More important than a nice font, layout and timbre, characters with backstory, plot twists and cliffhangers are vital to story. Even more crucial to a great story is a tool that once utilized, will serve you better than all those others: Empathy.
Great writing is the process of intense reflection and observation. The reader is following the same path as the writer- the only difference is that they are using you as the prism from which they observe. You, the writer, colour the canvas for them and you honestly portray the characters. Without empathy there is no emotion in the text, the words you type are nothing more than the cataloguing of events.
As a stand up comedian I work very closely with empathy. I present topics and characters in my performance and must get the audience on the particular side of a character and against another. Often I want them on my side. I have to present a case or an opinion that is skewed from popular thought and then sell it to them. If I say that I don’t like old people or other people’s kids then people will simply view me as a bit of an ass. If I attach the emotion that I feel, for example ‘I am afraid of old people.’ Then I am not an as much of an ass as I am a guy with a fear. Something that people can identify with.
This brings me to that second tool that comedians use when writing and presenting comedy. WHY?
‘Why?’ is the most important question in a human beings process and execution of empathy. Consider it the salt on the chip.
Here is an excerpt from my thought process when thinking of a comedic idea.
I’m afraid of old people.
Because when I see an old person I see a future me, and it causes me anxiety.
Because looking at him I see that he doesn’t have much future left and it reminds me of my own mortality. It must be scary to be old.
Because when falling is potential death that must be scary.
Because it’s common. It happens all the time.
Because it’s even in the way we describe it. When an old person falls we don’t say ‘Paddy fell.’ We say ‘Paddy had a fall.’
That one joke, which I’ve shortened for this, contains 5 answered questions and four of them contain the mention of an emotion.
Most stand up is written and performed in the first person. That brings the audience closer to what happened and closer to the emotions as you reenact them for their viewing pleasure. Comedy is voyeuristic and as a result the reader or audience are removed from the events. They are watching a conduit recount events. They aren’t experiencing them, merely watching somebody who had experience them. If comedy is not in the first person then even the performer or writer is removed from the experience and it becomes a thrice-removed separation from the event and too diluted for them to invest in.
So when I’m writing fiction I always try to go inside the head of each character and extract their suspicions, fears, second guesses, grief and colour the story with those emotions. I also think that if all the characters are given enough or equal empathetic seeds, then the story and characters become far more intriguing and the experience as a whole becomes more realistic and enthralling. If everything is from the perspective of the protagonist, it is like trying to paint a scene from Mardi Gras using only green. You will find a way to highlight the details and it would be Mardi Gras, but it would not capture the full spectrum of colour and would lose the essence of what it really is.
There are many other techniques that lend themselves to stand up and make the story telling more engaging as you get closer to where you want to get without losing people along the way. Remember, in comedy people need to engaged so much that they expect to be made laugh every fifteen seconds. Red herrings are a nice trick. Just because you know where the story is going doesn’t mean you have to make your reader wise to it. Throw them off the scent by planting false seeds that will lead them off in one direction. Then whip them back into line by revealing the truth. One or two of them used in a story gives the reader a feeling that they are at your whims. They become as much a victim of the events as the characters. They will feel like they’ve been duped and will therefore sink deeper into the story.
Don’t be afraid to show characters as horrible things. We are all flawed. Having a protagonist that is a little sexist or racist will not kill the character. It’ll actually make them more interesting and will conflict your reader. Use WHY and emotions and you might find an interesting reason for their flaw and that will give you a direction the character will move in order to change or overcome the things that hold them back at the beginning.
(c) Ross Browne
Ross Browne’s novel, Element 79 Ascension is out now – pick up your copy online here!
About Element 79 Ascension
Justin Mahoney is a twenty one year-old New Yorker who lands in Ireland to sell the bookshop he inherited from his estranged grandfather.
Elizabeth Stevenson is wondering how her mentor, Walter really died and what is behind the locked door at the back of his bookshop.
Don is investigating a suspicious call when he finds something he shouldn’t have. Vincent Clement is trying to piece together his visions. They soon find themselves at the centre of a mysterious race to complete a centuries old mission and save the people that they love. Then there are the others.