- On some level, I feel very presumptuous in writing this blog series, since my only snark-writing credentials are being a reader and a writer. So take what I say with a grain of salt, and remember that other people may have different/better ideas about how snark works. They may disagree with me. You may disagree with me. And that’s just fine. In fact, if you have a strong opinion about something I’ve said, or if you think of something that should be added to it, feel free to leave a comment. I may even amend this post if you make a convincing argument.
- I apologize in advance for using examples of snark from my own writing. I always feel weird when I read books on writing and find that the author has done this; it feels a bit like a dance instructor going, “Here’s a great example of choreography…that I also happened to choreograph!” *wince* Awkward, I know. But having written this blog post, I now understand why those authors did it: it’s not about showing off (quite the opposite, in fact)—it’s simply that one’s own writing is easy to find, access, and search. Searching for precise examples of precise sorts of snark is time-consuming, and I happen to know my work quite well on a line-by-line level. So to be clear, I’m not using these examples because I think they’re stellar; I’m using them because they’re available. Anyhow, something to keep in mind. And if you can think of an example from another work of fiction that could replace one of my examples, please let me know in the comments! Seriously. I would love to phase out my own excerpts in favor of those from published authors.
- I don’t have a lot of experience with “making” a character snarky; I do have a lot of experience with taking dictation from snarkers. You know how you have certain friends and family members whose voices, opinions, and idioms are so distinct that you know exactly what they’d say in a given situation? Writing dialogue is a lot like that for me. So my biggest advice to you is to listen to your characters and go with your gut. You may find your characters are much wittier than you could ever hope to be.
In the way of general advice: I’m a firm believer in the right of characters to be their own people. So if you’re trying to force snark out of a character and it isn’t working, it may be that you’re asking a fish to climb a tree. To minimize the chances of this happening, remember Factor 1
of what drives a character to snark and keep it in mind as you ponder which character gets the zingers. Also, while most of the examples below happen to be in third person, I actually find snark to be much easier to write in first-person. I suspect this is because first person gives characters a chance to comment on things in the privacy of their own thoughts
, and to do so in a way that feels (to me) more natural than third person. So if you’re comfortable writing first person, I’d say that’s a good POV to practice your snark in.
Anyhow, enough rambling. Here we go! The seven building blocks of snark are:
2. Relevant non-sequiturs
3. Twisting the obvious
4. Indirect communication
5. Breaking it down
6. Literal for laughs
Let’s look at each of these in turn, shall we?
Albert and his best friend Julia are trying to sneak out of Julia’s house in the wee hours of the morning in order to practice magic in their mentor’s studio without the supervision of their mentor (Julia’s dad):
Even downstairs, Julia was wary of turning on any lights, so they collected their shoes, coats, and spellcases from the foyer by the light of their cell phones and carried them into the kitchen. When Albert let his sneakers fall to the floor with a thwomp so that he could put them on, Julia looked up at him sharply, her features drawn in bold lines of light and shadow.
“He can’t be that light of a sleeper,” Albert said.
“I’m the one who lives with him,” she replied. “Not taking any chances. God, I can’t wait until we have our licenses. This would be so much easier if he weren’t so anal about the law.”
Privately, Albert thought that his mentor had a good reason to be concerned about legality, but that wasn’t something to point out to Julia at this moment.
“Do you have the studio keys?” he said.
“No,” Julia said. “I left them cradled in Dad’s hand as he slept. Of course I have the keys.” She patted the pocket of her jeans and then began to pull on her boots. “I need coffee.”
I’m almost tempted to forego any commentary here because chances are that if you’re reading this, you’re also old enough to know what sarcasm is (if you’re not old enough to know, I recommend clicking on the red X in the top corner of the screen and then going to play with actual building blocks instead of snark building blocks). Snark is often (though not always) laced with sarcasm, and the extent to which you choose to use it just depends on the situation and character. This excerpt is a Factor 2-driven example, but really, sarcasm is flexible enough that it lends itself to just about anything, and it overlaps with many of the other building blocks on this list.
