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There is a problem with reference jokes in general, and I just couldn't figure out a solution to them. Here's a demonstration:

"Watch your step, there could be even more of these."

"More?" ████ was still puzzled. "We haven't encountered any actual defense ever since we entered. No patrols, nor gun turrets, just lava pits.

"Are you even surprised, anon?" ████ casually scoffed. "I thought that you'd notice this pattern and style, that this whole place was likely built by Kevin."

"What Kevin?"████ asked.

"This place is the result of asking a torturer to make a fortress for you." said ████. "Go figure."

But what if the reader was lucky enough to miss Home Alone? Then the reference wouldn't convey.

So, what can I do to minimalize the loss of humorousness of a joke, in case if the reader is not familiar with the source material?

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    I may be a bit critical here, but I wanted to help in a slightly different way. I'm a huge fan of the Home Alone movies, I probably wore out at least 2 tapes of the original... and I totally missed the reference. If it wasn't specifically spelled it out, I would have never thought that's what you meant. I never thought of him as a "torturer", and while his traps were a bit harsh, they weren't deadly like a lava pit would be Henry Taylor's answer I think nails it for the reader who understands the joke, and gives the person who doesn't understand it a chance to look it up.
    – Taegost
    Oct 16, 2017 at 20:56
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    I've seen Home Alone and had to have it explained. I could not connect the reference from the name Kevin alone.
    – Joshua
    Oct 17, 2017 at 1:47
  • @Taegost Just watch it: youtube.com/watch?v=IGaYkJP-tiU Oct 17, 2017 at 5:30
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    I'm not a writer. As an avid reader, my comment is to make sure it doesn't matter at all whether the reader gets the references. IMHO, the references in Ready Player One are the whole point of the book and that's why I think it's terrible. In contrast, the green and gold striped white socks pulled all the way to the knee that one character wears in Stranger Things is perfect, because if you remember those from the 80s, you get it, and if you don't, you don't even realize it's a reference. Same with "crab chips" in The Wire. Oct 17, 2017 at 11:59
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    It doesn't worth an answer but, what about adding the surname? - "[...] this whole place was likely built by Kevin McCallister." - "Who's Kevin McCallister?" This could make the joke clearer to the people who know what we are talking about, and makes easier to search it in Google. Oct 17, 2017 at 13:18

3 Answers 3

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When telling a subtle joke, always provide your reader with enough details to research your allusion if they want to...

"Watch your step, there could be even more of these."

"More?" ████ was still puzzled. "We haven't encountered any actual defense ever since we entered. No patrols, nor gun turrets, just lava pits.

"Are you even surprised, anon?" ████ casually scoffed. "I thought that you'd notice this pattern and style, that this whole place was likely built by Kevin."

"What's a Kevin?" ████ thought. Considered asking, then remembered. The ancient 20th century training file about home protection and guerrilla tactics. The one about that child prodigy with the sadistic streak.

Re-assessing their surroundings with a new, more cautious eye, ████ marveled.
"This is what happens when a torturer tries to make fortress. Go figure."

Also, make sure that you reward your reader for their research, their existing knowledge (or even just their understanding of the joke in-context). Now that a "Kevin" is a synonym for sadistic guerrilla defenses, reuse the term later in the story, in a situation where it foreshadows an otherwise obscure upcoming event.

Returning to the others with mischief in his eyes, ████ smiled as he let them in on his recent activities, "Here comes Kevin!"

Then the explosions rocked the enemy camp from all sides.

