Counterfactual humor is popular, as witness Monty Python's Flying Circus, Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, and similar comedy. Much fun derives from surprise --- from putting radically different concepts next to one another. Take bureaucracy and apply it to silly walks; paint a circle on a wall and let one character walk through it (while the next slams into a solid barrier); move the actors from a current movie into the Wild West, or put cowboys into space.

But the same exaggerated contrast, in other circumstances, leads to the most striking and serious metaphors. Newton speaks of himself as a boy on the seashore, picking up pebbles while the vast ocean of truth lies undiscovered in front of him. People are turned to stone by terror; hearts soar like hawks from joy; bodies and minds melt together in passion. Civilizations crash down, and new ones arise from their ashes.

Why are some comparisons laughable, and others of utmost gravity? Is it the context of the discussion? The choice of subject matter? The careful control of metaphor, avoiding overuse? (Does purple prose arise simply from too great a density of similes?) How can writing stay within the circles of power, and not cross into ridiculousness?

If there were a simple formula, once it was discovered it would cease to work. Novelty is essential, as is diverse vocabulary and a conscious regard for vivid imagery. Self-criticism helps. So does a keen eye and a sharp pencil, poised to edit out misplaced or distracting turns of phrase. Above all, it's critical to empathize with the reader and to care deeply about one's subject. A sympathetic audience will sense and respect the author's sincerity, and will in return forgive many sins --- in exchange for a chance to learn, to witness, and to share true love.

Thursday, October 21, 1999 at 21:37:00 (EDT) = 1999-10-21

TopicHumor - TopicWriting

(correlates: OceansOfNotions, CountrySightsAndSounds, Forrest Gump --- The Movie, ...)