Although this is an article about writing, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games (of all things). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later. However, I should warn you that this article will contain some SPOILERS for the earlier parts of “Dreamfall Chapters” and for Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House” too.
Anyway, the day before writing this article, I finally started playing a sci-fi/fantasy adventure game from 2014-2017 called “Dreamfall Chapters” that I’ve wanted to play for almost half a decade (but didn’t have a computer that was capable of running it until relatively recently). Anyway, the game begins with lots of serious drama (and… a lot… of cutscenes too) and I was initially worried that it was basically just a vaguely interactive version of something like a modern HBO-style TV series. Then, after about an hour of playing it, the game did something really amazing that reminded me of why I loved this series of games so much.
In addition to actually allowing the player to explore a really cool-looking cyberpunk city, the game’s occasional moments of subtle humour also gave way to an extremely funny gameplay segment. The player character, Zoe, is asked by a theatrically stressed-out character called Mira to test out a second-hand robot that she has bought. From the moment you mouse-over the robot, you get a hint that this isn’t going to be a serious mission:
Needless to say, what follows is genuinely laugh out loud funny. Whether it is the combination of advanced robotics and advanced stupidity, the subtle homage to “Beneath A Steel Sky“, some brilliant interactive moments of slapstick comedy (including a clever parody of a typical adventure game puzzle) or just lots of hilarious dialogue, this segment literally made me crease up with laughter and it restored my enthusiasm for the game.
But, what does any of this computer game stuff have to do with writing?
Well, it is a good example of why humour is such an essential ingredient of pretty much every type of story. Yes, even serious stories need moments of humour. Even if it is fairly brief or subtle, then it still needs to be there.
But, why? Well, there are several reasons for this. The first has to do with emotional contrast – in short, your story’s “serious” moments will seem more dramatic when they are contrasted with moments of comedy.
A great literary example of this is Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel “The Haunting Of Hill House“. Although this novel starts out in an ominous way, this quickly gives way to a plethora of different types of humour (eg: amusing dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy, irreverent literary references etc..) which lull the reader into a false sense of security. This means that the creepier later parts of the story are even more unsettling than they would be if the whole story had stuck with the serious, ominous tone of the opening chapters.
Another reason why humour is a vital part of every genre of story is that it adds personality and creativity to a story. After all, humour requires both of these things. It is also an essentially human quality that can’t be replicated by technology. So, including humour in your story shows your reader that – yes, it was written by a real person who put actual creative thought into it.
Not only that, since humour is a social thing, it also means that – if the reader finds your humour funny – they’ll probably want to spend more time with your writing. Or, to put it in bland corporate-speak, it increases reader engagement with your narrative.
Humour also adds realism to your story too. Not only do people make jokes in real life, but the world itself is filled with absurd, silly and amusing stuff. So, adding humour to your story gives it an extra level of realism. Whether it is a sarcastic description of a stupid part of modern life (and there’s a lot of source material for this) or, like in “Dreamfall Chapters”, a fictional world that contains amusingly realistic problems (eg: badly-made technology), humour adds realism to stories of every genre.
In addition to all of this, humour also makes your story more memorable too. If you give your reader a sudden, unexpected moment of strong emotion, then they are going to remember this. This is especially true if comedy is only a small or infrequent part of a more “serious” story. This is why, for example, although I probably can’t remember every single plot detail of the episodes of the sci-fi TV show “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” that I watched on DVD nearly a decade ago, it took me seconds to both remember and find a clip of this amusing moment. So, humour is a way to keep your story memorable.
Finally, humour is entertaining. One of the reasons why people read stories is to be entertained, to escape from the world for a while and then return to it feeling enriched. So, including moments of humour – even in more serious stories – reassures the reader that they are reading something entertaining (and that they should keep reading). The humour can be very subtle and it should also fit in with the general tone and atmosphere of your story too, but even a small amount of humour can help to keep the reader interested.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