In a scene from one of my favorite movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, we find Butch and Sundance trapped on a ledge over an impossibly deep gorge with a boiling river below them. Above them, the super posse that has been relentlessly chasing them and now has them cornered. Their death seems imminent.
Sundance, true to his character, wants only as he puts it, "one clear shot." Butch, the thinker says, "We'll jump." Sundance argues with him and finally reveals the reason he doesn't want to jump: he can't swim.
Butch breaks up in guffaws of laughter and says, "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you."
The buildup to the scene on the ledge is one that ratchets up the tension in the viewer as we are shown the super posse hired by the railroad to take out Butch and his gang. We see all of Butch and Sundance's crew gunned down, leaving only the two of them, the best in the business, to be hounded and pursued nonstop by the posse. Their old tricks are of no use, and they find themselves cornered on the ledge, faced with Charybdis and Scylla, the archetypal dilemma of Odysseus.
The tension is fierce. It's a nail-biter; we are about to see two loveable rogues killed in cold blood by the machine-like hired guns. Then Butch says, "We'll jump."
The element of surprise kicks in here and the absurdity of leaping to certain death to avoid being killed by gunfire. But it perpetuates the outlaw ethic: they'll never take me alive.
Sundance's argument presents absurd humor, the absurdity of them arguing with each other in the face of death. Then Sundance, embarrassed, reveals that he can't swim. Can't swim? This tough, resourceful, capable hombre can't swim? Here the element of surprise takes over, for both Butch and the audience.
Butch stares, incredulous, at Sundance for a beat or two, completely forgetting about the peril they're in and breaks out in guffaws of laughter. Then he says, "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you."
They jump, and the tension level jumps with them as they plummet into the river and is relieved when we see them bobbing in the rocky white water below.
A fundamental narrative technique: tension and release through comic relief.
Let's talk about what I like to call the Thumbscrew Principle of narrative tension.
Everybody familiar with the thumbscrew? Just in case you aren't, it is a medieval torture device that holds a person's thumb inside a casing and a screw is threaded through the outside so that tightening the screw puts excruciating pressure on the thumb. More tension, more discomfort. The torturer must, however, be careful to not put too much pressure on the thumb for too long a time, lest the thumb become numb and the torture become ineffective. So, the standard practice was to periodically loosen the screw, let the blood flow and allow feeling to return to the thumb, then tighten the screw again for even greater discomfort.
There is an analogy to be drawn between the thumbscrew and narrative tension in fiction.
thumbscrew : thumb = narrative tension : reader
Discomfort is the singular similarity between otherwise dissimilar items in the analogy. Let's talk about narrative tension and how the use of comic relief can maximize
Narrative tension, simply put, is the degree to which the reader invests emotion in the outcome of specific conflict in a story. Opposing forces, generalized for this discussion as antagonist and protagonist, work against each other, like hands pulling a spring in opposing directions. The further the spring is pulled the greater the tension. The continuous action in the plot ramps up the tension as the story moves toward its climax, which constitutes a release of that tension. Back to the spring pulled taut by opposing sides: One side lets go of the spring, and its returns to rest, zero tension.
That tension caused by opposing forces is a cause for discomfort in the reader, who reads on, seeking relief from it.
The more intense and sustained the conflict, the more pronounced the narrative tension. It is essential to good fiction, but as with all things, too much narrative tension can work against you.
One of my friends says that she couldn't stand to watch the television series 24 which pits the protagonist, agent Jack Bauer against terrorists and their ilk within a real-time 24-hour span divided into episodes. Her reason: the action and the resultant tension were unrelenting and overwhelming, from the start of any given episode to its cliffhanger ending. There was no release of the narrative tension until the season's final episode. The sustained tension wore her out emotionally.
The same thing can happen in novel length fiction if the author is not careful. We can overload the reader with tension and emotionally exhaust him or her.
Novels usually follow a series of ascending and descending action, peaks and valleys, if you will. The sustained action of most novel plots allows for periods of lower tension as the activity shifts back and forth from fighting the bad guys to doing something less stressful.
The private eye may spend an evening out with his girlfriend, or go back to his apartment for a glass of scotch on the rocks while he puts some good jazz on his vintage turntable. He unwinds a little and so does the reader so that the next time the action ramps up the tension, the reader has the emotional energy to handle it.
A good example is the late Robert B. Parker's character Spenser. After a hard day of gumshoeing, he goes to his apartment and cooks a tasty meal (described in detail) for himself and often for his sweetheart Susan Silverman, or he meets his partner, Hawk, at the gym for a hard workout. This gives his head a rest, and ours too for what's to come.
