No one writes War and Peace on a first attempt. The familiar is a comfortable place for any novice to start. It’s also entirely sensible to assume that a novice would be able to describe something familiar to them, and that telling a story about known people and places will add a touch of realism to their writing.
The familiar has other uses.
Never Lost In Unfamiliar Territory
Let’s assume that action-adventure writers have never tried to smuggle a nuclear device into London. Further, romance writers have never had their bodice ripped, and science fiction writers have not beaten NASA to Mars. Such situations are obviously NOT familiar to the writer. Of course, there may be exceptions.
I write fantasy. What else can a troll do?
Genre fiction by nature offers the reader a flight of fancy, an escape into imagination, which is exactly where the reader wishes to be. However, regardless of the imaginary destination, it is the familiar that grounds the reader in the story.
If you’re uncertain if your writing belongs in the Adults Only category, find an adult and ask them.
In science fiction, humans may negotiate with aliens, but is this really that much different than the United Nations? Are the translation difficulties, the ease of misunderstanding, or the lack of many common references the stuff of fiction or a simple fact of life in international politics? Obviously, the latter is true, and introducing ET or moving our conversation from New York to Alpha Centauri does not change the familiar aspects of the situation.
Or, the opportunities for humor.
Lieutenant Worf: Mrs. Troi… I must protest your unauthorized presence on the bridge!
Lwaxana Troi: [pointing to tactical console] What does that little one do Mr. Woof?
– Star Trek: The Next Generation, Paramount Television
Directions: Add Humor Here
Adding a touch of humor to your writing uses the same cliché as a basic writing class—with just a little twist. Write what you know becomes Laugh at what we all know.
Fiction may be imagination run amok but it is always grounded in the familiar. Those familiar bits ARE your opportunities for humor.
(Arriving at restaurant) “Sorry I’m late, mother.”
“I didn’t wait. I’ve already eaten.”
(to waiter) “Then, I’ll just have dessert with a side order of shame, please.”
While you may not have had an overbearing mother, the character is so familiar that your readers can easily relate the situation to their own experience. Place your overbearing mother in Philadelphia, Beijing, or on a spaceship to Saturn’s moons and the character is still identifiable. This familiarity is relevant to the reader regardless of venue, and a joke grounded in the familiar has an easily understood reference.
A Familiar Example
Situation comedies are a television staple for good reason. No matter how exaggerated the characters or the humor, the situation itself grounds the comedy.
One very popular show, The Big Bang Theory (Warner Brothers Television) offers us a look into nerd nirvana. Although the distinction between a nerd and a geek is always arguable, the familiarity of a socially-awkward intellectual is not. We all know someone who is more comfortable with an equation than with another human being. However, Big Bang’s humor is not based on insider jokes for theoretical physicists. It’s based on the easily identifiable aspects of the characters and the situation.
While the audience members likely can’t relate to the latest advances in String Theory or astrophysics, they have all experienced selfishness and a lack of empathy at some time in their lives. Immediate grounding equals immediate humor.
Leonard: I did a bad thing.
Sheldon: Does it affect me?
Sheldon: Then suffer in silence.
No matter where your story takes you, from steamy romance in a European castle to the outer reaches of the galaxy, our shared human experience is always present, always familiar, and always an opportunity for funny.