Why Humour Is Important In Every Genre Of Story

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:

This is a screenshot from “Dreamfall Chapters” (2014-17). And, yes, the robot is quite literally called “Shitbot”.

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.
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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Good Horror Novels Include Comedy

Well, although I’ve talked about the topic of comedy in horror fiction before, I thought that I’d return to it today after I started reading a horror novel from the late 1950s called “The Haunting Of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson (mild SPOILERS ahoy).

Although the novel starts in a fairly sombre, ominous and morose way, and I’d worried that reading it was going to be an extremely miserable experience, there is a surprising amount of comedy in the first half of the novel. Most of this consists of amusingly irreverent dialogue, quirky characters, dark comedy and even some hilariously obscure literary humour (eg: a reference to how Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is, as I can personally remember from my university days, dull enough to quite literally send the reader to sleep).

Yet, this comedy compliments the novel’s horror elements really well. It slightly tempers the ominous bleakness of the story, whilst also coming across as a disturbing sign that the characters are trying to protect their sanity when faced with the prospect of living in a creepy old house. After the unsettling early parts of the novel, the first moments of humour are brilliantly unexpected and can really catch you off-guard. Not only that, all of the humour seems to be a natural product of the characters and the setting, which allows it to fit in with the rest of the story really well.

But, why is it there in the first place? Why do horror novels often include moments of comedy? After all, the two genres are supposed to be complete opposites.

Well, there are quite a few reasons for this (that I’ve mentioned in previous articles), including how both genres rely on similar techniques, how it adds personality to the story, how the contrast between horror and comedy heightens the impact of both things, how it shows the reader that the author is a fan of the horror genre (to the point where they can joke about it) and because “100% horror 100% of the time” makes the reader feel jaded and less easy to scare.

But, the most important reason is probably to do with the emotional tone of the story. In short, adding a bit of comedy to your horror story tells your reader that they can’t be certain of what to expect. After all, horror stories are traditionally grim, sombre and bleak things that are filled with misery, death and other such things. So, including a bit of comedy tells your reader “Nope. This isn’t one of those stories.” It tells them that this is a different type of horror story.

Although this probably worked better in older horror novels (I mean, I was genuinely surprised that a horror novel from the 1950s could be funny), it is still effective in modern horror novels. If anything, it’s practically a requirement these days. After all, what better way is there to tell a reader that a new horror novel will give them something different from the old ones?

Of course, to do this properly, the comedy in a horror novel has to feel like a natural part of the story. This is easier to do than you might think. In short, if your story has vaguely interesting characters and/or a slightly strange premise, then this can be used for comedy as effectively as it can be used for horror.

A good modern example of this is probably Robert Brockway’s 2015 novel “The Unnoticeables“, where the fact that some of the main characters are 1970s punks means that there is plenty of room for irreverent, crude and/or gross humour that is a really good “fit” with the rest of the story.

Another good modern example is S. L. Grey’s excellent 2011 novel “The Mall“. Although this novel can best be described as what a mixture of “Saw” and “Silent Hill” would look like if it was set in a South African shopping centre and directed by David Lynch, some of the bizarre moments that make this story so unsettling are also used as a vehicle for some utterly brilliant social satire and/or weird humour. Because the humour emerges from things that, when seen another way, would be incredibly disturbing, it is a really good fit with the story.

So, although humour in a horror story needs to feel like it has emerged organically from the characters, story and/or settings, it is an essential ingredient in good horror fiction for the simple reason that it tells the reader that they can’t be entirely certain of what to expect if they keep reading. And, of course, unpredictability is one of the most important parts of effective horror.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (29th October 2019)

Woo hoo! Here’s the fourth page of “Slasher”, this year’s Halloween comic 🙂 Stay tuned for the fifth page tomorrow 🙂

If you want to see some of the previous Halloween comics, they can be found here: 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. And, if you want to see more of Harvey’s investigations, they can be found here, here, here and here.

You can also find links to many other comics featuring the characters from this one here.

As usual, this comic page is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Slasher – Page 4” By C. A. Brown

Three Reasons Why Horror And Comedy Go Well Together

Well, since I’d just finished reading a novel that contained both horror and comedy and because, at the time of writing, I was preparing last year’s Halloween stories (which contain a fair amount of dark humour), I thought that I’d quickly look at some of the many reasons why horror and comedy go so well together.

