Steve Catto, author of Snowflakes, stopped by to share his thoughts on Humour and Comedic Moments. Read below...
Humour and Comedic Moments
If I could define in simple words what is funny, or what constitutes a joke, I’d be a rich man.
People have spent a lifetime studying comedy and have never come to a conclusion about exactly what it is or, for that matter, how to write it, but we all know what it is when we hear it. That’s probably because there are so many different kinds of comedy and, to some extent, we all find different things funny. Some people even laugh when nothing is funny. I don’t happen to find that amusing – it annoys me.
I have always liked what I would call ‘dry’ humour, which I would define as the art of making the ordinary seem humorous, perhaps because of the way in which it happens, or the situation in which it happens. It doesn’t therefore start off with something odd, but develops, sometimes very quickly, from an everyday occurrence or comment.
I like to find some humour in a novel – it provides a welcome relief from the main story and adds another dimension to the work. Shakespeare knew that, and he added moments of ‘comic relief’ into his stories, however I don’t see too many modern novels that carry a balance of emotions that include humour. The real world will always include some, so a story about people that’s devoid of any form of humour doesn’t seem right to me.
The difficult part can be to strike the appropriate balance. Too much and it distracts from the story and seems out of place because it can leave the reader confused, especially if they don’t happen to like it. Too little and it seems like it’s out of place for a different reason, because it looks like the author thought it needed to be there and stuck it in as an afterthought.
When I write I see the story as scenes from a movie, and I approach the storytelling process by describing those scenes. During that process I’m always looking out for places where I can inject a bit of light relief. In 'Snowflakes,' I found ways to involve three of the four main characters in the occasional bit of subtle comedy.
It might be indirect, where one of them says something and the other interprets it in a certain way, and then has to do a double-take. Those types of comedic moments simply flow into a conversation but don’t detract from it, however both characters are aware that it’s happened. They may not find it funny themselves, and it may in fact annoy them, but to an outsider it can be humorous.
Another type of comedy is where one character makes humour for the benefit of the reader, at the expense of another character who isn’t aware of it, such as looking up at the sky behind their back when something is said that appears to them to be dumb. Under those circumstances it also provides another way to describe a situation, without having to specifically say that one of them said something that the other thought was stupid.
Then there is what I would describe as ‘third party humour’, where either the reader or the characters find humour in something which someone else has done, but which the other person isn’t aware of. It may even be the case that those onlookers don’t find the action of the other person funny, but their conversation about it makes the reader think it’s funny. That’s yet another level removed because it’s really ‘indirect third-party humour’ where the reader finds comedy in something that has been said about someone else that wasn’t in itself intended to be funny. The late Morecambe and Wise were masters at this type of comedy when they engineered visual sketches with their guest stars. Although the viewer was supposed to find it amusing, the characters acting the roles were playing it straight, and that is summarised perfectly by one of the quotes which Eric apparently said to a guest at rehearsals: ‘The trick is that the three of us must never know that what we’re doing is funny.’
I won’t spoil anything by repeating it here, but there’s an example of that in ‘Snowflakes’ in the chapter entitled ‘Monkey Business’ where I needed a way to pull the reader out of a particularly disparaging conversation between two of the characters who were contemplating the futility of their lives, in order that I could move on to a point later in the day which was also somewhat melancholy and thoughtful. It needed something to raise the chapter from being totally low-key and dystopic but without trivialising the events. I broke the two parts of the chapter up using a subtle piece of ‘indirect third-party’ humour, and finished it off with a couple of sentences describing a situation that might be described as ‘humorously macabre’ the intention being to make the reader smile a bit, but not too much.
Without writing something that claims to be a comedy novel, there is no scope for including overt humorous situations that are designed purely for that purpose, however subtle comedic mechanisms can be useful for making an end to situations that otherwise would have no natural finish. Things that are difficult to leave behind because there’s really nothing more to say. They can make good scene endings, or even chapter endings, that take the reader’s attention away from the previous focus and provide a seemingly natural way to exit from a situation and move on.
If that isn’t the sort of humour that the reader likes they just don’t find it funny, or don’t even realise it’s supposed to be funny, but it doesn’t spoil anything because it has no effect on the plot or the readability of the book.
It’s just another dimension of the work which the reader can either enjoy or ignore, provided that the author can get the balance of it right.
Find out more about Steven here via his blog, Snowflakes.