Sunday, November 29, 2009

One Funny Paragraph

I’m re-reading the Iain Pears book, Stone’s Fall, this time with the intent of culling every bit of writerly magic from it which I can find. Pears does many things well, but I’ve been struck by the way he manipulates his paragraphs. This one in particular seemed worth sharing.

To set up this example paragraph, let me tell you that Brock is an aspiring painter down on his luck. He lives in the same boardinghouse as the narrator, a shabby place that smells like overcooked cabbage. We’ve already heard a joke about the fact that it’s situated on Paradise Walk, and we’ve heard one of the poet tenants compose a humorous ode to the unidentifiable gray meat served up by their landlady. This was all in a prior chapter.

The narrator leads into the example paragraph by saying that the painter Brock will make his mark years later during the great war, that the bleakness of those years suited his temperament and vision, but that artistic clarity “eluded him when he lived with us in Chelsea.”

No, he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe, a scheme for which he was so totally unsuited that I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality. He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch, from Tsar Nicholas to the Kaiser, from King Edward to the Emperor of Austria, and every last kinglet of Scandinavia and the Balkans, to sit together to be painted by him. Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.

Every time I read this, I laugh at that final punch line. Three sentences, and the last is a fragment, but it’s structured so well that it could almost be used as a clinic on comedy writing. So let’s do that, shall we?

The first sentence sets up the premise.
“A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar”
“he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe”

I particularly like the use of the word gigantic here. It feels just slightly off-tone. (You’ll have to trust me on that -- in the context of the rest of the passage, the word is exaggerated and cheeky enough to stick out a bit.) Likewise, “crowned heads of Europe” feels casual. Consider how the tone would change by substituting “ruling monarchs of Europe.” Ruling monarchs are more dignified than crowned heads, don’t you think?

Then we get an emotional note from the narrator that sets the tone for the rest of the paragraph. You don’t always find this in comedy writing, and in fact, I generally caution against telling emotions, but I think it’s used to good effect here. “I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality.” By confessing to this emotional response, the narrator guides our own response. It’s almost a direct wink at the reader.

Next we get the sense of shocked emphasis implied by the phrase, “He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch.” By contrasting this untitled painter with the long list of monarchs to follow, we get a sense of the outlandishness of the situation. Every new name added to the list serves to contrast the original emphasized name, John Praxiteles Brock. And with each new Tsar and Emperor, we get another layer of emotional emphasis to both the impudence and the unreality.

By the time we’re done with the list, we are also filled with a sort of amused wonder, just as the narrator predicted. And then, after layering on magnificent title after regal name, after building up this carefully detailed impression of magnificence far out of the reach of the ordinary painter, only after all this controlled set-up, he hits us with,
“Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.”

Beautiful. This single fragment pulls the rug out from under all the magnificent detail in the middle of the paragraph. It’s a reversal of sorts, and much comedy depends on the principle that unexpected reversals are amusing. Stark contrasts are amusing. Exaggeration is amusing. We get all of them in this single short paragraph.

Any comedy writers out there want to take a stab at explaining why this structure works so well?



Gayle Carline said...

I'm pretty sure that (at least one reason) this structure works because it surprises the audience. I think surprise is a key element in any entertainment, whether it's books, movies, plays, etc. We may be amused, or delighted, or even frightened, but we can't be bored.

Deb said...


green_knight said...

'Crowned heads' is common British usage - the BBC will use it, too. It reflects that these people do *not* rule their respective countries, they're heads of country with largely ceremonial function.

I'd agree that it's the contrast that works here - first he gets the reader to picture seventeen crowned heads in one room, then he flips to the dire little hellhole he's described before. The juxtaposition creates a comical effect.

My overall reaction to the passage was not mirth, but sadness. I'm picturing someone who is stifled, restrained, who had his wings clipped, and his only way out was to dream big. Which, obviously, wasn't practical, but he doesn't deserve a biographer to make fun of him for dreaming.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Deb@RGRamblings.

And irony has Pride & Prejudice ringing in my ears 'every man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife' (sorry, if quote not quite correct, my memory is imperfect).

Theresa, I love the subtlety of the paragraph. Another book I will add to my wish list. Thank you :)

I'd be interested to see what the comedy writers have to say. I'd love to learn a few tips on how to slip the comedy in.

