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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write V

Art affects life because it teaches us how to see, how to hear, how to feel; because it has the capacity to create for us what we might term norms of feeling.

Within comedy, whatever else we may find, there is always the assertion of invulnerability, we are given permission to laugh by the perception that the objects of our humour are underreacting. Within tragedy there lives the opposite, we perceive tragedy through a heightening of the emotions.

In all comedy, there is an emotional paralysis. What gives us permission to laugh at painful and ugly events is that we observe that the people to whom these events happen are either underreacting or reacting inappropriately.

No matter how much they protest, scream and complain about what has happened to them, the reader knows they are not, in reality, feeling very much. The characters we associate with good comedy all have something of the automaton in them. They are like robots.

This is the secret of most examples of comedy. Think of Gullivers Travels, the Goon Show, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Adrian Mole, Bertie Wooster, or the films of Keaton or Chaplin. The secret of comedy is the deadpan.

For comedy to work the reaction must be exaggerated or misplaced in a way that is a parody of a true response. To be successful at this, that is, if you want to make your readers laugh, you should take care that the emotional response of your comic character is stylized.

In the case of tragedy, you have to aim for a heightening of the norm of feeling, but with comedy, there is no alternative but to allow your creation to underreact and misreact according to the norms of feeling.

2 Responses to “Learning to Write V”

  1. […] John Baker’s Blog » Blog Archive » Learning to Write V […]

  2. ren.kat says:

    Thanks for an interesting post! Another way to manipulate the reader is to alter the traditional dramaturgy- a la Pulp Fiction- from the beginning, the reader knows the protagonist will die and therefore keeps an emotional distance from the events. (Whether this technique is emotionally or socially healthy is another question). . .

    jb says: Hi Ren-Kat, good to see you here. That manipulate word is a bit controversial. I really believe that it isn’t possible or even desireable to manipulate a reader. I think that it is readers who manipulate text – if the text is worth it. Otherwise they ignore it.