Post 79 / Hour 82: Humor Writing Tip: The Callback
By Dave Fox
I wrote in Post 63 about repetition as a comedic tool. A callback is a special kind of repetition. With a callback, you refer to something early in an essay or script that’s only a small part of your story. Ideally, whatever you refer to should be a punch line in and of itself, though that’s not always necessary. You then continue with your broader theme long enough that the reader has forgotten your initial reference to your minor element. At the end of your story, you “call back” that minor element.
I used this technique in my previous post about missing vials of Bubonic Plague virus. I start the article this way:
Officials say there’s no need to panic. The vials of Bubonic Plague virus reported missing from a research lab refrigerator have in fact been destroyed, and we can now go back to worrying about all the other stuff we worry about, such as impending nuclear doom and why we must be subjected to another season of “American Idol.”
(If you haven’t read that article yet, you might want to read it before the rest of this humor writing tip spoils the story.)
The essay develops, exploring the dangers of the virus and questioning why it’s being kept in university refrigerators. The reader forgets all about my “American Idol” slam until I call it back in the final paragraph:
Instead of destroying the Plague bacteria and making the scientists fill out lengthy forms, I have another idea for what to do with the bacteria. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but it involves the producers of “American Idol.”
Callbacks are a great way to end a humor essay or comedy sketch because they tie everything together and bring the reader full-circle. If you are struggling for an ending, look back at what you have written so far and try to find an element you can call back in the conclusion. You can also use callbacks in the middle of a story. As long as there has been enough other information to distract your readers or audience from the initial reference, it’s a strong technique. (Dave Barry does this frequently and masterfully.)
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