Friday, October 7, 2011

Finding Humor in a Dark Future

By L.J. Sellers, author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries. This essay was originally posted at Alex J. Cavanaugh's blog, but it's worth a repeat.

In my new novel, the future is bleak, my characters are flawed, and their quests are intensely personal. Writing this novel could have been depressing, but I set much of the story in an endurance contest called the Gauntlet, which provided some unusual and amusing research moments.

In one competition scene, the protagonist is required to crawl through tunnels. I wanted her experience to seem real, so I left my keyboard and got down on my hands and knees. I crawled around the family room for a few minutes, trying to decide how big the tunnel needed to be and what part of my body would start to hurt first.

Of course, my husband walked in as I was crawling and said, “When does the barking start?”

It was the first laugh “til your belly hurts” moment I’d had in a long time.

In another phase of the contest, Lara enters a locked-room scenario, in which she must use the items on hand to find a MacGyver-type solution to get out. I admit, I sought help from my husband, who designs and builds things for a living. We came up with a plausible three-step solution, then decided to test the parts of it that we could. Not wanting to give away this scene in the story, let’s just say we headed down to the garage with a box of matches and some potentially combustible material. (It’s Oregon, and it was raining, so we had to stay inside.)

As we struck the matches and cheered for a flame, we remembered catching our three boys doing something similar when they were young. We imagined our kids walking in on us while we attempted to start a fire in the garage, and saying “What the hell?” We laughed until the tears rolled.

It’s good to experience little moments like that when you write gritty thrillers. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get sucked into a dark mode and forget that people and characters can find joy and humor even under stressful circumstances. I also managed to sneak a light moment into the story near the end. And even though The Arranger is set in a bleak world thirteen years from now, the overall theme is an affirmation of the human desire to improve oneself and make a difference in the world around us.

Do you need humor in every novel? What weird/funny things have you done for research?


  1. Thanks for sharing some of your lighter research moments for The Arranger, LJ. When I started reading The Arranger, I worried that it might be too dark for my tastes, but I soon got totally caught up in Lara's quest and struggles, and loved every minute of it! What a page-turner! And with another of LJ's masterful surprise endings!

  2. As for humor in novels, I don't need a lot of it, but a few lighter moments and comic relief are certainly welcome now and then to counteract the tension in a fast-paced thriller!

  3. Great stories L.J. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets caught doing strange things while I'm writing.

    After a few years my kids knew that if I was doing something strange, it was probably because I was working. You've got to love the way writing helps you look at the world and enjoy the little nuggets you discover.

  4. You remind me of listening to Jeri Westersen talk about hanging a side of beef in her back yard so she could test how it felt to hit it with a broadsword. The things we do for authenticity!

    Yes, I do like a little levity with my thrillers. Actually, I prefer a little thrill with my laughs, but that's just me.

  5. A good book! Personally, I wonder what those government tracking agencies think of my Google searches--suicide pills, weaponry, federal agency heirarchies, conspiracy theories...

  6. I think about that too, Scott. For me, throw in bomb making, home invasion, hate crimes, and more.

  7. I enjoy a bit of humor even in the most intense novels—appropriately placed, of course. I tend to stick a tiny bit in my own.

    The latest thing I've researched that may have gotten a bit sticky was finding the perfect location for some nefarious activity by Sports Authority Field at Mile HIgh Stadium in Denver. The building site I found was boarded up and for sale. I pulled into the empty parking lot and began scouting out the building and its view, snapping photos as I went. A man, wearing more jewelry than any man should, approached me and asked what I was doing there. Apparently he was the owner.

  8. It's important to laugh at yourself. I do it all the time. It's also great for tension release--sucks all the negative energy from your mind and body.

    As for novels, I find there's always room for humor in any story when used at the appropriate time and place. I used it frequently in my last novel, which is considered to be horror, and others have done the same. It's a great tool manipulating tension.


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