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Tuckerizations and Inside Jokes

I’m about 10,000 words through the third draft of Libriomancer. The scene I wrote yesterday introduces one of Isaac’s colleagues, a fellow magic-wielding librarian. I ended up basing the character on a librarian friend of mine (with permission), one who routinely used to kick my butt at Trivial Pursuit back in grad. school.

I’ve got another character who will be based on the winner of a fundraising auction from earlier this year. That’s two Tuckerizations in one book. (Tuckerization being the practice of inserting real-life people into the book as minor characters.)

I’m also writing a protagonist who’s a SF/F fan, meaning there will be inside jokes aplenty. He quotes Star Wars at one point. He has a toy TARDIS hanging from his rear-view mirror. He makes quips that some readers might not get…

…and that’s where I run into a dilemma. Because with everything I’m doing here, it would be too easy for the book to become self-indulgent. Especially when you add in the fact that I’m bringing Smudge back for this series.

So I’m falling back on the same rule I use when writing humor:

The story comes first.

Years ago, I was reading one of Robert Asprin’s MYTH books, and there was a scene where our hero meets a green-scaled taxi driver. The driver proceeds to talk about this convention where he won the chance to be written into some author’s next book…

Bam. Just like that, I was flung out of the story. I loved the early MYTH books, and I thought it was pretty cool that Asprin had done that, but I was thinking about Robert Asprin instead of the story. It felt like he had paused the story to squeeze in this scene.

With Libriomancer, I could easily work in all sorts of details and backstory about my friend, but she’s not a primary character. It might be fun to work in that puma joke from ‘98, but it wouldn’t add to the story.

On the other hand, it would be in character for Isaac, who prides himself on his brains, to mutter something about a Trivial Pursuit rematch when he sees her. It’s not that such things can’t work; they just have to fit the story.

The same holds true for Smudge, and for the inside SF/F jokes. My agent has already suggested I trim the Smudge scenes in chapter one, because while they might be appealing to me and to my goblin fans, they slow down this story. Likewise for Isaac’s Star Wars quotes, or references to other SF/F books and films.

In the end, I believe Tuckerizations, inside jokes, and humor in general should all work the same way:

  • It should fit the story.
  • It should add to the enjoyment of the story for readers who get it.
  • It should not detract from the story for readers who don’t get it.

Easier said than done, especially with the rather meta premise of Libriomancer. It’s a book about SF/F books and magic, and it would be so easy to pack it full of geek references and insider humor … but I don’t want to restrict my readership like that. So in general, if I think something will bump a reader out of the book, it’s getting cut.

What do you think? Any examples of effective or ineffective Tuckerizations or inside jokes? For the writers, what has your experience been with writing (or avoiding) them?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 63 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 11th, 2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
I'm thinking about BIMBOS OF THE DEATH SUN by Sharyn McCrumb. There are lots of inside jokes about SF cons, but it's written from the point of view of an outsider, and that's why it works. Other characters explain things to the newbie, yet the reader does not feel like she is being talked down to.
Aug. 11th, 2011 01:44 pm (UTC)
I've heard of that one ... I think I need to track down a copy.

That makes sense, because it sounds like a story where the inside jokes would actually *fit* with the story. It's set at a SF/F con, right? In which case a flood of inside jokes would be a part of the setting. And filtering things through an outsider is a time-honored way of letting the reader find out what's going on.
(no subject) - margaret_y - Aug. 11th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 11th, 2011 01:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 11th, 2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
I actually love finding little Easter eggs in stories--as long as they're not overwhelming. I put a few into Broken, which was about people with super-powers living in a somewhat dystopian future. At one point they encounter a group of violent ultra-nationalists who have named themselves after "figures from American history." They're named Kent, Parker, Wayne and Banner.

The people who found and got that one loved it. But lots of people never saw it, and it didn't kick them out of the story in any way.
Aug. 11th, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
Exactly! It's something that's plausible enough not to kick the reader entirely out of the story, doesn't make readers scratch their heads or feel excluded if they don't get it, and adds something for the readers who do.
(no subject) - shashalnikya - Aug. 11th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - akiko - Aug. 11th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shashalnikya - Aug. 11th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC)
You could always offer one of the characters to represent the people who might not get some of the quips-- one who always questions the protagonist when he says things they don't get and possibly deters him from making too many reference-nerdy quips in the future because it just throws off whatever conversational point they were trying to make before. That, in and of itself, seems pretty funny to me.

