My apologies for not posting anything last week and being late this week. To be honest, I was so wrapped up in the new draft of this book I forgot what day it was. Soon the fall season will start back up and I’ll be able to tell where we are in the week by episodes of Fringe and Castle.
Anyway, there was a suggestion for a topic and it got me thinking about something funny…
A joke is a great diagram for a story, because all good stories have a setup and a punchline. Not in the sense of evoking laughter, but in the sense of that one beat near the end that strikes a chord and gives you a little rush. In jokes and stories, you have a setup and a payoff. For example…
A nun, a priest, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says “What is this, a joke?”
It’s very short, but it does the job. It’s just setup, payoff, done. That first sentence is the setup. To be exact, it’s a type of setup we’ve all heard a dozen or more times, which is what makes the second sentence (the payoff) funny. Adding in other elements would just slow the story—the joke—and probably detract from the punchline.
Now, let’s take this a step further. Has someone ever told you a longer joke, maybe one that took a minute or three to tell? If they knew how to tell it, odds are you chuckled a couple times during the setup, yes?
In this case it’s not just the A-B of that first joke. We’ve got A-B-C-D and then the payoff of E at the end (E is for end, after all). There’s enough space to work with for B and C to be a bit funny themselves and get that extra chuckle before the punchline.
Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though. B and C are still serving the greater payoff of E—the greater good, if you will. They aren’t filler or random asides. Even though they get a laugh of their own, they’re necessary steps on the way to the punchline.
This is a lot like your standard short story. Most of them really just have one big payoff and that’s it. Think of some of the collected stories in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot or most of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales by Arthur Conan Doyle. The characters set out to accomplish goal A and by the end of the story they’ve done it. Or, in a few rare cases— “Evidence” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” come to mind—they admit they haven’t.
Even though they’re two hours long, most feature-length scripts tend to have more in common with short stories than books. In fact, if you talk to lots of screenwriters, they’ll tell you it’s always easier to adapt a short story than a novel. Most of us have read a short story and thought it would be fun to see more of him or learn about her backstory and maybe get a better sense of what happened there. That’s the stuff which is great to expand on in a screenplay. If you look at most films, you’ll see that they’re still a pretty straight line from A to E (or maybe up to J with the expansion). You may have heard some guru-types calling this the through-line. It’s how you make way through a story (or a joke) without any odd segues.
Look at the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. There’s one main story—catch the Black Pearl, stop Barbossa—which is made up of two side-by-side stories (arguably three). Despite this, though, each one of these elements has a very simple and clean A-B-C-D story. Will just wants to rescue Elizabeth, and all of his scenes reflect that. Jack just wants to reclaim the Black Pearl and sail free, and all his scenes reflect that.
Also, as I mentioned above, adding in unnecessary clutter would just slow the story—either the individual element or the film as a whole—so there isn’t any. Will never has a segue where he rescues puppies from a burning building or decides he needs to learn karate to rescue Elizabeth. Jack seems very scattered at first, but as the movie goes on it becomes clear how sharp and how focused he really is. Every scene in the film, no matter which thread it’s part of, is leading us to the same big payoff.
Let’s go another order of magnitude bigger and consider novels. The average novel’s going to be six or eight times the word count of most screenplays. It’s where the writer’s got time and space to go all out. We’ve now got A through Z. Maybe it’s even looping around to something like A through AF or something. The writer has a little more space to wander down those paths or maybe take the scenic route to their destination.
Good analogy, that one. Remember that when you take the scenic route, as a writer, you still need to get where you’re going. When you go down a random road for no reason it doesn’t matter how pretty the foliage is at this time of year. If there was no purpose to it you weren’t on the scenic route—you were lost. It’s cool that you enjoyed being lost and you got some nice pictures, but not everyone’s going to feel that way. A lot of folks are just going to see four hours of driving time they lost.
So even in a book, with all that extra space for plot and characters, you need to be aiming for that big punchline. Each of those smaller elements that got a chuckle are expected to get a full laugh on their own now, but they’re also still expected to serve the greater good. Remember, you don’t want to drop 4-5-6 in the middle of H-I-J-K-L.
Here’s another tip. Have you ever heard the term “episodic” used to describe something. Yes, television, of course, but there’s a reason for that. When something is episodic, the setups and payoffs come one after another. A is the setup for B, C is the setup for D, E is the setup for F, and so on. Think of older videogames where you’d move from one level to the next. New problem, solved, next problem. You rarely got a sense of the big story because nothing carried over. That’s what episodic writing does–it presents challenges that are immediately dealt with, so the story feels more like individual episodes than a coherent whole. To use our joke analogy, it’s the difference between a two hour stand-up routine and a two hour comedy movie.
If your story involves multiple setups and payoffs, take a second look at where they fall. Make sure they’re spread out, and make sure they’re all leading somewhere. Hopefully the same somewhere.
Finally, here’s a little exercise for you. Yep, there’s homework. I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve had to listen to someone who didn’t know how to tell a joke. So ask yourself—what did they do wrong? Was it their pacing? Did they give away the punchline to soon? ‘Cause the real trick to telling a good joke is being able to tell a good story. If you don’t know why they did it wrong… are you sure you aren’t?
Next week, why you should never carry just a screwdriver.
Unless you’re the Doctor, of course…
Until then, go write.