science fiction and fantasy writer

Storytelling as joke telling

There’s a wonderful talk on storytelling at TED.com by Pixar screenwriter Andrew Stanton, whose writing credits include Toy Story (and sequels), A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, WALL-E and Finding Nemo.

And John Carter.

Everyone has their off days.

Among the many astute things he has to say about storytelling is likening it to joke telling. I think it’s a really useful analogy for the particular elements of storytelling that it draws out.

Like a story, a joke has a beginning, middle and ending. In a joke, these serve particular functions that I think are very useful to remember for storytelling.

The Beginning

The beginning of a joke establishes a context. It might put you in a setting you can imagine, and it probably tells you what kind of joke you’re in: “A man walks into a bar…”, “So the first guy says…” or even “Knock knock…”

The beginning also disrupts that sense of familiar context. In Stanton’s opening joke the disruption is through discomfort. If a crazy, aggressive old Scotsman accosted most people in a bar, they’d feel uncomfortable, so they project that onto the man in the joke. Other jokes do it by, say, setting up a familiar scenario (eg, St Peter guarding the gates of heaven) and then turning it on its head (St Peter decides that people can go into heaven only if they can entertain him with the story of their death).

That context plus disruption is the hook or, as Stanton puts it, the promise the joke teller makes to their audience.

The Middle

The middle of the joke is all about setting up for the punchline while simultaneously disguising that you’re doing so. The middle of the joke has to misdirect, while giving the listener all the clues they need to appreciate the punchline. The middle has to entertain the listener enough that they both stay with the joke, and are already too busy enjoying the ride to figure it out for themselves.

The Ending

The punchline has to emerge from the logic of the story, but also be a surprise. To borrow Stanton’s terms: the ending should be inevitable, but not predictable. Or at least, it shouldn’t be the first thing the audience predicts, or even the second thing. Listening to Stanton’s joke, you know the punchline is going to be about the old Scotsman being called something, but the joke misleads you as to what that might be.

And when the punchline is revealed, it should be evident that every part of the joke that’s come before has been leading to this moment. Everything the joke teller has said, from the first sentence to the last, has led to this singular goal (again, paraphrasing Stanton). The ending pays off the promise that was given at the beginning and reiterated in the middle.

The Big Lesson

And the biggest lesson the storyteller should take from joke telling?

It’s all in the delivery.

Now go watch the Andrew Stanton talk.

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