1) Reaction and mechanics: Simply put, both horror and comedy are designed to evoke a physical reaction in the reader. Although these two reactions are complete opposites (eg: fear and laughter), the mechanics for doing this are more similar than you might think. At the most basic level, both horror and comedy rely on surprising the audience or subverting their expectations.

Likewise, both things also rely on keen observations, clever turns of phrase, transgressing social norms, exaggeration, timing/suspense, subtle details, unusual characters etc… In order to evoke the desired reaction.

As such, because both things use subtly different versions of the same techniques, it is fairly easy to include elements of one in the other and vice versa. Likewise, because they evoke opposite reactions in the reader, then including a mixture of both will make both the horror and comedy better because they will contrast well with each other.

2) Obscurity: Simply put, if you want to make something prestigious and respectable that will impress “serious” critics, then horror and comedy are the last genres you want to choose. If you want to make something entertaining, on the other hand….

In a lot of ways, the fact that horror and comedy are often seen as “low art” actually works in their favour. Because they are genres that are designed to evoke a reaction, they tend to get remembered and talked about a lot more. They are the art that people relax with, enjoy with friends, quote to people (and both genres have their fair share of quotable phrases) and use for emotional catharsis. They will usually have a fairly avid fanbase too.

In other words, horror and comedy go well with each other for the simple reason that they are ignored by the most prestigious film, literature etc.. awards and critics. Like punk and heavy metal music, they are made for fans of the genre.

3) Cynicism: Generally speaking, both horror and comedy rely on cynicism about the world. They rely on the fact that the world is an imperfect place where stupid, terrible, absurd and/or disturbing things can easily happen.

In one way or another, horror and comedy will often criticise some element of society, humanity etc… Whether they poke fun at it or use it to frighten the reader, horror and comedy are both genres that express dissatisfaction with the world. Although this is often more obvious in the comedy genre, the horror genre will usually include satire of some kind or another too.

So, because they both rely on criticism and/or cynicism, both genres are surprisingly compatible with each other.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Random Tips For Writing Comedy Horror

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the comedy horror genre today – this is mostly because, at the time of writing, I’ve been dabbling with it a bit. So, I thought that I’d offer a few random tips for writing in this awesome genre 🙂

1) The two genres are more similar than you think: One of the reasons why comedy horror is such an interesting genre is because although horror and comedy might seem like completely opposite things, they’re a lot more similar than you think.

They both involve evoking strong emotions in the reader, they both involve suspense (eg: the set-up to a joke, or the ominous silence before something horrible happens), they both involve a certain amount of larger-than-life drama, they both rely on contrasting different things for dramatic effect, they both rely on more subtle moments (whether amusing or ominous) to keep the reader’s interest between more spectacular moments etc…

In essence, many of the underlying techniques used in the horror genre can be used for comedy, and vice versa. So, if you know a bit about one genre then it isn’t too difficult to add elements of the other genre to it. Still, it is worth looking at things in both genres in order to get a sense of how each one does things differently.

2) Character reactions: If you want to give a scene of horror more of a comedic tone, one way to do this is through how the characters react to the events of your story.

In a traditional horror story, the horrific scenes are horrific because of the way that the characters react to them. It doesn’t matter how vile the monster is, how grisly a description is or how unsettling the ghosts are… it isn’t scary until the characters react to it. In a typical horror story, they might react with mute shock, they might scream, they might try to fight for their lives or they might flee in abject terror. This reaction of horror is one of the things that makes horror stories horror stories.

So, to add some comedy to your horror story, just have your characters react in an unexpected or mildly “unrealistic” way. For example, if a traditional Dracula-style vampire suddenly lurches from the shadows and a character finds this amusing or makes a sarcastic remark about Halloween costumes, then this makes the audience consider how silly a 19th century vampire appearing in the present day would be.

3) Gruesomeness: You can add comedy to scenes of gory horror in a number of different ways.

