What does late-night comedy writing have in common with writing for kids and young adults, you ask? Ah, very much indeed.
On Wednesday nights, my husband and I enjoy getting the kids to bed and watching Last Comic Standing for some grown-up laughs. In this stand-up comedy competition, the comics write and perform their own short sets and vie to be the last comic standing at the finale (and win stuff). Whenever I watch a talent competition, I prick my ears up at judging time. What can I apply to my own art and craft, so I can impress my own panel of editorial “judges?”
So here are a few pointers to apply from Last Comic to your writing:
- Bring it Back Around. The most successful stand-up acts tend to come full circle. The last joke ties in to the first joke, making it even funnier. A good picture book will also give this sense of completeness, tying the first and last lines together. Like the short sets on Last Comic, you don’t have a lot of space in a picture book. So think ahead and tie the ending in to leave a lasting impression! Novels should do the same by providing a scene in the beginning that will be mirrored somehow in the end to reflect a character’s growth. This could be emphasized through a repeated line, a repeated situation with a different reaction/outcome, etc.
- Stay in Character. You never know if the screwball people up on stage are playing “themselves” or a character, and if they’re doing it right, you shouldn’t know. Every joke, every word, every expression, every movement has to stay in character. In this way, comics are writers and actors….and in a sense, as writers, so are we. Especially if we’re writing first person!!
- Know When to Use White Space. Sometimes it takes us a sec. A good comedian knows when to pause and let a joke sink in. Sometimes they punctuate a pause with a funny look or a sip of water. It’s all part of their strategic pacing and presentation….and it needs to be part of the writer’s as well. Use paragraph and chapter breaks wisely. Similarly, composition in the artwork of a picture book can utilize white space very effectively. Using stand-alone lines in a novel draws attention to the sentence. The white space, like the strategic pause, sets your joke – or your dramatic realization, stare of jealousy and rage, sudden and tragic death, or that look of love and longing – apart. It makes the reader take note. It gives them a sec to process it on their own, so you don’t have to dump lots of extra words around it to tell them it’s important.
- Hook AND Reel. Start with a bang! Hook ’em. But don’t fizzle. Reel them in by building upon your hook….increase tension and don’t let it sag, or your reader will swim off in search of new bait. Your hook is a promise, so keep it!
- Get the audience reaction. Oh, this is hard with our writing! We sit at a desk or curl up on our couch with a laptop and feline and cherish our words. It’s us and the words, and we’re a happy couple. And then, it’s time to go public!! Introduce them to the family….change the Facebook status to in a relationship with XX Story and wait for the comments. The first time I met with a critique partner, I was terrified! I bought a special, decorative folder just to make sure I looked like a real writer. I was sweaty. I took a few Tums. But guess what? It gets easier. And the reaction and advice is priceless. Sharing a part of yourself with another human being is wonderful, if terrifying! So, if you want to share your words (ex: be an actual, bona fide author) you’ve gotta start sharing. Ain’t no other way. And you’ve got to be prepared for the crickets….because if nobody’s laughing, you need to curl up on your couch again with a carton of Ben n Jerry’s, and write it again. Share it again. Write it again. Share it again. And again. And again….Until you’re the last writer standing, because you kept putting your butt in the chair and standing up again.