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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

10 Answers 10

12

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

11

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.

5

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.

5

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.

4

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?

4

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).

2

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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...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.

Don't Make Those Reference At All.

They just emphasize to the reader you are imitating Douglas Adams or others, that they are just reading a rehash of Hitchhiker's. That feels like plagiarism to me, not an original work. As a reader I would resent it, not laugh at it.

It is plagiarism in the sense you are trying to steal somebody else's successful comedy and use it to make your own work funnier. It is like a stand-up comic telling us:

"Remember that joke from Ellen DeGeneres, about the airplane seats? Hilarious, right? Pretend I just told you that joke."

Come up with your own original jokes.

Do any of those stories you talk about have shout outs and explicit references to the work of other authors? I know Douglas Adams' work doesn't, I doubt the others do either.

There is nothing wrong with writing another character that is the only one that can save the world. As you said, it has been done thousands of times. It is the equivalent of coming up with two characters that meet, conflict, fall in love, argue, reconcile and live happily ever after. It is still being done, and doesn't require any back-references to "Cinderella" or "When Harry Met Sally" or "Pretty Woman" or "Grease" or "You've Got Mail" or "Sleepless in Seattle".

There's nothing wrong with it being a comedy. Leave the other works alone, make your comedy original. Your plot can echo other plots, but make your characters original and your comedy original, not a rehash of other's comedy, and don't try to steal some glitter from the works of others.

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The idea of the term "lampshade" is too reduce the glare. Not to highlight it! Instead of completely shading the lamp, conventional lampshades will rather blend off parts of its emission, and let it through where the illuminated surfaces--generally the ceiling and walls--will diffuse it and reflect a soft ambient light.

In that sense, you could let shine through, tone down and colour the direct emission (physically, the shading material absorbs light, but also reflects back away from the outside; this gives the transmission rate of the cover).

For reflection, I guess, you could foretell how far it is going to go, how far the character is willing to go, what you deem non-sense or cliched, etc.

The mechanics and tropes to achieve this can be generic and cliched themselves.

FYI: Lamp-design is an utterly ridiculous topic. Not only do they come in different forms, from chandeliers to Bauhaus style globes, but the prettiest and most expensive lamps are a hell to install, because compact as they are they hardly leave enough space for wiring and installation, I tell you. Too long wires from the outlet wont fit in. To short wires on the other hand cannot be connected, if they are just long enough to have it sit in place, but not enough to remove it just a bit for a hand to get behind. If the blends and spot reflectors are metallic, you have to wear satin gloves, lest visible finger prints taint the material (butteric acid will edge in permanent stains over time, even). Many lamps in a row should be perfectly alligned. Lamps hanging closer to windows should light stronger, to emulate daylight falling in. Color temperature depends on the emitter and can only be filtered, not changed or amplified, unless through LASER stimulation (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radition) or diffraction through optics (prism, lens, gas), that can hardly be called shading, though in fact the apperture, i.e. the blend, of a camera refines the focus, saturation or blur, especially around edges (Depth of field, Field of View, contrast and abberations); "apperture" is a doublet of "overture", by the way.

In astronomy, the diameter of the aperture stop (called the aperture) is a critical parameter in the design of a telescope. Generally, one would want the aperture to be as large as possible, to collect the maximum amount of light from the distant objects being imaged. The size of the aperture is limited, however, in practice by considerations of cost and weight, as well as prevention of aberrations (as mentioned above). [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperture]

The opposite of "foreshadowing" is "telegraphing", by the way (viz What's an idiom for "making something too obvious")

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Edit: Focus at the plot, enhancing it to remove been bland:

You definitely then need some good key elements to enhance readers adrenaline, preferably with a humorous source, to also fuel the comedy part.

What is the reason/problem the new worlds needs the protagonist to deal with? Can this problem been slightly altered to cause some plot events to give some any type action?

Can some type of funny link been established between protagonist two worlds, old and new one? This can trigger unexpected events to fuel the pace of plot. The protagonist goes to the new world, but at what state he leaves the old world? Is there any chance for protagonist ... mother to follow her son shorty after to the new world to ... protect him? Or perhaps his ex-wife follows (with the daughter and ... her mother to make it more spicy!!!) and pursue the protagonist for the ... pension?

Can there be some kind of similarities between the worlds? The protagonist may experience some "dezavu" type mini stories where, at the new world, a flow of events goes at a path were the protagonist already know how it ends, and struggles to alter it!

For the new world and the main problem the protagonist is summoned to solve, is there a plan B? Just in case the protagonist fails, what next? End of the new world? And, to make it better, why not the plan B actually be protagonist greater 'rival' (of any kind) at his old world? This would surely add humorous and tense mini events and enhance plot.


The protagonist from earth today will be 'taken' to an alternative earth, half aged than ours, same tech as ours. I do not really see how this generates comedy by itself as it is actually... pointless. The protagonist will go from 'here' to 'here'. The fact that the alternate world 'here' took 1/2 of our earth 'here' does not really matter. Unless of course there is some specific rule to all this setup - this speed of tech advancement always cause funny troubles, not exists to our earth due to our much slower speed.

On real earth for example you buy a mobile and maybe a week later the next model is there. At that world the next model will be available at 3-4 days... no big deal. Funny thing would be that within the few minutes to compare 2 models, new models are available. Compare the new models, and new models are available :) This is funny and generated by your setup.

So perhaps you need to identify a couple of funny sources from your world in order to bypass blandness.

  • You're missing the point. I'm not talking about the COMEDY being bland, because the comedy is mostly separate from the plot of the book. I'm talking about the general plot outline being bland and generic: my characters, story and setting have all been done before already. – Nzall Oct 3 at 20:21
  • Thanks for noting my misunderstanding. I try to help with the actual question, i hope i succeed helping a little this time. Sorry again! – Stefanos Zilellis Oct 4 at 7:21

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