Short stories are a joke! (tip 78) Reply

In the run up to this year’s Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Competition, we’re doing a series of posts on short fiction. Previous videos have looked at beginning a short story. Today, D.D. Johnston begins to reflect on the importance of endings, and why short stories are like jokes.

Mickey Spillane said:

A fiction story is like a joke.  The reason you listen to a joke is to get to the punch line.  Pacing a story is like sex: you start off with the teasing, then work up to the rough stuff and then all of a sudden you get to the real boom-da-boom-da-boom-da-BANG, the big explosion, then you’re finished. The closer to the last word you can get the climax, the better.

Let’s not delve into his sex metaphor. Let’s stick with the joke idea, because David Foster Wallace said something similar. He said,

[G]reat short stories and great jokes have a lot in common.  Both depend on what communications theorists sometimes call exformation, which is a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.  This is probably why the effect of both short stories and jokes often feels sudden and percussive, like the venting of a long-stuck valve.

Crucially, both jokes and stories are entirely about the ending. We are interested in the set up only in so far as it develops the promise of the ending. For instance, here’s a joke:

Once upon a time, there was a wee boy who was completely obsessed with tractors. He had pictures of tractors all over his bedroom walls; he had tractor toys, tractor pyjamas, a tractor duvet cover. He had pictures of tractors on his walls, piles of tractor weekly under his bed. He loved them.

For his 11th birthday, his father took him to a tractor show room. The tractors were housed in a big glass forecourt, and while the father was talking to a saleswoman, the wee boy climbed up to sit at the wheel of one of the tractors. Somehow he managed to start the tractor and the thing started trundling towards the giant windows. His father saw what was happening and run in front of the vehicle. “No!” he said. “Son, hit the brake.” But the son couldn’t find the brake. “Stop!” said the father. He held his palm out, commanding the vehicle to stop. “Noooooooooooooooooooo!” The tractor rolled right over him, crushing him to death.

The wee boy was devastated. He vowed to banish tractors from his life completely and forever. He ripped down his posters, guddled up his toys, grabbed his magazines and pyjamas, and wrapped the whole lot up in his tractor duvet cover. He dragged all his tractor paraphernalia into the garden, dowsed it in petrol and set alight.

Well, the wee boy grew up, and many years later he was at a house party. At this party, everyone was smoking – you could hardly see the air was so thick with smoke. But peering through the fog, he saw the most beautiful girl in the world. She was coughing and spluttering, on the verge of an asthma attack. The wee boy, now a man, new exactly what to do. He took a huge breath, sucking in all the smoke. Then he walked outside and blew all the smoke into the night.

“That was amazing!” said the girl, “How did you do that?”

“No problem,” he said.  “I’m an ex-tractor fan.”

Do you see how awful it is to invest in a story that fails to deliver at the end? So, in short stories, far more than in novels, the ending is everything. Think about the tractor joke: once you know that you’re building to a pun based on the idea of an extractor fan, there are various routes you can take in the set up. But you can’t tell the story unless you know where you’re going.

The great Canadian author Alistair MacLeod said that when he was writing a story, he would know more or less how it would end. The ending was like a lighthouse, a destination he could navigate towards, even if he didn’t exactly know the route.

So I suspect that most stories are written in order to reach a pre-determined ending. Writing a short story, I think, is often about finding the best route to a particular place, whereas writing a novel is more like going for a walk without a map and seeing where you end up.

In the next video, I want to look at what it is that happens at the ending of a successful short story.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail image for this video is by Sharon Hinchliffe. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of her work here:

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