Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stephen King's Fifty Shades of Mother

In the 1996 film, Mother, sci-fi author John Henderson (played by Albert Brooks) is constantly compared to Stephen King. Although he smiles through the comments from well-meaning but ignorant strangers (and his mother, played by a feisty and acerbic Debbie Reynolds), it's obvious from the way his posture changes and the way he rolls his eyes that he hates the comparison--not because he's insulted, but because his books are nothing like Stephen King's. Yet, the minute someone hears he writes science fiction, those who don't know the difference automatically come up with the most popular author in an entirely different sub-genre.

I think I know how he feels. Last night, I participated in a Readers' Night Out event at a local library. During the event, a photo was taken of me holding one of my books. This one--------------------->

Within minutes of the photo hitting social media, the snark began with someone implying that I was confusing sex toys with romance.

I'm very proud of The Bonds of Matri-money. It was my first romantic comedy, as well as my first published book. The handcuffs on the book cover refer to the plot: two virtual strangers agree to marry to participate in a Survivor-style game show for newlyweds. The catch? They'll be handcuffed together the entire time they're competing on the show! 

Because this book was published by Avalon Books, it's what we call in the biz, "a sweet romance." There are no swear words, no sexual situations, no adult content. It's a story that can be read by an eight-year-old or an eighty-year-old. And yet, the cover seems to draw comparisons to the very adult, very sexual, "Fifty Shades of Gray." Often, these comparisons are drawn by people who, like those in the film, Mother, don't understand the different nuances of genre fiction. 

And honestly, I don't mind explaining to readers that, no, my book is not erotic, despite the cover. What I do mind is having to smile and nod through the ignorant backhanded insults from those who don't read my genre, making snap judgments based on the cover. Fifty Shades renewed interest in reading, as the Harry Potter series, the Stieg Larsen books, and other successful books have done in the past. Anything that increases interest in books is a great thing, as far as I'm concerned. 

But please, don't compare my works to someone else's (or comment on how the handcuffs on my cover give you permission to abuse a woman and call it "sweet romance") unless you've read the books and understand the difference. I'm not really good at the smile-and-nod reaction.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Writing Humor Into Any Story: Summation

We've covered the ten elements of writing humor. Now, here are a few tips to strengthen your newfound humor muscles:

Abandon logic. Your character can do or say anything, regardless of how illogical, if it fits their personality and situation. Bend the facts, play with the what ifs, allow yourself to “think silly.” Consider the question, “What’s the worst that could happen now?” Not with tragic results, but using a Transfer of Fear mentality.

Real life provides great examples. Case in point: Remember the VW bus in Little Miss Sunshine and how the family had to push it up to a certain speed before they could leap inside, pop the clutch and drive? Remember the stuck horn that would start blaring at inopportune moments? Those issues were based on screenwriter Michael Arndt’s personal childhood memories of a family trip in just such a vehicle.

Keep it simple. Humor doesn't need a tremendous setup; it can occur in a few words: In Fashionably Late by Olivia Goldsmith, for example, Carl, the heroine’s friend owns a hair salon called Curl Up and Dye.

Use characterization to naturally find the humor. Established foibles and idiosyncrasies can evoke a comedic reaction at the right time. Remember Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark? We first discover his phobia when he hops on the sea plane to get away from the natives with a rare idol; a boa constrictor named Reggie is his pilot’s pet. When the creature slithers into Indy’s lap, we’re treated to a great squicky moment. Later, when he and Marian are entombed in the Well of Souls, he lights a torch and sees thousands of snakes crawling over the floor. “Snakes,” he marvels. “Why’d it have to be snakes?”

In The Edge of Reason, when Bridget returns home after spending time in jail in Thailand, her dad offers her a cigarette and she proudly announces she’s given them up. “Really?” her dad says as they step into an elevator at Heathrow. “I take great comfort in knowing they might kill me before things get worse.” By the time the elevator door opens again, both Dad and Bridget are puffing away.

