Last week I tried to explain that when writing suspense, it is important to periodically “leaven” your story with elements of humor. Otherwise, the reader may become overwhelmed and begin to look at your story with humorous eyes. However, if you prepare your humor in advance, you can circumvent this entire scenario. As the Bible says: “A little leaven leavens the whole loaf.”
I called this phenomenon the “Hitchcock Principle” after the great director who employed this very technique.
One would expect every emotion or tone used in a story to be subject to this principle: that every dark passage requires a short excerpt of bright descriptions, that drama needs a short bit of silliness to set it off, the general concept that a little contrast goes a long way, but I have found a curious exception to the rule.
Humor needs no leaven.
You can safely write an entire book in nothing but the humorous voice without losing a beat.
At first I thought this was a strange exception to the rules of contrast, but I learned a little more about humor and found something that I hadn’t expected.
We tend to see all the emotions or attitudes on equal footing. We think that love, sorrow, joy, fear, disgust, surprise, and contempt to be separate emotions that are all equal, but all different. Although humor is not an emotion, we think it equal with other outlooks on life. Not right, not wrong, but different.
But humor is not just an emotion or outlook. It is a response to stimuli or events. It is not its own entity. The comedic greats know this more than anyone.
Comedy is tragedy plus time. -Carol Burnett
Tragedy is when you’re cutting carrots and accidentally cut your finger. Comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die. -Mel Brooks
“Laugh too hard and you cry. Cry too hard and you laugh.” -Sid Caesar
Every comedian knows that humor is not a separate quality from tragedy or reality, but is something else added in, or perhaps, that tragedy and comedy are the two sides of a single coin.
I want to cite two more examples: the classic TV shows Green Acres and the Twilight Zone.
Green Acres is a rural comedy with more than a fair share of outright absurdity mixed in. The Twilight Zone is a pioneer of the suspense and horror genre, bordering on the extreme while heavily dipping into paranormal circumstances.
The two shows could hardly be more dissimilar, but if you watch carefully, you’ll see that the same (or similar) events happen in both programs.
As far as the stories go, the only difference is the response of the characters. In one show, the characters respond with terror and disbelief, and in the other, with a bemused smile.
Suspense needs comedy to thin it out and make it palatable. Comedy needs nothing added to it, because it already has a tragic event at its nucleus. Comedy has tragedy at its center. Because of this, humor comes pre-mixed, like paint.
When you’re writing something funny, don’t worry to create moments of despair and pathos for sake of balance. Thalia (the goddess of comedy) has already taken care of it for you.
Thanks for letting me ramble, folks. Next week I’ll try to talk some more about the nature of humor. Thanks for reading! -BW