Sometimes, intense subclimaxes push the tension level almost to the breaking point, then let off just enough to give the reader some emotional slack. An example: Now You See Her, one of G. Michael Ledwidge and the ubiquitous James Patterson's collaborative novels; employs one sharp subclimax after another to the point that the reader is exhausted by the main climax of the novel. But each subclimax lets the reader relax just a little bit.
A different approach is to allow relief from the narrative tension through the introduction of humor. In the face of death or other peril, a good laugh breaks the tension and pushes an emotional reset button for the reader.
I would point out that not all writers of action fiction use humor as a release valve. Andrew Vachss' Burke, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, and my supernatural sleuth C.O. Jones aren't much for jokes or humor, but many contemporary writers do embrace humor as a stylistic choice.
One definition of humor calls it "a literary tool that makes audiences laugh, or that intends to induce amusement or laughter. Its purpose is to break the monotony, boredom, and tedium . . ."
Wait a minute.
This is action fiction we're talking about; hard-assed private eyes, gunslinging cowboys, pirates, secret agents, treasure hunters, and other two-fisted action types. There should be no tedium.
Ah, but the definition continues: "and make the audience's nerves relax." The emotional reset button.
Psychologists separate humor into four basic categories: Affiliative Humor, Aggressive Humor, Self-enhancing Humor, and Self-defeating or Self-deprecating Humor.
Literary theorists divide it into four basic categories as well: surprise, incongruity, absurdity, and irony.
In Robert B. Parker's Spenser novel Sixkill, Spenser, Hawk and their new protege Zebulon Sixkill visit Henry Cimoli, owner of the gym where they train. They arrive to find three thugs roughing up the little old man. Cimoli sees them and says, "Spenser, meet my new friends; Moe, Larry, and Fuckface." In the middle of a severe beating, Cimoli's wisecrack catches the reader totally off guard (the element of surprise and incongruity) and uses the aggression model of humor. After all, Freud says all humor is aggression, right?
First, Henry demeans his tormentors by equating them with the Three Stooges, naming the first two Moe and Larry. Second, his epithet for the third brings surprise into play, since the reader is expecting the third man to be called Curly. Third, the incongruity of wisecracking in the face of a beating is totally unexpected.
Parker doubles down by having Spenser reply, "Oh, Fuckface -- I've heard of you." The abrupt laugh, and the incongruity of humor in a violent scene relieve the tension, and hit the reset button before Sixkill demonstrates his prowess by viciously beating down Henry's assailants. Parker could have made the scene one of continuous violence, but the joke relaxes the tension a little before the real violence begins.
In my novel The Town Killers, my cowboys, Durken and McAfee are pursuing a gang of cannibal murderers. In the exchange that follows, McAfee has been shot, and Durken has just dispatched his assailant in a vicious hand-to-hand fight that ends when Durken shoves the head of an arrow through his opponent's throat:
Durken took his flask from his coat, uncapped it and took a drink, then he poured some whiskey down McAfee's throat. "If I'm not back in an hour or so, I'll likely see you in Hell."
McAfee looked up and said, "Speak for yourself."
This intentionally gives the reader a breather between one extremely violent episode and another to follow, which provides the climax of the novel.
I begin The Town Killers with an unsettling anecdote, a stranger who rides into a small town and murders the sheriff by hanging him upside down in a cell and cutting his throat, as he thinks, the better to bleed the meat. The next chapter rough-cuts to cowboys around a campfire where McAfee is trying to explain the working of the Solar System to an uneducated companion:
Smeck looked dubious. "So you're telling me that the world turns around once a day?"
"Yep. Just like the hour hand on a clock," Dinwiddee chimed in. "Ain't that right, McAfee?"
"Well, sort of, but the hour hand goes around two times every day."
"But what's that got to do with a e-clipse?"
"The moon goes around the earth, and once in a while, it gets between the Earth and the sun so the moon's shadow falls on part of the earth." He demonstrated with the chestnut and the potato. "And for a little while, it gets dark. Then since the moon keeps on going along its path, it moves from between the sun and the Eearth and the shadow goes away and we have regular daylight again."
"Hold on a minute," Smeck said. "You're telling me the world turns all day long, and we're riding on it like a pony on a carousel, how come it don't matter what time of day I walk out of the bunkhouse Vulture Peak's always right in front of me?"
McAfee rolled his eyes.
