This is a quick look at a problem that I have with some stories. The problem is inappropriate bathos.
Bathos is when a writer goes from a serious moment to a silly or stupid moment and vice versa. Quite a few works in Urban Fantasy tend to suffer from this, partially because of the Ur-Figure in UF, Jim Butcher.
Butcher’s character Harry Dresden often makes quips or responds with smart ass remarks when he’s in trouble. For Harry Dresden, this works. But too many authors use this even when it’s inappropriate. When someone is having their toes bashed with a hammer, they’re not going to think of great one-liners.
No mention of bathos is complete without acknowledging the greatest bathos moment in history:
For those that don’t recognize this meme, it’s “Loss”. It comes from the Ctrl-Alt-Del web comic that features juvenile humor and video game memes. The artist decided to try a massive tonal shift by featuring the lead character’s girlfriend go through a miscarriage.
It’s a huge tonal shift to go from “Girls have boobs”, (yes, that’s one of the jokes in Ctrl-Alt-Del) and video game references to “Let’s talk about miscarriages.” Of course, the internet being the internet has mocked this meme for several years now.
That is one form of bathos, from comedy to deadly serious.
The other type of bathos tends to be more common. This is when the writer decides to go for a serious scene and decides to inject humor.
Sometimes, it can work. One of the most iconic scenes in Indiana Jones is when a man twirling a sword comes out to fight Indiana Jones and he shoots him.
There’s a lot of reasons why this bathos works when so many others fail but:
- Character: Indiana Jones stays true to his character and even adds some depth to him, he’s a pragmatic character rather than a romantic one.
- Pacing: The audience has seen plenty of action at this point, so cutting an action scene short for a joke works, (even though this scene was unintentional).
- Tone: The joke doesn’t ruin the action/adventure tone of the Indiana Jones movie.
Another place you tend to find this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel likes to use little scenes in to add character.
- Spiderman and Captain America talk about which part of New York they’re from while Spiderman is lifting a bus.
- Hawkeye shoots at Iron Man, who deflects the shot. Hawkeye says, “Made you look” as a bunch of vehicles fall out on top of Iron Man.
- Hawkeye battles Black Widow and she says, “We’re still friends, right?” He replies, “Depends on how hard you hit me.”
Like the Indiana Jones example, they don’t break the tone, pacing, and character and add something extra to it.
Now we turn to Star Wars. The first scene is a bleak choice. Either the Alliance can save everyone and make a run for it, or they can sacrifice some ships to take out a massive star destroyer.
The first scene is set up very well, everyone is emotionally invested in the scene, all good and well. Then we get our first bad moment, an awful joke from Leia where she tells C-3P0 to “Wipe that nervous look off your face.”
Everything about that joke is terrible. It destroys the entire tone that the movie was going for in the previous scenes. But of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Poe decides to go with the latter option. So, what’s his bold move to make this work? He tells a “Yo Mama” joke. This is bathos at its worst. Let’s look at everything that it destroys in one quick swoop.
- Character: Poe is supposed to be a likable, heroic, and roguish figure. He’s clearly supposed to be the younger version of Han Solo. So his plan, as a hero we’re supposed to be rooting for, is to risk everyone’s life on a Yo Mama joke. Great writing.
- Character: The movie can’t decide what we’re supposed to feel about the bad guys. Are they ultra-badasses or are they slapstick comedy villains? Well, here they’re slapstick villains. Except the movie’s entire premise is that the First Order destroyed everything Leia, Luke, and Han Solo built in the original trilogy in a few decades. So how incompetent must they have been to lose the entire galaxy to people who can be outsmarted by “Yo Mama” jokes?
- Tone: We’re going from “Everyone’s about to make a big sacrifice” to “Yo Mama” jokes. Stop it.
After the awful jokes, it then shows the destruction from the battle and the loss of numerous starships. Then… we cut to Finn waking up and bumbling about in a goo suit.
Then we have the big climatic reveal where Luke Skywalker gets handed his lightsaber back, the entire arc of the first story. And… he tosses it over his back.
This scene introduces a pacing problem. What the audience wants to see is Rey getting trained, getting better, and bonding with Luke as the old passes his knowledge onto the young. You can watch My Hero Academy if you want to see this sort of arc done correctly.
Instead, what we get is that slapstick comedy, followed by Luke moping about, followed by Luke sucking nipple juice. God I wish I was lying about that sequence, but that’s what’s in the movie.
This part of writing is something that’s hard to explain, but you can always tell when it’s done right. In video games, you go from firefights and shoot outs to civilization hubs that are quiet. A good game knows how to juxtapose the fighting with other scenes so the player doesn’t get fatigued.
Likewise, Saving Private Ryan has some hellish war scenes, but it also features beautiful, quiet scenes, and yes, humor. A good writer has to have an emotional feel for what the scene needs and what the reader experiences.
For The Last Jedi, this sort of slipshod treatment of the characters, scenes, and tones plagues the entire movie. In the big climatic fight, it cuts from the build-up to the confrontation to a droid bumbling into a wall.
Now yes, even if you fixed all of these tonal problems, the movie is still a mess of a nightmare that hinges on how much gas a ship has. However, what all of the tonal jumps make the movie feel like is insulting more than anything. Get invested in a scene? Well, here’s some dumb slapstick comedy to make you laugh.
For every time the movie does manage to do something well, it almost immediately undercuts itself with incredibly inept and misplaced humor.
It’s something the last season of Sherlock Holmes did where, after surviving his death, the first episode ends with Sherlock giving the middle finger to the audience by telling them it didn’t matter how he survived his death. A detective who doesn’t solve mysteries, it’s as appealing as a story that features unintimidating Galactic Space Nazis.
I could go into Mass Effect Andromeda, but the tl;dr version of it if you don’t want to read my review is that there’s several scenes where your character is supposed to be in serious mortal danger and the side characters and main characters are chuckling it up.
Books that I’ve reviewed and fallen into this trap are Dakota Krout’s Dungeon Born. One of the big reasons I couldn’t get into it is several scenes with the humor aren’t just bad, they’re tonally out of place.
Aleron Kong’s The Land also has this problem, although at least to the credit of “Aleronisms”, he knows better than to use them at a dramatic moment.
Anyway, the point here is simple. If you’re going to use a slapstick or goofy moment in a tonally serious book, ask what it contributes to the characters, the pacing, and the tone. Same applies in reverse if you’re making slapstick comedy, unless you want to become an internet meme.