It's often been said that I have trouble taking compliments. I have no trouble at all in taking them - I just don't know what to do with them afterwards. Therefore, it took circa twenty people to tell me that I wrote well, before I accepted that as fact. Similarly, I've been compiling empirical evidence over the last month or so and am finally prepared to admit that I, Nick Cross, am funny (and not just in the peculiar sense).
But now that I have this awesome power, when should I deploy it? Unlike a stand-up comedian, I have no explicit commitment to being funny in my work. If I'm having an off-day (or an off-week), should I try to get myself into a mental state where I can write comedy? Or should I focus on something more heartfelt (and therefore probably a bit miserable)
Humour is one of the rare areas in the craft of writing that cannot be taught or learnt. You can learn where best to apply it, sure, but if you don't have a sense of humour then your attempts at comedy will be more painful than a post-apocalyptic animal cruelty drama set on the Isle of Sheppey. So with the knowledge that this skill is something that not all writers have, is it my duty to use it? Where does humour enhance a scene and where does it detract from it?
This is an especially apposite question when it comes to writing horror. Comedy and horror may seem like the perfect bedfellows, but they have a long history of petulant arguments and sleeping in the spare room. Many horror fans believe that a bit of gallows humour is all well and good, but that adding too much cheapens the experience. Witness David Gatward's comments on this very subject this week on tall tales & short stories.
I have to disagree with this viewpoint - most of my favourite horror films are funny. And that doesn't stop them being tense and frightening - last year's Drag me to Hell was both extremely goofy and proper scary.
So, egged on by my lovely agent, I made with the funny as much as possible when rewriting Back from the Dead, weaving the humour further into the scary scenes than I had before and hopefully enhancing the effect. I love that shift in tone between funny and scary - it's something that Quentin Tarantino uses extensively in his early films and it really puts the viewer/reader off-balance, to the extent that they don't know whether to laugh or hide behind the sofa/bookshelf.
Tone, as ever, is vital. If your reader knows broadly what to expect after the first couple of chapters and feels that you have confidence in the material, they will be happy to go along with you. If this means subverting a funeral scene with slapstick comedy, then so be it. But you can't have 50 pages of brow-furrowing ruminations on the essential evil of mankind and then segue into a custard pie fight. At least, I don't think so - feel free to try!
Because I can "do funny" I am leaning towards the view that I should. I think it will be something that readers expect and look forward to from my work. More than that, writing comedy actually cheers me up. In fact, there's nothing I like more than reading back what I've written and laughing at my own jokes. Well, at least someone's enjoying them, right?