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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 27: Mixing Humor with Drama and Horror

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 27: Mixing Humor with Drama and Horror

From http://www.writingexcuses.com/2009/12/01/writing-excuses-season-3-episode-27-mixing-humor-with-drama-and-horror/

Key points: To blend humor and drama, start with the drama, identify the key points, then add humor. Humor is good while reading, but drama and character make readers come back. When the humor detracts, excise! Be careful about humor that pushes readers out of the story. Make humor fit the character -- don't break characters for a joke.

[Brandon] I'm Brandon. I'm back.
[Chorus] Yeah.
[Brandon] What day is this? Where am I? Anyway, I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] Mixing humor with drama and horror. We actually...
[Dan] We didn't do the tagline.
[Brandon] Oh, we didn't?
[Howard] I did the tagline.
[Brandon] Yeah, we did the tagline. We've been out of practice.
[Dan] I didn't say that we're not that smart. Did you say that we did it 15 minutes long?

[Brandon] Back in Season One, we can-of-worms'ed this topic, mixing humor with horror. We threw in drama with it because the concept with this is it is sometimes very hard to blend. When people will try to be dramatic, and they've been writing humorously, suddenly all the humor will go away for a while and it will be boring. Or sometimes when people try to mix in a little bit of humor with their drama, they fall completely on their faces and the drama comes off as feeling just shtick-y or whatever. So how do you mix these together? Our resident expert is Howard.
[Howard] I'm the resident expert?
[Brandon] Yes, you are.
[Howard] Awesome.
[Dan] Congratulations.
[Howard] I start with the drama and I try and figure out what the salient things are... the salient points that need to be conveyed that are inherently dramatic. Whether they are character moments or plot moments or whatever. I figure out what those points are and what needs to be communicated. Then I take a couple of steps back... because remember what I'm doing is delivering a punch line every day. I take a couple of steps back and I think, "Okay, how do I piggyback a punch line in there?" Sometimes the punch line and the dramatic moment can go hand-in-hand, without the punch line undermining the dramatic moment. Most times, I have to put the drama in the middle of a Sunday strip so that I have enough time...
[Brandon] To be funny again.
[Howard] To be funny again without undermining it.
[Brandon] That's actually fascinating. Because you say... you have told me before, punchline every day. I am going to be funny. So your guiding light is I am funny.
[Howard] There will be a punchline.
[Brandon] Yet you build the drama first, and then make it funny. Which is interesting.
[Howard] Because if the story... if I'm just moving from joke to joke, I get bored. I want to tell a fun story. If that story has big dramatic moments and big reveals, I don't want to spoil those big reveals by slapping a punchline on them and turning them into a pun.

[Brandon] I've said many times before... I'm not sure if I've said it on the podcast or not... but for me, humor will make me enjoy my experience when I'm reading a given comic or book or whatever, but when I put it down, the drama and the character are what is going to make me pick it back up again. This is the problem I've had with many of the humorists who are outrageously funny when I read their books. As much as I like... Douglas Adams is an example. I never want to pick up a Douglas Adams book. When I'm reading it, I'm always enjoying it. I think that's a problem with the drama and the character.
[Dan] I agree. That's something that I will be able to notice in my own work. The infamous vampire bunny thing that we talk about all the time on this podcast... the early drafts of that, the reason I could tell they weren't working is because if somebody read it straight through, they loved it. Whereas if something came up and they had to stop, they would never go back to it. Because the character was not strong enough and the drama was not strong enough to bring them back, exactly like you were saying. That's always a sign for me, oh, will someone pick this up again, because that's what draws them back into it.