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    "The ancient 20th century training file about home protection and guerrilla tactics. The one about that child prodigy with the sadistic streak." - This literally made me LOL at work and I couldn't help it...
    – Taegost
    Oct 16, 2017 at 20:50
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    How would someone who doesn't know about Home Alone research it based on this? I have seen the movie a couple of times and I'm sure I couldn't realize this is about Home Alone, and I don't think I could realize there's even anything worth researching, and even if I realized it, I wouldn't find Home Alone on my own based on this.
    – JiK
    Oct 17, 2017 at 8:27
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    @JiK, as other answers for this question have said, allusions are a very hit or miss thing. No single reference will work for every reader. Which only makes that last portion of my answer more important. If you include allusions in your work, don't use them only for their own sake. Build upon them and make them have meaning in your fictional world. That way, if the reference fails entirely, the allusion is still contributing to the depth and texture of your work. Oct 17, 2017 at 13:11
  • @JiK, I would say that the joke fails because Kevin is such a common name. However, Home Alone and possibly Home Alone 2 are quite well known so if you make your reference a bit broader for the audience in some way, it would go a long way to working it out. If you want a good example, recall the scene from Guardians of the Galaxy where Peter explains to an alien the movie "Foot Loose". It was funny because you only needed passing knowledge of the plot (provided) and the joke is about Peter's semantics, not the plot itself... and later his choice of references.
    – hszmv
    Oct 17, 2017 at 16:10
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This is a basic problem with any allusion, the audience needs to understand the reference to get the full impact. If you have a narrowly targeted audience, and you aren't worried about your piece aging, you can go full on with contemporary allusions. Or, you can go the opposite route, and not include any allusions at all.

If you want to walk a middle path, you should probably be sparing with your allusions, add a little in-story context where appropriate, and stick with more universal general-knowledge allusions where you can. This also helps keep your story from feeling like a jokey parody, which is especially a danger if there's no legitimate reason the characters should know the allusions. Even Ready Player One, which built its entire plot around a plausible reason people in the future might study 80's pop culture, flirted with that danger in a way that makes it unlikely to age well.

The trade-off is between appealing to the audience that shares your references, and missing the one that doesn't. Ultimately, all you can do is try to make the rest of the work strong enough that a few missed allusions won't kill it. We still read Plato's dialogues, even though we miss all of his witty pop-culture references.

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    As an example, Pratchett's Soul Music is a nonstop stream of pun references to famous rock-and-roll figures and phenomena. Most of them I got, some of them I didn't get but knew I was missing a reference to something, and it turned out that a couple just went right by me and I never noticed. One example of doing it right: some of the musician characters are discussing a theft of a piano by a local priest, and argue that nobody would remember some felonious monk.
    – Ti Strga
    Oct 16, 2017 at 21:51
  • Personally, and as a child of the 80s who "got" at least 90% of the references in Ready Player One, I hated that book. It was all references and that was all it was. If it had been a satire of the current culture of everything being a reboot or sequel or heavily based on something else then at least it would have had some merit. I think your last paragraph is what's most important here. Oct 17, 2017 at 11:55
  • @TiStrga, if you only missed a couple of references you did very well. Discworld in general is so full of references that people have published commentaries. Oct 17, 2017 at 14:08
  • @PeterTaylor yep, the Soul Music link is to one such commentary. I think there are printed variants as well, even!
    – Ti Strga
    Oct 17, 2017 at 17:45
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My opinion--no harm, no foul. Right? You go ahead and drop those allusions in there! If the allusion carries the action anyway? Why not?!

Listen, man...I've got a manuscript that has 437 reference jokes/allusions. Serious! And, to be one hunny honest--the people I've had read the story haven't gotten many of them. Maybe a .01 return on the investment.

I don't care. The people like the story! They're oblivious to my print version of the Family Guy approach, with a side reference lurking around every setting/scene and I am not bothered by it in the least. Here's my bottom line get down:

I regard my reference jokes as 'easter eggs'. They are NOT necessary, but what delightful little surprises for the rare mind that aligns with my sense of humor.

Example of an unkillbilly reference joke: In one story, I have a crew of US Army special forces trainees practicing HALO jumps in the Arizona desert take the names of the Space Marines in the movie "Aliens". With a bit of a switch in spelling, we have: Hacks for Hicks, Hutson for Hudson, Vasquoz for Vasquez...Hahaha. I know, NOT a knee slapper. But, for the people who do get it? Priceless. And when the net you cast is 437 references strong...you're gonna catch a few.

If you must, think about it as a marketing strategy. Something for the Fan Club to obsess over. "Oh, I found another unkillbilly side reference!"

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