Tag Archives: writing stories

Exploding Plot

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion–that’s Plot.”

–Leigh Brackett

Have you outlined a tidy, well-organized, and logical plot for your story? Are your characters busy being civil, well-educated human beings going about their lives and work, sighing now and then over a lost dream or one of life’s disappointments? Are they angst-ridden mopers propped up on bar stools, feeling sorry for their failures and delivering beer-sodden soliloquies that are your insights to life?

Are you typing and typing and typing, compiling a ever-growing page count while in the back of your mind you worry whether your story is actually going anywhere and how will you end this thing anyway?

And if you have a reader that’s honest with feedback instead of simply an ego-supporter, and that person is quiet after perusing your sample pages and hasn’t much to say in reaction, then it’s time to face reality:

Your work-in-progress could well be a self-indulgent, staid, lackluster, sanitized bore.

As Winnie the Pooh would say, “Oh, bother.”

Where, I ask you, is the fire?

A book, a story, a yarn intended for the commercial market isn’t a collection of words, or character speeches, or passages of description, or self-conscious style, or even a slice-of-life duplication of life’s most mundane moments.

Instead, it should be alive, with vivid characters bursting with emotion. It should be messy, because human beings are squalid, and tender, and ferocious, and petty, and heroic, and gentle, and greedy, and contradictory messes themselves.

Your characters should be in trouble. Not just suffering from a bad day. Not simply afflicted with the choice of whether to purchase a white car or a blue one. Not concerned with how to afford those Starbucks lattes while paying little Jimmy’s private school tuition. When I say trouble, I mean plagued with worry so intense the stress is eating them alive. Blighted with jealousy so white-hot it sears them every time they look at the person they believe is their spouse’s lover. Terrified in mind-numbed paralysis by the stalker that leaves eerie messages and gifts inside their apartment while they sleep. Raging with the grief and frustration of being falsely accused and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. Horrified by the cruelty of cyber-bullies that have been secretly grinding their once-happy daughter into a withdrawn, bulimic, isolated, social outcast.

At its essential core, a story is what pits one character against another. It’s how those characters clash in struggle against each other, how they grow fiercer in striving to win–or survive–and how they overcome the biggest challenges of all at the end to achieve poetic justice.

You cannot generate a successful, emotionally satisfying plot that comes alive in reader imaginations unless you’re willing as a writer to get your hands dirty. By that, I mean willing to step right into the intense emotional quagmires within your protagonist and antagonist. Until you do that, you will never fully understand their motivations, and of course without motivation the actions a character takes will always seem contrived and artificial.

In other words, you can’t write at a distance from your characters. You can’t remain tidy and detached. You must be willing to crack open a sleek character’s facade and look at what’s seething beneath the mask.

More than that, you must be willing to apply more pressure to a protagonist already in tremendous trouble. This is done by not protecting or safeguarding your lead character. This is done by allowing the antagonist to hit the hero where he or she is most vulnerable–and hit that person hard.

Until we push a character hard enough, how will we–let alone readers–ever know what that story person is really made of?

Until we push a character hard enough, that character will not take action, will not take risks, will not dare to strike at another individual, will continue to hide or stay safe, and will remain dull and boring on the page.

Think about the best mysteries you’ve read. Often–in cozies anyway–the first victim is a sly, wicked, conniving, ruthless, immoral blackguard so rotten every suspect has a solid reason to wish him dead.

Think about your favorite thriller where the protagonist is swept up in the sudden terror of an ordeal so dangerous and horrific the suspense is tightened to an almost unbearable degree. The danger forces the protagonist to flee whatever comfort zone she has always known and attempt the unthinkable in order to survive.

Think about those romances where sparks fly between hero and heroine who stand on opposite sides of an issue yet are pulled together by a physical attraction so potent they are nearly powerless against it.

Think about the fantasy where magic is the only way to save the person the protagonist most cherishes, yet using that magic will extol a terrible price the protagonist fears to pay.