Know the humor equation. Tragedy + distance = humor. The distance in this equation can take on different forms.

For example, time is a great distance marker. It’s now safe to poke fun at Lincoln’s assassination, the bombing of Pearl Harbor (depending upon your audience) and the O.J. Simpson trial. 9/11 is still pretty much off-limits. Why? Because the images are still fresh in our minds. 

Another distance marker is personal experience. Mel Brooks can be seen as funny and not hateful when he uses Jewish humor in such works as The Producers and To Be or Not to Be because he is Jewish. There’s no mean spirit in his intent. Yet, those same movies, if written by someone like Spike Lee or even Omar Sharif, would lose their humorous appeal.

Christopher Reeve was fond of the joke: “What’s the difference between me and O.J. Simpson? O.J. walked.” We laugh if it comes from Christopher Reeve. But if O.J. were to tell that same joke, it wouldn’t be quite so funny, would it? That’s the distance of personal experience.

Comedy is the ability to laugh at anything. Humor is the ability to laugh at yourself. Give your characters a sense of humor. They don’t have to be comedians.

Be patient. Even the biggest name comedians often revisit the clubs where they started out to try new material where they speak, then tweak over and over until they hit just the right note. Hold on to that funny line or scene for a while. Play with it. Can it be shortened for a bigger punch? Does it fit perfectly into the story or are you framing the story around the humor? And if it doesn’t fit perfectly…

Be ready to throw away your best joke. Just like with that ideal scene that won't fit no matter how hard you try to pound it into place, a good joke always needs the right framework to support it. If the framework's not there, delete the joke and save it for another scene, another manuscript, or your next backyard barbecue.

And remember: A sense of humor is like any other muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. No one is really born “funny.” You experience humor in every area of your life: media (social and standard), family memories, nights out with the girls (or guys)... We have a dozen opportunities to laugh every day. Allow your characters those same opportunities.

These are the tools for your arsenal. The next time something makes you laugh: whether it’s an emailed joke, a scene in a book, a witty bit of dialogue on television or in a movie, or even a silly song, take a moment to figure out what aspect or aspects the writer used to gain that reaction. 

Just like any other form of writing, the more you study the aspects of humor, the easier it will be for you to find the places in your own story where that perfect line or scene will give your readers a giggle.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story: Universal Truth

The last key element I'll discuss to help you add humor is Universal truth: a manner of discussing a well known fact, but in an abstract way. 

These usually begin with something like, “Did you ever notice…?” or “If…then what?” Consider George Carlin’s “If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” or “Did you ever notice that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot but anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

The protagonist in Juno is a font of universal truths. When a prospective adoptive mom advises, “Your parents are probably wondering where you are,” Juno blithely replies, “Nah... I mean, I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?”  Good point.

Want a few more? Check out this list from the website, College Humor. Now, come up with a few of your own.

Later this week, we'll discuss how to use your new-found humor skills!

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story: Exaggeration and Understatement

We're looking at the ten basic elements of writing humor. Number nine is Exaggeration and Understatement. Budweiser's Real Men of Genius commercials were a great example of humorous exaggeration. Saluting such heroes as "Mr. Tiny Dog Clothing Manufacturer," "Mr. Movie Theater Ticket Ripper Upper," and "Mr. Backyard Bug Zapper Inventor," these 30-60 second ads made the ridiculous sublime. You can see a selection of them here: 

The ultimate understatement occurs in The Naked Gun where a car crashes into a fireworks factory. 

Right. "Nothing to see here."

In my book, Chasing Adonis (on sale now for 99 cents!), when witness for the prosecution, Adara, has to be moved for her protection, she discusses the particulars with her police escort.

“I’m a little inexperienced at this. What does one pack when running away from criminals?”

“Bare necessities,” he replied without missing a beat. “Enough clothing for at least a week at a time, but no more than ten days’ worth. Sensible shoes. And keep the cosmetics to a minimum. You’ll be spending most of your time indoors anyway so excessive makeup is a waste of effort and space.”