The second example is a longer passage, but the effect is the same; following a disturbingly violent scene, humor dispels the tension and the reader gets to relax for a few pages until the action ramps up the tension once again.
More often than not, the tension breaker is a clever bon mot, often a throwaway line from one character. I recently read Christopher Moore's Moore's pulp detective send-up Noir. Moore, whose novels include such wonderfully insouciant and irreverent books as, the vampire romance Love Bites and its sequel, Bite Me, Fluke, and The Island of the Sequined Love Nun employs one of the most bizarre sense of humor alive in today's fiction. In Noir, the narrator can't locate his girlfriend after a working weekend and is desperately worried for her safety. As he walks up to a friend on the sidewalk, his friend notices the look on his face and says, "Who shit in your tuba?" Apart from the utter absurdity of the premise, the line catches the reader off guard in an otherwise anxiety-filled moment.
I use this technique in the opening vignette of my second Six Gun Terrors novel, Fang and Claw. My cowboys, Durken and McAfee are chasing rustlers. They surprise the outlaws' camp and engage in a shootout. One of them gets away on a horse. The rustler, Bob, is a man whom both cowboys know. He served in the same infantry company with McAfee in the Civil War.
McAfee chases him, Bob fires at him and nicks McAfee's ear. McAfee runs him to ground, and Bob is surprised to recognize his pursuer.
"Clarence? Clarence McAfee? Is that you? Well, I'll be damned."
To which McAfee replies, "That's a foregone conclusion, Bob," before ultimately drawing on him and gunning him down.
Another facet of humor is irony, speech whose actual intent is expressed in words that carry the opposite meaning. Parker himself refers to Spenser as "self-amused." He is a wise guy who uses that humor to disarm tough and dangerous opponents, letting them know that they don't frighten him one bit. In a scene in Parker's novel Playmates, three mobsters come into Spenser's office to scare him away from investigating a college athlete who is shaving points.
They threaten him, and he has a desk drawer open with a pistol in it ready to hand. The reader doesn't know what will happen next, maybe a gunfight, or maybe he'll throw one of the intruders through a third floor window. Mobster Bobby Deegan tells him:
"It can go a couple of ways. One way is we give you a nice fee for deciding that Wayne isn't shaving anything but his gace. The college likes that, Coach likes that, we like it. Nobody doesn't like it." Deegan gave me a big grin.
"And the other way?"
"We put you in the ground," Deegan said. His voice was pleasant.
"Eek," I said.
"Sure, sure," Deehan said. "I know you're tough. We talked to a couple guys we know up here. But think about it. What's worth dying for here?" ...
"How much you willing to give me?" ! said.
Deegan glanced around my office again. "Two bills ," he said.
I shook my head.
"How much you want?" Deegan said.
"Two hundred thirty-eight billion ," I said.
Deegan was silent for a moment, then he grinned slowly.
"Well, like the old joke. we've established what you are, now we're just haggling over price."
"Be a long haggle," I said.
Deegan nodded . "Option two's looking better ," he said.
We sat for a moment quietly while Deegan lit another cigarette.
"So what are you going to do?" Deegan said.
"Hell, Bobby, . don't know. I was trying to figure that out when you came in and distracted me."
"I thought you was trying to get a look at some broad 's ass," Deegan said.
"That too," I said.
Deegan rose. "Okay, pal. You think about it some more, and I'll check back with you. Try not to be too fucking stupid"
"I been trying for years." I said. "Usually it doesn't work out."
Deegan laughed and walked to the door. He opened it and stopped and looked back at me.
"You know we mean it," he said.
"Sure," I said.
Deegan shrugged and started out.
"Leave the door open," I said. "I didn't hear her come back yet."
Spenser's ironic responses are his way of showing even the most dangerous people that he doesn't fear them. The narrative tension advances, but at a slower pace and dissipates with Spenser's throwaway line at the end, suggesting to the mobsters that he is more interested in the secretary down the hall than in their threats.
Occasionally, it is an unexpected action that surprises the other characters and the reader.
John Sanford's novel Escape Clause includes a scene in which investigator Virgil Flowers and fellow investigators Jenkins and Shrake are confronted by a half dozen members of the murderous Simonian family, a pack of burly thugs, who are grief stricken over the killing of their brother and are intent on revenge.
The oldest brother demands action. Virgil does what seems the best thing under the circumstances:
Virgil took out his ID case, pulled out several business cards, shuffled through them, found the one he wanted, handed one to the lead Simonian, and told him to call with questions... As they drove away from the medical examiner's office, Jenkins said to Virgil, "Better you than me...
