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The Punch Line



“Maybe I shoulda said DiMaggio?”
“Okay, you’re ugly too!”
Maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem.

That’s right, jokes (the above taken from the first list [2] a quick google search found me) don’t really make a lot of sense when you only hear the punch line. We all think of that punch line as the most important part of the joke–and yet just the punch line alone isn’t going to make anyone laugh. It’s missing its, well, punch.

My point is, setup is just as important as the payoff. And I absolutely think it’s just as true for novels as it is for jokes. After all, they’re both about telling stories, right? I just the other week got to read the working draft my fabulous writing partner’s new book. It’s a wonderful, fast-paced and magical story, and one scene in particular caught my eye. In this scene, the heroine is tempted by an Otherworldly goddess to betray all she believes in for the boon of being granted a child of her own. A powerful, gripping scene.

Now, its been previously mentioned in the story that there are doubts as to whether the heroine will ever have a child. Her husband is Otherworldly himself, one of the magical sidhe, and no one can say whether any human woman can bear his daughter or son. But what I suggested to my writing partner was that she add a scene earlier in the book, showing her heroine longing for a child, wishing for a baby with all her heart. As powerful as that temptation scene already is, do you feel how much more powerful yet it is when we really understand just how agonizing a temptation it is for the heroine? How hard it is for her to turn the goddess down?

Setup is key.

My own setup/punch line technique goes something like this: I divide my story line roughly in two with a mental line down the middle, at about the halfway mark of the action. And then I try to look at the most important scenes in the second half of the book as the punch line to jokes I’ve set up in the first half. (Even though they’re obviously not really jokes, ie not necessarily funny). Is the setup to the scenes I really want to “pop” there? If not, what can I do to get it in there?

Any emotional scene will feel like much more of a payoff if it’s been well set up first. Is your heroine going to lose her job? Make the blow all the more tangibly devastating by showing first how much your heroine loves her job, or maybe just how much she needs the money. Is your main character about to tell her boyfriend she’s unexpectedly pregnant? Ratchet up the tension with an earlier scene of the boyfriend telling someone else that he’s planning to break up with her.

Setup and punch line. Try it with your own manuscript–and let me know what you think!

About Anna Elliott [3]

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.