There's one thing I always find impressive and moving when I see it in accounts of historical events or depicted well in fiction: gallows humour, when a person who is facing likely or certain death cracks a joke. I'd like to put a little of this in a story I'm writing, partly to give a (possibly last) glimpse of the more likeable side of a character who has not been acting admirably earlier in the story.

But I don't want the reader to laugh. At least not for more than a moment. Sorry, this is not a happy scene. I don't want to lose either the tension or the sadness of the characters' situation.

Do people have any tips on how to pull this off, and/or examples of stories where it is done well?

  • 3
    Isn't gallows humor intended to relieve the tension of an unbearable situation?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 0:59
  • 1
    Something like this? youtube.com/watch?v=VsiXZlv3vKw
    – SF.
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 10:09
  • Or like this. A damned's humour always moves me the most (as in crying).
    – Vorac
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 15:39

7 Answers 7


Gallows humor, in my experience, can be greatly assisted by the word wry. This can be used to indicate that the character is aware of the gravity of the situation but is still making a joke. For example:

The executioner asked, "Any last words?" Alex smiled wryly and replied, [some joke]

Something else you can do is just not make the joke too silly or off topic, keeping the reader immersed in the situation. This can be accomplished by adding elements that show the suspense/gravity of the situation.

Billy held his friend's cold hand. "You were a good buddy," he said sadly. [more laments possibly]. He patted his friend's head and stood up. "You know, you still owe me those fifty dollars." Billy walked away from the body with a last sorrowful glance over his shoulder.


When Socrates was about to drink hemlock, he asked, "May I pour out a libation to the gods?" And they told him "no", which is dark on another level. He had no respect for them or their pantheon, but they still took everything so seriously. After all, Socrates was dying because of their faith and their unwillingness to tolerate skepticism.

You may be wrong for not wanting your joke to cause laughter. That will differ, depending on the individual reader. I laughed out loud when I first heard about Socrates' joke, but it didn't lessen the impact of his death. In fact, it created a contrast, which made the impact greater. His death was so tragic because he was the only one who realized how absurd it was.

There's no formula for a perfect dying joke, but I might suggest a few elements:

  • Deadpan
  • Defiance
  • Darkness

Like anything else, it won't work if you try to graft it on at the last moment. It has to be true to the character and situation to not break your reader's suspension of disbelief.

Making jokes in serious or tragic situations happens in real life all the time, so it can read as real if it's really something your character would do. But if not, it's going to be jarring --it will feel like the author making a joke of the situation, not the characters.


Same old worn joke.

The humorous character did keep some running gag. A kind of jab at a younger partner, or some silly "ritual", or a funny one-liner reply. The reader is used to this joke, it was done at least twice in the story before, probably to a good humorous effect too (first time, sheer surprising humor, the other - a contextual humor that adds a second layer, say, the thing suddenly being surprisingly adequate for the situation).

Then used in the context of despair, it's poignant, not cheerful.


Make the joke relevant to the situation — this will stop the reader from being distracted by the humour of the joke, and keep the serious atmosphere. Even bad or very funny jokes can be used if the character delivers them correctly.

And now some examples:

In the Time Riders series by Alex Scarrow, when two pirates are about to hanged, one says to the other "why are pirates called pirates? Because they aarrr!"

and from the Wikipedia article on Dienekes:

According to Plutarch, when one of the soldiers complained to Leonidas that "Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun," Leonidas replied, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?"


Immediately after the humorous moment, do something that amplifies the emotion you want to emphasize.


I think Dexter(tv series) is a good example. Like in season 1 when he is about to kill a couple he asks them questions about their married life, so that he can use their suggestions for his life also. He is about to kill them but still is able to make the situation filled with some sense of dark humor without degrading the scene.

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