I wrote a post a while ago discussing the importance of being an active reader if you’re a writer. Please notice, I said “active” reader—not just a reader.
If you want to read actively, you need to pay attention to the way a writer writes. You need to notice the subtle as well as the obvious choices the writer makes to convey the tone, the mood, the theme, and the whole big story they’re telling.
In my last couple posts, I shared with you some well-written examples of figurative language taken from All the Light We Cannot See, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Anthony Doerr. Today, I want to look at a very different book written by a different kind of writer: The Drifter (A Peter Ash Novel) by Nick Petrie. And instead of looking at imagery, we’re going to look at some examples of dry, sarcastic humor.
It’s not easy to do humor well, but Petrie has a gift for it. And let me say also that The Drifter is a suspenseful thriller that’s been justifiably compared to Lee Child’s Reacher series (Child himself endorsed the comparison). The overall tone of the book is not humorous, but the touches of it provide some comic relief, allowing the reader to pause and breathe, without detracting from or destroying the plot itself. Not. Easy.
Below, I share some excerpts and explain why I think they’re examples of how to do humor—especially this kind of humor in this type of book—well.
Example 1: “The debris pile in the back corner looked more substantial from this vantage point. There was all kinds of crap in there. Carpet scraps, boxes, old lumber. The splintered bones of missing mailmen” (p. 12).
Example 2: “His cheek throbbed. He would have a nice bruise tomorrow. It was traditional to put a steak on it, but Mingus would just eat it, then lick him to death. A bag of frozen peas would be better. The dog was not a vegetarian” (p. 123).
Example 3: “Dogs always liked little kids. They tasted like sweat and table scraps” (p. 255).
Example 4: “How many sledgehammers do we need?” [Peter asked].
“How else you think we gonna get in?” asked Lewis. “Just say please?”
What do all four examples have in common?
- The laugh comes at the end of a setup—a setup that’s integral to the plot (or at least the scene) and that wasn’t written solely to set up the joke.
- The laugh fits with what came prior—it’s not coming from out of left field.
- The laugh is just this side of believable; you almost have to stop and ask yourself, “Wait a minute … is a dog really not a vegetarian?” … “Could the bones of mailmen be buried back there?”
- The laugh is delivered and then released. It’s not a protracted “joke.” You either get it or you don’t, and the story moves merrily along regardless of whether the line made you laugh.
Writing with a sarcastic wit as Petrie does comes naturally to some people, but to many it doesn’t. If you enjoy this kind of humor in “real life,” then in all likelihood you got the jokes above, you laughed at them (or at least smiled?), and you’ve probably delivered a few lines like these of your own.
If that’s the case, if sarcasm is a service you and your loved ones offer for free (I’m stealing that from a magnet we have on our fridge), and if you want to use that sort of dry wit in your writing, my best advice is don’t try to do it. Instead, let the character loose in your head and give him free rein of your keyboard. If your character has a sarcastic, dry side to them, they’ll likely come up with a great line or two or three on their own. You’ll finish typing it and then stare in wonder at your screen, wondering where in the world that came from. Rejoice. It came from your own inherent sarcastic mind.
If you don’t have a natural dry, sarcastic wit but you really want one of your characters to have it, my best advice is to read books with characters who embody that trait. The more good examples of this that you read—that you ACTIVELY read—the more you’ll learn. The more you’ll get a feel for it.
There are two Peter Ash novels available right now, and the third in the series drops January 2018. If you’ve never read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, (a) you should because (b) Reacher has this type of wit and Child writes it well and (c) because they’re great thrillers. Another series to try that offers more than one sarcastic character in its arsenal is John Sandford’s Prey series. Do you have other suggestions? Please leave them in the comments below!
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 Petrie, Nick. The Drifter (A Peter Ash Novel). Penguin Publishing Group, 2016. Kindle edition.