Having finished the online panel


I’m left with an introductory essay I wrote to lead off the conversation. The essay was all wrong for the forum and the format, but what did I know? So, I’m going to inflict it on you.


I’m not going to talk too much about who does snark well and who doesn’t–I don’t feel confident in the depth of my knowledge of the genre, and I’m imagine that, no matter what I say, someone out there would respond: “What about Sofalina Kricklistik and her Butt-Kicker Chronicles? Those books are snark hilarity! Where have you been?” And then I’ll be too embarrassed to continue.

But I do want to talk about Snark Gone Wrong, because I have seen it. Boy have I ever.

Two things I keep in mind when I read/write snark: First, snark (sarcasm, whatever you want to call it) is an attack. Not a knife-to-the-belly attack. Not a burn-down-your-house attack. But it is an attack, with all the rules of attacks and a couple of special rules.

The second is what Keith Olbermann has said in interviews about his feud with another cable news personality: Always punch up.

Remember Kolchak, the Night Stalker (the older, good one, not the new, lifeless one)? Darren McGavin was abrasive and sarcastic and comtemptuous of the people he braced, but those people were always big shots. They were politicians, police chiefs, gallery owners, whatever. The powerful and the snobbish. When he dealt with working joes, he was still himself but he was more respectful.

Here’s a quote from a column by Terry Rossio, on his excellent writing site Wordplay, discussing (among other things) the story changes that ruined the animated Sinbad movie of a couple years ago:

(General Rule: Your lead character can be introduced as a smart ass, but not a successful smart ass, if you want the audience to care about him.)

Quick aside: Wordplay is screenwriting-specific, but it’s a great place to learn about story. Check out the columns.

Back to the point I’m allegedly making: Anyone who’s seen Sinbad (and I count myself among the unlucky few) knows exactly what he means–Sinbad opens the movie with a big fight, where he handles all his enemies very easily. And through the whole thing, he mocks and humiliates them.

And he comes off as a jerk.

Some months ago, I followed a link to a snarky retelling of an incident in a Wal-Mart. The writer had noticed a fishbowl that said “Free Candy” on the side, but instead of taking one, she took them all.

When the manager and clerk tried to get her to return it, she raised a fuss. When she wrote about it on her blog, she made a bunch of comments about the employees’s weight and unfashionable clothes. I had to stop reading, because I kept thinking “What an asshole.”

When a character snarks, they should snark at the powerful, the careless, the cruel. (Remember when I mentioned “special rules”? You can snark against an awful situation, too. But it should be genuinely awful. ZOMG, my valet laid out the wrong waistcoat! won’t cut it. And yeah, that’s only one rule, but I put the plural in there in case I think of something else later.) They shouldn’t punch down.

One last bit: Years and years ago there was a TV show called STINGRAY (Nick Mancuso turned down the Bruce Willis role in MOONLIGHTING to play Stingray, and boy, there’s no booze in the world that can dull the pain of that.) The villain in the pilot was one of those boob tube drug lords we used to see so often, and the bad guy would say “Can you see me?” right before he shot them.

At the very end of the pilot episode, the villain is lying on the deck of his Miami Vice smuggler boat with a bullet hole in him, and Our Hero is crouching over him, smoking gun in hand. The villain looks up and says: “Can you see me?”

And the hero, a little gloating, responds: “Yeah, and you look terrible.”

The villain asks his question again–“Can you see me?”–as though he didn’t hear. Our Hero realizes the man can’t see or hear him; he’s already too close to death. Mancuso, in that moment, plays it perfectly. He shows a flash of regret at the snark he’s just laid out, because the narrative has turned the villain into a pathetic figure in the space of one BLAM!. “Stingray” realized he was punching down.

The panel itself was fine, although the message board software was a little woogy. Actually, it was fun. I look forward to Sunday morning’s panel.

I’d planned to stay up for James Enge’s author chat, but I’m fading already. Sorry, man.