In this series of articles, I’m going to use a joke to illustrate on some of the oft-talked about principals of creative writing.
Jokes are a story in microcosm, but still contain all the elements needed in a narrative to make it work. Jokes – the conflict, the struggle and the pay off – a beginning, middle and end, stripped down to their most essential form. If you can pull off a good joke, you can pull off a good story. So, here’s the joke, and forgive me if you’ve heard it before -
A man goes up to the doorman of a nightclub.
‘You can’t come in,’ the doorman says, ‘you’re not wearing a tie.’ The man goes back to his car and searches around for something he can use. All he finds is a pair of jump leads, so, in desperation, he ties them around his shirt’s collar in place of a tie. When he goes back to the nightclub, the doorman eyes him suspiciously.
‘Alright,’ he says, after a while. ‘You can go in – just don’t start anything!’
Boom, boom! Now, let’s isolate the elements of this joke that illustrate the key aspects to consider when writing any piece of fiction, no matter the length.
1) The conflict – You need to establish your world, who’s in it and what’s at stake as soon as possible to create the conflict. Here we have the man, the doorman and a nightclub. These are very simple terms, but each conveys something to create the conflict.
The Nightclub tells us the time of day, and the relationship between your characters. You have the doorman, whose very name indicates he is an authority figure, a literal gatekeeper, who is keeping our hero, the man, from his goal. We never know the name of the man or anything about him, but we can still relate to him because we can see he’s denied access to something he desires by an authority figure, so we’re on his side. Even better, because the wearing of a tie is an affectation, which in itself is meaningless - a tie is a symbol of status but serves no practical purpose as something like a hard hat might when entering a building site, we feel his situation is unjust. This makes him an ‘everyman’ who we can feel sympathy for, because we’ve probably all been denied something we want by an authority figure in the past. We have a conflict, and have picked a side.
2) The struggle – the hero tries to overcome. We can tell that he’s desperate to enter the club, because he's desperate to find a tie. He searches his car for anything he can use, and this at once marks him out as a man willing to problem solve, to give 'it' a go - and also increases the conflict – because effort indicates that to him, the goal of the nightclub is worth the struggle. He might be tilting a windmills, the struggle might not be one we would bother with, but the act of his struggle is engaging.
Then, he finds the jump leads, and sees a way forward, a way that another person might not have seen. This is key because now there is a hope. It’s a desperate hope, because who would really accept a pair of jump leads as a tie? So we have tension, will the struggle work, will his lateral thinking save the day after all? Doubt in the mind of the reader means they are engaging with the struggle, you are creating that ‘edge of the seat’ sensation, and it means that they care about your character and his fate.
3) The pay off – All the best stories play with the expectations of the reader in some way. If the bouncer just waves the man through or sends him packing because he's not wearing a tie but had jump leads round his neck, where’s the joke? What makes this joke funny, if it can still be funny after we’ve analyzed it to death, is that the doorman subverts expectation by coming onside with the hero, in fact, he could almost be said to take control of the story with his witty quip – at the last moment bringing a great deal of colour and personality to his role, and it leaves the reader surprised and, we hope, delighted by the unexpected nature of the outcome.
Ease right? Well no, not at all, that it why a good joke is hard to find and a good story equally so, but I hope that by this, simple example, you have an idea what the three stages of story demands of the writer – conflict – struggle – pay off/twist.
In my next article, I shall look at the same joke and use it to show how actions speak louder than words when creating character.