I'm thrilled to introduce this week's Speculative Fiction Writer, Shevi Arnold. She's discussing something that maybe we all need a little more of in our fiction and daily lives - comedy.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
By Shevi Arnold
All science fiction starts by asking two words within the realm of the scientifically possible: “What if?”
It’s kind of like a fictional mathematical proof. It says that if this is scientifically possible, and this other thing is scientifically possible, then sometime in the future or on another planet it’s scientifically possible that . . .
For example, it’s scientifically possible for intelligent life to develop on a planet like ours, and there are many other planets in the universe that are like ours, so it’s scientifically possible that intelligent life has developed on those planets. Presto, you have E.T..
And it’s scientifically possible for wars to exist between countries, so if we believe it’s possible that intelligent life exists on those planets, it’s scientifically possible that beings from other planets may be at war with one another. Presto, you have Star Wars.
Yeah, that’s the best explanation I have for why Jabba the Hutt would make Princess Leia wear a gold bikini. I mean, you’d think a guy who looks like something Clifford the Big Red Dog left on the living-room carpet wouldn’t give a fig about what a human girl is wearing, so what other explanation could there possibly be?
But I digress.
I love science fiction intellectually. I love thinking about “What if?”
But my heart belongs to comedy. It’s my favorite genre.
In a way, comedy also asks, “What if?” In a way, every form of fiction does. But the way each genre asks it is different. Science Fiction asks, “What if?” in the realm of the scientifically possible. Comedy asks, “What if?” by first looking at the likely or expected and then giving us something unlikely and unexpected: a surprise.
Comedy goes great with other genres—all genres, not just science fiction. That’s because most genres have clichés, and those clichés can get pretty boring after a while. Comedy, though, adds an element of surprise, which shakes things up. It keeps the audience on their toes. Nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing is what you expect. That’s kind of the beauty of comedy.
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of The Avengers, once said, ““Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
I know many writers who would like to add funny scenes to their writing, but they don’t know how. They sometimes sound like Edmund Kean who is quoted as saying, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”
But comedy really isn’t that hard.
All you have to do is find a cliché in your chosen genre and then go in a different direction, a surprising direction. Take anything that’s been done a million times one way, and do it a different way. It’s as simple as that.
For example, if people think that vampire slayers should be big tough guys with names like Van Helsing, you make a vampire slayer who is a teenage cheerleader named Buffy. Only don’t do that, because Joss Whedon already has. A joke is only funny the first time a person hears it. That’s because once you’ve heard it, the surprise is gone. So you’re going to have to come up with something people haven’t heard before.
My upcoming novel, Why My Love Life Sucks, book one in The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, tries to do just that.
It’s a funny, YA science fantasy. It starts with a “What if?” and continues with a surprise. What if vampires existed, and what if a vampire girl turned some guy into a vampire? You probably already have certain expectations. You know the clichés. The girl must be in love with the guy, and he must be hot. You’d be wrong on both accounts. Surprise! She wants to be his platonic best friend forever, and she informs him pretty quickly that he isn’t her type at all.
You might have also guessed that getting turned into an irresistible chick magnet is a dream come true for our hero, but surprise again! It’s not. Our hero is a super geek, and girls and relationships terrify him. Girls throwing themselves at him is pretty much his worst nightmare.
Okay, so you might get that this is funny, but you might be wondering why I call this science-fantasy. I mean, hello, vampires are paranormal or urban fantasy, there’s nothing scientific about them, right?
That’s the thing: there are clichés that fit science fiction, and vampires aren’t among them. That means sticking vampires into a science fiction story can be pretty funny. But it also still has to make sense. After all, it’s not really science fiction if there isn’t a certain degree of scientific logic.
As a scientist, Gilbert has a hard time accepting the possible existence of vampires, and a big part of the book involves Gilbert trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense: vampires, how strange his undead life has become, and this crazy little thing called love.
Like any good science-fiction story, Why My Love Life Sucks starts with “What if?” What if vampires really did exist? How could that be scientifically possible? Like any good comedy, it continues with a surprise. What if a teenage super geek was turned into one? And then it and continues with life’s ultimate question: Why Me?
Thank you, Shevi. I love the Joss Whedon quote; you've reminded me as to why I enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much - the humour. And I'm intrigued by the way you've broken those tired and over-used science fiction cliches. I can't wait to read Why My Love Life Sucks.