Inserting Humor Without Breaking the Scene

We really don’t have to talk about why intense emotion is so common in our stories and games; it’s, well, intense. But the thing about it, particularly if it takes the form of a whole lot of negative emotion, is that it’s tiring, moreso the longer it goes. Fortunately, slipping spots of humor into an otherwise dark scene or narrative can keep it endurable, but that creates a new challenge: How do we add this humor without destroying the scene itself?

First, make the humor fit the scene, particularly in terms of mood. In an overall humorous piece, you can get away with humor of all types, including gross-out, risque, juvenile, you get the idea. But if you’re dealing in tragedy, or impending doom, and you try throwing in a knock-knock joke, your mood is going to shatter like glass dropped on asphalt.

Make sure it stays in-character. This is a lot easier if you’ve got characters for whom scene-appropriate humor is a coping mechanism; one who deals with her traumas by snarking, for instance, or one who excels at gallows humor. But it’s still doable if they’re fumbling about with types that don’t fit; in fact, one of the best ways to keep the mood is to make sure that even a character who’s deliberately trying to break it is still stuck in it. For instance, you might have someone desperately throwing out jokes to cheer up a group that are in shock, and have them nonresponsive and the joker lose momentum because of the practically dead audience.

Keep it short and subtle. People tend to guide to the dominant, or at least the most emphasized part of a scene to take their emotional cues from it. Therefore, if the joke is taking the spotlight and halting the plot while it’s delivered, that tends to get people thinking humor, whereas if it’s somewhere in the background, they’re likelier to snicker a bit and move on, or only catch it in the retread. Again, this means that standard joke format is asking for trouble, and heaven forbid you try a knock-knock, while snark or even puns might stand a better chance. Let the joke be a mere (and probably the least important) part of a longer bit of dialogue, let it serve as a spot of color in an otherwise monochrome background, let it and its response be a short conversation at the same pace that the characters might otherwise discuss their next plan—but don’t pause to laugh, don’t explain the joke unless one of the characters wants to get it (which means never if the joke is in the narration), and avoid punchlines, particularly if they’re supposed to serve as the punchline to a scene rather than somebody’s tentative and misplaced riddle.

Speaking of that last point, consider using things that would be funny to the audience but not necessarily to the characters. One way of doing this is by sneaking jokes into the narration, letting your wit shine through with inventive, ironic, or referential descriptions that still maintain the dominant tone of the piece. (I used to use this as a coping mechanism during battle scenes, leading to situations like one metaphysically odd battle in which one character’s improbable defense against a pouncing predator left the “confused beast trying to figure out where its index of refraction had gone wrong.”) Another is just by giving the characters themselves reason not to find what they’re saying amusing, like obliviousness or just being too busy with the situation giving the scene its dominant tone.

Used carefully, humor can keep your scenes from getting too overwhelming without actually breaking them. Up for a light chuckle or two?


  1. Michael says:

    One idea I’ve had for a scene I want to write — though I know this is difficult to get right — is to use humour for deliberate mood dissonance. Two characters have been trying to escape, and suddenly find themselves cut off and realise they are going to die, but they still have some minutes left, and there’s nothing they can do that will make any difference to anyone. One of them in particular responds, not so much by cracking inappropriate jokes (though she does that too) but by doing ridiculous things in the hope of getting a laugh out of the other character — and also the audience. I suppose the idea is that by putting two incongruous moods together, each is made a bit clearer by the contrast; the tragedy is heightened by the thought that these are characters who could equally well be in a comedy. Something like that…. I’m not sure. What do you think?

  2. Ravyn says:

    Sounds doable. I think your main risk is that characters on the edge of death is a really awkward place for a slowdown–there’s a chance that you might get your audience wishing you’d just hurry up and kill them (or possibly deus ex machina them out), rather than sitting around drawing out the suspense. Usually, when a scene like that slows like that, it’s either for revelations or to set the stage for a deus ex machina…. I guess the short version is that I’d have to see it to know if it would work or not, but I’d lean in favor of establishing their comic nature somewhere a little less high-intensity, and then having one, maybe two jokes at this point.

  3. JT the Ninja says:

    How do you feel about the Shakespearean device of having a fool onstage as a sort of “chorus” character, to deliver humorous asides as the main plot is going on beside him?


  4. Ravyn says:

    I think that depends on how it’s being implemented. I wouldn’t do it, but that’s mainly because I’d probably have too many characters onstage at any given time as it is.

    …though come to think of it, I wonder if the “chorus” fool’s role might be considered the spiritual predecessor to “First person smart-aleck” narration, as the duties of both include injecting humor where appropriate.

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