Acquiring New Techniques Part 1: Pun Writing
by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Most people come by the ability to create puns naturally.
I never did. Sometimes they just pop out of my mouth, but I can't do it on purpose, though I do admire those who spin them off.
You would think after so many years as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, there would be nothing left for me to learn. Not so. There are lots and lots of techniques I have never attempted.
So when presented with a prime example of a technique I've never mastered, in a form that allows the bare bones of the technique to show through, and written by someone I'm communicating with on the social networks, I just can't resist trying to learn how it's done.
So when I got caught up in reading the STEN SERIES, that I've discussed in some depth here because it represents a type of work there is a huge and growing market for, I just had to try to figure out how these jokes were constructed.
Here are some posts about Allan Cole, his career, why he's important to YOU as a writer of Romance, or Science Fiction Romance (you really wouldn't expect this material to be key to ROMANCE, but it is), and something you can learn about plotting from these novels. In fact, you can learn a lot by studying the Sten Series about breaking "the rules" and getting away with it -- or ending up making a new rule other writers then must follow because it sells like crazy when you do!
Remember the Sten Series is in collaboration with Chris Bunch and you should research him, too - famous for other works as well as screenplays.
I not only read the STEN SERIES just for the fun of it all, but I also studied it, trying to figure out why the Kilgour jokes became the subject of international conversation and a "claim to fame" of the Sten Series (8 novels, only a few strategically placed jokes, but it's the jokes that are remembered!).
I couldn't crack the secret of those jokes, though I could see exactly how they were used, how they were integrated into the characters, theme, setting, and yes, even the plot. Fully integrated.
So I started talking to Allan Cole about how those jokes were created, and he kindly posted a few clues on the Facebook Group where he talks to fans:
At one point he said offhandedly that the jokes had been written separately, then integrated into the novels. They had created an inventory of jokes from which they carefully chose one to insert at the right point in whichever novel they were working on.
The Kilgour jokes are often sprinkled among action scenes, and finished off (or not) after the climax of the action. Kilgour just goes on and on telling these stories, and the boredom of it all, (plus the knowledge it will be a bad joke, or atrocious pun, a groan not a guffaw at the end) makes the other characters fend off the FINISH.
The other clue that Allan told me on Facebook, that I had not managed to figure out was that the connecting thread between the STORY that Kilgour was telling, the PLOT of the novel Kilgour was embroiled in at that time, and the PLIGHT of the reader who was stuck to the page unable to put the book down, was TRAPPED.
The theme was TRAPPED, and I couldn't see that.
Once it was pointed out, how the character inside the Kilgour joke, the characters listening to Kilgour tell that story, and the reader, were all TRAPPED and sympathizing with the trapped characters in the Kilgour joke-story because they were trapped, I knew how to DO THIS.
A long time ago, I had learned the secret to joke writing was to create the punch-line first.
So I gave myself the assignment to commit a Kilgour.
It took several weeks, but a punch-line finally occurred to me complete with a final-scene to the story.
Several days later, I told myself not to be a coward and just boldly leap into telling a story of some sort. I opened a notepad file and plunged in holding that punchline in mind, and trying to think like Kilgour trapped in an untenable and unwinnable situation by an interminable military action sequence (the military hurry-up-and-wait nerve-breaking-stress situations that are the hallmark of action stories.)
So I trapped my imaginary Kilgour in a space ship full of civilians and waited to see how he'd break the tension of their being trapped. (think TSA).
I couldn't do Kilgour's Scottish accent -- which in the novels is spelled out with every syllable he speaks. Normally, editors disallow spelling-out accents, but in these novels the writers get away with it because it is done correctly. You can't "copy" this stuff and just transcribe your characters opaque accents. There are techniques to learn there that I do not have mastery of!
So I just wrote the tale in plain English, trying for the "trapped" effect.
I consider it partially successful because I do think I got the "trapped" effect central to the Kilgour style, but it's not hilarious enough, and I didn't even pick up the rhythm of Kilgour's characteristic speech pattern, never mind spelling out his accent.
It took a lot of courage to submit it to Allan Cole. But eventually I confessed that I'd committed a Kilgour and asked if he wanted to see it. He said yes, so I sent it while mentally cataloging all its short-comings.
Allan Cole liked it enough to add a note at the top -- in Kilgour's accent -- indicating this was a translation, and include it in EMPIRE DAY this year (it's an annual celebration and you can contribute fanfic to these anthologies, too). Empire Day is a holiday celebrated in the novels and now on Facebook.
You can get this compendium on Amazon - borrow it free. Or as an e-book.
This is edited by Allan Cole and contains my first ever attempt at writing a joke.
(see his IMDB filmography here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0170426/ ).
Allan Cole is the writer of over 200 produced screenplays plus many novels. This anthology is based on the STEN SERIES which Allan Cole wrote with Chris Bunch (look him up on amazon, and imdb, too). The International Best Selling Sten Series (8 novels) is now in e-book, and this anthology was just published containing items written by other writers and fans.
For those following this writing craft blog, the point of studying my Kilgour joke attempt is to compare it with the published Kilgour jokes in the novels, and see how to teach yourself a complex, multi-leveled technique one step at a time.
Don't hold back from marketing until you think what you've produced is perfect. Just try for one technique, focus on it and practice it. Later, add other techniques.
Here's part of the instruction Allan Cole provided on joke writing:
The other element of acquiring a technique, any writing technique not just joke writing, is just what I've demonstrated here with this Kilgour joke. Take an example of the technique that intrigues you, is well done, but allows you to see the mechanism that makes it work, and copy it. Yes, fanfic! Yes, write in some other writer's universe (but remember the line between what belongs to you and what does not!). Even if you bury it in a bottom drawer or burn it in the BBQ, write it. Just write it.
If you have to learn to pat your head, rub your tummy, walk and chew gum too, first just pat your head! Just that much, all by itself alone. In this case, I was after TRAPPED, and I trapped it. There's a couple dozen other subtle techniques amalgamated into the Kilgour joke style that I have to choose from if I ever try this again, so if I do it, I'll do trapped+something, and then trapped+something+something else, and onward until I finally replicate Kilgour. But since Kilgour is unique in the annals of literature, I would start by finding some other thematic element than "trapped" and creating a character who resorts to comic relief from scratch, using that theme which would fit into my own stories.
Pick out your own next technique challenge and find one element to practice in isolation. We will no doubt return to the topic of skills acquisition methods later.
posted by Jacqueline Lichtenberg