Monday, October 26, 2009

Joke


About a year ago (or was it two? They all blend together sometimes), I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham. For those of you who don't know, Mark is an actor, stand-up comic and bestselling crime writer. It wasn't surprising that his talk was entertaining, funny and on point.

Something he said stuck with me. More accurately, his remark bounced around in the back of my head for eleven-and-something months until it finally hit me in the bath tonight. And the nature of this wonder comment?

A murder mystery is like a joke. In both cases, the storyteller sets up a situation, carefully leads the audience down a false path only to deliver a big twist at the end. We know we're being duped, and we go along willingly, happily even! That gap between expectation and delivery touches some deep and primal sense of human enjoyment.

With a joke, the gap is a twist of words ('Nope, I'm a frayed knot'), of situation ('Shut up and keep swimming') or perception ('But this one's eating my popcorn!'). With a mystery, the twist is finding out who the *real* killer is, and why. In both cases, the storyteller is deliberately lying to the audience, and the audience is happy to go along with the lie.

The full truth of this finally occurred to me tonight. Call me slow, but there you are. :)

One further insight: I realized I also structure my chapters this way. I'm just coming up to the end of a chapter, and the cliffhanger-y, suspense-y note I decided to go out on is also something of a punchline-- a small reveal that shows the situation is not what the reader thought.

You see, story is a protagonist wanting something, and being frustrated in the getting. Each scene plays out need, action and frustrated desire. And as part of that old adage 'Enter late, leave early', I try to leave scenes at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways.

(And yes, I am feeling rather well rested at the moment: last night I fell away from the earth for eight or nine solid hours. Like a switch being thrown, it was though for a few short hours I ceased to exist...)

7 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Never really thought of it that way but it makes sense. There are a lot of "contracts" or agreements between humans when it comes reading and writing, or telling jokes and listening to them.

writtenwyrdd said...

That's a great insight. Thanks for sharing!

Avery DeBow said...

I need to focus more on the challenge of "enter late, leave early." I didn't do it as much as I'd have liked in my first novel. I'm trying to do better with this next one.

cs harris said...

Interesting insight, Steve. Perhaps it explains why plotting a murder mystery is so much fun. I often see it as a game I play with my readers, like musical chairs or hot potato.

Riss said...

Hm. Interesting idea. if you think about it, you have be careful when crafting/telling your joke/mystery situations because you don't want to make the listener or reader feel like they've wasted their time. And I'm with you Avery, I need to work on that too. I tend to tell a whole bunch of stuff way before I really need to...

Lana Gramlich said...

I'd never thought of it that way either, but you're right. Funny the things we do or don't think about, now that I think about THAT...

Miladysa said...

Now that you have pointed this out to us - it's obvious :)

I never would have thought of it that way before though!