Updated: Jun 3, 2020
Written by Elias McClellan
There are more ways to slow the pace of your book without an info dump. And humor is one of the best ways to do it. My very good friend Elias McClellan gives us another great post on just how to do that.
First, I’m not typing about Alan Bennett and Nigel Hawthorne’s “The Madness of King George.” Though, I’m told, that King George is an uplifting yuck-fest, too. No, I’m talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon Patrick Walker’s scene-stealing King George, (touring production).
So, I thought this rant was a how-to-write-crazy guide. What’s this produce-stealing, BS?
Chill, this is about writing, really. Musical theatre, as with music in general, tells a story in highly condensed form. The fine detail is left to the reader’s/listener’s imagination. And Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theatre. Anyone who has seen it would have to agree—unless they hate musical theatre (means “stupid”). Thing is, Hamilton is also a master class in storytelling.
Miranda’s production covers Alexander Hamilton’s 49-ish years in 2 hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. I know, I know, movies do this all the time. But movies do NOT tell stories almost entirely in song. Song dictates a special economy to do the heavy lifting. Oh, and the songs kinda have to NOT suck.
Hamilton succeeds in aces with nary a flat number—which might be why the show has been on Broadway for four years straight and is in its second national tour. Full of heart and life, the songs convey an epic story in intimate human terms.
But, but the king…
Author Jim Hines has written of the power he felt when his work first evoked tears in a reader. He also wrote of his surprise in finding that those tearjerkers were NOT the work that his readers loved most. The readers most cherished his giggle joints.
That’s what Hamilton’s King George reminds us of—the power of humor.
My writing buddy and veteran actor Fulton Fry says whether your desire is to knock out a page-turning thriller or an edge-of-your-seat space opera or coma-inducing technical manual, you have to, and I quote, “get off the readers’ chest and let them breathe.” Too many authors use backstory or information dumps or cabbage cookie recipes to dial down the tension. I suggest humor.
A gag-on-the-fly saves your reader from peril fatigue while lending humanity to your story that few other devices can manage. Most importantly, a sarcastic remark or off-key observation or a cute turn of phrase doesn’t derail your pace like an extended character genealogy or engrossing chronicles of banana imports and organized crimes against gastronomy.
Hamilton’s petulant King infuses humor—and humanity—into high drama with on-the-nose petulance and tone-deaf outrage. Songs titled, “You’ll Be Back,” and “What’s Next?” gives the audience breathing room while seguing between Hamilton’s early introduction, Revolutionary War service, and fundamental philosophical differences that would form his finest and darkest hours.
Granted, it takes a deft touch and a thorough knowledge of both genre and audience. There is no harder translation than humor. I get it. Every single Spenser novel showcased Robert B. Parker’s talent at making “witty dialogue” look all-too-easy. Every pale imitation illustrates how hard it is to write “fun” prose.
No one calls The English Patient a “laugh riot.”
I can hear the “oh, no, that won’t work for me—I’m writing serious fiction” chorus. To which I say, E. Annie Proulx, (it’s like saying “yo momma” but classier). As is de rigueur for great-American-novel aspirants, Proulx’ Postcards, is unrelenting in its misery bordering on morose. It’s no coincidence that she lightened her follow up, The Shipping News. With family absurdity and local eccentricities, Proulx gives a smile through the pain.
So, I have to write jokes, now?
Of course, humor is not necessary. Thomas Harris, John Sanford, and (despite his best efforts) John Updike have produced celebrated works without a note of humor. Those aren’t the books I recall most fondly or even re-read. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins is a compelling, competent, courageous protagonist but Mosley’s Paris Minton—craven and neurotic in his frightful investigations—is just FUN to hang with and I reread the Fearless Jones books every couple of years.
Also, every humorist isn’t the “card” they think themselves. Seriously, for every Laurie Notaro, there are six Philip Roths. The trick is nuance to avoid nausea.
There is no overstating the importance of stretching, (seriously, I pulled a hammy just typing that) to find the funny in your daily experience. You don’t have to be a David Foster Wallace, (please don’t). Daily, circumstantial hilarity, like a joke in four-four time, is the divine music that links all our dances together. King George brings the funny in Hamilton—but he also brings the humanity.
Honestly, what’s more human than a crown, ermine cape, and knee-pants with stockings? Um, asking for a friend.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?