Avoiding ‘punchlines’

In Writing on April 17, 2012 at 7:22 am

After yesterday’s post, I thought it might be useful today to talk about a writing principle related to that story: the principle of avoiding ‘punchlines.’

What is a ‘punchline’ story?

We’ve all read punchline stories — stories where the whole meaning or effect hinges on a twist at the very end. Punchlines are the basis not only of jokes but also of mystery stories and spy thrillers and many a metaphysical mind-bender. These stories, just like jokes, are better or worse depending on how hard or easy it is to predict their final twist.

From the writer’s perspective, the trouble comes when your reader figures out the twist before you even get to it. This breaks the experience, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, and makes it seem like you’re not in control of your story anymore. After all, why should anyone read your writing if they’ve just outsmarted you? Unless the story is rich and rewarding to read in other ways (which is rare in punchline stories), you’re left with little to salvage when this happens.

They’re not bad exactly…

This isn’t to say a good ‘punchline’ story can’t be told — if that were true there wouldn’t be any good mysteries or thrillers. The impulse to surprise your readers is a good one, and it means you’re thinking about how they actually experience your story, not just how the story reads from sentence to sentence. That said, these punchlines are best confined to the genres we’ve been talking about, and they have to be executed perfectly. If you’re not writing a straight-up mystery or trying to tell a joke — even if you still want to include a twist at the end — it’s best not to let the whole thing hang upon this single twist.

There’s an easy fix

Yesterday’s story started as a punchline story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the plot, so you may want to read the story before proceeding if you haven’t yet).

Originally the story was going to be told straight through from the perspective of the ‘regenerating man,’ with the twist about his memories reserved until the end. In this original concept, the twist would have been taken at face value, as a (fairly predictable) ironic turn at the end of a story about quick money and reckless science.

What I did to avoid this was put the whole thing in a framing narrative and let the regenerating man tell his story to someone else. This way, even though the man’s story has certain details that might make it sound believable at first, the reader has good reason to question his truthfulness as the story continues. This narrative frame, along with some foreshadowing and the straightforward title, is enough (hopefully) to remove all punchline-like appearances. The twist doesn’t even look much like a twist anymore.

The point is that the fix was relatively simple. If you have an idea for a good story, don’t throw it out just because it hangs on a twist. There are things you can do to turn even that twist on its head — a change of perspective, the addition of a character, a change of setting — so you shouldn’t be afraid to play with the details to see what effect your changes have on the story overall. You may find that what seems to be a big problem (and here I’m talking not just about the punchline problem but any problem you might be having with your writing) can be solved by a relatively minor change.

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