Driving 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.