I'm covered in flour - it would take too long to explain...

Monday, 11 March 2013

The joke, part two.

In this article, and I still prefer the word article to the word blog, I’m using the joke to expand on one of the most important tools available to a writer when creating character, show, don’t tell. It’s an oft-quoted phrase in creative writing, but it can be a slippery concept to nail down, so I hope this article will help.

Here’s the joke we’re working on, incase you haven’t read the other article.

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. 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!’

A joke is the ultimate paired down narrative, but it’s amazing what the reader’s imagination will do with very little. And that’s what you want to happen, because the more your make their minds work, the more they’ve engaged with your narrative. It seems counter intuitive, but often the less you explain, the more the reader will know.
In our joke, we have the simplest of openers, a man walks up to a doorman; but this shows us a whole street scene, which in a novel we are at liberty to paint, but is still here never the less in the joke. Yes, one wants a novel to be deeper and more complex than a joke, but as an exercise, it should be possible to cut every chapter down to a few, key sentences that are doing the work most critical to your story. If you can’t reduce your chapter down to this level, it might mean that your chapter lacks focus, that you’re too much padding, or that you’re over complicating things, which can cause your narrative to lose the plot, so to speak.
Most characters have a public persona and a private one, and the joy of any narrative is how those two are revealed to us, and how they relate to each other. Not many memorable characters are exactly how they appear to be; the aloof woman is actually a passionate lover, the charming man is actually an evil psychopath and the boring accounts clerk has the heart of the hero beating under his polyester suit.

In the joke, we’ve got the man and the doorman. Doorman carries a certain loading with it – it’s unlikely that he’s is five foot one and skinny, so we see him as imposing, possibly aggressive, maybe even a bit thick and possibly with a few convictions to boot. We might also see him as a ‘job’s worth’, someone uncaring and officious. This is his public face, the first impression we have of him, the fun comes when we play with the reader’s expectations.
The man, the hero at the start of the piece, doesn’t have a tie, but he still wants to get into the club. This shows us that he’s out of his comfort zone, he’s not a regular patron, but something is driving him to try and get in there. He’s a man on a mission, and even if the mission is one we wouldn’t be interested in, a mission makes him more interesting and engaging that a couch potato who’s doing nothing. We feel he’s the sort of person not willing to give up in the face of a seemingly implacable obstacle; he’s drawing on his inner reserves to fight for what he wants.
We’re not told the quest is important to gim, but shown it when he returns to his car to search for something he can use as a tie. Had he been simply trying his luck on a drunken night out and not really that bothered about the club, he could have just wandered off again, but instead he tries to think around the problem. He’s probably not an intellectual in the traditional sense, because there’s something desperate in his search, something directionless, but he is making the effort.
He’s also a bit of a chancer – because who else would think that a set of jump leads would pass as a tie? But the tension is mounting; time is passing, so he hits on a solution however bizarre. If he were a logical person, he might have gone up to a stranger and offered him money for his tie, or found a 24 hour super market; if he were a violent person he might have punched the doorman or robbed someone for a tie – but his choice is not to be a criminal, or a quitter but to try his luck. This makes me at least see him as a loveable looser, not a villain, maybe a bit of a rogue, perhaps even a romantic, hoping for luck to smile on him for once? He’s a glass half full kind of a guy against all the odds.
By the way, you’re welcome to argue here that the jump leads are merely there to set up the punch line, as if he’d found a string of sausages the joke wouldn’t work, but the principal stands firm – he decides to give it a go against all the odds. Besides, plot and character are inextricably linked in any narrative – this is writing, and we read for more than just facts, but for entertainment.
Now, back to the doorman. The joke has shown him as the implacable face of authority, then he’s confronted again by the man with the jump leads round his neck. If he were simply a one-dimensional thug, he could have told him to shove off. He could have even taken offence and accused the man of mocking him – it is quite an inflammatory thing to do in a way, lampooning the whole tie rule – but no. He knows he’s had the ‘micky’ taken out of him, but he appreciates the joke, and it allows him a killer punch line, so he’s not going to follow orders when fate hands him a chance to be funny. He’s a bit of a rebel on the side – by the end there’s certainly a warm heart beating under that hard exterior, not to mention a love of word play.
Perhaps also at the end there’s a sense of sadness here – because if the man goes into the club with a set of jump leads round his neck, no one else will get the joke, or accept them as a tie. Perhaps he’ll end up looking like a fool anyway, because he clearly doesn’t fit in, and his desperate antics will come to nothing, when he discovers that getting through the door is the least of his worries. How often have we been there, to struggle for something only to be disappointed when we get it? The man is likable but flawed, and how real is that?

