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 TogetherBy 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.
In 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!”