Timing and Punchlines

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: Allan Warren, Creative Commons license

 

 

I use the cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh and when they stop laughing I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke. – George Burns

 

 

 

Note: Today’s discussion concerns later drafts when you rewrite, edit, and polish. It doesn’t apply to first drafts where the main job is to get the story down. 

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I love the great old comedians like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx. They not only knew WHAT to say to make the audience laugh, they knew WHEN to say it. They were masters at timing.

Johnny Carson freely admitted, when he was starting out, he blatantly copied Jack Benny—the gestures (elbow in hand, hand on cheek), the pauses, the deadpan stares.

These guys knew how to tell a joke: introduction, buildup, suspenseful pauses, more buildup, and, at last, the climax of the joke known as the punchline.

According to Masterclass.com:

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

Punchlines in jokes can be traced back a long way, but the term “punchline” first came onto the scene in the early twentieth century. While it is usually attributed to the British humor magazine Punch, the term itself was first used by a Wisconsin newspaper, The Racine Journal News, in 1912, when a review of a play described a “punch in every line.”

The New York Times talked about “punch lines” the following year. “Punchline” then gained traction and usage in reference to performances and finally appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1921.

 

Classic comedians can teach authors a lot. After all, what are jokes but tightly compressed stories that have a beginning, middle, and end?

Both comedians and authors introduce a situation, one or more characters, and a problem. Events unfold. Certain key clues are withheld. Suspense builds. At the end comes the Big Reveal—the PUNCHLINE in a joke or the CLIMAX in a novel.

As authors, we are concerned with macro issues: plot, character development and story arc.

Today, though, let’s focus instead on micro issues. By this, I mean individual sentences, paragraphs, and scenes with special attention to word order and timing.

In How to Write a Mystery (an excellent book I reviewed recently), Hank Phillippi Ryan writes:

…Even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. 

Think of a paragraph like a joke. Although the content doesn’t have to be funny, the delivery is similar. It needs an introduction, building action and suspense, then a mini-climax that propels the reader into the next paragraph.

One paragraph leads to the next, with more building action and suspense, then another mini-climax.

Put a bunch of paragraphs together and they become a scene.

Combine a bunch of scenes and they turn into a chapter.

Stack up those chapters and you eventually have a book.

Let’s examine sentences since they are the building blocks on which the entire story rests. If you start with solid sentences, you’re more likely to create good paragraphs, scenes, and chapters.

What makes a good sentence?

Clarity. The meaning should be understandable on the first read.

Direct and active;

Has a purpose in the story;

Concise.

What shouldn’t be in a sentence? 

Description for description’s sake;

Pointless thinking or musing by a character;

Excess verbiage or fluff.

Confusing elements;

Long, overly-complicated, or convoluted phrasing.

When you rewrite, examine each sentence, word by word.

When you read it aloud, does it flow smoothly? Are there places where you stumble?

Is there a stronger verb or noun you can use?

Are there filler words you can cut without changing the meaning?

Consider the order of the words in the following example:

Ed plopped on the couch and popped the top on a beer that he’d just bought when he drove to the liquor store. He’d been arguing with Mary all morning. She claimed he was drinking too much.

Meh.

Hard to follow because the events are out of chronological order. The “punchline” is buried. Nothing pulls the reader into the next scene.

The argument about drinking too much is actually the first event that starts a chain reaction. Ed and Mary argue. He drives to the liquor store, buys beer, comes home, and starts drinking to thumb his nose at Mary’s concerns.

If this example were a joke, the punchline is buried near the beginning.

The paragraph ends with a whimper, not a bang.

 Rewrite:

Ed was fed up with the constant arguments. Why did Mary keep trying to control him? He stormed out the door, drove to the liquor store, and bought a twelve-pack of Rainier. Back at home, he plopped on the couch. When Mary entered the living room, he grabbed a can. “Hey, honey, listen to this.” He popped the top.

The same information is conveyed. However, the sentences are shorter; the chronological order is rearranged for clarity; the punchline is at the end.

The punchline also serves as a mini-cliffhanger hinting their argument is about to escalate.

The reader turns the page to find out what happens next.

Ideally, each paragraph is part of a 250 to 300-page chain reaction that continuously builds to the ultimate explosion of the story climax.

Our goal as writers is to make the strongest dramatic impact on the reader. By carefully rearranging words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, you build suspense and impel the reader to turn the page.  

My first drafts are full of long, convoluted sentences and thick, dense paragraphs. Events happen out of order and don’t make much sense, except to me.

All right, sometimes they don’t make sense, even to me!

That’s because I write things in the order that they occur to me. A clue or line of dialogue pops into my mind. I write it down quick before I forget it. That means many words and phrases are in the wrong place.

Of all the tech advances since the dawn of word processing, cut-and-paste is my favorite. It makes editing and polishing far easier than the old-fashioned scissors and tape method. It allows quick and easy rearrangement of words and sentences.

While editing, the writer discovers:

The snappy comeback on page 23 works better in the dialogue on page 12.

The description of the grungy no-tell motel needs to be moved from page 64 back to page 33 when the motel is first shown.

The revelation about the cause of the hero’s scar should be delayed to the midpoint to increase reader curiosity.

