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Is it, or is it not, irony?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2018
William H. Coles

As a figure of speech, irony adds meanings to situations, develops readers’ interest, makes literature more intriguing, and commands use of imagination to comprehend meanings. Moreover, it brings life to both drama and literature.

Look to these well-known examples from Greek antiquity. Antony at Caesar’s funeral:

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
For Brutus is an honorable man;

The first irony of Antony's speech is that he is unequivocally there to praise Caesar. Antony is, in fact, lying. This is a calculated tactic to disarm a crowd firmly on the side of Brutus when Antony takes the pulpit.

And second, Brutus is not an honorable man.

Here is another example where irony creates character far beyond simple narrative, the Greek drama Oedipus Rex (Sophocles):

“Upon the murderer I invoke this curse – whether he is one man and all unknown,
Or one of many – may he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom!”

The above lines are an example of verbal and dramatic irony. It was predicted that a man guilty of killing his father and marrying his own mother brought a curse on the city and its people. In the above-mentioned lines, Oedipus curses the man who is the cause of the curse but is ignorant that he is that man, and thus he is cursing himself. But the audience knows the truth–dramatic irony.

Typically, irony uses language:
(1) that signifies the opposite.
(2) in a situation that ends differently than anticipated.
(3) where there is a difference between appearance and reality.

Wayne C. Booth is a scholarly ironist. Here is an example from his book(1). In reading, consider these concepts: “ironic stroke, victimization, deliberate absurdity, circle of ironists, circle of inferences, intellectual dance.”

As my family recently walked toward the cathedral, highly visible before us, in Angers, a cement worker looked at us and said, at first without a smile “The Cathedral is that way”–pointing to it–“and the Palace of Justice is there” pointing to the sign on a building right before our eyes [that said]: “Palais de Justice.”
I knew that he intended an ironic stroke, though I could not at first be sure whether we were to be excluded as mere victims–stupid American tourists who would not recognize the deliberate absurdity of such obvious and uncalled-for directions. But we were clearly welcomed within the circle of ironists as I said, “Oh, yes, and the workers are here (pointing to them and the Americans are here (pointing to us). His laughter told me that he now knew that I knew that he knew that I . . . The circle of inferences were closed, and we knew each other in ways that only extended conversation could otherwise have revealed. Total strangers, we had just performed an intricate intellectual dance together, and we knew that we were somehow akin.

It may or may not be an irony that Booth’s book on irony is often difficult to comprehend. But the joy he transmits of being an ironist of quality stimulates further study. And the effects of irony and metaphor to better transmit significant meaning in literature, and in life, truly seem to make the effort to become an ironist worthwhile.

Booth explores five handicaps to ironic success in understanding literature: Ignorance, Inability to Pay Attention, Prejudice, Lack of Practice, Emotional Inadequacy. A challenge! But if interested, his book is worth the read for further understanding.

1. The Rhetoric of Irony. Wayne C Booth. 1974 [ISBN 0-226-06553-7]

The award-winning novel, McDowell.
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Available on Kindle for a limited time–$0.99.
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McDowell by William H. Coles

Cover art by Anna Sokolova

How funny are you?

Monday, November 13th, 2017
William H. Coles

How funny are you? Do you make people smile and laugh? Is anyone void of humor?

For fiction writers, these are not trivial questions. A literary writer builds and molds character to an imagined story. Since most characters need some aspect of humor, what is humor all about for a writer?

I  interviewed  two comedy professionals (husband and wife): Kevin Nealon, film actor, TV (Weeds, Man with a Plan), standup comedian, and in cast of Saturday Night Live (1986–1995, 174 episodes) and creator of memorable characters such as Hans, Mr. Subliminal, and Weekend Edition; Susan Yealey, television actor and show host, film star (Mascots), comedy series, (Parks and Recreation, Rules of Engagement) who trained at USC film school and the Groundlings in LA.

I started with the question–can a human exist without a sense of humor?

Humor is an elemental way humans release tensions–the body needs to have that sense of release–and humans use humor to connect with each other. Probably all humans have at least the potential for a sense of humor. It is obvious that humor varies relating to background, social perceptions, geographical location, culture, maturity, level of education, to name a few essentials.

It's probably no surprise that surprise is at the core of the instigation of the humor response. You can find it in a misunderstanding, or a misdirection: stimuli based on expressing something we never thought about before, often in a form of syntactical manipulation. And it’s always based on the design to surprise.

