In this lesson you’ll learn to:
- Build tension in a story and release humor
- Increase the effectiveness of tension induced humor using pauses, a slowed pace, and trigger words
- Build on your initial humor to prolong laughter
Building tension to a trigger point is a great way of getting audiences to belly-laugh. The build-up of tension disguises the impending twist.
Simple changes to cadence and sentence structure, adding purposeful pauses, and incorporating tension-building strategies can help build anxiety before you uncover the twist.
It is a great feeling when you find the optimum sentence structure and comedic timing to trigger audiences to explosive laughter!
Let me show you what I mean with the following four-minute video. Watch the video a few times to absorb the key learnings below. While you are watching this video, I want you to notice:
- The buildup of tension using multiple visual descriptions and scenarios.
- The use of pauses to help build tension.
- The slowed down pace to increase the anxiety level.
- The use of a trigger word, “teats” in the initial humor reveal.
- The continued buildup of humor after the initial funny reveal. (Each one has its own trigger word that’s underlined below).
Note: The trigger words below are effective because they are short (punchy) and I say them with emphasis. Of the three trigger words below, the most effective one is “teats” because it has a surprise element to it.
- My wife discreetly stood on my foot and said, “You are forbidden from talking about this in public.”
Note: “Public” triggers laughter because I am obviously disobeying my wife’s instructions and talking about this story in public. It also gets a laugh because I am being mischievous. The humor reveal is in the single word, “public.”
- She is not here today.
Note: “Today” triggers laughter because I am making fun of the fact that my wife obviously does not know that I am disobeying her instructions. It also gets a laugh because I am being playful. The humor reveal is in the single word, “today.”
- It appears that there is no Hippocratic Oath for assistant vets, because when I went into the reception area, everyone knew that my dog, Megan, had teats.
Note: “Teats” triggers laughter because it is a totally unexpected word (reveal) at the end of the sentence.
Here’s the process I use to explore the humor and maximize tension in a sentence or paragraph:
- Find a story that has the potential to build tension towards a funny outcome.
- Write out the story.
- Read the story aloud.
- Identify areas where you can slow down the pace.
- Reword the sentences, if needed, to incorporate pauses that help slow down the pace.
- Incorporate vivid visual images so the audience is experiencing the story tension and anxiety with you.
- Compliment the tension and anxiety using voice tone and inflection.
- Build tension based on the reaction you expect. If the twist is going to get no more than a chuckle, you may want to keep the build-up short. If you expect a belly-laugh type of response, you might want to explore ways to prolong the tension build-up.
- Determine what parts might initiate audience laughter and mark them in some way. (I put in three dots just before the expected laughter.)
- Reword the sentences (if needed) just before the three dots so the wording structure is concise and ends with a strong a trigger word, followed by a pause in anticipation of audience laughter.
- Explore the possibility of adding additional funny lines to get additional laughter, and/or punch up the laughter to a higher level. I did this three times in the example video:
- Initial Reveal:
- “You do realize, that dogs have…teats?”
- Build on initial humor:
- My wife discreetly stood on my foot and said, You are forbidden from talking about this in public
- She is not here today
- It appears that there is no Hippocratic Oath for assistant vets, because when I went into the reception area, everyone knew that my dog, Megan, had teats
- Initial Reveal:
- Practice, practice, and practice some more aloud.
- Keep refining until you are ready to deliver it to an audience.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Find the Tension
The process of exploring ways to maximize the buildup of story tension and anxiety is quite easy. It follows the same strategy as described in the embellishment lesson. One way to do this is to ask the types of questions listed below. Remember to consider what could occur in addition to what did occur!
- How do I feel? (E.g. My gut instinct told me that something bad was just about to happen.)
- What could I smell that is unusual? (E.g. The distinct odor of death put my brain into panic-mode.)
- What could I see that could be quirky? (E.g. The highly gelled comb-over had toppled sideways off his angry contorted head…he was out of control.)
- What could I hear that could be unusual or annoying? (E.g. As the boxing glove hit me square in the face, my dad shouted, “duck!”)
- What crazy or quirky things could I incorporate? (E.g. I have incorporated a chainsaw in a story…when I started it up, I felt the audience tension and concern.)
- What could annoy or frustrate me at this present time in this “scene?” (E.g. I tried to run, but the Texas mud sucked my feet into the ground.)
- What could be ironic about what is happening? (E.g. I got in a heated emotional argument with my boss. He stopped me and asked what my point was. I didn’t know. He walked me out of his office.)
Remember. We build tension and anxiety by incorporating pauses, changing our cadence, and adding additional details to our stories. These strategies help maximize our punchlines and trigger words. Now it’s your turn.
Exercise: Take a written paragraph of one of your stories that has the potential for the buildup of tension prior to a funny reveal. Go line-by-line through the paragraph and edit it with the following question in mind: How can I build tension and anxiety prior to the trigger word?
- How do I feel?
- What could I smell that is unusual?
- What could I see that could be quirky?
- What could I hear that could be unusual or annoying?
- What crazy or quirky things could I incorporate?
- What could annoy or frustrate me at this present time in this “scene?”
- What could be ironic about what is happening?
Copyright © MMXIX by David R. Hill