Adding Humor to Enhance Drama

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 humors 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.

For more of my posts about humor writing, click here.

Do you think humor can enhance drama? What have you read or watched where this technique worked?

How to Add Humor to Any Story

No matter what genre, if a few characters in a story display a sense of humor, that hooks me as readily as quirky characters or an intriguing plot. Click here for a previous post on the importance of humor.

Inserting humor into a story, especially one with a serious premise, can be difficult. I’ve discovered how to add humor to any story by knowing my characters extremely well and allowing their natures to dictate their sense of humor.

Assigning the Correct Sense of Humor

In my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow, my main character Rae is quiet, shy person. Most of her funny remarks are in her thoughts. Her uncle Hank is the family joker. He likes to tease relatives to show his affection, especially Rae’s father, his brother-in-law. This kind of humor seems appropriate for a laid-back, extroverted character. Rae’s father, on the other hand, uses sarcastic humor. That fits with his being a cop of fifteen years experience.

Rae jams in a band with two guys. Houston is from Texas. His sense of humor is exaggeration. When Rae asks him how he came to work in Ohio, he answers, “Like any good Texan, I was undone by a woman.” The other guy Chris is very reserve, and Rae finds it difficult to read his facial or body language. He has a very dry sense of humor that Rae only figures out when she sees an ornery glint in his eyes.

As I’m writing a scene, and a joke or humorous observation comes to me, I have to make sure I assign it to the appropriate character. Sometimes, I’ve had to discard something I think is funny because no character in the scene would make that kind of joke or comment. Writers don’t want to break the illusion of reality they create around their fiction. Jamming a joke in the mouth of a character just because I think it’s hilarious will shatter that illusion quicker than just about any other mistake.

My joker, Uncle Hank, can’t suddenly turn sarcastic because I want to dazzle readers with my wit. Or Rae’s father can’t tell a thigh-slapping joke when up until this point in the story he’s only used sarcasm. Readers won’t buy it, or even worse, feel cheated that a character has suddenly swerved from the personality they’ve come to understand.

For more on writing humor and comedy and what’s the difference, check out this very helpful article on “Almost an Author”.

What stories or shows do you think demonstrate how to add humor naturally?

Writing Tip — Let the Humor Come Naturally

boyw-2604853_1920At the beginning of the month, I linked to a post on the difference between comedy and humor. Comedy is a deliberate act to be funny. Humor comes from observing situations, remarks, or actions with a humorous attitude. I am a mystery writer who stumbles upon humorous things as I’m writing. Since I am not a gifted humor writer, I find it best to let the humor come naturally to my story.

In my short story “Debt to Pay”, a wife has plotted to kill her millionaire husband by sabotaging his plane. He survives the crash and hides out with two brothers, who live in a remote cabin in Wayne National Forest. When the wife discovers her husband at the cabin, she offers the older brother money to kill her husband on the spot. She says, “You’ve never had money. You don’t know what it can do for you.”

As I wrote that scene, it occurred to me that the twenty-two-year-old brother actually did know what money could do for you. It could get you smashed to pieces in a plane crash masterminded by your wife. Since that observation was suitable to the character’s personality, I had him say it. It was a bit of humor true to the situation and character.

Another way to let humor come naturally is to know my characters in detail. If I have a talkative character, and I pair him with a very introverted one, I just start writing and see what the characters do. The humor surprises yet still feels natural because I know my characters so well.

It’s also a gift to readers if they are reading in a series withe reoccurring characters. If I present my characters vividly enough for my readers to get to know them like family, then when I put, or trap, characters with clashing personalities in a scene, readers get a thrill as they anticipate the conflict and humor to come.

WARNING!

The one rule you want to follow when placing humor in your stories is that you don’t want your characters remarking about how funny a situation or person is.

When my kids were little, they sometimes watched the PBS children’s show The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. The Cat made lots of funny remarks. And the two kid characters were constantly laughing at them. I don’t know why the creators did this. It was as if they didn’t think the children watching the show would get the jokes. I found it irritating, even for a kids’ show.

Humor in a story is for the reader. I need to trust that they will get it. Sometimes, I can write that a character laughed or chuckled and then keep on going with my story. For example, in my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers, I have my normally quiet main characters crack a joke. His younger brother laughs “so hard he almost fell down the mountain.” That’s the last line of the chapter.

My description of the younger brother laughing isn’t a cue to my readers. It’s character development. My main character did something unusual, and his younger brother showed his surprise and appreciation. Done, end of chapter, move on.

