How do I know you’ve been radicalized? Because you’ve got something to say. Speech radicalizes you.
Don’t neuter your words. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Say it bold. Don’t fear conflict: cause it. Tension and anxiety rise as you near the heart of your subject. Trouble creates story. You are dangerous now. You find dangerous places, and you stay there, despite discomfort. You do it because your audience turns to you to do it for them.
Remove weakening language. We weaken our words because we feel uncertain. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth writing, and if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing with conviction — brave, confident, stripped to its most radical core.
Weakening language weakens you. Write the weakening language because it allows you to write at all. Padding comforts you enough to venture out onto the field or into the arena or down the dark alley. Once there, remove it. Leaving it implies you don’t deserve to be radical, that you must pad your self against the world seeing you. But you do not need to speak if you’re not going to be heard. You diminish your authority — in your own mind and in the mind of the world — and make it harder to be radical next time.
Everything you say and write prints on a boldface sign the world sees. The world takes you seriously, and we consider every act of speech you make to be a billboard on which you speak to the world. So make it bold, make it clear, and make it count.
Following are weakening words. To experiment, take a current writing project and save it as a new file. Run a search for these words and remove all of them. Yes, you’ll have to go back and replace some of them. But say goodbye to most of them for good — they were the incompetent employees whose absence you celebrate. The draft emerges tighter, cleaner, leaner, less burdened. It stands as a sign blasting your good ideas rather than a manifesto burying them.
well, sure, you know, seems, much, in, bit, I, you, [first names], here, and, then, once, [-ing], when, suddenly, now, appears, to, that, right, okay, [repeated words/phrases/ideas], is, little, might, maybe, first, probably, well, so, among, all, the, but, hi, how, are, try, start, begin, which, about, why, continue, slowly, for, what, it, it’s, actually, totally, very, [adjectives], [adverbs], almost, [cliches], pretty, [anything ending in -ly], however, [anything ending or sounding like -ish], oh, own, ?, [comma clauses], just, really,
So your neighbor is all “why won’t you stop calling cheese stores and telling them you’re throwing a benefit for the homeless they have to donate to” and you’re all “I jack fancy cheese stores out of cheese because it’s profound.” Because everything I do is profound. Because I’m doing it, it’s profound, and the fact I’m doing it means something. Tricking fancy cheese stores into donating me cheese is a mirror standing before my life, showing me what I am.
My superhero power is a curse: I see meaning in everything around me.
A life is a novel in practice: meaning and symbols and structure and symmetry lie everywhere you look, waiting to be exposed. Being profound means that even when your life centers around tricking fancy cheese stores into donating you free cheese, you see meaning.
So here they are, MY TOP TEN TIPS for how to be profound:
Go Beneath The Surface. First, show us what’s on the surface. What’s on the surface is a symptom of what’s beneath the surface. Profundity is like acne: it erupts all over your face as an expression of your body’s secrets. So once you’ve established what’s on the surface, you’ve got a basis to ….
Drill Down. Reject face values. Whatever you see on the surface of your world — your parking ticket, the pollution in the bay that bars you from surfing, the garbage juice you just poured all over your apartment — exist as indicators to show us what’s really going on. Parking tickets are society’s notices that we shouldn’t linger here, this isn’t our place. We can’t surf because we live in our own filth, waiting for the rain to wash it all away into the toilet that is our bay. Garbage juice … eh, see Reason #2. Why the fuck doesn’t it rain inside?
Get Open. If you are closed, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to see how things relate to one another. Because you’re too busy guarding the fortress, making sure none of them relate to you. But once you make efforts to open up, you can …
Connect. See the connections between one thing and another. How does one thing resemble another? What’s bothering you? What makes you angry? What does it remind you of? Anger is a flag that something is important. What makes us angry often reflects in our own life.
Get Free. Some people fear connections — between ideas, between things, between themselves and others — because they’re afraid of being tied down, afraid of tying this Buzz Ballads II 2-CD disc compilation to the time you drove around all night in Atlanta listening to that song about rubbing lotion on someone, wondering if some boy was home and if not what he was doing and why he wasn’t home and with whom wasn’t he home, to the times you used to sit out on the curb as a child waiting for your father to get you and wondering the same thing. They’re afraid of tying these things together because of the fear there’s no end, no bottom, and because of the fear that once locked into one series of connections, that’s it. You’re done. You’re never done. Once you choose freedom, you’re always free, and all the things and people in your life can say and do whatever they want, and you’re still free. You’re never tied down to one story.
Understand. How do you interpret what you see around you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong. It’s true and it matters because you say so. Your understanding is a precious gift you share with the rest of us. And you share it by how you show one character looking at another, how you focus on a specific object on a table. That look and that object help us see your understanding through your connections, and they help us form our own.
