November 30, 2015

Writing Like Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse

One of my favorite authors is the late Douglas Adams, who wrote (among many other things) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and Last Chance to See.  These books have in common the late author's great sense of humor and his ability to turn a phrase.  The book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon suggests that while learning to write, you should take the time to trace your artistic "family tree"... That is, pick the authors whose work most touches you, and find out all you can about them.  Also find three people whose work inspired them, and study those people and their work as well.

I spent some time reading about Adams, then began looking into the authors that he found inspiring.  One of these is the late P.G. Wodehouse, an English writer of the late 1800s and 1900s.  Wodehouse led a fairly interesting life, being brought up by his aunts, spending time in France (during the German occupation in World War II), and finally in the United States (because there were those who believed him to have been a Nazi collaborator - though no evidence was ever discovered).  Wodehouse may best be known for his character Jeeves, an intelligent and insightful butler.

As you read both the work of Wodehouse and Adams, a similarity in the way they construct humorous lines is evident.  Below are some lines from Wodehouse's Psmith in the City that I found particularly good:

  • ...a pattering of rain made itself heard upon the windows."
  • "He was as wholly on the move as Psmith was statuesque."
  • "Bob looked slightly thoughtful. Mr. Jackson seemed thoroughly worried."
  • "...banks have a habit of swallowing their victims rather abruptly."
  • "Psmith's attitude toward the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune was to regard them with a bland smile, as if they were part of an entertainment got up for his express benefit."
  • "She wiped a pair of steaming hands on her apron, and regarded Mike with an eye which would have been markedly expressionless in a boiled fish."
  • "He was a man who had, I should say, discovered that alcohol was a food long before the doctors found it out."
  • "Sunday supper, unless done on a large and informal scale, is probably the most depressing meal in existence."
  • "It was his view that a boy should not be exhibited publicly until he reached an age when he might be in the running for some sort of colours at a public school."
  • "Mike began to realize that, till now, he had never known what boredom meant.  There had been moments in his life which had been less interesting than other moments, but nothing to touch this for agony."

Compare these with some lines from Douglas Adams:

  • "A computer chatted to itself in alarm as it noticed an airlock open and close itself for no apparent reason."
  • "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't."
  • "It was Arthur's accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser's accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk,..."
  • "She gave Arthur a pleasant smile which settled on him like a ton of bricks and then turned her attention to the ship's controls again."
  • "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport.'"
  • "Zaphod's left head sobered up, leaving his right to sink further into the obscurity of drink."
  • "In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with..."
  • "The best conversation I had was over forty million years ago... And that was with a coffee machine."

While Wodehouse and Adams both produced some very enjoyable Prose, Adams seemed to be able to come up with funny lines more frequently and consistently.  I decided to study both authors to get a better handle on how they do this.  What is it about lines like the above that makes them entertaining?
  • Inanimate objects embodying emotions or motivations, like the rain making itself heard, banks "swallowing" people, or a computer talking to itself.
  • Absurd but accurate comparisons, such as the hovering spaceship compared with a brick (which can't hover) or a person running to a statue.
  • Parallel sentence construction, with the second sentence being the punchline for the first (as in the "Bob looked thoughtful" while "Jackson looked worried").
  • A character having no emotional reaction, or an opposite emotional response than expected, to something terrible going on around him, as in Psmith finding misfortune entertaining or Ford Prefect not sharing Arthur's concern for his house being knocked down.
  • A situation described to an extreme, as in the woman looking at Mike with an "eye that would have been markedly expressionless" in a dead (and boiled) fish or "no language on Earth" having the expression "as pretty as an airport".
  • Characters experiencing extreme emotional reactions to relatively common (and not particularly emotional) things, like Mike feeling as though he had no idea what boredom really meant or how agonizing it could be, or a character being unable to cope with Sunday afternoons.
I decided to try my hand at producing lines that might be at home in a book by Adams or Wodehouse, assuming that either of them was alive and writing today.  Here's what I came up with:
  • As a computer administrator, Jeff spent his days rearranging millions of imaginary ones and zeroes into patterns that made his coworkers happy.  The ones and zeroes themselves didn't particularly like their new ordering, as some of them had grown rather fond of the bits they'd been close to before.  In retaliation, they crashed his system.
  • Katie liked the way Nate kissed her.  It energized her in a way that sticking her tongue in a wall socket couldn't.
  • Sheila bolted out the door, confident the hat would still be on sale at the mall.  Frank was confident they'd never be able to make the minimum credit card payment this month.
  • "What are you staring at?" Jack said to the teddy bear on the shelf.  The bear considered telling him, but remembered that stuffed animals aren't supposed to talk.  Besides, Jack was in no state to hear the truth anyway.
  • "Do you smell something, Percy?  Something acrid?" Percy turned toward him, his eyes bursting wide open.  "Yes, you idiot!  Your jacket's on fire."  Barry turned back to his book, "That's probably it, then."
  • Time slowed to a crawl, so much so that when it was lunchtime here in New York, it had gotten to be lunchtime in London, too.
  • Light bulbs have a sense about them.  They know the moment you need them most, and it's in that moment they get so excited that when electricity is applied to them their filament explodes in delight.  The key to making them last, Tom found, was to think of himself reading the tax code just before he flipped the switch.  The bulb in his desk lamp was now twenty-two years old.
Not bad for a first practice attempt, I think.

I'm not suggesting that this technique alone is enough to generate a short story or novel as good as those produced by Wodehouse or Adams, but combining this with solid characters and an imaginative plot just might do it.

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