Misunderstanding–This woman was in a dress shop and found a dress she liked. “Could I try on that dress in the window?” she said. The shop assistant looked up: “Sorry, Madame, you’ll have to use the changing rooms like everyone else."

Misdirection–A CEO stands before his company’s shareholders to honor an employee for twenty-five years of loyal service. Today we would like to thank Albert for his service to our company. Albert is someone who does not know the meaning of impossible task, who does not know the meaning of lunch break, who does not understand the meaning of the word no. So we have taken a collection and bought Albert a dictionary.

[Simple examples, neither a Yeagley or Nealon joke.]

And of course humor is timing too.  Subconsciously, a comedian knows how people think, knows how long it takes for them to process something, knows the direction they are thinking, and then lays the punchline, or whatever, at that moment when you know recipient is processing something in a different way.

It's complicated so take pleasure in the reading THE COMPLETE YEAGLEY/NEALON INTERVIEW (FREE).  Read how these comedians comment on humor and develop humorous stories using the elements above… and much more.

AND YOU CAN READ A SHORT STORY BY WILLIAM H COLES (FREE) with serious content where humor is embedded for relief and distraction–FACING GRACE WITH GLORIAA half-crazy vagrant easy on untruths and skilled at the art of scam meets a young woman whose father died in a river crash of a commercial jet. She thinks her father was a hero and seeks to find the truth; the vagrant lets the girl believe he saw the crash to scam her but changed by caring and a wash of moral integrity, allows the girl to believe in her father's heroism.

Thanks for reading. What does humor mean to you?
All the best.
William H. Coles

Susan Yeagley and Kevin Nealon interview

Illustration from "Facing Grace with Gloria"

Mastering the Power of a Literary Fictional Story

Monday, April 3rd, 2017
William H. Coles

A writer’s imagination in fiction opens the gates to creating great literary stories. To shape great literary stories, authors master skillful characterization and apply centuries-proved story structures that have matured from creative writers of the past—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Bronte(s), Sophocles, Hemingway, Faulkner, and so many others.

Most writers today want to realize their dreams of a writer’s life style and acclaim; they write for admiration, fame, and fortune. Nothing wrong with that; it’s a path to happy successful careers for many. But some authors want to create meaningful stories that might contribute to understanding the constantly-evolving humanity, stories that are read and reread and passed onto future generations. Homer, Austen, Conrad, Melville, Forster, Woolf, transmit the soul of their generations with lasting, penetrating impact, and for example, by uniquely portraying thoughts and emotions, nature of love, core human desires, sense of morality–all with drama, imagery, and action.

How can a writer today achieve memorable meritorious stories? Study the techniques of the storytellers of the past that are indelibly etched in the collective human consciousness. Discover elements of powerful lasting literary stories that work for you as an author and incorporate those elements into your writing and storytelling.

Stories are about events and people. In great literature, story frequently reveals not only what happens but how humans live and how life changes them. There are no secret formulas but there are commonalities that generate power for stories to move and evolve with mankind into future generations. Here are elements for thought.

1) WRITE WITH PURPOSE. As you write, search what is in you that drives you to write your story. A purpose clarifies prose, scenes, characters, narration, point of view and plot that become more focused and unified, especially in revision.
2) THEME AND MEANING. Theme is recurrent idea; meaning is significant ideas. What can a reader learn from reading that is new and significant?
3) CHANGE. Characters change as stories progress and so do readers after
reading a great story. Change examples: enlightenment (discovery or experience a new way of thinking), a shift in morality, a reversal, coming of age, etc.
4) DRAMA. Show in-scene dramatic conflict and action when possible. Abstract and static descriptions of character and scene (telling) are necessary but often less effective in developing characterization.
5) UNIQUE AND FASCINATING CHARACTERS. Core desires, abilities, imagination, motivations, sense of morality, strong vivid worldview.
6) STRUCTURE. 1) Beginning, middle, end. 2) Carefully-considered timeline. 3) character-based plots. 4) Emotional arcs. 5) Logical and credible happenings sequenced for story unity.

READ the complete essay here: Mastering the Power of a Literary Fictional Story

You can find more information about LEARNING TO WRITE LITERARY FICTION here:

And thanks for reading!
William H Coles

Creating Literary Stories

Lasting literary-story characters mature and blossom like a sturdy oak. How do you do that?

Monday, February 6th, 2017
William H. Coles

Here's a two-sentence story to make a point about building characters when creating literary fiction.

Harry flew a kite at the beach to entertain his invalid son. But the kite got away and Harry seethed with anger.

Didn't grab you, I would presume. Let me tell it again, this time with emphasis on characterization entwined in IN-SCENE action.