[Brandon] Now, Dan, you are writing horror. Horror is infamous for mixing lots of humor in. Why, how, and how do you do it?
[Dan] I think one of the reasons for that... at least for me is that... the reason horror works... when it works, the reason it works is because the characters are strong. Because you cannot feel scared reading about someone unless you really identify with them. The characters are what make it work. That's also, for a large part, what makes a lot of humor work. So combining them goes very naturally together. That happens to work out well because you can then use humor to deflate tension when you need to. Because... that's why a lot of horror movies will have it...
[Brandon] So you are using it to deflate tension? [Garbled]
[Dan] Occasionally. You can't overuse it because then you're not scary. I use it because I think it's interesting and because I want to be funny, but there are times when I know that it's wrong. In the book that I just finished, I had a conversation going with several characters in the car, and it was really funny. I thought at the end, this just doesn't work. Because this can't be funny. It's nice, but it's releasing too much tension. It's supposed to be tense, and it's supposed to be scary. By the end of the scene, we've been laughing the whole time. It just didn't work. I had to go back and excise a lot of that humor from it.
[Brandon] That's a balance issue, which I suppose is part of this, is knowing where to put the balancing factor and how much of each. One thing I've noticed in thinking about this topic is when we say humor... one of the problems with this is humor is so widely diverse. What is humor, and what types of humor? I've written the Alcatraz books, which are... one of the main focuses of them is to be funny. But there is also humor in my epic fantasies, and it is a very different type of humor. I think the difference in... I got in a big discussion with my editor once about this regarding the book Warbreaker in which I really wanted to work on the humor. I wanted to have a very humorous story, which was dramatic... very dramatic.
[Howard] You had a character in that story who was jokey. He refused to take things seriously and was... he was almost a prankster.
[Brandon] I was trying to channel Oscar Wilde and stuff him into that character. The argument with my editor that I had was that he felt that the humor in places was pulling readers... had the potential to pull readers out of the story. When he got that across, and I realized what he was saying... in a book like this, I can't break the fourth wall, certainly. I'm never going to break the fourth wall. But there are like nudging against the fourth wall. The fourth wall is, of course, addressing the reader. But if I made a character make a joke that the reader had to stop and think, "Would they actually be able to make that joke in this world?" An excellent example is in the Mistborn books. There is a time Elend is talking about all the people that Vin has killed. He names off three of them and says that's kind of like a homicidal hat trick. This term...
[Howard] Hat trick.
[Brandon] I researched and found out it was an ancient term. It has been around for years and years and years. It was long before hockey, it was used. But it has pulled so many readers out because they say, "That's a hockey term. That just pushed me out of the story." I can't do that. In the Alcatraz books, I can. Howard, you can?
[Howard] I can get away with that and I do get away with that all the time. Now I am careful... there are times when I am crafting a metaphor and I've got a metaphor that makes me laugh. Metaphors... I use those all the time as punch lines or as setups for punch lines. But then I will go back and look at it again and say, "Okay, let's really look at this. Would that term -- straight from the horse's mouth -- I don't know that I've used that -- but what they really say horses 1000 years from now? What would they use instead of horses?"
[Brandon] And you can draw humor from that.
[Howard] And I can draw humor from extending the metaphor into the future. That is one of the reasons why... people will write to me and say I love how your stuff is hard science fiction. That's not hard science fiction, it's just I made a joke that felt real in the context of our future.
[Dan] One of the things you do that I really enjoy is whenever something shows up that feels like a pop-culture reference, I always know there is going to be a footnote down below explaining how that fits seamlessly into the world after however many thousands of years of development.

[Brandon] We're going to break for an advertisement. We're actually going to do something interesting this time. We're doing another audible advertisement, who has been wonderful sponsoring the podcasts. This week, we want to choose the book Hero With A Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell. It's a foundational book dealing with archetypes. A lot of fantasy writers like to use this book kind of as a guidebook almost for writing the hero's journey. It was very influential in Lucas doing the Star Wars films. I have a lot of stuff to say on it because I'm not sure how it should be used or if people use it the right way. But it is a very useful book to read. We are actually going to do a podcast in about six weeks or so in which we deal with Hero With A Thousand Faces. The advertisement this time is for the audio version of Hero With A Thousand Faces. Go give it a download, listen to it, use audible's free promo to get a free copy. Then in six weeks, we will talk about it and do a podcast focused on it as writers how it can help you.
[Howard] I've got to tell you, I listened to that book and it blew my mind. It absolutely blew my mind.
[Brandon] Hero With A Thousand Faces. Joseph Campbell.

