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I'm planning out and (will hopefully be writing) a trilogy takes that takes itself pretty seriously and very dark while having a distinct absence of comedy. The reason is behind this choice that I feel humour is borderline obtrusive in many fictional works these days (I won't be naming any suspects, so use your imagination), as many jokes inserted in stories that want to get taken seriously by their audience come across as ham-fisted and end up hamstringing whatever tension the writers try to create. I mean, if the characters won't take tense situations seriously by spouting off one-liners non-stop, why should I care for their plight?

I fell into this trap when I wrote another story starring a character whose sole purpose was to survive as comedic relief given the story's dark tone, yet she came off as obnoxious because she always tended to shoehorn stupid comedic quips in at the worst possible moments. To make things worse, some of the stuff this character said read like what you’d find in a bad Abridged series, stuff which TeamFourStar or Something Witty Entertainment at their absolute lowest wouldn’t even put to paper.

So, as the title of this post suggests: is it possible to tell a morbid story without any comedic elements and how should I go about it?

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    This is a good inquiry, though I wonder if it can be done. I'm thinking of some of the most thrilling series I know, and all of them have some humor sprinkled in. However, it's not to say that leaving humor out isn't possible, but you might find it difficult. – Sister Student Feb 26 at 6:42
  • I am curious as to which works you think shoehorn in jokes but still want to be taken seriously. – hszmv Feb 26 at 12:51
  • IMHO this depends on your natural writing style. If you subconsciously tend to include humor, even subtle one, in your work, it might be hard to write without it (the opposite is actually harder, and might be impossible at all). – Alexander Feb 26 at 19:57
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    I'd say humor, or actually, people/characters laughing is a human need. Without it, are your characters believable? And yes, humor exists at the very bottom of darkness: jweekly.com/1996/04/05/… – Erk Feb 26 at 23:00
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Yes, but it would be highly unrealistic. The reason humor exists is it's a coping mechanism... people make jokes to deal with uncomfortable topics or get through fears. It's not that it detracts from the work... it's that in a real situation, someone is going to try and bring a smile to the room, even if they're in an inappropriate situation. The work need not be comedic to have a moment that induces a chuckle in the audience. Consider the original film "Terminator" in which the emotionless robot is sent back in time to kill the woman whose son will lead the fight against the machines in a post nuclear war. It's a grim premise... a lone woman is being hunted by a vicious killer with no remorse to kill her child, who has yet to be conceived at this point, and even if she wins this fight, there's still that nuclear war and machine take over in the near future of the film's timeline... and yet the most memorable line in the film is from a joke:

Terminator: I'll be back.

It's not even the punchline of the joke, but the set up. The Terminator gives the line to a desk sergeant who will not allow him to speak to Sarah (the woman he's trying to kill) because she's being questioned at the moment. The Terminator gives the line and quietly leaves... and then immediately drives a stolen cop car into the office lobby and proceeds to a violent attack of anyone in the station. The gag of course was the delay between the line and the return left the audience aware something is going to happen... the terminator's lack of subtlety and directness of his word choice were well known by this point in the story. They were anticipating the promised return to be a lot less quiet and polite as the scene had been... but his choice, and the almost immediateness of it was so over the top it became the film's most memorable sequence. It should also be pointed out this "joke" wasn't a joke in universe... the Terminator was deadly serious and wasn't setting up a joke, but a threat... but the dramatic irony of the dialog vs. the action was entirely written to make the audience laugh (though director James Cameron thought it would only get a laugh on a second viewing, and was floored that the audience got the gag on a first watch... he thought they wouldn't understand the Terminator's Character that quickly but was proven wrong.).

In real life, people who have to deal with a lot of gruesome situations like emergency responders and doctors/nurses often develop dark senses of humor. For example, the unofficial motto of many police agency's homicide division is "Our day starts when your day ends" and is only unofficial because the public would not appreciate the motto. Other cops are known to show up to a very bad accident and declare the victim DRT (Dead Right There, playing off the usual "Dead On Arrival" declaration done by EMS)... and if it's a really bad scene, they might declare the victim DRTTT (Dead Right There... and there... and there...).

It might be that your jokes aren't working not because jokes shouldn't work in a dark setting, but your own humor style isn't what the reader expected. As you said, it's an abridged universe style, which relies on meta humor and understanding of the original work being parodied to work... that is, the humor works because the characters are pointing out the absurdity of the work. While there is a place for this, if you are writing a series, it doesn't mean jokes and gags can't work... just that they must be self contained in the universe or something that happens to everyone. Consider the start of a minor chase scene in Disney's Zootopia... the heroes are spying on the villains when their cover is blown... how? By one of the heroes forgetting to turn her cellphone off... but the funny part comes when she looks at the caller ID and sees it's none other than her parents... everyone has had a moment where their parents call at the absolute worst possible time... few have had it where you're trying to spy on someone who might kill you if discovered... but hey, it happens to the best of us that parents call when it's not a good time...

