Thoughts on Writing – Humor in Dark Places

After recently watching the full series of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and getting started watching season two of Agents of SHIELD, my husband and I noticed the stark contrast in the style of storytelling. The Last Airbender has a lot of lighthearted humor, with a few dark moments interspersed throughout the series. The first episode in season two of SHIELD is mostly dark with very, very little humor. As such, my husband and I began thinking about the roll that humor can play in the dark moments of  a story.

Let’s examine the two shows closer.

Agents of SHIELD: While the first episode didn’t have quite so many cheesy dramatic pauses that the first season did (one of our qualms with the show), it seemed very gritty and dark. There’s a lot of bad things going on for the characters, so the dark events make sense. Character with brain trauma? Okay. Taking away the one happy point about his character and the entire episode in a big reveal at the end of the episode? Not so okay. The plot twist was actually pretty nice– I didn’t see it coming and it was foreshadowed without being obvious. Good.

But here’s the kicker. During the entire episode, there were a few lines of witty banter, but not much in the way of humor. And without that humor, we didn’t really feel like we had any breathing room. My husband pointed that part out, which reminded me of a blog post by Chuck Wendig about Game of Thrones. Anyway, there was all sorts of awesome stuff happening on screen, all sorts of juicy tidbits that I want to see play out in SHIELD, but if the rest of the season lacks points for breathing, I’m not sure if I’ll really be interested in returning to watch further episodes.

When we watched the next episode, that episode played out much better for us. Despite the heavy matter linked to that previous episode, we had breathing room. Moments of humor, things going right for the good guys, if not completely right, and the character with brain trauma found someone who may be able to help them. The problems are still there, but there were little moments of humor that kept the episode floating, even with the dark moments.

By episode three, I was hooked again. Though I don’t remember many particularly humorous moments (there was one involving a twist on what the viewer expects, due to the information withheld), there were a few, and the action and information was paced well enough to allow for breathing room while still thoroughly holding my attention.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: My husband suggested that part of the problem with the first episode of SHIELD seeming so dark is that we could have used a transition series. We just finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s an absolutely amazing series, in which I could easily gush about the characters… (Uncle Iroh is my favorite character, and Toph is so cool…). *Ahem.* (WARNING: There are a few spoilers for The Last Airbender in the rest of this paragraph.) The Last Airbender an anime that, while it has it’s dark, sucker-punch moments (the crazy sister, Azula and when she has her breakdown; Uncle Iroh when he’s in the prison cell and pretending to be a desperate old man (this guy is anything but desperate, so when you first see him groveling, it hurts), also uses a lot of light-hearted humor to break the tension and offer breathing room. Sokka is pretty good at this. He’s the humor guy with some really bad humor, but he helps ground the other characters.

Which brings me to my next point. Stories which are dark can (and probably should) have moments of humor. The main character might not be laughing, but as the reader, we can. There’s many ways to do this. There might be witty banter, a miscommunication, a character reaction that is just too classic that we have to laugh. Or an unexpected reaction. These scenes shouldn’t take a reader out of the story, but they should allow a reader time to breathe.

Continuing with The Last Airbender theme, whenever there was a goofy, over-the-top humorous episode, I automatically assumed that the next episode would probably be dark. There was a case where they had a set of short episodes in one, in which I was trying not to get teary-eyed on the one about Uncle Iroh because he was going about his day all happy and perky, and then it reveals what the day means to him and it was so sad… But in the previous short ‘episode,’ we saw Sokka having a Haiku rhyme competition in which he was trying to impress a bunch of girls. The mix of light and dark moments made for a stronger show, and those moments tied into all of a viewer’s emotions, allowing us to ride a wave without pounding us needlessly against a bunch of really blunt rocks.

