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Bathos is a storytelling technique that consists in the rapid succession of 2 “moments” with conflicting tones. This trope occurs when a serious moment gets followed by a gag. One of the many, many reasons I see the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with filmmaking (like the Fast and Furious and Transformers films) along with every villain being bland, one-note empty shells who want to cause death and destruction, vapid, forgettable quips for dialogue and formulaic plot structures is that the talentless screenwriters are obsessed with having dramatic scenes kneecapped by jokes breaking the tension.

In an infographic created by George Hatzis, as of Thor: Ragnarok, the MCU’s Phase 3 has an average of 112 jokes per movie. This is an increase from Phase 2 and Phase 1’s average of 100 and 75, respectively. Hatzis also notes that for Phase 3, jokes, on the average, have an interval of a minute and 13 seconds between each other. Phase 2 had one minute and 18 seconds, while Phase 1 had a two-minute average gap.

I mention all of this because I plan on inserting quiet, poignant moments into my trilogy, as a form of levity because the series tone is pretty bleak and grim. I wish to have these scenes placed in the story that doesn't end up disrupting the overall feel and taking my readers out of the story.

How should I deal with such a dilemma?

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    One might argue that the MCU writers know exactly what they are doing, but what they are doing just happens to be "selling tickets" rather than "making good movies." Depending on target audience, you can't always do both. – Kevin Sep 21 at 18:53
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    I feel like Bathos is not (at least intrinsically) as much of a problem as is implied. At least in small doses. – MegaCrow Sep 21 at 20:11
  • I don't see the connection between comic-book films and writing for an audience which benefits from good writing. Better examples might help make your question clear, e.g., "In [insert decent film here] an effective use of levity (not hilarity) did not feel like bathos -- why did this work, when [some other example, less-well-regarded] did not?" I'm not just picking on MCU, although I haven't watched any of them since the Kirsten Dunst Spider-Man, and am not about to. But by your own reckoning, the series is a poor example. So why cite it? – user19004 Sep 22 at 12:13
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    I think it needs to be pointed out that Thor: Ragnarok is comedy, while many other MCU movies are not (although they are frequently funny.) – sgf Sep 26 at 12:55
  • @sgf: Maybe Ragnarok is a bad example, but this scene from Avengers can't decide whether it wants to be humor or exposition, just to pick on a particularly blatant case of it. – Kevin Sep 26 at 16:42
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Bathos is not the mere fact of a serious moment being followed by a light one. It is an intrusion of a cheap vulgar laugh into a dramatic scene. It undermines the seriousness of the stakes, the drama of the scene, the meaningfulness of your story. It says "don't take any of this too seriously." Which is why it is criticised in the Marvel Universe films - it's as if the writers hesitate to commit to what they've created. They start a crescendo of emotion, get frightened by the drama and break it with a laugh instead of letting the crescendo reach its climax.

Bathos can also be used intentionally to achieve the same effect, but that is not what you're looking for. You can read more about bathos on Wikipedia and on LiteraryDevices.

@KeithMorrison, speaking of the United 232 pilot, provides an excellent example of humour that does not undermine the drama of the situation: "You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?" Nothing about this joke says "don't take this too seriously". The opposite is true. You can hear an undercurrent of fear in that sentence, and the fact that this fear is controlled with humour builds the tension of the scene rather than breaking it.

Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front provides countless examples of similar humour. On it's very first page the soldiers get double rations because half of them died, and what was the cook supposed to do with the extra food? When characters start seeing the humour in such a situation, as a reader you know things are bad.

In both above examples, I wouldn't expect the readers to laugh. The situation is too tense. Laughter is a release. Here there is humour in the situation, but there is no release. Roberto Benigni in La Vita e Bella explores this at great length: first there is romantic comedy, the jokes make you laugh. Then comes the Holocaust, and those same jokes put you on the edge of your seat, mocking the nazis is terrifying because of the danger, because you know what's going on. Finally,

there comes the tank. And you laugh, because this is a joke you did not expect, and because now you are allowed relief - the horror is over. And you cry too, because now you can release all pent-up emotion, and there's plenty to cry about.

