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Dialogue. Beware the Humor.

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

An unfortunate aspect of movies sharing a dominant space with literature is that the worst of the film industry has a tendency to bleed into the writing world. As the film industry has had an explosion of fantasy and science fiction adjacent movies over the last decade, some of the worst specifically of the marvel cinematic universe has spilled over into writing. In this case, I am speaking about humor in scenes, and humor in dialogue.

What is funny in writing?

We have said in previous sections that dialogue must be natural to a character, to a setting, and to the moment. It is entirely possible to have a whimsical character, and to have a character who likes to make jokes. However, that doesn’t mean that every scene is the time and place for it.

Humor in writing is supposed to serve a primary purpose: releasing tension. Humor in movies and in some writing has started to be used to break tension which hasn’t occurred yet, or worse, is used so liberally, because writers worry that people can’t handle a moment of serious tension, that it devolves characters into something that is less than realistic.

Let’s take an early Marvel movie example of acceptable humor and dialogue.

In Guardians of The Galaxy, Rocket requests a man’s prosthetic leg, as part of a heist. The tone of the film has been established as less serious than movies which have come before, the character has been established as a trickster or even a playful liar when it serves him. He makes multiple jokes in serious moments before this scene. The leg is not needed, it is played for laughs during an otherwise serious scene, where he responds “I just wanted to see if you would do it.”

Due to the success of the movie, the writers in the marvel world began to implement more humor into every movie. Many of these were at times when it wasn’t warranted. Let’s take Thor’s character arc. Perhaps we should say the character boomerang. Through his first outings we see the character grow up, grow to become worthy of power (over a weekend… a little fast but I digress…) lose his kingdom, lose an eye, lose his self-respect and hope, fail to save the world… then… well.


Thor, a travesty of splits.

This scene opens a movie. This is a travesty of terrible. It betrays character growth, sets a mismatched tone against the arc which has gone before, and undoes character development. It does this for the sake of humor, which is not funny. It is attempted humor run amok.

Humor can not only destroy protagonist character building, or deflate scenes which need to remain tense to draw readers in, it can also completely and easily destroy the villain. Villains, whether they are relatable, or not, are in some manner to be feared for their capability and threat.

Would Darth Vader be the villain if he cracked jokes instead of punishing people who disobey him?

Would Raistlin be an antihero, and creepy, if he constantly told jokes about his life threateningly low constitution? (Legends series)

Would Tarrant be a villain, on the path to redemption if instead of being terrifying he told jokes every time there was a hint of his dark magic at work, making people around him uncomfortable? (Coldfire Trilogy)

In every case the answer is no. Nothing can deflate the threat of a good villain faster than misplaced humor.

Humor has its place, but humor may have more incorrect places than not.

Ask yourself:

1) Would any human real emotionally capable person crack a joke at this moment in time?

2) What would I think of a character who did make a joke at this moment?

3) Am I taking away from tension I want to build?

4) Have I reached the most emotion I want from this arc or scene before I release it with a joke?

5) Would this character have made a joke at all?

6) Has the tone of the book up to this point indicated that humor might have a place in this book?

Only when you have answered these questions carefully should you consider placing humor in your scene. But you only have a book to consider it in, when you write. So get out there and get writing.

For more in the dialogue series and other writing hints, dont forget to subscribe here.

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