Have you ever read a story in which the action never stops and the suspense builds and builds without ever giving the characters or reader a chance to breathe? On the surface that sounds like a good idea. More suspense and drama should mean your readers can’t turn those pages fast enough. But like with all things in life you can have too much of a good thing.
Everyone―including your characters and readers―needs a break now and then. If you’re writing an adventure-packed story, every so often try and find a moment or two to slow the pace down before the next round of action kicks in. The fastest way to cut through that tension is with a jolt of humor. A great example of an author that knows how to do this is none other than J.K. Rowling.
Now I know that the Harry Potter series is aimed at a younger audience than say a zombie apocalypse thriller might be, but as Rowling is one of the most successful authors of the past twenty years, it’s worth taking a look at what she does right.
If your main character isn’t a light-hearted, wise-cracking comedian how to do you add humor to a situation without throwing off the tone that you’ve already set?
Rowling typically does this in one of two ways. The first is to introduce a ridiculous situation. Between the Weasley twins, Peeves, and the various students and faculty, Harry’s troubles are often offset by a bit of silliness going on in the background that doesn’t detract from the severity of what he’s dealing with.
In Chamber of Secrets Harry has a lot on his plate with half the school thinking he’s behind the attacks on the students. The fear inspired by the attacks affects everyone, but before the situation can feel too dire, she uses the Weasley twin’s antics to inject a bit of humor.
“Ginny Weasley, who sat next to Colin Creevey in Charms, was distraught, but Harry felt that Fred and George were going the wrong way about cheering her up. They were taking turns covering themselves with fur or boils and jumping out at her from behind statues.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Another option is to have someone stick their foot in their mouth. It doesn’t matter how cool you are, every single one of us has a moment where we say the wrong thing or it gets interpreted the wrong way, and it can be a great way to get your readers to empathize with your characters.
If you’re just looking for a one-liner to ease an otherwise tense moment, this could be the way to go. Rowling is great at delivering clever one-liners throughout the series. Of the trio, Ron is often the one to say things without thinking, and the back and forth it creates between him and Hermione breaks up some of the tension that builds up over the course of their adventures. Devil’s Snare, anyone?
“Devil’s Snare, Devil’s Snare . . . what did Professor Sprout say? — it likes the dark and the damp —’
‘So light a fire!’ Harry choked.
‘Yes — of course — but there’s no wood!’ Hermoine cried, wringing her hands.
‘HAVE YOU GONE MAD?’ Ron bellowed. ‘ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
A minor moment of awkwardness or misunderstanding can be a great way to explore how your characters respond to the world around them. In that example, Hermione is clearly so stressed that she’s not thinking straight, but it’s a human reaction and a prime opportunity to earn a laugh from the reader.
Like most writing tips, it’s up to you how far you want to take it. A simple slip of the tongue or a complete scene devoted to ridiculous hijinks, use whatever works for the world and characters you’ve created.
Can you think of any other great examples of authors or characters who manage to inject a little humor into tense situations? Leave me a comment with your favorite examples!