Posted in Film, Writing

Why Humor is Necessary in Your Suspense Fiction

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review

Producer Debra Hill, who passed away in 2005 at age 54, left a legacy of such notable classics as The Fisher King, The Fog, and the original Halloween. The one film, however, that should deservedly appear toward the top of her film credits is a movie that was a box office bomb in late 1985 but has since gained a strong cult status over the last two decades. Clue, written and directed by Jonathan Lynn, and based on the Parker Brothers board game, is one of the most whimsically hilarious and charmingly over-the-top comedies of the 1980s.

Six strangers who all incidentally work for the government in 1954 New England receive letters that tell them to meet at a mansion one stormy night. Given aliases by the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), the six individuals — Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), and Miss Scarlett (Lesley Ann Warren — spend a night attempting to solve mysteries as more and more people in the mansion start getting killed.

Clue has several delights, but the most surprising one is the clever screenplay by Lynn. One wouldn’t expect such incredibly smart writing in a film based on a board game, but what Lynn does so wonderfully in this movie is take a simple premise and provide non-stop plot twists, along with the funniest of one-liners, banter, and monologues. The twists escalate as the movie goes on and really tops out in the final three endings, which reveal so much about the various characters that paying close attention becomes a must. What really makes the movie come alive is the sheer lunacy in its dialogue. There is not a single line in the entire movie that lacks flavor or wit.

As great as the screenplay is, however, it’s really the tremendous ensemble cast that makes this movie such a hoot. If one of the seven main performers had been cast differently, this movie probably wouldn’t work nearly as well. Warren, who injects the role of Miss Scarlett with sexiness as well as intelligence, has never gotten a role to showcase her comedic talents since. Curry, so frenetically dynamite in another cult classic entitled The Rocky Horror Picture Show, plays the role of Wadsworth with the same kind of delicious wit and fast-moving physical presence as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

The award for MVP of Clue, though, has to go to the late, great Madeline Kahn. At first she appears to be in the wrong movie — her pale, rather drab version of Mrs. White seems out of place, especially considering the more over-the-top maid character in the game. Soon, however, one understands Kahn has chosen a way to portray the character that far surpasses any other interpretation that could have been made. Bitingly sardonic and contemptuous, she delivers one hilarious line after another.

In terms of directing, Lynn makes the right decision in keeping the visual style as simple as possible. This being Lynn’s first feature film as a director, one might expect him to be experimental, using fancy camera movements and weird lighting techniques. Instead, Lynn lets his actors breathe in many wide shots, with the camera completely still most of the time. When the camera moves, it simply does so to follow an actor who is talking, instead of going for an artsy visual shot. The simple style actually helps, not distract from, the humor of the film.

The film culminates into not one, not two, but three different endings, each of which is different and provides a new murderer and motive. When Clue was released in theaters in late 1985, audience members were treated to only one of the three endings, and had to go to different theaters to get the chance to see a different ending. On DVD, all three endings are included, and this is necessary because the only ending that really works logically is the final one of the three.

Although not a huge success when first released, Clue is a film that has been gaining momentum over the last three decades as a bonafide cult classic. While most films get tiresome after seeing them a couple times, Clue actually gets funnier on each viewing. There is always something new to discover, whether it be as subtle as an actor’s gesture lingering in the background, or as groundbreaking as a plot thread that can finally be pieced together. This film is an unforgettable comedy gem worth watching over and over again for many years to come.

Watching Like a Writer

What makes the magic in Clue? Part of the magic is the perfectly chosen cast. Part of it is the unique personalities to the characters. But what really gets me every time I watch this great movie is the zaniness to the dialogue.

Clue has so much rewatchability because the lines of dialogue are so funny and they come at you so fast that I’m convinced I still haven’t heard them all. This film is hilarious in all the right ways… and darkly so since murder is at the heart of the story!

This got me to thinking about using humor in suspense fiction. Next month I am planning to start writing my first ever mystery novel and although it’s going to deal in serious themes, I don’t want the whole endeavor to be too solemn. I want moments of rapid-fire dialogue between characters that might give the reader a few laughs, the same way a viewer laughs when watching Clue.

Many horror masters in film and television and novel writing suggest that humor is necessary to dark material because the reader or audience needs a break from tension. If he or she doesn’t get it, laughter might ensue, and you never want that. Don’t go overboard in your humor in your suspense fiction, but a little humor is necessary at times.

Exercise!

Look at your WIP of suspense fiction, and if you don’t write suspense, think of a story-line to a potential work of suspense fiction.

How would you incorporate humor into the piece?

What strategies would you use to occasionally relieve the tension?

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