How to Use Comedy and Tragedy for a One-Two Punch

Use Comedy and Tragedy to Create a One-Two Punch in Your FictionIn his “Letter to a Young, Talented Author,” dramatist William Saroyan offers this advice:

Remember to be good-humored. Remember to be generous. And remember that in the midst of that which is most tragic, there is always the comic, and in the midst of that which is most evil, there is always much good.

Nothing highlights a point or helps readers see an idea from a new perspective better than a little dichotomy. Life is full of contrast, so providing a little in your fiction, not only serves to grant your stories more realism, it also magnifies the effect.

A moment of humor on a battlefield can be used to lighten the dark mood, but, by contrasting it with the surrounding tragedy, it can also serve as emphasis. The same goes for a little moment of tragedy within an otherwise funny story. In fact, most comedians would tell you that all of comedy is tragedy turned on its head.

In their charming historical novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows did an exemplary job of highlighting tragedy through comedy. This generally quirky and comedic novel, told in the form of letters, has at its heart the undeniably tragic theme of suffering in the time of war. The book tells the story of the German occupation of the British island of Guernsey during World War II, and it doesn’t skimp on the dark and painful truths of war. But its generally cheerful and even hilarious voice not only presents a cast of characters whose spirit and bravery the reader can’t help but admire and love, it also provides a chilling contrast to their sufferings.

guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

Dichotomy, juxtaposition, and irony are some of a writer’s most subtle—and therefore most powerful—tools. Keep them in mind no matter what type of story you’re writing, whether it be a dark story of betrayal and death or a romantic comedy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever used tragedy in a funny story or comedy in a tragic story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Hi K.M. Weiland!

    I saw your blog post on including humor to tragedies in books and I decided to write about you and that particular blog post on Examiner.com! I am the Blogging Industry Examiner and I thought it was pretty neat how you touched on the importance of juxtapositions in writings.

    Please let me know if it is alright to include a link to your blog post and I will also send you a link to the article as well if you approve.

    Erica(The Norfolk Blogging Examiner)

    Email:[email protected]

  2. Hm…definately worth thinking about

  3. @Erica: I’m glad you found me! And I’d be honored if you want to link my article. Feel free!

    @Galadriel: Blatant juxtapositions, such as we find in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society don’t work in every story, but little instances are appropriate in almost every type of tale.

  4. I’m creating a list of one-liners, overheard in conversations and such, and I hope to use a few of them in my WIP. Comedy, no matter the genre is the spice that makes the “stew” inviting.

    Loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

  5. Fun idea! I’m always hearing things I think would work perfectly in a novel, but, then, of course, I’m never able to remember them when I need them.

  6. That’s one of the skills used very well in Doctor Who–one moment you have comments like “biting is like kissing, but with a winner” and the next you have writing on the wall that says “Kill Amy”–utter whiplash.

  7. Great post. A lot of my writing takes on a much darker tone and a heavy pressure on the characters. You need those releases to lighten the mood and give your characters hope, give your audience hope. If all you do is take then your audience will be left with nothing.

  8. @Galadriel: I’m totally missing out on all the Doctor Who fun. I can tell I’m going to have to dig up the first seasons somewhere and start watching.

    @PW: Something I’m doing as I’m rewriting my historical WIP is looking for opportunities to insert lighthearted moments and the occasional funny character into the generally dark overtones.

  9. I really like your post.
    Although I have never read the book you mentioned I understand what you are trying to portray.

    One of my completed MS is about a heavy topic (overcoming the trauma of rape) littered with characters that make you laugh. I did not create the MC character to be funny as it would not fit with her brooding and grieving. However I made her interactions with others comical as she was very one sided, inflexible and all out ornery. My hope is to lighten the reader up as she dives into rough waters.

    Thanks for the pointers!
    Jodi

  10. I like what you’ve described about your story. Dark, heavy subjects can easily become overwhelming for the reader (and the writer). A little well-placed humor not only makes the medicine go down easier, it can also hammer the point home that much harder.

  11. Very interesting. What I like about posts like this is that it makes me think of how I craft what I write. I think I do insert comedic elements at darker moments, but I’m going to think about that more as I write. I think it would fit well with the type of story I am writing at the moment.

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a good example of what you were talking about. Shakespeare very obviously used comedic moments to lighten the mood in his histories and tragedies. I think the Lord of the Rings novels are also very good examples. I think the hobbits were the only ones who introduced lighter moments. One moment, there was drama, talk of war and other heavy things, the next the hobbits were wondering when it was time for breakfast or singing a light hearted song.

  12. LOTR is a great example. Tolkien integrated organically humorous characters into the story, which, in turn, allowed the humor to be organic – instead of feeling forced.

  13. Really its a interesting information,the difference for comedy and tragedy is very nice definitely its correct we have to use only in that situation.

  14. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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