I think Stanton’s right, that there are strong parallels between jokes and stories, both structurally and in terms of how they operate. Elsewhere in his talk, Stanton puts forward the idea that the endings of stories should be “inevitable, but not predictable”. That is, the ending should be set up by the story that precedes it, and the story should contain all of the information necessary to make sense of the ending, but the ending should still surprise the reader. Sounds hard? Well, that’s how the punchlines of jokes work, isn’t it?
I was reminded this week of Christopher Green’s story “Father’s Kill“, which you can follow the link to read at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. (Incidentally, this story was co-winner, with my story “Once a month, on a Sunday”, of the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010). It’s pretty short, and well worth taking five minutes to read. It’s also a very clear and succinct example of an ending that’s “inevitable, but not predictable”. This story is nothing at all like the joke at the beginning of Stanton’s TED talk, but it works exactly the same way.