Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Writing Tip #284

My discussion on BETTER CALL SAUL last week and how so much of this season seems to just be a set-up has led me to this thought:

Set-ups are HARD.  

When I wrote my farce, THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS everyone assumed the hard part was the end where it was a joke a second.  Laugh had to pile on laugh in machine gun fashion.   

But the truth is that was the easy part.  I was just paying off everything I had set before.  Many of the laughs were just reactions.  Or call backs.  

The real hard work was the first act.  That’s when I had to establish everything.  Once elements were in motion I was off to the races.  The tricky part is to do that while still being entertaining.  Those laughs were harder to come by.  I had to devise comic situations that presented the necessary information in a fun way.  It’s unreasonable to ask the person doing the pre-show announcements to say, “Trust us, it gets better in the second act.”  

And you have to be careful.  You can’t disguise the set-up info so deep into scenes that it doesn’t register or is not crystal clear.  Remember, the audience might have to remember this or that fact for a half hour before it pays it.  Just hiding it cleverly in a line of dialogue is not going to make the impression you need.

Achieving all that is tough.  But a good first step is knowing you have to achieve all that.   And it’s easy to overlook because good writers can make it appear effortless.  It’s not. The clumps of hair I tore out are still growing back. 


Douglas Trapasso said...

One of my favorite "Cheers" scenes was the charity auction when Woody's, umm, companionship was up for bidding. Not to give away the final twist, but I remember little hints leading up to that scene that made the payoff even funnier.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

The episode of "Becker" with his air horn is a good example of that too.

Rich Shealer said...

My question to those that felt the set-up to Kim and Saul's con on Better Call Saul was taking too long, was the pay off worth it? It was to me.

Call Me Mike said...

BCS's setup was lengthy but worth the wait, I thought. That last scene made me jump like no horror movie has in a long time.

AaronW said...

Setups are hard! I've been guilty of hiding things in dial that readers miss. It's something I am mindful about. Today I have to re-write the opening of my pilot and part of my work will be remembering this!

Michael said...

On the set-up, I think of your story of little Freddy's first word on Cheers being "Norm," and how you had to get Norm out of the bar enough times for it to register.

I also think of something I've said here before: Jack Benny said it took five years to set up a joke. On one show, Ronald Colman mentioned seeing Phil Harris's orchestra as his wife ate an apple. Benita said, "Please, Ronnie, not while I'm eating." Benny said, it took years of jokes about what a group of reprobates were in the band for that line to work.

Kirk said...

As a writer, are you in favor of pun control?

Glenn said...

I generally don't plan much of anything. I kinda know how I want it to start, have an idea where it might finish, and then just let the ballon go. I enjoy stream of consciousness writing. I love surprising myself. Of course I make it all neat and cohesive in rewrites, but I enjoy the journey- wherever it takes me. The less planned the better

Mike Bloodworth said...

I love a good call back. I can't tell you how many times while watching a sitcom, sketch or play I've thought, why didn't they bring that back? Or thus would be the perfect place for a call back. Some times writers just don't know the potential of what they have.

Writing Tip #284? I missed 1 through 283. Would you please repeat them?

I've seen several of your plays, but I have never seen "The Farce Day of Christmas." I would love to go as long as I don't have to wear a mask. And then I can post a negative review about it. (See yesterday's blog) Just kidding. I learned my lesson about that.


Paul Blake said...

Always liked the short, easily digested bit that disappears and returns at the end. Example, Seinfeld, the episode where George poses as a Marine Biologist. Brilliantly done.

DBenson said...

When attempting a novel I found myself thinking in whodunit terms: I had to plant not only plot stuff but character background. At various moments characters had to do things that were, I hoped, unexpected ... but NOT surprising, since the wrongheaded words and actions grew naturally out of who they were.

A pet peeve is the secondary movie character who abruptly turns from sympathetic to nasty (or visa versa) to gin up a conflict or arbitrarily end one. Like the Nice Girl who has a prior claim to a romantic hero, and conveniently turns into a bitch and/or falls for somebody else so the hero doesn't have to dump her.

Of course, the true whodunit aspires to make you slap your own face for not seeing what was waved in front of it. A favorite was "Have His Carcass", the TV version of a Peter Wimsey mystery. You watched as they carefully assembled the pieces of the puzzle, the clues and details that built the case. Then they ran up against what seemed to be a stone wall. In the end it turned out an earlier clue, which was used to resolve an earlier point, had in it the answer to an entirely different question which nailed the murderer. I was conditioned -- and I suspect most viewers were -- to dismiss that interesting item as "used up", even though it was slyly kept alive in later scenes.

I suppose the comedy equivalent would be the setup that's funny in itself. We laugh at everybody yelling "NORM" when he keeps re-entering; the payoff is huge because we thought the gag was over, and the topper was waiting in plain sight all the time.

Gary Crant said...

Interesting take and perspective on the writing cycle process. My impression is that the opposite is often true, where there's a good plot premise and a strong opening, then it seems to peter out by the last act. Some sitcom episodes, and particularly with sketch comedy, seem to start out brilliant and then just chug along because nobody can think of a real ending.

Which suppose as a backhanded compliment, it's nice to see a show that does wrap up with a genuine conclusion.

Bob K said...

A well-constructed call-back (I never knew the term until I saw it here) has always been my favorite comedic technique. Nothing makes me laugh harder.