The first is to focus more on the horrific events (eg: a physical description of what is happening) that are happening rather than on their gory consequence (eg: injuries, blood etc..). This allows you to add macabre slapstick comedy and/or farce to your story without grossing your audience out too much. So, this approach is better for slightly “lighter” or “sillier” comedy stories.

A slightly more sophisticated approach than this is to only include gore in moments where it would be amusing for it to appear. For example, the scene in the classic sci-fi horror movie “Alien” where the alien creature bursts out of a character’s chest is a gruesome, horrific scene. If it was bloodless, it wouldn’t have the same dramatic impact. So, if you were to write a scene in a comedy horror story that was inspired by this one, you might start by having a character complain of indigestion before including a gory scene of something exploding out of their chest.

The other approach is to go completely over-the-top with your gory descriptions, but to make the surrounding descriptions comedic through the use of amusing metaphors, similes and other such things. After all, there are a well-known set of metaphors and terms that “serious” horror writers use to describe gruesome moments, so by using completely different and/or slightly absurd ones, you can add some macabre comedy to these scenes.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

“Pop Up” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Dan stared at the towering ossuary, a vast structure of jumbled bones reaching towards the slate sky like the grasping hands of a thousand undead. The only thing he could think to say was: ‘How the bloody hell did this get planning permission?’

Beside him, Tina laughed: ‘It’s a pop-up, it’ll probably be gone in a couple of weeks. Makes a change from the usual.’ She gestured at the sad-looking rows of shuttered shops surrounding it like gravel around a grave.

‘Yeah, but what is it supposed to be? I mean, you’d think there would be a sign or something.’

‘It’s probably a restaurant. They always are. Best case scenario, it’s an ironic homage to Halloween-themed breakfast cereals from the ’80s. Worst case scenario, it’s something political or, even worse, it’s a work of conceptual art.’ Tina raised her phone and took a photo.

‘I don’t know how they expect anyone to visit it. It isn’t like they’ve rolled out the welcome mat.’ Dan put on a silly voice: ‘Welcome, welcome to the house of bones. All the fun of the graveyard in one easy-to-reach location.

The skies darkened. Tina laughed. She tapped her phone a couple of times: ‘Maybe it’s got a website?’ She tapped a few more times and raised an eyebrow: ‘Apparently not.’

Quelle surprise. It looks like it hasn’t even discovered the telegraph, let alone the internet.’

‘No, it’s modern. It’s some underground thing that’s probably shared by word of mouth. On social media, of course. Do people have actual conversations any more?’

‘Aren’t we?’

Tina shook her head: ‘This is more of a discussion than a conversation, I think.’

Amongst the matchstick sculpture of femurs, tibias and scapulas, a single skull stared down at them. Slowly, its hollow sockets began to glow bright orange. Two rows of weathered teeth chattered eagerly, the noise skittering through the air like crickets in a campsite.

Tina’s laughter howled along the deserted street. Dan was about to make a sarcastic comment when the air rumbled. The sky flashed like a selfie and then the rain started to pour. The kind of heavy, opaque rain that Hollywood film-makers like to think that they invented. Gasping, Tina gestured towards the ossuary’s yawning mouth: ‘Come on, let’s get inside!’

As another lightning flash stabbed the sky, Dan pointed his thumb over his shoulder: ‘The bus shelter is closer.’

‘Fair enough.’ Tina said. They ran towards it. According to the parts of the timetable that poked out from behind the burnt and graffiti-stained glass, the 41 bus would arrive in five minutes. More like ten, Dan thought.

Tina huddled close to Dan on the cold plastic bench. Behind the sheets of rain, the other side of the road wasn’t even visible. Then, a pair of lights appeared in the distance. Tina smiled. It’s on time! For half a second, she thought about getting her phone out and documenting this unprecedented occurrence.

The lights got closer. It was only when they were the size of footballs that something began to feel wrong. Neither Dan nor Tina could place what it was. Perhaps it was because the light was a subtly different hue than standard bus headlights? Perhaps the two orbs were a centimetre off from their remembered models of what a bus looked like? They didn’t know. Both of them just stared.

As the lights got closer, they separated. A silhouette appeared against the rain, like a preliminary sketch. With slopping footsteps, the skeleton stepped out of the rain. It raised a large iron lantern and fixed two hollow sockets on the dumbfounded couple.

