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I constantly see reviews of people criticizing how it feels like "whiplash" when going from something like a death scene to someone cracking a joke, and I agree, but I don't know why I agree.

I just can't imagine how to follow up a tragic scene.

How can I create transitions between tragic and comic scenes?

  • I agree. Probably the most recent case of "whiplash" in movies that I've seen would be Loki's death scene in Infinity War (which made me sob lol) and then a sharp turnaround to the Guardians flying through space being silly. It was a very odd transition. Honestly, just... don't follow up a sad scene with comedic relief? I don't know if there IS a way to prevent it, since I'm sure some people didn't feel whiplash with Loki's death and some like me did. – weakdna Feb 5 '19 at 1:57
  • I edited this question and title to be clearer and to provide an actual question. Please change it if I got it wrong. And welcome to Writing.SE. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 5 '19 at 2:38
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    Spoiler alert weakdna. Some of us haven't seen IW yet. – Stephen Feb 5 '19 at 6:57
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Whiplash is a physical injury caused by your body moving in one direction then very suddenly switching to another. To a degree that can only come from something like a severe car accident.

The emotional equivalent of whiplash comes from a lack of transition between heading one direction then turning off to head in another.

I would guess that going from comedy to tragedy isn't that big a deal. People understand that, in real life, tragic things can happen without warning. Laughing your guts out at a comedy club when the roof caves in.

The real problem is moving from tragedy to comedy. Or even lightheartedness. It feels wrong. Like the awful thing that just happened wasn't important. Joking in the midst of tragedy is different. That's black humor or just lightening the load. It's moving back to ordinary life that feels wrong to do too quickly.

So don't go too fast. Respect grief and the characters going through it. Give people time to heal.

In extreme cases, writers may follow the death of a major character with a time jump. In the TV show Jane the Virgin, they had a 2 year jump. Why? Because the show is fundamentally a comedy. There are murders and deaths of minor characters but they didn't take as much time to work through. In this case, a character very close to the MC died and we would have spent 2 seasons of the show doing nothing but watching her cope had they not jumped forward. Even so, her grief was still there, just not in the foreground most of the time.

At the very least, give the situation a chapter break. Or, as Rasdashan suggests, add in a neutral intervening scene. You can also play off the fact that some characters either don't know or really don't care about the tragedy. But some characters will.

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As the writer, if you cannot imagine it, nothing happens.

While I cannot tell you what to write as the creative process is unique to each, I have two methods of dealing with fictional tragedy.

In one instance, I have my MC telling another who is contemplating suicide of the effect on him growing up an orphan - even though well loved. I have him tell of learning the details of the accident that killed his parents, having believed himself somehow responsible. He learns it destroyed the life of the driver of the other vehicle - completely guilt ridden. My MC eventually consoles this driver, giving him the closure he never could find. I let the sorrow of the scene be, respecting its power. Since he is trying to persuade this other character, I let him dwell on his grief, explain his pain and try to prevent such from happening to another.

In other scenes, when it is getting a little too dark, I leaven it with humour. The humour I use tends towards the dark, but serves as a release. Some observer sees this scene and, confident that all will end rather well, lets his humour run free.

I have one character, a rather sardonic fellow who has seen it all, but still sees the absurdity of life. It would be wildly bizarre for him to crack a joke, but he will quip or sometimes just consider the situation. I have one scene where a wounded assassin, hunted by many, is trapped by his loved ones on the kitchen table and forced to surrender. My sardonic character starts with a grin, the contrast just seeming absurd to him. He restrains his mirth until the MC looks at him and he can’t stop himself from laughing.

One thing you could try is to write an intervening scene that allows the reader to digest the information and feel those emotions and then relax. A character could leave his father’s deathbed and walk down the street to a club - intending to get drunk - only to discover it is not that kind of club. He wasn’t paying attention. You and the reader are now out of the tragic scene and can segue to the next.

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As proven by Cyanide and Happiness's Depressing Comics Week, comedy and tragedy both depend on the same thing: TIMING and SUBVERTING OF EXPECTATIONS. In both, you have to surprise the audience and evoke emotion. This is even true of horror.

