March 1, 2010

Book Review: The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Confession of a bookaholic: I love books about writing as much as the next writer. I’m always searching for that nugget of information or secret trick that will help me improve my writing and power past my current writing struggles. This is the first in an occasional series of books on writing and craft.

Title: The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not

Author: John Vorhaus

I’ve always believed that humor is a gift and an art. While I love watching and reading funny movies and books, I’ve never thought about why a joke or a line of dialogue is funny. Either it is or it isn’t, right?

Wrong. In The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus, who taught at the UCLA Extension Writers Program and wrote for The Wonder Years and Married… with Children, explains the fundamentals of comedy and the elements involved in developing comedic stories using examples from classic movies and popular TV shows. (Note: The book was published in 1994, so some of the examples are dated. Anyone remember The Golden Girls?)

Besides talking about comedy in particular, Vorhaus also discusses the creative mindset writers need to overcome their fears and produce funny work. For those of you interested in the quantity vs. quality debate, Vorhaus comes out strong on quantity in “The Rule of Nine,” which says

For every ten jokes you tell, nine will be trash. For every ten ideas you have, nine won’t work. For every ten times you risk, nine times you fail.

Why should we continue taking risks if we’re liable to so much failure? Vorhaus explains,

…the rule of nine turns out to be highly liberating because once you embrace it, you instantly and permanently lose the toxic expectation of succeeding every time. (p. 12)

The nugget

Vorhaus provides a number of useful tools and exercises throughout the book, but the part that had the most impact on me was “The Comic Throughline” in Chapter 7, where Vorhaus describes the key elements in a successful comedic story.

Given his desire to experiment with many different story ideas (The Rule of Nine), Vorhause wanted

a way of writing the barest bones of my story in ten sentences or less, so that I could discover with a minimum of work whether I had an interesting, whole and solid story or not. (p. 76)

This Comic Throughline is an alternative to the classic Hero’s Journey as described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Rather than embark on a quest, in the Comic Throughline the protagonist attempts to reach a goal only to find that the goal shifts, compelling him or her to face a moment of truth before risking all.

One stage of the Comic Throughline, which occurs about halfway through the structure, is called “A Monkey Wrench is thrown.” During this stage, Vorhaus explains, the protagonist experiences a shift away from his initial, surface-level success. Often, the monkey wrench occurs because the protagonist falls in love, and his loyalty shifts from himself to someone else.

Vorhaus’ description of this stage made me think of Marcelo in the Real World, last month’s StorySleuths’ book. About halfway through the novel, having adjusted to a new job working at his father’s law firm, Marcelo discovers a photograph of a girl injured in a car crash. Suddenly, he feels compelled to uncover what happened to the girl, even if helping her means failing at his job and losing his chance to choose where he wants to go to school in the fall.

Vorhaus says, “When the loyalty gets displaced, suddenly the story is about a character wanting two things that are mutually exclusive” (p. 89). Not surprisingly, the conflict goes way up after the monkey wrench enters the picture.

Why The Comic Toolbox earns a space on my writing shelf:

Although The Comic Toolbox seems to target screenwriters, its lessons and techniques apply to children’s writers as well. Why? Well, unless you write dark YA, you probably write comedy—and that doesn’t necessarily mean funny, ha-ha, but comedy in the classic sense. That is to say, books that offer hope and promise. Don’t forget that the Greeks and Romans defined comedies as plays with happy endings. I particularly like Wikipedia’s description of comedy:

Much comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations.
All these elements are also elements of good novels.

What writing books do you keep on your shelf? I’d love to hear recommendations.

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