A Quick Guide to Writing Satire

This bit of wisdom appeared on my Tumblr dash recently:

tumblr satire

(#THAT TAG THO)

And, since the topic of “how to write satire effectively” has come up for several of my students in the past few weeks, I thought I’d offer this

Quick Guide to Writing Satire

1.  Ask yourself, “is this a real argument I have heard/seen/read someone make – and mean it?”

If it’s an argument someone has made on your topic, in all seriousness, then when you parrot it, you are not writing satire.  Instead, you are agreeing with the serious-arguer.

Examples:

a.  “Overpopulation could easily be solved by sterilizing poor people.”

This statement is not satire.  Why?  Because this argument has been made, in all seriousness, in the past.  A quick Google search on “sterilization of the poor” turns up some pretty unsettling examples.

Yes, sometimes this argument gets used by writers attempting satire.  But, as this retraction from The Daily Currant illustrates, using an argument that many people take seriously can backfire on you in a big way.

b.  “Overpopulation could easily be solved by serving poor children as veal.”

This statement is satire.  Outside of Jonathan Swift’s infamous “A Modest Proposal,” perhaps the most well-known satire ever written, nobody appears to be seriously advocating for the marketing of poor children as veal or any other meat product.  A quick Google search for “serving poor children as veal” turns up recipes for veal, petitions to stop the eating of veal (made of baby cows, not baby humans), and links to agencies tasked with “serving poor children” (meeting their needs, not preparing them as food).

2.  This argument I’ve thought up is so hilariously impossible no one could ever state it seriously!  Am I safe to put it in my satire?

Have you looked it up to be sure no one really has stated it seriously?  Do that first.

I know the dreaded “R” word (“research”) puts a damper on your “oh, the cleverness of me!” buzz – I’ve been there.  But it’s worth spending five minutes with Google to avoid showing your arse in public, perhaps for all eternity.  Lesson Two to be learned from the above-linked Daily Currant retraction: the Internet never forgets.

3.  Okay, so my satirical argument hasn’t been argued seriously by anyone, and it is hilariously hilarious.  NOW can I write my satire, please?

You can if you do one more thing: make it so outrageous that even the people arguing seriously for the most extreme measures would say “whoa, that’s too far.”

If that sounds unlike any writing teacher’s advice you’ve ever received, that’s because satire is unlike any genre you’ve ever learned to write.  Satire is the ultimate “go big or go home” genre: if it’s not so completely outrageous that even the people advocating the most extreme measures say “whoa, hold up,” it has failed as a satire.

Examples:

a.  “Gay marriage should be illegal because America is a Christian nation, where non-Christians are stripped of their citizenship.”

Maybe no one on the anti-same-sex-marriage side of the argument has advocated seriously for stripping same-sex couples of their citizenship.  (Feel free to Google this.)  But a great many people on the anti- side have argued that American laws are so closely conflated with Christian values that permitting same-sex marriage would violate both.  From there, it’s not a big leap to “if Americans must follow Christian morals, then those who don’t follow Christian morals aren’t real Americans.”  Indeed, there are probably a few people in the world who actually believe this, whether or not they post to the Internet.

b.  “Gay marriage should be illegal because America is a Christian nation, where non-Christians are put in tiny boats and set afloat in the Arctic Ocean.”

This, however, is satire.  Not only does it make an argument no one is seriously advocating actually happens, but it makes an argument that even the most vehement anti-same-sex-marriage advocates would probably say should not happen.  Most people, no matter how passionately they are for or against same-sex marriage, are still going to say “whoa now, nobody said they had to freeze to death” – especially if the proposal is made in so many words.   Indeed, marooning people in the Arctic has a decidedly non-Christian ring to it.

To name another example: Remember that in “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift’s recommendation “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” wasn’t to force them all into boarding schools, or train them all how to tune pianos.  People in Swift’s time were already advocating for such things, and “put them all in an institution” or “teach them all a trade that can’t possibly support that many practitioners” were both ideas advocated by people on various sides of the question.  Swift skipped all these genuinely “modest” proposals altogether and went right for the jugular: let’s just eat them.

Think of satire like a bouncy castle.  If you fill the bouncy castle up allll the way with air, fun times are had by all.  If you fill it up only halfway, however, it makes a sad puddle in the middle of the backyard and your birthday party is ruined.

4.  Help!  I still can’t tell satire from current-day American politics!

That makes two of us.  Perhaps you should write something about that?

About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer, book critic, and full-time radical intersectionalist who works under the disapproving but adorable supervision of a deaf, epileptic Turkish Angora. She got a law degree once, but it didn't take.
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6 Responses to A Quick Guide to Writing Satire

  1. Indeed, marooning people in the Arctic has a decidedly non-Christian ring to it.

    So does subjecting gays to electro-shock therapy in order to “cure” them, but numerous “Christians” advocate exactly that…

    • Dani Alexis says:

      Touché. And, unfortunately, yet another example of why one should never assume an idea is so “out there” it has to be satirical.

  2. Neil Gaiman did a short story a la “Modest Proposal” called “Babycakes”. Not sure if it was satire or just a creepy sort of short story. http://www.elfpack.com/_Babycakes

  3. Well said.

    “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Animal Farm. Orwell.

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  5. Awesome! Its really remarkable piece of writing, I have got much clear idea on the
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