Humor II: The Tension Breaker



This exercise is based on a request to explore how a writer can use incidental humor in the course of a narrative. For part one, check out our exercise that builds the courage to throw caution to the wind and embrace the absurd.

For Part II, we're going to focus a bit to thread the humor through another narrative. It still requires the same reckless abandon, if only because incidental humor is usually wildly inappropriate for the context. That's what makes it work: using humor to break tension is intentionally calling your attention away from the Important Thing. "Comic relief" gives us a breath in what is otherwise a breathless, high-drama situation.


What makes these moments stand out isn't necessarily the break itself, it's how the break often mirrors the same kind of moments that happen in real life. When art can imitate life, that's when the art resonates with us. That's when we can let ourselves connect with the narrative at a deeper level. That's when we say, "this character has been to the same places I have..."

A humor break is not about comedy, though it does share the common thread that the words need to spark a laugh. What makes something funny? When it jolts the audience in a different direction – we set up expectations for one thing, then delivers something else.

For a variation on the theme, here's a snippet, a running thread of comedy delivered through the extended tension of physical conflict between brothers:

"What are you doing?!?"
"I'm burying you."
"But I'm alive!"
"Shaddup, you're waking the neighbors."

Today, we're going to give you some tense situations.

Then we're going to give you a moment of distraction.


Set up the tense situation, make it as real, gritty and dark as you can.


You've got ten minutes to tie a knot in our stomach...


Pick a situation:

  1. After 37 minutes underwater, Jake broke the surface and looked around. The dive boat was gone.

  2. The romance of the cobblestone streets was fading. Jill's ankles were fading, too, as something clicked behind her and a voice carried through the dark. "You're a long way from home…"

  3. Her report named names. It listed every illicit meeting, every illegal sale the company had made. She'd handed it over to Internal Affairs… and now she saw the folder resting on the desk of the company president.

  4. He felt a drop on the back of his hand. He hugged the side of the cliff and closed his eyes. Please, not now, he thought to himself. Another drop of rain hit the back of his neck.

  5. Jamie checked the oxygen gauge on the suit. They looked back at their ship and wondered if they could get back to it before the Loxxians noticed their treachery.

  6. The wizard had specific instructions – give this potion to the duke and duchess – except it was now in two of the 40 goblets at the banquet, and Percival didn’t know which two.

Got 10 minutes of tension? Excellent! Now hit us with a distraction – and milk it for all the absurdity you can.


Pick a distraction:

  1. "You, too." I said "You, too." Jesus, why did I say, "You, too"?

  2. Did I lock the door? I think I locked the door.

  3. Oh, my God. That's what she meant. She was actually hitting on me.

  4. In the stunned silence, someone farted.

  5. The sound of a helicopter approaching made them look skyward.

  6. “Ow” they cursed as they bashed their elbow into the door frame.

  7. They looked down toward the water and had to admit they couldn’t swim.

  8. In the distance, a bell tolled somewhere where a bell shouldn’t be.

  9. A flurry of bats flew in through an open window.

  10. A computer screen blipped on, flashing the word “ransom.”

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