Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 06/02/2022

Episode 19: Turning People into Checks

By Bill Rendered. Originally published in The Writer's Monthly in 1920, and is now in the public domain. I strongly suspect the author's name was just a joke pseudonym of the magazine's editor, or another anonymous author.

During my short and uneventful life I suppose I have listened to as many funny stories about other people as anyone else—little things related without any malice, but with absolute good feeling, but nevertheless incidents which served to place the subject in a more or less uncomplimentary light. Virtually everywhere I went, the gentle art of being free and easy with people’s names seemed to be preferred over all other kinds of entertainment. And yet, as I say, nothing had any malice in it—the anecdotes were just for entertainment, and would draw one away from the most interesting book or game in the world.

I heard a half dozen girls on a club piazza laughing until the tears fairly rolled down their cheeks over something related by one of them about an absent member. Two men, also on the piazza, laughed a little, but rather nervously, as though wondering if they, also, would be beheaded when they passed out of earshot. The story that had been told, if sent to a humorous magazine, would cause the editor to wonder if the sender had water on the brain, to imagine that what he sent was humorous.

I heard one girl say, a little later, when weather possibilities for the morrow were being speculated upon: “Mr. Jones says he thinks it will rain!” At this there was a round of merriment, and another girl said: "Oh, isn’t he fun-ney!" with the accent on the last syllable, up in the treble clef. Then, on another occasion, I saw a man give an imitation of another man’s walk which produced much merriment.

I said to myself: “Why is this? Why can things that are said, and are not funny at all, produce merriment? Why can an imitation of a man’s walk produce laughter when the walk itself passes unnoticed.

Of course the answer was easy: Simply because human beings were the subjects—living, breathing human beings that these people knew. When the story was told at the absent one’s expense, the audience saw in their minds the victim. The exaggerations that went with the story, the shifting tones of voice, and the teller’s expressions, served to make humor where humor was not, because the listeners saw in their minds the victim acting as the teller related, which might have no connection whatever with the way he really acted.

There is nothing funny in the remark, “I think it will rain tomorrow,” but when this girl quoted Mr. Jones, the audience saw in their minds silly Mr. Jones saying something. Anything that he had ever said in his life could have been repeated and produce the same mirth.

An alleged imitation of the way someone walks draws mirth not because the audience thinks the subject walks that way, but because of the exaggeration which has a minute resemblance to the walk. The fact that there is nothing at all funny in the man’s actual walk has nothing at all to do with it.

My gold mine began on that day.

Previously I had been writing machine-built sketches and fillers about imaginary people, and I assure you I was making anything but a success of it. They did not ring true, and consequently they did not ring the magazines’ cash drawers.

I commenced to write sketches in which living people figured. I pulled them right out of life. I wrote so as to try to make the reader see the people acting and talking just as I set them down. I did not fake situations any more. I took my situations from life. Along with the people, I took their characteristics, their limited or luminous personalities, their depth or shallowness, but always I sprinkled everything with judicious exaggeration. The printed page cannot produce shifting tones of voice, or facial expressions as can one in telling a story, but the author can contrive through the art of exaggeration to put a human incident into print and make it so humorous or so sharp that the business office is obliged to reach for its check book, on the editor’s orders, and yet were the incident set down just as it happened it would not produce a reading.

By actual count I have sold over one thousand sketches alone that were written right out of life and contained living, breathing people. I never write anything now but things from life. I could not sell them if I did.

Always remember this: Mr. Jones may say, “I think it will rain tomorrow,” and it may be repeated and produce much mirth because the audience in their minds see silly Mr. Jones saying something, and anything that he might say could be repeated with the same effect. Write your sketch so that your readers, who are your audience, see in their minds silly Mr. Jones, whom you served up in such an exaggerated form, as to mental qualities and personal peculiarities, that anything on earth that he might say or do could be written so as to produce mirth. And as you move here and there, you will meet Miss Jones, Mrs. Jones and the whole Jones family, who will walk merrily into your story-pages.

People are interested in living, breathing human beings more than anything else—if they talk, and if you can make such real persons rise out of your fiction, you need never fear but that checks will come your way a-plenty!