What are some of your favorite funny novels or short stories? I’d love to find new stories that make me laugh.

Writing Tip — 4 Ways Humor Helps Characters

mentorw-3610255_1920If it’s appropriate to you story, let humor do the heavy lifting when it comes to character development. Here are four ways humor helps characters.

Humor makes characters likable.

Giving a character a healthy sense of humor automatically makes her more likable to most readers. In real life, someone with good sense of humor is more enjoyable to hang around. The same principle applies to characters. If I like a character’s humorous thoughts or remarks, I’m much more likely to follow that character into a story, regardless of what style or genre it is.

Humor makes character unlikable.

Creating a character with a nasty sense of humor is a quick way to turn your readers against him. It will also intrigue your readers. I’ve read many crime short stories in which the main character is the criminal, and he relates how he committed his crime with an arrogant attitude and vicious barbs directed at the lesser mortals surrounding him. I don’t know if such a vile character could sustain a whole novel, but I stick with the short story because I know the main character forgot something in the commission of his crime and will get found out some way. Waiting for the high-and-mighty to be brought low is delicious to read about.

Humor makes the characters relatable

I’ve been in situations that seem so ridiculous that I have to laugh. Or I look on an irritating situation in a humorous light because it’s so much better than losing my temper or fuming.

When characters see the humor in situations familiar to readers, such as the arrival and dismissal for the car-riding students at an elementary school (don’t get me started), readers find something of themselves in the character.

My husband and I recently watched Justice League. I loved the Flash. As a young man selected by Batman to join the League and act like superhero for the first time in his life, the Flash is a character the audience can relate to. He makes the comments we might if we found ourselves thrust into such a bizarre world. Like when he thinks Batman’s idea of bringing Superman back to life is a plot straight out of a Stephen King novel.

Humor makes readers care for characters.

If characters are likable and relatable, then readers will care what happens to them. Humor makes the drama more dramatic, like the way salt heightens the sweetness in cookies. Such as when a character is in a terrifying situation and cracks a joke. That makes the audience root all the more for the character’s escape. The juxtaposition of opposites enhances both of them.

Who is one of your favorite character with a great sense of humor?

Writing Tip — Humor and Bad Experiences

accident-w994009_1920In The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor, author Patrick F. McManus advises that when looking for inspiration for a humorous story, you should write “about your bad experiences, not your good ones.” When life is at its worst, humor can be at its best. My recent trip to St. Louis gives real-world validation of that advice.

In August, I drove my parents and kids to see my sister and her family in St. Louis. One of the highlights was visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I walked into the darkened church, and my jaw dropped. Covering 83,000 square feet of ceiling and parts of walls are 41.5 million pieces of glass in mosaics. Even in the lowered lights, the ceiling glittered, depicting scenes from the Bible and North American history. Along the sides of the church were four chapels, also covered in mosaics as well as marble. The dominant color in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is red. The marble in the All Souls Chapel is black and white, symbolizing death and resurrection.

I could have stood there for hours, craning my neck at the incredible art above me. As wonderful as the experience was, there’s no humor in it. Awe-inspiring but funny.

The fun came when I took my kids and my niece and nephew fishing. My youngest, the Fishing Fanatic, and my oldest brought five tackle boxes, just so they didn’t forget anything. We went to a small manmade lake behind a Y recreation center.

Since the kids weren’t having much luck, my oldest was trying to lure schools of fish he had spotted from a bridge to where the kids were fishing. He laid his rod on a rock, the baited hook dangling in the water.

I took one look at that and thought, “That’s not a good idea,” and reached for the rod.

A fish took the bait and the rod into the water. The first strike my oldest had had all night.

I lunged into the algae-clogged water because (1) I didn’t want any of the kids to try it and (2) I didn’t want to tell my husband how we had lost the collapsible rod. I plunged my hand into the water, but the rod was pulled deeper. So I waded deeper, reached again, and grabbed the rod.  Hiking to the shore, I recovered the rod and a huge bluegill.

I was soaked from the waist down. I wrapped a towel around myself to absorb at least some of the water. And my oldest gave me the biggest grin of his life.

That mishap is great material for a humorous story. Most, if not all, classic comedy movies concern what goes wrong in the main character’s life, and what he does to repair the situation, which leads to more things going wrong.

So I am trying to look at obstacles that normally frustrate or irritate me as writing material. It’s so much better than grinding my teeth.

What bad experiences have you had that you can use for a humorous story?

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