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OPL Blog - Humour Writing TIps

Ottawa Public Library Blog Bits 

1) The Rule of Threes 

Triads - sets of three -feature in lots of writing as a way of emphasizing a point.  To create a humorous effect in this format, a writer can say (1) something expected, (2) something expected, and (2) then something unexpected.  The technique is a function of the incongruity quality of humour and operates by hitting the reader with a twist. Two items provide just enough repetition to establish a pattern without boring the audience or reader. The third provides the surprise. For a master work in this technique read books by former CBC personality Arthur Black, three of them won the Leacock Medal: Black in the Saddle (1997), Black Tie and Tales (2000), and Pitch Black(2006).

2) Metaphors and Similes  

Well-crafted similes will immediately strike you as apt and reveal a truth, and yet they’re unexpected, musical, and literate.  In the 1973 Leacock Medal book The Outside Chance of Maximillian Glick master storyteller Morley Torgov invokes such imagery to describe young Max’s home town dominated by a steel mill: it “sprawled like a gathering of dragons, belching smoke and fire” and Max’s growing interest in the opposite sex: “on-again-off-again manhood . . . constantly trailed Max like an uninvited pet, usually a few paces behind, sometimes drawing alongside, sometimes even a pace or two ahead.”  It’s not easy.  A metaphor that is merely unusual can take too much work to understand or too much humour-crushing explanation.  Again, try to study the masters like Torgov

3) Big Incongruity
If you want to underpin a whole story or presentation with a humorous feel, you might consider framing it with a pervasive incongruity. The second book win the Leacock Medal Sarah Binks (1948 –author Paul Hiebert) presents the modest life story of an early 20th century poetess along with samples of her bad poetry.  It is funny because it is cloaked in an over-the-top effusive literary biography that seems absurd at every turn.  The narrator describes Sarah’s major award, the Wheat Pool Medal which recognizes increased production, as among “the highest awards . . . ever . . . bestowed upon one of Saskatchewan’s Daughters” and the “highest award in the bestowal of Saskatchewan people.”  A comparable approach to a speech presentation might be to do it in costume or with a funny backdrop throughout.

4) Good intentions go wrong

Canadian humour seems to have a soft spot for well-intentioned hosers.  It becomes funny when we recognize how it can all go wrong.   In his 1969 Leacock Medal book You’re Only as Old as You Act, New Brunswick journalist Stuart Trueman tells the story of his friend Roly who has his head turned one Christmas by exposure to four speeches on keeping up “the goodwill of Yuletide . . . all the year.” When Roly decides to leave his Christmas tree and decorations up, neighbours brand him a tightwad “trying to make one tree last two Christmases.” His persistent goodwill wishing causes friends to assume he has something to sell and then “the rumour flew around that Roly was going into politics !!!  and shouldn’t be trusted.”

5) Comparisons in a Series

While many speeches and writings follow a logical cause-and-effect story format, some information requires the presentation of a series of facts or policy elements.   This can be done in a humorous way by comparing each element to how it might be perceived from another perspective like that of a client, a taxpayer, or a competitor.  The 1965 Leacock Medal Book by Globe and Mail columnist George Bain (Nursery Rhymes to be read aloud by Young Parents of Old Children) appears at first like a children’s book with colourful illustrations and verse laid out in the abecedarium (A is for ape, B is for beaver) style for kids on every other page.  The book as a whole becomes funny because each of these pages sits opposite one of prose, biological information, and facts that are meant to be cheat sheets for parents who have to deal with the awkward questions that the pages for kids will induce.

6) Physical Descriptions

Try to describe the physical or technical features of a policy, a project or friend in a way that comments on the essential character you want to mock or emphasize.  In Donald Jack’s third Leacock Medal winner, Me Bandy You Cissie, the hero describes his first meeting with his girlfriend’s father by inventorying the great man’s features: “At the top end of a pair of heavy, sloping shoulders stood a boulder of a head, on which a thrusting face had been carved . . . with its expanse of pallid brow below a mat of uncombed graying hair, its domineering nose and wide, stubborn mouth … (his eyes) …were positively alarming . . . when they were fixed on you, you could actually feel your own personality draining away into your sweaty socks.”

7) Unrelated Story

If you are struggling to find something funny in the writing project before you, stand back and think of a totally unrelated story that has made you laugh in the past; it can be a joke or a personal experience. Then think of the fundamental human concerns that made it funny and see if there is a way to tie it into some aspect of the underlying interests at play in the subject of your current writing.  John Levesque, author of the 1993 Leacock Medal winner Waiting for Aquarius, often began his columns with reminiscences drawn from his childhood and teen years.  In reporting on changing demographics, he led with the story of a six-year-old friend who had to keep a back-pocket list to remember the names of his sixteen siblings; he explored office politics by recalling a grade school exchange of Valentines; and he tied Descartes to his dog, physics to sentient trees, diapers to inventions.

8) Dramatize the Ordinary

Another way to use incongruity to present seemingly dull information is to dramatize the seriousness in a satirical or ironic way.  The celebrated Vancouver humorist and multiple Leacock Medalist Eric Nicol applied this approach to great effect in his book, Girdle Me a Globe, which reports on a year-long, round-the-world honeymoon trip.  He complains a lot, details the aggravation of packing clothes, and fusses over dinner jackets and satin pants. Nicol describes foreign laundries in epic terms, shudders over the ordeal of standing on marble floors, and talks of the multi-gauge Australian railway with terror - all to mock travel writers who dramatize their adventures for personal puffery and to, at the same time,  make readers recognize the common features of life everywhere.

9) Ridicule the fearsome

It is cathartic to mock the things that scare us individually or as communities and organizations.  By making it sound silly, it minimizes it and makes it seem manageable.  In W.O. Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid, the hired man Jake and other yarn-spinners all say they have “the deepest snow, the worst dust storms, the biggest hailstones . . . Rust and dust and hail and sawfly and cutworm and drought.”  Their tall tales are explained by a character who says “These men lie about the things that hurt them most . . . If a man can laugh at them he’s won half the battle . . . When he exaggerates things he isn’t lying really; it’s a defense . . . He can either do that or squeal.”

10) Make fun of yourself

Unless overdone or insincere, self-deprecating humour is usually a pretty safe and effective fall back in any setting and any form of writing.  Again, it always helps to stand back and look at yourself and your work from a different perspective.  In his book, Mice in the Beer (1963 Leacock Medal winner) the author Norman Ward, a political scientist and academic, explains to a passing workman that musing over an academic article with eyes closed while sitting under a tree is considered work for a university professor.  “When I write articles, my wife calls it loafing,” says the man, who then tries to make amends saying “For a fellow who never does anything but read books . . . you seem to know a lot.”


What’s So Funny ?
Lessons from Canada’s Leacock Medal
for Humour Writing

Dick Bourgeois-Doyle
General Store Publishing House, 2015