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The Fine Line Between Humor and Tragedy

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Please welcome our guest, Jared Reck [1], to Writer Unboxed today! Jared is the author of A Short History of the Girl Next Door [2] (“Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, this unrequited love story will appeal to fans of Jennifer Niven, John Green, and Jesse Andrews”). He lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania, where he’s an eighth-grade Language Arts teacher. A bit more about him:

I attended Clemson University, first for architecture, then fine arts, and finally received a B.A. in English, with hopes of writing and illustrating picture books (though I was too scared to ever submit anything). After a short time as a production editor for medical journals, I went back for my teaching certification, which is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Since then, I’ve received a Masters in Educational Leadership from Shippensburg University, and I’ve completed graduate coursework in McDaniel College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults Program. 

The essay below originally appeared in Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide, which you can download for free by following this link. [3]

Learn more about Jared on Facebook [4], on Twitter at @ReckJ [5], and by visiting his website [1].

The Fine Line Between Humor and Tragedy

I book-talk new titles almost every day in my eighth grade classroom, and I always tell my students that while I love books that can make me laugh, what I’m really looking for is the book that can make me laugh and rip my guts out. They’ll look at me like I’m crazy, but want to feel something when I read. I want to be devastated, torn apart by a full range of emotions.

I write what I most love to read. Which means, somehow, I’ve got to pull off this same kind of magic — writing scenes that make my readers laugh, right alongside scenes that emotionally gut them. The key, in my own writing, is balancing the two, as each enhances the other. And while I don’t think there’s any one way to pull this off, there are a few ideas I cling to in trying to reach this range of emotional resonance.

Any given moment

I love the idea in writing that in the particular lies the universal — that there’s beauty and emotion and connection in specific, ordinary, seemingly insignificant moments. In my first book, a YA contemporary called A Short History of the Girl Next Door, that idea comes across as, “Any given moment just might be perfect.” Moments like “Trick or Treat” traditions, bus rides to school, neighborhood home run derbies, Candyland played with little brothers, or playing in the snow as kids come to mind. That stuff matters, you know? How many of us, when we lose a grandparent, or a parent, or anyone that matters to us, think, I really wish I could just go back and have one more cup of coffee together — munch on one more of Grandma’s sugar cookies — and talk?

Think about the moments that make up your characters’ lives before they ever step onto your pages. What are the tiny moments they wish they could go back to?

I use a simple character questionnaire before I ever start writing my stories — twenty, thirty pages of my main character just rambling and sharing his moments with me, interview-style. When I get stuck mid-story, I use the same technique. Knowing these tiny moments is crucial in making his emotional responses authentic.

The impact of things

Similar to recognizing the importance of ordinary moments, emotional resonance can be found in specific, ordinary objects. When teaching poetry in my Writing Workshop, I love the William Carlos Williams line, “Say it, no ideas but in things.” To get my students to tackle the big things — love, loss, identity, the alienation of adolescence — they need to zoom in on the little things, in specific objects that hold emotional significance for them.

Think of some of your own. The more weirdly specific, the better:

Each item has a story. I’d be willing to bet there are really funny parts to that story if you look early enough on its timeline. Maybe you used to use that floppy-necked Pound Puppy as a nunchuck against your unsuspecting older brother, asleep in the bunk below you.

Maybe, now, you really miss your brother.

The key is acknowledging — exploiting, even — both ends of that object’s timeline.In Short History, the same objects that bring smiles can break hearts: a box of Nerds, a crocheted hat, a stuffed giraffe, a tureen of inappropriately good gravy. And in the end, those same objects may help heal. It’s a balance.

Emotional release valves

One final thought on balancing humor and tragedy in your writing: Mr. Ellis, Matt’s English teacher in Short History, tells his students that there’s a fine line between laughter and pain — that sometimes things are so awful that all you can really do about it is laugh.

In our own lives, laughter often tags along behind despair, awkwardly waiting for the right moment to speak up. A couple years ago, my wife lost her cousin to cystic fibrosis. I remember sitting in the hospital near the end, after the doctors had removed her cousin from all transplant lists, listening to this girl’s mother howl at old Eddie Murphy clips from SNL. She and her daughter used to recite them to each other around the house. Hearing her laugh in that hospital waiting room was simultaneously funny and heartbreaking and beautiful. Her world was crumbling. She needed to laugh.

When your characters’ worlds are crumbling around them, let them laugh. You may crush your readers, but your characters will thank you.

How do you balance tragedy and humor in your stories — or any other seemingly polar elements, for that matter? We’d love to hear your thoughts in comments.

(Don’t forget, you can read more articles like this one via Signature’s 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide, which you can download for free by following this link. [3])