In the past, I've been a little afraid of using humor in my writing. And not just because I was afraid no one would laugh at my jokes, although that was certainly possible. (Probable?) It's mostly because I worried that the second the book became amusing, it would stop being taken at all seriously, and whatever intense struggles my characters had would be disregarded. I suspect I am not alone in my secret conviction that if I am going to write about things like Death and Betrayal and Evil (which, let's face it, I usually am), I have to write about them in a somber way.
But for those of you who also find yourselves in the Grim Camp, let's talk about Harry Potter.
Harry Potter is fun. It’s chock full of whimsy, actually. In what other book could you find a main character named Neville Longbottom or Ron Weasley? Or a plant that is covered with pus-filled swellings (bubotubers!)? This is a world that does not take itself too seriously.
And yet, for me, these books have some intensely serious moments. Disturbing moments. Convincing villains who do truly awful things. Deaths that made me cry. Selfless acts that made me feel inspired. I don’t think these books would have affected so many people in such a powerful way if they had just been Fun Books.
It's not just that the books blend serious and fun, but that the fun makes the serious stand out far more than it ordinarily would have, like when you put a white plate on a black tablecloth. Rowling doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head with Serious Thoughts. The books are playful and amusing and imaginative, and the Serious Thoughts that emerge do just that—emerge, when you aren’t expecting them, and take root in you.
In school, one of my writing professors taught us that the mood/situation at the beginning of a scene should never match the mood at its end-- something must change, whether it transitions from negative to positive, or positive to negative, or negative to more negative, or positive to more positive. In other words, there should be a contrast.
Contrast is important in writing. Contrast in sentence length, contrast in pace, contrast in mood-- they all make your work easier to read and more interesting. And this goes for the contrast between serious and funny, too. People make jokes and humorous observations. Some people make jokes and humorous observations especially in dire situations. (I am one of those people, much to the chagrin of my mother, who...isn't.)
I laughed countless times with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. And I also cried over their losses. And while I enjoy reading about wailing mandrake babies and candy that makes your tongue swell, I also feel like I learn something about selflessness and friendship along the way. Basically, what I'm saying is: just like you have to be on a roof to fall off a building, maybe you have to feel good at some point with a character in order to truly grieve with them.
So, even though it's somewhat counter-intuitive, the next time you're worried about the emotional impact of a scene, maybe...think about the last time you let the reader laugh.