A wind gust elevated the dragon kite and the string ran through Harry’s hand fast enough to hurt.
        “Let me do it, Daddy,” his son Raymond said as he limped to Harry’s side. The boy held out his hand that trembled without stop from a congenital palsy. Could he hold the string? Fly the kite? He wanted to so badly.
        “Hold it tight,” Harry said placing the string in the boy’s hand. The kite dipped then suddenly soared, the string taught again.
        “I dropped it,” the boy said crying. Harry reached out but the kite had ascended too far to reach the string.
        Harry cursed as the kite disappeared untethered, driven out to the sea by the off-shore wind.
        “I didn’t mean to,” the boy said, “Don’t hit me.”

In literary fiction, effective character development is essential and compliments plot movement.

Here's a snippet from another STORY that emphasizes characterization, "The Perennial Student." In essence, the narrative is more SHOWING than telling.  If an assistant professor is to advance to full professor, he must successfully discipline a student who dominates his creative-writing class with crude offensive writing and comments. Here's an abridged excerpt that exemplifies techniques of in-scene "showing" and character-specific DIALOGUE revealed in a new essay–Creating Quality Characters in Literary Fiction.

Possum waited inside the entrance hall of the ivy-coated building that housed the Departments of English and Computer Science when Denise entered through the left side of the twelve-foot oak doors. How innocent she looked.
        “Denise,” he called, “over here.” She squinted toward the sound of his voice.
        “Will?” she said. All his other students respectfully called him Mr. Possum.
        “Yes. Over here. Behind the statue. I need to talk to you.”
        He had practiced. Now was the moment he’d been dreading. He guided her to the quietest corner of the foyer. The hot summer air seemed to press them together.
        “Look, Denise. You have really made a contribution to the class.”
        “Oh, thank you,” she interrupted. “That’s so cool.”
        “Writing is sensitive business,” he started again.
        “Only when you let it all hang out.”
        “It’s not particularly an issue of hanging out.”
        “You got to tell it like it is. Tell the truth.”
        He tasted the first sourness of defeat. How could this mundane woman with her formidable convictions force him to feel so hopeless?
        “I did not mean that we should not tell the truth. It is a question of adjusting to the sensitivity of the writer.”
        “I know sensitivity. You teach us real good.” She smiled. “It’s all about no pain, no gain.”
        Was she mocking him with her stare of excessive interest? He worried someone might overhear. My God, how she made him flounder. “Each creative composition is so personal it makes a writer vulnerable,” he said.
        She nodded in full agreement.
        He decided to be direct. “I must ask you to be considerate of other class members in your comments.”
        She recoiled slightly, frowning. “Shutting me down?”
        “No. Not ‘shutting you down.’ Just soften your comments.”
        “It’s the men, isn’t?” she asked.
        Possum swallowed. “No. It’s not just the men!” Discrimination? Was she thinking of filing a complaint? His tongue stuck to the dry roof of his mouth.

Of course great literary stories are created by mostly educated writers with talent and will to succeed, but even more important is applying learned techniques of story creation and imaginative telling that provide engagement, entertainment, and enlightenment for the reader.

You can READ "The Perennial Student" (3489 words) or LISTEN (24 minutes) FREE here:

The Perennial Student

Graphic Novel Formatting for Online and Mobile Devices

Monday, September 30th, 2013
William H. Coles

Story in Literary Fiction is working on a graphic novel (Three Stories About Love, William H. Coles, illustrated by Peter Healy) that will be published online in a few months. As we have progressed, the problems of creating a print graphic novel feel on an online publication, particularly with user-friendly compatibility for mobile devises, has been a major consideration. Should pagers and panels be in portrait or landscape orientation? How do artists think character size and detail for satisfactory viewing on a mobile phone, compared to a tablet, or a computer screen? What are the limitations of font size for dialogue?

Author and artist turned to Story in Literary Fiction’s webmaster, Susanne Howard, for inclusion in the creative process and to develop formats using current technology to assure effortless enjoyment of both the art and the story content. Susanne has created formats for stories that provide on each page a continuity of images, enlargement of panels for reading, and positioning of panels and text that will be compatible for different devices with different orientations.

Two random pages from the book are presented here (from the story “Homunculus”) to show how Susanne and the artist, Peter Healy, have collaborated to develop a template to publish graphic art both for print and with changes for publishing online effectively. Your comments and ideas are welcomed.

click image below to see formatting of pages

Humunculus Graphic Novel sample pages


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