How To Write Satire

The idea of writing satire is not as simple as it seems. Satire is a particular form of writing that utilizes humor, irony, and exaggeration to attack societal problems and shortcomings. It is a common misconception that satire is simply the use of humor to make a point, but it is much more than that. Satire uses humor as a tool to create a particular tone and effect, and to show that the subject matter is not to be taken seriously. When done well, satire can be both entertaining and insightful, and can provide a social commentary that makes a powerful impact on the reader. If you’re interested in writing satire, consider the following steps.


Analyze today’s satirical culture and saturate

Satire is everywhere. From the simple humor you see in the headlines to the subversive commentary of Deadpool, satire has become a part of popular culture vocabulary. This prevalence means that for anyone writing satire today, it is essential to pick up on what works and what doesn’t. When reading satirical pieces, analyze and question why they are funny, and what makes the writer seem smarter and more clever than the topic that is being made fun of. By becoming a more knowledgeable consumer of satire, you will be able to improve your approach as an author, and effectively criticize and mock the things that are outdated or absurd.

Since satire deals with topics that are serious in nature, it is important that the reader doesn’t take the topic too seriously. Audiences need to understand that the writer is using satire to make a point, rather than making a serious argument. For that to happen, we need to constantly practice detachment. Diverse sources of satire will help develop your understanding — from typical shows like Saturday Night Live to shows with satirical humor created for a particular community, in order that members of that community can provide feedback before the premiere. But don’t forget to consider how the internet has broadened the range of comedic expression, even making it easier to be satirical. Read through political articles, take in one-hour episodes of Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, search through Reddit or Imgur for memes, and remember that being a world critical of everything isn’t all bad.

Study your sources

Before you write a word of satire, you’re going to need to find the right sources to mimic. This means following the news and media as closely as you’re willing to. They’re going to be your best source material — after all, your job is to find the most ridiculous aspects of the human experience and focus on them. One of the best ways to do this is by paying close attention to how people are responding to political, social, and economic events. Do people seem to be losing sight of reality? Use this to find moments worthy of imitation. 

Satire is often high art, but it’s still deceptively simple — it’s a heightened piece of reality that aims to provoke an emotional response. Unlike more genres, satirical writing isn’t as tempted to get caught up in the plot — the point is to set an outrageous scene and let the dynamics of human interactions stand out.

If you don’t have a background in political science or economics, don’t worry too hard about impressing your audience with obvious deviations from reality. Satire comes with its own set of research challenges that are only made more difficult by the need to avoid actually underestimating the truth. 

Trace the threads of the ridiculousness you find, now that your first source material has opened your eyes to new kinds of insanity, and broaden your sample size. Find a large enough sample size and you’ll soon find that whatever new brand of the bizarre you find, someone’s already thought of it. You can partake of the present culture around you or from long ago — either way it will be enough to build a reality that people, with their daily experiences, will never see coming.

Identify a trope

In order to make fun of a literary genre or its tropes, or to question a political norm, you’ll first have to identify it. Satire only works when it’s deliberately over-the-top, so first ensure that you know what’s normal and common. Next, identify a trope that could be an effective vehicle for your satire. This is a tricky task, as you’ll want to point out a problem with one thing in order to illuminate the problem with another. Look around. Can you think of different TV shows that use tropes from your genre? What shows poke fun at the genre? Or, look at it in a different context. Identify a certain trope and name it. Write a list of tropes common to your genre, and reinforce why these are important to the genre’s appeal.

Identify your target

Satire uses exaggeration to create comparisons. For example, a satirist describes an extravagant dinner party, in order to show that his fellow citizens are decadent and insincere. To accomplish this, an author immediately needs to know who their target is – who in the world needs to be ridiculed and exposed to scandal? The character or characters that you choose to satirize should be lofty and outsized, owners of considerable power and influence.

As you search, consider not only who you’ll be targeting, but who will be most affected by the satire, remembering back to the ripple effect of humor. The purer your satirical voice, the more cutting the satire, and the more powerful its message. So look for not only who needs to be satirized, but also whom they hurt.

Decide on your central message

Though it’s a literary genre that harkens back to the beginning of Western literature, satire still has a thin line to toe. In order to get away with being gratuitously satirical or throwing stinging barbs, you need to have a purpose for doing so. Satire often thrives when its creators are trying to criticize corruption or address social issues. If you’re writing satire, it’s important to decide your central message. What do you want your readers to come away with. Deciding this will help guide your writing and keep your satire relevant, results driven, and, most importantly, funny.

From there, find your platform, and start poking at it. Every satire needs a target, but more importantly, it also needs a voice. If you’re trying to figure out how to write satire, ask yourself what subject matter most personally aggravates you. Try to pinpoint the issues that it brings up — no matter how big or small — that make you want to speak up. The targets of your satire should come from unique vantage points — it can be local or global, on the micro or macro scale. Satire can address major points in the news, but it’s equally powerful in fiction when you use singular individuals or private organizations as your focus. Just be sure that they’re a legitimate object of satire.

Start with a hook

Reading from start to finish is a valuable skill for comprehension, but it’s just as important for the writer. As a satirical writer, you should know your piece inside and out and make sure each segment leaves the reader wanting to know more. Don’t give away everything on the first page. Keep the reader guessing and make them eager to move on to the next section. The best parodies and satires begin with a punch line so the audience will dive deeper into the piece.

What is believably the main issue? What thing needs to change? Where does the satire lie? Don’t make readers wonder or ask a question — show them instantly, leaving them to nod, agree, and see where you’re going with the rest of the piece. If you sell your idea in the first paragraph, readers are much more likely to dig in and find the satirical humor as you present your argument with new facts. Once you have the skeleton of the piece, you can fill in the juicy bits to make it into a real treat.

