On Sucker Buttons: Come to the Snark Side

There may be people who pick a genre specifically for its money-making potential and work from there. I write from the perspective that if you want to make money, you should give your reader your best possible work – and you write your best stuff when it’s something you love.

One of the things I love is snark.

Wit. Sarcasm. Wordplay. There’s nothing better than a couple characters verbally sparring amongst themselves, and possibly with the reader. (Footnotes are a special type of snark with the reader. See Sir Terry Pratchett’s works. Or the Ciaphas Cain books. Or those notes in the Master Li and Number Ten Ox trilogy.)

Note I said sparring, not fighting. It may sometimes be “to first blood” level of serious, but my favorite snark is a verbal expression of how much two characters can trust and rely on each other. You don’t throw puns and Quips to Black at a complete stranger. You throw them at someone who’ll get the joke.

Meaning someone you know. Or want to know.

A few examples. From the Arrows of the Queen, Talia finding out Prince Consort Karathanelan died in a “hunting accident.”

Talia: I suppose that’s marginally true. They were hunting Selenay.

From Person of Interest, Finch: “We need to find out who was shooting at you. Did you get a good look at them?”

Reese: “I tried. But they were shooting at me.”

From Caves of Ice, by Sandy Mitchell. Proceedings of a meeting.

“Colonel Kasteen called the meeting to order. Then she called it to order again. Major Broklaw fired his bolt pistol into the ceiling, and the meeting came to order.”

Snark lets a writer play. With the characters, and with the reader. If someone’s reading your fiction in the first place, odds are they want a vacation from Real Life. They want to play. After all, which hero is more impressive? The one who’s constantly grim in the face of oncoming monsters? Or the guy who, realizing only the dedicated survivalist had enough firepower to take it down, quips, “Guess we can’t tease Burt about his lifestyle anymore.” (Tremors, the movie.)

Though be warned. One side effect of loving snark is, I’ve often been dragged into new fandoms not by watching a show, but by stumbling on someone’s snarky fanfic. Some examples:

Nirvana in Fire by way of Venenum ex machina

Mo Dao Zu Shi by way of A Moment’s Delay

see you yesterday

mission report

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System by way of The Ring

Duck, Duck, Demon

BnHA by way of brilliant lights will cease to burn (by my hand i’ll reignite them)

villain eradication plan 5C: let them attack budding heroes mothers, wait appropriate time for mother to defeat them

The Smoke Series by Tanya Huff, by way of NyQuil, Succubi, and Other Tall Tales

Welcome to Night Vale by way of Love is All You Need to Destroy Your Enemies

Come to the snark side. We have cookies!

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48 thoughts on “On Sucker Buttons: Come to the Snark Side

    1. As someone who is *horrible* at snark and very literal… snark takes mental work to do. Specifically, it’s a form of world-play. This can be a problem when you’re someone with a visually-based mind that is working hard all the time just to come up with *normal* words fast enough to have a conversation. Trying to stick in any… flourishes… doing just takes up more energy I really *do not* want to use up.

      Especially in high-stress situations… snark is a *distraction* from what is actually trying to be communicated. And it’s less “fun” than “really stressful” to figure out in the moment. And it also leads to break-downs in communication along the lines of “you play more attention to how I say stuff so you can make fun of it than to the actual problem I’m trying to communicate”.

      Usually if I am snarking with people, it either means I”m very relaxed… or I’ve gotten so frustrated at trying to communicate with people I’ve given up on it and am just focused on snarking on purpose. Usually in an effort to try to outdo the other person. It usually ends up really ugly in that scenario.

      It’s less about not understanding snark and more that understanding (and doing) snark is a luxury that some people don’t have the mental energy to do. Especially in a stress situation. So they can default to being very literal minded to cope with it.

      Not that that doesn’t mean snark is fun to *read*…

      Liked by 3 people

    2. As someone who, if not actively paying attention, defaults to literal, this is also annoying to the literal-inclined who have to figure out what you mean. It’s fine when you can focus solely on the person you are talking to, but if you’re attention is split between multiple conversations, or attempting to work and talk it’s headache time.

      I’ve improved a lot thanks to both reading a lot and my dad in particular. He would do things like start pun wars, where you start puns on a specific theme, and the loser is the first one to run out of options for that topic, or repeats an already used word.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Pun wars are particularly my jam when tired – I’ve been known to go for minutes straight before running someone out of puns on a subject. (Sometimes we manage to slide a pun from one subject to another and keep going!)

