The Comedy of Short Fiction

Annell López

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 198.

In the 2000 movie Bring It On, protagonist Torrance Shipman, played by Kirsten Dunst, is tasked with having to come up with original choreography for her high school cheerleading team. To craft a routine good enough to make it to the national cheerleading competition, Shipman draws inspiration from various sources, including films, musicals, and even mime performances. Although I am a fiction writer, Torrance’s creative process reminds me of my own; I often turn to an artistic medium different from fiction to hone my storytelling techniques: comedy.

Comedy specials are one of my favorite ways to engage with storytelling. Jokes, in fact, are very similar to short stories. Both are forms of compressed narrative that must be carefully paced in order to have their intended effect. Move too fast, and you risk hindering your reader’s ability to absorb the plot and other components of the story. Move too slowly, and you risk losing the reader’s interest and attention. In a joke the pace must be just right to deliver that punchline effectively and make the audience laugh.

Pacing all begins with the setup. The comedian or performer needs to get their audience on board swiftly by bringing them into a scenario with just a few words. A good joke quickly sets up the scenario in which it’s going to take place—think of the classic joke in which three unlikely characters walk into a bar. A slow and convoluted setup is likely to result in a slow and convoluted joke. The same is true for the first few pages of a good short story. The writer has to ground the reader in the reality of that story so that they can get a good sense of the story’s conflict right from the start. Some stories do a lot of “throat-clearing” and don’t necessarily begin right away. A strong narrative setup lets the reader know about the setting, the characters involved, and some of the conflict all in the first few pages. Both jokes and stories require a keen understanding of timing. Jokes have taught me to be mindful of my pace and to employ brevity and directness from the start. 

Then there’s tension. In jokes tension is often created by building up anticipation for a punchline or a twist. Take, for example, comedian Jerrod Carmichael’s opening monologue as the host of Saturday Night Live in April 2022. “I’m not going to talk about it,” he begins. The statement, given without any context, is funny. The audience erupts in laughter before they even know what Carmichael is referring to. Carmichael pauses and smiles, which escalates the tension in the room. He then insists again that he won’t talk about “it.” The audience laughs again. They still don’t know what it is he won’t talk about. The mystery of the topic in question creates the tension. His withholding of information keeps the audience invested in the joke. One way I create tension in my fiction is by introducing a situation at the beginning of a story, then gradually revealing more details as the plot unfolds. For example, in my story “The World as We Know It,” the narrator and his girlfriend are startled by a noise. The source of the noise is a mystery, which in turn creates tension. As the story progresses, more clues are revealed.

Carmichael’s witholding also speaks to restraint. One way to kill a joke is by overexplaining it. The same can be said for fiction. Much like a joke, a good short story trusts that the audience will understand subtext and nuance. As Carmichael continues his SNL monologue, the audience learns that he’s referring to an incident that had taken place less than a week before at the Academy Awards: While awards show host Chris Rock was telling a joke that poked fun at actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s baldness, Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, rose from his seat in the audience and slapped Rock in the face. Carmichael never outright talks about the slap. Talking about it without talking about it becomes the punchline. He trusts the audience and understands they’ll follow. This is a good lesson for writers: You don’t need to spell everything out. Showing restraint involves knowing when to hold back to let the reader fill in the gaps. In my story “The World as We Know It,” for example, the narrator and his girlfriend argue over the source of the noise. I don’t have to tell the reader that their relationship is in trouble and their argument over the noise is just a symptom of a much larger problem. The reader will arrive at that conclusion on their own.

If you pay close attention, watching a few minutes of comedy can be a micro lesson in writing craft. Dissect a comedy special and see how the different jokes work. Measure their success with your own laughter. Then go back to your writing and ask yourself: Do I have an effective setup? Am I leading my reader to a punchline or a satisfying conclusion? Is my timing right? Am I trusting my reader to reach their own conclusion?


Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. She is the winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize and the author of the story collection I’ll Give You a Reason (Feminist Press, 2024). A Peter Taylor Fellow at the Kenyon Review’s Adult Writers Workshops, she has also received support from Tin House. Her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Brooklyn Rail, Guernica, Michigan Quarterly Review, Refinery29, and elsewhere. López received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. She is working on a novel.

Art: Thong Tran