REVIEW: The Comic Toolbox

This little book is jam-packed with tools that will help any and every writer, regardless of genre. With down-to-earth language, and brief explanations, Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks.

From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty).

As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

His explanation of plot structure is a 9-point list:

* Who is the hero?
* What does the hero want?
* The door opens
* Hero takes control
* A monkey wrench is thrown
* Things fall apart
* Hero hits bottoms
* Hero risks all
* What does the hero get?

If you include all of these points in your story (as he explains one by one), then it will work as any kind of story. This list parallels and expands slightly on the 3-act structure of commercial feature films (inciting incident, Climax 1, 2, 3). The only thing I’d add to his list is that when the door opens, the character walks through it. Because until the character acts in a way that reveals character, the story engine doesn’t get in gear.

What’s really useful about a tool like this is you can fit the answers to the questions on a single page, so it serves as your pencil sketch, thinking tool, your briefest of outlines, to help you manage the narrative arc of your story. Great stuff.

Since it’s a comic toolbox, it covers the comic premise, comic story types, joke types, situation comedy, sketch comedy and more using oodles of easy to understand examples. After introducing each simple tool he encourages you to try them out.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its title and sub-title, The Comic Toolbox: How to be funny even if you’re not.

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write.

Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective.

The magical canvas of the imagination

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I’ve heard some writers say that when they write, they use their words like a video camera. What they put on the page has to fit within the visual frame of a film screen or it doesn’t work.

Using this metaphor, they couldn’t merely write “Ted is angry,” because how can the camera show that? But if they said, “Ted’s cheeks became red and he bared his teeth like an angry dog,” that’d work.

I like to take this metaphor a little further and say:  The prose writer’s canvas is the imagination of the reader. 

Without a budget, and in just a few words, a writer can take the reader to the moon or Mars. We can plop them into a bubbling soup of molten lava at the heart of an erupting volcano, or put them up on a cloud couch in heaven looking down and sipping tea. And all while they’re reading on the bus to work!

What I like about this metaphor is how it nudges the writer towards creating an experience for the reader, rather than a lecture.

This metaphor is, in fact, a way to get yourself firmly rooted in your point of view, whether first, third or omniscient.

Now, I’m as guilty as any writer out there of falling in love with my own words. I think this happens when I’m writing from MY point of view.

But if I see the reader plopped inside the experience of the words, whether it’s first person, third or omniscient, I’m less likely to go all purple. It’s less about how brilliant I am, and more about the roller coaster ride I’m taking them on.

Another benefit of using this is it forces writers to show, not tell.

Here’s an example from a recent Guardian article by Joshua Williams on his anxiety. Notice how he takes you inside his anxiety attack:

“…there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seeing through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was, because I was having a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.”

In this paragraph, he shows us passage of time, transition from one place to another. We feel his sweat, see with his tunnel vision. We can feel the rock of the train, the trembles in his limbs. The desperate, confusion of his mind.

The canvas of the imagination is made of more than just 2 dimensions.

You don’t need special glasses, only words. 

Here, anything is possible.

Clarity and precision

0_hor_treerootsA story is about emotion, not facts

It’s easy for a great idea to turn into a spaghetti junction of ideas. Tendrils of stories branch out and multiply. Characters take over. What you thought might be a simple story because a muddy, mix. 

One way I combat this as a substantive editor, is for each story tendril, I ask this question:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

It may be gorgeous writing. It may even be fascinating. And yet, if it doesn’t develop the progress of the story, it distracts the reader. Distracted readers don’t turn pages, they put the book down.

Your goal is to place your reader into the emotional world of the character. The words you choose need to serve that function.

Take a look at this example and try to determine the primary mood the author is trying to set:

“…not unlike my closet, is in various degrees of disassembly and disarray. Post-it notes frame my computer screen, and tumbling stacks of paper cascade over one another and on top of pens, pencils, and stock photography, all of which neck their way close to my keyboard, which sits atop the only free space on my desk. Josie delicately displaces two tote bags that are clogged with freebies from potential clients from the chair opposite my desk and sits.”

This list of visual details scream “I’m overwhelmed!” But in the story, the scene is about the main character landing a major contract for an advertising campaign. Do you see victory in any of those details? I didn’t. 

Now, in this example, look at the precision and variety of senses tapped, how they develop the relationship:

“As we turn the corner, the local bakery is getting its powdered sugar delivered, funneled into the cellar by the barrelful as if it were cement, and we can see nothing but the shadows of the deliverymen in the white, sweet cloud. The street is billowing, and Nick pulls me close and smiles that smile again, and he takes a single lock of my hair between two fingers and runs them all the way to the end, tugging twice, like he’s ringing a bell. His eyelashes are trimmed with powder, and before he leans in, he brushes the sugar from my lips so he can taste me.”

What works so well in this example is that every detail is used for a good emotional reason. We experience the wonder of the sugar cloud, the physical closeness, the brushing of lips, the implied first kiss.

The movie screen of the mind picks up on the double sweetness of the icing sugar cloud. The physical detail of pulling the lock of hair places us in their close embrace. The visual of his eyelashes references a moment earlier, where she could see him as a boy, which adds depth in terms of time. A return to the physical, with the very intimate brushing of her lips so he can taste her. We aren’t told they kiss, it’s implied.

The prior example gives us a lot of detail, too. But the emotional space it creates for us is not nearly as precise, as visceral. We may be in that cubicle, but it speaks of anxiety not victory.

When writing, there are topics that you need to get down, to figure out, explore. Through the draft process, these pieces get distilled to their essence. Others are moved out when they are identified as your writer’s “homework.” That is, the stuff you needed to explore, but isn’t needed for the story’s narrative arc.

So, when I ask myself:

Does  the reader really need to feel this?

I’m looking for how that section places the reader in the emotional skin of the characters.