For something as effortless and natural as human ridiculousness, writing comic relief can be a surprising amount of headache. Back before I knew anything about writing, I assumed it was as simple as letting my naturally hilarious personality bleed into the pages.
Despite my protests that I really was a funny person, my stories had other ideas, and all the second-hand flippancy and snark passed on to my characters just didn’t… make… the cut. Oh sure, it looked good on paper. But it didn’t make me laugh. It wasn’t alive. It just sat there looking shiny as ‘snarky character’ points.
What my young, happy-go-lucky writer self didn’t realize was that there is a season for everything.
And anything out of season is very out of place. Seems simple when you say it, doesn’t it?
I’m going to do something a little different. I actually have a personal story for you. Going in, there are two things I want you to think about. The two things you need to remember to pay attention to when using comic relief: timing, and irony.
Ready, set, go.
A few years back (I think it’s two, now— how time flies) we went out West. I and my family and our caravan of suitcases crammed ourselves into our fifteen-passenger van and zipped off for the wild unknown. Lewis and Clark were amateurs— this was conquest. This was adventure, and we were ready for it. Bears and all.
Yes, I did say bears.
But, you know. At least we weren’t camping or anything. (We might have all come back with a few too many white hairs.) We had a nice selection of tidy little cabins and lodges scattered along the route, not too far from civilization in case of emergencies— bears, angry moose, buffalo stampede, mountain lions, no oatmeal, bears… the usual.
Imagine, then, our delight, when the owner of one lodge we got to a little late mentioned that a bear had been prowling around in our front yard yesterday morning.
And when I say delight, I mean the kind that manifests itself in an assortment of energetic activities such as screaming, throwing suitcases, throwing toddlers, and clambering up trees and drainpipes.
Okay, okay. We were better seasoned than that, at that point. Unpacking the car was accomplished with a surprising amount of efficiency for so many people, and one by one we all hopped over the threshold, dumped our suitcases in the warm, lighted little kitchen, and watched the blue dusk fade to pitchy blackness outside the windows.
It was a quaint little place. A rusted bear-trap big enough to catch a Woolly Mammoth hung by Herculean chains on the living room wall.
William (then 14) and I were standing, staring with slightly glazed eyes out the pitch-black kitchen windows, when Mom put her hands on her hips and scowled at the disarray of pots, pans, and sleeping bags strewn across the kitchen floor. “I think we left the oatmeal in the car.”
William and I, being the only two courageous (or foolhardy) enough to be standing by the kitchen door, were delegated to retrieve it.
The lodge owner had mentioned, before wandering away to leave us to our fate, that bears don’t like noise, so if we saw one, all we had to do was make a lot of that.
No problem, I remember thinking. But since I could hardly exit the lodge and plunge into all that darkness already screeching at the top of my lungs (what self-respecting older sister would inflict that on her innocent little brother?) I licked my lips, stepped out into the dark with William’s little blue flashlight beam wavering beside me, and started singing. Loudly. Keeping rhythm with the trembling of the flashlight. “Ohhhhhh, home on the raaaange…!”
We never actually saw the bear.
After we had dashed across the patio and leapt like twin nocturnal grasshoppers into the car, I dove under the seats and started rooting around for the oatmeal while William switched on the car lights. Still singing at the wavery top of my lungs, I had just seized the offending box of oatmeal and reached the line ‘where seldom is heeeeaaaaard a discouraging worrrrrrrd…!’ when my prankster brother, hunched in the front seat with his evilly gnome-like face glowing in the beams of his flashlight, took a deep breath and screamed, ‘BEAR!!!’
For those of you who have never seen a seventeen-year-old girl chasing her cackling little brother across a pitch black lawn while screeching ‘Home on the Range’ and clutching a box of oatmeal, you ain’t seen nuthin’.
So! I hope you noted my *coughs* darling little brother’s amazing sense of timing. If he had screamed on the threshold of the lodge, before we plunged into the darkness, his prank would have had little effect. Build-up is crucial. Stakes and tensions must be running high. It’s called comic ‘relief’ because it relieves you of the weight of looming terror, if only for a moment, and provides a haven where you can re-establish your perspective and imagination without the bother of setting down the book and taking a few deep breaths. It’s a streak of color on a black canvas, that deepens the darkness by contrast while still giving you joy for a moment.
I also hope you noticed the amazing irony of his declaration coming just after ‘where seldom is heard a discouraging word’. I don’t think he did it on purpose, but it sure turned out just brilliant. Irony is less crucial than timing, but still adds a nice kick when you can slip it in.
As the five white hairs still growing from my scalp can emphatically confirm. I’m still waiting for them to fall out.