sword of subjective humor. What’s funny to me isn’t funny to everyone, but what’s dramatic for me is likely dramatic for most. Pause for a belt of whatever a humor writer is drinking. Cue a long stare out the window.

The main advice I bang on about is not to approach comic stories as comedies. I learned that nugget the protracted way. My first tries at humorous fiction were, to be kind, conceptual vignettes. They won a few laughs, but they weren’t winning a market editor’s heart. 

So I switched tack. I learned narrative arc, character development, conflict, and so forth on foundational skills. I learned to limit the central ideas to something small and a little offbeat. Not too wacky, not too standard. I was really learning that a comic story must work on multiple levels, even as a drama of a sort. An odd thing happens. Things get weird. Then weirder, then out of hand. People grapple with stuff. They suffer. They change, or they don’t. Whoever adapts best and sacrifices the most comes out on top. Humans have been listening forever to stories about people getting tested and coming out on top somehow. Because if those characters can, so can we.

But with comedy, there’s a happier ending. There are more grins. We hope.

Most of my stories are comedies. An innate sense of humor is how I view this strange world none of us ever asked to be in. Humor is how I cope with the rough patches. I can feel uncomfortable being too serious when I write, as if straight drama somehow calls attention to me stepping out of my lane. I’ll do it, but not often. Writing is hard enough without heaping on pressure. 

Three stories of mine were published in 2023, all comedies, all following a traditional dramatic arc. But with different approaches.

First over the line was “Vinny Two Snacks,” in On The Premises #41. This is a true comedy, but depending on how I summarize the plot, it might not sound like such. A shady investment advisor goes on the run ahead of a damning exposé. By ego and excess of greed, he gets on the wrong side of major crime rings and spends the story running for his life. I just smash-described a whole bunch of blockbuster movies. The humor comes from the tone (wit and no actual violence), the premise (he happens to have the same nickname and dining habits as a notorious crime lord), and the ending (the lone turn in his favor). Until that ending, his stakes were rising and his situation worsening. 

The second published was “Spirits Along the One North Road,” in AHMM.  It was written years earlier than “Vinny,” and unintendedly, also has an embezzler type on the run overseas. I’ll often avoid murder as the core crime. Murder is hard to make funny outside a mystery structure, and neither of these stories are mysteries. And I did intend “Spirits” as a romp. The story had its own ideas, and that’s as it should be. I had to rewrite it to a different humor level, less silly and more sad. 

Wrapping up the 2023 batch was “Know Thyself,” in the November/December AHMM. “Know Thyself” is the lightest of this trio, in theory. Hold that theory notion. Things revolve around a Plexiglas statue of a racehorse with an underwhelming racing history. The amateur sleuth has major control issues. Her POV brings a particular view of the world. She’s trapped by it. All of this could’ve been joke after joke, and I would’ve written that way, once. “Know Thyself” had a north star. It’s about something. It’s about belonging. In “Vinny,” the POV has no time to internalize. He’s on the run. In “Spirits,” the POV has no capacity to internalize. He’s lost, in denial. In “Know Thyself,” a longer story to allow the mystery send-up plays out, there is time for the POV to suffer her losses. To see what matters at core and earn a light-hearted lesson.

Suffering. It’s core to storytelling, whether for tears or tension or laughs. Dramatic rules are endlessly flexible but relentlessly insistent. That means the humor writer also has to suffer, once to make a great story and then to make it funny.

I’ll put my drum away until 2024. For now, I think I have another beverage and stare out the window.

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