I’m re-reading the Iain Pears book, Stone’s Fall, this time with the intent of culling every bit of writerly magic from it which I can find. Pears does many things well, but I’ve been struck by the way he manipulates his paragraphs. This one in particular seemed worth sharing.
To set up this example paragraph, let me tell you that Brock is an aspiring painter down on his luck. He lives in the same boardinghouse as the narrator, a shabby place that smells like overcooked cabbage. We’ve already heard a joke about the fact that it’s situated on Paradise Walk, and we’ve heard one of the poet tenants compose a humorous ode to the unidentifiable gray meat served up by their landlady. This was all in a prior chapter.
The narrator leads into the example paragraph by saying that the painter Brock will make his mark years later during the great war, that the bleakness of those years suited his temperament and vision, but that artistic clarity “eluded him when he lived with us in Chelsea.”
No, he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe, a scheme for which he was so totally unsuited that I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality. He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch, from Tsar Nicholas to the Kaiser, from King Edward to the Emperor of Austria, and every last kinglet of Scandinavia and the Balkans, to sit together to be painted by him. Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.
Every time I read this, I laugh at that final punch line. Three sentences, and the last is a fragment, but it’s structured so well that it could almost be used as a clinic on comedy writing. So let’s do that, shall we?
The first sentence sets up the premise.
“A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar”
“he had come up with this project for a gigantic portrait of the crowned heads of Europe”
I particularly like the use of the word gigantic here. It feels just slightly off-tone. (You’ll have to trust me on that -- in the context of the rest of the passage, the word is exaggerated and cheeky enough to stick out a bit.) Likewise, “crowned heads of Europe” feels casual. Consider how the tone would change by substituting “ruling monarchs of Europe.” Ruling monarchs are more dignified than crowned heads, don’t you think?
Then we get an emotional note from the narrator that sets the tone for the rest of the paragraph. You don’t always find this in comedy writing, and in fact, I generally caution against telling emotions, but I think it’s used to good effect here. “I did not know whether to wonder at his impudence or at his lack of reality.” By confessing to this emotional response, the narrator guides our own response. It’s almost a direct wink at the reader.
Next we get the sense of shocked emphasis implied by the phrase, “He wished-he, John Praxiteles Brock-to summon every monarch.” By contrasting this untitled painter with the long list of monarchs to follow, we get a sense of the outlandishness of the situation. Every new name added to the list serves to contrast the original emphasized name, John Praxiteles Brock. And with each new Tsar and Emperor, we get another layer of emotional emphasis to both the impudence and the unreality.
By the time we’re done with the list, we are also filled with a sort of amused wonder, just as the narrator predicted. And then, after layering on magnificent title after regal name, after building up this carefully detailed impression of magnificence far out of the reach of the ordinary painter, only after all this controlled set-up, he hits us with,
“Presumably not in the dining room of 17 Paradise Walk, Chelsea.”
Beautiful. This single fragment pulls the rug out from under all the magnificent detail in the middle of the paragraph. It’s a reversal of sorts, and much comedy depends on the principle that unexpected reversals are amusing. Stark contrasts are amusing. Exaggeration is amusing. We get all of them in this single short paragraph.
Any comedy writers out there want to take a stab at explaining why this structure works so well?