Have you ever made a joke at a funeral?
Take my advice: don’t. I can’t remember if I ever had, but I wouldn’t put it past myself. In general, however, it’s not a good policy.
For one thing, a funeral is the perfect time and place to be sad. It exists for no other reason. When people go to funerals, they don’t expect canned laughter during the service. Yes, that would be hilarious, but hilarity isn’t the point of a funeral. It’s a time of solemnity as we remember the deceased.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the jokes from popping into my head as I sit through the service.
The same thing happens when I read books. There’s this great emotional scene, perhaps a love scene or a death scene (they’re remarkably similar), and I’ll get an idea for a killer joke that the author didn’t include. I always wondered why… until I realized something.
Is it possible to create strong emotion when you’re laughing at it?
It’s a serious question. Let’s say, in the book you’re reading, a beloved dog runs into the road and whoops, bye-bye Fido. If someone cracks a joke right in the middle of that scene, what’s the overall impression? Intense sadness, or casual tragedy mixed with hilarity? Laughter creates memories that often hang around longer than sad memories. The reader won’t remember the tragedy, they’ll remember the joke. In this case, the author used the joke to relieve the sadness.
There’s a good rule of thumb about this: If you’re writing comedy, use jokes to relieve tension and emotion. If you’re not, however, use the jokes to set the reader up for a bigger contrast when the real emotion hits.
For instance, imagine a rewrite of the scene mentioned above. The family is outside, playing with Fido. They’re throwing the stick for him to fetch, petting him, letting him run all over the place. It’s fun. Someone makes a joke about the way Fido runs, legs flying all over the place like he’s flapping wings, trying to take off. Then Fido runs into the middle of the road.
That’s some serious contrast. Laughter, fun, happiness, then wham— dead dog, silence, and sadness. That’s huge.
Now I don’t even want to keep writing this. I want to go cry for Fido or something.
If you’re not writing comedy, don’t use your jokes to relieve the tension. The same goes for any emotion or theme to the scene you’re writing. Whether you’re trying to write this scene as grand and majestic, or depressing and somber, or high-adrenaline and fast-paced, don’t use the jokes to relieve tension.
It might not seem like it, but jokes are tools. Tell a joke, the audience loosens up from that high-speed car chase. They laugh and get a breather from the death scene. They take a break from the completion of the traitor’s character arc. Providing the same thing as a chapter break, a joke gives the audience a quick respite, but at the cost of the emotion you were previously carrying. If that’s the emotion you want readers to remember, don’t use that joke.
Now, there are exceptions to this rule. In some cases, a joke is the perfect thing to make an emotional scene pack a little more punch. For instance, in Dan Wells’s Partials trilogy, there’s an amazing character named Marcus. He’s funny. He cracks jokes right and left, even in the most morbid of situations. Why does he work?
Well, if you really look at him, he’s doing the same thing comedy writers do– he cracks jokes to relieve the tension he doesn’t want to feel. When he’s feeling threatened, or overburdened, or far too sad for his own good, he cracks a joke to help himself. It’s his defense mechanism. Knowing that, we no longer see his jokes as funny tension-breakers, we see them as sad, he’s-about-to-crack moments. We don’t want him to crack. This translates to: we don’t want him to be funny anymore. It hurts.
Joss Whedon’s Firefly is a perfect example of using jokes as tools. It’s such a funny show. The jokes add contrast, add emotional depth, and build the characters. These are not throw-away lines– they’re works of art. A joke said by one character will make a promise, poke at the other character’s emotion, and fit perfectly with the character’s personality, while setting the audience up for an enormous fall. It’s not just funny; it’s genius.
And one last note: don’t feel like you can’t make jokes. Humor is not an innate talent. It can be learned as well as anything else can. It is a tool in your toolbox, just as everything else– description, contrast, dialogue– is a tool in your toolbox. Practice using it like a tool. You can make it work for you to spectacular effect.