Monday Craft Tips: Using narrative to convey humor

I don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor.

newsagentPerhaps my favorite moment of this whole memoir was the incident in which the teenaged McCourt is commanded by his boss, Mr. McCaffrey, to go around all the magazine shops in Limerick and tear out page 16 of John O’London’s Weekly, because it has an ad for birth control:

The biggest customer for the magazine, Mr. Hutchinson, tells Mr. McCaffrey get to hell out of his shop or he’ll brain him, get away from them magazines, and when Mr. McCaffrey keeps on tearing out pages Mr. Hutchinson throws him into the street, Mr. McCaffrey yelling that this is a Catholic country and just because Hutchinson is a Protestant that doesn’t give him the right to sell filth in the holiest city in Ireland. Mr. Hutchinson says, Ah, kiss my arse, and Mr. McCaffrey says See, boys? See what happens when you’re not a member of the True Church…

We scoop up everything on the floor and he’s happy sitting at his desk at the other end of the office ringing Dublin to tell them how he stormed through shops like God’s avenger and saved Limerick from the horrors of birth control while he watches a dancing fire of pages that have nothing to do with John O’London’s Weekly. (497-498)

McCourt doesn’t need scenes with dialogue to convey the humor of the situation, he does it in the narrative. It is a very clever way of controlling pacing. If McCourt had put this into a scene it would have slowed down the dramatic flow. But in this situation we want to feel that the characters are rushing around, trying to get rid of page sixteen. So McCourt keeps the pacing fast by keeping it in the narrative summary, giving us the details of the conversation in the form of a list. This excerpt ends with a wonderful sentence that gives us the punch line; of course the boys are not throwing the ad into the fire, they’ve saved the pages to sell later.

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