The Rules of Sarcasm

Sarcasm has been getting a bad rap lately and I thought it was time that I finally defended my friend. For those of you who don’t know me, let me start by saying that I am an extremely sarcastic person by nature. It comes across in my writing and my speech, not because I am using it as a tool but because this is how I think.  In fact, I often have to remind myself that being sarcastic in the middle of a BIG SERIOUS MEETING is probably not wise. Of course, after I have reminded myself of this, I do it anyway. But enough about why I’ve had 17 jobs in the past 6 months…

The reason sarcasm has become the sandals with socks of literature is because some people are using it incorrectly, and when used incorrectly, sarcasm is just plain annoying. And so, because no one likes annoying less than me, I’m going to give you my Sarcasm Rules of 2011.

<drum roll please>

Rule # 1:  There are two kinds of sarcasm: sarcasm as wit and sarcasm as avoidance.

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE! Sarcasm as wit is when someone uses exaggeration with the intention of being funny. It is VERY common in British sitcoms as well as in my kitchen. For example:

Mom: Are you wearing that skirt to school today?

Tina: Of course not. I’m planning at least 3 wardrobe changes before the bus comes in 5 minutes.

Conversely, sarcasm as avoidance is something people use when they’re afraid to answer honestly. For example:

Jane: You don’t actually want to go to the dance with Bob, do you?

Tina: Of course not. I’d rather take a chipmunk.

The main difference here is in intent. The first use of sarcasm was intended to elicit humour. While the second one may come across as funny, the speaker’s intent is to hide her real feelings by burying them in humour.

Rule # 2: Sarcasm is almost never used inwardly.  

This is probably where I see the biggest problems when sarcasm is used in writing. People who are inherently sarcastic are DEFINITELY sarcastic in their thoughts, but when they are, they’re directing that sarcasm at someone else. Maybe they’re imagining what they would say if someone asked them about their bad hair. Maybe they’re thinking about what they wish they had said to that mean woman in the grocery store.  Whatever the reason, they’re not being sarcastic to themselves. For example, this would NOT happen in a real inner monologue:

I looked down at my outfit and wondered if my skirt was too short. What did it matter? I was planning at least 3 wardrobe changes before the bus arrived in 5 minutes.

The problem with this attempt at sarcasm is that it reads as serious. We honestly believe this character is going to change 3 times in 5 minutes. Why? Because people with one personality don’t generally try to fool themselves.

Now there is one exception to rule #2: If you’re writing in a way that addresses the reader, then you can get away with the sarcasm in inner monologue because it’s directed at the reader, and not at the main character. For example:

I’m sure you’re wondering what I was doing wearing a mini-skirt in January. You need not worry. I planned at least 3 wardrobe changes before the bus arrived.

If you’re doing this, it needs to be a consistent character trait so readers know not to take it seriously. You can’t just throw in one line like this and call Bob your uncle.

Rule #3: Using sarcasm to insult yourself is acceptable and often funny. Using sarcasm to insult someone else is bitchy.

People are generally more accepting of insults when someone directs them at themselves. When they’re directed at someone else, they can come across as mean and if your main character comes across as mean too often, she won’t be sympathetic. For example, the comment above about the chipmunk is insulting to Bob. If Tina made comments like this constantly, we’d think Tina was mean. Conversely, had Tina said, “Yeah right. He’d probably rather take a chipmunk,” then this would not come across as mean. In fact, it would strongly illustrate the main character’s insecurities.

And now to find some socks to go with my sandals…

Category: On Writing