Why Novelists Should Embrace the Modern Stand-Up Comedy Approach

What authors can learn from Stand-Up comedians, their timing, and their unfiltered view of themselves and others.

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The halls of publishing houses and literary agencies are filled with the pages of prose an English professor would be proud of. So are the desks. And the cupboards. And the trash bins. Sure, a lot of terrible writing finds its way to these literary tastemakers, but it’s the well-constructed novel that can, at times, fail to stir the soul.

In an era where audiences crave authenticity and relatable narratives, modern stand-up comedy has found an unparalleled resonance. With its candid, often unfiltered perspective, it has become a powerful medium for expressing societal commentary and personal experiences. In my opinion, the world of literature would gain by borrowing from the playbook of stand-up comedy.

Modern Comedians Create Intimacy

Modern stand-up comedians effortlessly establish connections with their audiences by sharing personal experiences, often in the most unvarnished way. Similarly, books that adopt a more conversational tone and reveal intimate, relatable details can forge a strong bond with readers. It’s one reason a growing number of novels are written in first-person. Literary scholars suggest first-person narration has become more common today — especially in genres such as young adult — because of a growing demand by the audience for intimate and personal narratives that allow readers to directly connect with the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions.

Which is why studying how a comedian delivers a punchline can help novelists.

Black and White photograph of Lenny Bruce

But taking a page from stand-up doesn’t preclude you from writing in third person. In fact, it can help breathe new life into this point of view, allowing novelists to move in and out of the minds of different characters for a broader perspective and the exploration of multiple storylines while keeping the tone relatable.

Stand-up comedy thrives on its unapologetic authenticity, often delving into taboo subjects with humor and honesty. By adopting a similar approach, novelists can break free from traditional storytelling structures and offer readers a more genuine and unfiltered experience. It’s not about being crude or vulgar for shock value. It’s about being real and raw. It’s about standing naked in front of the world and saying this is who I am (or this is who my character is) — and realizing we are not that different from each other. As varied as our backgrounds and upbringings are.

Relatability Matters to Your Audience

It’s why Eddie Murphy, a Black kid from Brooklyn, can connect with a white kid like me from the middle of nowhere. We had crazy parents and ridiculous relatives in common. Murphy wasn’t the first or the last, but his bold telling of a family barbecue and all the hilarious moments of that gathering resonated with me, with how I saw my tragicomic family dinners. Comedy and comedians helped me be more honest in my writing. Even when what I was writing wasn’t funny.

Writers have to pull from deep within themselves. We must — if we want to affect our readers — reveal ourselves in ways that can be uncomfortable. Stand-up comedians fearlessly address sensitive topics, challenging societal norms and sparking debate. Authors who follow this approach can serve as powerful agents of change, encouraging readers to confront difficult subjects and fostering a deeper understanding of complex issues.

Never Underestimate the Power of Humor

Comedy transcends cultural boundaries, providing a platform for diverse voices to share their unique perspectives while being relatable to everyone. Similarly, books that embrace the comedic truth of life can foster a greater sense of empathy and understanding across different cultures and communities.

And let’s not leave out the most obvious thing we can learn from comics: The humor itself. A comedic moment has a remarkable ability to alleviate tension. By infusing humor into our narratives, authors can engage readers on a deeper level, making complex themes more accessible and enjoyable. And it can mitigate one of the death spirals some books can take: Becoming too serious about a subject. Preaching.

Comedy can make a point without “making the point.”

Cues on Controversal Topics From Comics

Stand-up comedians often serve as cultural commentators. They aren’t always the best examples of how to live, but they see the world in a way others don’t, offering insightful critiques of contemporary issues and trends that can challenge those who are trying to avoid the (insert difficult subject here). By mirroring this approach, authors can effectively capture the spirit of the times, reflecting the social, political, and cultural nuances of the modern world, while connecting across generational divides.

Timing is everything. Comedians are masters of it. They excel in creating suspense, surprises, and unexpected twists—the very elements that define a thrilling narrative. It may seem strange, but thriller writers and comedians, similar to magicians, skillfully divert the audience’s attention only to deliver an unexpected punch that leaves a lasting impact.

“Look over here, look over here!” And while you’re looking over here, something from over THERE hits you in the back of the head.

Elevating Your Writing

Honing your timing, your pacing, and your delivery will go a long way to giving your writing and your work the urgency it needs, the urgency that demands it be read page after page.

What novelists can learn from the best comedians goes beyond adding humor and relatability. Goes beyond the art of great timing, the strategic deployment of surprise, and the skillful manipulation of expectations. Studying the standup comic toolkit offers novelists a fresh perspective on storytelling, encouraging us to be more vulnerable, more open, and to embrace unconventional techniques that, when all together executed with mastery, can elevate our narratives to unexpected heights.

And if nothing else, the time you spend studying comedians will be time spent laughing.

Edward Savio used this technique to go way outside his comfort zone in his latest novel, The Velvet Sledgehammer. Read more on by Edward Savio here.

Browse Edward Savio’s bookshelf on Bookstr’s Bookshop.