Get Bigger. Some people live a small life and tell small stories. Others choose to be profound. A life isn’t small because of a person’s profession or status or friends or attractiveness: a life is small because a person chooses not to grow. Every time we’re faced with an obstacle we make a choice: we shrink or we get bigger. Profundity gets bigger, and circles in other people under its wing, and takes the long view, and the deep view, and the transparent view.
Get Inclusive. The most shallow people and ideas are the most exclusive. Anything that excludes — people, ideas, interpretations, experiences — clings to the surface, fights any effort to discover the meaning therein. Because that meaning is dark. Being profound means going deep, going broad, getting significant, including everything and everyone. I’m looking at you Hollywood.
Get Pervasive. Profundity understands the way you do anything is the way you do everything, and the way the world does anything is the way the world does everything. Everything is the same all the time, and nothing really changes though things appear to change all the time. What looks to us like change are things happening on different scales or in different forms, and it’s our job as storytellers to reveal how these things have not changed but are in fact the same. Profundity is intense, thorough and complete.
Find Origins. The roots of our current world originate in the past. To change the future, we change the present. Profundity honors the link between today’s garbage juice and the garbage juice of every waitress job you’ve ever held, and the garbage juice of the world, today’s parking ticket and tomorrow’s medical lab results and the mountain of social paperwork that documents and drives us through our roles in life, as determined as we are to resist.
Okay! Now it’s time to get out there and be profound.
A joke is the simplest, most perfect kind of story. It has a subject, a protagonist (sometimes me, sometimes you, sometimes society, etc.) a moment of drama (surprise), a theme. Jokes trace entire journeys in the most direct possible routes.
Learn how to tell a joke, and you’ll know how to tell a story.
Here are some tips I found on a Taco Bell napkin in my handwriting:
1. Leave something to the imagination. Jokes are like sex — if you give it all away, it won’t be fun anymore. But if you leave something implied — leave part of the story of the joke incomplete and give enough detail so the listener makes natural assumptions and finishes it in their mind — they get that little jolt of surprise we call comedy. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it’s always a good idea to let your audience put two and two together.
2. Most good jokes have a victim. Not all comedy has to be mean. But even the most benign jokes — if funny — are going to target some person, group or entity. Without this there’s no traction, no bite. No feeling of us versus them, with us winning. That feeling of us winning is what makes jokes fun. Most stories need that feeling.
3. Shorter/tighter/better. Cut as many words as you possibly can while still preserving a clear meaning. Rearrange and rearrange words so that you get away with less words but clearer meaning. More direct with less words = funnier. I highly recommend all writers use twitter regularly: it forces you to write short and pithy, and you get instant feedback. There’s nothing like writing to an audience to quickly sharpen your skills. It’s why TV writing and blogging are so good for writers.
4. Always place the funny word or idea at the very end of the joke. Rearrange the syntax however you must so the funniest word falls last. This same principle holds true in all kinds of storytelling — whether going out on the funny word or the dramatic look or the fire that’s destroying all the evidence, we need to end on the idea that will have maximum impact, that we want to LAND with the audience, SURPRISE them and stick around in their heads as long as possible afterwards. Often, you’ll be tempted to tag the joke with an extra little kicker — top yourself with another phrase or idea to make it even funnier. It doesn’t help. If the tag were funnier, you would have just said the tag. All the tag does is dilute the surprise of the first joke. Leave it out. Also, tags make your audience think just heard the joke — and they mistakenly laughed at the setup. They stop laughing so they can hear your real thought. Don’t talk past the close. This holds for dramatic storytelling as well. Go out on the most dramatic moment.
The only time you would consider not landing the joke on the funniest word is if you’re deliberately playing against the traditional expectation of the audience to hear it that way, in which case you’re making yourself the butt of the joke, by choosing to make a conventionally bad joke, knowing the audience knows that you know it’s a bad joke.
5. Hard consonants are funnier. K and CH sounds. D/P/T. Also odd numbers. There are funny numbers — no one knows why. Sometimes trading out a word for an equivalent but funnier-sounding word can make the joke much funnier, but it’s hard to tell where till you try it. There are always substitutions you can make in any story to tighten the screws and make it land harder.
6. References. Constantly be on the lookout for material. Standard joke material gets old very fast. Right now robots and zombies and Ed Hardy and Jon Gosselin and diarrhea are big in the joke-making world. But good jokes are all about surprise, and if you refer to any of these (or a variety of other well-worn topics), you’ll get no surprise from anyone remotely used to hearing jokes. If you look around your own life, you might find a half-drunk bottle of Pimm’s on your living room floor and a stack of Taco Bell napkins covered with joke-writing rules . . . uh, anyway, the more specific the reference the better. And the more unexpected, the more pertinent, and the more completely the specific detail tells a full story — that’s what makes a joke funny.
