Story or joke? How to write a novel–part 32

caveguy sm“Two dinosaurs walk into a bar…”

For most of the 20th century folks believed our species evolved into something like its “modern” form around 40,000 years ago. I suspect that’s about the time we started telling jokes, too.

Jokes are the simplest form of storytelling once one goes beyond, “Don’t move, or that big thing with lotsa teeth will eat you,” although that’s not particularly funny. (Hey, I get it; not everyone can tell a joke.) Allow me to put this in question form: what differentiates a joke from a short story, usually a very short one? I suspect the answer has to do with the quality of the writing; it’s certainly not just a matter of length. Can a joke have all the elements found in a story? Some can, and I just happen to have an example.

The first time I saw this story was years ago, long before the internet. In those days, office types used to find these gems, photocopy them and pass ’em around on paper. Email put an end to that, and such stories are still being forwarded at light-speed all over the planet. A couple years back, someone sent it to me. I doubt it had ever been punctuated correctly, and no one had taken the time to clean up the misspelled words, polish the dialog, or do much of anything else with it. And yet, it had all the earmarks of a complete story. See for yourself. Herewith, a well-scrubbed version of a tale I call:

Coming Clean

Poignant, isn’t it?

Right. But let’s take a closer look and examine this thing to see if it has all the requisite parts of a complete story. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use the 7-Point Plotting checklist to make the determination. So, does it have a beginning which features character, setting and conflict? Indeed it does. Jonathan is in bed, and his death is imminent. We can check off the top three items: a person, in a place, with a problem.

Characters in conflict make up the heart of good fiction. A character needs a motive; he needs to act upon it, and he needs to face the consequences. In 7-Point Plotting parlance such actions and consequences are known as “Try/Fails.” A character attempts to satisfy his motivation, and he either succeeds or he fails. In either case, the outcome usually leads to yet another complication. Jonathan’s motive is to confess his sins, and he makes three efforts, all successful. So we can check off “Try” and “Fail.”

The last two elements of the 7-Point formula call for a climax and a denouement. Old Jon’s third bit of soul-scrubbing meets the criteria for a climax. It’s the final attempt, the last hurrah, the grand effort, and sweet Rebecca supplies the denouement, or wrap-up, with her closing line. It’s all said and done. We know who’s who and what’s what, and the story is over.

So, in a mere 200 words we have a complete story–beginning, middle and end. And it’s funny, too. Not a bad deal.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to Story or joke? How to write a novel–part 32

  1. I love that joke. To me, A joke is something that ends with an unexpected twist which that story does. Eddie Rhoades

  2. Amanda says:

    Never thought about it before, but a great joke well told might just be one of my favorite short stories. This one is awesome!

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