Writing Fiction: How Looking at Comedy Improves Writing

new yorker setup punchline

      ON FIRST THOUGHT there appears to be no tangible link, unless you are writing a comedic story of course. So what the hell am I on about, how does comedy apply to fiction writing? Let’s look at structure: the standard joke structure is set up, punchline. The baddabing to the baddaboom. That’s two distinct parts, very basic in nature, with no gristle or fat like good writing. You go from A to B and laughter ensues if the joke is good. Some jokes are short, some long but they all have one common aim – laughter. Look at the one liners below:

Steven WrightIf at first you don’t succeed then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.

Jimmy CarrI enjoy using the comedy technique of self-deprecation – but I’m not very good at it.


I have personal preference for pure joke tellers over story telling comedians as there is no rambling and the joke either works or it doesn’t, then on to the next one. I’d prefer to wait five seconds to discover a joke is unfunny (on a tangent: can it then be considered a joke?), than to wait several minutes. Same with reading.

You may be wondering what writing stories has to do with the above. Let’s look briefly at the structure of a joke. To begin with we are given information, ‘If at first you don’t succeed..’ which is the essential context for what follows. The mind is thinking those six words over, wondering where they could possibly lead to and then bam! the punchline is delivered, making sense of the entire piece, like completing a puzzle.

In the same way the punchline is concealed to elicit a desired response think about that in the context of your writing. Forgetting the comedy aspect, a good book or short story is like an extended punchline. You feed the reader information before delivering the surprises. It’s a very simple reward system. Without surprise, like a joke, a story dies…horribly. On the grand scale, a novel is the setup for the punchlines and perhaps an arcing punchline at the very end if there is a great twist.

On the smaller scale thinking like a joke teller can be used to enhance your writing quality and change the impact you have even on a one sentence level. Let’s take a look at two similar paragraphs in the following examples:

A) The experiment had worked. Oksana had called to let me know, but I couldn’t believe my closest friend hadn’t told me himself. As I walked home the phone call replayed verbatim as I pondered on the nature of friendship hands stuffed into my jacket pockets.

B) I couldn’t believe they didn’t tell me. We’d known each other since school. As I walked home the phone call from Oksana replayed verbatim, as I pondered on the nature of friendship hands stuffed into my jacket pockets. But more than that, I was dumbfounded: the experiment had actually worked!

I made these up on the spot and hopefully the difference is evident. Hedonist A immediately reveals the piece of information that should have been hidden. There is nothing left to reveal. Example B begins with a setup: What didn’t they tell them? Their close friendship makes the betrayal worse. And only then are we given a punchline: an experiment had worked, although in this instance I’d call it a half-punch because there is more to be revealed: what is the experiment?!

It’s clear to me anyway that B is the more exciting to read – do you agree? Writing stories has a lot in common with joke structure and even on the sentence level there is room to improve the reading. Note, not the writing, the reading. There is little difference between A+B in terms of writing style, only the way the writing is arranged. Not every sentence, paragraph or chapter is going to have gripping structure throughout, but it is something to keep in mind to enhance the excitement for the reader.

Something revealed is a known quantity and boring. Something hidden is intriguing.

 

lion around 2

 

24 Comments

  1. Lovely relativity theory here Lion! Well, I really need to recheck my work now to see which one I am applying – A or B!
    Great piece of advice friend!! 😄

  2. Yep, completely agree – and as you showed with your examples, you can do this at a micro (sentence/paragraph) and macro (entire novel) level.

    There are other things writing can learn from comedy, too. I’m a sucker for a ‘rule of three’, where three pieces of description build up, with the third being the most telling (i.e. the ‘punchline).

  3. Spot on. Feed the reader the information they need to either a) expect one thing and then surprise them with a twist, or b) leave them hanging on every word to discover the outcome.
    🙂

  4. Writing comedy is difficult.
    It’s very hard, especially over the course of a short story (or god forbid a novel) to continue the dialogue and action in an unexpected manner.
    Probably the best example of writing the unexpected would be retribution falls by Chris Wooding.
    Comedy gold

    1. Nice suggestion.
      The post wasn’t so much about writing comedy (I kinda messed the title up a bit) as writing fiction, while looking at comedy or jokes in particular, to see how they can help us to write more suspenseful stories.

  5. I consider myself a funny guy, a guy that set up a joke as well as anyone. I have also written more than one or two fiction stories along the way. I guess I never stopped to consider how the joke and the story are one and the same,

    Tim

    1. It’s just an idea that struck me one day. In a way a joke is an abbreviated story only the onus is on humour rather than the chracaters, plot etc and extraneous details that make up a novel.
      The reverse engineering aspect of joke writing is entirely applicable to fiction writing, there’s that same need for suspense before the reveal.
      Thanks for your thoughts Tim.

  6. Pen to the paper, moving his hand in quick, jerking motions, he adorned the blank sheet with letters, words and ideas. A course of thought rushed from the tap of his well-sprung mind, hot and cold taps both flowing. Faster and faster, he etched dark strokes onto the white page, scribbling and scratching with intensity, until he reached the bottom of the page. LionAroundWriting wrote an incredible post!

    (You mean like that?)

    Awesome job!

  7. You are spot on. Yet, writing non-fiction with comedy tops the charts. My favorite blogger who does this perfectly is John Kraft. Check him out at Down the Hall on Your Left. And tell him Jennie sent you. You won’t be disappointed.

Please, type what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s