7. Rule of Threes. First example is to establish. Second to reinforce the pattern. Third to bust expectations. Third example is the funny one. Third should be a twist and/or a build on the first two.
8. Setup/Punchline. Not all jokes have to follow this format (in fact, I’m a big fan of the one-liner and also the more narrative long-form joke, which rambles and is more about making a character out of the person speaking.) However, the setup/punchline — the monologue joke you see on late night talk shows — is the most basic joke form, and it’s stuck around for a reason. People get it. One-liners leave more to the audience’s imagination, the result of wordplay or basic twists of logic or reversals of expectation. But because they’re free-standing — the audience has to do more thinking to understand them — these jokes feel a little more dangerous. Monologue jokes use these techniques as well but feel safer because they always provide a basis for understanding (the setup), so the audience knows exactly what the joke is about. The setup is two lines long, then the punchline is one line. The setup gives just enough information the audience needs to understand the punchline, and nothing more. Anything more confuses or dilutes the focus. I had a mentor who said scenes should be structured like a monologue joke — a good tight setup, then end on a punchline (not necessarily a funny line, but a punchy one that lands). The punchline to a comedy scene is called the “button”.
9. Show the irony. Where do things not match up? Where’s the disconnect in the situation you’re talking about? The disconnect is the heart of the joke. Human nature hates things that don’t match up — it upsets us, so we laugh at it. Once we laugh at it, we feel like we’ve won. We’re in control. We’re no longer upset. That feeling of us winning is very important. Structure your jokes to focus maximum attention on what doesn’t match up — what’s unfair or ridiculous or absurd or opposite to the way things ought to be. This works for dramatic storytelling as well: if you go into every scene with the goal of finding what doesn’t match up and then shining a spotlight the size of the sun on that, your story will shine.
10. Exaggerate — or downplay. Don’t play scared and don’t stay in the middle. This goes back to my rule about risk. If you’re going to compare something to something else — compare it to the most absurd example (not necessarily the biggest or most outlandish of its kind — finding that right, most absurd example is part of the art of joke-making. You know it when you see it.) Or conversely, downplay the comparison. Deflate the joke. This is another way to play against the conventions of joke making. You can do this if you want to really serve the victim of the joke — in other words, this person is so pathetic, I’m only going to compare her to something slightly more pathetic. She doesn’t even rate a good comparison. Drama happens at the extremes, which is why jokes are little drama-nuggets.
11. Take a common word or phrase or assumption that people make and use that as the setup. Then twist it around, invert it, reverse the meaning, turn it back on yourself … turn the setup into a punchline. Play around with the words until it sounds funny. Inverting the familiar is essential in drama.
12. Callbacks. Everybody loves callbacks. Because people like to feel smart, and callbacks make us feel smart for understanding the link between this joke and the last joke. The two jokes multiply their comedy coefficient. There’s also a symmetry to it that human nature responds to. Remember how human nature hates when things don’t match up? Callbacks help us feel like things are matching up. It’s reassuring. It all comes together in the end. Another lesson for dramatic storytelling.
There’s no trick to callbacks (though improv people who do Harolds and stuff like that are masters of the form). Just take a word or reference or element from an earlier joke and use it as a word or reference or element in this joke. Preferably your final joke. And preferably your punchline. You can do as many as you want, but doing too many starts to feel like resting on your laurels. A good dramatic story becomes satisfying with the right callbacks — references, words, gestures, symbols, characters that remind us of where the story was and where it’s going. But again, too much of this keeps the story backward looking when you’re trying to move forward.
And it’s that simple. You can read some of my jokes on Twitter by looking to your right. I’m gonna go see a movie.
I often assume people mean the opposite of what they say.
A mother furious at her daughter as she packs boxes of her things before leaving for college: “I can’t have your stuff cluttering up my house any longer. You need to get it out of here so I can get on with my life.”
Translation: I’m angry because I feel like I need to have your stuff cluttering up my house. I’m afraid if you get it out of here, I’ll have to get on with my life.
One friend to another whom she hasn’t seen in a long time: “Wow. You look really good. I mean, since I saw you last … You’re like, a completely different person. I’m so happy for you.”
Translation: Wow. You look really different. Remember the last time I saw you? No matter how much you think you can change, I’ll keep reminding you of who you were. I’m not happy for you at all.
Roman Polanski to Martin Amis, in an interview in 1979: “If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But … fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!” (via Telegraph UK)
Translation: If I had killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? Judges don’t want to fuck young girls. Juries don’t want to fuck young girls. Not everyone wants to fuck young girls. But I do. That’s the kind of thing that makes me special, above judgement, and worthy of all the attention I receive.
We still get the point. Because human communication is subtle and complicated and interesting. And we’re crack detectives on the case.
