How To Bring Humor To Tough Topics
In the real world, laughter is powerful—it can lift moods, lower stress, break the tension … it’s even contagious. When added to a serious story, it is capable of providing balance or emphasis to difficult moments, revealing something about the characters, and adding dimension and authenticity to the stories we tell. But comedy also must be handled with care to make sure that it is complementing the events instead of taking away from them.
Both of my books, Meet Me in Paradise and If You Ask Me, deal with heavy themes … but they also feature funny moments. For me, the duality of joy and sorrow was essential. Here I share the key considerations as well as my favorite methods for bringing humor to tough topics.
The PINT Method
The most important things to consider when incorporating humor into a difficult or sad event or topic can be summed up by the acronym PINT.
When incorporating humor, it’s essential to know why you’re adding the comedic element. When you know the outcome you’re hoping to accomplish, you can best understand how to execute it. Also keep in mind that the humor isn’t just for the person cracking the joke or slipping in the pudding. It also affects everyone around them.
Ask yourself how it impacts other characters? Does it make them sadder, angry, shocked, amused, distracted? How will the dynamic change because of the humor?
Empathy is an essential part of the connection between a reader and your writing. Put yourself in the readers’ mindset and ask yourself how this humor might make them feel. This is not to say that we as writers shouldn’t challenge readers and potentially make them uncomfortable, but at the same time, not all humor is funny.
Jokes that are at a certain groups’ expense or that come across as disrespectful, bullying, or overly callous may ruin a scene or the book for some people. Whatever you add should always serve the story.
There’s nothing worse than when a comedic element is shoehorned into an emotional moment. When you introduce humor, particularly in a more emotional or challenging scene, ask yourself if it feels natural.
This is where it all comes together—if you understand the purpose the humor is serving, the motivations and impact, then it will feel organic.
With jokes, timing is everything. This is especially true when you are bringing humor to something difficult or upsetting. Is this the right time? Would a joke punctuate the scene or is it an unwelcome interruption during an emotional moment?
To get a feel for timing, try taking the humorous element and moving it around in a scene. Read it aloud and see where it feels the most natural.
4 Types of Humor
There are different ways to introduce humor to stories with difficult themes. Each serves different purposes and can be employed in unique ways. Here are a few of my favorites.
One of my preferred types of humor in emotional fiction is the dark variety, also known as gallows humor. It works particularly well in stories that deal with mortality. This type of comedy can be grim or make light of a situation that is painful or desperate. An example would be the character who cracks a joke about their own impending death.
What I like best about dark humor is that it’s a very common human response. It can serve many purposes, depending on how it’s employed. It may convey emotional strength, denial, deflection, anger, or resignation. While it often comes across as a coping mechanism for the person in the dire situation, its impact extends beyond the person cracking the jokes. Such displays can be devastating to witnesses, so what might come across as an attempt to defuse or bring levity to a morose situation actually amplifies it.
Not all humor needs to be directly related to that moment. A great technique for bringing humor into stories featuring heavier or emotional elements is reflective comedy, in which one or more characters recount a humorous anecdote. This can work especially well when dealing with loss or grief.
Envision a group of friends reminiscing about joyful or ridiculous moments they’d shared with a friend who they’d lost … depending on how it’s executed, it could be hilarious, poignant, and heart-wrenching all at once.
This is the perfect shutoff valve for a time when things are getting a little bit too intense and you need to change the energy in a scene. The characters may be feeling solemn, reverent, uncomfortable in one moment, and the next, everyone has dissolved into a fit of giggles at a funeral. Unless this is a character trait, this is best used only once in a story.
Depending on the story and setting, physical comedy can bring whimsy and hilarity to an otherwise serious scene. This kind of humor is best employed sparingly because it can come across as gimmicky. Also, tone and timing are everything here … readers probably won’t appreciate someone discovering a heartbreaking secret and slipping on a banana peel.
Once you’ve found a humorous form that fits the scene and considered the purpose, impact, naturalness, and timing of it within your scene, you’re set to add another emotional layer to your writing.