The Yin To All That Gritty Yang ☯

Hi, all—

A few weeks ago, a fellow author & I were discussing humor in fiction. Not the full-blown sort that permeates a comedic novel, but the occasional quips and sarcastic asides—or even a bit of visual slapstick woven throughout a character's actions in a specific scene—that can crop up in a dark suspense or drama. (Think John Garrison & that in-the-buff, post-shower scene in Backblast. Or those non-verbal exchanges between Ruger & Kate that transcend the need for dialogue.

Because my friend and I write gritty, our conversation focused mostly on how humor can actually enhance darker, serious prose, providing a much needed respite for both a book's characters & plot—and especially its reader. Humor can even help to control a scene's pacing by bumping it up or down. This is particularly true when the bulk of the prose in a novel is filled with angst. 

To be honest, I hit on the technique accidentally. At the time, I was writing my first military romance that would eventually sell to HQN. I was such a newbie writer that, until my mentor pointed it out, I didn't even realize I was using humor to pierce the tension in my prose in spots, before I'd begin to build up it up again. It was my mentor who helped me to understand how & why the technique was working—and who told me to “keep doing it!”

While I've followed that advice throughout my writing career, I have a confession to make: I don't really know where it comes from. It just…comes out. But after some thought, I believe I know how & where it was born: the military. Those quips & that sarcasm that crops into my prose now & then were definitely there in my head when I was an Army private embracing the suck that is basic training, as well as when I was a midshipman working to make my mark in the Fleet. But even into my junior officer days aboard ship, I tended to keep those comments to myself. 

But sometimes they'd slip out...and get me in trouble…

There was the time I had the conn on the Samuel Gompers—see above!—during a sea & anchor detail as the ship steamed into Sasebo, Japan. (For those who don't know, having the conn means you're the schmuck actually giving the maneuvering orders on the bridge at that particular moment—and the officer who'll be court-martialed if something goes horribly wrong.) Also, if you've never been to that part of the globe, let me just say that Sasebo can be a funky harbor to park your ship in. Especially the slot we were headed toward that morning. See the aerial image below? Basically, I was tasked with driving the Sammy G straight up into that squarish "C" on the left that's resting on its opening. Once inside the C, I needed to kill our forward motion, then use a pair of tugs to nudge us broadside over to the length of the waiting pier, where we'd be settling in for our visit.

Now, sea & anchor details tend to be stressful & for good reason. If ever there's a chance to screw up & crunch into something while underway, this is it. Hence, there are so many extra personnel on the bridge that you can barely move. In addition to having the captain glued to my rear during the hours-long evolution, I had an older, local pilot who also stood inches from me, offering info & advice indigenous to that specific port. To say that the evolution was a wee bit tense would be an understatement. And when you add on the fact that this particular evolution doubled as my first time driving any warship into port...well, I might've been a wee bit tense myself.

By the time the ship had made it into the heart of that Sasebo C, the tension on the bridge had only skyrocketed—because now those tugs were slowly, but deliberately shoving 26,000 floating tons toward a defiantly stationary concrete pier. Mere seconds before the first shot line arched out from our boatswain mate's hands to those waiting below to convey larger lines to and from the pier, I leaned into the port's pilot & murmured, "I suppose this isn't the time to mention that I failed parallel parking in driver's ed, eh?"

Guys, the pilot laughed so hard I thought the man was going to bust his gut. The comment did the trick with the rest of the surrounding bridge crew too, diffusing the tension instantly. In fact, every single sailor on the bridge that morning got a chuckle out of it—except the captain. The next day, I was duly invited to the CO's cabin where I was informed in no uncertain terms that the bridge of a warship was not the place for humor. 🙄

My old CO may be right…or not. I've served under other COs who not only encouraged humor, they cracked the occasional joke themselves. I much prefer the latter. But either way, I've found that humor definitely has a place in fiction, especially the dark and gritty sort. And, hey, I don't get called onto the carpet anymore when it slips out while I'm writing… 

That's a definite plus! 😁


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