Guest Post: Steve Denniston on Mixing Comedy with Tragedy

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River features stories by 22 Oregon writers.

This is the second guest post in an occasional series by authors of short stories collected in my press’ newest release, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, available at your local bookstore or online in paperback and ebook formats.

Steve Denniston, today’s guest author, is one of the funniest writers I have the pleasure to know personally. What makes his humor so powerful, besides his smart writing and his view of the world, is the darkness he brings into the world around those glinting moments of hilarity. He’s funny because he knows when he needs to step back and not be funny. He knows how to make us feel his characters’ struggles, and how to turn a laugh into a gasp.

I am thrilled that Steve decided to write about exactly this subject, using his story from The Night, and the Rain, and the River, as an example. Welcome, Steve!

And Portlanders, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 5, Steve will be reading from “It’s No Good Telling Me That,” along with Jackie Shannon Hollis, Jan Baross, and Gail Bartley, at Annie Bloom’s Bookstore. So come out and join us!

You Don’t Have to Choose: Using Comedy and Tragedy Together

By Steve Denniston
Steve Denniston

Steve Denniston

When I write, I often explore how humor can affect the story. One of the challenges of doing this is the spectrum for how we react to jokes. At one end is the type of joke we realize is humor but may not even make us smile. It’s more of an intellectual acknowledgment of, “Yes. That’s funny.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the joke that makes us laugh so hard we cry, can’t catch our breath, and can’t even talk to someone else without starting to laugh again. In many ways it’s the same physical reaction as a severe panic attack. Uncontrollable crying, shortness of breath, inability to talk while it happens. That right there, the closeness that tragedy and comedy share, is really what I find interesting about using humor in writing.

In “It’s No Good Telling Me That,” I play with that closeness of tragedy and comedy by starting it out as a comedy about a smart-ass son and forgetful father. The son’s stance is announced in the opening paragraph:

I was up at Shaw’s place with Dad and they were talking about a price for taking out the stumps. Dad took his baseball cap off to negotiate. He should have left it on and kept his bald spot covered. It looked bad, starting on top and going to his left. Leave it to my dad to mess up going bald.

We get a sense right away of the his attitude toward his father, and maybe even suspect he’s right; the father should have left his hat on. Yet we also know it’s ridiculous to suggest there is a right and wrong way to go bald. A couple pages into the story and we realize that the son, John, does have a bit more wisdom than his father. Between the two he understands how much work it’s really going to take to pull out all the stumps. Yet he doesn’t quite have the maturity to channel the wisdom because his solution is,

“Get me some black powder, a foot of metal pipe, and five minutes on the internet. We could make our own dynamite.”

The father is set up pretty quickly as scatterbrained, someone who forgets things all the time. He tells his son he forgot to say something to Shaw but can’t remember what it was, then suggests:

“I should have written my thought down. I need one of those little notebooks you can put in your pocket and write things down in. Then I wouldn’t forget.”

And John replies,

“You were going to write it down while you were talking to him so you could remember to talk to him about it?”

Their forgetfulness and smart-assness come together for a joke. By the time they get a chain wrapped around the first stump so they can pull it out with a truck, we’re convinced we know these characters, and we do.

TNATRATR Promo Steve 02In the second half of the story, they begin to talk for the first time about the mother who has left them repeatedly. We find out how her leaving affected the father, his quirky ways of dealing with it, and that he hasn’t told John about any of it before. The characteristics of the father and son we laughed about at the beginning of the story take on a different tone. I like to call it, comedy in a minor key. A phrase the screenwriter Larry Gelbart used to describe some of his work.

The humor is still present through the end, and even though the last scene stays true to an earlier “rule” of the story, ineptitude gets rewarded with an accident, it’s hard to laugh at these two characters any more.

Even though I was experimenting in this story with comedy and tragedy, it does serve a purpose. Tension and release being one of the most significant. In several places the comedy serves as a release for the tension. Towards the end though, it continues to build the tension. We no longer feel the release of laughter about what’s funny. So instead of landing the story on a joke, the final release of tension comes internally from John, as we finally get a piece of actual wisdom from him that we’ve seen him learn in the story.

Steve Denniston lives in Portland, Oregon, and works at an elementary school with students who have autism. Whenever he gets the chance he writes, whether it’s on a lunch break, at boring (or interesting) meetings, or during conversations with his wife—but that rarely ends well. “Are you listening to me?” “Yes.” “Or are you thinking about a story?” “Ummm.” “You’re thinking about using this conversation in a story, aren’t you?” “I’ll tell everyone it’s fiction, okay? Wait! Come back!”

