One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.
In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.
As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.
What I learned From Oscar Wilde: How to Write Witty
The defining trait of Wilde’s writing is his wit. While he certainly does other things well (Dorian Gray, for example shows how a great high concept can elevate an otherwise conventional story), if you ask the average reader about Wilde’s writing, the first thing they are likely to mention is his clever wit. For this reason, Wilde is one of the most quoted writers. His short, sentence-long witticisms often appear on posters, t-shirts, stickers, and memes. As a writer who has been accused of wit (see my stories here and here for examples) I am especially interested in dissecting Wilde’s technique.
In general, Wilde’s wit works depends on subverting the reader’s expectations by finding a cliched phrase or idea, then changing the second half of the of phrase in an unexpected or ironic way. It relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of a common phrase or societal convention, and the way the sentence is constructed syntactically to make the ironic turn.
Let’s look at a few examples:
“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”
“A gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.”
“A good friend will always stab you in the front.”
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
On a syntactical level, Wilde’s sentences set up an expectation in the reader’s mind. When he write, “I have the simplest of tastes,” he sets up the expectation of a second half that espouses frugality; “A Gentleman is one who never gives offense” seems like the kind of advice Polonius would give to Laertes, and one would expect more of the same type of banality; “A good friend will” is beginning of a cliché involving being stabbed in the back, etc.
The second half–or in some cases the end–of each line flips that expectation on its head. “The only way to get rid of temptation….is to yield to it. The end is completely unexpected. It not only subverts the conventional wisdom, but also reveals the emptiness of the common phrase and, therefore, it criticizes a societal norm, in this the repressive Victorian culture of Wilde’s time, as well. The other quotes work by the same principal: A good friend never would stab you in the back, they would stab you in the front! A gentleman never gives offence…saving for when he intends to.
Many famous witticism follow Wilde’s example. Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,” and Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore it’s too crowded” are both examples of this technique as well.
To write a witty quip like Wilde, I would start with a well-known cliché. Let’s take (because it’s the first one I thought of as I was writing this) “The grass is always greener on the other side of the yard.” Next I would find a dramatic context in which to use the cliché, preferably one which alludes to the meaning or message which the cliched phrase is trying to teach us.
Off the top of my head:
“Mr. Wilde,” I said, “Mr. Rubin seems to be jealous of your fame and success.”
“That is to be expected,” Wilde replied. “The grass is always greener on my side of the yard.”
Perhaps it’s not perfect, but I think it illustrates the point. The second character–Mr. Wilde–subverts the cliché by changing the second half of the phrase to something witty and unexpected. In an actual story, I’d choose a cliché that matched the dramatic situation, theme, or context of the larger story, but I this example is sufficient to illustrate the point.
I hope that you can use this technique in your own writing, and I encourage you to read widely and with a purpose so that you can continue to build your writers toolbox.
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