10 Commandments of Writing Satire: An In-Depth Guide
Satire is one of those genres of writing that we all grapple with as writers. Among all the great satirist throughout the ages, we can't be sure none of them woke up one morning and decided that they wanted to write satire and be famous. Many of us aren’t very familiar with classical satire such as Plato, Chaucer or Jonathan Swift, but we may have seen or read some modern ones, including sites like The Onion or Explosm’s Cyanide and Happiness.
On TV, you may have watched Monty Python and definitely some Saturday Night Live, or maybe an episode of The Simpsons. Even many internet memes nowadays are satirical in nature.
Writing satire requires not only some talent but a lot of practice and hard work. All of the successful satirists, including Voltaire, had to start somewhere.
But Why Should I Learn How To Write Satire?
The answer is pretty straightforward:
People love to be entertained.
Even if you specialize in boring niches, you can make people relate to you if you know how to make light of your subject. You do this by injecting humor/wit, pun, sarcasm, or over dramatization into the subject.
Sounds simple? But first, let's get a few things straight.
Here's what satire is:
- Use of witty humor to poke fun at someone or something
- Tool to question belief or practices
- A way to communicate society’s grouses and dissatisfactions
- Useful way for masking criticism or governments
- A complex play of double meanings and subtleties that will tickle your reader’s minds
- A non-violent way to protest and state disagreement publicly
And here is what it is not:
- A rant or complaint
- A direct personal attack on another person
If you’re wondering how you can start, or even improve, your ability at writing satire, here are some rules of the trade we've compiled that might come in useful:
Introducing: The 10 Commandments of Writing Satire
1. Thou Shalt Choose Your Subject Carefully
Always start by writing about a subject or person that you’re interested in and have been following carefully for some time. It helps if you feel strongly about the issues the person has been involved in.
Example: if you’re using the phrase ‘that orange-faced President with tiny hands’, everyone has to know who you’re referring to, as opposed to obscure references about an obscure labor strike in a little known town in Sulawesi.
2. Thou Shalt Research As If Your Life Depended On It
It will be a big embarrassment if you get facts wrong in your writing, as opposed to just being slightly controversial.
It’s really important to keep your ears close to the ground and read about the person or issue from every angle. You should always know what the other side thinks so that you know the exact way to word your facts and take their arguments on based on facts rather than assumptions.
Knowing your ‘enemies’ will also keep you honest and not too biased in your opinions.
3. Thou Shalt Understand Your Audience
You’ll want to know what economic class, ethnicities, age range and other details of your target audience before you start writing.
If you’re making references to the ‘Cheeto-in-Chief’ or ‘a bigly covfefe,' you’ll appeal mostly to educated people interested in politics. If you use it in a satire aimed at teens, most won’t get the joke.
4. Thou Shalt Be Bold: Talk About The Elephant In The Room
The Onion, one of the internet’s biggest satirical news website, made their mark by saying things that everyone was thinking but didn’t have the guts to say out loud.
That’s really how satire draws people in, by bringing up the obvious and using humor to make it interesting and relatable, and really punch out the laughs at the same time.
One way you can see the onion doing this is by having news that Sean Spicer needs a comfort pig to calm him down during press conferences in the White House.
5. Wit Starts From The Beginning: Thou Shalt Write a Shocking Headline
Go big, be bold and don’t be afraid of being sassy and loud.
The more outlandish your headline is, the more heads will turn and take note. If you’re good at puns, now’s the time to flex those ‘pun-hit wonders’.
When Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show by Comedy Central, made a video called ‘Trump Tells The Earth to Go F**k Itself.' The video has more than 4 million views to date, so take a page from his book.
Video: Watch. 'Tis funny.
6. Thou Shalt Not Over-Describe
The magic about satire is that it is subtle and employs statements with multiple layers of meaning. This means that you should never need to explain your joke. Good stand-up comedians don’t need to explain their jokes, so you shouldn’t either.
7. Thou Shalt Be Honest; Even If It Means Offending Some People
Being honest means having the guts to be as raw as possible without sugar coating anything. Be respectful, but talk about the nitty-gritty that you won’t otherwise bring up in front of little old ladies at a tea party.
Example: Australian YouTuber LewTwo set out to prove an anti-vaccine rally ridiculous, by showing up and interviewing people trying to find a single legitimate doctor or medical staff in the crowd. He obviously didn’t find any.
8. Thou Shalt Not Pass The Line Between Good Taste And Tacky
Satire doesn’t mean a free pass to be a racist or sexist bigot. You have to keep the narrative about the actions involved, and not launch a personal attack on the individual’s appearance, gender, ethnicity or other traits.
You can’t afford to sink down to the level of the person you’re lampooning, so keep it firmly about the individual and not about sweeping statements.
Recently, a Malaysian pharmacy chain got into hot soup as one of their festive ads featured someone in a ‘Blackface’, which was completely inappropriate and invited a barrage of negative feedback online.
9. Thou Shalt Exaggerate, But Make Sure The Argument Is Solid
When writing satire, you don’t have to be concerned about being accurate in the way you present your facts. However, you’ll have to make sure that your exaggerations are based on solid facts.
If you’re caught peddling alternative facts, the joke will definitely backfire on you.
Think Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of Sean Spicer (President Trump’s press secretary) and you’ll have your answer as to why everyone loves Melissa McCarthy.
10. Or, Thou Shalt Use The 100% Wrong Approach
Have you ever seen something while scrolling through your Facebook feed and thought, "No. Just NO."
That's exactly the kind of reaction you want to aim for.
Think Cyanide and Happiness by Explosm.net. They’re loud, they’re crude, and they’re gory, but people love them as they portray everything we’re afraid of will happen in our lives, even if it means a quiet evening at home reading a book.
One strategy satirists like to use is to state things in a complete opposite of the truth, but sell them as the ultimate truth.
For example, Fake News Malaysia recently published the snazzy headline ‘Italy Cuts Ties With M’sia For Crimes Against Natural Order Of Pizza’ after pictures of Pizza topped with bean sprouts appeared in that tropical nation.
Of course, it didn’t happen, but everyone agrees bean sprouts should stay off pizzas forever.
It sounds really easy to write satirical posts, but you should keep in mind that it’s easy for things to go downhill very fast.
First off, you have to ensure that no one takes your satirical pieces literally. Once you get the hang of it, you can turn it into a wonderful tool for self-expression.