        Like

    3. Being literal, some of us remember that snark is defined at least in part by the _intent to hurt_. As others mentioned, it’s wordplay, and I can appreciate it for the quality and skill of the wordplay, and of its use, but I cannot forget that snark is a weapon not a toy. When reading fiction I can enjoy some degree of snark (after all, part of reading fiction is to see the characters’ skill at fighting, in all forms), but in real life I cannot hear snark without this coming up and causing the need to evaluate “who is that person attacking, and why, and in what way?” Yes, it might be intended as “play” (ie: friendly sparring), but the problem with friendly sparring is that it’s only actually friendly if all sides know about it ahead of time, and are properly armed for it, and are actually in agreement on the terms and goals. And, well, the adage about “the road to hell” applies, if you _don’t_ make sure everyone is taking it as friendly.

      Liked by 4 people

    4. I should note, I’m prone to literal thinking as my default, but when I realize what’s happening I can load the appropriate module and enjoy the humor. Although my quips tend to be bone-dry.

      The flatmate laughs randomly after speaking, because she can’t understand when people are joking, but knows people joke and laugh, so tries to fit in. Among a whole other list of issues that make me very glad I’m not her husband.

      -Albert

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  1. Yup, and you can have lots of funny comments, or even extended jokes, even in a “high fantasy” setting. There were funny bits in Beowulf and Homer, for goodness’ sake, and there were certainly funny bits in Tolkien and Lewis. The Bible has snark galore.

    But you have to spend some time letting people have their full range of feelings, at some point, even if they’re usually hiding their anxieties and frustrations behind humor, or even if they’re usually just sunny and funny in their approach to life.

    Then again, you can do this a little too much for reader enjoyment. Steven Brust’s early Jhereg series was all about the funny, and his character basically being an amoral assassin/Mafia guy. Well, artistically Brust decided that he needed to make the guy have some morality, and he forced it by having his wife break up with him over her own moral qualms and wish for a more law-abiding life. And then there were several books of depressing writing after that, including a whole book of “Let’s have a revolution, and then watch almost everybody die or get beaten up or despise the protagonist!” And there’s been lots of other things since then which were not Reader Fun. At a certain point, even a lot of your loyal fans are not going to follow you into “Hey, I’ve got this cool premise for a novel, and you’re going to absolutely hate it!” Brust kinda squeaks his way through… but it was definitely not a way to build his audience. (He also pulled the “I’m going to have a lot of personal problems and weird personal solutions, in public, and make sure all my fans know that my way to live is so much better than their way to live, even as his fans worry if he’s going to show up on some true crime website as a victim,” which is kinda stressful on fans.) And to be fair, when you start out with “my parents and maybe my grandparents were some kind of ultra-left activists living in an ultra-left town, and I’m old-school ultra-left, and only a few of my leftist colleagues are even far enough left to understand this kind of background,” there’s a lot of stuff to work out. (And a lot of people who were going to criticize you for writing fantasy instead of being ultra-lefter than any SJW ever dreamed.)

    Brust is kind of a diva, in a guy sort of way. I think that deep down, it bothers him that he’s such a gut-level, weird fairy tale, plotting from mysterious sources, kind of guy, who can sometimes churn it out and sometimes can’t. So he pulls all this crazy stuff and does these high-level literary stunts that mostly work. But he has kept writing, even if his books don’t necessarily come out on schedule. And most of his books are very very funny at some point, or during almost all the book, and he spends a lot of time snarking at the ridiculous things he has just world-built. Most libraries and used bookstores have a lot of his books, if you’ve never read him; I don’t know how the ebook prices for him will run.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. The Phoenix Guard books — that’s what I was thinking about. The editor/author of these novels is a separate character, because they are historical novels in Brust’s fantasy world, and the editor/author includes a lot of notes. (Of course, Brust is himself a narrator/character in the framing story for many of his Jhereg books, so there’s that.)

        Anyway, lots of footnotes, and they do add to the humor of the story.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. “Hecate was the goddess of fertility, music, and visions*.”
        “Ah. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll?”
        “Pretty much.”
        *May not be an accurate quote. Haven’t seen that episode in a while…..

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Snark is also a coping mechanism, as an alternative to panicked screaming.
    At least if they’re snarking, they’re thinking.

    Also a good countersign.
    Mind Control and infiltrators have trouble getting the snark just right.

