Friday, June 3, 2011

A Comedy of Horrors

by Scott Rhoades

Last Friday, I wrote about how delight relies on surprise. Things that delight us are often things that surprise us.

This week, I want to write about two genres that depend almost entirely on surprise to delight us, two genres that might be thought of as near opposites but that are really very similar. If you read the title of this post, you know where I'm going. (I never was very good at keeping a surprise.)

Comedy, as I pointed out last week in my almost worshipful praise of songwriter Tom Lehrer, depends completely on surprise. Think about jokes. Jokes, whether they hinge on a stupid pun or an unexpected resolution to a humorous situation, depend on a surprising punchline. When the surprise is gone, so is the funny. That's why a joke is only really funny--I mean gut-splittingly-drink-spittingly funny--the first time you hear it.

For comedy to work really well. You need a set up. A good set up builds tension, and the tension continues to deepen until you finally get the release from the punchline. If something in your setup fails, you end up with a premature release. It might not completely spoil the punchline, but it takes away much of the punch.

The same with horror. The best horror doesn't simply gross you out, something many of today's horror writers, and especially screen writers, never quite learned. Horror is all about building tension toward a release at the end. Sure, there might be small releases along the way, like the smaller hills on a roller coaster, but they are not really releases. Each of these releases is a trick that actually builds even more tension, until you get your release at the end. Like humor, that release has to be a surprise if it's going to work.

Another technique that's often central to both comedy and horror writing is the transportation of the audience away from whatever they consider safe. Safety inhibits surprise. At the same time, taking us too far from our safety zone eliminates much of the delight we get from a good surprise. An unsafe, unpleasant surprise does the opposite of delight. That's why people like roller coasters, scary stories, and jokes that push our limits like an uncomfortable pause without going too far. And it's why they don't like the surprise of a baseball coming through their living room window. They want a safe way to flirt with danger, to trick their brains into releasing endorphins without ever really putting them into really unsafe territory.

Let me take a break for a second to ask a question. Where might you find some of the best humor writing? Inside a good horror story. In a horror story, lots of stuff goes wrong. But if everything goes bad all the time, then you expect the bad and it no longer surprises. The tension is built not so much as a ramp as a series of steps combined with ramps, and many of those ramps are punctuated by something funny. Just like you can't know good without knowing bad, you can't know terror without knowing laughs.

Something else horror and comedy have in common? What do you do at the end of a good joke? You laugh like crazy. What do you do after a good scare? That's right.

Watch the people as a scary roller coaster pulls into the station. What are they doing? Laughing. What were they doing a few seconds ago? Screaming their little heads off. Wouldn't you love that same result in your own stories?

Here's the thing--all good fiction writing and many kinds of nonfiction writing are no different that horror and comedy. It's all about building tension until you reach the release at the end.

Both comedy and horror are often maligned (something else they have in common) as having less literary merit than more serious books. Whatever genre you like to write from picture books to literary fiction for adults, you can learn a lot about good writing by reading these "inferior" genres. If you don't usually read horror, try it. Same with humor. (Or mysteries. Or thrillers. Or romance. Or whatever.) Pay attention to the way the writer builds tension and makes you think there's relief in sight, only to twist that false relief into more tension. Then watch as the coaster comes back into the station. Pay attention to the laugh at the end as the tension is finally relieved by a surprise.

Then, no matter what you write, use fear and comedy to build the tension in your own story. Take the reader into safely dangerous territory, then let us feel the relief when that tension is released at the end. You'll delight your readers, and have a lot of fun writing.

1 comment:

Julie Daines said...

Love the roller coaster analogy! I'm going to be watching closely for screaming and/or laughing as near the end of my novel...