Comic Relief, or What I Learned from Shakespeare by Milo Owen

Comic relief, an amusing scene, incident, or speech introduced into serious or tragic elements, as in a play, in order to provide temporary relief from tension, or to intensify the dramatic action; relief from tension caused by the introduction or occurrence of a comic element, as by an amusing human foible. (www.dictionary.com)

Odd duck that I am, I write literary fiction and Star Trek transformative works (more disparagingly known as “fan fiction”).  Too many, that would seem counterintuitive, and I suppose it is.  Yet I write my Star Trek fiction in the same way I write all my other fiction; with especial attention to characterization, narrative voice, and literary technique.  My two Trek novels are both character-driven, one a psychological thriller, the other a quiet look at chronic illness and aging; hardly what one comes to expect from fan fiction, let alone Star Trek fan fiction.  It’s attracted a certain type of reader, a reader unafraid to be challenged in the world of tritely-written fan fiction, and it was to my readers I turned to in thinking about what to write for this particular blog.  What questions, I asked, would you have about my work?  The answer was a rather large one, too large for the scope of one blog: “Too many writers go deep into angst…or totally into romantic fluff.  You manage to combine the hard stuff, the romance, the irony and the humour…what are your ideas on balancing these?”

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The answer is both simple and complex.  Everything I learned about writing fiction I learned from the plays of William Shakespeare.

Yeah, okay, no this isn’t an English paper, I promise, despite the citations above.

I’ve been writing, both fiction and nonfiction, since I was a kid.  I was first published (as a sportswriter) when I was sixteen.  My early influences as a writer were the classic novels I read (both in children’s and adult fiction) and the sort of speculative fiction I found in everything from reading Weird Tales and Creepshow to growing up in the “most haunted town in Connecticut.”  My fiction, mostly short stories and novellas, were long on character and atmosphere, and short on plot.  This began to change in university, not because I took the requisite courses in Shakespeare or playwriting, but because I was hired to be the assistant director and assistant stage manager in the local opera company.  How does working tech in opera change your fiction?  And what does this have to do with Shakespeare?

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In English, you read Shakespeare.  You learn about his characterizations, the history of his plays, the definitions of tragedy and comedy, the poetry of his words, his literary and poetic techniques.  If you’re lucky, and you live where such plays are performed, and you have an English teacher who will brave the horror that is a school field trip, you’ll get to see a Shakespeare play performed.  (My first Shakespeare performance was at the Stratford Theatre in Connecticut, to see William Shatner play the title role in Julius Caesar.  It was our sixth grade field trip.)

But when you work in the theatre, you learn how and why everything is done.  When you’re building and painting sets, when you’re learning light and sound, when you’re making props and reading scripts and memorizing cues, watching the actors, and running the show, you read Shakespeare in a completely different context.  What before was merely literary technique now becomes breathing space for the actors, because the actors are human, and you can only expect so much from them on any given night.

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And so we come to one of the things I learned from that experience, from understanding Shakespeare from behind the curtain, from directing Shakespeare, from being a props master, and a dramaturge, and an actor:  comic relief is not just one more literary technique to be employed if the writer feels like it, or remembers.  It’s a necessity, particularly in the kind of fiction I write, where the stakes are high, for both readers and characters.

The WIP is about grief, loss, mourning, and bereavement; it’s about growing old, losing one’s spouse, and the fear of spending the rest of your life alone.  In other words, as a novel, it could easily become the Debby Downer of fiction.  Why would anyone want to read a book that’s going to make them worry about their own loneliness and make them cry?  The answer is that readers look for validation of their own lives and experiences in fiction, often looking for a road map – how do I navigate love?  How do I navigate loss and grief?  How do I take this muddle that’s life and turn it into meaning, into a purpose?  Humanity has always turned to story for the answer, and as a storyteller, it’s your job to reply.  In my case I choose to tell the truth with a good dose of laughter, because – well, because even in the midst of tragedy and the permanence of death we humans still have the capacity to laugh with love.

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That’s what comic relief is – laughter with love, a respite from hardship and pain, a chance to share a joke with your reader, not on your reader but with your reader, as if the two of you were sharing coffee at the kitchen table.  Yes, the story you’re telling is sad, but there are funny moments in it – and to not share the funny moments is to tell a lie.  Just as there are tears at a wedding there is laughter at a funeral, and a good writer gives the reader both.

 

Milo Owen is the pen name of an industry professional and professional writer for 34 years.  Milo runs a boutique literary agency and her WIP, The Mortal Part, was due to her own agent, like, yesterday.

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