The Time Has Come: 3 Tools for Masterful Timing

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While browsing Tumblr earlier today, I came across Megan Amram, one of the writers for the hit NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation (see above).  The first few posts I read made me chuckle. By the fifth or sixth entry, I had to stop reading just to keep myself from crying with laughter.

Amram has a clear gift for finding funny stuff in everyday life and has a following (361K Twitter followers and a feature in Fast Company) to prove it .  Here’s one of her sketches:

Hilarious, right?  But what makes Amram’s sketches and jokes so spot-on?

One word: timing.

Regardless of whether your material is funny or sad, the success or failure of stories (and jokes, for that matter) hinges on timing things correctly.  So to help your stories take off and land smoothly, here are “3 Tools for Masterful Timing”.  Timing is everything.

1. Arrive late and leave early.  The golden rule for writing is conveniently the same rule that applies for attending parties.  The key here is to not waste your audience’s time; enter into scenes as late as possible and exit as early as possible.  Once you’ve broken the story into scenes, look at each scene and ask: “Is every piece of information important?” If the answer is ‘no’, re-examine the scene and see what you can eliminate. Don’t waste your audience’s time!

2. Create build-up.  Each scene should build on the previous one, adding new information and helping shape the audience’s understanding of both the central problem and the characters.  In comedy, we see this in the form of ‘heightening’, which gradually makes each sequence more intense.  In more dramatic stories, we see this in terms of an escalation of stakes, which in turn generates tension.  The further along we go in the story, the more important each scene becomes.

3. Pay it off.  Every story needs to “pay off” or answer the central question posed in the beginning.  If you’ve timed the story correctly, all information will build to a climactic moment when it gets paid off.  Practice telling stories in a social setting and see if your audience fully feels the ‘payoff’ built into the story’s climax.  If not, don’t immediately scrap the story.  Go back and see how you can fix each scene to create build-up that feels organic to an audience.  You’ll get a laugh and you’ll satisfy your audience every time.

How’s that for a payoff?

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