2. Relevant Non-Sequiturs
Heraxad, Patron God of Kthalmo and Supreme Lord of the Underworld, has come to the Marketplace on a special errand. While there, he is accosted by a loud old man who, rather pushily, asks for help:
Heraxad hesitated. He had a special interest in the elderly. Assuming they didn’t manage to get their hands on some EverYouth, most of them were well on their way to becoming his subjects in the near future. So in spite of his bad mood, he turned and walked back the old man.
“What precisely do you want help with?” he said.
“Only to earn enough to speak to a departed soul!” cried the man, holding up a fistful of seashells dangling from loops of string. “Buy a charm!”
Heraxad narrowed his eyes. “And may I ask who is selling contact with the dead?”
“Miss Fusher. Miss Kettaline Fusher,” said the old man, gesturing vaguely towards the South Quad of the Marketplace. “She’s a powerful seer, and she—”
“The dead do not take long-distance calls,” Heraxad said. “Believe you me. Sell your charms and buy a sandwich. Or better yet, a coffin, which is undoubtedly the most useful purchase anyone can make.”
Heraxad was never quite sure why the living so rarely saw the sense in this suggestion. The man took a teetering step backwards, an uncertain smile flickering across his face, and with a sigh, the Supreme Lord of the Underworld took a small gemstone from his pocket and flipped it in the man’s direction before striding off into the depths of the North Quad.
Mortals. Can’t live forever with them, can’t live forever without them.
This is straight-up Factor 1 snark. Heraxad, being a god, is a distinct outsider as far as the concerns of human beings go. Not only does he fail to grok the human desire to speak to the dead, but as lord of the underworld, he has his own strong opinions on such matters. All of this makes his dialogue ripe for the use of the relevant non-sequitur. Relevant non-sequiturs are comments that make sense to the snarker in question but which come a bit out of left-field for the reader. They’re funny because they’re unexpected. It’s a fine line to walk, though—there’s a reason they’re called relevant non-sequiturs, and you don’t want to make the connection too oblique. If Heraxad had told the man to go spend his money on a bunny rabbit, it might have been funny, but only because of the “lolwut” bizarreness of it. Basically, off-the-wall comments can’t count as snark unless the reader can understand why the character said it in that particular situation.
3. Twisting the Obvious
Nia is a detective (of sorts) in a medieval-esque world of skirmishing armies and squabbling nobility. To her great frustration, she has been assigned a partner whom she has good reason to despise. Nia considers Eric indirectly responsible for the knee injury that she refuses to take medication for (it’s complicated), and now that the two of them are on assignment together out in the bush, Nia will take any excuse to vent her frustration:
“We should reach the camp before dark,” Eric says. “Provided we don’t stop again, that is.”
I ignore him and continue to rub my leg. Silence. Then:
“I wish you’d let them give you something for that.”
“For what?” I ask innocently.
“Don’t get cute with me,” he growls.
“Ohhhh,” I say. “You mean this leg? This non-functional leg right here? The one that forces me to limp instead of walk? Oh, yes, I suppose they could give me something for it. Twenty crowns sounds like a decent price, don’t you think–?”
Granted, Nia is pretty over-the-top as a snarker, but she’s also pissed off, and her response here offers us an example of twisting the obvious. She takes Eric’s simply-worded suggestion (clearly intended to refer to medical treatment) and applies it to something else entirely. Of course, there’s not much to be gained by selling a non-functional leg, so this example also bears the hallmark of a relevant non-sequitur. But this isn’t a snarky line designed to get a laugh from anyone—she’s aiming to antagonize, and this comment falls firmly into the Factor 4 category.
4. Indirect Communication
Dmitri, a spacefaring smuggler and slave-trader, has been arrested and is being interrogated on the whereabouts of his ship’s captain.
