Thursday, November 5, 2015

Humor can be “like a sneak attack”

Every once in a while, I run across a blog post that sticks with me. Does that happen to you, too?

October 10, 2010—more than five years ago!—I read a Johnny B.Truant post about a brilliant technique we can apply to writing memoir.

Johnny told a story from his high school years when one afternoon, 1200 students gathered for an assembly—but no one knew why.

Two men took the stage and, instead of telling why they were there, they told jokes and funny stories, commiserated with students about how bad high school is, and poked fun at teachers and administrators.

“We liked these guys,” Johnny said. “They thought like we did. Their stories were interesting and fun. We settled in and relaxed.”

But everything changed about halfway through the talk. “It was like a sneak attack: it was on us before we knew it was coming.”

The guest speakers started talking about AIDS, abstinence, teenage drinking, and drug use.

“It was all the stuff that adults usually talk to teenagers about—the stuff teenagers usually roll their eyes at.

“But we weren’t rolling our eyes. We were listening. We’d been transfixed.”

The speakers didn’t preach that AIDS is something to avoid. Instead, they brought the crowd back to a girl they’d talked about in their funny stories—and told them she died of HIV.

They didn’t tell the students not to drink and drive. Instead, they brought the crowd back to a boy they’d heard about earlier in the funny stories—and told them he was hit by a drunk driver and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Afterward, when those 1200 kids filed out of the auditorium, Johnny says, “Most of the kids who streamed past me were silent or crying.”

Those guest speakers had come to urge the teens to avoid dumb choices and reckless living and peer pressure and, instead, to think, to be smart, to make right choices. Usually high schoolers thumb their noses at adults who try to tell them such things, “But because they did their selling through stories, we’d bought it all,” remembers Johnny.

What do you think? Wasn’t that a brilliant technique?

Using humor in the beginning of their talk was a factor in their message’s success—which brings us back to last Thursday’s post and the importance of making ‘em laugh in your memoir.

Humor establishes a bond between you and your readers. It engages your readers and makes you seem real. Humor endears you to your readers. Humor makes your readers enjoy you. (Click here to read more at Cry, laugh, wait.)

If you don’t establish a bond with your readers toward the beginning of your memoir, they’re likely to toss your memoir aside and let it get dusty. Or maybe throw it in the trash, or donate it to the local thrift store.

If you want people to read your memoir, you’ve gotta get them hooked. Including at least a little humor someplace early in your memoir can do that. (Your memoir might not lend itself to humor—we’ll look at other options in the future—but everyone else should consider using it.)

Think of this: 
You don’t know who your readers might be. 
You’re writing your memoir 
for people who come after you, 
perhaps generations not yet born. 
You can’t look into the future 
to know what their situations 
and challenges might be.

But you do know 
everyone has challenges and heartaches
Everyone needs wisdom 
to make important decisions 
and live their lives well, 
and your memoir’s stories 
could help readers find their way 
through the bumps and pot-holes in the road.

Remember: God used other people’s stories to help make you who you are. Their stories rubbed off on you. It’s as if other people’s stories are infectious. Contagious.

Someone’s story helped:

show you courage
show you how to live an honorable life
keep your faith strong
keep you from despair
keep you on the right track
inspire you
pass on wisdom to you
point you to God.

Now it’s your turn. In the same way other people helped you by sharing their stories, you can help others by sharing your stories.

Your stories are important. If you don’t want readers to roll their eyes and toss your memoir aside, try the techniques those guest speakers used:

Introduce your main characters (that includes you) in ways that entertain and interest your readers. Draw them in. Develop your characters so readers can bond with them, so they’ll care about them. Create main characters readers can engage with, like the kids in the school assembly engaged with the speakers that day.

And then, carry out your sneak attack: Bring out the deeper lessons of your stories.

To help you get started:

Who impressed upon you the importance of safe driving, or standing up to peer pressure, or the consequences of cheating or lying? What are your stories? Write them.

Who taught you the merits of keeping a promise, or arriving at work on time, or being loyal? What are your stories? Write them.

What did key people in your past teach you? And how? What are your stories? Write them.
If you want to pass on
important lessons
to future generations,
write engaging stories
with well-developed characters.
And consider using humor
toward the beginning
to draw them in.

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