The reason humor is necessary, nay, nearly required in especially dark and grim works is that it allows the audience to "breathe" a little. If you look at just about any television show and look for the funniest episodes, chances are they occurred right after a big dramatic episode. A great example of this would be the release order of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe... The Avengers films are usually the capstone of their "phase's" dramatic tension... where all the events of the movies prior to that come to a head... but with exception of the original Avengers, they don't end the phase... but rather a goofier entry does. For the second film, it was followed up in the same year with the release of "Ant-man" which milked a lot of its humor from the very nature of the idea of a shrinking superhero... there's a lot of big explosive effect shots... only to see a pull back to the actual normal human scale of the fight to show the small puff of smoke that is barely noticed... Avengers: Infinity War was immediately followed up with Ant-Man's sequel, which continues with similar gags and Captain Marvel, which pokes fun at early 90s trends and cultures. And Avengers: Endgame is followed up by Spider-Man, far from home, which has several gags that explore the oddness of the events of Infinity War and Endgame (such as half the population of the world disappearing for 5 years... and suddenly reappearing in the exact same spot they were when they disappeared... and having not aged a day (One student goes on at length about how he disappeared but his younger brother didn't... and when coming back his younger brother is now the "older brother"... another character tries to use the technicality that he disappeared when he was 16 and should be considered 21... and thus can drink alcohol... It also did cheesy "in memorial" film in the opening to people who died in Avengers... Even the first Avengers film had a light hearted follow up with the Iron Man III, which was clearly shot with every 80s action movie premise in mind and unapologetically enjoying itself on this front. Other dark entries like Captain America sequels were followed by the zanier Guardians of the Galaxy films (any film where a talking Raccoon is a superhero is going to be comedic on the outset).

The reason for this is simple: It helps the audience cope and deal with the very serious nature of the premise of the work and identify with the characters. Prolonged stories with nothing but dark premises and characters who are not enjoyable will cause the reader to prematurely leave the series... sure, it's serious... but no one is 100% serious at all times (and those that are can be great sources of humor by making them have to deal with very odd situations while maintaining their own serious attitude.). It helps the audience empathize with the character and keeps them reading more. There's actually surveys that among college students, 91% of men and 81% of women surveyed said that a good sense of humor was crucial to their ideal romantic partner... a close second to "honesty" and quite critical as a relationship moves forward.

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Probably not.

You can certainly write a story without any intentional humour, but you can never rule out the possibility of your audience finding comedy in something that wasn't intended to be comedic, especially in the age of meme culture. Thanos' snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War is a very bleak scene, without a shred of humour, and it took three days for the Internet to turn it (and just about every other serious scene in the movie) into a meme.

This is especially likely to happen if readers perceive a certain dramatic moment to be poorly-thought out or poorly-executed. Characters reacting to a serious event with too much emotion, or too little emotion, can ruin what you intended to be a serious scene and make it unintentionally funny. (I don't mean to imply anything about your skill level, just that it's a danger you need to be conscious of.)

Even if you could, it wouldn't be a good idea.

TV Tropes (warning! massive time sink) describes the concept of Angst Aversion: when a work is so dark or depressing that it dissuades people from watching/reading it. Many people, especially in these difficult times, consume media as a form of escapism, and wouldn't want to read a story that's just as bleak as (if not bleaker than) reality.

I will honestly hold my hand up and say I am one of those people. I have a list as long as my arm of media that I will (probably) never touch because, from what I have heard of them, they are too depressing or disturbing for my particular tastes.

Now, you do raise a valid point in your question: poor use of comic relief can ruin the tension in a story or create extremely jarring tonal shifts (aka Mood Whiplash). I saw a couple of episodes of Grey's Anatomy once while my sister was binge-watching it, and the shifts from comedy to drama and back again were so abrupt that they just felt uncomfortable.

However, when done well, it can really make your work more impactful. Moments of levity seem that much brighter amidst the gloom, and at the same time, they make the darker moments seem that much darker. Compare a flat line to a sine wave: emotional peaks and troughs make for a much more engaging story than "all serious, all the time". This is what hszmv meant in his answer when he referred to "letting the audience breathe".


One final note, regarding something you mention in the question:

if the characters won't take tense situations seriously by spouting off one-liners non-stop, why should I care for their plight?

There are ways to justify this behaviour. They could be using humour as a coping mechanism, because if they stopped to think about how serious the situation actually is, they'd freeze up or get traumatised. They could be deliberately trying to put their opponents off. They could just genuinely be that laid-back, and they won't get worried no matter how serious things get. It's really not that unrealistic for someone who's faced with a life-or-death situation to just start cracking jokes, and I don't see it as a particularly great reason to whip out the Eight Deadly Words.

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I think you can remove most comedy from a book, but even just keeping a little bit will help a ton. Just skimming through my memory, I can't remember any (fiction) book I've read that did not have at least a little bit of humor.

I definitely would not have a character hanging around just for comic relief in a very serious world. Rather than have a character hanging around just for comic relief, I would use more sarcasm or deadpan humor. If you lower the intelligence of one of your characters to a rather low level, it can make for some very funny deadpan scenes without having a Fozzie Bear equivalent in the story.

Basically, I don't think writing without comedy is a good idea, but writing without a dedicated comedic character should be more of what you're aiming for.

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You need some humor, but no need to overload it

As the other answers have mentioned, it is somewhat pointless to read a book that is all dark and dreary. So, it is important for you to include some humor. However, there is no need to overload with humor, you're not writing a comedy.

What is humor?

Humour or humor is the tendency of experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. -Wikipedia

In order to provide some "tendency of experiences to provoke laughter", you start with your characters. There is no need to add a comedic sidekick or anything like that, your characters can somewhat equally distribute small amounts of amusement. This may be a grim but ironic dialogue between two characters or simply a slightly amusing play on words. Be creative.

What humor would fit your story?

For your specific story, irony, satire, black comedy, and self-deprecating humor would all be good options. They all fit the bleak or sorrowful genre, yet they are all amusing in their own ways. They also will not

come across as ham-fisted and end up hamstringing whatever tension the writers try to create.

as they can actually increase tension in your book. As long as the humor is not too frequent and is well-placed, your reader will not be thrown off at all.

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