Adara bit her tongue until it hurt. Another poke at the ultra-feminine looking woman who doesn’t have sense enough to leave her favorite purple eye shadow at home when faced with a life-threatening crisis? Did he really think she was that stupid? Well, she couldn’t just let that comment go without giving something back to him.

“I guess that means I shouldn’t pack my g-string and pasties, huh?” 

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Adding Humor to Your Story: Contrasted Reality

The eighth element of humor is Contrasted reality: Go out the other side by replacing normal reality with a direct contrast. Consider professional assassins living as man and wife in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a ditzy fashion major becoming an ace student at Harvard Law in Legally Blonde, or a male/male figure skating pair in Blades of Glory.

The contrast doesn’t have to be a person. It could be an event: a heavy metal concert at an amusement park: This is Spinal Tap 

Or even an item: a wading pool serving as a baptismal font (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

One of the charming nuances that made Shrek so successful was the contrasted reality of contemporary awareness with a storybook setting. Who could forget the magic mirror showing Prince Farquaad his princess choices using the old Dating Game style: “Our first bachelorette is a mentally abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away. She likes sushi and hot-tubbing any time. Her hobbies include cooking and cleaning for her two evil sisters. Let's hear it for Cinderella! Bachelorette number two is a cape-wearing girl from the Land of Fantasy. Although she lives with seven other men, she's not easy. Just kiss her frozen, dead lips and find out what a live wire she is. Give it up for Snow White! And last but not least is a fiery redhead who lives in a dragon-guarded castle surrounded by a boiling lake of lava. But don't let that cool you off. She's a loaded pistol who likes piƱa coladas and getting caught in the rain. Yours for the rescuing, Princess Fiona!”

            In my release, A Little Slice of Heaven, my heroine uses an unusual item as a weapon against a possibly dangerous man lurking outside her pizzeria:

Holding the pizza paddle like a baseball bat, she strode outside and let the screen door slap closed behind her. The man had disappeared. He must have rushed to hide behind the Dumpster when she came out. Or…was he lying in wait to accost her when the time was right? Dang, she’d done it again--leapt to action without considering the consequences.
Black clouds hovered overhead. The soft breeze from late afternoon had transformed into a blustery autumn wind.
Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe she should return to the safety of the kitchen. But…no. Claudio was inside, waiting to say, “I told you so,” again.
She lifted her chin, hefted her paddle, and stepped into the parking lot. “Sir?” Tiny hairs danced on her sleeveless arms, and she fought the urge to shiver against the cold. She tiptoed closer to his hiding place. “Would you come out please? I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Unless, of course, you try to hurt me. 
“If you’ve no plan to harm me, put down the oversized Louisville Slugger.”
His tone was cultured, each syllable succinct and tinged with a slight New England accent which made the prickly hairs on her arms do the cha-cha.

Their positions created an interesting impasse. If she put down the paddle, she had no guarantee he wouldn’t attack her. But if she didn’t put down the paddle, he probably wouldn’t come out. At sunrise, they’d still be standing here. Gianna the Warrior, wielding her mighty pizza paddle while the White Knight cringed in the corner of the rear parking lot and the grumpy troll watched over the frozen players with malicious glee.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Adding Humor to Your Story: Feelings of Superiority

Your characters can add humor when they're feeling superior to others and not quite pulling it off as well as they think.

Jack Burns (played by Robert DeNiro) has feelings of superiority in Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Little Fockers, which get him and everyone around him into one misunderstanding after another with comedic results. It finally escalates to the point where, in Meet the Fockers, Bernie Focker (Dustin Hoffman) exclaims, “Wait a minute. DNA scans, truth serum, who the hell are you, Jack Burns?” When Jack finally confesses he’s retired from the CIA, Bernie simply throws his hands up and replies, “Oh, well, yeah, sure, that makes sense.”

The Office is full of examples of Feelings of Superiority (mostly from Michael--played by Steve Carrell). But check out how Dwight explains his immune system:

You can make the argument as ridiculous as you want ("Why would you want to raise your cholesterol?" "So I can lower it.") as long as your character believes it and stands behind it.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story: Plays on Words

We're halfway through the list of ten elements you can use to add humor to your manuscript. Number six?

