Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Get Serious (But Not Too Serious): Why Serious Books Need Humor and Levity to Work

By Sarah Skilton, @Sarah_Skilton

JH: Please welcome YA author (and literary agency sister) Sarah Skilton to the blog today to chat with us about why even serious books need a little laughter now and then. I'm a big fan of dark stories, but I have noticed that when it's all dark all the time it lessons my enjoyment. If you write dark or serious tales, these are good things to consider.

Sarah lives in California with her magician husband and their son. By day she works in the film and TV business. She is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, which came in handy when writing Bruised (Abrams/Amulet Books, March 2013). Visit her online at

Take it away Sarah...

It seems counterintuitive, but if you’re writing something serious or edgy, you need to plan several un-serious moments throughout the story, or readers will reject the book altogether.

Here’s why:

1. Even if a story is true, it won't feel true if only sad things occur.

We all know people who never seem to catch a break. We’ve all had days, weeks, or even months where nothing goes the way we’d hoped. But truth is stranger than fiction, and in fiction, continual bad luck doesn’t feel plausible. Likewise, a story where only good things happen is boring and unrealistic. (What’s the point of a story without challenges to test your lead’s mettle?)

I've read books and watched films that were so relentlessly sad my brain shut off as a means of protecting itself. And when that happens, the redundancy of awful events begins to seem humorous and ridiculous. “Oh, come on!” readers think to themselves, “This many bad things would never happen! What’s next? A plague of frogs?”

2. No one wants to read a story that’s ONLY depressing.

Many people read to escape. Your book can certainly be sad, dramatic, and serious--but it still needs to occur in a place that’s recognizable as containing the full spectrum of human emotions. If nothing but Bad Things and Worse Things happen, without any semblance of hope or humor (even dark humor), readers will not want to visit--and can you blame them?

3. Most importantly, in order for darkness to have any meaning, there must be occasional light, and vice versa. The contrast serves to make both sections stand out more effectively.

Consider The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson. If the poor swan hadn't suffered, the revelation at the end would be meaningless. If the swan had never been an outcast, he wouldn’t realize how nice it feels to belong. If he’d never been lonely, he wouldn't be grateful to have found his tribe. If he hadn't ever been cold and miserable, he wouldn't know what a wonderful thing it is to be warm and content.

Here are some more examples:

In Wonder by RJ Palacio, frequently listed as one of the best children’s books of 2012, the protagonist, August, is starting school for the first time in 5th grade. His face is deformed and he’s worried the other kids won’t accept him. The story is sad and beautiful in equal measure, but it wouldn’t have worked if there hadn’t also been moment of lightness and humor, such as when Auggie’s father points out that the school principal’s name is Mr. Tushman, and the two riff on “butt” puns. It’s a cute, relatable moment that relieves some of the tension and shows in a simple, direct, and even moving way how much Auggie and his dad love each other.

When I was writing my contemporary Young Adult novel, Bruised, about a 16-year-old girl skilled in martial arts who freezes up an armed robbery, I went through several bleaker-than-bleak drafts. There were moments of observational humor and laughter, but they didn’t appear until nearly halfway through the story. In the original draft, the first several chapters contained mostly fear, regret, numbness, and misery for my poor main character, Imogen. “If I add too much humor, people won’t take it seriously,” I thought.

My agent suggested I throw in a flashback chapter early on to show what Imogen’s life was like before the shooting, so that the reader doesn't get bogged down in unhappiness before understanding what kind of person Imogen was before the robbery. The contrast needed to be there, or her plight wouldn't be as relatable or urgent. It was a great idea, and remains in the published manuscript today (thanks, Agent Sara!)

About Bruised

When Imogen, a sixteen-year-old black belt in Tae Kwon Do, freezes during a holdup at a local diner, the gunman is shot and killed by the police, and she blames herself for his death. Before the shooting, she believed that her black belt made her stronger than everyone else--more responsible, more capable. But now her sense of self has been challenged and she must rebuild her life, a process that includes redefining her relationship with her family and navigating first love with the boy who was at the diner with her during the shootout. With action, romance, and a complex heroine, Bruised introduces a vibrant new voice to the young adult world--full of dark humor and hard truths.

Available now!


  1. Maybe *that's* why I dislike Ernest Hemingway's work! Very helpful, Ms. Sarah, thank you!

    More personally, I have at least one idea that I've been hesitant about due to its depressing nature. Maybe if I can figure out a little humor...

  2. Thank you for this! I totally agree that some lighter moments really help a tense story. I'm a Terry Pratchett fan. Some of his stories (I'm thinking of Nightwatch in particular) get pretty dark. That he leavens it out with humor make the dark and sad parts strike harder, because you care so much about the characters.

  3. Shakespeare certainly understood this. After the horrific murder of the king in MACBETH, he has the comic drunken porter (gatekeeper) scene. He uses comic moments like this in all of his tragedies. AND dark moments in his comedies.

    I'm also a believer in not having absolutely everything going against a main character because a constant barrage of bad luck is depressing and unrealistic.

    In other words, the good guy will find a great parking space on his way to having his butt handed to him by the bad guys.

  4. Good food for thought! I'm not good at the darker scenes, so maybe I need to use this advice in reverse.

  5. Such great advice! You know that line, "Aw, come on!" ?? My sister blurted that out loud (pretty darn loud, I might add) during the climax scene of the first Mission Impossible movie. She'd had it up to "here" with all the bad, unbelievable stuff that kept happening.

    Sarah is a dear person, one of my writing friends, and I'm so excited about her book. I got my copy the other night :)

  6. I wholeheartedly agree!

    A few years ago, I read a biography of a Tibetan monk who was unrelentingly pursued, jailed and tortured by the Chinese. I hesitated to read it due to the depressing nature of the work, BUT it was my bookclub's choice for the month, so off I went. And I loved it!

    I dont think he minimized any of the terrible things he endured, yet he was able to infuse humour through his observations of the little things in his life that still brought him joy. It made him such a fuller character, and the nature of his tribulations so much more real.

    Wish I could remember the title ;)

  7. This is hard for me to deal with, either as a reader or a writer, because some things just AREN'T "Funny."

    I applaud those who can face this, they deserve props for that, no matter how badly written (In the worst case scenario) it still has to be researched and thought about. However rough the early drafts are.

    Plus, since I'm not adept at humor (Even though I don't write Ellen Hopkins-type novels)

    My stories, even when dealing with serious issues, come from a more lighthearted place than say, the first paragraph of "The Outsiders."

  8. I've read many stories that have turned me off due to the bleakness. A little light in the darkness goes a long way.

  9. Very helpful post Sarah. BTW, I loved Wonder and laughed right along side my 10 year old as we read the bit about the farting nurse. Your book sounds great, I'll have to check it out!

  10. This is SUCH a great post, Sarah. It's something I've been thinking about lately, and you really articulated why this lightness and humor is SO necessary in darker/sadder works.

    Brilliant stuff!

  11. Thank you for the great article! The balance between the humorous and the serious is a challenge that I have been tackling as I prepare to write a short story. I go in with the intent to write something humorous, but I often find myself needing to compromise humor for the sake of the reader's ability to relate to the character. I think what you wrote about contrast is a great thing to keep in mind, and that the need for contrast feeds into the reader's ability to root for the protagonist. If I have a character who only suffers or fails, not only will the sadness and turmoil of the character fall flat, but the reader would have no cause to support them when they know they won't rise to the occasion. It is that balance of light and dark that breeds intrigue in the reader. We want to see that the character can laugh so that the sorrow has more impact. Thanks again.