Long-form storytelling is such a big project sometimes that it's helpful to be reminded of some of the mechanics underlying even the most basic of story forms. Comic strips are some of the simplest — consider the physical size limitations, just a few frames, or even only one.
In these short forms the basics really stand out.
The image above encapsulates an entire history of the interaction of two famous characters (permanent war, which the scheming coyote with his technical gadgets always loses to the roadrunner's effortless and almost magical evasions and reversals). Because of that long history, we can read the above image as the ending of a story with a reversal of the usual outcome.
One image, and a long history of character roles/knowledge on the part of the viewer, and we know most of the story already.
Think of all the prior knowledge we had to bring to that image — we did most of the work ourselves. We had to already know they were antagonists, that the coyote almost always lost, that the coyote's means were usually elaborate mechanical devices.
Jokes work like that, too. Some have no story — they rely on an unexpected usage of homonyms or similar words to change expectations. Other jokes require a setup — a story — to make the punchline work, but sometimes a one-liner can get the job done without that, given enough shared prior knowledge.
The easiest time to add insult to injury is when you’re signing someone’s cast.
There's a lot of heavy lifting the reader/listener needs to bring to that joke to make it work. First, they must be familiar with the metaphorical “add insult to injury” shorthand and all that it implies, and be surprised about its association with a real injury. And then — I don't see how they can help it — they have to envision for a moment just what sort of insult they might write on someone's cast, putting themselves into the active role and perhaps someone they know in the other slot, against the social expectation of a conventional “get well soon”. I think that's why they smile when they hear the sentence.
Now, we're telling stories that are just a wee bit longer, and we probably created our own characters with their own personalities and history. But stripped to its essentials… look what a very short comic strip can do with story telling (with your help as a reader… it's always with the reader's help.)
It doesn't matter if you don't know the history of the Dogbert character in this Dilbert comic strip. The image above has everything you need, when it's combined with your own prior knowledge.
You have to know what Customer Support is, that it's usually no longer an in-person activity, that companies boast about it, that their representatives aren't necessarily intelligible, and (most importantly) that it often seems to be dishonest.
But that's just the background before the story begins.
Let's look at how much depends on the way it's told.
- Panel 1 — Setting up the expectation. Dogbert gestures enthusiastically as he conveys exactly the information that he was called to provide. That's good news, if you're on the other side of the phone call. (If you happen to be familiar with the character, you know that his tail is wagging, out of sight, and you're already suspicious.)
- Panel 2 — Violating the expectation. The sting emerges. Your prior personal knowledge of Customer Support warns you that Dogbert is not telling the customer good news. You already know that Dogbert is not the reliable person he seemed to be in the first panel, and therefore his enthusiasm wasn't about providing good news — it was about his opportunity to be mean to yet another customer. Worse, it's not just his personal meanness — it's an institutional one (“it's our policy that…”), and one that he approves of.
- Panel 3 — Demonstrating what the expectation should have been. The POV shifts to an everyman character. It's always you on the other end of a Customer Support call, and so this man is you. He's already worried about what he suspects is coming, and when he hears Dogbert's confirmation, we don't have to see his reaction — we cringe for him. He should have known better.
The story could have been told without seeing the person in the third panel — his could have been the voiceover line in reverse — but it's much richer this way. We want to see the incident from both perspectives.
We want to think of Dogbert as helpful, and even when he isn't we admire the nod to the Machiavellian levels of disappointment that we associate with modern life and his glee at successfully furthering them, just as we sympathize for a moment with writing an insult on someone's cast.
And, of course, we ruefully acknowledge our sympathy with the helpless victim.
It's the switch in the points of view that give us that richness. The incidents remain the same, but our sympathies and sharing swap with the POVs.