Lighten Up: Injecting Humor to Relieve Narrative Tension

by Linda Dahl
published in Writing

I know I’m in trouble when I’m taking my work too seriously when I can’t find something to be amused by. I have written about some really unfunny things—addiction, cancer, death. My latest novel, An Upside-Down Sky, is set in Namyan, a Buddhist country modeled after Burma, which is a kissing cousin of North Korea in terms of draconian dictatorship. The main character is a frustrated artist with a recently deceased beloved husband—maybe. So, heavy stuff. And don’t get me wrong, I give serious plights their due. 

Yet even in tough plots with conflicted characters, maybe especially in tough plots, injecting humor can strengthen the narrative by relieving the narrative tension—and relieving the reader’s tension, too. It’s called comic relief for good reason.   

Everybody Loves Humor

So let’s imagine that you’re working on a book with an important theme and you’ve got to finish a pivotal scene. Where the heroine finally has the epiphany about her ability to choose; or the villain finally admits he’s an a-hole, or that couple quits denying that their marriage isn’t working. You feel bogged down like you’re trudging through mud. You wish you could be anywhere else. 

Except for the dentists. 

Then you remember the night before, how much fun it was being with friends again at your favorite bistro. Good food and a few glasses of wine. Ellen doubled over, laughing so hard she almost choked. 

Then Lynne said, “Wait, wait, I don’t get it.” Good old Lynne. 

You tried to explain to her why Lisa’s getting fired was so hilarious. Lynne looked at you blankly. The others burst into laughter again.     

What makes humor work, or not work? The answer is that nobody really knows. 

Try explaining why something is funny and you destroy the funniness of it. But everybody recognizes humor. (Okay, except maybe the Lynne’s of this world.) Everybody loves humor. Oppressed people, often the funniest, know better than anyone how it helps them keep going.

A Boon to Writers 

Humor is a boon to writers, especially in serious books. We like to play with tension, build it and build it. But too much sustained tension in a novel can be overwhelming to a reader, provoking a kind of fight or flight response. 

A sudden humorous passage acts as a safety valve, diffusing the heaviness of the drama. 

And it does other useful things as well. It helps readers connect with characters, sustains their attention. It makes space for the surprise of the unexpected, the absurd, the irreverent. 

After all, we are programmed for entertainment and diversion. For the moment, at least, things are not so bad. In fact, they’re hilarious.

Humor as a Condiment

Of course, not everybody finds the same things funny, but we all enjoy being amused. In An Upside-Down Sky, many of the characters’ points of view collide, resulting in banter, sarcasm, put-downs, self-aggrandizement, and even, I like to think, some subtler dry wit from time to time. 

No matter what types of humor a writer uses, I like to think of them as condiments, to be employed with a light touch. And with spicy characters, you need the human equivalent of some kind of bread as a foil—a character who is a contrast and not to be played with. Unfunny. 

In Sky, eighteen older, though not necessarily mature Americans, are taking a trip in an exotic, beautiful country. Thrown together in enforced intimacy for several weeks, with divergent (often clashing) lifestyles and opinions, they negotiate new friendships, but also new enmities and not least, the odd affair, all the while navigating strange customs, contradictions and strict taboos of a very ancient, very foreign culture. 

With all these plates flying in the air, the tour guide’s need to be a mother hen acts as the foil to her charges’ serio-comic adventures.      

How I Learned to Use Humor

Drama is a gold mine for humor, but it’s hard to access for most of us. And when I push too hard, it evaporates. I had very few writer’s tricks when I started out years ago. I was worshipful of “great literature,” so much so that writing often felt like breaking rocks and I certainly wasn’t going to stoop to “low” comic turns. 

What a snob. 

All great writers employ humor. I was late to the party, but many, many deletes later, I’ve come to understand that for me, it’s fatal to try to make my prose memorable. The more I try to lighten things up, the harder the words fall. Not funny.   

In An Upside-Down Sky, there’s a scene that evolved from minor to pivotal, and from serious to funny. As I wrote (and rewrote) it, a series of misunderstandings, sparked by perhaps innocent stargazing, ballooned into an Alice in Wonderland reality flip with messy—and funny—consequences that would have surprising consequences. 

To the protagonist, Lidia, sitting on a blanket, the Eastern Hemisphere constellations appear upside down. As does so much in the book, where sadness, loss, violence messily mix with acceptance, joy, and a whole lotta pratfalls. Peeking out from the shadows is a smiling Buddha.

Tell us in the comments: Have you experimented with injecting humor into serious writing?

Linda Dahl began her career as a travel journalist and college teacher before turning to writing full time. An award-winning author, she has written groundbreaking books about women in jazz and women’s needs in recovery from addiction, as well as five works of fiction. She is currently at work on a screenplay and a new novel. She has two children, a cat, and too many plants. She lives in Riverdale in New York City. You can find her on her website.

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