Do you see how, in each of these genre examples, I’ve set up a situation that puts the protagonist inside an emotional or ethical pressure cooker? Yes, some of these examples are stereotypical, and the tropes are well worn, but they work to illustrate my point.

Brackett’s quote says that explosion creates plot. If so, then you need intense emotion, conflict between characters in active opposition to each other, and situations that demand frequent clashes. They are your dry tinder. Additional pressure and/or stress is the spark.


Conflagration … and a plot that comes alive.


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Moody and Broody

Here on the prairie, spring weather has been wild and crazy–much as usual. Fierce winds have buffeted us day and night lately. Last night, the wind blew around the corners of my house and tossed the newly leafed shrubbery and trees. Something–probably the iron structure supporting the bird feeder that’s slowly listing to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa–was creaking outdoors. The jolly string of wooden Easter eggs on my front door clacked steadily against the glass storm door. Night noises all around, never dying away for the stillness of sleep and tranquility. Things going bump in the night.

At one point I looked out the back door, and saw a full moon halfway above a thick bank of clouds to the east. It was an odd sight, very eerie, and seeing the moon like that immediately sparked inspiration. My imagination danced. What if? What if?

So … do you consider mood and atmosphere when you write fiction? When you’re devising your setting, do you incorporate ambiance?

In making setting vivid to readers, the atmosphere is important. After all, it’s hard to maintain a tense, suspenseful tone if you’re describing bright pastel colors and teddy bears and the cheerful sounds of children’s laughter.

You shade reader perception through the tone you adopt and maintain. You affect reader emotions, and stir reader imagination, through the diction of your story. What is diction? The words you choose to use. It’s all about vocabulary and making it work for you.

Consider the following words that have similar meanings but different connotations:

dim ………………………………..gloomy

large ………………………………cavernous

teeth ………………………………fangs

reddish …………………………..bloody

pointed leaves …………………spiky leaves

shy …………………………………withdrawn

Or these:

dim ……………………………….candlelit

large ……………………………..spacious

teeth …………………………….gleaming smile

reddish …………………………vermillion

pointed leaves ……………….palm fronds

shy ………………………………hesitant

Shading your diction or word choice to fit your story setting and its genre is also known as writing in coded language. Readers of certain genres expect writers to employ a vocabulary that suits the genre. Such word choices in turn connote more to avid readers of that genre than they might otherwise to a more casual audience.

Accordingly, romance readers expect settings to be described in ways that evoke the physical senses, are attractive or possibly glamorous, and convey a romantic atmosphere.

Thriller/mystery/horror readers expect settings to hold a sense of danger and to be edgy. Therefore, a poorly lit room might seem romantic in one genre but a dangerous trap in another.

Fantasy readers expect settings to be magical, unusual, exotic, and surprising.

Writers who take the time to enhance their stories with coded imagery–to set the mood appropriate to their plot, location, situation, and scene–add considerably to the overall effect. Consider the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. They ooze dank despair. Consider the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling which enchant and charm on every page. Consider the romantic story The Wedding Dress by Virginia Ellis, in which three sisters distract themselves from the bleak economic hardships immediately following the Civil War by hand-sewing a wedding dress, hoping with every button and every stitch that once the gown is completed a bridegroom will appear for at least one of them.

Now of course, there are some writers who want to play against type. They want to contrast the bright, cheery nursery with a grim crime scene down the hall in the master bedroom. They want to show an empty crib, a dropped teddy bear, and the bloody handprints on the wall going down the stairs. Such writers aren’t ignoring atmosphere or coded language. They are instead making it work for them in a different way, to surprise and stress readers deliberately. Such contrasts create atmosphere effectively.

Whether you set up straightforward mood or go for a contrast, be aware of your setting and make it work harder for your story’s success.


