5 Cautions in Adding Humor to Your Creative Works

Alpine Cow“The secret to humor is surprise. — Aristotle

We know humor adds much to engaging an audience. This is true whether our works are art pieces, presentations, dramas, novels, short stories or non-fiction. But we also know humor, unlike other elements in our creative works, has a greater chance of falling flat.

Here are tips that will make your humor less likely to produce deadpan stares or full-blown cringes.

Caution 1. Don’t keep trying to make something funny that’s resisting you. A good reason most likely lies behind the roadblock. The idea could be offensive or hurtful. The idea may need extensive background or setup and risks losing the audience. Or it may not be right for the setting of your work. Some ideas are too outdated to tickle current audiences.

See what you think of this example:

ID-10062080A 1958 film, Mon Oncle, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and other awards. It had audiences rolling, especially the kitchen scene. (I remember.) Here’s its IMDb blurb: “Monsieur Hulot visits the technology-driven world of his sister, brother-in-law, and nephew, but he can’t quite fit into the surroundings.” Check out this short clip and decide. Timeless or passé humor?

Caution 2. Don’t overdo the humorous moment in length or drama. But do give the moment what it needs to be recognized as a humorous tidbit. Look for a balance.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King have appeared in films of their works for a bit of humor. You decide whether the film professionals gave their appearances the appropriate length and drama for the work. Here are YouTube clips showing Hitchcock’s cameo appearances and one of King’s.

Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Tina Phillips at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Caution 3. Don’t create humor that’s complicated and makes audiences work hard for their laugh. Many enjoy slapstick because it’s easy to “get.” Others prefer wit and humorous situations that lead them to their laughs.

You decide if the table ballets in films, Benny and Joon and in Gold Rush, are simple and humorous (and timeless). See both clips here starring Johnny Depp and Charlie Chaplin.

Caution 4. Don’t repeat witty or slapstick elements for the sole purpose that the humor will work a second or third time in the same work.

Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Lavoview at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Unless perhaps you’re one of the Three Stooges, repetitions lose the element of surprise and become less entertaining with each re-appearance. Possibly, you can make the idea work again if you’re able to add a fresh angle.

Businessman Stepping on Banana Peel

Caution 5. Don’t include slapstick in writing, drama, or presentations unless it’s well planned and orchestrated.

Slapstick is defined as: “comedy based on deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) I think the key element is the humorously embarrassing event. Random clumsy actions alone have no story and can take away from the work. You decide if Mr. Bean, as he paints his room, has an effective embarrassing event for his clumsy actions.

What were your decisions on the film clips? What cautions do you have in using humor?

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The Secret Ingredient to Engaging Your Audience

“Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.” —Nancy Duarte

Hot Dog and Chopsticks

You step back from your creative work and, no matter how hard you rationalize its appeal, you know in your heart something is missing. The ingredient that takes it from dull to fascinating.

Most of us know the secret ingredient already. Then why don’t we use it? I’ll address reasons why we overlook the secret ingredient after I give you some examples of how it’s been employed.

Secret Ingredient: CONTRAST.

Musical Instrument Keyboard KeysExample 1: My favorite rhythm activity with preschoolers is freeze dance. In Bible Study Fellowship and Sunday school, we danced to music pieces on the small keyboard I carried. Then I’d punch the stop button. The children froze arms, legs, and face expressions. I tried to catch them in a stumbling stop or moving when silence dropped. They enjoyed the dancing, the anticipation, and avoiding getting caught.

The freeze dance provides these contrasts:

  • freely moving bodies vs. rigid frozen bodies
  • doing our own thing vs. obeying the rule to stop
  • anticipation vs. fun result

When we solely put on music and let them dance with scarves, the children didn’t stay engaged very long. Unless they used their scarves as whips (creating their own contrast).

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Image courtesy of Suat Eman at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 2: If you sat in a waiting room with a blue wall in front of you, how long would you stare at the wall with interest? Now, say the wall was white with a foot-by-foot blue square painted on it. Would your eye wander to that blue square now and then? Would you wonder why someone painted a blue square on the white wall? Might you imagine what you would have put on the wall instead of the blue square? Or what you’d add to the blue square?

The contrast of blue and white, big and small, and the why and why not of the blue square creates more interest than a solid blue wall. That’s why artists use light and dark, shadows and highlights.

