Structure and Spunk

3 07 2010

My recent reading–both for re-thinking some of my writing pedagogy and the avoidance of such thinking–revealed some very interesting ideas about surprise and the structural nature of comedy.

Considering new texts for my first-year writing course (“S.W.A.T.: Sass, Wit, and Text”), I examined Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, by Arthur Plotnik, and I found this in a section of the book called “Freshness: The Wallop of the New,” in a chapter called “The Pleasures of Surprise”:

“Readers love surprise.  They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another.  They love the boing of a jack-in-the-box word.  They adore images that trot by like a unicorn in pajamas.

“Why does surprise please us?  Think of it as a survival mechanism: Unexpected stimuli exercise the neurons, keeping brains alert to danger, prey, and available taxis.  In fact, a recent study suggests that brains prefer surprise to the expected….

“But enough anthroposemiotic musing!  Everyone knows that good writing stimulates readers with inspired, sneaky surprises.  It does so at all levels, from surprises based on twists of plot and character to the smaller but keen surprises of language–the ones that concern us here.

“Is there a syntax of surprise, a formula for working it into our locutions?  Yes and no.  Surprise is like one of its vehicles: humor.  Try to parse it, and it’s hasta la vista, bubela.  Yet even humor yields an occasional secret to those who won’t let it alone….”

Of course, in agreement with Plotnik, the work in Structure & Surprise and on this blog has been, in part, to reveal that surprise does yield many of its secrets, does have a syntax (or structure) at those other levels.  (For my first-year writing class, in order to teach about those other, larger structures, I will use They Say/I Say, a book that jibes in very interesting ways with structural thinking, and especially The Cliche-and-Critique Structure.)  However, I’ve also tried to make a distinction between structure and plot.  (For this, see my blog post Against “Narrative”.)  Not a big issue, and certainly no critique of Plotnik’s book, which I’ve decided to use as a style guide for my first-year writing course. 

Though Plotnik had me at “surprise,” at the end of “The Pleasures of Surprise,” in a paragraph labeled “Surprisingly Apt,” Plotnik sealed the deal, writing,

“Ultimately, the devices of surprise may set up the pins, but they don’t guarantee the strike.  The essence of surprise is in its timing and execution: fast, graceful, and apt.  Aptness is paramount.  The best surprise of all may be how precisely an unexpected word or image pops a message.  Unexpected is easy; unexpectedly perfect helps separate writers from hacks.”

I couldn’t agree more.  For some time, I’ve been interested in what I’ve come to call “fitting surprise,” that moment in writing when something occurs that is both unexpected and yet truly apt.  “Fitting surprise” is not a kind of turn, but rather a quality of turn I value highly.  (Some of my thinking on fitting surprise can be found in this review-essay.)

I also just finished reading “First Banana: Steve Carell and the meticulous art of spontaneity,” Tad Friend’s terrific profile of comedian Steve Carell that appears in the July 5, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.

Structure, of course, is a vital part of the seeming spontaneity of comedy.  Discussing how there has been an increase in improvisation and collaboration (“Nowadays in the comedy industry, a Bucket Brigade of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another’s films…”)in the creation of comedic movies in the last decade, Friend also is careful to emphasize the role carefully crafted structure plays in creating comedic effect; he states,

“It’s all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents…But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it’s not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it’s the structure.  ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clockwork plots.  The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, ‘In standup, improv is that ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn’t connect to the ongoing story.’  Dr. Evil’s ‘Sh!’ run works so well because his refusal to listen to Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape–and because he and Scott hate each other.”

Humor–and, more generally, good writing–needs surprise, and surprise needs structure.  This is true of any kind of writing or communication, including comedy and poetry, that wants to be fresh and pack the wallop of the new.