They got nothing to contribute, but they're gonna call you every fifteen minutes."
"Don't think so," Virgil said.
"I got a hundred dollars that says they call you fifteen times a day. At least fifteen times a day."
"You're on," Virgil said.
Jenkins examined him for a moment then said, "You're too confident."
"Because I gave them one of Shrake's business cards." ...
Jenkins snorted and said to Virgil, "You're my new role model."
Shrake's phone rang and Jenkins started laughing.
The catch in that situation is the sly misdirecting language, misleading not only the detectives but the reader. Virgil tells Simonian to call with questions, but not specifically to call him. Then when Jenkins says, "They'll call you every fifteen minutes," Virgil says, "Don't think so," because he knows they'll be calling Shrake. The setup for the punch line is classic humor, and the extra laugh line when Shrake's phone rings doubles down on it.
In the same fashion, Parker uses the humor of action to open the release valve on narrative tension in a scene in his novel Stardust.
Spenser is visiting a crook named Rojack in his palatial mansion. Rojak is walking Spenser around, showing the place off when they come to the in-house gymnasium where Rojak's bodyguard Randall is working out. Rojak calls for a demonstration by Randall, who begins with a short gymnastic routine on the rings then does an elaborate martial arts kata including a vicious attack on the heavy punching bag, ending, as Spenser tells us:
For the coup de grace, he leaped into the air, scissor-kicked the bag with both feet and went into a backward somersault as he landed on his back, rolling to his feet in one continuous motion. ... Randall was so thrilled by his performance that his face was fluorescent with excitement.
Spenser delivers a characteristic wise crack: "Is he going to do anything else?" I said. "Juggle four steak knives while whistling 'Malaguena'? Something like that?" but the jape doesn't reduce the tension. Instead, it ramps it up further. Randall challenges Spenser to show what he can do on the heavy bag.
Regular readers of Parker know that Spenser is a former heavyweight pro boxer and have seen Spenser and Hawk work their magic in the gym. The glove is down, the testosterone is about to boil over.
I looked at Rojack.
"Be my guest," he said. I think the sound in his voice was mockery.
"Go ahead...big shot," Randall said.
I shrugged, reached under my left shoulder, pulled my gun and put a bullet into the middle of the body bag. The sound of the shot was shockingly loud in the silent gym. The body bag jumped. I put the gun back under my arm, smiled in a friendly way at Rojack and Randall, and walked out.
The narrative question: what will Spenser do? Since he is never one to back down in the face of tough and dangerous people, the reader wonders how Spenser will rise to the challenge.
The Result: Surprise to the max for the bad guys, and a good laugh for the reader.
The tension builds as the reader anticipates a bare knuckle brawl between Spenser and Randall, but Spenser handles the situation, as James Joyce puts it, "like a cleaver deals with meat," and the reset button is pressed. In the same vein as Indiana Jones shooting the Egyptian swordsman in the marketplace brawl, the tension is defused, and the reader begins another emotional climb.
The gunshot is a complete surprise to Rojack and Randall and to the reader.
Then the friendly smile dismisses the formidable threat of the bodyguard like swatting at an annoying insect. The laughter eases the tension for the reader.
Parker reminds the us of the incident later as Spenser tells Hawk, "Remember that big geek Randall, the one who thinks he's tougher than Oliver North? He knows karate." Hawk isn't impressed either. He replies, "Wow. That's good. Fun to watch," using the aggression model to further belittle the bodyguard.
In my novel Wired, '30s private eye Ike Mars and his fiancée Marge return to the fancy restaurant where their waiter had unwittingly tagged the couple as easy marks for a pair of unsuspecting muggers, both of whom end up out cold on the floor of a parking garage.
We marched back to the dining room and to our table, where our slimy waiter was pouring champagne for an older couple who looked like they'd be named van der Snoot in Bringing up Father.
The waiter blinked in surprise but quickly regained his composure. "Did you forget something, sir?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." I turned to Marge. "Shall I?"
She shook her head and said, "I'll take care of it." Then she socked the little rat in the chops, knocking him backward over the old folks' table, where he lay like a tuxedoed parody of the crucifixion.
The van der Snoots stared open mouthed. Marge shook out her aching hand and stuck it in their ice bucket. She smiled at them and said, "Sorry. Enjoy your dinner."
Another element of humor that defuses the tension of an ongoing situation is the recurring gag. In a series novel, the reader often enjoys a sense of anticipation, and inserting the running gag into the action provides the comic relief to ease the tension.
