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I’ll Be Brief

How the concise style necessary for writing stand up comedy has stymied my fiction writing

By Leslie WritesPublished about a year ago Updated 5 months ago 4 min read
I’ll Be Brief
Photo by Call Me Fred on Unsplash

I have been writing for Vocal for a little over a year now. I wouldn’t call myself the most prolific writer. I average about one or two stories a month, but I have fun with it. Maybe someday I’ll write a book, but for now it is short stories and amusing personal anecdotes.

The common definition of a short story is a story that is short. But how short? The ideal length for a short story seems to be something for debate. Most sources say that a short story is supposed to be somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 words. That’s quite a spread.

Vocal Challenges require entries to be between 600 and 3,000 words. My stories tend to fall on the shorter end of that scale. I often find myself struggling to cross that 600-word finish line. I hit a wall; positive I’ve said everything there is to say. I hesitate to linger or pad my writing with unnecessary words.

Why then, does someone who claims to enjoy writing stop short?

I wrote and performed stand-up comedy in the Washington DC area from 2004 to about 2010. When writing jokes, it is important to cut to the chase, lest you bore the audience before getting to your punchline. Sure, you want to include all the important details, use descriptive words, etc., but you don’t want to hold the audience hostage with your 'funny story.' You want to surprise them, delight them, and leave them wanting more.

Just ask Judy Carter, author of The Comedy Bible.

Stories are too long and boring. When the setup poses a question […] the next sentence must answer it. […] A premise is not a description of what happened. It’s a cut-to-the-chase, get-to-the-point, original observation. […] Understanding the difference between a story about “what happened” and a premise is the key to successful comedy writing. It is also what makes it hard.

Not only does the economy of words produce the best jokes, as a performer, you are compelled to keep the audience interested. It’s survival. Readers who are bored might stop reading, but live audience members who are bored are liable to start a conversation at their table, heckle you, or walk out! To a comedian this is a matter of life or death as in “I’m dying up here.”

I can smell the desperation in this photo.

I haven’t been on stage for over ten years, but these lessons stick with me despite the fact I now have over a thousand words to make my point.

So, what are some ways to lengthen a short story in a way that serves the narrative and keeps readers engaged? I’ve been researching this very topic for my own purposes and here is what I found.

Never underestimate the power of a beta reader

I'll often ask my writer bestie to read my work and let me know if there are areas where I can expand. She is tremendously helpful and offers great perspective.

It doesn’t have to be a fellow writer. Sometimes I’ll ask friends or family members I trust to read my work in progress and tell me if there were any points in the story where they had questions or wanted to know more.

Although I have not yet explored the Vocal Facebook groups, I understand that they can be really helpful when work shopping ideas or dealing with writer's block.

If you are uncomfortable sharing your works in progress, you could always step away for a few days and come back with fresh eyes. Be your own beta reader!

Consider adding what happened before and after your scene

Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of one important moment, but how did the characters arrive at this moment and where will it lead? Keep asking yourself these questions to expand the plot.

Do some research

It’s okay to step outside of ‘writing what you know,’ but in that case, it’s wise to learn more about a topic before proceeding. Find out more by looking up the time period, the location, the character's occupation, hobbies, etc. Even if you don’t end up using anything specific from your research, it will give you more of the flavor you need to continue.

Outline or map out your story arc

You don’t have to follow a rigid pattern, but if you have a beginning, middle and end, you can fill in the logical steps along the way in bullet points which can be fleshed out later. Even if you already have most of the story written, you can always go back and reorganize your thoughts. You might discover new opportunities for dialogue, action, or tension building moments to make your story’s climax and resolution more impactful.

Get really fancy and consult Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see what is motivating your characters

I recall using this in acting class to find my 'motivation' and I see how it would be useful for writers as well. As a writer you get to play god. Go ahead. Giveth and taketh away!

Infographic from simplypsychology.org

Author’s Disclaimer:

Some of these suggestions are the fruits of my internet search (sources linked below) and some of them I have totally pulled out of my ass. I just thought it would be fun to make a list of things to try when I hit that wall. I hope they will help you too.


Publication Coach

Writers Write

Simply Psychology


About the Creator

Leslie Writes

Another struggling millennial. Writing is my creative outlet and stress reliever.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (4)

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  • Precy Veve Rojo8 months ago

    I really really motivate your advice Ms Author Leslie I'm also A reader who wants to become a writer soon but I'm to lazy to write and it is so hard to brainstorming all the time hehehe ☺️❤️

  • Thank you, Mike 😊💖

  • Excellent and insightful piece with lots of useful information for creators

  • Naomi Goldabout a year ago

    I did stand up comedy briefly! Perhaps I should’ve stuck with it, because I have the opposite problem with writing. I have way too many words on rough drafts, and need to whittle down. This is good advice for those moments where I don’t yet have a story, though.

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