Punch Line Fiction

gas pumpDriving home from Fresno yesterday, I stopped to get gas. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a big deal. I wouldn’t think to mention it to you if it weren’t for what happened. Turns out, there was a man filling up his SUV, and he had a cigarette in his mouth. I thought it odd. How could anyone be that foolish? But here he was, lit cigarette sending tendrils of smoke into the air. I wanted to say something to him, but was too afraid. He was a big man, and had a few tattoos that, if I might paraphrase, said something to the effect of, “Back off, or I’ll kill you twice.”

And, of course, as he was taking the nozzle from the tank, a little gas leaked out onto his arm. He muttered an expletive, and the lit tip of the cigarette fell in slow motion—right on his arm. It ignited almost immediately. He shrieked, waved his now flaming arm in the air. Panicked, he raced around the gas station screaming for help.

Right then, a cop car showed up. The cop got out, raced to the man, tackled him. After putting the fire out, the cop cuffed the man. “What are you doing?” the man asked. “I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“Are you blind?!” The cop shouted at him. “You were brandishing a fire arm!”

Cue laugh track. Or, more appropriately, a groan. The above story, clearly, is a joke, and a particularly bad one at that. I use it only for the sake of illustration.

We’ve got a term we throw around at The Citron Review: “Punch line Fiction.” This describes stories that exist to serve their final line, which are clever “twists” that cast the preceding story in a new light. Unfortunately, punch line fiction is never accepted at TCR, and aside from humor journals, probably not published anywhere else for that matter. 

Why? Because the ending undercuts the rest of the story. I’ve read several pieces that seem very strong, eloquent, well rendered. And then the final line ends up making the whole thing a joke. Sure, it may be cute, but it holds little literary worth. It’s like reading a story that ends, “And then he woke up.” It is, in essence, telling the reader they’ve wasted their time. When we read something, we want it to be worth something. We want it to mean something. We want it to affect us emotionally. If we wanted a simple chuckle, we’d turn on The Big Bang Theory.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for humor in fiction. I’ve been known to tell a few jokes, and even to weave a few clever one-liners into my stories. The difference is, in those cases, the humor serves the fiction, rather than the fiction serving the humor. Humor is a fantastic tool in writing, but must be rendered correctly. Don’t do yourself the disservice of ending a story with a punch line.

14 Comments on Punch Line Fiction

  1. Fiction doesn’t always have to be serious. In fact, a little joke here and there can help keep the reader interested. But the story itself shouldn’t exist for the ending. It’s like a slap in the face to the reader.
    If you want to tell a funny story, then tell it to your friends when you meet for lunch. Post it on Facebook. Just don’t make it the ending of your piece.

  2. The story that you posted up as an example was a great, dramatic story…. Until the cop started talking.

  3. I really enjoyed this story. It was well written and interesting. The character was developed early and very well. The joke at the end ruins the story. Personally, puns like this make me mad in most cases.

  4. Katelyn Haeckel | September 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply

    I’ve never thought about ending a story with a joke like that and now i definetly never will. The pun at the end was funny, but it comepletly ruined the rest of the story.

  5. This story was a little odd. It was weird how the cop put the fire out and the he arrested the guy, that was a little weird. Overall a good story.

  6. I was all into the story like omg this is crazy, then the cop came and i was like no. It ruined everything, it actually really wasnt even funny, but thats my opinion. I think that if you are going to have a serious story keep it serious dont throw the readers off thats just rude.

  7. for me i feel like those kind of jokes at the end are like a sucker punch to the reader i think it just a cheap shot if ur gana make a seriouse story then make a seriouse story if its gana be funny then have it funny the whole way threw

  8. Miranda Almeida | October 1, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply

    … I totally thought this really happened to you at first! It is funny for the one part, but if that was the whole story, I’d be disappointed as a reader. I do think it is important for stories to have some humor in them though, because it keeps the reader engaged and keeps the story enjoyable.

  9. I have read punch line fiction before, and its my least favorite. It’s good when you’re bored, because you can never call it time well spent.

  10. Heather Moore | October 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply

    I never had the desire to end a story with a joke, I always thought it ruined the entire thing.

  11. i agree with putting humor into a story. but i personally write better humor that is mainly based towards sarcasm. personally i elieve this is because i watch alot of good movies. and in most movies my favorite parts are when the characters are sarcastic. for example “The Shawshank Redemption” one of my favorite films. when Andy is first incarcerated he asked the men what they did to get thrown in jail and one man said “everyone in here is an innocent man, my lawyer screwed me over”. and then after many years the men get a new addition to the prison and andy tells billy the same thing. thats the kind of humor I personally see myself putting in my stories.

  12. and to follow up on my last one. some stories are more enjoyable to read when there is some humor in it. Just saying. Otherwise they’d be serious the entire movie like Preminition. I didnt here one joke during thatentire movie.

  13. jake van dusen | October 9, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply

    awsome story till the cop came then i was like, “No!”

  14. Hailee Brooke Stewart | October 11, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply

    Dear Mr. Cop,
    AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

    Thats how i felt as soon as he came in. Ive never thought of adding jokes into a story, much less ending a story with one. Very creative. I will try this in the future!<3

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