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Monday, June 24, 2019

Humor, Tragedy and the Dynamic Story (Part Three)

“People don't expect too much from literature. They just want to know they're not alone with being confused.”

Jonathan Ames

Part Three: The Core of Dynamic Comedy 

I was considering doing one post dedicated to comedy, and then one dedicated to tragedy, but came to the realization that neither post would make sense without explaining the core idea first. I mean, what good is a nervous system if you have no spine? Think of this post as the spine of the topic. Or the heart? I know a lot of people refer to the core of something as the "heart" of it, but I feel like spine is a bit more accurate. But then again, the brain is pretty important too-- but I've never heard anyone say that something was "the brain" of something to refer to the most important part. Unless it was "the brains of the operation," but that refers more to the ideas behind a plan rather than the core concept of said plan. Although this makes me wonder if analogies referring to the core of something are limited to body parts.

What do you guys think, does spine or heart sound better? I suppose in extreme cases, a person might be able to theoretically survive without a spine (please don't quote me on this, I'm just an idiot), but no one could live without a heart, so maybe the heart is more important.

Okay maybe I should stop procrastinating and get to the point already.

That looks pretty important, let's go with that.
The thing to understand is that funny and sad are two things that go together miraculously well. I say "thing" because I''m not sure if "funny" is an emotion; at the very least it's a feeling, because we all know what it feels like to be rolling around in laughter, although I suppose "funny" is only used as an adjective to describe something that makes us feel that way, which raises the question, what is the "funny" emotion? 

Anyway, the idea that funny and sad go together like gasoline and fire is a concept that the likes of Cervantes and Jonathan Ames understood fully. They knew there was something exceptionally charming about things that are tragic yet hilarious at the same time.

Gonna use Don Quixote as an example because of course I am.

Good grief, I mention Don Quixote so often I should make a long-winded 15k word blog post about it like I did with Alita.

Oh no... now I'm thinking about it, and the more I think about it, the more I want to do it.

No, don't worry, I won't do that. I have better plans.

Alright guys, I'm going to tell you something but you have to promise not to get mad.

I'm gonna write a long-winded and boring post about Don Quixote after this.

You guys all saw it, I valiantly tried with all my might to resist. I did my best.

Moving on, the thing that made Don Quixote so famous was that it was both beautifully written yet was so unconventional. Don Quixote was written around the same time Shakespeare was growing in popularity, and most writers and playwrights by that time had settled into two narrow categories: comedy and tragedy. Now, comedy back then simply meant "a story where the hero succeeds" and tragedy simply meant "story where the hero fails." Technically, every story in history falls into one of those two categories.

Or do they?

(Play this music while you read for maximum immersion)

The thing is that many stories don't have a clear-cut ending where the hero succeeds or fails. Take Inception for example, where he spins the top to find out if he's in a dream or if he's in the real world, and the camera cuts off before you can see if the top stops spinning or not.

Now, a lot of stories combined comedy-- as in the humor kind-- with tragedy. Shakespeare was known for throwing lots of funny and inappropriate moments into otherwise dark stories, but what you rarely see is the inverse; a funny story with occasionally dark moments.

You see, when humor and tragedy are both largely relevant in a story, usually one dominates the other, and 9 times out of 10, it's a sad or emotional story with sporadic bursts of comedy.

But what happens when you write a comedy, something that's so well-written and relatable that it makes its readers / viewers laugh uncontrollably, but insert unexpectedly sad moments?

You get Don Quixote and Wake Up, Sir!

It's not just that-- it's the way humor and sadness interact with each other. Usually this means creating a funny set of circumstances but a pessimistic or nihilistic view of them.

For example, in Spongebob, as discussed in my Cartoons post, as well as Emp Lemon's Video, the main thing that made Spongebob resonate with millennials was the contrast between Spongebob's and Squidward's outlook of life, despite them both working the same dead-end job. Yet one thing I'd like to add to that is the notion that, not only is that dichotomy what made Spongebob great, it's what made it funny.

In Wake Up, Sir!, the circumstances that the protagonist Alan Blair finds himself in are hilarious and outlandish, but his depressing and bleak view of the world contrasts with the humor we as the readers experience. What this means is that his misfortune is our entertainment, his suffering is what makes the story funny.

