Before any writer takes the plunge and wades into the murky depths of writing satirical fiction, it’s important to brush up on your knowledge of its rules and techniques so you don’t end up casting yourself adrift. The last thing anyone wants is for you and your pen to unmoor yourselves blindly without some degree of wayfinding beforehand—satire is, after all, a genre bound by expectations, so it’s important you know what they are.
The trick to writing satire is to reformulate the existing techniques satirists have used to express themselves throughout history. Once you know these, you can adopt them in order to put your own spin on it, and express yourself accordingly. Knowing these rules shouldn’t feel as though you are straight-jacketing yourself, it’s merely a case of making sure you have enough lurking in your toolkit to get the job done.
With this in mind, there are commonly considered to be four techniques of satire, each of which can give you a general steer as you aim towards your own particular satirical target. Presumably, you’ll already have a clear idea in mind of your story and what it is you are attempting to satirise. But where do you go from there? Let’s take a look at these four techniques of satire and find out how they can help you answer this question.
The first step to crafting a successful satire is figuring out what you want to exaggerate. This can be subtle and on a smaller scale, such as in character depictions or in a character’s inner world, or it can be as full-on as exaggerating settings, even the whole narrative scenario itself. Take Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart as an example: a near-future dystopia New York takes on exaggerated qualities of modern-day consumer capitalism, clearly in an effort to satirise the world in which we live today.
In Shteyngart’s book, the author uses hyperbole to explore a setting in which billboards equate patriotism with consumerism and people’s credit ratings are scanned in public whilst they go on shopping trips. By exaggerating the implication of debt and materialism as a way of life, Shteyngart is ridiculing the way he sees the modern world. He also exaggerates the lingo the inhabitants of New York speak in, particularly their penchant for abbreviations:
“You’re such a nerd.” She laughed cruelly at me.
“What?” I said. “I’m sorry.” I laughed too, just in case it was a joke, but right away I felt hurt.
“LPT,” she said. “TIMATOV. ROFLAARP. PRGV. Totally PRGV.”
The youth and their abbreviations. I pretended like I knew what she was talking about. “Right,” I said. “IMF. PLO. ESL.”
She looked at me like I was insane. “JBF,” she said.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
It’s not too difficult to see how exaggerating the very thing you’re aiming to satirise is a helpful technique—by distorting how you depict something and hyper-inflating its size to a point where its extremity becomes irrational or grotesquely obvious to the reader, this will help accentuate your satire very effectively.
The second technique of satire is all about inserting things into out-of-place environments, juxtaposing them if you will, in a way which makes them appear absurd. This can be achieved by resorting to anachronisms, for instance, or simply by including superficial details which defy logic, does not make sense, or tests the reader’s idea of plausibility. The desired effect, of course, is to convey a satirical message by giving it an air of absurdity.
Robert Rankin, long considered to be the Master of Far-Fetched Fiction, is not exactly a conventional satirist per se, but his work often joyously crams in incongruous details with glee. His Brentford Triangle books, for instance, are built on the premise that the decidedly ordinary town of Brentford—in a pub, no less—is at the centre of all kinds of mystical goings-on.
The rain lashed down upon Brentford and Pope Alexander VI raised his massive arm and pointed towards Archroy and the young priest. ‘You, I will make an example of,’ he roared. ‘You will know the exquisite agonies of lingering death.’ Archroy thumbed his nose. ‘Balls,’ said he.
The Antipope by Robert Rankin
I cannot think of an example more incongruous than the idea of Pope Alexander VI visiting Brentford, least of all that he’s on a demonic mission to establish a new Holy See. If you link this back to Robert Rankin’s iconoclastic disregard for authority, you could even argue that it’s the author’s scepticism with religion itself which makes The Antipope satirical in part. In the end, extraordinary things happening in ordinary settings are, in and of themselves, incongruous, so you might just find a way of justifying using this technique when creating your own satire too.
The third technique of satire is reversal, in which an author subverts a situation to present an inversion of how things really are back to the reader. It usually involves a story which presents the opposite of normalcy (as we understand it) in order to make a satirical point about it.
By contrasting the two extremes, reversals can allow satire to be viciously pointed and extremely thought-provoking. The best example of this can be seen in the dystopic fiction series of books Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, which describes an alternative history in which white people were enslaved by Africans, rather than the other way around.
“You’re a Nought and I’m a Cross and there’s nowhere for us to be, nowhere for us to go where we’d be left in peace … That’s why I started crying. That’s why I couldn’t stop. For all the things we might’ve had and all the things we’re never going to have.”
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
By flipping perceptions of slavery and oppression from one race to another, Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses transforms itself into a satirical tour-de-force, truly exposing the injustice of racial subjugation in ways which a more straight-forward tale would struggle to do. It’s easy to see how important reversals can be for satires to truly hammer home their message.
The fourth technique of satire is parody, which relies upon the art of imitation to ape another author’s style, lampoon aspects of an already-existing story or cherry-pick stylistic aspects from another author’s work of literature in order to pick holes in it.
The main problem with parodies is how they end up essentially being a poorer facsimile rather than aiming to be truly original. That said, Christopher Moore is one author who has written countless parodies, each of which are not only extremely funny in their own right, but are also textbook examples of how parody can, indeed, become great satire.
This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as non-traditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank.
Fool by Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore’s Fool is basically his parody of King Lear, albeit instead told from the perspective of the Court Jester. In amongst all the swearing, you can see how the author overtly parodies Shakespeare’s archaic syntax in ways which makes his satire seem more barbed, and the end results are indeed undoubtedly silly. As a chief exponent of parodies as satire, Christopher Moore is certainly one of the best in the game at utilising this technique.
Needless to say, if you’re writing a satire, one of these four techniques will offer you a pathway to making sure you hit the targets you wish to strike. Some allow for subtlety, some won’t, but nevertheless the rules which determine what makes a satire have long been proven formulas for success. It’s ultimately down to the writer to ensure you don’t miss your mark and find a way of making it work.
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© 2018 Luke Edley
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.