As I finished writing my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes” in 2018, I faced a dilemma. My main character Rae has found her father. How did I write the scene without drowning it in gooey sentiment? I learned adding humor to enhance drama prevented this from happening.
I knew I had to go for the big emotions. In the first draft, I had tried to write the story by playing it safe, keeping the emotions at a distance. That version felt empty, and readers would feel cheated. But if I wallowed in all he feelings the father-daugher reunion required, I risked turning my mystery into a soap opera.
Humor to the Rescue
After toying with the scene, I realized humor could keep the emotions from veering into high school drama queen territory. That sounds counterintuitive. How can humor make a dramatic scene better rather the undercut it? I think it works like combining salty and sweet, like salty caramel. The sugar and salt seem to be opposites and yet the contrast makes both flavors stand out.
So as Rae experiences the thrill of finding her father, he’s trying desperately to hold himself together and not pass out from the shock. The humor allows the drama to go big but prevents it from getting out of control.
Keys to Adding Humor to Drama
The first key is to establish the tone of your story. Rae has made humorous observations throughout my story, so the tone that isn’t deadly serious even if the mystery is. Readers don’t think it’s out of place to find something to smile or laugh about in the story. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve watched scenes in shows or read them in books that are very serious and humor still works in them.
Years ago, I watched an episode of the western TV series, Gunsmoke. Marshal Matt Dillon and several women are traveling through a desert when outlaws begin following them and mounting attacks. The outlaw leader tells his men before the latest attack that “No one lives.” But when the outlaws close in, the marshal and the women repel the attack, and the outlaws scramble for their lives. Back at their camp, one outlaw, spitting mad, throws down his hat, turns to the leader, and demands, “‘No one lives?’ Us or them?”
The remark was so unexpected in this serious drama in which the heroes are struggling to survive a hostile setting and merciless enemies that I almost busted a gut with a laugh. But it worked because of the second key to adding humor to enhance drama: root the humor in the personality of the characters.
It made perfect sense for this character to say that line because of the situation he was in and the way he said it. I can add humor to any scene if I’ve already established that a particular character would say or act in a humorous way.
Do you think humor can enhance drama? What have you read or watched where this technique worked?