[Brandon] All right. Back into it. Let's get to the balance issue. How do you know... I think this is one of the things people ask a lot about is... how do you know when to put in the humor and when it's too much?
[Howard] I... when it doesn't work. When it's...
[Brandon] That's real helpful. Thanks, Howard.
[Howard] I know. I read it and I realize this... the drama... I sucked all the wind out of the sails. It's not sailing. I think of... a good example and a bad example in media that we might all be familiar with. Good example, season two, season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were wonderful blends of humor and drama.
[Brandon] Yeah. Joss Whedon is very good at that.
[Howard] Bad example, season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which was too dramatic and was a real downer. Another good example, Frighteners by Peter Jackson. I loved the Frighteners because 30 minutes into the film, I thought, oh, this is kind of like a realistic sort of Ghostbusters. It's neat, it's kind of campy, it's fun. Then about 90 minutes into the film, I remember turning to Sandra and saying, "All the funny went away. I'm scared." But I was still very happy to be in the theater. The setups were perfect and the humor backed away in time for us to be terrified. There were some laughs there at the end.

[Brandon] What was the difference? How do our listeners actually do this?
[Dan] I think... I've talked about character before, but really, hit character really hard. The example I'm going to use here is actually a song, Neil Gaiman's I Google You. You can go out and find it on YouTube, sung by Amanda Palmer in various different settings. It is a brilliant combination of humor and drama. The first half of it is very funny. Just the title itself is already funny. It's about a person who looks up the object of his or her affections online to see what you can find about them. Then halfway through, the song -- because it is staying true to the character, you realize that this is actually a really sad kind of pathetic thing to do with your time. He just follows that character and stays true to it past the point where it kind of stops being funny and start being really sad. It works really well because he stays very true to the character.
[Brandon] The idea is to not use your humor to undermine character.
[Howard] Never undermine your characters.
[Brandon] But that's a really big temptation, I think, for writers because it's an easy joke. It's an easy way to... to slap down or make a character break out of their character for a moment to get the joke across. I think these are things... don't break character just to get a joke.
[Dan] The scene from my book...
[Howard] If you've got a really good joke to tell, play on words or whatever that you just think is really funny and you want to have one of your characters say it... figure out which character it fits with, and make sure that that character has a reason to be in the scene and to say it. Don't just give it to the next character who needs a line. Because your readers... if you've been good at characterization to this point, your readers will see through that and it will knock them out of the story.
[Brandon] Don't use humor, also, to undermine a character objective. If they're... a good example of this, I watched Doctor Horrible for the first time last week. It was fantastic. It is a tragic comedy. Through the entire thing, I identified very much with the character and he never broke out of his character despite breaking into song and singing ridiculous, silly things. What he was doing was... none of the jokes were actually undermining the character's motivations and objectives. I guess that's the same thing as not breaking out of character. But I think...
[Howard] He never broke out of character, and they never broke the rules of the form. One of the rules for musical theater is that you don't ask the question, "Why are we all singing?"
[Brandon] Right. There you go.
[Howard] The one time I've seen that rule broken was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the musical episode, in which asking that question was the plot. So it was okay.

[Brandon] I would say the other big thing to keep in mind is to understand the different types of humor. Having characters laugh wryly about their situation because they're all about to die is very different from having characters laugh at their situation and try to make a silly joke at the wrong moment. Different types of humor can be appropriate in different times and can work. Some work better with your drama, some work better with your horror.
[Howard] I find that if a character is joking about something, and you as the writer look at it and realize, "You know that's the sort of joke that would make everybody uncomfortable, I don't know that I should tell it." If it was in character for that character to tell that joke, let them tell it and have somebody else call them on it.
[Dan] Oh, I got to do that several times in the three John Cleaver books. He is such a dark person, he has such a dark sense of humor, that he would frequently say things that the other characters just didn't think were funny at all. Even though the reader usually would laugh, then go "Oh, yeah, that other guy is right. I shouldn't have laughed at that." That's a great reaction to get an actually helped advance the humor and the horror aspect of the books.
[Howard] I laughed twice. Because you made me laugh, and then you made me scowl at me for laughing, and then I laughed again because you made me scowl.
[Dan] Well, perfect.

[Brandon] All right. Howard, we're going to make you do the writing prompt because you're the expert on this.
[Howard] Okay. Take the most intense character tragedy you can imagine for a character that you've already got and find humor in it for another character to point out. Whether or not it's appropriate, find humor in that tragedy.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. [The podcast cut off at this point. We can only assume that Brandon provided the tag line "You're out of excuses, now go write."]
Tags: blending, character, drama, horror, humor, writing excuses
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