In All Seriousness

I am sarcastic. I love humor, but sometimes it can be a nuisance. Allow me to explain.

One main thing that I hate a little bit about certain authors and writers of films is the lack of comedic timing. By this I unobviously mean the insensitivity to put a joke in a serious moment. Being a sarcastic brat, I am guilty of this myself. Nearly all writers believe they can pull off a joke successfully in a serious or tense situation, despite the fact that only a select few writers can. I don’t mean to say that I have all the answers, but here are some basic guidelines on how to successfully crack a joke during an intense scene without annoying me (If you absolutely must).

Don’t poke fun at what’s happening. It’s quite simple, really. If someone just died, don’t make a joke about how dead character in question still has unfulfilled goals. And especially not if the character is meant to be a loved friend. If you  do so, you will cut short the slightly dramatic, yet definitely warranted feelings usually evoked with a character’s death, but you’ll also seem to hate the character. By seeming to hate your own character you will cause the reader or watcher to either hate the character as well, or find you mean and arrogant.

For a sad or infuriating twist, Make a bitter or slightly unrelated joke. If you make a joke that reveals the irony, you will appear to be as bitter about the event as the cast of the book or film and the reader and watcher.

Discourage jokes made by the characters. If you have a great joke you about the serious or tense moment that you need to get out, the best way to get your joke onto paper (or into your lap top), while not being mistaken (or rightfully judged) as an emotionless, stone-faced, cynical overlord of a writer is to have a character make the joke. That is not all, though. You must have a serious character present to shush the joking character and shake her or his finger at that wise-cracking disrespectful lunatic. This will make you seem to agree with the serious character, whether you do or you don’t.

However, if you are on the side of the joking character, I must say, “How can you make a joke at a time like this? Don’t you even care?”

Well, there you have it. The solution to my ultimate pet peeve in books and movies (and TV, come to think of it). But before I close, I would like to say that humor is sometimes the only thing to lighten a particularly depressing scene. I am not totally biased against humor in intense scenes, only partially so. The important thing is to put a reasonable amount of thought into your use of humor. Impulsive humor is the only thing more annoying than ill-timed humor.

Note: See the comments.

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10 thoughts on “In All Seriousness

  1. Ohoho! Wrong, wrong, wrong! I disagree.

    Yes, a joke during a serious scene can ruin things, but this is not the way to fix that. There is a wonderfully sad movie called Stranger Than Fiction. In one scene, the main character has just realized that he’s the main character of an author who is going to kill him off. He has no say in the matter. He tearfully says, “I may already be dead– just not typed.” I never fail to laugh at that; the entire movie is hilarious, and this seems like a joke. But because of the emotional nature of the scene, it strikes others as completely serious.

    Also, jokes made by the characters in general should be discouraged. The characters shouldn’t laugh at a joke– the audience should laugh. The characters should ignore it. From another sad and hilarious movie, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, there is this quote: “I had an appetizer spread prepared, but Mortimer ate the pancakes.” This hilarious line is spoken by one of the characters, yet none of the other characters laugh at pancakes in an appetizer spread. The audience does, however, and it’s funnier for the characters’ seeming indifference.

    I object most about your opinion at the end: “Impulsive humor is the only thing more annoying than ill-timed humor.” Wrong. Impulsive humor is the only kind of humor that works. Premeditated humor almost always flops, but impulsive humor is always hilarious.

    Last thing. When people put humor into serious and emotional scenes, they aren’t trying to lighten things up and make it a comedy– they’re just keeping the overall theme of the story. If you start a story humorously, you have to keep it humorous through the whole thing. Otherwise the scene feels wrong even though it’s emotional. My last thought: if the audience cares about the characters, they will be immersed in this emotional scene so much that jokes will only heighten their interest.

    • Thank you, Liam, for your point of view on the subject. I am honored to receive such a comment, but I’d better watch out for you. If I’m not prepared, someday you’ll squash my little ego.