Part of this is pacing, knowing when a reader might need time to sit back and take everything in. A story doesn’t have to be entirely pulse-pounding action. Carefully placed moments of humor, or moments of sadness in a comedy (it works both ways, a comedy can have some really heart-rending moments), don’t have to distract from the story. These alternate emotions enhance the story by giving meaning to the other emotion. You can’t have the high without the low, and you can’t have the low without the high. I can’t remember what book series it was (Maybe Pendragon, by D.J. MacHale?), but one of the characters (the villain, I think) said that the most terrible defeat comes after what you think is your greatest victory.

Having both light and dark moments makes the moment when a character succeeds or fails against all odds that much more meaningful.

There was a one-on-one role-play campaign my husband ran in which the team my character was on had suffered some major losses, and one of the characters I cared about had just been captured. Of course we were going to try and rescue the guy. I went into that campaign thinking that at least one of the main team members was going to die, especially since it was the last episode of the story. We’d already had some near misses, and we had recently lost another character who wasn’t the main character, but still very likable. Yet, against all odds, we took the rescue mission by storm, and not only achieved our goal, but far exceeded it… we won. Were we still in hiding? Yeah. But none of the main characters died, and we dealt a major blow to the baddies (at least for the guy who had been a pain-in-the-rear the entire time). It felt like we had saved the world. I actually went and played The World is Saved song afterward.) The feeling was amazing.

But that feeling wouldn’t have been quite so amazing without all the dark moments and the near misses that came before. There were serious moments, but there were also some very humorous moments as well. I look forward to writing those episodes once my current projects are complete. It’s going to be a while, but I have notes! *If I can read the notes. My handwriting while trying to play a character in a campaign is atrocious. There’s scribbles and arrows and half-written sentences everywhere.*

While working on The Little One, a prequel novel to the Distant Horizon series, I had a lot of fun playing with the dark and light moments. The story revolves around a very powerful but childlike spirit who possessed the body of girl who recently died. It’s in a world with powers, but Little One’s powers are beyond normal, and no one is quite sure what to make of her. The scene below is an excerpt from when Knight first encounters Little One, right after she takes the host body for her own and still isn’t quite all there.

The scream had come from the hole, but it didn’t belong to the girl. It was the man’s… a primitive, terrified scream that sent a flock of birds fleeing into the clouded sky. Then everything was silent. Deathly silent, save for the distant cries of the police force who was trying to catch up.

Knight swallowed hard, preparing himself for anything, then raced through the portal.

He was immediately blind. The cave was darker than the night above, and his flashlight and the portal’s glow did little to illuminate the place. He scuttled behind the portal and dropped to a crouch, willing his eyes to adjust quickly.

To his surprise, the sliver of light coming from the hole above him was brighter than he expected. It cast a soft line across the body of a man stretched across the ground. Just beyond him was a little girl, no more than five. She sat on a mound of rocks, swinging her legs.

She looked at Knight.

He looked back.

She didn’t blink.

He did.

He jumped, half expecting her to reappear right next to him, then chided himself when he realized she hadn’t moved from her perch. Late night television getting on his nerves, no doubt. He was wide-awake, on the last vestige of a caffeine high, and he’d been overextending his powers beyond any reasonable hope of a decent morning.

He had every excuse to be jumpy.

But still… shouldn’t a child blink? They couldn’t all be expert stare artists.

Knight shook his head of the notion, determined to keep his wits until he could crash in a hotel room, then slowly stood. “I’m here to help. What happened?”

If this sequence reads the way I intended, there should be a lot of tension. Knight, who’s been running on very minimal sleep and just had a run in with ‘ghosts’ in a previous sequence isn’t sure what’s going on, and there’s a dead body of the man who murdered the girl’s family nearby. Then there’s this little girl sitting on a pile of rocks who isn’t acting quite… normal. But there’s also humor, based on his interaction with the girl and based on his expectations.

I hope you enjoyed this post and found it useful. 🙂

Another good post I found on humor: 7 Tips for Adding Humor by Rhoda Baxter

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