Five Things You Should Know About Writing Satire
Writing satire isn’t easy, but I think every writer owes it to themselves to learn more about this particular mode of storytelling. For those in need of a definition, The Oxford Dictionary defines satire as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” If that sounds too deep, it shouldn’t—chances are you’ve probably read books or watched movies and TV shows which are satirical without even realising it.
So, what exactly does satire mean for writers? Does knowing about satire make any difference to the type of stories you write? Personally, I’d say yes. I’m a big fan and advocate of satirical fiction and I do try my best to make my characters and my stories as socially relevant as possible. So, if you’re thinking of dipping your toes into uncharted waters to experiment with writing satire, here are some important steps to get you started.
1. Don’t be afraid of exaggeration
Exaggeration is the lifeblood of satire—without it, you will struggle to find anything worth satirising. Think about the value systems of your characters. Their habits. Their professions or their jobs. Their mental preoccupations. Their reliance on other people. Their compulsions. If you overemphasise your character’s actions, reactions or even their inaction—depending on the context—this will throw a new angle on your story which could lend itself to satire. Exaggeration can flesh out each of these qualities. If you inflate some of these things and bring them to the forefront in your writing, it’s quite possible you have the seeds of something satirical there.
Let’s try an experiment: Take a heart surgeon, for instance. I’d imagine you would want a heart surgeon to be a very practical-minded, methodical, attentive and meticulous person, if you’re lucky. In which case, let’s exaggerate those features and make that same surgeon have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), so crippled by his own anal retentiveness that he cannot even leave the operating theatre without washing his hands several dozen times. This surgeon could even worry about germs in his microwave meal and is so anxious he checks the pulse of his kids in the middle of the night. You have now exaggerated the same features in a heart surgeon which previously you would have considered positive traits to the point where it verges on satiric. This is how exaggeration can be a tool for developing your characters, your story and infusing both with satirical elements.
2. Make the normal appear abnormal or vice versa
If you’re the sort of person who has an eye for contradictions and incongruity, you will already have the ammunition you need to write satire. By its nature, things which are incongruous tend to upset the harmony of common expectations and be out of place, so some keen observational skills can work to your advantage here. It could be something like spotting the irony of a label on a pair of underpants which says ‘keep away from fire’ (I mean, seriously?) to normalising something totally bizarre, such as in Demolition Man where everybody knows what the seashells in the toilets are used for except Sly Stallone’s oblivious main character.
Here’s the best example I can give of this technique: I once wrote a sitcom script in which my main character is asked to attend a posh dinner for a potential business opportunity in a penguin suit. Completely unaware what a penguin suit was, but not having the courage to ask otherwise, my character nods politely and accepts the invitation. Before the dinner, he heads to a fancy dress shop, buys a penguin costume and turns up to a Michelin-star restaurant dressed like a giant arctic bird. The businessmen, dressed merely in black dinner jackets, are aghast. He is humiliated. That is the best way I can illustrate how to use something normal and transform it into something completely strange so it crosses the border into satirical territory.
3. Flip things on their head and subvert them
This is quite similar to the above idea of incongruity, only this focuses on the idea of reversal. This relies less on the small humorous observations, in the traditional sense, and more about lampooning hierarchies, social order, or customs. Let’s think of a school environment, for example, where you’d expect the teachers to set a moral example to their pupils: In Tom Perrotta’s novel Election, however, the teacher Mr. M is so disgusted by the Young Republican school swot Tracy Flick that he attempts to sabotage her campaign to become school president.
To use a more popular example of reversal; in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Edina Monsoon’s daughter Saffron effectively takes on the mother role, reversing the traditional familial roles for humorous effect, seemingly to make a satirical point about how a post-sixties generation of ‘bohemian’ women were less mature than their offspring. This gives you a flavour of how reversal can allow you to flip ordinary expectations on their head to render your satire with a more subversive flavour.
4. Use the art of imitation to take the mickey
Parody is quite integral to satire, but don’t presume this means you have to be too obvious with it. I’m all for subtlety, but ultimately, if you imitate the style of a certain writer, or ridicule a specific genre in which your story can be categorised, this could very well be satirical. Some lug-headed examples of this include Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, or Michael Gerber’s Barry Trotter novels, which I would argue are quite tactless and less nuanced.
You’d do better to consider Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, an early 17th century parody of chivalric love stories of that era, whose main characters—Quixote and Sancho—fool themselves into thinking they are knights from a medieval romance, even though Quixote is delusional and Sancho is fat. That’s not to say genre is your only option—alternatively, you might want to base your character on somebody in real-life and turn them into a caricature. The choice is yours, but by imitating certain literary styles, or writing veiled critiques of people or places, you’ll find yourself building a satire in no time.
5. Don’t worry about being laugh-out-loud funny
It’s a misconception that satires should contain lots of jokes and strive to be laugh-out-loud funny. That’s simply not the case. Unfortunately, we’ve all been conditioned to assume that anything satirical must possess the wit of a panel show contestant on Have I Got News for You or Mock the Week. The fact is, although most satires do invoke humour, writers should not necessarily consider being humorous the same thing as being funny.
For the most part, I try and steer clear of punch lines and only ever aim to be wry and knowing. You can often do this through establishing a flawed central character and creating dialogue which contains dry humour (which is surprisingly easy, if you appreciate irony), relying much less on standard jokes and more on repartee. Not only does this help writers such as myself avoid being judged as if they’re a pure-blooded comedian, but it allows you to service your story better. After all, if you don’t have a good story, it won’t matter how funny it is anyway.
© 2016 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and aspiring novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.