The importance of humour as a storytelling tool


Proof reading ‘Falling’ I’ve noticed how often I use a comic sequence to get a story point across. For example, in the second half, juxtaposed against the tragedy of involuntary slave workers, there is a thwarted DEA raid when a heavily armed task force invades foreign territory, only to find themselves out thought and out gunned. Mostly by my renegade Mayor and ex drug lord character William J Colby. Mostly it comes from the one liners Bill delivers as part of his address, and the bathos of a rural Police Sergeant arresting a bunch of enforcement agents who are clearly out of their jurisdiction with the line; “Hey. Can you hear me at the back?”. I love writing Bill, as he’s so disreputable and ruthless when faced by the evil embodied by villains such as Eldridge Farrow, another who was a lot of fun to write. In the words of George Bernard Shaw’s creation, Henry Higgins, they are both “So delightfully low.”

There’s also a lot of what I like to call ‘Blue collar banter’ between minor characters which moves the story along and wraps up a section on an uptick, or to soften the edge of an anticlimax. Adding bulk to otherwise two dimensional characters. Such as a line from a ground crew member known simply as ‘Chesney’ arguing with his friend Leroy Colby, which begins with an exasperated Leroy urging his friend and colleague to stop wisecracking and simply get on with it. “You know Chesney, sometimes with you.” To which Chesney responds; “I know, I know. Sometimes the fun never starts.” Well I liked it.

A gag is a great way of highlighting a point, or rounding out a character in a crisis situation. The kind of everyday crosstalk everyone engages in to make a dull, involved, or emotionally intense job a little bit less of a struggle. To go even further; laughter is one of life’s essentials. A day without a genuine shared smile is a day wasted. The life autistic.

All right. I’m biased. I’ll put my hands up to this one, having done a few stand up gigs and finding I didn’t have the nerve or comic talent to succeed, I still strongly believe in the power of humour. Especially as a contrast to tragedy, a tool of protest or getting a complex argument across in a sound bite. This has been an understood dramatic principle since before the days of Plautus.

Some of my favourite TV shows have strong tragi-comedic elements with a great deal of comic interplay between characters. Take ‘House MD’ as a classic example. As a character, House is a high functioning drug addict who tortures his staff, routinely manipulates and insults friends and colleagues, who without his humour would be an opinionated ass whose work is highly suspect. He is the loosest of cannons. Yet his primary redeeming qualities are his wit, directness, and incorrigible humour when dealing with difficult or emotionally charged situations. Without these qualities, the show would consist of dull geeky medico-speak punctuated by melodrama. Gold without the glitter. Add appropriate (And even some ‘inappropriate) humour, and the show sparkles.

Well, that’s my take on it. For the few (One? None? Who cares?) who will bother to read this far. From the black comedy of Hansel and Gretel’s attempt at Haute Cuisine, through Shakespeare’s comedies (And tragedies, there are even a few chuckles in Henry V, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet) and Aesop’s Fables to modern day comic geniuses like Terry Pratchett and P J O’Rourke. Humour is the essential counterpoint to all the scary stories others love to tell. Sometimes I think as a tool of domination. Maybe one of the “Hah! You’re scared-I’m not, so I’m better than you.” mind games some like to play.

Appropriately targeted humour by contrast provides an alleviation against the force of crushing conformity. Providing joyous relief from feeling “So it’s not just me, then.” A shared vindication. A tool for conflict resolution. In fact next to air, food and shelter, I would argue that it is the fourth most critical requirement of survival and being human, and a good story should always contain at least a little.

Update: An ability to laugh at your own shortcomings is also very useful when dealing with frustrating glitches in eBook distribution. ‘Sky’ needs one tiny update before they will accept for wider distribution. Header 1 on first line.

Pray for me. I need all the help I can get.

About Martyn K Jones

A writer who first trained as an Electrical Engineer, then fulfilled various roles within the computing industry. First published in 'SuperBike' magazine, 1978 under the pseudonym Harry Matthews. Since then has written and had published a wide variety of work; from PR copy in trade magazines to supernatural short stories and the occasional satirical article. Emigrated to Canada in 2007. Became a Canadian Citizen December 2014. Now branching out as a serious science fiction novelist.
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