Anatomy of a Comeback

Comebacks— you can’t find them when you want them, but they abound when you’re alone.  Someone insults you, and in two hours you have the perfect thing to say.  Except they’re already miles away, and no amount of angry emails will make up for the lost opportunity.  Perhaps for this reason, it’s easy to include comebacks in fiction we write; we can make a comment burn as much as we like, for any character we want, and there’s no penalty for taking too much time to think.

However, comebacks can quickly become the cheesiest thing in your dialogue.  The more experienced a writer gets, the more they realize this, and the more they edit that comeback to be less cheesy— but by removing all the cheesiness, it becomes less of a “Burn!” and more of a “Huh?”  Create a comeback and it becomes cheesy, remove the cheese and it becomes incomprehensible, and thus worthy of deletion.  It’s a cycle that quickly makes for grey, utilitarian dialogue.

Comebacks are a tool.  A character wants to stand up for themselves, no matter the conflict; they use a comeback to effectively turn the tables on another character.  If you need more humor in a scene, a series of insults and comebacks is perfect— even characters who like each other will bandy about insults as their interests cross.  It’s what friends do, and a legitimate way of creating humor.  Comebacks are useful.

Unfortunately, they’re also easy.  Easy to overuse, easy to break, easy to drag on.  They easily become corny, undermine emotion, or turn a good joke into a yawn-worthy piece of dialogue.  Still, there are ways to fix each of these problems, either in editing or before you even write it down.

Tool 1: Consider each character.

A badly-told joke is marked by a single telltale: the setup.  When the audience can see the joke coming, or are confused by the setup before the punch line hits, the joke will not work.  The same goes for a comeback.  If Mr. Evil says “You are puny and insignificant” just so Joe McAwesomesauce can say, “Your face is puny and insignificant,” you’re doing it wrong.  What makes the difference?  Mr. Evil is flat.  You have to remember that he wants to win this verbal battle as much as Joe does— if he really tries to insult Joe, Joe’s inevitable snappy retort will seem reasonable, heroic, and funny.

Tool 2: Brevity.

Brevity is the soul of wit.  Many inexperienced writers, trying to be funny with their comebacks, write page upon page of “witty banter”, which fails to entertain after the first few lines.  What’s the solution?  Cut it back to one or two comebacks per character, making sure to move on from the jokes into a plot- or character-based conversation or action.  When two characters argue, and someone says “Anyway…” to get back on topic, you may have gone too far.  It’s fine for two characters to get carried away, but the reader won’t stand for it for long.  Make sure one of the characters, or a separate character, is sympathetic enough toward the reader’s interests that they cut the argument short there.

Tool 3: Think.

Cleverness in comebacks isn’t something that can be taught, but it’s something you can practice.  Take a moment before you write a comeback to think of what would be the most effective— plot-wise, character-wise, but especially from the character’s point of view.  If they’re delivering a comeback, they want it to burn.  If the comeback you write doesn’t burn, or the character never expected it to, you’re doing it wrong.    Make sure the comeback is delivering as much character as it can.

Tool 4: Don’t sacrifice cleverness for brevity.

Comebacks are unique to the situation.  They arise, chiefly, from what someone else said just before— otherwise, it’s just a one-liner and doesn’t count as a comeback.  That’s why the “Your face is [derogatory adjective]” approach works well; it takes what the opponent just said (“You’re puny and insignificant”) and turns it around, mirroring the original phrase with the opposite effect.  That sort of ploy is the essence of a comeback.  (The “Your face is…” approach isn’t particularly creative, but it works.)  When one edits a comeback, however, the chaff must be burned; that chaff, infallibly, is the mirrored section, which makes it a comeback.  Yes, you want to be brief, and if Mr. Evil just said “puny and insignificant”, it saves time, trees, and the energy of little printing elves to delete those three words from Joe’s comeback.  Unfortunately, it also deletes the comeback itself, making the entire thing useless.

Tool 5: Don’t sacrifice brevity for cleverness.

Yes, it sort of contradicts what I just said, but not really.  There’s a balance between cleverness and brevity that has to be reached.  When a comeback is too brief to understand, you’ve sacrificed too much cleverness.  When it’s too long to be enjoyed, you’ve sacrificed too much brevity.  This is unique to the joke.  You need to understand what the joke is doing in order to strike this balance.

Once again, humor proves too difficult to explain without becoming crazily abstract.  That’s only because there are so many possibilities— there are no wrong answers.  Perhaps a character needs to seem dimwitted, and having a long, drawn-out comeback that bores both the reader and the opponent is perfect.  Perhaps a character is exceptionally bright, and the only solution is a brief comeback that has such depth of humor that only the speaker can understand it.  Or perhaps they’re neither, and they have a more normal balance of brevity and cleverness.  Either way, you’ll have to realize that for yourself.  As for the other tools, however, each is important.  Make sure the argument of comebacks is brief, no matter how long or short the actual comebacks are.  Make sure each statement shows character, and each one shows both sides of the argument— nothing is worse than Mr. Evil shouting threats at the top of his lungs while Spiderman Joe McAwesomesauce takes potshots at each statement.

