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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER VIII Humorous Writing

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER VIII Humorous Writing

THERE always has been, is, and always will be, a market for good humor. I am sorry to say, however, that I doubt if there are more than two dozen writers of humor in the United States who earn a livelihood with their pens.

Most of the so-called funny stories, which appear in the newspapers, are copied from the humorous papers, or are written by staff editors, who receive no additional pay for the funny stuff they originate.

The humorous papers pay good prices, but there are less than half a dozen of them all told. These papers usually pay the writer of a joke, occupying an inch or two of type, from one to five dollars. The authors of humorous sketches, or articles appearing in these papers, receive anywhere from five to twenty-five dollars for a short column. It is obvious, however, that the available space in all these periodicals put together is very limited. It is also self-evident that no one humorous paper would care to carry more than one article per issue, or per few issues, of any one writer. Therefore, the humorous writer, even of the highest grade, may not find a field for more than a part of his work.

The syndicate offers him, perhaps, the best opportunity. With one or two exceptions, I think the highest price ever paid for syndicate matter is now given to a writer of humor. It is said that one of them receives over a thousand dollars for an article occupying not over a column, but he is a great exception.

The demand for humorous books is increasing, and the sale of some of them is enormous. It is obvious, however, that the humor which sells must not only be of the highest quality, but highly seasonable. Further, there must be interwoven into the very fiber, threads of philosophy and sense. The book must stand for more than humor. It must have action, characters, a plot, and much dialogue.

I do not believe that it is possible for any one to learn to be humorous. One may have a keen sense of humor, and wear a perpetual smile, and yet be unable to produce it.

It has been said, and the remark is not wholly devoid of the truth, that the humorist never laughs, and that the man who laughs is never a humorist. Many a man is witty in conversation, and yet cannot write humorous matter; and, on the other hand, I know of several men who, as speakers, cannot produce even the lifting of the eyebrow, and yet are able to write matter so bright and so witty that even the misanthrope cannot refrain from smiling.

The writing of humor is an art by itself. Very few possess the ability.

Financially speaking, there is little or nothing for the ordinary writer of funny stuff, and much money for the exceptional producer of it. I would suggest that the humorous writer communicate both with the syndicates and with the book publishers; and, further, that he attempt to establish a humorous column in a newspaper.

Most of our humor writers began on newspapers, and they first attracted attention as para-graphers. With this training, they became full-fledged humorists.

Many writers can construct one or a few humorous paragraphs, but to continue to do so, or to carry humor through several hundred pages, is another proposition. Half of the so-called humorous books, articles, and stories have failed, not because they did not begin in a witty way, but because their humor was not sustained, and because it was not properly set to real life, although it exaggerated persons and conditions.

Humor, psychologically speaking, is an attack, the speaker or writer of it hurling his spoken or written words at his hearer or reader. If what he says or writes is pleasant to receive, and creates an involuntary laugh or smile, then it is humorous and he is producing acceptable humor. If the attack is merely sarcasm, and wounds the -one at whom it is aimed, it may be humorous to the unhit fellow, but it does not please its immediate audience.

Acceptable humor, then, is that which pleases to the extent of amusing. It may be pointed and sharp, but it should, like the boomerang, wonderfully and gracefully gyrate through the air, to fall at last, with spent energy, at the feet of him who hurled it. Further, real humor is not distorted fact, but rather fact not set in its regular setting. Its exaggeration, however great it may be, is the picture of truth, set, may I say, in a wabbly frame or one which is not symmetrical or straight.

Humor consists of taking things from the natural world, and of playing them upon a specially created, and somewhat unnatural, stage; but the natural individuality or personality of each character must be preserved, although some or all features may be bent, curved, or exaggerated.

Even an attempt to present the impossible may be humorous, if the exaggeration is carried sufficiently far to be transparent to the reader; but this extravaganza is not generally acceptable.

The reader, as he runs, prefers that the humorous sketch present the real things of life, with unusual settings, and that they be placed in lights which illumine them and give them excuse for being not impossible, but unusual.

Do not try to be funny, if you are not naturally humorous.

Bad narrative or argument is bad enough, but bad humor is an abomination.