Now with Don Quixote, it was the opposite. His life was completely depressing and inconsequential; he was a poor Spaniard who owned a tiny farm and had no real family or friends besides a couple of extended relatives who he hardly interacted with. But he was so batshit crazy that he thought the windmills he was fighting were giants, and that the sheep being herded by the shepherd were actually saracens or an army of enemies from some foreign nation, and he then proceeded to slaughter all of the sheep with a broadsword in one of the most morbid but wildly hilarious scenes in the entire 800,000 word book. Then there's his clueless "squire" Sancho Panza, being dragged along like a middle aged man on Ashley Madison, who keeps taking the blunt of all his master's fuck-ups and constantly wants to quit but has absolutely nothing better to do so he sticks it out.

There's even one scene where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza puke in each other's mouths, and I recommend the book just for that scene alone.

But what intrigues me is the ability for the story to switch between hilariously flippant and serious at the toss of a hat.
Aw crud, it landed all the way over there?

In one scene two guys are violently puking their sweet guts out into each other's mouths, and in the next the story is exploring heavy themes about depression, loneliness, suicide, unrequited love, financial instability, etc.

Great, now I gotta go get it
(How did Cervantes predict 2019 over 400 years ago?)

Now the thing to note here is that it's not a gimmick. A lot of stories might try to haphazardly throw in some random depressing shit into their funny story, or vice versa, as a half-baked attempt at keeping the reader hooked (looking at you Cassandra Claire) but this usually comes across as inauthentic and contrived.

What's that? Brittany and Brad are breaking up for the 4th time in the book?? And they got back together at the start of the next chapter each time they previously broke up, but this time is totally serious?
Yep, they totally aren't going to get back together next chapter.
Although with stories like Don Quixote, the change of mood isn't artificial or manufactured. It's developed naturally by drawing from the setting and events of the story. In other words, it grows organically.

This is the result of careful planning; in order for a story to pull this off, there has to be meticulous attention to detail on the creator's part. This means deciding before you start writing the story how the mood will change, and then planting seeds that can grow later on. This example shouldn't count because it hasn't been written yet, but this is what I'm planning for The Pen Pal. I casually mentioned it in a previous post (I talk more about this story idea than the actual book I'm writing, lol) and what I'm doing right now is planning where to plant the seeds in the first third of the book, that way later on I have material to work with.

One example from my work is drawing from relatable experiences in the real world.

(This is a minor spoiler for one of my future works, so if you don't want it spoiled, skip ahead to the SAFE marker.)

I noticed that a lot of funny stories usually have a small, and subtle element of mystery. In Wake Up, Sir! it was the slipper thief, and in Don Quixote- well, there were several in Don Quixote, but one of the bigger ones was if Sancho would ever become lord of an island one day like he was promised.

In The Pen Pal, I decided to insert an element of mystery at the beginning of the story by having the protagonist's friends notice a promiscuous woman. It starts with one of them smiling and saying, "See that piece of *ss over there? I snuggled that last night," and then one of the others chiming in that they did too. Of course this causes a small argument to break out, where both think the other is lying, only for them to realize that this woman actually had slept with two of the seven people at that table.

And, afterwards, they notice that every night of the cruise, she's hitting it off with a different guy, and come to the conclusion that she's a femme fetale, making rounds around the ship to seduce men and destroy their relationships. They come to this conclusion when they see her hitting on numerous married men.

But then, the plot thickens.
I love when the plot becomes dummy thicc

For you see, there is almost always one man seen conversing with her, and often these two kiss. Based on the way they act, and the fact that both of them have a wedding ring, it is possible to conclude that they are married!

So it is at this point that the two friends of our protagonist realize that she has been cheating on her husband with numerous men on the cruise ship, and that she must have pulled it off flawlessly if her husband still didn't know about it.

But that's not all; it is later revealed by one of the female friends that the husband tried to hit on her, and it is only after their burning curiosity becomes so hot that they can no longer bear it, that they get up and approach the woman directly asking what's actually going on.

It turned out the woman and her husband were in an open relationship, and were entirely aware of what the other was doing the entire time.

The thing to note with this is that it is in no way a part of the main plot, in fact it's barely a subplot. The story itself doesn't really explore this little tidbit very much, however it pretty much unfolds entirely through dialogue. Just little snippets of conversation here and there bring this subplot to fruition, and it is only one of many like it.

By planting the seeds of the "promiscuous stranger" subplot in some dialogue at the beginning of the book, I can clear the way to expand on it more later on in the story.

But after seeing how planting seeds early on works, you might be left with the question, How do I come up with this stuff? It's a lot more simple than you might think-- just work backwards.

The truth is, that most normal, ordinary stuff can be made interesting just by working backwards to create some sort of mystery or ambiguity about it.

