Thursday, 23 February 2012

You Don't Put The Punchline First


 A joke consists of two parts: the set up and the punchline.

However, one part is all flash and laughs and attention grabbing, and the other does the more mundane, ordinary stuff.  So, if you want to grab the audience by the throat straight away, show them you mean business, you should start with the punchline, right?

Nonsensical as that is, it’s pretty much the standard advice most aspiring writers get. And it’s just as wrong in fiction as it is in joke-telling.


You need both the set-up and the punchline. You need both. And you need them in the right order, otherwise they can’t do their prospective jobs.

Putting the showy stuff up front may seem like a good way to be eye-catching, but how does that serve your story?

The whole idea of putting the hook, the inciting incident, the character in media res, as soon as possible—within the first chapter, the first ten pages, the opening line—makes no narrative sense at all.

When you read a book, you don’t choose it blindfolded and start reading the first page with no prior knowledge. And you don’t stop reading the moment you get to the end of the first page and nothing monumental’s happened. You know the genre, you’ve seen the cover, read the blurb, and you know the hook.

In most cases whatever the book is about is in the blurb. Whether your inciting incident is on page one or chapter six, the reader will have a pretty good idea of the sort of thing it is.

If a story is about a guy who travels back in time to 1842 and falls in love with a young Queen Victoria, do you really think the reader won’t know that going in? So why the big push to hurry, hurry, hurry?

Once someone reads a story they no longer view it like a new reader. It’s like hearing a joke and then not finding the joke funny anymore (because you’ve already heard it), so you then start suggesting changes that forget the whole point is to be funny. Parts of a story (or a joke) are interdependent. It’s not just about how well they work in isolation, it’s also about how they affect the overall experience. And that's a hard thing for most people to gauge, especially if they haven't read the whole book.

The reason things have to be in a certain order is because it changes the impact of information. And once you get that full impact, you don’t get it again. However, that doesn’t mean you can start changing things round willy-nilly, just because it no longer makes a difference to your personal experience of them.Getting to know characters, seeing them in normal life, establishing the world they're in, these things all do more than simply convey information. They create fictional reality that envelops the reader. Hopefully.

That’s not to say all set-up is a good set-up. There’s always room for improvement. But if people are telling you the first two chapters of your story are boring or unnecessary, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should start from chapter three. It is more likely to mean you should rewrite the first two chapters and make them better. 
By the way, I'm not saying starting later in a story is necessarily a bad thing, it depends on the specific story, but the idea that later is automatically better is certainly not true. 

If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.

 

21 comments:

Rusty Webb said...

Thanks for the tip. That set up is hard. I generally work harder on my first paragraph than I do the middle portions of my story though. I figure that's my shot to sell the story, if I can get you there then I'm sure I've bought enough time to set up things a bit more slowly from there.

Not that that's worked out so well for me so far. But at least there's a logic at work.

dopdavid said...

yes this is very true, part of jokes being funny is the punchline being released in the right atmosphere

Donna K. Weaver said...

Some of that may be the whole "gotta grab the agent's attention right away" kind of thing. I love books that take the time to set things up. But a lot of folks want the action NOW.

Caryn Caldwell said...

Well said! I think sometimes people are in such a hurry to get to the exciting stuff that they drop readers into the middle of everything, and the poor reader has no idea what's going on. Then all that exciting stuff is wasted, because the reader is confused and has no emotional grounding.

Aldrea Alien said...

I give most stories a few chapters to decide if I like where it's going, and I prefer some time taken to build up the character and the setting before too much happens to either.
But then, I also like lots of description. So maybe I'm in the minority now.

Aldrea Alien said...

I give most stories a few chapters to decide if I like where it's going, and I prefer some time taken to build up the character and the setting before too much happens to either.
But then, I also like lots of description. So maybe I'm in the minority now.

KarenG said...

How refreshing to read this post. I personally like to get into the story gradually. I don't like the trend now to hook the reader immediately. First I want to get to know the character, feel my way into things, get familiar with the writer's voice.

Jason Runnels said...

Great post! I shake my head when a writer is perplexed when their story doesn't work for lack of 'comedic timing'. "But there was an explosion in the first sentence." True, without the proper setup I don't know or care if that is a good thing or a bad thing in the story. All they've done is spill the beans at the wrong time.

I also love the part where you say it's like not finding a joke funny anymore because you already heard it. So very true!

"Wrecked 'em, damn near killed 'em!" (groan)

mooderino said...

@Rusty-set up can read as boring, especially if you use more set up than you need. But like any writing, if it's interesting people will enjoy reading it.

@dopdavid-pace and structure are as important as action and inciting events.

@Donna-I think so. The need to impress agents seems to work in a completely different way from the need to impress the readers.

@Caryn-it's understandable why people push for an exciting opening, but not all stories are airport thrillers. Even if agents wish they were.

