It's all about the timing.
Or, at the least, timing has a lot to do with what makes us laugh. I've read articles which say you can't teach timing, that you either have it or you don't.
But I don't agree. I think, like most things, if you want to learn it, you can. But it will come naturally to some and for others, it will require a whole lot of work.
Ok, so first things first, what exactly is timing?
"At its best, comedic timing is the interplay of inflection, gesture, pacing, attitude and rhythm. It’s like jazz with words." Doug Stevenson, Comedy Writing and Timing
Of course, he's talking about being a stand-up-and-deliver-your-lines comedian, but you can still apply his definition of timing to writing. It's all about how you present the joke.
So, what are some ways to improve the timing in your fiction?
Here are three steps:
#1: Set it up
Make sure you reader is aware of what is going on. Take the time (however much is needed) to set up your scene. Set up your story. Give them specific expectations of what should happen.
#2: Get them to look the other way
Distract your audience with something new and shiny and interesting, something that makes them look away for a moment.
Then slap them with the punchline. Give your readers what they didn't expect, the surprising, yet inevitable outcome.
Last year I wrote a story for the Platform-building Challenge. It was a flash fiction contest. And...I hope it's a decent example of a piece with good timing...
Shadows crept across the wall. Guppy’s heart thundered in his chest. His palms grew slick with sweat. He slipped into his closet and hid behind his lucky orange chess club t-shirt and matching slacks.
“Guppy,” the soft voices whispered. “Guuuupppppppy.”
For a brief moment, Guppy considered joining them. But, no. He had to be strong. Guppy forced himself to stay hidden.
If only he’d chosen a different magic spell to practice.
But it was too late. The damage was done. He clutched his wand, wishing he knew how to reverse the spell.
They moved closer to his hiding spot. The closet door creaked open. In the moonlight, Guppy saw a flash of white. Sharp nails dug into his skin as multiple hands yanked Guppy from his imagined safety.
“We found him!” the voices cheered.
And then the fighting began.
“No, he’s not
Brittany! Get back!”
“Get your pom-poms out of my face! I want my Guppy!”
Guppy was thrown around like a basketball in a championship game.
“Please, please, let me go!” Guppy pleaded.
Guppy asked himself, “Why, oh why, did I have to cast a love spell on the whole entire cheerleading squad?”
And then everything faded.
So, did I get the timing right?
#1: I set up the story. I wanted it to sound like a creepy, scary tale. I wanted readers to imagine a horrible beast or creature out to get poor, unfortunate and nerdy Guppy. So, their expectation is that something is hunting him and something is going to get him (mwhahahahahaha!)
#2: Distraction. I made readers think about the magic wand and spell. They begin to (hopefully) wonder what Guppy did. What did he summon?
Do you feel as if timing comes naturally to you? Or is it something you have to work at?