As you polish later drafts, consider what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it at any given moment in the story.

In mysteries, we direct suspicion at different characters. We plant clues that don’t seem to have meaning until later chapters.

We mislead the reader with red herrings (although it’s important to play fair or the reader will get angry at being duped).

A revelation unexpectedly pivots the plot in a different direction the reader didn’t expect, resulting in a surprise.

The following video appeared in a previous post. It’s worth watching again because it’s a terrific example of suspense building, perfect timing, and a punchline that delivers a wallop. 

Good timing results in the greatest dramatic impact on the reader.

For old-time comedians (and good contemporary ones like Dan Yashinsky), timing is crucial.

The same is true with storytelling.

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TKZers: Do you consider timing when you write? Do you have suggestions how to achieve more dramatic effect?

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26 thoughts on “Timing and Punchlines

  1. This is gold, Debbie. Thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving!

    Since you mention jokes…

    What do you call a bass player who doesn’t have a girlfriend?

    Homeless…

  2. I do most of that rearranging when I edit my previous day’s work. I pay special attention to the end of a scene. I’ve found that cutting the last line or two often works wonders for momentum.

    The page I spend the most time on is the last one. I want just the right sound (resonance) at the end. That’s where I sweat over words and sentences. (Or: That’s where words and sentences make me sweat.

  3. Great post, Debbie. I’m still laughing. Thanks for replaying the video. I missed it the first time around.

    Timing and achieving dramatic effect: You mentioned the wonderful feature of cut-and-paste. Right behind cut-and-paste, I would place text-to-speech. I can read a paragraph seven times in editing and still miss the clumsy way the sentences are arranged. But, on the first pass with text-to-speech, the jumbled mess jumps out and smacks me in the ears. IMHO the ears are better receptors for rhythm, dramatic build, and punchline. And, isn’t it more fun to listen to a joke than to read it.

    Have a great day, and be kind to those POlice!

    • Steve, no matter how many times I watched Dan’s performance, he still cracks me up.

      Great point about the ears as better receptors.

      BTW, I finished The Hemlock Aperture last night. What an exciting book! You know how to keep a reader turning pages with one cliffhanger after another. Really enjoyed it.

  4. Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”
    I try to keep two questions in mind – “Does the reader need to know this?” And “Does the reader need to know this NOW?” Timing is everything.
    I agree with JSB that the last page is a tough one. For my romantic suspense books, my editor is always looking for that “Awww” ending.

    • Great questions to ask, Terry, esp. the second one, “Does the reader need to know this NOW?”

      It’s a balancing act to find the right moment. Reveal too soon and you lose suspense; reveal too late and the reader is annoyed.

  5. This is pure gold, Debbie! Thank you for including the video. It’s the first time I’ve seen it and he had me riveted to the story.

    Getting the timing right is very hard for me. I try to put the story together so when the all-important climactic scene occurs, the reader will slap her head with the palm of her hand and shout, “Of course! Now I get it.”

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks, Kay!

      Remember the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show? The twist at the end always caused a lot of viewers (including me) to slap their foreheads. That’s a great skill to cultivate and you certainly do in your books.

      A great Thanksgiving to you and your family!

  6. Good, solid advice and a hilarious video! What could be better than that?

    Whenever I feel something is off but I can’t figure out why, I look at the order of events. Quite often that’s the culprit. Thanks for the belly laughs, Debbie! Wishing you and yours a joyous Thanksgiving.

  7. Great insights, Debbie. I can be an out of order sentence writer, too, and have run afoul of trying to fix it while drafting, rather than in post. I’m with you about cut-and-paste–what an amazingly valuable tool. Your other points are very well taken, too. We can plant clues in revision (and in fact, I’m doing that now).

    Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Great post, Debbie! The video was hysterical, snort-coffee hysterical, but such a perfect example of the theme of your post. Copied and pasted into my file.

    And thank you especially for this: My first drafts are full of long, convoluted sentences and thick, dense paragraphs. Events happen out of order and don’t make much sense, except to me.

    All right, sometimes they don’t make sense, even to me!

    I guess I’m in stellar company.

  9. Yes, I consider timing, rhythm, and alliteration while writing. To achieve a dramatic effect, first I make something bad happen. A famous comedian (not so famous I can remember who he was) once pointed out that we laugh about bad stuff happening. Need I add, usually happening to someone else? We laugh at the unexpected, no matter how awful, like in the joke about the old witch. We set the listener up, then pull the rug out from under him, figuratively speaking, AT THE LAST SECOND. And sometimes it takes a convoluted sentence to put the surprise at the very end.

    [From https://jguentherauthor.wordpress.com/2020/06/09/beware-the-wrath-of-abibarshim/%5D

    “I, Abibarshim, King of Kings, avouch that Makers of Engines, for all their craft, know not how to fly. For surely the Chief of the Makers of Engines and all his men would have flown down, had they known how, from the fifth level of my tower, from which parapet, I, Abibarshim, King of Kings, had them flung.”

    • J, what a great example of a convoluted shaggy-dog sentence with a terrific punchline.

      Thanks for sharing. If I could pull off a story like that, I would but, alas, I lack that talent.

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