It might seem too difficult, not worth the time.  But comebacks like these cement sympathy, create humor, and show character almost without trying.  You’re going to have to try, but the great delight of art is this: no one must know how hard you worked for something.  As long as it succeeds, nothing else matters.  Go and be awesome.

Your face is awesome.

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23 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Comeback

  1. *laughs* Well, this post entertained me. But you also brought up some excellent points. I’ve never specifically thought about comebacks in writing, but I’m sure I include them at one point or another. I liked your dual points about brevity and cleverness. As with any aspect of writing, you have to trim the fat without cutting the meat out of something. And discovering what comebacks are key to a character (or to the plot, depending on what you’re talking about) is the important part. Some will be the “meat”, while others are just “fat” that amused you while writing it. Good post, Liam!

  2. I’m thinking of Firefly and Avengers with this post.
    I need to go back and read your other humor posts… I’ve already read them, but I’d like the reminder. Not that I need them at the moment, since I’m still in first draft (almost at the end, though!). (Speaking of that, were you going to alpha-read for me? I won’t have it ready until after New Year, at least, so this isn’t an urgently needed answer.)
    Excellent post, and I love this particular truth: “You’re going to have to try, but the great delight of art is this: no one must know how hard you worked for something. As long as it succeeds, nothing else matters.”

      1. You make it sound like I’m saying there’s something wrong with the post just because I have to reread it! Honestly, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the post, it’s just I’ve been having issues with comprehension and whatnot lately.

  3. Good points. (Rosalie, aka Coruscantbookshelf, wanted me to request a post on how to make angst and PTSD work for the characters, but you might have to beat me to it… just a warning.)
    Nice jab about Spiderman… I feel like at some point they stopped making him really respond to the jabs and just made him a quick-talking punk. (Or maybe that’s in the comic books? Grrr, I’m so confused.) Gah. Watched a few minutes of the newer Spiderman movie, and it just didn’t feel right to me… The characterization didn’t seem to click. I suppose I could give it a go, but I have the niggling feeling I still might like Tobey McGuire’s Peter Parker better.

    1. Beat me to it, by all means, and give me a link when you do. I’ll think about the topic, although I might not have many good thoughts on it. I’ll do my best.

      I watched the first Tobey McQuire Spider-Man a couple weeks ago for the first time (not having seen any Spider-Man movies, but having loved the character). I didn’t think that characterization clicked either. But I’ve heard that neither origin story is very good.

      1. It will probably take a while. Life gets crazy and the blog suffers.
        I think that Marvel needs to do more of its homework, privately. Though a bunch of the new movies are good.

      2. The new movies are good, I think, because the writers aren’t afraid to diverge from the comics a little bit (or because the comics were written better). Peter Parker’s origin story is pretty bad no matter how you look at it.

      3. Yeah. I think filmmakers should not be afraid to be creative. Much as people moan about divergences from book canon, as long as they’re true to the spirit of the book and characters, it’s okay if they take a few liberties. (Case in point: SHERLOCK!!!)
        Yeah… I cringed all the way through the first few minutes of the movie I watched… it looked so ordinary and cliche until it moved out of there and made me cringe with how whiny he could be… though the hero’s journey was much better 😛 I still think Captain America has the best backstory, though–probably only because of the incredible job they did with the details of the story in “The First Avenger.” (He’s compassionate. That’s what sets him apart. Also, I guessed from the fight scene in the Avengers that he’s an excellent judge of character, not really hindered by cynicism–he’s the least cynical of the Avengers–and very good at applying that in practical situations. Basically, person-oriented tactics… Sorry about the rant. I am very severely tempted to write shorts about the adventures of the Howling Commandos during the intermediary months that were glossed over in the movie during one two-minute montage.)

      4. That’s a really loose definition that’s too easy to change if something goes wrong. It’s just hard to adapt a book, and I kind of wish they wouldn’t do it so often.

        Cinema Captain America is great.

      5. Yes… On the other hand, I think that there have been a few adaptions (Sherlock, the Hornblower movies, the Scarlet Pimpernel… the first one is by the BBC and the other two are A&E… I probably have a problem) which really rose above that challenge of being a book adaption…
        Indeed. (No matter what anyone says, I still think that his backstory in the Marvel cinematic universe is better than Iron Man’s.)

  4. Ah, another one of those posts in humor that makes me mentally say, “Right, I was going to work on this…and never did.” Oops.

    Still. I suppose if it happens enough times, I might just do it at some point. Also, I actually started laughing at the last line. Why, thanks, I think. This was especially amusing because the middle two younger brothers seem to think tacking “face” onto the end of anything makes it an insult. I’ve been called “Amanda-face” in an indignant tone too many times to count. I usually just shake my head. Who knows where they got that from. (Now, “Mandy-face” I sometimes take offense to, but that’s another story.)

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