So there's your answer: not every bit of humour undermines the seriousness of the situation. As @Llewellyn states, it depends both on the characters, and on the kind of jokes. But above all else, you want to avoid the kind of jokes that say "don't take this situation too seriously". Because the "situation" is the story you're trying to tell. You want it to be taken seriously. (It's fine if you don't want your story to be taken too seriously - consider comedies. But from your question it appears that you in particular, for this particular story, want it to be taken seriously.)

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Picture the following situation: a passenger aircraft nearly 300 people on board suffers a catastrophic failure, making the plane almost unflyable. The flight crew are struggling to maintain control, to somehow get the plane on the ground while also knowing that they have to keep it away from populated areas because if it does go down, if they lose their fight, they don't want more people killed. They're struggling with the controls, straining physically and mentally. An unbelievable amount of tension, a scene of fear and stress...and the pilot cracking jokes.

From the initial question, I assume you'd consider this bad writing. A typical example of sloppy screenwriting and bathos, written by talentless screenwriters obsessed with having dramatic scenes kneecapped by jokes breaking the tension. Thing is though, this really happened. Al Haynes, the pilot of United 232, cracked jokes as the crew was struggling to keep the plane under control, and replied to the Sioux City Approach when they told him they were cleared to land at any runway by laughing and saying "You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?"

People joke and make wisecracks in horrendous situations all the time. I personally have been in a situation where there was a body on the ground, it couldn't be moved until a coroner had given the okay, and the police officer and I who were sitting on the scene were casually joking and talking about things like video games mere meters from the body. I've seen people laugh at absurdities in emergency rooms while people are frantically trying to revive someone, I've seen people crack jokes as someone's house burns down (every firefighter will have been at a scene where someone makes a crack about bringing marshmallows), it happens in battle, it happens in the bleakest of circumstances. There's stories and jokes that emerged from the Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps, for goodness sake. It's human nature for such things to happen.

One can argue that it might happen too much in a given work of fiction, but then again, I've been on scenes where people were constantly making jokes, sarcastic comments, quips, people were laughing, and so on. Quite honestly, having it not happen is something I'd consider as a sign of bad writing and a sign of a writer so fixated on making things bleak and grim that they don't have their characters behaving like real people.

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    There's a difference between a joke inserted in the script to illustrate people trying to deal with a stressful situation and a joke inserted to just break the seriousness of the scene. – jcm Sep 21 at 14:01
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    @jcm, how do you tell the difference without an infodump from the author helpfully pointing out the difference? – Keith Morrison Sep 21 at 18:43
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    Not sure readers need an infodump to explain it. It just 'feels' different. – jcm Sep 22 at 11:42
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To build on Galastel's point, bathos is not simply about the juxtaposition of tones. It is about the unworthiness of the emotion expressed to the event that has occurred. So if you present a serious event, the death of a child, say, and then follow it with the emotion appropriate to the loss of a tooth, that is bathos because the emotion is not worthy of the moment.

It is often unintentional. The writer is simply not capable of dealing with the event they have described and they say something cheap or vulgar when they should say something perceptive and profound. That something perceptive and profound may well be to have characters tell a joke. Telling jokes is part of how people handle grimm or stressful situations. (But, as we know, it is possible to tell the wrong joke, which is one of the worst social gaffes you can commit.) But as long as the joke that the writer inserts here is true to how humans would joke as such a time, the emotion implicit in the joke is worthy of the moment and so not bathetic.

But it can also be used satirically. Here the intention is to mock the seriousness with which the preceding event is taken. The insertion of an emotion unworthy of the moment is here used to suggest that the moment is not actually worthy of the emotion with which is it usually received.