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In Search of Boredom

Our society has an antipathy to boredom. It seems we dare not be alone with our thoughts for a moment, that we must fill every second with distraction. I see people walking down sidewalks, reading their text messages. I see people give their order at restaurants and then immediately whip out their phones to check their messages. I see people playing games on their phones while waiting for dental appointments and oil changes. SUVs come with DVD players in their backseats because heaven forbid that a child be forced to look at the passing scenery on a road trip. And just today, I learned that some police departments offer Xbox to victims while they are waiting to file reports.

Fine and good. If you’re thinking I’m about to step on my soapbox–yet again–to rant against the evils of our technology-driven world, you’re wrong.

Well … sort of.

I just want to make the case that writers need boredom more than they need phones, games, streaming video, and Instagram.

One of the best things my parents did for me in my childhood was plant me in some of the most boring situations ever. As an only child, I spent a lot of time hanging out in their business after school–being quiet and staying out of the way. Because they dropped me off at school in the mornings on their way to work one hour before school actually started, I had time to think, imagine, and dream. They hauled me on long twenty-hour road trips, and although I was an avid reader I couldn’t read in the car because of my severe astigmatism. Ergo, I moved into my imagination and invented stories for myself. Could I have done that while watching a DVD as we drove across Texas all day?

Today, my phone dings with text messages, emails, alerts, Facebook notifications, and reminders. Helpful, but distracting. When I sit down at my computer for a cherished hour of writing time, can I resist the news feed on my browser? Can I resist peeking at my emails? If I want to actually use my writing hour for writing, I had better resist everything.

Once upon a time, I remember when my weekends were empty–with nothing on my to-do list but household chores and writing. Now, the daily list runs across multiple pages with far too many intriguing events calling enticements to me. Errands go on and on, and choices are endless. There isn’t even time to pursue hobbies.

When did this happen? How does it happen? And what do we do about it?

Last week, while driving to work, I grew weary of the early-morning chatter of FM radio hosts and punched in the local classical music station. Sublime Bach filled my car as I crawled through near-gridlock traffic. Just minutes previously, I had tuned my radio to a station playing the latest Taylor Swift ditty. And I had to wonder about how we’ve gone from musicians proffering us the complexity of Bach to pop tunes featuring five notes and a repeating chorus. Could Bach hear himself think today in our cacophony of busy lives, busy tasks, more, more, more? Or would he be too distracted by the chance to watch Netflix to compose serious music?

Beware, fellow writers, the siren’s lure of distraction. It calls us into the land of Lotus Eaters, where we forget how swiftly our writing time passes or how near our deadlines loom because we are too busy thinking of too many things to write.

Find the boredom. Seek out nothing to do. Let silence fill your head and drive out the chatter-clatter of daily life. Sit quietly until you’re past the wiggles and impatient looking for your phone, for a magazine, for the remote, for something to push, peer at, listen to, watch. Sit quietly until the quiet drives you deep into your imagination. Then the muse will come.



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If Dogs Could Write

Last night, I was making tuna salad for my work lunch. For a treat, I usually allow my dogs to lick the can the fish comes from, and I also give them the water the fish is packed in. Typically one dog commandeers the can–considered to be the most special and important aspect of this treat, and his brother has to make do with lapping up the juice and then circling anxiously until he’s finally allowed his chance at the by-now polished container.

The rule in my house is that no furry individual gets a people-food treat until after the people in the house have finished dining and left the table. Moreover, dogs aren’t allowed in the kitchen while I’m preparing supper. It’s a safety issue. No one handling hot pans or kitchen knives needs to trip over a fur-faced moocher.

However, last night, the rules went out the window. When I opened the can of yellowfin packed in olive oil, something I don’t usually have, the dogs swarmed my kitchen. They would not leave and only reluctantly moved out of the way each time I needed access to the refrigerator. The fish was on the island, and they remained as close to the island as they could get. They were focused, determined, goal-oriented, motivated, and passionate about getting that tuna can. (Incidentally, no, I did not give anyone the drained olive oil. A substitute was found.)

So what does my culinary incident have to do with writing fiction? Let’s consider 10 things a writer can learn from dogs.