Harking back to Indiana Jones, the joke is "Snakes? Why are there always snakes?" in his getaway airplane. The resourceful, tough adventurer surprises us with an all too human phobia. The humorous incident reveals a chink in the hero's armor in a comic fashion, defusing the tension of pursuit by a tribe of hostile natives. Jones' herpetophobia is then wonderfully recalled in the plot when he is thrown into the Well of Souls, which is essentially one big snake pit, and this humorous quirk suddenly becomes deadly serious.
Janet Evanovich is an absolute master at the technique of the recurring joke. In her Stephanie Plum novels, one running gag of many is the female bounty hunter's bad luck with automobiles. Her cars break down at crucial moments, are stolen, torched, blown up; she wrecks them or someone else runs into them accidentally or intentionally, whether it's her car, or a loaner like Ranger's Porsche (which she drives through a store front in one novel).
Stephanie Plum is cursed when it comes to cars -- with one notable exception: her late Uncle Sandor's hideously ugly two-tone 1956 Buick (portholes and all) which seems impervious to the doom she brings to other vehicles.
Evanovich juxtaposes other running jokes novel to novel with mayhem and murder; the antics of Stephanie comic sidekick Lula, her mother's bourbon bottle stashed in a kitchen cabinet, the adventures of Grandma Masur, who's eighty going on sixteen, and regular trips to Cluck in a Bucket for sustenance. Evanovich weaves these familiar gags almost like touchstones through Stephanie's cases, putting belly laughs cheek by jowl with murder, assault, arson, kidnapping, and other deadly situations. The result is cozy mysteries with a distinct edge. I enjoy reading them.
I mentioned my Hitwolf novels earlier. In the second novel in the series, Hitwolf: the Pack, Maura Jameson, a female anthropologist and expert on lycanthropy has joined the team. On the eve of a potentially deadly operation, John Slate, the team leader initiates a serious discussion with her about her situation:
The morning was grey and cold, the grass white with frost. Maura was crouched by the fire stirring a pot of oatmeal when Slate came out of the shack. "We need to talk."
"Okay, just you and I, not the others?"
"For the moment. You've studied werewolves; so have I, but I've also read a lot about wolf behavior. You?"
"Not as much."
"I'll get to the point. What happens if you're fertile on a full moon and we sense it? Do we try to mate with you? And do we fight each other for the privilege?"
Maura stared at Slate, then chuckled, then laughed out loud, great cathartic guffaws that echoed through the trees and unraveled all the anxiety and tension that had built up over the past three days.
"What?" said Slate. "What's so funny?"
"Courting behavior. The thought of three werewolves lined up, one with a bouquet of roses, one with a heart shaped box of chocolates, and one with a bottle of champagne."
Then Slate laughed too.
"John, I don't think you have to worry on that score. I've been on the pill for years. I couldn't risk getting pregnant on a six-month trek into the jungle or the steppes. Romantic encounters aside, I could have been abducted by natives, raped by bandits—who knows what? There's no fertility to sense. Besides, if I'm using the farkas ostor, I think I can manage a horny werewolf."
Singer stepped out of the shack slapping his crossed arms over his chest. "What's so funny?"
Slate and Maura grinned at each other and Slate said, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Singer warmed his hands over the fire. "So when do we leave for Fairfax?"
"It's two hundred miles, give or take. Maybe in an hour."
"I'll go shake the boys awake."
And the tension begins mounting anew as they go on their mission.
In the most recent adventure of the Hitwolf team, the fuzzy boys extract Charles Beaumont, a captured CIA agent from the clutches of the tinpot dictator of a banana republic. The werewolves have invaded an armed compound in the jungle, and in an orgy of bloody carnage, killed twenty or so people in the m ost vicious ways. One of the team has driven a truck through the front doors of the dictator's mansion. The agent runs into t he mansion's foyer to find his getaway vehicle is being driven by a werewolf who growls, "Get in."
Pursued by gunmen from behind, he gets in the truck, and as they drive across the compound before crashing through the gates, he sees two more werewolves jump into the back. As the truck bumps and jolts its way down a jungle road, Beaumont, whose mind is totally blown by this point, turns to the werewolf who is driving and says, "Uh, you guys are from the Company -- right?"
When you write thrillers, detective novels, adventure stories and other types of action fiction, remember the thumb screw principle: Letting off the tension for a little while makes it all the more effective the next time and the next time, and the next time.
NOTE: This article is based on a presentation Fred Adams, Jr., delivered on 24 June at the In Your Write Mind writer's conference at Seton Hill University.