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How do I utilize humor in a dark storyline?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Ireth, Aug 17, 2019.

  1. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    My latest WIP is a Silmarillion fanfic taking place during the decline of Numenor. It begins with Mandos meeting the soul of the first person to be sacrificed to Melkor by the cult which Sauron leads, and mainly follows two threads: 1. Mandos and his kin deciding to get their act together and put a stop to this; 2. The family of the victim dealing with her death and preparing to leave (along with the rest of the Faithful) before anyone else is killed. The threads interweave when a few of the Valar take human form and appear in Numenor to stop Sauron and aid the Faithful.

    Much of the intended humor in the story comes from the Valar not quite understanding how to be human/how flesh and blood bodies work, leading to their surprise at things like stubbed toes and jostled funny bones being met with (for example) a deadpan "don't do that, it hurts." But I'm not sure this wouldn't seem horribly misplaced, given the dark subject matter and the fact that the primary human characters are mostly grieving family, and all of this happens within a day or two of the murder. I do give the actual grief the attention it deserves, which only makes the idea of humorous moments for the sake of levity more needed and yet more potentially awkward. I have seen authors do this well (looking at you, Sir Terry), but I don't want to try and mimic someone else's style too much. Halp?
    Black Dragon likes this.
  2. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

    Depends on the humor. Farcical? Epigrammatic? Deadpan/Dry? High/highbrow? Ironic? So much to pick from to slip into a dark story. I insert random moments of humor or make a character solely for the purpose. Think it's called the comic relief.
  3. Jack Mulcahy

    Jack Mulcahy New Member

    Hello Ireth,
    There's an old (1976) Dustin Hoffman movie called Marathon Man that might help you out. Dustin Hoffman gets involved in the pursuit of an escaped Nazi war criminal, played by Sir Lawrence Olivier, who happens to be a dentist. The bad guys capture our hero and send him to Olivier's character to be tortured. The dentist puts Hoffman in a chair and proceeds to torture him by hurting his teeth. But while he's doing all these nasty things, the guy keeps up a patter like a solicitous dentist, advising Hoffman things like, "You should have this tooth filled," and "You're not taking care of your gums," etc. It's a moment of hilarity in the middle of a thriller movie.
    Anyway, my point is that you should think long and hard about who and what each character is and does, and see if you can graft that into your plot. Humor can be found almost anywhere (probably not in certain situations; though a certain comedian talks about using humor to keep from getting beaten up on the playground. Keep trying, and keep writing!
    FifthView and Ireth like this.
  4. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    Use a dry or black humour.
  5. pmmg

    pmmg Istar

    Well, humor is not my thing, but then...I suck at humor.

    IMO, if the family is grieving, it is not time for humor. It would not be that things stop being funny, but that it just would not seem important. If humor is included, I would want there to be some lesson behind it, such as a being with more wisdom might possess, they might use it as a way of showing even with tragedy the world has many more aspects, and they too have importance. Perhaps you could show the same painful qualities, but have it add to the frustration of the Valar and not something they joke about.

    I think humor would find more of a place in the story if there is some distance between the sacrifice and the hunt, or if the Valar have been hunting for a long time and this is not their first rodeo, so to speak.

    Humor might be a way to lighten very strong emotions and raw nerves, but I would think it only micro-expression, not something anyone meant to dwell on.
  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    Just remember: tragedy + time = comedy
    It’s all about the timing of the joke, not the joke itself.
  7. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    I'm not having the Valar joke about it, and frustrated isn't quite the right term. They're more apt to be confused by stuff. I didn't mean for the humor to become something deep, honestly, and I'm not sure how I'd pull off something like that.

    It kind of is their first rodeo, to steal your metaphor. The thing about the Valar is that, canonically, they tend to seriously wreck stuff whenever they try to incarnate and interact with people outside of Aman. The last time they interfered directly with Arda, at the end of the First Age, a good chunk of the mainland disappeared under the ocean. They're trying not to do that this time, taking a more subtle approach, but they don't do subtle well. Also they are deliberately acting fast to prevent the murder of more Faithful, starting their mission (not really a hunt, more of a "let's get all the Faithful off the island pronto and then deal with Sauron directly cuz we know exactly where he is" thing) the day after the murder, and the plot will force them to act faster yet. All in all the entire plot happens over the course of maybe 5 days, tops, except the timeskip to the epilogue. So there's not a lot of room to lighten the mood in big ways.

    Yeah, that's essentially what I'm aiming for. Just trying to find the balance.
  8. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    That seems a more fitting sentiment for if I were trying to pull humor out of the murder itself, which I'm very much not.
  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Hey Ireth, I just finished watching Sherlock on Netflix and it had some great moments of comic relief after or during some very heavy, dark, gothic scenes. When I struggle with implementing a tool I find it helpful to study how others did it and try my hand at their example. Maybe go back to a favourite book or show and see what those writers did? I know you say you don't want to mimic another author too much, but in my opinion that is sometimes the only way to practice a tool until it becomes your own. Readers will not read it and say "Ohhhhh! That is soooooo Terry." No. They will read it and because it is in the context of the story they will say "Ohhh, that is funny."