  1.  Dogs understand goals. They may be hardwired to instinctively beg for any food in your hand, but they know what they want without any ambivalence or apology. A story protagonist should be focused on a clear, easy-to-understand goal.
  2. Dogs are strongly motivated to achieve their objective. Call it instinct if you wish, but they aren’t giving up until they succeed. Both the protagonist and antagonist should be powerfully motivated and determined.
  3. Dogs have a plan. If just showing up doesn’t get the morsel, then how about bumping Master’s leg? If that doesn’t work, what about giving Master THE LOOK? If that doesn’t work, what about whining? If that doesn’t work, any cute tricks to try? The dance? The leap? The back flip? The balancing on the haunches while waving forepaws? If tricks don’t work, send in Brother who has the angelic face and succeeds best in begging. If that doesn’t work, what about the supreme risk of tripping Master?
  4. Dogs understand that sneaky antagonists generate conflict. Ever try persuading a begging dog to leave the premises? The command is ignored. A louder order achieves a temporary flattening of the ears but the dog doesn’t move. A shout will drive the dog out of the way, but the dog immediately circles and takes up a new position even more in the way, preferably one that requires Master to step over the dog.
  5. Dogs feel a gamut of emotions. The divine temptation of tuna fragrance hitting the nostrils. The watering of the mouth. The desire. The anticipation and hope. The crash of disappointment. The leap of new hope. Bigger crash of disappointment. The stubborn intensity of trying again. The agony of waiting. That sense of Master wavering. Master is picking up the can. Master is walking toward the utility room. Master is calling. The joy, the ecstasy, the delight of success! Ah, yes, dogs know the rollercoaster of emotions, whether they are spinning in a circle to earn a piece of popcorn or growling at the Fed-Ex guy. And so should your protagonist. Stories aren’t merely reports of character actions. Through viewpoint, your protagonist should feel a variety of emotional reactions–positive and negative–to whatever is happening in the story.
  6. Dogs believe in what works. Repetition doesn’t faze them. If begging a certain way achieves a laugh and cave-in of rules from Master, then the dog will repeat what was successful. Find writing principles that work and use them again and again. Your characters in each story will be different. The story situation or problem your characters are dealing with are different. But your approach as a writer–the setting up of the story situation, the introduction of a goal-focused protagonist, the clarity of the story’s goal, the determination of the antagonist, and a climatic showdown at the end that resolves the issue–should be the same. Trust writing principles and use them every time.
  7. Dogs keep things simple. Every time they run outside, it’s their favorite thing to do. Every time they run inside, it’s their favorite thing to do. They live in the moment. They forgive easily. They lavish love with generous hearts. All they ask is Master filling their food bowl on time, Master filling their water bowl when it’s dry, Master remembering there is a cookie at lunch, a cookie after supper, and a cookie at bedtime, and Master scratching tummies and tickling ears occasionally. So should your plot be kept simple. What does your protagonist want? Who wants to stop your protagonist? How will your protagonist overcome opposition to win? Any time you find yourself wound into an excessively complicated plot that has you baffled, simplify it. Clear, direct, easy to understand, exciting.
  8. Dogs know there’s a time to play ball. Or Frisbee. Or fetch. If your scene is stuck, take a walk. Let the breeze ruffle your hair and blow the cobwebs from your mind. Take some deep breaths and increase the oxygen flow to your brain. For twenty minutes or so don’t gnaw at the problem that has you stymied. Just let your thoughts float freely. Enjoy the pretty sky. Stretch your legs. Take a moment to watch Canada geese putter in the park. And while your dog barks at them, snap a photo. Pause to greet a young mother out strolling with her children. Connect with the real world. You and your dog have shared a pleasant, simple experience outdoors. When you come inside, chances are you’ll feel refreshed and that Gordian knot of a plot problem will be something you can solve.
  9. Dogs have fun. Optimistic and generally upbeat, they are always ready for adventure. Even better, they believe–with a few exceptions, such as bath-time–that anything and everything will be enjoyable. Writing, too, should be fun. It’s challenging and hard work, but it should never be dreary drudgery. If it is and if you dread sitting down at your keyboard, something is wrong.
  10. Dogs keep their minds open. New experiences. New days. New people to love. New toys. New treats. Writers need to be receptive to what’s new and believe that almost anything can become fodder for a story, or inspiration for a character or setting.