@Aldrea-I don't think setting up character and setting has to mean nothing happens. It just doesn't have to dive straight into the main storyline. It can still be interesting/funny/emotional.

@karenG-I think it's a very strange development, especially as the hook is most likely already made clear in the blurb.

@Jason-cheers.

Beverly Diehl said...

Moody, I respectfully disagree. I've heard others (mostly those who want to explain how the main character's grandparents met and describe the curtains in lavish detail for pages and pages) put that forward, too, and it's true we need to connect with characters in order to *care* what happens to them. Just the hook/plot will not generally make *me* want to read on, although occasionally I've made an exception to try to find out what all the buzz was about *cough DaVinci Code cough*.

BUT, for the most part a modern reader will not wait till chapter 6 to find out what our main character's problem is.

There had better be some interesting action on page one, or one's reading audience is likely to be very small.

Suze said...

I've just begun a new manuscript this week. I've taken nearly a month to hash out an outline in my head, written 30-word pitches, several query letters and a logline before beginning to write -- just so that I have a clear mental roadmap. All of those things will likely evolve but the point is, I have my signposts.

A major plot point happens before the meat of the novel, around a decade before I want it to start. I've now written the introduction of said hook as a flashback and plan to go forward in time to start the story. The information in the 'book-blurb' hook was transmitted half as dialogue and half the narrator's thoughts after stealing away from the crowd.

I have no idea if this is going to work. One of my weaknesses is in laying out information -- set-up, certainly -- in an interesting way but one of my strengths is my style. I hope one picks up the slack for the other. If not, I wonder if an interesting set-up is a skill that can be developed. It certainly doesn't come with package for me, personally. I've been historically, unswervingly straightforward.

Perhaps that is the way for a novelist to write the best story of which they are capable. Not to think differently about story but to mine their unique set of weaknesses for novelty.

This was one of your more thought-provoking posts for me.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I think that you are definitely right, but there are also those that insist that you start at the most exciting part of your book in order to capture a reader. I think that there are so many different opinions on what you are supposed to do as a writer, that you need to really think about how you want to approach a story before penning it, and listen to your inner voice or it may come out all wrong. If that means that you put the horse before the cart to capture readers and you can work with that, then by all means do it. The truth on whether it is any good will come out after it is done.

mooderino said...

@Beverly-as I mentioned at the end of my post, this is not an excuse for being boring. Dull story is dull whether it's set up or action sequence or inciting incident.

That jump to conclusions by both sides to try and justify their particular approach is the problem. It's not this way or that way, it's any way you want, as long as it's interesting and engaging. And both approaches can also be terrible if done poorly.

@Suze-always glad to provoke thought. I think you can learn to set things up better. Reread books you enjoyed and see how they did it is a good place to start.

mooderino said...

@Michael-absolutely. Making your decision on what feels right to you about your story is the only way you're going to develop as a writer. Doesn't mean you'll always be right, but it's the only way to understand the process.

nutschell said...

I'm a big fan of books that start off with action right away, but I also enjoy books that build up to the punchline. Great post, as usual moody. Your intellect never ceases to amaze!

The Armchair Squid said...

I believe in a big opening but one better be ready to back it up. "The World According to Garp" opens with Garp's mother stabbing a man in a movie theater - a suitable preparation for the narrative roller coaster which follows. On the other hand, the best part of the Ben Stiller film "Flirting with Disaster" is the first five minutes. I was doubled over laughing. Unfortunately, the rest of the film never reaches that same level again.

mooderino said...

@nutschell-there are certain types of stories that suit that approach, but i think most readers are open to variety.

I think that's one of the biggest problems with the business of art. They work out what sells best and just repeat it endlessly. Just gets boring after awhile.

Julie Musil said...

I actually enjoy the build up, so this post makes a lot of sense to me! I never thought of it as build up and punch line, so thanks

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

In a world where you're supposed to pack everything into the first couple of chapters just to hook the reader, your advise is very refreshing. Sure, the first three chapters or so should be exciting and attention-grabbing, but there should always be MORE. (We readers expect too much from writers, don't we? LOL)

mooderino said...

@Armchair Squid-there's nothing wrong with a big opening, but it's still just a small part of a bigger machine. It's that idea once you've got the reader's attention in the first five pages your job is done that I don't like.

@Julie-not that it has to be funny, but there is a connection between how you tee-up and how far you hit the golfball.

@Darlyn-There are more ways to be interesting than the slam bang stuff. It's by no means acceptable to be boring, but not every book needs to be written like a spy thriller.


Thanks for all the great comments, much appreciated.

Melissa Bradley said...

I have my big openings, but it is hard for me to keep the momentum going in the middle. I find myself having to work harder to get the punchline, especially when I'm not working on something that has lots of adventure.

And I agree that boring first chapters don't necessarily need to be lopped off. Re-writing would be better in some cases as there might be crucial info needed for the rest of the story.

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