In my new Joe Ballen story, which you can start reading right here, I have the following exchange:
“What does a girl have to do to get screwed around here?”
“Just order a drink,” I said, not caring if she heard or not. Like all theme bars, the liquor was overpriced and watered down.
It’s a small interchange between two characters, and represents the flavor of the story. In it, Joe, our hero, has had an accident in space that cost him both legs and an arm. The limbs have been regenerated, but still don’t function well, and he’s been banned from his dream job, working in space. He’s currently living on unemployment (social security) that pays little, and his future looks extremely bleak. He’s not even sure if he’ll have anywhere to live once the accident insurance runs out. So why the wise crack? Why not focus entirely on his misery and suffering?
The reason is because everything, like the concept of yin and yang, needs balance and contrast.
Think about a piece of music, whether a pop tune or a classical orchestral piece. It ebbs and flows. There are contrasts, peaks and troughs, that work together through the piece to produce an emotional impact that wouldn’t be there if it was the same unchanging thing all the way through. For something to have a dynamic tension, you need changes, you need contrasts, otherwise it’s just the same repetitive duh-duh-duh-duh-duh all the way through. Writing is no different.
People who go through traumatic situations (I know because I’ve had a few! And I’m sure you’ve had them too!) often develop a very dark sense of humor. They have to find ways of laughing at what’s happening around them, because if they didn’t, it would overwhelm them.
And if that wasn’t enough to warrant adding different emotional levels to a piece, think of this. The lows we feel, the darkest hours we ever face, are brought into sharp contrast only by the highs and brightness that we experience. They’re literally two sides of the same coin that is life. And that is why you need both, to act as a counterpoint, a foil, and to subvert expectations. If everything is always bright and happy, it’s boring and twee. If everything is always dark and defeatist, it just drags us down.
The magic occurs when we can still find something to laugh at, no matter how cynically, in the worst situations we face.