Plays on Words: Puns, malapropisms, mispronunciations, even dialects can get a laugh.

            In the movie, Airplane!, which was a spoof of all the disaster movies popular in the 1970’s, the character, Dr. Rumack, played by Leslie Nielsen attempts to explain the gravity of their situation to the hero. The hero says, “Surely you can’t be serious.” Dr. Rumack's reply?

Is there anyone who hasn't heard the Abbott and Costello classic, "Who's on First?" That's a perfect example of a play on words.

No one had a better handle on the art of Play on Words than the Marx Bros. Consider the following quotes from various movies:

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story: Repetition

We're continuing our discussion on the ten key aspects of humor. Number five is repetition.

The ultimate example of repetition is Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character, Phil Conners is stuck in Punxatawney on Groundhog Day over and over and over. 

Most repetitions, however, don't have to be so hit-your-reader-over-the-head-‘til-she's-unconscious.

Consider The Princess Bride. After hearing Vizzini say “Inconceivable!” one too many times, Inigo Montoya gives one of the most famous replies:

Is there anyone who doesn’t know what happens every time someone says the name, “Frau Blucher” in Young Frankenstein?

Try combining two or three of these aspects together to come up with your own humorous repetition!

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story: Transfer of Fear

Element #4 for adding humor into your manuscript? Transfer of Fear.

Ever been to a wedding where someone fell on their butt on the dance floor? You’ve seen the image hundreds of times on America’s Funniest Home Videos and Tosh.O. Ever laugh because you weren’t the person to fall on your butt? That’s transfer of fear. The woman who comes out of the ladies room with her skirt tucked into her pantyhose is another prime example. 

Your first thought might be, “That’s something that would happen to me.” Followed by the inevitable, “Thank God it’s not me this time.” Oddly enough, women are more likely to laugh at transfer of fear comedy than men. Why? Probably because women are more empathetic than men. We can honestly see ourselves in that situation and feel huge relief when it happens to someone else. Especially if that someone else handles it better than we might.

The movie, There’s Something About Mary is one Transfer of Fear joke after another: from Ted’s disastrous first date with Mary when his manly parts get caught in his fly on prom night, to later scenes where we see him mistakenly arrested as a serial killer or snagged by a fishing lure while walking on the pier. Even poor Mary isn’t safe from our laughter with the infamous “hair gel” bit.

I Love Lucy is another example of Transfer of Fear jokes.

Set in the early 19th century, Julie Garwood’s The Gift features a lively lady named Sara who, at one point becomes disgusted with her husband’s continuous use of profanity. Intent on teaching him a lesson, she decides to spend one entire day using every swear word she can think of. Her plan backfires, leaving us laughing and cringing at the same time when, after a fairly colorful soliloquy, Sara is introduced to her aunt’s guest and the target of much of her salty language, the newly arrived Reverend Pickering.

Transfer of fear is an easy way to add humor to your story and allow your readers to empathize with your character(s).

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Writing Humor Into Any Story--Reversal

The third element of writing humor is Reversal, a technique similar to The Rule of Three, but with one setup before the payoff. The payoff is achieved by switching the expected in the last line. 

For example, Henny Youngman’s famous, “Take my wife. Please!” 

Comedienne Rita Rudner used to open her sets with the reversal joke, “My boyfriend and I broke up. He wanted to get married, and I didn't want him to.”

In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy’s father worries that she’s working too hard at the office and wasting her journalism degree. He begins listing his concerns. 
“We get emails from you at your office at two a.m.,” he frets. “Your pay is terrible. You don’t get to write anything.” 
Without missing a beat, Andy replies, “Hey, that’s not fair. I write those emails.”