“This is our unclassified file on Ian Alexander Haller,” said the senior officer, continuing as though Dmitri hadn’t spoken. “I take it you two are acquainted.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Dmitri said with a shrug as he flipped through the folder.
“You do know him, correct?”
“No, I piloted his ship for six years without ever meeting the man,” Dmitri said with deep sarcasm, jabbing his finger at the relevant document on the screen.
This is Factor 2 snark at its most straightforward. The officer is looking for a concrete verbal statement of Dmitri’s connection to Haller so that they can proceed with the investigation, but to a Snark Knight like Dmitri, it just reads as stupidity. The point of the comment is not for his own amusement, nor for the amusement of anyone in the room, nor is it an invitation to a round of verbal sparring. Its sole purpose is to inform the officer that Dmitri thinks he’s an idiot. To do this, Dmitri takes the officer’s apparent stupidity and runs with it by stating outright what he—as a snarker—takes the question to mean.
5. Breaking It Down
It’s early in the morning (the same morning as Example 1), and Albert and Julia are preparing to attend a high school spelling (i.e. magic) competition. Julia’s parents (Robert and Charlie) have gotten sucked into one of those endless parental conversations. Julia is hungry, caffeine-deprived, and a wee bit cranky. The following ensues:
Julia cleared her throat with a bit more vehemence than was strictly necessary and hopped off the table.
“Coffee and bagels. Before we spell. This is a thing that needs to happen.”
Albert stood up, and Robert somewhat reluctantly followed suit. Charlie leaned back in her chair and propped her feet up on her desk.
“You sure you don’t want some tea, Jules?” she asked, lifting her nearly-empty cup.
“You mean,” Julia said, raising an eyebrow, “do I want a weak infusion made from mildly caffeinated dead leaves soaked in hot water and then further diluted with cow-juice and cane sugar? No, thank you. I’ll stick to coffee.”
This is a Factor 3 snark, for sure—Charlie hasn’t said anything particularly silly (although knowing her daughter’s dislike of tea, she’s probably fishing for a reaction of some kind) and Julia is certainly aiming for a laugh. She does it by breaking down the concept of “tea” into a list of its component parts, making it sound bizarre and perhaps less-than-appetizing. (There’s also an element of the literal for laughs here, as well as the relevant non-sequitur of referring to milk as “cow-juice”.) This style of snark can be used in a variety of circumstances, but it particularly lends itself to situations where another character has gotten so wrapped up in their own little world that the snarker can’t resist the opportunity to step in and provide a bit of perspective.
6. Literal for Laughs
I’m actually going to forego posting my own example because TV Tropes already has a great set of examples on its Literalist Snarking page. Granted, literality can be the anti-snark, but it also has the ability to create snark. The takeaway point here is that many of the idioms we use can be rather hilarious when taken literally—the question of whether that literality counts as snark or not just depends on the situation, characters, and wording. Also, most literal for laughs stuff falls into the Factor 2 snark category.
There’s no example for this entry. In fact, that’s the point I’m aiming to make: in my humble opinion, creative writing is never purely a matter of craft—intangibles like intuition and inspiration play a role no matter what you do. And the truth is that, for better or for worse, there’s some aspect of snark that can’t really be taught. I don’t mean to say that snark can’t be learned. Reading snark will help you develop an ear for it, as will practice and listening to your characters’ voices. But there’s still something about writing that is, and will always be, magical. As one of my creative writing professors is fond of saying, we are always striving to write stories that are just a bit smarter than we are. So the best I can do is to once again advise you to listen to your characters and to pray that the Snark Gods smile upon you.
And by smile, I mean scowl and pour an acid rain of witty comments down upon your head. Obviously.
That’s all for now, folks! (You’re a champ if you made it through all of that—seriously.) Tune in next week for the final installment in the Snarky Characters blog series, and in the meantime, feel free to leave a comment if you have a question or want a clarification or think something is missing (or wrong).