(Minor spoiler here)

 For example, with the "promiscuous woman" subplot I mentioned, I could just have introduced a couple that was in an open relationship, but introducing them this way is much more engaging and interesting, even if at the end of the day the characters are still the same.


By working backwards, from the end of the story to the beginning, you can decide how to scatter clues and ideas as "seeds" to accomplish this effect.

No, not those, those only grow watermelons.
Now just to make something clear, this isn't something you only do if you're writing a mystery novel. While this is something you would do if you were writing a murder mystery, every story should utilize this technique. Pretty much every story does (or at least, should) have some element of mystery to it, because if you already know everything, why continue reading?

This is also how you utilize foreshadowing. It's easier to foreshadow events when you, the author, already know what's going to happen.

Now many people might say, "I don't need to work backwards, because I already know what's going to happen," but no, you sir are mistaken.

Even if you already have the ending planned out (and I hope you do because you probably shouldn't start writing until you've at least outlined the story), odds are it won't be exactly how you planned. Because there are factors in the first half of the story that you couldn't possibly keep track of, the end result will likely resemble what you had in mind, but probably won't be exactly how you initially imagined.

In my current manuscript Desolation's Reach, (it's about time I mentioned my WIP instead of just talking about The Pen Pal) I always had a basic outline from start to finish:

The main character is Cerres, he'll end up fighting three different "bosses," if we refer to the strongest enemy fights as boss battles, and then everything is revealed at the end of the book and the veil is lifted.

However, while I technically accomplished all of that in the completion of the first draft, it turned out way different than I expected.

(Don't worry, there's no spoilers.)

For example, I intended for there to only be two races in the story: the humans and the Chaeklin.

But halfway through the story, I realized that the history and world of Dormere was too rich and saturated for there to only be two factions in play, so I created an entire species called the "Airock" that would ultimately end up playing a pretty massive role in how the events of the story unfold in the second book.

I didn't know that the Airock would be a thing in the story when I initially planned out the basic outline, so the final product, while technically following the guidelines I set, was vastly different from how I anticipated, and that's why it's important to go over the story a few times from the end to the beginning and plant those seeds. Now that I know what role the Airock will be playing the grand scheme of things, I can go back and plant little seeds and foreshadow some of the events that follow.

By now I think I've exhausted this topic pretty extensively, so the last point I would like to make is this:

When you go back to plant seeds, don't just use them for mysteries or for foreshadowing; while those things are important too, the best use of this technique is to plant seeds for entire emotions. Not just events of the story or individual plot points, but entire sentiments and worldviews.

With the omnipotent control you have over your story, you can go back and plant seeds of sentiment
that will later grow into entire character arcs.

Let's go back to Zuko from ATLA for a second.

It's no mystery why so many people refer to Zuko as the greatest redemption arc in television history.

He went from a rotten brat who burned down villages to please daddy to a well-rounded and deeply flawed character who ultimately became Aang's only chance at defeating Ozai. We see the ultimate culmination of his story arc when he confronts Ozai in his chamber during the eclipse, and he has all the opportunity in the world to kill him while he's defenseless, but he merely says, "Because I know my own destiny. Taking you down is the Avatar's destiny."

And he was right, because if he had just killed Ozai on the spot, it wouldn't have ended the war. He would be seen as a traitor who murdered his own father for the throne, and his sister Azula would have taken over. Iroh said the same thing earlier when asked why he wouldn't face Ozai, when he said, "History wouldn't see it as bringing peace. They'd see it as a brother killing a brother for power, only the Avatar can kill the fire lord."

The thing with Zuko was that the sentiments were planted early on, mostly through Iroh.

We see early on that Iroh understands Zuko's drive more than anyone else, and probably the first solid example of this is when he talks to Zhao in season one about Zuko's past.

So in a way, Zuko's story arc begins vicariously through Iroh. Even if we don't have the full picture, we know enough to know that Iroh does, and it is through Iroh that the pieces come together.

I think one of the best ways to execute a more complex type of comedy is through tenderness. Shows like The Office aren't just funny, they're also a little sad, a little heart-warming. There are so many examples to choose from-- when Dwight reads Michael's recommendation, when Pam says goodbye to Michael for the last time, when Pam and Jim are both dating other people, and many others.

There's nothing wrong about making things funny just for the sake of comedy, but there's something intrinsically valuable in comedic moments that serve a bigger picture of different emotions.

That's all I got for you today.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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