I’m not suggesting that writing some fun into your story can make up for characters who are little better than cardboard caricatures; it can’t. What fun can do is get the reader through pages and pages of unbearably morbid prose, a style that seems to be in vogue for “literary” fiction. And “fun” doesn’t mean “comedy” so much as plot moments that make the reader smile. (Being funny is hard, and failing to be funny can be worse than not trying in the first place.)
The funny books themselves sometimes forget this “rule of fun”. In the grim-and-gritty nineties, it seemed like all comics were aping Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; all they managed to do was be depressing and dull. Not coincidentally, this is when I stopped reading them for several years. It’s only when a sense of fun was restored that I dared dip my toe back into comics.
Dark, difficult, important plots can be extremely effective, and we’ve gotten a lot of great literature that proves it: there are classic novels that are frankly depressing as hell. But not everyone is George Orwell or China Mieville, and most of us will need to bleed some pressure off now and again. When you’re writing a story, or a novel–I think novels can suffer from this more, especially when they’re long and challenging ones–please, please write in a few scenes that are fun to read. When a reader expects a few light moments, or at least isn’t surprised to see them, it’ll keep them reading through those angsty, horrifying scenes.
For example: In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, I kept turning the pages even though I felt a little awkward smiling at poor Billy Pilgrim’s asynchronous life; without its dark humor, the book would have been a dull tale with humorless characters. I keep returning to Mark Twain’s work for the sheer fun of his pacing and language, which all the while distracts the reader just enough from the darkness of the Damned Human Race’s criminal stupidity. And I’m told there’s a farcical scene in Hamlet, right before the finale, that directors are advised to make as funny as possible or else the play’s serious ending won’t work at all. I may imagine this to be more of a widespread issue than it is, but I definitely cross paths with exclusively depressing writing more often than I’d like.
Back in the realm of funnybooks, we have Sandman, a seminal “graphic novel” that powers through a single story through 75 issues; I wouldn’t want to meet Morpheus, the Sandman’s morose lord of Dream, but I wouldn’t mind running into the silly, wise supporting characters Matthew and Delirium one day. In fact, their scenes are used to set up important plot points later on. And Morpheus’s sister Death, a petite, perky gothette, highlights important facets of Morpheus’s persona. The story wouldn’t work without these fun supporting characters, just as The Avengers wouldn’t have gelled as a team without Tony Stark’s and easygoing, confident manner.
While the solution to fixing these stormclouds may be straightforward (at least conceptually), it’s far easier to be an armchair writer and say “lighten up” than it is to actually add some ear-to-ear-ness to a story. Writing this essay has made me realize something about the book I’m writing in my spare time. This story of a pre-apocalyptic fictional family that’s tearing itself apart badly needs a bit of fun to it. So please excuse me while I go and take my own advice.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.