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 Wright – If at first you don’t succeed then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.
Jimmy Carr – I 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.