Reading back over what I’ve written, it might be argued that none of this is in the joke at all, I’m just using my imagination to draw these conclusions – but that’s exactly what I’m trying to show you, this is what our brains do. It’s the same mechanism that makes us see faces in floral wallpaper and on buildings, and the clever writer knows this and uses it.
Even with this paired down joke, I’ve already created a sense of character for myself, I’ve invested in them, and now I’ve invested in the narrative. If this was not a joke, but the set up for a story, chapter one, I’d already be wondering what it is about the nightclub that make the man so desperate to get in, and anxious to see if the author will dash his hopes, or if he’ll ultimately win. I’ve got a sense of who he is, and I’m on his side, and I’d even like to find out a little more about the bouncer. To ‘tell’ the reader that this is what the characters are like, you’d have to write the joke much more like this:

There is a man, he’s a little bit of a looser but he’s ok really, and he’s sometimes a bit of a lateral thinker, but under pressure he can make some odd decisions that sometimes work out, though perhaps not as he intended. He wants to get into night club for some reason, but the bouncer on the door is really stern, he’s not going to let anyone in because he’s trained for years to be a bouncer; besides, he did time when he was younger and this is the sort of job he can do with a record, but he’s a good sort really, he’s not a bad man but he looks bad…

Now I’m wadding through the back-story of the characters and I’ve lost the plot. All of that detail can come later when you’ve established your narrative – and if you use your characters actions to show their inner world, much of their back story will be already be there in the mind of the reader, so when they come to read it later, it feels authentic, because it’s not coming out of the blue, but out of the seed you’ve already planted in their minds. They will think ‘Yes, the man would do that, because that’s how he reacted when he tried to get into the Night Club; he tried to solve the problem but in a way that smacked more desperation than intelligence’ and that makes him seem real. And when he learns to think first and not panic, or not want to get into the nightclub that shows us he’s grown as a person by the end of the narrative. If he does, of course.

As a writer, you need to know every detail about your characters, but to make those details come alive for your reader, show your characters in action and know how they would react in any given situation. Then, they can get under the skin of your reader in the most effective way, almost without the reader noticing.


  1. What a brilliant way to think about it :-) Info-dumping and explaining things that don't need to be explained is one of the hardest writer habits to let go of but as a reader, a story/novel is much more enjoyable when everything isn't explained in detail but we're left to fill in the gaps ourselves. I find that flash-fiction and short stories are good training for tighter novel writing because when you have a smaller word count, you can't waste words and you have to be ruthless about every single word and whether it deserves to be there. Great post! :-)

  2. Excellent ruse to use the joke as your 'show' example. You make the points very well. Useful reminders indeed.

  3. This is a very useful analogy Tx, I particularly like the idea of breaking a chapter down to a few key sentences. And of course, it's a good reminder for me especially *Baz slaps his wrist* to make sure I know every last detail of my characters. Read in conjunction with Part 1 this has been very helpful. Thanks.

  4. You've really got me thinking here. We hit the reader with complexity when sometimes all they need is a peg to hang a picture on – the picture can grow later. Great blog!

  5. Thank-you everyone, as ever it's sometimes easier to write about what to do than do it's one's self, but I'll keep trying also.

  6. Hi Sophie

    This is terribly good stuff - again! The whole piece is so well thought out, the analysis of the two characters - and what we might infer from that - is spot-on. Even though you start with a simple premise (the joke) you very skilfully show us how we can improve our writing (and, therefore, our chances of publication) in an easy to follow format. I've said it before, but if you can keep up the momentum, you will soon have a valuable 'nuts-and-bolts book that will likely benefit many of us as we struggle to make headway with our scribblings.

  7. I am not too sure that a novel written under the same precepts as the joke would work. I think you would soon get tired. Nicely and clearly written though. Doesn't farce work in a similar way?

    1. Hi Mike, my point is not that you can or should write a book as short as a joke or with a punch line as a joke, but what I am trying to show is that you really need very little in the way of exposition to create the world of a book. This is especially true when it comes to creating character, where too often the novice might try and tell the reader about a character 'Bob was the kind of man who made a lot of noise at a parties, but that was really because was shy and socially awkward' which is less effective than showing us Bob leaping around and making a fool of himself, but then crying on the way home in the taxi. You are right that a novel written as briefly as a joke would be a hard read, and when one picks up a novel one wants more than merely a joke,even in a farce, but what I hope I'm showing is that the author needs to know every detail about a character, and if they do, they can leave most of the out and the reader will fill them in for themselves.
      I am going on a bit here, but as a case in point, I happened to hear Stepheny Myers ( I think that's her name anyway!) the lady who wrote Twilight? Not books I care to read, but she said what amazed her was how fans would come and ask her what toothpaste the characters likes to use before they became vampires. She had no idea, and she doesn't really need to, but my point is that when a reader is given less to go on, they will invest more, and in some cases, invest so much they feel they need to know about toothpaste! Not that I am suggesting dental hygiene is top of the list of your characters profile, but I hope you see my point!

  8. Loving this whole concept, Sophie. Look at what you can get from one joke - fantastic work!

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