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Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of adamr at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example 3: Would you sit through a movie or play where the actors constantly shouted? Or issued nonstop dramatic emotion—always whining or always blubbering or always laughing? Actors and storytellers know sprinkling subtle and dramatic emotions, shouts and whispers, and movement and stillness engages their audiences.

??????????????????????????Too much of anything gets old and audiences lose interest.

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Example 4: And for me, the greatest contrast of all: Creator and created. If the Bible were only about humans and their sinful natures and fleeting brief lives on earth, our future would be hopeless. But the Bible reveals the nature of the almighty Creator who sent His Son to earth to save us from our sins, give us eternal life in His kingdom, and make us whole.

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Why doesn’t a writer, an artist, or presenter use contrasts? Here’s reasons that came to my mind:

  • He does, but uses less than polar contrasts. The contrasts fall short of appearing different to the audience. The actor reduces his screams to shouts.
  • He fails to put the contrasts he sees in his mind into his work. This is a common problem of novice writers. They imagine a scene and its emotions but fall short of transferring what they’ve created in their minds to the page.
  • He uses an experience in his personal life. His emotional struggles with the experience convince him to avoid one side of the contrast. Contrasting costs too much pain.
  • He thinks the one element that intrigues him is sufficient to attract his audience. He forgets his passion must be related to the audience. Contrasting that element to its opposite helps the audience see his viewpoint.

Can you share an example of how you’ve contrasted elements in your creative work?

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4 Questions to Answer Before You Bash Critics of Your Creative Works

“We have met the enemy and they is us.” — Ashleigh Brilliant

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We want people to love our creative works, but find critics dislike them. People refuse to look at or listen to or taste our works. Sure, critics are often wrong. But not always.

Here are 4 questions to answer before you react to your discouragement. Your honest answers will make your next creative work soar.

 

Image courtesy of sixninepixels at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of sixninepixels at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

1. Did you focus on how the audience should be, instead of how you should have performed?

When I was a new Children’s leader for Bible Study Fellowship, I wanted to pray for good children’s behavior. The experienced leaders surprised me when they, instead, prayed for leaders’ creativity to handle the behavior problems.

My paradigm shift made all the difference. I focused on learning ways to handle situations, instead of hoping children would be something they aren’t. I worked to create engaging stories and activities appropriate for their age.

The children reacted in positive ways and learned more when I concentrated on how to work with their wants and needs.

 

MP9002891982. Did you offer your work to the wrong audience, instead of to the very ones who would embrace it?

When I entered the world of writing fiction, I thought if I wrote a good story well, everyone would love it. A book on writing book proposals surprised me when it asked: Who is your audience? I answered: The world. Okay, women and some men. But during an editor appointment at a writers’ conference, the editor asked me to define my audience. “Women and some men” fell flat.

My paradigm shift made all the difference. Writing wasn’t about me; it was about readers. I learned about niches. Not every woman loves novels about horses or young love or mid-life crises or murder or prairie life.

I learned reducing the world to the right niche still left scads of readers hungry for stories they adore.

?????????????3. Did you try to own your work, instead of giving it to the people for whom you said you created it?

I dreamed of a Christian library in our community where people could enjoy current Christian resources and fiction. Over a year’s time with the help of others, I worked to create a Christian library at our church. I expected members to check out the work in progress. When few did, I asked my husband why more members weren’t interested. Maybe the work wasn’t worth it. My husband’s answer surprised me. He said only a small percentage of people (about 15% of Americans) read books on a regular basis.

My paradigm shift made all the difference. I had wanted to give readers and teachers a wonderful resource. The library wasn’t mine to hold back from the few who’d use it often and make a difference tapping its resources.

When I stopped worrying about “my work” and made the library the best for readers and Bible teachers, it was a success.

Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4. Did you compare yourself to your peers, instead of the standard of excellence?

Editors rejected my first books. One reason resulted from my wish to please everyone. I changed sentences in my manuscripts according to critique partners’ and contest judges’ feedback. In two different contests, the feedback from judges surprised me. Twice this happened: one judge disliked a line in my story and another praised that same line.

My paradigm shift made all the difference. I had edited the life out of my stories trying to please everyone.

This understanding allowed me to use feedback wisely and to find my own writing voice to create better stories.

What paradigm shift have you made that improved the quality of your creative work?

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