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The Notorious Info-Dump

Among the many pitfalls for the unwary writer is an urgent “need” to share far too much information and explanation with our readers. After we’ve created settings and characters that require considerable detail and knowledge within our heads, it seems only natural that we should then want to blurt out all this lavish wealth of information and share it with everyone.

However, readers should know only about ten percent of what a writer invents for his or her story. And if that’s the case … and if we aren’t going to cram this stuff into our stories, why should we bother to create it at all?

Well, one reason is that writers should work very, very hard so that their readers never struggle, become confused, or lose suspension of disbelief.

Another reason is that our characters will be more plausible and dimensional if we create elaborate and sometimes lengthy dossiers for them. This effort acquaints us with their psychology, their motivations, their fears, their ambitions, their hidden weaknesses. If we know that a character was bitten by a rabid dog when a child and had to undergo painful rabies treatments, then we can write this adult individual’s extreme, panicky reaction to any canine with far more verve and authority than if we just randomly decide she should be frightened of dogs.

However, do we need to put the story on pause while this character’s entire backstory and horrifying childhood experience is dumped in? No, we do not. Readers are clever in picking up clues and hints dropped through character dialogue, reactions, and behavior. Allow your adult character to encounter a growling German Shepherd and show only her response to it–without additional explanation. Because you know all the background behind her fears, you will write her reaction much differently than if you never plan that event in her past.

Then, trust the character to carry the story for you. She should deliver a doozy of a reaction.

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Plot It Simple

From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over:  Keep it simple.

But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.

Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:

Make your characters complex.

Keep your plot simple.

Let’s consider these one at a time.


Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.

A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.

Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.

Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.

Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.

Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.


A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.

This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.

This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.

In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.

Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.

The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.

In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.

The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.

A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.

Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.

Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:

Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.

Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.

Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.

Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.

Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.

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A Touch of Humor

While there was a time when I believed that a story should be totally and deeply serious or else slapstick silly, I’ve come to understand that stories don’t have to be at one extreme or the other. Often, the most effective–or touching–tales evoke a combination of emotions.

While I love drama, if there’s too much grief, gloom, and bleakness unrelieved by any lighter emotion, I can find myself weighed down, depressed, and ready to toss such an unrelenting plot aside.

I enjoy comedy in many forms–usually situational, physical, or farce. In recent years, other types of comedy have become more fashionable, but satire, sardonic wit, and scatological jokes seldom appeal to my personal taste.

Good farce is delightful, but if it’s poorly done it can come across as nothing more than characters behaving stupidly. While there are gems among the American television sitcoms, too many of them rely on punch-line humor–often the hardest to put across–and a canned laugh track. Is there anything worse than so-called humor that isn’t funny? I am so not amused.

The Brits are masters of situational comedy. Such plots build slowly, taking their time in setting up the scenario, but then–like falling dominoes–the laughs come faster and faster to the end.

Physical comedy has been around for centuries, providing people with simple emotional relief. In the twentieth century, it hit its stride in the silent film era–due largely to the genius of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd–and then continued through the Great Depression with Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges.

Cartoons are another source of humor. Among the best would be the Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. Starting in 1930, when the Great Depression was probably at its worst, these cartoons served up zany slapstick combined with farce, situational humor, and punch-line jokes. As old as they are, they can still make me smile at the difficulties of a cat being trapped in a roll of sticky flypaper. I love the machinations of Tom and Jerry–provided the cartoons haven’t been sanitized for cultural sensitivity. And most of us can probably quote lines such as Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?” or Elmer Fudd’s grumbling about that “wascally wabbit.”