      I do see what you’re saying about keeping the tone with a joke. I suppose a comedy could do without a suddenly intense scene popping up out of nowhere. Maybe the books I read are all in totally different genres than those you read. Also, you have a point with impulsive humor. I am not an unreasonable person (double negative, but for context reasons) and I’ll admit that that was probably the wrong phrasing. When I said that impulsive humor is worse than ill-timed humor, the type of impulsive humor I had in mind was the heartless, insensitive humor that constantly irritates me. Only some impulsive humor actually makes it to the second draft, in my experience.
      And in response to your “Jokes made by the characters in general should be discouraged” I agree to that, too, but consider this: if I were there in the moment, after my exceedingly old mentor had just been shot in the chest by a traitor, the thing I would need the least is a sarcastic remark from my side character. If my sassy companion made a joke about my mentor at that moment I would be inclined to shriek like a banshee and punch him in the face. Obviously the writer would not let me cave into my inclination, so he or she would only have me wail in agony. Yes, I believe that only the audience should laugh at a writer’s joke (otherwise it seems like the writer is patting himself on the back) but in the previous scenario I would be fully insulted by the side character’s joke.
      And finally, yes; for anything to work, the characters must be relatable enough for the audience to stay for very long.

      • I’m writing a blog post about it now, though I’m not trying to destroy your life or anything. I barely mention this post.

        Let’s say, within your scenario, that the traitor has agreed to help the side character sort his sock drawer. (This happened long before the mentor’s death.) Suddenly, the traitor kills the mentor. The side character looks on in horror and says, “Now I don’t want you to organize my sock drawer! You’re evil!” The traitor laughs and says, “I never intended to help you!” The encounter becomes emotional for both characters, and funny for the audience.

      • I’ll admit that I laughed when I read that. “But that’s not the point!” She said defensively.
        It all depends on the genre. What if I love my mentor- he was like a father to me. The audience is emphatic towards our position. And then, what if the side character is the traitor’s brother. Very dramatic. But if you bring up the sock drawer, the drama dies. This could be good (if you are writing comedy, or a book for children under 12 years old), but it could also be terrible for the story (If you were writing a drama or a post-apocaliptic sci-fi). The difference? Genre.

      • Actually, I still disagree. The scene is emotional for “you” because he was like a father– sure. The side character isn’t joking about the mentor at all. He doesn’t even know he’s joking. The scene is emotional for the side character because the traitor was his brother– sure. But even there, you could pull the same joke, especially if the side character looks up to his brother a lot. It’s still emotional for both characters, whether you slip that joke in or not. If the audience is involved with those characters, they will care for them, and this joke will be both a joke and an emotional impact. That is true even in apocalyptic sci-fi.

      • I see your point. I don’t agree, but I see. You, specifically, could probably write that scene into a book (and you might be able to pull it off), but I would never think to do so. Personally I want to preserve the drama. You obviously value humor over drama, and I respect that. However, a book of mine would never possess that specific scenario- because I wouldn’t think to write it in, and it wouldn’t it fit the style of the rest of the book. I won’t repeat what I said about the drama dying, so I’ll just say that I stick to what I said previously.

      • I object again! You claim I “obviously” value humor over drama. Not true. I’d rather have an emotional book than a comedy any day, and I like tragedies much more than comedies anyway. However, the value of humor in any type of book is undeniable. I would never sacrifice drama for humor, but I would never sacrifice humor because it might kill the drama. I might rework it so there is no chance of it killing drama, but I would never destroy a dramatic scene for a joke. However, I see your point (which I just spelled “pint”– oops). If the style of your book doesn’t afford humor during dramatic scenes, that’s fine. There are many such books. But if the style of your book can’t afford the loss of that humor, then you need it. This is my point. I write books with a humorous style, and I can’t leave humor out. That requires masterful reworking when drama must be saved while humor is included.

      • I get your point. I never said that you didn’t value drama. I still believe that the tone of the book is the only real regulator for whether or not to use a joke in a serious scene. I think it’s interesting that you write humorously, but prefer reading tragedies over comedies.
        Anyway, I am really glad you commented. Is there anything else you’d like to object to, other than possibly my grammar?

      • Time for me to shut up, eh? But one more thing.

        I like tragedies over comedies because comedies have no purpose, while tragedies do. I like writing humor because I know that if a book gets too purposeful, it will flop. Humor is a key part of any type of storytelling because it’s so effective in pulling people closer.

        And I agree about the tone of the book. Because it depends on the tone of the book, you can’t say jokes in serious scenes are always bad– it depends on the tone.

      • I think we can come to an agreement on that. Are you saying that tragedy needs humor in order not to flop? Have you read a tragedy without humor that you still enjoyed?

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