Author, Carl Hiassen, is a master of reversal in dialogue. Consider this brief exchange from Skinny Dip, a tale about a woman named Joey who gains revenge on her husband, Chaz, who thinks he got away with the perfect murder:

“‘May I submit that Chaz is light-years beneath common male slugdom. He is one coldhearted prick and let’s not forget it.’ Wearily Joey slid down in the seat. ‘What’s it called when you start hating yourself?’
‘A waste of energy.’”

Humor is all about going for the unexpected: a little surprise, sometimes in three beats, and a quick reversal. Give it a try!

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story--The Rule of Three

Another basic element of humor is the Rule of Three.

In The Rule of Three, a writer begins with two segments of a familiar statement to lure the reader in for a big payoff. Think of the old line, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” But there’s where the familiar ends. Who remembers the scene from Ghostbusters that used this Caesar setup? 

Have you ever heard George Carlin’s take on the old George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that.” 

In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Ted describes Ludwig Von Beethoven’s favorite musical works: Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. The first two are the setup. They make sense. The third one is the payoff. It comes out of the blue, and the ridiculousness of that last choice takes the viewer by surprise.

More recently, the movie, Horrible Bosses, told the story of three guys who conspire to kill their three vastly different but truly awful bosses. 

Experts say you have to see or read something three times before you'll remember it. So if you're setting up for a funny scene in your manuscript, try to allude to it twice (setup) before actually reaching it (payoff)!

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story--Surprise
Let's discuss the first major element of writing humor.

Aristotle said, "The secret to humor is surprise." That's how far back this element goes. 

I. Surprise: the ability to provide a reaction the reader didn’t expect, or to put your character in an unexpected situation. 

Surprise is the most universally accepted form of comedy. A joke is merely a story with a surprise ending. Television shows like Candid Camera, Punk'd, and America's Funniest Home Videos rely heavily on the element of surprise.

Most of the memes passed around on Facebook have the unexpected twist.

First, let's enjoy a musical interlude:


In the movie, Men in Black, Agents J and K head out to question a known alien about other alien activity. You can view the scene here: 


The surprise works so beautifully, Frank the pug goes from a cameo to a more substantial role, becoming Agent J’s partner in Men in Black II.

Remember the wedding scene in The Princess Bride? The impressive-looking official (played by the brilliant Peter Cook) begins the ceremony with:


In my contemporary romance, A Run for the Money, two virtual strangers must join forces in a scavenger hunt to gain their inheritance. When the deceased’s attorney refuses to provide them with any additional information, the heroine, Nicole Fleming, hints she might resort to violence to get what she needs. The hero, Dante, watches, while mentally comparing Nicole to his ex-wife, Linda:

“I’m picking up a good backswing here,” she hinted, her legs rocking at an almost furious pace.
The attorney’s face flushed crimson. “Young lady, if you think you can intimidate me--”
“Ms. Fleming,” Dante cut in before the temperature in the room grew from heated to violent. “Why don’t you and I grab some lunch somewhere? We may as well get started on this adventure.”
She veered toward him so quickly he thought she might kick him instead of the attorney. For a brief moment, her eyes flared the blue fire of a gas stove. Then, with a deep sigh signaling surrender, she let loose with Linda’s favorite F word.

You thought she was going to say something else, right? 


Want to shake up the dialogue in your story? Surprise your reader with the unexpected reply or twist in the narrative.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Writing Humor Into Your Story--Introduction

One of my more popular workshops over the years has been on writing humor into any story. It's been a while since I've done this one "live," and I always like to keep my workshops fresh. So as I spent some time updating it, I thought I might share a few of the hints here for those who don't live near enough to attend one of my talks. 

Over the next several blog posts, I'll discuss the ten major elements of writing comedy and provide you with examples. You might want to bookmark these posts for future reference. Or you can hope Google will dig them up for you later. Your choice.

Two men are playing golf one day at their local golf course. One of the guys is about to chip onto the green when he sees a long funeral procession on the road next to the course. He stops in mid-swing, takes off his golf cap, closes his eyes, and bows down in prayer. 
His friend says: “Wow, that is the most thoughtful and touching thing I have ever seen. You truly are a kind man.” 
The man then replies: “Yeah, well, we were married 35 years.”  