Still, with a few exceptions among the Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton movies, I think the most effective comedy is short. String it out too long, without mixing it with drama or romance, as Buster Keaton was wise enough to do, and it could become mindlessly silly like the antics of the Keystone Kops.

Which brings me back to the point of the post … the advantage of mixing emotions in fiction.

Writers sometimes refer to this blending or combining as “the roller coaster technique.”

The delightful farce, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, combines horror, suspense, romance, and touching little moments of relationships along with the crazy comedy. Without those other emotions, the comedy alone would be impossible to sustain.

Or, give your readers sadness, but then switch up things with a touch of humor.

An example would be in the funeral scene of the film STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Sally Fields has lost her young daughter. The funeral is over, and her friends have gathered around her in sympathy. Sally starts chewing the scenery, with her usually controlled character finally letting go. She’s ranting and weeping, venting all the pent-up emotions that she’s been suppressing through her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. And then, just when this outpouring of grief has us reaching for our hankies, just when if the director had stretched it any further we’d have detached from it, Sally cries out, “I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard.”

And Olympia Dukakis shoves Shirley Maclaine forward and says, “Here! Hit this!”

There’s a moment of shock, then everyone but Shirley Maclaine starts to laugh. Even Sally Fields’s character can’t stop her spurt of laughter. Olympia shrugs as she explains, “I thought we needed to lighten up.”

So true.

The tragedy, when contrasted with an appropriate amount of humor, will seem that much more moving.

One of the important themes of Preston Sturges’s film classic, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, is that we need humor in order to keep our balance and our hope, no matter how strong our problems.

The film is set during the worst of America’s Great Depression. Sullivan is a rich, successful filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the poor and downtrodden need movies of heavy drama. He thinks bleakness is all that poor, out-of-work people can identify with.

He’s totally wrong, of course. As he sets out on his journey among the homeless, he gets himself into genuine and deep trouble, so deep that he lands in an Alabama prison, the worst of all places to be. After chain gang work and much torment, he’s taken with the other prisoners to a small country church to see a film. Zany cartoons are shown, and Sullivan is at first offended as the convicts around him laugh. But then he’s caught up by the silliness, and soon he’s laughing with them. He learns that in times of trouble, we need anything but stories of grief and tragedy. We need to laugh.

This principle works for characterization as well. In the SF television series BABYLON FIVE, Security Chief Garibaldi is portrayed as a gruff, pragmatic little bulldog who’s very good at a very difficult and dangerous job. He’s also a recovered alcoholic who’s not so terrific at relationships. One of the lighter quirks assigned to his character, however, is that he loves Warner’s Looney Tunes cartoons. It humanizes him and shows us that there’s more to this man than a semi-paranoid, distrustful, wary grouch.

In the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, there are two creatures that are products of a secret lab conducting genetic experiments. Both creatures escape. One is a beautiful and highly intelligent Golden Retriever that everyone loves. The other is a hideous, deformed, violent monster that everyone fears. At a certain point in the book, government agents find the monster’s lair and search it for clues as to where the beast might be hiding. Koontz describes the agents picking up magazines where every photograph has been torn to remove the models’ eyes. When the monster kills, it always tears out the eyes of its victims. It’s so ugly that it doesn’t want anyone to see it and cringe in revulsion. But amidst the few possessions, there’s a battered, rusty statuette of Mickey Mouse.

It seems that in the lab, both creatures were shown Mickey Mouse cartoons as they were maturing. And now that they’re out in the world, the beautiful dog still shows delight whenever he encounters a Mickey symbol or cartoon. And in the monster’s den, Mickey represents possibly the only scrap of decency or vulnerability in an otherwise brutal beast.

In this example, Mickey doesn’t provide humor. Instead, he provides a poignant insight into a character that’s more dimensional than we first suppose.

Make ’em laugh. It might be the best way to also make ’em cry.


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