Ignore what they say—sarcasm isn’t the lowest form of wit. It’s also not the highest form of intelligence (sorry). But it is fun. It doesn’t always translate well into writing, though.
My characters use sarcasm A LOT. Why? Because they take after my friends and I. Some of us use it occasionally while others use it hourly.
And, since we’re millennials, most of our communication is done digitally. That means that understanding when the person is being sarcastic and when they’re being sincere is crucial. Some of this comes from being friends and having known each other a long time, but not always.
In the digital age emojis can make it easier to get the right tone across, but how do you write sarcasm that comes across as sarcasm and not you being an arse without using emojis?
How to write sarcasm
There’s nothing worse than a poorly-timed joke, and sarcasm is no exception.
Jokes can be used to break up tension (Joss Whedon is a big fan of this), show the affection between characters, or even to create affection between characters.
Who doesn’t love a meet cute filled with witty rejoinders?
This is one of my favourite sections from What Happens in New York:
‘You know, there’s nothing worse than a girl sitting alone in a bar.’
Had he just hit on her? Perhaps the night wouldn’t be such a loss after all.
‘You mean there’s nothing worse than cheesy pickup lines?’ she replied, looking up at him through her long, fluttery eyelashes.
‘Sarcastic and English. Interesting.’
Definitely not a loss.
‘I should warn you: I don’t speak like Giles from Buffy.’
‘That’s OK–I’m more of a Kate Beckinsale kind of man.’ He leaned back in the chair, placing one foot over his knee.
She met his eye for a second as she spoke: ‘So you like your women in catsuits?’
He smirked. ‘I wouldn’t say no.’
She leaned towards him, resting her head on her fist. ‘I’ll have to keep that in mind for when my suitcase arrives.’
‘Where’s your suitcase now?’
Hollie shrugged. ‘Somewhere across the Atlantic, probably.’
The whole section doesn’t compromise of sarcasm, but Hollie’s comment of ‘You mean there’s nothing worse than cheesy pickup lines?’ sets up the tone for the rest of her conversation with Astin, and the back-and-forth that they have throughout the book.
Contextually, it also fits into her bad mood, as she’s lost her suitcase and been shut out of the play she wanted to see with Fayth.
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Context is key
When it comes to sarcasm, context is the most important thing. That’s why many—but not all—sarcastic lines from novels don’t translate well out of context.
There are many lines from What Happens in London I wanted to use for marketing, but without the build-up to that line, they just don’t work.
Here’s an example from What Happens in London that (kind of) does:
‘You look like you just had a eureka moment. Your eyes are bigger than your head.’
‘Flattering,’ said Fayth.
‘It is if you’re a cartoon character,’ said Liam.
‘I wasn’t the last time I checked,’ said Fayth. ‘Not unless I’m missing something.’
In this context, Fayth is clearly not agreeing that being told her eyes are bigger than her head is flattering. Liam’s response shows that he understands she’s being sarcastic, and the witticisms continue.
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Use facial expressions
Facial expressions make a huge difference to the meaning of what we say. A twinkle in our eyes, a smirk, a raised eyebrow or even a laugh can convey that we’re joking. So can a deadpan stare.
Keep your character’s facial expressions consistent with how they usually behave, but use facial expressions such as those mentioned above to demonstrate that they’re not completely serious about what they’ve said.
Here’s another example from What Happens in London. It takes place when they’re sat outside in the middle of March:
‘I’m from Scotland. If it’s in double figures and the sun comes out, people start walking around in shorts and flip flops,’ said Fayth.
Camilla wrinkled her nose. ‘Scots are weird.’
‘You should check out the English,’ said Fayth, flashing Hollie a wry smile.
‘I’m just going to ignore that,’ said Hollie.
Fayth goes from insulting her fellow Scots (with only a hint of sarcasm), to insulting the English. Her wry smile shows that she’s teasing Hollie (who’s English), but on this occasion, Hollie chooses to ignore her.
There’s nothing more jarring than a character who’s never used sarcasm to suddenly come out with something sarcastic. This can be used as a device to show how a character has changed or wants to change, but in most cases, it won’t work.
Be consistent with which characters use sarcasm and when. Some will use it in every sentence, others will use it when someone says something dumb, and others will use it to diffuse tension. There is always a reason for sarcasm, even if it’s just someone’s personality.
Telling jokes at certain times—sometimes bad times for the characters, good times for you—can also be a coping mechanism. It can make things incredibly awkward for those involved, but cringeworthy and entertaining for the reader. Breaking up the tension with awkward comments can be a fun character trait, even if other characters perceive them to have good social skills by others.
Not everyone understands sarcasm
Sarcasm is prevalent in Western culture, but some use it more than others. While I haven’t travelled much, I have heard that the Brits are the worst for it. (If anyone knows any country/culture worse, please do let me know in the comments!) This is probably why a lot of our shows don’t translate well overseas and get remade instead (The Office, Skins, Shameless…).
Writing a character that doesn’t understand sarcasm can be just as fun as writing one that uses it all the time. It’s even more fun if you put the two of them in a room together. Why not give it a go?
Over to You
How do you write sarcasm? Do you use it, or do you avoid it because it can be such a difficult tool to use, or do you prefer a different style of humour? I’d love to hear how you approach it in the comments!
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out the rest of the How to Write series?