10 Steps to Turning a Story into Stand-up


Imagine being at the campfire. Smores have been distributed, and you are with your best friends. One of them tells you an epic story of how they hitchhiked across the Black Swamps of Georgia. And it reminds you of a funny story that happened to you. Your friend’s Black Swamp story had you and your friends laughing hysterically for five minutes straight. You now realize as you tell your story, that though your story is funny, your friends are waiting for the funny part. How can you tell a great story and keep people laughing throughout?

The story is a tough element to manage in Stand-up. As a story teller, you have details and intricacies that paint a picture. You have change in a character. You have a beginning middle and end; challenges and things that you overcome. In stand-up you have set ups and punchlines. Stand-up as an art form can move in and move out without transition. You can give a one liner about a clever word, and then go off on the smell of your grandma. A story can last five minutes and have a big ending with a laugh. If you did this on a stand-up stage, the audience would be very uncomfortable, and feel sorry for you.

You know it when you see it. When people make the successful innovation of connecting story and comedy it is nuclear handshake. The experience is like a roller coaster of  people on the edge of their seats. They may not remember the jokes, but they sure remember the entire experience. One of my favorite comedy stories is John Mulaney’s “the salt and Pepper Diner“. We all have moments of greatness in our lives that create the stories we NEED to relate to our friends later. Why not craft it into something that people ask you to tell over and over? Below are a series of steps you can take to make your story into a comedy masterpiece.

Step 1 : Story Download
I want you to think of your one of your epic stories. whether you got in a fight or how you grew up, or that adventure that you went on, or that time you pooped your pants. The point here is to find that story that you have told more than once to more than one person.

  • In four minutes write down the names of your greatest stories in a list
  • Once you have run out of answers select one of your answers and go somewhere you can talk out loud for 6 minutes (like a car, another room, outside next to the other homeless man talking to himself). Set a recorder and in 6 minutes try to tell that story. You only have 6 minutes so make sure to talk fast.. Telling your story is different then writing your story. When you tell someone your story, your brain uses a different area that pinpoints the event driven part of your brain . It is usually more concise and sharper because you are following the story with your own visuals.
  • After six minutes see if you got everything and if you didn’t use the recorder to mop up the rest. The point here is to try to get your story down the way you say it.

Step 2: Raw Written Form
Transfer the content you recorded into a digitally written format. Resist the temptation to edit what you say, you want to be able to see the pauses, “ums” and what you forgot. Indicate where you paused or breathed in the story by skipping to the next line. If you forgot certain elements of your story, put them in the right location and save.

Step 3: Condense Story
Each story has a beginning, middle and an end. Mark the absolutely necessary elements of your story. (I find it easier to print it out) When you have the mandatory elements flagged, remove all the elements you feel are not necessary. Save this as a different version. This is a ruthless process, but by “cutting the fat” your audience will thank you. Pay attention to particular emotions when you cut something. Sometimes you have to leave something in, even if it is insignificant. Keep it in for now and maybe you can dress it up later.

Step 4 : Mark Punchlines
Look at your story and mark the sense of humor reactions that you feel the story has. Punchlines are always unique to the story teller/comedian, and at this point you want to simply flag the places that you think are funny. Call out the irony if there is any. Make sure to notate where you would act something out naturally. All of these are your reactions, and commentaries that will keep the story/comedy laughter rolling.

Step 5: Working Backwards
Remember how you indicated your pauses by skipping lines? Here is why it is important: very other line that isn’t a punchline is a set up.

  • First look at your punchline and ask yourself. What does the person NEED to know to GET this punchline.
  • Now look at the lines previous (these are your set up lines). Edit these to be no more than 3 lines. This will allow you to  have your audience laugh every 15 seconds.

Step 6: Punching up the rest
Sometimes you have big crevices between punchlines and you have some “story” to go. Now is it time to insert a punchline at least every 4th line or so. These don’t have to be epic jokes, they just have to be intentional laughs. An example of this that sticks in my brain is Dane Cook a while ago starts out a bit of his saying “back in the day… which is a Wednesday by the way”. Here, he is looking to start a story, and uses authoritative specificity and surprise to keep his story/comedy going. What normally would be a transition is now an opportunity for your audience to laugh. The point that I’m making is: you don’t have to have it be hysterical to keep your audience laughing, just intentional about both story and punchline frequency. In order to successfully make the transition from story to stand-up you have to be able to sacrifice dead details for jokes. even if they are weak jokes.

Step 7: Last Payoff
The mark of a great end to a story is closure. Hans Christian Anderson and Guns and Roses weren’t good at this, but you can be. Try to do some sort of closing device that ends your story with a bang. Many times you can bring up a joke that you used earlier with a twist. Whatever it is make sure it ends with a bang!

Step 8: Read it back
After going through all the above steps, it is important to read it back. The editing process sometimes can take the magic out of your story. So can “punching it up.” Reading it through can help solve any weird elements of your story/bit. Change whatever doesn’t flow, and try to remove anything else that isn’t necessary.

Step 9: Memorize it
You have a written form of a verbal story, what is the point of having it unless you can tell it at parties? And what is the point of doing all that editing if you don’t tell it the way you wrote it. Take some time to memorize it, so that you can have it at the ready.

Step 10: Tell it
Share your hard work! Don’t let on that it took as much work as it did. That will be our little secret. You, instead, bask in the camp firelight knowing that you crushed story-time with your friends.


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