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Don't Step On Your Punchlines

There's a piece of stand-up comedy advice I came across several years ago, delivered from a veteran comic to a someone just starting out, that I think about a lot.

Don't step on your punchlines.

I don't do stand-up, but I do write. And what's true for comedy writing is also true for many other kinds of writing, because what makes something funny (the comedian's goal) is also what can make your writing moving in the ways you intend.

Comedic punchlines are what we're most familiar with—the surprising payoff or twist that puts a setup in a new and, hopefully, funny context. And the kind of punchline the veteran comic meant in his advice was the kind that usually comes during a story or a series of observations in a comic's routine.

Since the punchline is the funny part, he was saying not to bury it in the middle of the bit. Build up to it. Give the audience all the pieces of the puzzle, but then give them something that totally subverts their expectations. Therein lies the surprise and therefore the delight.

I give you now the same advice for your writing. Don't step on your punchlines. If you have an interesting observation to make, don't bury it in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. Find a way to build up to it and let it be the final word of the paragraph, section, or chapter.

Stand-up routines have multiple punchlines. Your writing should, too. They keep the reader interested, creating what Steven Pinker calls in his writing manual The Sense of Style "arcs of coherence."

Pinker also advises that we can deliver the most forceful impact by putting the meat of the sentence at the end, and ideally the strongest individual word. This essentially creates "mini-punchlines" throughout the text. Notice which of the following two sentences feels stronger, and which feels weaker.

By far the best camping pillow I've ever used over the past 15 years is the Hiker's Dream 3000.

The Hiker's Dream 3000 is by far the best camping pillow I've ever used over the past 15 years.

Why is the first version stronger? It plants anticipation and desire in the reader's mind. The "reveal" is the name of the pillow, so saving it for the end creates, in a small way, an element of mystery.

In the second version, the punchline gets totally spoiled right away. We don't even known it's supposed to be a punchline. There's no context for what this object is, so we have no time or reason to get excited for the payoff. Instead of pulling a rabbit from a hat, the magician just presented a rabbit.

Suspenseful writing, even if it's just to present new ideas, comes from setting a scene—something familiar, ordinary—and allowing the reader to inhabit that space before revealing something they don't expect.

Sometimes it's a bedroom that seems normal until the closet swings open and out jumps a monster. Sometimes it's the typical historical account of a major event, but then a new piece of information is revealed that casts a new light over it all.

If you have something to say, it means you have something new to share with the world, which means you have the power to surprise and delight your reader. Don't ruin that opportunity by stepping on your punchlines.

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