A Brief Writing Tip

Stand-up comedy can teach us a lot of things. The tricks for squeezing the most chuckles out of a monologue between setup and punchline can be applied to make general prose a lot sharper.

Let's take a look at a top story from ESPN Playbook. I've been guilty of this a thousand times; it's not a huge deal but it's an opportunity for easy punch-up. The following paragraph appeared Tuesday morning after the Patriots' rout of the Texans.
"Mooooooo … that's the sound the Houston Texans' logo made as the team was roped and branded by the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. At rodeos, the steer puts up a fight. On prime-time television, the Texans, entering the contest with the league's best record, didn't even put up a fight."
If you're a writer, comedian, or--maybe--designer, you immediately see where this short passage has an opportunity to improve. But real quick, here's two short chunks of prose, and you're going to tell me which one you like better.
On March 11th, the 5:10 bus to Mechanicsburg was running late due to bad traffic. This was a common problem, as bad traffic had already held it back twice that week.
On March 11th, the 5:10 bus to Mechanicsburg was running late due to bad traffic. This was a common problem, as sluggish rush-hours had already held it back twice that week.
You may think the reason the second one is better is because "sluggish rush-hours" is a more linguistically pleasing phrase than "bad traffic".

But I'm gonna switch these slightly so that the first one enjoys the prettier language:
On March 11th, the 2:10 bus to Mechanicsburg was running late due to a sluggish rush-hour. This was a common problem, as sluggish rush-hours had already held it back twice that week.
On March 11th, the 2:10 bus to Mechanicsburg was running late due to bad traffic. This was a common problem, as it had already been late twice that week.
Comedians know that things are less funny the second time. That's why a headliner says to a feature act, "Hey, don't do any jokes about Twitter, because I have fifteen minutes about hashtags that I'm working on for my special."

Did you notice how that imaginary sentence was better than "Hey, don't do any jokes about Twitter, because I have fifteen minutes on Twitter that I'm working on for my special?" The word "Twitter" was already used earlier in the sentence, so it offers less novelty the second time around. The brain already has it loaded in the mix. The mind doesn't read to get what it expects. The mind watches TV to get what it expects. It listens to pop music to get what it expects. It roots for the Philadelphia Eagles to get what it expects. But it reads to have itself blown open. Ideally, anyway.

There's a lot of recent discussion in neurology, and even spirituality, regarding the importance of novelty. Neurologist David Eagleman discusses how the experience of "something different" in a string of repeating stimuli actually affects our subjective perception of time. Comedian Duncan Trussel has said that the sensation of novelty is the experience of God in our lives. And with all the talk about modern men's addictions to porn and video games it's quite possibile that what we're really adicted to is the rejection of repition.

I'll leave you with an excerpt from Monty Python's Holy Grail. Why is this scene funny? In addition to lampooning the myth of King Arthur as patently absurd, the Dennis character is nitpicking the details to the extreme, and he's doing so with a vocabulary that allows him to repeat himself over and over again, almost never saying the same words twice.
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, [angels sing]her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [singing stops]That is why I am your king! 
DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR:Be quiet!

DENNIS: Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR:Shut up!

DENNIS:I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!

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