Friday, January 9, 2015
Loftier Fruit Part 1- Speed and Empathy
Season 10 of Writing Excuses begins with IDEAS and how to get them. I needed better techniques and I got them. Writing Excuses keeps promises-it's one of the necessary commitments of good writing.
I need to be a more expedient comedy writer in order to be better at my radio job. When you've got to come up with a dozen great bits or stories per DAY or more it's very easy to get bogged down. It's very easy to get stuck in the middle of a show and have to give a break less than it needs. Valéry is right, even every time he gets misquoted-and I'll misquote again-that "great poems (or any writing) are never finished, but only abandoned". Pretty much everything I write is finished by abandonment. That's also from my years in production; the time pressure has you constantly looking at the stack that needs to get done by 5:00 and having to say, "That's good enough" before splicing on the tag, carting it up and throwing it on the pile (the verbs in that sentence are dead giveaways as to how long I've been doing this).
Often I'll get into the studio with a dozen or more half-written bits, like a news story and then a clip from a movie or a TV show or an idea for a punchline, and then just hit the conveyor belt of the morning clock and craft the best ones I can in the time I've got. The clock is a merciless conveyor belt, because if the breaks don't get into the system far enough ahead, the stations that are running my shows just get dead air. There are two simultaneous pressures: to be great and to be fast. It's like being Lucy in the chocolate factory.
I often do breaks that could have been better if I'd had more time to craft them. But I want to be very topical and relevant, which means clinging to the news cycle and checking for trend updates on Fark, Mashable, Wired, Sploid and others to bring in relevant, compelling, fresh topics. I also monitor Twitter for the latest music news updates. But finding the right topics is just the first stage, the gathering of raw material. The topics are merely the candy. Then, with added value like audio clips, good writing and repeated voicing to get just the right diagramming and timing and delivery on the read, you wrap the chocolates as best you can.
I'm often haunted after my show by that should-coulda-woulda feeling. Sometimes I'm very proud of my whole show. Most of the time I wish I had written better armatures for each break within the limited time I had and that my writing skills were sharper. It's mostly in the writing.
The idea Howard Tayler talked about, which is really a writing technique, is one of "...going for the loftier fruit,"
Howard uses Twitter as a cultural watershed, which is an excellent idea. You get a very good feel for the cycles of human thought and feeling on Twitter. And here's how he, as a humorist, uses it:
"You will see something happen, and on Twitter 10,000 people will all tell the same joke. It is fascinating to watch, and as a humorist I watch it and I ask myself, what's the fruit that's higher up in the tree? What is it that I can reach for that's different? Not the idea that immediately leaps to mind, but what's past it. You have to push a couple of ideas out of the way or synthesize a couple of ideas and find something that hasn't already been hashtagged a million times,"
I want only current, fresh, relevant and compelling topics. To be fresh, you've got to go for the loftier fruit rather than the stale stuff that's hanging low, rather than the joke everyone else has made. But you can't go to high in the tree-then you are no longer relevant or relatable. You need to be accessible, but just a branch or two higher on the tree. Not out of sight.
Dan Wells added that synthesis is a useful, to "Mash something together with something else," which is one of the cornerstones of my show. Though I cannot compare myself to John Oliver, he uses a technique of sequencing brilliant analogies to entertain, and to make complex and inflammatory topics conversation-friendly. He's a genius water-cooler wizard, because his analogies are relevant, memorable, vivid-yet accessible. I try daily to write brilliant analogies, but they take time, at least for me. When I can't do that fast enough for the conveyor belt I default to relatable.
To make any story relatable, you can use empathy to put the listener IN it. Next are are three examples of how I crafted breaks from news stories or current events using empathy and relatability:
1. A kid's science experiment proposal got an award from NASA, and the idea was this: send jumping spiders into space with their favorite flies and observe how jumping spiders would behave in zero gravity. My punchline was, "It's a really cool idea, but would you want to BE in that rocket doing that experiment? If you sent me up there you'd hear lots of screaming and then there would be a huge, fiery explosion. That's what happens when there's a spider in my bathroom,"
2. Robotics advances reported by people at the Consumer Electronics Show were pretty startling. In fact, it looks like we'll be using robots soon to do a lot of jobs people are doing now. (Cue creepy "Terminator" music and SFX bed, fading up slowly). So you'll walk into a fast food joint soon and there won't even be any people. There'll be a machine to swipe your card and type in your order and then machines behind counters taking meat out of freezers and throwing it in the grease and then you get your sandwich from machines reaching out at you with big metallic hooks and claws and UGH! NOOOOOO! You're terminated, bugger!" (Cue metallic crush SFX)
3. It's the day after Christmas, so in my first break of the day I talked about overindulging and just trying to get all the junk out of the fridge."... so I dumped the last of the eggnog in my coffee because that seemed so creative when I was half-awake. Then I remembered there was rum in it. Well. If I start crying and then pass out you'll know what happened,"
I'm OK with these breaks. But I'd love to take my bits to the next level, and that's in the writing, going just high enough for the just-loftier-enough fruit, and the fresh witty analogy. I already put in as much writing time as I have for my show: up to four hours at home the night before and around two hours before my show starts the day it airs.
What I want is a toolbox full of shortcuts to better writing.