I am a huge fan of Ray Banks. I’m working my way through the Cal Innes stories (read Saturday’s Child earlier this month) and believe him to be the current master at the novella e-books are so well suited for. (Gun and Wolf Tickets are brilliant, if you haven’t read them.)
This is why I sat up fast enough to cause a whiplash headache when I read his essay, “Five Noir Lessons from Charles Williams” on the Mysterious Press blog. Not only because his thoughts on the topic would be of inherent interest to me, but because he and I agreed on so much. The key section had to do with the importance of a GSOH (a Good Sense of Humor):
My favourite writers—or at least those authors who inspire and whose work lingers in the memory—tend to be inherently funny people with something serious to say. And while Williams was apparently something of a melancholic (and ultimately suicidal) in the flesh, he clearly possessed a wit and humour that informed his writing.
If you're under the impression that a sense of humour and a sense of noir are mutually exclusive, think again. A great tragedy relies on the same wicked timing that drives a great joke, and a writer who appreciates wit and wordplay is more likely to turn out sentences that bristle with energy. Williams is one of those writers: a dry, sharp stylist with a gift for stiletto description. And when he ventures into full tilt comedy—as he does in the screwball nonsense of The Wrong Venus—he does so with considerable aplomb.
Life is full of funny things. Even things that aren’t funny—violence, illness, even death—may be funny in retrospect, and may even be funny to some sick bastards as they happen. Even better, funny things happen in the most serious situations. Things happen, or are said, that have to be laughed at, no matter how stressful the time. It may even be the stress that makes them so funny.
Few things are as tedious as a story with no light touches. I’m not talking about jokes, but levity. Elmore Leonard was the master, bringing smiles through inadvertent character comments or actions. (Inadvertent for the character; Leonard knew exactly what he was doing.) A poorly chosen word, a statement made without full knowledge of the facts, someone whose pretentiousness exposes his ignorance; all can lend realism to a character. My favorite example is from—of course—Get Shorty, Bo Catlett talking to Chili Palmer about screenplays:
“You’re asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get someone to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”
Leonard laid out the key traits of both characters in 179 words, and you laughed. He said he wrote dialog heavy novels because he wanted to leave out the parts readers skipped, and they don’t skip dialog. They don’t skip humor, either. No one wants to miss a chance to be entertained. We’ve all read books, six hundred pages of unrelenting dreariness that had us rooting for the protagonist to die, already, put us out of his misery.
Another excellent use of humor is scene reversal. Start a scene off light and let the bad news hit even harder. Finally, something good happens to the character, and—boom!—the hammer drops. Wading through pages of despair, waiting for other shoes to drop, pretty soon it’s just one more tragedy. Give him some hope, a smile, maybe even a laugh, then crush him. That hurts.
That door swings both ways. Why would a character put up with such an unrelentingly dark life? I’ve read books where I thought about killing myself, and I was only reading about it. Who would put up with that? Even better, why? Because every so often something good happens. It might be as simple as watching a pompous ass slip and fall. Probably not funny to the guy who fell, but that’s the thing about humor: everyone sees it in different things.