(This is copy-pasted from my tumblr but I'd like to save it here, too)

Comedy Is A Lie: I’m Going To Explain The Joke And It’s Going To Make Everything Worse

A buddy asked me why I cut a good joke from one of my fics and my immediate answer was “it killed the tension,” which, upon reflection, is a pathetic answer that is mostly inaccurate and does not even come CLOSE to how much thought I put into comedy in my writing. So I guess I’m going to write this out and excise the demon of over-explanation.

Part The First: What Is Funny

The biggest thing I try and keep in mind when writing editing comedy (and anything, really, but especially for comedy) is rhythm. Lots of parts to rhythm! Most obvious is the word-to-word/sentence-to-sentence flow. Timing is a really important aspect of verbal comedy, which is why performance is a good medium to use. You get to control the delivery of every sentence and the spaces in between. But when you’re writing, you have significantly less control over how a reader will interpret the rhythm: all you can do is word your sentences as best as you can and give them rhythm cues via punctuation. (This is why I use so many em dashes and commas… I’m working on that…)

The other part to rhythm is on a more macro scale. There are jokes that will roll along with the flow of a story. For me, these are jokes that don’t deviate from the context of the scene too much. They connect one subject to the next, or they build off of each other (a ‘yes, and’ sequence, for example). Alternatively, the joke is delivered in a really understated way. Like passing off something objectively batshit as status quo. Either way, they flow!

Then there are jokes that will halt a scene in its tracks. These are jokes that recontextualize a situation, or make a particularly large leap from the current topic. Or, you’ve been setting up for this punchline for a while and this joke is payoff. Or the joke is just really, really funny. These are the kind of jokes where you need to give the characters (or the reader) a beat to process them. Sometimes. We’ll get back to that.

Part the Second: How Is Funny

So the point of all that rhythm stuff is that comedy has a flow! If every line is a witty one-liner, none of the lines are witty one-liners! If every joke is a one-hit-KO, you have left your reader unconscious. Basically, if you are constantly being #Funny, you become repetitive and predictable, and that is the death of tension (and humor is a tension-driven element).

One way to think of comedic pacing is setup (AKA building tension) and punchline (AKA payoff). It’s a balancing act: the more you build up tension, the more satisfying the payoff is going to be, but if you spend too long building up, you start dragging. You want the reader to think, “I can’t wait for the punchline!” and not, “oh my god, PLEASE get to the punchline already.”

Fun way to make the tension last longer is to put all those flow-y connector jokes along the way. The reader’s anticipating the Joke, so by giving them little jokes, it meets their expectations in little ways so that they don’t get too antsy.

Hey, what’s tension, you ask?

Part The Third: Why Is Funny

When I read a book, there are two emotions that get me to turn the page:

  1. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and I’m curious!
  2. I know X is going to happen, and I’m anticipating it!

That’s tension. (Something something semantics—I’ve never taken a creative writing class, I don’t have a vocabulary)

You can have the calmest, low-stakes fluffiest fic in the world but as long as your readers are experiencing either curiosity or anticipation, Congrats! You have tension! I, however, like putting readers on fast-paced rollercoasters, so that’s the lens through which I’m tackling this section, which is: how do I use jokes in a story structure context? What purpose does a clown serve?

I mentioned earlier that some jokes are bricks to the face: they demand to be processed. Most of the time, I put high-impact jokes in places where I need the story to “reset” in a way: force a beat so the reader can process both the joke and the plot. That’s using humor to release tension. Literally. Laughter relieves stress.

But! You can also use those jokes to make the tension even worse! If you drop a bomb and immediately press forward, no processing allowed, you get stressful comedy. You want to laugh, but also a bunch of other stuff is happening and it feels kind of rude to laugh, so you get stressed. Sometimes humor can undermine a climactic moment, but if you use the right joke in the right spot you create shrimp emotions. If you’ve read DotF ch8 you know what I’m talking about.

Jokes also just make for good plot points? A lot of jokes are built on recontextualization. Everybody loves a good twist/reversal/surprise in a plot. Just make a joke and re-frame it, and bam! You’ve plotted! (Everything I’ve ever written started off as a joke.)

Wait, What Was the Question?

Why did I cut the joke? It was a waste of a brick to the face. It was too referential, it required the audience to know/agree with something completely unrelated to the story, it didn’t build upon what I already established. It ruined the rhythm.

I need to emphasize that, despite all my Thoughts on this, the way I appraise my jokes is 80% vibe-based. I probably could have kept the joke, and it would have been totally fine. But I would know. I would know that my intended rhythm is broken… it would haunt me until the end of time…