Thursday, October 11, 2012

The use of humor in dramatic writing

Putting humor into a serious story - you've got to be joking!

I couldn't resist that awful pun and I move a little way towards apologizing for it however be warned, I'm not going to budge far because I believe humor is an essential part of just about any story. The knack is how and where it's handled and I'd just like to explain why it's essential. By the way, I'm not talking about a humorous book – this advice is aimed at a standard novel in just about any genre.

Let's take a typical tense situation. Your principal character is facing desperate choices which could cause them to bring down certain disaster on their head: to lose the one they love, to get caught by the 'bad guy' and so on. You've carefully built up the suspense and ... bang ... it (whatever 'it' is), happens. It's dramatic and exciting but it could have been more dramatic and more exciting.

Looking at it from a more physical perspective, you’ve taken your reader from zero to the base of a huge trough or to the summit of a large crest, depending upon what’s happened in your story. From there, you’ve carefully brought them back down (or up) to roughly the level that they started at.
Now, and looking at your physical representation, think of the expression 'rollercoaster ride' which is used liberally (and often erroneously) to describe action movies and books. A rollercoaster operates by converting the gravitational potential energy an object possesses at its peak to kinetic energy as it descends.

A simple fact of life is that the rollercoaster can't keep on going down and, if it wants to repeat the kinetic energy trip, it has to climb back up again. In other words, in order for it to realize its kinetic energy, it has to regain some potential by climbing out of a trough to a new crest.

You can create a peak or a trough (depending upon the subject matter and thrust of your book) by judiciously inserting a bit of humor at the right moment. For example, in a typical ghost story, you might have one of the disposable characters joking (the crest) about something just before he's snatched by the poltergeist (the trough) – maximizing the overall descent from one scene to the next. The lightening of the situation takes the audience's mind off the eerie nature of the story so that, when the poltergeist does make its appearance, it's a dramatic jolt.

What you have your character say at this juncture is going to be key to how effective the humorous asides are as a device. One has only to look back at some of the delightfully awful B-Movies of the 50's and 60's (and even some later A-Movies) to come across cringeworthy actions and lines such as (for our particular spectral example) the character denying ghosts exist, pretending to be one, making the other disposable characters jump etc. It may have been amusing at the time but it's not worthy of your efforts.

Please don't anyone say that humor isn't relevant. I've used it in top-level management meetings, high level negotiations and as part of lectures and speeches. Its presence not only conveys humanity to the audience, it also 'wakes them up'. We all like humor and we'll tune in to listen to it which is exactly when you hit the reader with your dramatic action. Have I made my point?

Like all humor, though, timing and subject matter is everything and I'm proposing to look at the good, bad and downright ugly side of it in forthcoming blogs.

Author Profile: Clive West

Clive West was born in the West Country of England in the early 60's. He was educated at a traditional English public school before going on to university to study civil engineering. Over the years, he has worked as a civil engineer, tutor of maths and science, schools quiz-master, employment agency boss, and writer.

His work includes a collection of short stories with twists called Hobson's Choice (also available in print), a full-length novel called 'The Road about the consequences of corruption on ordinary people and an accessible job hunting interview guide (based on his years of experience as the boss of an employment agency.

He has also written a book about lymphedema. This is a disfiguring, life-threatening and incurable disease he now suffers from and which his experience shows that most fellow patients have (like him) been abandoned by their respective health services.

Clive now lives in a rebuilt farmhouse in the Umbrian region of Italy along with Damaris, his writer wife of 22 years and their three rescue dogs. Apart from his fictional work, Clive also writes commercial non-fiction on a variety of topics but especially relating to business and employment. He and Damaris run an indie publishers called Any Subject Books Ltd –

You can also follow Any Subject Books on Facebook –

Clive is now disabled but, aside from his writing, he also enjoys playing the keyboard, listening to music and reading.

Clive's contact details:

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