By Jefferson Smith
Humor is one of the most powerful implements in the writer’s tool kit. A quick wit can be a spark of light to balance dark times; shared laughter can unite uncertain allies against insurmountable oppressions; the quality and content of a joke, and the reactions to it, can illuminate the character and intellect of every hero, villain, or bystander who hears it. Yet authors rarely wield this weapon with any facility, and even fewer attempt a conscious study of it, which is a shame. Because even if you write more like Tennessee Williams than Robin Williams, you can beef up your funny muscle. All you need to do is find the right gym.
I found my gym entirely by accident. Like most writers, I started young, developing my chops on short stories in high school and then graduating to novels in adulthood. But these early writing efforts were only incidental to shaping the visual prose and humorous dialogue that have become the hallmarks of my books. The true speed bag was a different hobby altogether — cartooning — but that didn’t become obvious to me until a recent marketing exercise threw a spotlight on it.
In an effort to increase traffic on my website, I recently launched Your Word’s Worth, a cartoon strip that follows the trials and triumphs of Kent Wordsworth, a full-time novelist, as he struggles to stay afloat in the choppy seas of modern publishing. The response has been overwhelming, but the real revelation was in recognizing how powerful a training ground cartooning had been for me in my formative years. I had drawn three different cartoon strips in local papers all through high school and university, and it was there that I think I truly forged my writing voice: my eye for a punchline; my sense of dramatic pacing; my understanding of scene visuals; and even my eye for what actors call “stage business” — the movements and gestures used by an actor to convey an effect.
But more importantly, I now believe that this is a technique that any writer can employ to sharpen these skills for themselves.
Different Machines For Different Muscles
Cartooning is a communications medium that demands economy. There’s even an old cartoonist’s adage to that effect: Any line that can be removed should be. Of course, this is intended to mean drawn lines, but it applies just as readily to lines of prose as well. If you want to be funny, be brief. But the lessons of cartooning are richer than just that.
The majority of daily cartoons come in one of two forms: either single-panel comics, like The Far Side; or multi-panel strips, like Calvin and Hobbes. With my own strips, I had worked in both of these styles, which turns out to have been fortunate, because I see now that the two formats emphasize different skills and provide different kinds of training.
A single-panel gag is all about the visual image. That lone drawing must depict some event or scenario as a setup, which will then be spanked onto its head by the punchline delivered in the caption. So by conceiving and executing these one-drawing jokes over and over again, I had developed a keen eye for those crucial aspects of a scene that convey its meaning, which I think translated later into the kind of vivid imagery my readers have commented on in my books.
But in contrast to single panels, which depict a frozen moment, multi-panel gags depict the passage of time, and this turns out to be a profound difference. Instead of the image being king, here it is the relentless march of time that drives the humor. As the drawings proceed from left to right, the clock ticks on and a little movie plays in our heads — a movie that comes complete with dialogue, setting, pauses, and stage business, all crammed into three tiny drawings and rarely more than 50 words of text. That’s an awful lot happening in such a small space, which is why I say that if brevity is the soul of wit, then cartooning is its Sunday school.
People sometimes scoff at the notion that timing is part of a cartoon, but consider this example from Your Word’s Worth, entitled: Celebrate your milestones.
Does the joke work without the pregnant pause in the middle? Sometimes, the most important beat of a gag is the one where nothing appears to be happening. This is why I say that cartooning hones your sense of timing, perhaps even more than writing exercises do, because you can do so many more repetitions when working in such a compressed format. Even its very nature—setup, setup, punch—seems to have informed my writing, and I suspect this is why all the scenes in my novels tend to close on such strong dramatic cadences.
Low Weight, High Reps
So what does all this have to do with you and honing your instincts for humor? After all, you probably didn’t misspend your youth trying to score chicks with hand-drawn math jokes. But if you really want to add humor to your arsenal of writing tools, you need a way to build those muscles; some exercise that you can do over and over again to help you beef up your awareness and instincts for the mechanisms of funny. And for that kind of workout, I can’t think of any better proving ground than writing cartoons. They’re fast, they’re challenging, and they’re powerful, all of which makes them an excellent speed drill to bulk up your game.
If you don’t have art skills, you could always collaborate with an artist. Or even just re-write the dialogue from other, existing cartoons, inserting your own jokes for the originals. It doesn’t matter which gym you work in, so long as you’re doing your reps and feeling the burn. And that “burn” part is important. You have to go full cycle—get those jokes out in front of people. The fear of having your work met with polite silence instead of laughter is what will drive you to improve.
But if you just don’t have the stomach for public humiliation, you can always send your gag ideas to me. There’s even a form for that on my website where you can focus on doing your reps and leave the humiliation to me.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover that you’ve got some Robin Williams in you after all.
Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author who will waltz you down unexpected forks in the roads of convention. The adventure begins with Strange Places, and continues in Oath Keeper. You can find all of Jefferson’s books on Kobo here.