    ***

    The issue I’ve had with footnotes is in the publishing.
    There’s a big difference between 1-2 snarky footnotes on the bottom of the page and a stack of 10 snarky endnotes at the end of a 20k chapter.
    The timing is a bit off when you’re jumping back and forth trying to remember what the note is referring to.

    It is one area where a correctly formatted digital book can do well.
    You can get a popup with the footnote, or in some cases a picture of a food dish or clothing style, all without leaving the place you’re reading.

    The caveat being that the formatting can break just as easily.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Snark lets a writer play. With the characters, and with the reader. If someone’s reading your fiction in the first place, odds are they want a vacation from Real Life. They want to play.”

    THANK YOU! I don’t read/write what I don’t find *fun.* If it’s not fun, why bother with it? I have plenty of boring/not fun stuff to do every day. When I read/write, I want to *play* and *have fun.* Same thing applies when I watch movies and TV shows.

    Also yes, when snark is done well, it’s hilarious and draws you in. Witness the MCU:

    Thor (to Ultron in “Age of Ultron”): “Is that the best you can do?!”

    (Ultron summons *an enormous army* of his clone bodies to swarm the team’s location)

    Captain America (to Thor, deadpan): “Ya had to ask.”

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes! THIS! What a terrible lie, that there are no heroes and everything is horrible and you shouldn’t make jokes. Life is hard – that doesn’t mean it’s not *good*. And if you can’t make a crack in a tense situation…. Well, then, *you’re* likely to be the one cracking. And that will *definitely* be bad.

        The Wizard of Oz: “I have laughed at death, sneered in the face of doom!” (to Dorothy in an undertone) “I was petrified.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. There are no longer heroes; a hero was an ancient Greek warrior noble.

        There are no longer vir; Vir is Latin for a Roman man of status, who served as a soldier at need.

        I am an American man. American men definitely still exist.

        Even the American men working at universities know that the universities are bullshit.

        Even the American men working in Hollywood know that Hollywood is bullshit.

        Even the American men working in media know that media is bullshit.

        The universities, Hollywood, and the media say that being an American man is a vile terrible thing. These institutions are lying.

        Being an American man is good enough.

        Truth, beauty, and goodness are definitely things that exist. These existences are likewise things that institutions are lying about.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I know it’s just a few lines in a song but in Epic Rap Battles of History J.R.R. Tolkien vs George R.R. Martin Tolkien says that just because people actually do die randomly in real life is no reason for it to happen in fantasy and I love that someone said something about the current trend.

        (Oh!) We all know the world is full of chance and anarchy!
        So, yes, it’s true to life for characters to die randomly,
        But newsflash: the genre’s called fantasy!
        It’s meant to be unrealistic, you myopic manatee!

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I loved that line– all the more because the fantasy (well, good fiction) aspect is that you *do* have all the relevant information, at least by the end.

        Almost nobody dies randomly. It may not be *predictable*, but there’s a reason for it. The “they died randomly because that’s realistic” is a false statement which is excusing bad writing.

        Contrast the “hey roll a d6 and pick the characters name off a list to die” with “wait, where’s (favorite character?)” and “They died in a raid, two days ago-” where the fact of the raid had better be IMPORANT, for either the military knowledge or character development or SOMETHING besides “I wanted a cheap emotional impact.”

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Snark is definitely how I find some of my favorite characters. Also, I’m sobbing over where See You Yesterday stops.

    I dunno. I just take to heart the quote by Marjorie Hinkely: “ The only way to get through life is to laugh your way through it. You either have to laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh. Crying gives me a headache.” The only addendum I’ve ever put on it is including rage, which makes my throat hurt. Laughing is still the best.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I just finished reading See You Yesterday myself, and am in total agreement. Aaagh, evil author why? And now I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to the memory thing than is immediately obvious. Just how much did Wei Wuxian lose?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As someone who snarks when I am recovering after ending up in the ER it’s absolutely a coping mechanism. If I can poke fun at it, it’s not so bad. If I can diminish it by laughing or making other people laugh, I’ll be fine. (I can joke when it’s me, but I can’t for the life of me crack jokes when I’m focused and working. Then I default to literal interpretations and staring because my brain has no extra bandwidth for something funny.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In Crest of the Stars (both in book form and a older anime) there’s an alien race called the Abh that have refined snarking into a cultural artform. They’re always snarking at each other and it’s so entertaining to watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. In real life interactions, snark flies (mostly) over my head.

    But I love and adore it in books and films.

    Thanks for the recs, I will check them out!

    Liked by 1 person

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