by Jim Foreman
STRUCTURE, PACE AND TIMING
The title of this chapter is probably enough to make some of you start digging through the trash in search of a copy of Modern Chiropractic, Mechanics Illustrated or most anything else to read. I'll have to admit that these particular subjects might not be the most thrilling ones in the world, but they are the basis upon which all humor is written. Fail to adhere to any one of these three parameters and your whole story will probably go down the tubes.
Writing humor, in many ways, is very much like writing poetry. All poetry is set to a certain meter which contains a given number of beats or accents per line, a fixed number of lines for each stanza and an inflexible pattern of rhyme. I think that someone invented prose for people who are unable to fit what they want to say into the accepted poetic pattern.
I'm sure that at one time or another, all of you have heard someone tell a joke which went over very well while another person might fall flat when trying to tell the same story. If you stop to analyze the difference in the style of these two story tellers for a few minutes, you will realize why one was a winner while the other flopped. The winner kept your attention while his story flowed along toward the punchline. There were no hidden bumps or potholes to bounce your mind off course and the end seemed to come at just the right time. This person used structure, pace and timing to keep you with him all the way to the end.
I was teaching a course in creative writing a few years ago and one of my students handed in a short story which began:
"Tom Drayson was trudging along what he thought was a totally deserted beach when he saw her sitting on a moss covered rock, drawing lazy little circles in the sand with her big toe. She wore a simple cotton blouse pulled tight across ample breasts and tied in a knot just above a pair of faded jeans which had been cut off so short that the ends of the pockets hung below the tattered bottoms, exposing tanned legs which seemed to go on for a country mile. The setting sun on her hair reflected with the sheen of polished copper. When she noticed that Tom was watching her, she turned her back and walked quickly toward a weathered beach cottage which clung to a barren piece of soil just above the line of trash marking the high tide line...."
So who or what is this story about. Is it about a guy named Tom, some nameless woman with great legs or beach cottages? That aspiring writer was like the preacher who I mentioned at the beginning of this book; he was so busy driving literary nails into that first board that he never realized that he hadn't provided something to nail it to. No matter what sort of story a person is writing, the main subject must be introduced before anything can begin to happen to him. This is especially true when writing humor because if you spend too much time with the introduction, you will lose both the pace and timing necessary to make humor work.
Structure can be broken down as follows: Introduce the main character, chase him up a tree, then throw rocks at him. Once you have him up the tree and occupied with dodging rocks, you can proceed in any direction that you wish. He can either climb back down and beat hell out of you or else you can chop the tree down with him in it. Writing humor follows the same pattern, introduce the subject, set it up and fire the punchline.
Some people might argue that structure and pace are basically the same, but that is not true. Granted, structure and pace are dependent on one another but they are two separate elements of writing humor. Structure is the building in which the humor is housed and pace is the speed at which you walk through it. Each particular situation dictates a pace at which a person is most comfortable. Stray away from this pace or change the pace without a very good reason and you will often kill whatever humor you are trying to create. Take the basic limerick for instance. Each line has four accents and four pauses. Change the pace or tempo of any one line and the whole effect will be lost. Trying to use the wrong pace for the situation is like trying to waltz to polka music, you always have the wrong foot on the ground and step on your partner's toes.
The final and most important part of humor is timing. Knowing the exact time to throw the punchline is much the same as a salesman knowing when to close on a sale. There is usually a very small window of opportunity for both the joke and the sale to be successful. There is an old saying among salesmen that tens of thousands of sales have been killed with the jawbone of an ass. The same holds true when it comes to writing humor. Throw the punchline too soon and much of its impact will be lost. Wait too long and the reader will have already figured out the joke and lost the anticipation.
So how does one go about finding that exact moment to spring the punchline? Taped above my desk is a limerick which serves not only as a guide for timing, but for structure and pace as well. It isn't really all that funny, but I often turn to it when I get bogged down. Simply refreshing my mind by reading this little poem will usually show me where I have lost the structure, pace or timing needed to make something work.
There was once was an English twit,
Using this as a guide for structure works just like the rule of thumb used by architects for establishing ideal room dimensions. The ideal room is six units long, four units wide and three units high. The most readable structure for humor is based on six units for the introduction, four units for the situation and three for the punchline. As to pace, there is a beat on every other syllable which keeps things rolling until you want it to stop with a hard ending. Finally, the punchline is only three units long and follows the last part of the situation which has a soft ending.
"WOOPS! What's all this stuff about hard and soft endings that you just mentioned?" you ask.
Ending a sentence with a word with a hard sound tends to cut the thought process off at that point. These are words which end with a consonant which has a hard, explosive sound with closed tongue or lips. The first two lines of the little limerick end with hard words. They should be used only at the end of a paragraph or where one desires to signal a closed or hard ending and a break in the train of thought.
Using words with a soft, vowel sounding end will carry the mind of the reader smoothly into the punchline as illustrated in the third and forth lines of the limerick. All stanzas of songs end with soft words as it is almost impossible to sing a word which has a hard end. Soft words tend to carry the mind of the reader on into the next sentence or to the punchline. Often it will be necessary for one to substitute a different word which has either a hard or soft sound to end the sentence with the desired effect.
All of this talk about structure, pace and timing might make humor writing appear to be rather mechanical and it would seem that just about anyone could write humor if he stuck to the proper pattern. Only a fertile mind can produce humor, but following these rules will often make it flow a lot better.