Encyclospeedia Oedilfica

Writing to Surprise

My approach to writing limericks is strongly influenced by having been a cartoonist all my life; for a while, freelance single-panel gags were my main source of income (not a very big income, but still...). As a cartoonist, I rely heavily on word association and re-association, trying to get one or two steps removed from the obvious first thought so that I can surprise the reader, but trying not to get so far removed that they’ll be lost.

One thing that single-panel cartooning teaches you is the importance of the punchline, and of keeping the punch to the end of it. When you read a cartoon you take in the picture first, then you read the caption; the aim is to have the laugh come on the last word of the caption. It’s not always possible to do it, but that’s the ideal.

With the kinds of limericks we’re writing, some of the words themselves can serve as good punchline endings. In that case, the potential rhymes for the defined word will shape the rest of the piece, and could suggest a theme. But that won’t be true of every word; sometimes the dictates of rhythm and stress will work against you. You can still get good ideas out of searching for rhymes for the defined word, though, even if you don’t end up rhyming on it; they might also come in handy as internal rhymes.

Building a piece on rhymes alone won’t always yield the best results, though. For example, look at my original piece on akimbo. I happened to be the first OEDILFer to write on it, so I was happy enough to use the rhymes of akimbo/bimbo/limbo. Then we had the Washington Post competition, in which several entrants used the exact same rhyme scheme, the result being that my piece—although it’s still perfectly fine—isn’t as fresh as it once seemed.

So when I was looking at it the other day, I thought about the word again, from two angles: what else rhymes with it; and what does it mean? All I could come up with for rhymes were the nicknames Jimbo and Timbo. As for meaning, the akimbo stance made me think of Superman. And that gave it to me—because by good fortune, Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent works with Daily Planet reporter Jimmy Olsen.

I didn’t want to over-rhyme akimbo this time, so I knew I’d have to keep the Jimbo/akimbo rhyme for lines 3 and 4. That meant I’d probably end up using the definition in the punchline somehow: hands on hips, elbows bent. Hmm, what rhymes with bent? Went, gent... Kent.

So now I can introduce Clark Kent in the first line. What’s the usual phrase used to describe him? “Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.” Almost a perfect fit for anapest, with an iamb to start. If any workshoppers complain about the potential to stress “mild”, I’ll just poke ’em with a sharp stick. It’s more important to use the familiar phrase than to rework it into something less-natural for the sake of technical perfection, when your aim is to make the piece seem natural and funny.

Now, what’s mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent doing? Talking to his friend Jimmy, obviously. Line 2 has to explain why. What if he’s showing him how superheroes stand? So, I have to come up with a phrasing that fits the rhyme scheme. A bit of trial-and-error provides “Showed a friend how a hero’s pose went.”

Lines 3-5 follow naturally, keeping the pay-off (the defined word and its meaning) as near to the end as possible:

“So here’s the trick, Jimbo:
The stance is akimbo,
With hands on hips, so, and arms bent.”

But the real payoff—and the reason why I love how this piece turned out—is the punchline that occurs in the reader’s head after they’ve finished reading it. “Hey, he’s showing Jimmy Olsen how Superman stands... but he is Superman... so he’s going to look just like him! He’s giving away his secret identity!” It plays on the thought that’s occurred to anyone who’s read the comics or (especially) seen the movies: why are Clark’s friends so freakin’ dense that they can’t see who he really is?

The result: a piece that stands out from a crowded field of akimbo limericks.

My favourite moments in workshopping aren’t when I have to point out a missing comma or a word that doesn’t fit the metre; that’s pretty tedious for all concerned, even though necessary. The best moments are when I can help provide a better punchline; or, in some cases, can point out that line 2 is the funniest line of the piece, and could just as easily be swapped with line 5, showing that the punchline was sitting under the author’s nose all along. If I have one piece of advice for others, it’s that: if your funniest line is line 1 or 2, and the grammar and sense of the piece will allow you to swap it to line 5, try it that way. You want to send the reader out with a bang, not with a... fehhh.

Written for an OEDILF Forum thread on our creative processes, 18 February 2005.

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