On July 12, 2013, Aspire to inspire wrote, I have a problem with seriousness in my stories. I think the reason I get bored with them is because they are so serious and slightly depressing.
In Ella Enchanted you manage to make it serious but funny, not making it weigh on the readers' minds. The story is sad at some points and although we feel that, as the story does not weigh on us, our feelings soon disappear at the next scene, so we can be more involved with the story instead of with our feelings. (In a good way.) How do you manage this?
An MC’s perspective can lighten up the most dire circumstance. Let’s imagine that Amanda is dreading her final exam in Chemistry, and let’s make our beginning really depressing. She wakes up that morning, puts on her lucky charm bracelet, and goes down to breakfast, where her weeping mother hugs her and says that school is closed because Amanda’s best friend Pavel was hit by a car and is in the hospital, dying. Amanda feels the breath go out of her. She manages to sit at the kitchen table. While she’s trying to take in the awful news, this tiny thought pops up: No Chemistry test. She’s appalled at herself, but she thought it. It’s not funny. The reader doesn’t laugh, but the mood was lightened slightly for just a moment. The reader was also signaled by this that life will go on. So that’s one tip: When you dive to the depths with your character, don’t simply linger there. Bob up and down. Up for a funny or ironic thought, down for a sad one. After thinking about the Chemistry test, Amanda puts her head down on the kitchen table, remembering that she and Pavel were supposed to meet at the mall this afternoon.
Amanda goes to her room, sits on her bed, and discovers that she can’t believe the news. She decides she has to go to the hospital, because what if it's all a hoax? So she sneaks out of the house and gets on her bike. While biking another subversive thought surfaces. She thinks, What would have happened if I didn’t wear my lucky charm bracelet? Would the earth have exploded? Here she’s bringing irony in. Again, the reader isn’t laughing, but the mood moves from sadness to anger, which is livelier, and Amanda can start thinking how unfair it is that this happened - if it really happened, because she hasn’t accepted it yet.
Fast forward. Amanda goes shopping for something to wear to the funeral. Her mother lets her get a black blouse and a black skirt. Amanda, whose thoughts refuse to stay entirely morose, thinks, Pavel had to die for me to be allowed to wear black. Irony to the rescue again.
At the funeral. Amanda’s with her friends. She’s very sad, but she’s also noticing how uncomfortable everyone is, how unaccustomed they are to this situation. They keep whispering, although there’s no reason for it. They fall silent, then smile uncomfortably at each other. Amanda thinks that Pavel would be laughing his head off if he could see them, which makes her even sadder, but it leads her to bring up a memory of him and say it out loud, about the time he had to give a speech and he forgot every word, so he started talking about his favorite subject, dinosaurs, which he loved way beyond the age when most lose interest. Amanda says, “Remember what Mr. Norbiss said?”
The friends then start remembering more incidents involving Pavel that are funny, and soon they’re laughing and feeling more at ease, and someone - not Amanda - says, “He got us out of the Chemistry test.” Everyone feels uncomfortable again, but the ice was broken and they get past it. The reader is sad with them, but not depressed, I don’t think.
Amanda’s life continues after the funeral, although it will never be entirely the same.
We probably don’t want to pile on another death right away or at all. This one may be the crisis of our story and it wraps up afterward, or it may go in another direction. Maybe Pavel protected Amanda from something, and his absence forces her to take new risks. We’re finished with death but we may be on to other miseries. In Ella Enchanted, I varied the trouble. The curse of obedience underlies everything, but it manifests itself in myriad ways.
The key in both Ella Enchanted and in Amanda’s story is that she has a wider perspective on her troubles than just the troubles themselves. Amanda can think of her Chemistry test. She’s angry at herself for thinking about it, but she’s like that, open to the world. In one scene in Ella Enchanted, Ella spends hours trying to kiss a bird. It’s awful, but Ella knows that it’s also funny.
I’ve been making two points. The first is that although your MC needs to suffer, she doesn’t have to wallow in it. A sense of irony and of the ridiculous can help her out. If she isn’t wallowing, the reader probably won’t be either.
The second point is not to pile on the same kind of disaster. In Ella Enchanted again (*SPOILER ALERT*), we have the death of her mother, the character flaws of her father, her step family, finishing school, ogres, the threat to Char’s safety, and I may have left out a few.
Another way to stave off character and reader depression is to make sure your MC is loved. The loving one doesn’t have to be present. Amanda can be torn away from home. She can be kidnaped by aliens, but her lunch box with the note inside from her dad can sustain her. Or the memory of her friendship with Pavel can. In Fairest, the love and approval Aza got from her adoptive parents supports her through everything that happens.
Here’s one more way: Your secondary characters can lighten up your story. In A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic, the dragon Meenore has a very light heart. IT is brilliant and full of ITself, and ITs presence assures the reader that, although matters can get very bad, we’re still in a world in which such a creature can exist.
I’ve also written two posts on writing humor, which you may want to check out.
Here are three prompts:
• Write the scene in which Amanda rides her bike to the hospital to see if it’s really true that Pavel is dying. Record Amanda’s thoughts, which will primarily be sad and anxious, but include a few that go against the misery. Make something happen along the way that temporarily interrupts the mood.
• Amanda is alone in the hospital waiting area because Pavel’s family are in with him. Introduce a secondary character who comes in and starts talking to her. Somehow he helps Amanda. Write the scene.
• Amanda is kidnaped by pirates, who have been misinformed about her parents’ wealth. They intend to kill her unless her parents hand over more money than they have. Make it funny and scary. The kidnapers may not be entirely competent but they are desperate. And Amanda’s parents in their terror make mistakes.
Have fun, and save what you write!