I'm currently working on my first book, a sci-fi comedy set on an alternate history Earth which has progressed at twice the rate of our own planet (they were at our current tech when William the Conqueror was born).

However, I notice that my primary character basically has one of the most classic origin stories: he's a human being from our own near future (around 2065) who ends up on that alternate history earth due to events outside his influence and learns that he is put there because he needs to resolve an enormous issue which is kept on the down low for the normal public.

This is done in:

  • HHGttG (Arthur Dent has the meaning of life in his brain)
  • Futurama (Fry is sent a millenium in the future because of brain waves)
  • The Sword of Truth series (Richard Cypher is the only one who can save the world)
  • Wheel of Time (Rand Al'Thor is the only one who can save the world)
  • and nearly every other sci-fi/fantasy book, game or movie.

My main character is basically "generic fictional hero with prophetic cause" number 23496. He even bears a striking resemblance to the first example mentioned above. Because it's comedy, I had the idea of extreme lampshade hanging for the sake of comedy, and fish-out-of-water references and shout-outs by the main character to those other stories, as well as celebrities.

The hope is that any readers of similar fiction will find the references and shoutouts funny. However, I don't know how far I can take these references.

Can I use them as throwaway comments? Minor plot points? Character naming? Plot twists? Entire chapter premises?

At this point, I'm kinda hesitating to continue working on my book (even though I only have basically a rough outline of the first 30 or so chapters, the idea for my main character and some disconnected ideas) because I don't know how far I can go in handling this.

  • I'm unclear on what you're asking. Is it how deeply you can use references? How to make your story funnier? – Neil Fein Jan 31 '14 at 2:28
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    Generally speaking, an occasional reference is appreciated. People even find it funny. However, if you rely on these to make your book funny, I don't think you can take it too far. No one would really want to encounter reference after reference of things that had found funny (at some point when they were reading the book). Where is your comedy element? Also, readers would appreciate subtle references more than overt references (if the references keep coming) (personal belief). – Pravesh Parekh Jan 31 '14 at 12:32
  • Also, I think that readers would not necessarily laugh laugh if they encounter such references. They might be tickled (depending on how cleverly it is done) but I don't think it would be worth using it as the sole comedy point (are you doing that?). – Pravesh Parekh Jan 31 '14 at 12:35
  • @PraveshParekh Naturally I don't plan on ONLY making references. I also intend to use other staples of comedy, like lame puns, ridiculous situations, hilarious background stories,... I know there's a whole world of comedy out there, so I don't just want to grab the low hanging fruit. And some references will be subtle. – Nzall Jan 31 '14 at 13:03
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    Try not to get bogged down worrying about the "it's been done before" issue - it usually isn't nearly as bad as you're afraid of, and your worrying about it (particularly before you've actually done any writing) can only hamper you. See writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2027 and writers.stackexchange.com/questions/890 for some great answers. – Standback Feb 11 '14 at 6:53

For now, write to amuse yourself. It might also amuse other people, but that's not something to worry about now.


Exploit your own weakness!

Yes, you've got a problem - but luckily for you, you're writing a comedy, and your problem is actually funny.

You should openly address the issue of having "Mr. Save-The-Day" cliche. Turn it into a main theme in the story. Let your main character actually be distressed by it, or maybe even neglect his duty because of it. It makes the story unbelievable - so your character shouldn't believe it either! (Which will actually make the story believable again.) You can even refer to it as "generic fictional hero with prophetic cause #23496" during the book.


Get it on paper, and make sure it's funny to you. Then find beta readers and editors and see if it's funny to others.

You can always fix something after it's written, but you can't edit a blank page. Start writing. Figure out the joke too far later.

P.S. please reference Martin Freeman, for several obvious reasons.


With comedy writing one of the best things you can do is to write everything that seems even remotely amusing and then remove anything that later turns out to be a bit limp.

In fact "just go for it; have as much fun as possible and then edit after" is easier to do then "carefully write everything perfectly the first time around".

The only way in all fairness to figure out how funny you can make things is to write it and see how funny you can make it.

Even if you throw it away after you will have learned more by writing and stopping than by not writing.


It sounds like your main concern is unoriginality. Don't worry about this. First of all, originality is over-rated. It is a cultural value that was not always there. In his Ars Poetica, Horace urges his reader to avoid originality, and only do something new if he absolutely must. The classical writers were not concerned with being original, but rather with telling it 'otherwise', putting a new spin on something old.

Editorial-type worrying will slaughter you. You cannot write with the same brain that you edit with. They are mutually exclusive. It may be that all your efforts come to nothing, which is one of the main risks of the writing profession, but it is better to finish something and realize that you can't use it than to stop working on something because you have editorial concern X. The moment you listen to those concerns, they multiply. There is no end to them.

Finally, consider how original plot moves CAN be. Plot is abstract structure, as such it is one of the aspects of a book that can be translated into another language almost perfectly (mathematics can be translated perfectly because it is pure abstract structure). The closer you get to the skeleton of the story, the closer you get to the plot, the more abstract and general everything becomes. On this level, stories begin to resemble each other more and more and as such, originality of plot is not even really a virtue of plot. A much more important virtue for plot is coherence, elegance of construction, etc.

All human beings have the same skeleton but you don't go around looking for a lover with an original skeleton. Do you?


The problem with references is that they are funny only if people understand them, and they can go stale fast. This isn't necessarily a killer, but it's something to keep in mind. Ancient Greek comedy is loaded with references to people who have been dead for thousands of years, and whom we only know about because of the funny references (you can take that either as a plus or a minus!).

A compromise might be to do more of a parody than a direct reference. That way it's funny even if you don't get the reference, but even more funny if you do (assuming it's funny in the first place).


Comedy needs to have context for people to "get it"; to understand what the joke is. A lampshade on the head is not funny on it's own because there is not much context. I lampshade on the head where everyone else is dressed formally is more funny. Comedy is based on surprise. You must surprise people.

Find some books that you like and read them multiple times. Try the exercise of writing the same book of characters in a different plot, or even the same plot, to hone your skills at crafting narration and dialogue.

Read ALL THE TIME. This is the best education.

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