In this post, we look at satires. We ask and answer the questions: What is a satire and how do I write one?
We’ve all encountered satire: daily talk show hosts on TV like Stephen Colbert or John Oliver use it, movies are made as satires, even classics we know from school or university are satires.
Most people enjoy satire – but how do you write it? In this article, we’ll give you some tips.
What Is A Satire & How Do I Write One?
Laughter is the best way into people’s hearts. It’s so disarming! An author can use humour as a secret weapon to sneak in messages with a punch.
‘Satire is a literary device for the artful ridicule of a folly or vice as a means of exposing or correcting it.’
Before people know it, they’re reflecting on their own behaviour or even shortcomings. As you can see, a writer has to create on two levels and that’s what makes satire so hard to craft. Let’s look at it in more detail.
What Is A Satire?
The word ‘satire’ is used to describe a literary genre, as well as a literary device. It is a form of social commentary on contemporary issues. These are its most important characteristics:
- Satire makes fun of a person, an institution, an idea, or social conditions to criticise them. The underlying theme is the frailty of the human condition.
- Satire wants to inform and expose. It wants to make people think and re-evaluate. The ultimate purpose of satire is always the correction of something gone wrong.
- Satire contains an underlying call to action. This can be either subtle (just a change of opinion) or very direct (change society, a law, an institution).
- There is a general tone of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation. You can choose one of these or alternate.
- It uses stylistic devices like irony, humour, exaggeration, ridicule. All of these make it easier for the audience to accept that they’re part of the problem which the satirist criticises.
As you can see, laughter is a key element. It’s the sugar-coating that the satirical writer uses to get his readers to swallow an inconvenient truth. After all, if we can laugh together, we’re still friends, right? How does a writer achieve that effect?
How Do I Write Satire?
- Be up to date on news, politics, current affairs. Writing satire requires you to know your subject matter inside out. Research. Research a lot. Your readers will know if you haven’t done your homework.
- Be bold. As a writer, you need the courage to address your subject matter with all your might. Satire sparks controversy, so you also need to be able to take possible criticism. It’s not for the faint of heart! Yet usually, it’s this discussion most authors of satire really aim for.
- Establish context. Any writer of satire must work on two levels: Transfer an inconvenient truth known to the audience (what you want to criticise) to the realm of satire (how you do this, read on!). The effect will depend on how well you manage to juxtapose both levels. The readers must recognise the key elements of their truth in your satire. If that recognition is not accomplished, your satire becomes a toothless tiger. Here’s a recent cartoon of how you can take the symptoms of a Covid infection to the realm of satire. An example of where this context has become lost is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Written as a satire of European government at the time, the historical context is now lost to most of its modern audience. It is often perceived as a children’s book (especially in other European countries).
- Be witty. Remember, satire needs humour to drive home its message. To achieve funny effects, you can use exaggeration, incongruity, reversal, and parody. Don’t be afraid of being outright funny; satire isn’t all jokes, though. The underlying message is more important, so don’t neglect that for the sake of another punchline.
- Use exaggeration. Find out what you want to exaggerate, decide if you want to be subtle or not, then apply this to the whole narrative scenario. The movie The Truman Show is a satire of our media society, exaggerating the loss of privacy for the sake of entertaining the masses. By hyper-inflating the extent, it becomes grotesque and funny. The audience laughs and accepts the message. As a result, people re-think their own viewing habits.
- Use incongruity. Here, the idea is that you insert something out of the ordinary, something absurd, to underline your satirical message. Take Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What can be more incongruous than needing a towel to catch a hike with an alien spaceship?
- Use reversal. George Orwell uses this technique in Animal Farm. By making the animals oppress other animals, we can see the true nature of the Russian revolution. It’s the reversal of roles that shows the readers the mechanisms of the oppressors.
- Use parody. Parody relies heavily on the ability to imitate another’s style. TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel uses this in his segment This Week in Covid History. This appears like an old newsreel from the 30s and 40s, preceding the feature film. With an exaggerated voice, we are presented with ludicrous news which juxtaposes original snippets from current real news with incongruous video clips.
All of these are elements of satire. No need to use all of them at once, just choose what feels right for you. How you use these devices depends on your message. If you overdo it, your satire might drift into a caricature and spoil the seriousness of your criticism.
Examples Of Satire:
- Literary satire: Satire in literature goes back to the ancient Greeks. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travelsis one of the most well-known satires in English Literature. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a dark satire of Soviet Communism and the Russian Revolution. Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is a satire of dictionaries.
- Movie/TV satire: The movie The Truman Show shows how TV invades the privacy of our homes (TV is omnipresent) and at the same time uses other people’s privacy to feed our voyeurism. Spitting Image is another example of satire on TV.
- Musical satire: Weird Al Yankovic wrote endless parodies and pastiches of popular songs, some of these border on satire. The operas of Gilbert & Sullivan are satires.
- Magazines/Cartoons: Calvin and Hobbes, Mad Magazine, The Onion
The Last Word
Now that you know how to write a satire, go and have some fun. Remember, satirists are writers on a mission. I’ll be excited to find out what your mission will be!
By Susanne Bennett. Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.
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