No matter what genre you write, a little humor can go a long way. Whether your setting is contemporary, historical, or futuristic, well-placed comic relief is always welcome. Humor helps break tension in a suspense novel or in an overly emotional scene. Humor can distract a reader from a clue or provide a red herring in a mystery. Even Shakespeare managed to throw the occasional jest into his most tragic plays. Why? Because humor makes our characters more three-dimensional.

We all laugh. Why shouldn’t our characters? And why shouldn’t they make our readers laugh, too? Humor tells a reader more about a character than any other written form. Don’t believe me? Let me list a few classic movie comedy plots, deleting the humorous aspect of their stories. See if you can guess what movies they’re from.

1.      A crooked politician hatches a scheme to oust a small western town’s residents, take over the land, and sell it for its railroad rights. 
2.      A filmmaker follows a heavy metal band on an American tour. 
3.      A group of thieves double-cross each other over a heist of priceless diamonds. 
4.      A group of actors, stranded in the jungle, face real-life danger.
5.      A bachelor party goes horribly awry when the groom disappears. 

Did you guess correctly?

1. Blazing Saddles
2. This is Spinal Tap
3. A Fish Called Wanda
4. Tropic Thunder
5. The Hangover

If you didn’t get all five, don’t despair. Without humor, these definitions could probably fit a lot of story lines. For example, if I revise #1 to read, “A crooked politician hires the first black sheriff in order to oust a small western town’s residents, take over the land, and sell it for its railroad rights,” you might get a better idea of the movie I’m citing. Right?

Now admittedly, if you haven’t seen any of these movies, first of all, shame on you. And secondly, you’re at a distinct disadvantage in this exercise. But you can run this same formula on any movie or story with a comedic element. Ghostbusters: Three scientists decide to become entrepreneurs and unwittingly unleash what might be the apocalypse. The Stephanie Plum Series by Janet Evanovich: An unemployed woman becomes a bounty hunter. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (or the Showtime series based on the book): A Miami P.D. employee is a serial killer. The Devil Wears Prada: A recent college graduate begins working at a fashion magazine. South ParkPolitical and social issues as seen through the eyes of children. Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding: A woman’s search for love and career success in London. Little Miss Sunshine: A family drives to a beauty pageant.

Without the humorous twists, these characters could be anyone. What makes them unique is their perspective on their worlds, how they deal with their adversities, and in some cases, the world they inhabit.

So how do you go about it? Can someone who is not generally funny write humor?  I believe you can.

Writing humor is all about having fun. Have fun with your characters, have fun with your story, have fun with your creative process. Pay no attention to the little voice inside your head that says you’re not a funny person. You’re a creative person—if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be writing. And humor is nothing more than allowing your creativity free-rein in the playground in your head.

In Music and Lyrics, a romantic comedy about two people collaborating to write a pop song, the hero, Alex, is taken aback when the heroine, Sophie, rearranges his furniture so she can sit closer to him.

            Alex: What are you doing, you mad woman? You’re wrecking my apartment.
            Sophie: Well, I can’t write sitting all the way across the room.
            Alex: No. Go back to your corner.
            Sophie: Fine. All right. (She moves away, leaving her chair next to his.)
            Alex (gestures to the chair): I’m blocked. How am I supposed to get out?
            Sophie: Go out the other side!
            Alex: But…but…I’ve never been out the other side.

That’s what we’re doing here. We’re about to rearrange your furniture. Rather than using straight dialogue or prose, you’ll have to go out the other side. For some of you, this might seem daunting. But like Alex, you can do it if you try. And you just might love the results enough to keep at it on a regular basis.

Erma Bombeck used to say, “Humor is a spontaneous, wonderful bit of an outburst that just comes. It's unbridled, it's unplanned, it's full of surprises.”

So pop some popcorn, rearrange your chairs, and get comfortable. We're going to spend some time strengthening your funny bone.

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