Great dialogue happens in the spaces between the notes, when what the audience gets to fill in on our own is far richer than anything we hammer home on the page. Because the audience are always the smartest people in the room, and whenever we let them rise to the occasion to fill in the gaps, leap leaps, imagine what’s left unsaid and bridge the ineffable, our stories live.
Anyone want to chime in with more examples of opposite-talk?
I think the Ed O’Neill character on “Modern Family” is based on my real dad. He’s engaged to his 29-year-old maid. She’s an evangelist from Brazil. He still pays her to clean the house.
This is not the kind of story I would ordinarily tell on the internet, because I’m a private person by nature. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this space to be. And I’ve decided — if I’m going to write about story, I need to fucking tell stories, right?
Story is risk. When you’ve got something to lose, you’ve got a story to tell. When you’ve got something big to lose, you’ve got a big story to tell.
Though on the surface it’s funny, the story of my dad feels raw, acute, and dangerous. Talking about it publicly feels risky. I feel like I have everything to lose — by telling it, I risk being unsafe, insecure, unloved, or exposed. And that’s where this story lives — where the risk is.
Get big, get brave, get risky, or don’t tell stories — because no one gives a shit about the story of how comfortable, complacent and compliant you are.
Story doesn’t grow in the middle of the road. But my dad’s fiancee’s village in Brazil seems to have plenty of poor relations who need new houses (hint hint Dad) where I suspect it thrives.
Jaime Weinman is a critic (and my friend) who has an astonishing knowledge and understanding of TV and pop culture. I love this post about “comedy writer jokes” in The Simpsons, prompted by the DVD release of Season 12 this week.
Most comedy writers loathe analyzing jokes, feeling you kill the magic by dissecting it. But I find it really interesting, especially when, as here, there’s trenchant analysis of jokes — that comment on jokes — for an audience of joke writers.
Jaime points out that by Season 12 on The Simpsons, writer George Meyer’s style was predominant, and that style had less to do with the character-based situational comedy that sit-coms are founded upon and more to do with a quirky, meta, layered, self-reflexive, post-modern wordplay.
It’s sort of a joke about a joke, where the humour is supposed to come not from the characters and their reactions to their situations, but from the writer’s attempt to put his own ironic twist on the thing you might expect to hear in that situation.
The example I always use from season 12 of The Simpsons – I don’t know if Meyer came up with it, but it certainly is a Meyeresque joke — is when Grandpa Simpson says that he was such a great grifter in his youth that “They used to call me Grifty McGrift.” The line is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, because in a spot that normally calls for a funny turn of phrase, the writer could not come up with any turn of phrase at all, and just repeated the word “Grift” twice. Another favourite George Meyer joke technique is to have a character describe a plan as “Operation ______” and then fill in something that’s just a straight, prosaic description of whatever he’s going to do: “Time for Operation Mail-Take.” “Now for Operation Strike Make-O Longer.” “Now for Operation Christmas-Remind-Her-Of-How-Good-Is.” (A George Meyer line that was cut from an early episode, according to a commentary, was “You couldn’t find Mr. Burns’ inner goodness with a Mr. Burns’ inner-goodness-finding-machine.”) It is not really a joke, it’s, as someone else put it, a parody of bad writing. And that’s why I think of it as comedy-writer comedy, because it references their own struggles in coming up with jokes and their own intimate knowledge of old joke structures. It never once sounds like anything an actual human being might say. This also applies to jokes that are based on the assumption that it’s funny to hear a deliberately awkward turn of phrase, like “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo,” or “She changed her name to Appleseed and her family changed theirs to Buffalkill.” The main joke there is just that it sounds a little weird.
Battlestar/Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s blog about writing specs is still incredibly useful, even though she’s not updating it anymore. I perused it over a break today and saw this entry in which she discussed her friend Jeff Greenstein’s advice that pilots’ opening images should contain the series in microcosm. Following is the very persuasive list he composed. (I agree with this idea and would argue it’s a pretty good idea for novels as well.)
In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.
The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”
The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.
Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.
The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.
The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.
Paul Feig–writer/producer of Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, The Office–gives The Guardian some great comedy writing lessons. Here’s one:
“3. Make them cringe
“Regardless of where or when your story is set, it’s important for the people in any comedy to act just like real people act. That means not speaking in a constant stream of pithy one-liners. It means getting into the same sort of horrible, awkward situations we all get into every day. Easily the most funny, fascinating and cringeworthy time in anyone’s life is school. It’s the only time that you get lumped in with a whole bunch of people without any filter; it’s not to do with skills or interests, just age. And you’re forced to spend every day with them for years. With Freaks And Geeks I wanted to write scenes that people would squirm while watching because it would seem so familiar. Seeing people cringe is the jackpot for me. The thing is, not everyone wants to sit through the exact same situations they already had to go through at school. So it’s the jackpot that nobody wants to win!””