    This is a Silmarillion Fanfic, though, so maybe study how Tolkein made things funny? He used comedic characters, often, like the Dwarves, to infuse a bit of humour into his epic tales. Do you have a character who's specific role is 'comedic relief'? Like a Gimli, or Merry and Pippin combo?
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2019
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Well, I have had the comment, paraphrased: “Trail of Pyres might be depressing if it wasn’t written so damned funny” but it’s just something I do by nature, and I’m sure others disagree, LOL.

    One of the classics is Han and Leia for a dramatic dark scene: I love you. I know. Beautiful in its simplicity. I saw Empire in a packed house on its “premier” showing and that one line made Empire tolerable for a Han Solo obsessed kid like me, LOL. Not to mention the whole crowd.

    I wish I remembered a conversation I had with the screenwriter of K9 20+ years ago, he was a standup comic and writer/producer... but my brain is failing me. I think the best way to do dark situational humor is to play it straight, a bit like Monty Python movies often do. Do that in bits and pieces instead of the constant Python flow, and you should be good. From the sound of the project, I’d just say keep the humor natural.

    To me, Pratchett feels a lot like Python.
  11. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    I'm trying to pick up a few ideas from Pratchett, particularly I Shall Wear Midnight, which is definitely one of his darker works.

    I could, tho I don't recall a lot of humor (if any) in the Silmarillion as opposed to The Hobbit and LOTR. And I tend not to put characters into roles like that, especially if I'm dealing with preexisting characters.
  12. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I've posted this before, but I like it so I'll post it again. This is a bit of humor that we injected into a very tense scene with demons chasing our protagonists through a winter-bare vineyard...

    They came to the end of the row of vines—and ran right into a pair of demons. Before the demons could call out, Fitz grabbed his flask and flung his hand out with a Word of Command, and they both shrank down into…

    Wasps? Really?

    The wasps attacked, and Etienne swatted one down with enough force to crush it. Alerich cast his hand out at the other one, summoning the fire that coursed within him, and got stung in the process. He caught the demonic wasp in his hand and burned it to ash. Then he turned to Fitz and signed, “You had the whole of Animalia to choose from, and you chose something with a weapon?”

    Fitz shrugged. “Seemed sporting.”

    Alerich flipped two fingers at Fitz and shook out his hand, trying to control the rising pain and swelling, and set fire to the vines.

    Let humor flow naturally from the situation. If a character thinks something is funny, then let it be funny. People can do very silly things when under great stress. Let go and find the funny.
    FifthView and Ireth like this.
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

    It strikes me that this approach is a bit slapstick. On the one hand, you are showing these powerful beings brought down to "our" level — good — but on the other hand you are accentuating "our" level. I.e., these people have just experienced a death of a loved one, and your jokes center on our physical fragility. This may be bad, or too much for that situation.

    Have you tried more of a "Let them eat cake" approach? You could make the Valar, for all their vaunted power and wisdom/knowledge, somewhat ignorant of real mortal lives and show up their fish out of water silliness. So for instance at a moment of trouble, whether big or relatively small and mundane, one of the Valar can say to the mortals, "Why don't you just do ____________?" Whatever's suggested is a very Valar way of thinking and doing things but is completely beyond the limits of mortals in that situation (or simply incomprehensible, flighty, whatever, if these Valar are entirely in disguise.) The response can be a blank stare, perhaps a mortal answering how absurd that suggestion is, then offering a much more pragmatic, useful solution. Something the Valar would never consider. Something that might even seem unexpected and clever to the Valar. In this way, you can still show up the foibles of the Valar, their discomfort in their present situation. But instead of reinforcing the fragility of the mortals, you can reinforce the strengths these mortals possess in the mundane world. It can be a sort of comeuppance while giving opportunity for the Valar to grow even further in wisdom and understanding, perhaps even to their chagrin.
    Ireth likes this.
  14. Scott

    Scott Acolyte

    I think humor in a dark story works best if it comes from the characters, not the narration. Have t\hem making jokes, coming up with gallows humor, stuff like that, because there will always be people like that in real life.
    Ireth likes this.
  15. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

    First piece of advice - don't try to be funny, ever.
    If humour comes naturally then go for it, but humour is the hardest writing there is and should not be attempted without total confidence in your craft. (Of course, this advice only applies to people trying be successfully published. Everyone should feel free to have a go at something to improve.)

    Second piece of advice - The Silmarillion is such a dry and serious story it is absolutely ripe for a humorous take. You could have a lot of fun with Sauron and his dialogue, and all those totally up themselves Elves and Valar could be made funny just through their own uber seriousness.

    In fact, there's a title for you: The Up Themselves Elves.
    Ireth likes this.

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