by Nancy Fulda
As fiction writers, we talk a lot about humor. We talk about what’s funny. We talk about what isn’t. We talk about appropriate moments for humor, the types of audience best suited to it, and the consequences of attempted humor gone horribly wrong.
Today, I’d like to ignore all that and focus, instead, on one specific aspect of humor that often gets overlooked: its effectiveness as a plot-patch.
I know, I know! Nobody wants to patch their plot. It’s better to have a storyline that functions properly from the start, right? But sometimes that just isn’t an option. Authors often work within space constraints, and don’t have 2,000 words to spend explaining how their protagonists got from point A to point B. Sometimes the intervening events are just boring. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t figure out how to fix that one crucial inconsistency upon which your entire plot and most of your characters arcs depend.
In such situations, humor is your ally.
Why? Because humor is satisfying in and of itself. If something is funny, it requires no other justification for its existence. Consequently, it is sometimes possible to cover gaping plot holes with nothing more than duct tape, a little hand-waving, and a good joke.
I first observed this principle in the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Near the end of Season 3, Sokka is trying to help his girlfriend break out of a high-security prison. He attempts to start a prison riot, and runs up against the highly believable complication that mob psychology events (such as prison riots) are not easy to trigger on demand. His efforts fail miserably.
When all seems lost, one of Sokka’s companions – a surly inmate with a shady past – looks over and says, “A prison riot? Please.” The inmate then walks to the center of the prison yard, grabs the shirt a hapless bystander, hoists the smaller man over his head, and begins chanting “Ri-ot, ri-ot!”
A prison riot immediately ensues.
Now, not all readers will share my sense of humor. But to me and my family, the juxtaposition of Sokka’s failed attempts and the prison inmate’s nonchalant rabble-rousing is so humorous that we break into giggles every time we watch scene. The humor was so well-rendered, in fact, that I had seen the episode five or six times before I realized what the scriptwriters had done:
They used humor as a plot adhesive. Sokka’s primary challenge – the difficulty of starting a prison riot on demand – was never resolved. The solution used in the episode was ludicrous. So ludicrous, in fact, that the audience spent all its time laughing. No one bothered to criticize its plausibility.
The prison riot scene was funny, and it was funny precisely because it was unrealistic. Thus, in the process of cracking a joke, the authors had neatly smoothed over a difficult plot obstacle. They resolved the problem in ridiculous way – and the audience laughed instead of calling them out.
Think about that for a moment.
If something is funny, it requires no other justification for its existence.
If something is funny, it does not need to be realistic.
Obviously, there are limitations to this method. You can’t plop a cartoon-style joke into the middle of a high-tension thriller. You can’t invoke slapstick in a literary drama. But within the constraints of your genre, there is wriggle room. When Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, very little effort is expended on explaining why he is so ridiculously self-assured. The scene is humorous; Mr. Collins is a humorous character; and the reader chortles at the awkwardness of the situation without pausing to consider its plausibility.
Humor is a powerful ally.
So. The next time you’re stuck with a gaping plot hole – one of the ones that would be tedious or impossible to repair effectively – consider, in all seriousness, the possibility of dropping a joke.
Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award winner, and a 2012 Hugo and Nebula nominee. Get a free ebook by joining her mailing list.