Dan regained the power of speech: ‘Nice cos…’ His voice broke off as he realised that the skeleton’s neck was too thin to be a costume. Tina gasped.

Seconds later, another lantern-bearing skeleton appeared. In a voice like teeth on a blackboard, it said: ‘Sorry folks, we don’t usually do outreach but the roof is leaking. Any donations will be very much appreciated.’

The other one rattled its head: ‘Yeah, we’re already on our final warning with the health and safety people. Give us a hand. Or maybe a leg?’

Dan laughed and fumbled for his wallet. The skeletons shook their heads. Tina’s eyes widened. They didn’t want money, they wanted…

But, before she could scream, the skeletons said: ‘We’ve got wi-fi and free coffee. Artisanal cupcakes too.’

Who could argue with that?

Three Basic Tips For Writing Vampire-Themed Comedy

Well, at the time of writing, I’m still busy preparing this year’s Halloween comic (which will begin tomorrow evening). Since it will be a comedic vampire-themed comic, I thought that I’d talk about how to write this genre of comedy.

So, here are a few basic tips for writing vampire-themed comedy. This article will contain mild SPOILERS for my upcoming comic though.

1) Do your research: Generally speaking, the more things you see, play or read in the vampire genre, the better. If you’re familiar with the genre, then working out ways to parody and just generally have fun with it will become considerably easier. This will also help you to spot common themes in the genre and to see how different people interpret the genre, which can help you to find your own “take” on the genre.

I mean, one of the initial inspirations for my comic was the fact that I’d been going through a phase of replaying “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” almost obsessively a few weeks earlier. Although this game has a lot of mythology surrounding vampirism, it’s basically a game about a character who suddenly becomes a vampire and has to deal with the complex politics etc.. of vampire society (whilst also doing more typical computer game stuff too).

Although the game is a masterpiece, one thing that I felt that the game fell slightly short on was showing how the player character reacts emotionally to becoming a vampire. So, when making my Halloween comic, I thought that it would be funny to show characters reacting in wildly different ways when they discover that they’ve become vampires.

Plus, having at least a vague understanding of the genre allows you to include all sorts of small references and parodies too. For example, in one scene in my Halloween comic, a character refers to vampires as members of “the un-dead”. Although this phrasing might sound a bit strange, it’s actually a reference to one of Bram Stoker’s working titles for “Dracula”.

Likewise, look at other comedy horror genres too. For example, some great examples of how to make horror hilarious can be found in the zombie-comedy genre. So, don’t restrict yourself to just the vampire genre.

2) Practicality and rules: Simply put, one of the best ways to come up with vampire-themed comedy is just to think about the tropes and conventions of the genre in more practical ways. Needless to say, this can be a very useful source of slapstick comedy and/or farce.

In addition to this, try to play around with the “rules” of the genre too. After all, most things in the vampire genre either make a point of following or ignoring various “rules” (eg: related to garlic, sunlight, crosses, stakes, bats, blood etc..). So, a lot of comedy can be found by playing about with these rules – either proving or disproving them in amusing ways, or showing your characters discussing them.

Or, if you’re feeling bold, try to invent some new “rules” for the vampires in your story or comic to follow. Although this sort of thing tends to be done more often in the horror genre than in the comedy genre, it certainly has the potential for comedy.

3) Non-gothic vampires: Simply put, the vampire genre is often heavily associated with the goth subculture. Although this can be useful for goth-themed humour, it can also be amusing to try to link the vampire genre to other subcultures too or to show non-gothic vampires.

The heavy metal genre is a brilliant example of this. Although vampire-themed gothic rock songs are a lot more common, there’s certainly vampire-themed heavy metal out there. Some examples include songs like “We Drink Your Blood” by Powerwolf and “Love Bites” By Judas Priest.

Needless to say, heavy metal interpretations of the genre generally focus more on hedonism, gruesome horror, vampires as a type of monster etc..- in contrast to more atmospheric, philosophical and character-based gothic interpretations of the genre.

So, say, contrasting a gothic interpretation of the vampire genre with a more “heavy metal” interpretation of it can be a great source of comedy. In fact, contrasting a gothic interpretation of the genre with pretty much anything else can be a great source of comedy.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