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Theresa!

Isn’t humor based on the reversal of what is expected? With that in mind - I think this paragraph works because a boarding house which (smells like over cooked cabbage) is the last place that the ‘crowned heads of Europe’ would be summoned to sit for any artist. I too - liked the word gigantic - the phrase ‘crowned heads’ - I also liked the use of the word ‘scheme’ (that word says so much doesn’t it?) It wasn’t an idea or notion - it was a ‘scheme’, (talk about cheeky) awesome!

There’s a formula here - I think. The narrator states the funny(gigantic portrait) builds it up with the exaggerated emphasis on who were the desired subjects of the portrait - not just the crowned heads of Europe, but every monarch, from Tsar Nicholas to the Kaiser, from King Edward to the Emperor of Austria, and every last kinglet of Scandinavia and the Balkans - that the painter could summon and all of whom would come together for the sole purpose of being painted by he -John Praxiteles Brock - The narrator does a good job of mashing that funny ‘scheme’ - with the reality of the boarding house - which makes the line: Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea - even funnier. By doing so, he’s created a new level of funny - if that makes sense. I mean, really, would they all come to sit together for Brock - if he were staying in a castle, instead? Hilarious.

I do think the recurring mention of food (undefinable gray meat - smell of overcooked cabbage) - paired with the dining room line is classic and ties everything together. Gee, when I think about that imagery I see the painting of the last supper for some reason.:D


Anonymous said...

its hard to be amusing. There's a technique for the style and surprised irony is important. The second sentence feels overly long.

em said...

Murph stamp on this one:). Where have you been? I've missed my laugh for the day.;)

Theresa, I liked: crowned heads. I agree that it's more informal.:)

Leona said...

Murphy stamp on this one! (and em too LOL)I laughed as I read it.

I haven't the knack for writing comedy on purpose, if you know what I mean. Murphy has it, so I'm not going to argue with her (which I don't want to, she always wins:)


Okay, I'm okay now. I finished the rough draft with LOTS of comments for research and such, but it is done. It is 9:38 Central time. (I'm still in Texas, LOL)

You want to know my word count? Short of my personal goal but as the rough draft is finished, I'll have to cope *sigh*. Any guessers? (is "guessers" a word?)

I did 64,009 as my first official NaNoWriMO word count!!! And if you read me blog, you'll know it is nothing short of a miracle. Sick kids, me sick, and sharing computer with my husband in the final weeks of the semester (next week is the actual finals) so I am quite pleased. And I finished a rewrite and am waiting for my family editing team to check for errors/continuity issues.

I'll quite bragging now. :D :D

Anonymous said...

Awesome, Leona. A great accomplishment!

Unknown said...

Although I love reading it, I know absolutely nothing about writing comedy which made this post interesting to me. Like rachelcapps, I'd like to know how to slip humor into my work. Any suggestions, Murphy?;) Is there a method that can be taught? Theresa?:)

Edittorrent said...

No sooner did I post this than my DSL modem up and died. I hate being webless. It's all better now, though. Nice tech man fixed it as Danger Boy screamed, "It's alive! It's alive!" in the background. So awesome.

There are some tricks to comedy writing, but I'm far from an expert. I can share what little I know, but this is a special technique and not one of my strong suits. Anyone out there want to do a guest post on comedy?

Leona, congrats on your amazing word count! Woo hoo!


em said...

Way to go, Leona!

@Murphy: I dare you to do the post.:) You wouldn't do the Cougar blog. You owe us. Don't you think, Leona?;)

Leona said...

Em, why put me in her sites? **insert maniacal laughter here...

Yes, Murphy, I think you should. You are naturally funny and the rest of us could learn from your bounty of knowledge. ;;)

Riley Murphy said...

Em? Um, no.

Congratulations, Leona! I bet completing NANO feels great! Good job! With that said, have you been drinking, girl? What’s with the: could learn from your bounty of knowledge. ;;) Oh, I get it. In your previous comment you said: I haven't the knack for writing comedy on purpose what a great example! I’m laughing my ass off.:D


Unknown said...

Murph, please think about it. It would be so much fun.:)

Riley Murphy said...

Babs said: It would be so much fun.

Murphy asks: For who?:D