Writing humor is something many of us grapple with. In the past, I’ve discussed a method that I advocate called Fermentation. And in many critiques and discussions, I’ve found myself advising writers to push or push further or push to the Funny. And every time I write those words, it occurs to me that the phrase is somewhat ambiguous and my advice may be missing the mark.
So I’m going to try to refine the Fermentation method, and I’d love for those of you who are working in humor to try it out and let me know how it worked for you. (More on that later).
One More Panel
Once you’ve written your joke — refined the set-up and fine-tuned the punchline — I want you to leave it for at least 24 hours. I think this is crucial. It allows your subconscious mind to come into play and it brings you in fresh on the next day.
Now, look at what you’ve written and add another panel. Your job now is to use your punchline as a set-up to another punchline. Take the concept one step further. If an action has happened, explore the after-effects. If a surprise was introduced, top it with a bigger one. If the punchline was word-play, warp the words another step.
Finally, reduce the comic to its original panel count. Let’s say you do, indeed, produce a four-panel strip. Either lose the fourth panel and go straight from Panel There to Panel Five (making any necessary wording adjustments) or incorporate any crucial parts of the fourth panel into the third panel.
And “crucial” is the operative word here. The point is not to write longer, it’s to write better.
The optimum outcome should be to arrive at a sequence in which the word-count is very similar to the original.
Before I go any further, I want to thank member Oskar van Velden of Mojo who graciously agreed to allow me to use his most recent strip as an example. I noticed Oskar’s update on Google Plus, and it struck me that this was a perfect subject for this conversation because, although the punchline was good, I think it could have been taken to a higher level. Click on any of the images for an enlarged view.
This was Oskar’s most recent comic.
It’s a decent punchline.
But when I saw it, I couldn’t help but think about how the really funny stuff happened in the unseen next panel.
So, let’s allow our minds to wander for one more panel.
The idea of trying to stop nicotine cravings by slabbing slices of turkey meat on you skin has a really nice silliness to it. And the turkey slices look enough like the nicotine patches to make the concept cross over effectively.
But now it’s too long. The third panel doesn’t do a thing to advance the set-up. It doesn’t charge the tension, and if we leave it in, it actually telegraphs the joke, draining away much of the Funny. Since it’s pretty much extraneous…
I’m not even necessarily saying that this particular fifth panel is the best of all possible fifth panels.
And you could definitely refine it. For example, I might have added a skinny panel between Panel Two and Panel Three in which the penguin and the cat walk away from the man, having removed their patches. It might prevent a reader from thinking that the nicotine patches are being removed in the final panel.
I feel confident in saying that it’s an improvement, but I’ll bet there are dozens of “fifth panels” that you could dream up that take this very good set-up and push the concept to a much funnier place.
I’d love to see this in action. So I’m placing a challenge. Choose one of the following:
(1) Go through your archive and improve a couple strips using the Fifth Panel method. Post Before and After strips here for discussion.
(2) Use this method as your writing future strips, and post the results. The “Before” could be a written script and the “After” can be the finished comic.
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