To be inspired, watch how the transitions are in Bojack Horseman and Steven Universe - two cartoons famous for their balance of happy/heartbreaking (though the former is way more heavy than the latter). Bojack seamlessly dives from depression and and drug addiction to literal cartoon hijinks and animal jokes. In the beginning of the show it wasn't flawless, but you can see them get the hang of it later on.

The main takeaway is, there is humor within sadness, though there is not always sadness within humor. For example I recently went to an improv show at the People's Improv Theater, where actors asked for a prompt of where an audience member had been last weekend. He said, quietly, "Actually I was at my friend's dad's funeral." At first there was a hush but the actor decided to "yes and" him; he said, "Would you like us to use that as our prompt?" and the audience member agreed. What followed was a heartbreakingly sad improvised song, about how a friend loves you, even if your dad is gone...and it became a little bittersweet when the other person said he was too sad to attend his own dad's funeral and was struggling with having to go to the bathroom constantly as a result. It was funny in a very intimate and loving way; that's the kind of balance you have to strike when transitioning from sadness to happiness. Just evoke emotion. At that show, I cried AND laughed in equal measures, and it was the most respectful comedy - and perhaps even the most profound improv - that I have ever seen.

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The problem with a mood whiplash is: one of your characters just experienced something tragic, your readers are with the character in that tragic moment. If you want the readers to experience that tragedy, you've got to give them time to process, to experience. When you jump to a comic scene instead, you're telling the reader "don't bother experiencing the tragedy, it isn't important. Let's move on". You're treating the story like it doesn't matter, you're subverting yourself.

Proceeding from this understanding, it follows that the natural progression from a tragic scene is acknowledging the tragedy, mourning, and only then moving on. That would be the natural progression for the characters, right? That's how humans experience and process tragedies. An example: in The Lord of the Rings, after Gandalf falls, the other members of the Fellowship mourn him. Amid the wonder of Lothlorien, they each acknowledge their grief. Similarly, when Boromir is killed, the others take the time for a funeral.

There are alternatives. You might, for example, jump from a tragedy to a happy scene with people who do not yet know of the tragedy, and would very much care. In that case, the scene would be overshadowed by the dramatic irony. The mismatch between the readers' knowledge and the characters' ignorance would create tension. It's a situation that you can't sustain for long, but you can break it for additional drama. A classic example would be guys joking about their friend always being late, when the readers know said friend is dead.

A scene can be both tragic and comic. Mercutio's "look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man" in Romeo and Juliet is a classic example: the scene starts out comic, and then, suddenly, Mercutio is killed, and it's not comic any more. There's this moment when one hasn't quite processed yet that tragedy has struck. Shakespeare evokes that with Mercutio's jokes, and Romeo not realising that his friend has been dealt a mortal wound. Like Looney Toons, Romeo has gone off a cliff and continues running, only there's no longer ground under him. It's a shock that strikes the audience and the character together. You could say that this scene derives its strength from the mood whiplash - the whiplash is realistic, what the characters would experience, what's supposed to happen. It doesn't undermine the story - it is the story.

A final example is the very last scene of La Vita e Bella.

The main character's father has just been shot off-screen, and then there's the tank.

There is great comedy in that scene - it's a punchline to a joke that you didn't expect would happen. But it works not because of the comedy, but because it is also a release of all the tension that's been sustained throughout the film: the Allies have come to liberate the concentration camp. The audience is allowed a sigh of relief. There is great tragedy, but laughter is permitted again.

While transitioning from tragedy to comedy is nigh impossible, transitioning from tragedy to joy is common enough: For example, the film Operation Thunderbolt transitions from the death of Yoni Netanyahu, to the liberated hostages landing in Israel and being welcomed by their families. In such transitions, the joy is coloured by the price paid for it, and the tragedy is made meaningful because of what it won.

Which all boils down to this: consider what emotions you wish to evoke with the story you're trying to tell. Proceed from this to structure your scenes in such a way that they support what you're trying to evoke, not undermine it. "What you're trying to evoke" is a meta question about your writing. It might be that you won't be asking it when writing your first draft, when you're still discovering what your story is all about. But it is a question you must ask at some stage of the writing process.

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