The MCU may possibly have a bit of both. The conceit on which they are built is monstrously silly, after all. There is a lot of wink wink, nudge nudge toward the audience to assure us that the writers, the producers, the actors, the directors, the guys who make the sandwiches on set, all know that this is monstrously silly. It would be completely unwatchable without that acknowledgment. (As opposed to almost entirely unwatchable, as it is in its current form.) It is a hard line to walk (see the problems with the DC films) and so it occasionally falls into unintentional bathos and sometimes engages in deliberate satiric bathos. The death of Tony Stark in End Game is ludicrously bathetic because it is manifestly arbitrary which blows kill and which do not in this universe. The death is inserted solely to suggest heroic sacrifice (and because Downey's contract is up) and we all know this. So we are asked to treat a piece of silly emotional manipulation as a great heroic/dramatic moment. It is bathetic in the worst way.

But there is nothing in what you are proposing to write that in inherently bathetic. As long as the jokes you insert express an emotion worthy of the moment, you will avoid bathos. But notice how I expressed that: it is not about the jokes being worthy of the moment, it is about the emotion that the jokes express being worthy of the moment. High emotion often expresses itself in jokes. Clueless and unworthy emotion often expresses it itself in different jokes. It is the worthiness of the emotional state revealed by the joke that is told that determines if the moment is bathetic or not.

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The most fundamental building block of a novel is the scene. A scene either reveals part of the plot or something about the characters; after reading the scene's last sentence, the story has 'advanced' by some measure.

Scenes come in two varieties; 'action' and 'reaction'. As their names suggest, action scenes set up action, and in reaction scenes the characters reflect on the preceding action. If your story's main character breaks into a pawn shop to get his stuff back, wakes up the elderly owner, and then kills her, that's an action scene. In the reaction scene, the MC reflects on what happened. Maybe he justifies his deed ("she was an evil, cruel woman anyway!"), or questions it ("did I really have to kill her innocent sister as well?")

Action and reaction scenes require some balancing. If your reaction scenes are too long, your story's pace is dragged down. If they are too short (or non-existent), your characters will come off as cardboard cutouts. Pawns that the author moves about on the board to further the plot, and little else. How do you decide what's too long or too short? That's difficult to answer, and I think the genre you write in mostly determines this. A story about a team of spies trying to stop a supervillain from exploding the planet probably doesn't need a whole lot of reflection.

Another way in which reaction scenes might become grating is if they improperly address what happened in the action scene, or are incomplete. A reaction scene should consist of three parts: a character's (emotional) response, a dilemma that is introduced, and a choice that the character subsequently makes.

Let's go back to our burglar and write an outline for his reaction scene.

Response: Oh no, I just killed a human being!

Dilemma: Am I a bad person and should I turn myself in, or did the woman deserve it?

Choice: I'm going to flee.

Finally, where to place reaction scenes in your story? I'd say each action scene should have an immediate follow-up, even if it's just a few short lines. Some reaction scenes should be much larger. If you have an 'all is lost' moment, for example, that would be a good moment for your characters to consider the implications of failure.

Find the scenes you want to resonate with your readers and slow down the pace. Then get a can opener and get inside your character's head.

  • Good answer. Just one more thing about the reaction scene: it doesn't have to be talk. In the example here, the burglar could throw away the items he had retrieved. If the scene shows his disgust and his knowledge that the things weren't worth a human life, this alone could display his reaction at least as well as if he said, "What have I done!" – Literalman Sep 23 at 14:58
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I'd say it depends. It depends on the kind of humour you're planning to insert, on the characters, and on the specific situations.

Slapstick in the middle of a death scene would probably be too much. People making joking comments, on the other hand, or finding humour in the situation, as explained by @Keith Morrison is only realistic.

However, it also depends a bit on the type of characters. Some characters are more serious and would think joking completely inappropriate. Others might have a tendency to treat everything as a joke, even in the bleakest of circumstance. Most people find themselves somewhere in the middle. Joking is a way to relieve tension, not just in the story or for the reader, but also for the characters (or people in real life). After all, there's such a thing as gallows humour.

Again, it depends a bit on the situation. Say, your characters just survived a gruesome battle. Then there's nothing wrong with them goofing off afterwards. Maybe not the ones who lost a friend or loved one, but the others will want to celebrate still being alive.

At funerals, people tend to be somber and sometimes will cry. But often, at the shared meal afterwards, those same people will chat merrily, crack jokes, fondly remember the person they lost - there will still be grief, but also laughter.

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