It is generally taken that if I tell you a joke, then have it explain why it's funny - it's not probably not funny.

I continually return to one of my own short pieces. If I submit it I believe it will be viewed as a 'nice' , 'pretty' piece of literary fiction. But I also believe it is extremely clever. But if I have to explain it . . . maybe not so much?

I've had to edit this because I sent you guys way off base. I'm only talking about flash fiction. It's rooted into the culture of story-telling (verbal vs written). A deal of comedy is rooted in misunderstandings, particularly the audio aspect of dialogue. Ergo, it doesn't matter how it's spelt the recipient hears the same word.

e.g. A woman goes for a job interview.

"Wait," says the receptionist, busy filling a form. "You can't ask me that!" objects the woman. "Okay . . . so I put on a few pounds over Christmas but . . ."

Expanding this theme, I wrote a short piece in which the true meaning only becomes apparent when it is read aloud.

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    I don't see that this explanation changes my answer; flash fiction or not, if the audience doesn't think it clever, it isn't clever. It is exactly the same as a stand-up comic telling a joke, those are basically all "flash fiction" to a punch line. If the joke doesn't get a laugh, the comic drops it from the act, what he thought was funny isn't that funny, or its TOO clever for people to appreciate, or its not a good twist or a good surprise or reversal. You get no chance to explain why its clever and they should appreciate it, it has to stand on its own.
    – Amadeus
    Oct 21, 2019 at 21:47
  • @Amadeus in which case you appeal to the lowest common denominator and arrive at Idiocracy. The very notion that things should be simplified because some people might not get it is ridiculous.
    – Surtsey
    Oct 21, 2019 at 22:51

3 Answers 3


Generally you are correct, your piece has to be judged by readers to be clever, in order to be considered clever by the public.

Entities with a larger budget can buy advertising that (without attribution) calls a piece "clever", "a wild ride", or say it has a "killer twist", but that will fall somewhat flat if critics don't see it. Modern consumers have a pretty jaded (or realistic) view of hype, and even "clever" is hype. Many would suspect this is self-interested promotion (and be right).

If you want to avoid unattributed claims, it is possible to pay people to spout whatever critique you want to hear. They consider this "paid endorsement", just like the movie star or sports star telling you about a great insurance company. That might work on some people, but not most people.

Even in private letters, like query letters, you should not hype yourself or your story, it is seen as amateurish, and potentially flagging you as a difficult author with superiority issues. The agents/publishers are also jaded. It is amateurish because if it made a difference everybody would claim they were clever, whether they were objectively clever or not, thus obviously it is an unreliable claim and a waste of time and space, and only amateurs would include it.

If your work is actually clever, it will be realized by most people reading it. That includes editors, agents, publishers, script readers and other gatekeepers in the path of getting it published. You shouldn't have to tell them to look for the cleverness, if it isn't obvious to most readers, and especially professional readers like these mentioned, then it isn't worth their time, because average readers won't judge it clever and the cleverness won't sell. They aren't going to include a prompting label, "look carefully for clever writing". In this market, it is obviously clever (like the ending twist in The Sixth Sense) and everybody raves about it, or it just isn't clever.


I think the balance to be struck is, as a smarter man than me once said: "Not everyone will get it, but the right people will get it."

If there is an audience you don't have to explain yourself to, that's the audience you are trying to reach.

Ultimately, the size of this audience is an indicator for financial versus critical success: As long as the audience exists at all, a smaller audience is generally what will sit well with critics, while a large ("dumbed down") audience will break the bank for you.


There are someways in fiction to do this, like if a character makes an obscure reference to another work, allow it to fall flat with other characters only for the joking character to try and explain the joke (at which point the audience that didn't get the joke is laughing at the character who is trying to justify it's quality, rather than the writer trying to justify it out of universe). The TV Show Archer is very good at this with the titular character as well as Cheryl getting in on the act, either by stressing that it should have been funny (In one scene, the villain asks Archer to do something to which he quips "I prefer not". When the villain cocks his gun, Archer points out it was an allusion to "Bartleby the Scrivener" and then comes to the realization that among international arms dealers and their goons, there aren't many fans of the works of Herman Mellville, morphing the joke to an obscure reference to the very concept that in his head, Archer thought Arms dealers would be well read in general, and fond of Melville in particular), forgetting an obvious pun for a lame quip instead (Archer frequently comes into the scene with what sounds like the start to a perfect bond one liner, only to forget the punch line and say "Wait, I had something for this". This will clue the viewer in to the fact that they're not doing the obvious joke OR that there should be an obvious joke, but we're not going to explain it.). Another technique is that the character (usually Archer) will make an obscure reference to something that only the seemingly clueless character gets (Usually Cheryl) and then the clueless character will milk that one small reference to the point of announce (One example is archer making a quip about Encyclopedia Brown, prompting Cheryl to think she's actually in Idaville, Florida (the fictional town the series is set in) and recommend that they shouldn't call the cops because the police chief couldn't get anything done without asking his ten year old kid for help (a recurring plot point in the series) or that the guy who did it was "Bugs Meanie" (the recurring guy who did at least two crimes per book. They mystery was catching his lie.).

And sometimes the audience is smarter than you give them credit for and will surprise you. Normally smart authors attract smart readers.

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