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Guest Post, small press, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Guest Post: Steve Denniston on Mixing Comedy with Tragedy

  1. emmaburcart says:

    Great advice from the master of funny! I’ve never really thought about how to write funny. For me, it either happens or it doesn’t. It’s helpful to have a frame for looking at humor as a part of the tension. I’m definitely going to try that. Also, how can I order a copy of the book with Steve ‘ s autograph? Is that possible online? I wish I could be there to hear the story in person, but Portland is too far to drive. 🙂

    • Steve Denniston says:

      Thanks Emma! It’s nice to see you lurk around Laura’s blog too. I remember you have a pretty good ear for a funny line-hope you’re showing that off in your MFA program. Take care,

    • Absolutely! Emma, you can buy one from me and I’ll get Steve to sign it.

  2. In my last marriage my husband used to assume that the hero of the story was him. No, you’re the anti-hero! My best girl friend knew that I wrote her into my novel. When she read it she said she loved it but didn’t think I made her bitchy enough. I fixed that in the rest of the stories she appears in–she takes it as a compliment. Some family members say, “You can quote me.” or “You should put that in a book.” But my friends and family are all dark and egotistical. 🙂

    • Dark and egotistical can be a great place to start with a character-I say go for it. Also-pretty funny that your friend suggested she wasn’t bitchy enough in your novel, that’s a good friend to have.

      • The hardest to write about is a well-adjusted, truly nice person with minor flaws. People tend to feel annoyed by them instead of enjoying the fact that they’re not going to stab them in the back. 🙂

        I love how you guided us through your thought process when putting your story together. Do you always know exactly what you’re going for at the beginning or does it come after the first draft?

        • I have been seeing nice characters in the slush pile lately; I recently told someone I wanted to be friends with her protagonist. It’s true. But there wasn’t enough darkness for the story to work.

          • A person who has good boundaries, a great sense of self and is beautiful can only exist surrounded by evil, but then it becomes a fairytale or comic book. 🙂 I’m thinking of women here in particular. Women who are “good” seem dull these days but I don’t like bad ass girls either.

        • Steve Denniston says:

          Often I know where the story is headed when I start, but not the exact ending. I’ve learned to follow the story where it wants/needs to go, and not force it into what I originally imagined. For this particular story it took me at least three drafts to find this ending, and several more after that before it worked like I wanted it to.

  3. Barbara Denniston says:

    I would say, “Well done, Steve, great job” but people would just say I’m your mother and I’m biased. They are probably right, but that doesn’t mean I have to forfeit the right to be proud of you, and I am.

    • Mom praise is the best! Thanks for stopping by. Steve did do a great job–and I am saying that as an editor/publisher! I can’t wait to point writers to this post when they’re having the too-funny, no-darkness issue in their manuscripts.

  4. Sometimes readers need the funny as a break from the tragedy. It’s a nice way to come up for air. Laughter can be a way to pull readers in, make them relax, get comfortable, open themselves up and trust you right before punching them in the gut and twisting their insides around.

    I loved this story. I viewed the sarcasm as a coping mechanism for the son, and the forgetfulness was the father’s. I love a snapshot of characters’ lives like that. Just a day pulling stumps, but packed with so much.

    • Steve Denniston says:

      Edee, that’s a great insight, thinking of tragedy and comedy in terms of pacing- using it in a way that allows the reader to come up for air.
      I’m so glad you liked the story, thank you. I thought of the son’s sarcasm and father’s forgetfulness like you did. It’s good to know that came through in the story.

  5. I read an interview with Jennifer Aniston once where she was asked about whether she prefers to act in drama or comedy. Her response was that those are just made-up categories in fiction — life doesn’t come divided up like that. True enough.

    All comedy or all tragedy means you’ve stepped away from realism — which can work just fine, as in the Marx Brothers movies, but it’s important to realize you’ve taken that step.

    • Steve Denniston says:

      Anthony-That is a good perspective to have, recognizing that these are categories we use to talk about fiction, but should be constrained by them. Sometimes I think about making a t-shirt that says, “Literary fiction is just another genre.” Good writing is good writing, no matter what genre it is.

      As for the Marx Brothers, I think all Marx Brothers movies have a terribly tragic scene – every time they get to the big musical number with the orchestra and occasional synchronized swimmers. I always hated those scenes. Otherwise, your point about ‘all comedy’ or ‘all tragedy’ is well taken.

      • I am so happy to hear you two interact with each other! Thanks for commenting, Anthony.

      • I’d wear a T-shirt like that.

        “Good writing is good writing, no matter what genre it is.”

        That’s the way my father raised me, and he extended it to forms as well as genres. Novels, screenplays, newspaper articles, sitcom scripts — he enjoyed them all if they were written well.

  6. Pingback: Guest Post: Alisha Churbe on “Sometimes Lies Must Be Told” | Laura Stanfill

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