Know when to pull the punch

Satire isn’t very funny if you can’t deliver the joke. There are a lot of foot-in-mouth moments that kill even the best satire — saying something that’s offensive or too unbelievable kills the tone of the joke when trying to write satire. When it comes to your satire, you have to know when a bad punchline will ruin the joke, and when it will be funny…but not funny enough. You can get away with banter if you make it witty, or masks/masquerade if you really keep the characters real. The best way to write satire is to not lie at all, but to write it so it might seem that everything is completely accurate but it’s not. Point out the bad in culture while also highlighting the good in it. Keeping the story real is one of the key things to remember when writing satire.

One of the most important things to remember when writing satire is that you have to focus on making the reader laugh while also keeping the overall message serious. For example, if you’re going to talk about people who give money they don’t have on lottery tickets, then you’ve got to get your readers to not just see that it’s bad but also why it’s bad. If you’re painting them as “normal” people and say they aren’t doing anything wrong, then the satire from it will lose it’s effect. Make sure the good and bad are included in your satire. Also happy is good to use when writing satire.

Grow your characters from humans into caricatures

In the first act of your satire, your goal is to flesh out some main characters that are treated as caricatures in the third. Because of the fiction element, you need to spend time and energy on making your protagonists and antagonists as real as possible, engaging the reader in investing in them as humans. You might try to spend dozens of hours with each of your main characters to ensure they are multi-dimensional, even if they’re intended to represent a certain archetype or stereotype. Your style is more colloquial than it would be for a non-satire work, but also more sober and concise.

In the second half of your story, once your caricatures have been developed, you can begin shifting their behavior into broader habits, and amusing powers or extravagant flaws. You can go back and forth between the scenes to develop and deepen your characters, as many times as you like. The character taglines you find yourself giving them are their defining traits, which will be later reflected in the events you script and in the strange coincidences you play together.

Be succinct

The purpose of satire is to sarcastically comment on a certain issue while focusing on the comedic elements. Your job in your critique is to feed misinformation to prove a point. In a sentence, satire is a hollow and exaggerated imitation of an original, used to incite the desired condescending feeling. Finding irony and absurdity within regular situations is one of the key components of satire. 

Rather than using long sentences to fill out pages, keep your writing as simple yet informative as possible. While a proper thesis is paramount for any writing project, you don’t want to reiterate the subject of your satire too many times throughout your work. Look up current political cartoons and determine which ones also use satire. Consider why they are doing it. As a writer challenging what we think is political and what we consider to be in the social norm we must also step out and let people know we are capable of change. Make an illustration about what you think is wrong with the status quo as a whole.

Be merciless to your characters and your target

Satire needs to draw strong and intentional contrasts to avoid being too abstract or confusing to the reader. However, that contrast shouldn’t just be between right and wrong — the best satire makes sure that the target of its mockery is aware of the work’s ridicule before its publication, if possible. The best satire looks back fondly on the subject it’s criticizing while seeming like a direct attack — that way you won’t have any trouble finding a reader base. 

In addition, your main character shouldn’t play a neutral role in the story if you want him or her to be relatable. Even if you choose a side, don’t empathize with your main character’s viewpoint in too great a way, for that will confuse your target audience and take away from your satire’s punch. To find the perfect tone for your book and its purpose, consider focusing your satire so that you approach as many topics as possible. But beware! Satire will always be more persuasive and memorable when it expressly addresses some kind of hypocrisy or flaw, instead of simply taking a stand on an issue that people agree about.

Every main character in a satire has a goal, and their agency drives the story. However, since satire emphasizes negatives instead of positives, your protagonist’s agency must fail to achieve its goal. Other than that, the rules to creating interesting characters and pushing them to their limits for maximum plot involvement are the same, whether the story is a satire or not. That said, when it comes to protagonists, satire is most effective when a typical character is faced with a loss of innocence, and eventually retribution, after witnessing hypocrisy.

Allow your satire to have serious moments

The temptation to amuse on every page can often trip up satirical writers. No matter how much you love the idea of puns, satire can only become world-changing when it’s an instrument of truth — not when it’s a detour for the sake of giggles. If you want to bring awareness to your satire, use the moments of importance in your story to make things personal, and to have as many of them as possible. 

Trust your audience to understand the importance of the big picture, and dedicate more of your time to making that picture entirely clear. The more effectively you’re able to engage your readers with moving personal moments in your satire, the sharper your social commentary is likely to be when the time for it comes. Moreover, de-escalating these moments after their second or third manifestation will-in the public

If you’re writing satire, don’t be afraid to admit you were provoked by strong feelings about a subject, and use that inspiration to escalate those feelings in your protagonist. Let your main character get so distressed by the parody that the reader begins to sympathize with the serious, upsetting problems the subject of the satire is known for inflicting. Perhaps the politics are tearing your main character’s family apart, or perhaps your book is an instructional manual for how the dogma of a certain ideology can be used to manipulate the public in various ways. Whatever the setup is, make it personal before you get back to the fireworks.

While your writing should make your audience laugh, you want to be sure that there’s more to it than just that. Make sure your satire is actually helping people see the world in a different way while still making them laugh. Even better, let the satire open up something further for them — the subject of your satire has flaws? Point out how to fix them. You’ll end up challenging the status quo, and perhaps even making the world a better place. That’s the mark of a talented satirist. Good satire takes hard work and practice, which is why it never hurts to start working on it today.

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