As the wheels of our plane hit the tarmac, the woman sitting next to me lost her grip on the powered-down cell phone she’d been clinging to throughout the flight. It landed with a soft thunk on the thin carpet glued to the floor of the plane. She strained forward to retrieve it and started chuckling to herself.
“Do you want to hear something funny?” she asked me.
“Sure,” I put down my crossword. It was the first time we’d spoken to each other since some polite hellos when we sat down.
“I’m very scared to fly. I’m so scared to fly that I always research the planes. You can type in the plane number and its model and year and then you know what kind of accidents or maintenance issues the plane has been in. I always pick the planes with the least number of problems. I try to pick the safest planes.”
I nodded along with her story, recalling the way she had immediately studied the emergency safety card soon after we consented we were willing to sit in an exit row and “willing to perform the duties necessary.” At the time, her diligence had seemed like a touching gesture of duty to our fellow passengers. Now, I realize she must have been silently terrified for our entire 90-minute flight.
“And the funny thing,” she continued. “The funny thing is that this plane never had any issues. I always find something but this plane had no bad reports. I couldn’t believe it.”
I smiled back, agreed I was glad we were safe but wondered where the joke was. We made our way to the gate and her tension, fear and superstition that this was supposed to be the plane’s failed flight dissolved in an outpouring of giggles.
cut to: The lights of the house come up and the entire audience is still somber and breathless. We’ve been gasping for air between our laughter for the last two hours. We’ve been watching a toxic family drama, filled with heartbreak, madness, violence, and tragic miscommunication. But because it’s a Martin McDonagh play (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) every tense moment and cruel act comes with comic dialogue and outlandish characters that force our laughter. It is simultaneously sidesplitting and devastating. We stream towards the door pensive but grateful we were given the lifeline amid all the tragedy. The pairing has worked well since Shakespearean drama. The comedy lowers our defenses and helps us confront a difficult truth that lies in the tragedy.
Similar to plays, any novel that aims to build suspense, tension, or creates discomfort in its reader must have strategic moments of comic relief. These scenes provide a wonderful counterpoint to the serious subject matter and allow the reader a moment to unclench, relax in order to move forward and understand painful truths in a new way. Through funny characters, hopeful scenes or absurd events that play on a character’s deepest flaws or key misunderstandings, writers can give readers a sense of distance from something that is hard to confront head on.
Over the past month, I’ve been turning to political satire at times when I’m frightened about what I see on the actual news. Sometimes I think it has helped me process some of the real events and feel closer to those in my community. Other times it is simply a much needed distraction, a moment of relief and silliness so that I can get a break from serious concerns and feel some catharsis. Either way, it’s emotional management.
Novelists are trusted to take readers on a journey. While your setting, your characters, and your plot can all add up to the making of a successful trip – the true mark of a story that stays with you is one that evokes emotion and leaves you with a genuine experience when you haven’t left the couch. As you plummet towards that “all is lost” heartbreak or the build suspense for what lurks in the house in the woods, remember to provide your reader that lifeline for escape and humor. These pockets of relief ultimately draw them in closer and give way to a deeper understanding and resonance of your story.