I mean, I suspect he'd still make them on occasion, but either would refrain from offering an explanation (because it's not necessary at that moment in time) or the other character, like whichever readers don't get the references, will just let it go.

I've always felt like, as long as there's a character that represents my line of thought as I'm reading, I don't get drawn out of the story-- I've found this method to be used very successfully when it's Exposition Time(tm), especially if I'm afraid I missed some information when a character says something I don't follow.

I also think that, as long as the quips and quotes and references are presented in a way that indicates that they don't really matter (throwaway lines), people are less likely to get caught up in them. I'm not entirely sure how to explain this, something like...

1) "Oh, so we're going to Mos Eisley, then?" he asked, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, "Scum and villainy sounds like just what we need."


2)"Sounds like a fun place," he replied, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, "A wretched hive of scum and villainy? Count me in."

Just like there are clever and forced-sounding ways to insert fan-jokes into normal conversation, how they're presented in the text will not only affect the mood of the scene, but also how the character is presented (is he clever, or is he trying too hard?). Either way, the readers will probably grok that the character is a huge fan, even if they only grasp a handful of well-known quotes or references.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:09 pm (UTC)
Margaret mentioned something similar with BIMBOS OF THE DEATH SUN, where the author uses an outsider character as a way to help bring the reader into the unfamiliar and alien environment of a SF/F convention.
(no subject) - shadrad - Aug. 11th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - starcat_jewel - Aug. 11th, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC)
This is why I vastly prefer (for example) Terry Pratchett to Piers Anthony. Pratchett throws so many little jokes at the reader that it doesn't matter if a lot of them don't hit; enough others are right on target, and even if you notice the missed ones, they don't really distract you. Anthony makes a joke, and then has to explain it to the reader so they'll know how clever he is, which in my case totally derails the storytelling.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC)
Anthony ... he has a very different kind of humor than Pratchett. Personally, I've always preferred Pratchett's style.

Some of it might be audience, too. Anthony's stuff was fun to read when I was younger, but I doubt I'd enjoy it as much these days.
(no subject) - starcat_jewel - Aug. 11th, 2011 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - twilight2000 - Aug. 11th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC)
I've actually been thinking about the references/inside jokes thing a lot recently. My current thinking on it is that there is a scale of "references for the sake of it" to "references that work", with Scott Pilgrim (particularly the movie) on one end and Community on the other. Scott Pilgrim, while lovely and fun, doesn't really, intrinsically *work* if you don't get the references. Community on the other hand, you can get *none* of the references and still think it's funny and well-written.

Well, for a given value of "you" that = me in this instance:)

So my rule so far is that the story and the writing has to be more than a sum of it's parts. You can have all the references you want, as long as, if I don't get them, I don't *notice*. Does that make sense?

This is a cool, thinky post. Thank you.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
Makes perfect sense, and I think you and I are pretty much on the same page with this.

Now I just have to make sure Libriomancer actually *works* that way when I'm finished :-)
(no subject) - supertailz - Aug. 11th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 11th, 2011 02:17 pm (UTC)
My band were Tuckerized in a book last year. It was very quick, we were playing at a party. I think it worked, mostly because it was quick, and it fit the scene.

Now I have to dredge my brain, there was something I read recently that leaped out at me, and not in a good way.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
Yes! If it fit's the scene, great! If (as in the Asprin case I mentioned) you end up basically writing and inserting a whole new scene just for the Tuckerization, then I don't think it serves the story anymore...
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
"I do my best not to stick stuff in just because it makes me feel clever. I always end up cutting those bits out."

Same here. In my case, it's an even mix of "This doesn't actually add to the story" and "Oh crap, rereading this makes me realize I'm not as clever as I thought I was..." :-)
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
The last effective one I read was in Keith DeCandido's Buffy novel Deathless, which featured a character named after my friend zarhooie. For anyone that knew her, seeing the same first and last name was a good laugh, but for folks who didn't, she was clearly a real character, and one who had been developed first and named later (and not shoehorned into the plot).

The last bad one I read was for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (admittedly a cesspit of writing mistakes). An otherwise solid book was so intent on showing off the author's SFnal knowledge that literally over forty characters were named for SF greats from Asimov to Lem. In a more humorous book, it might have worked, but in a serious action-oriented novel, it kept disrupting the story.

OTOH, I loved the entire metafictional notion of George Alec Effinger's Zork Chronicles, in which a member of the Supernatural and Fantastic Wayfarers Association tries to win a (Joseph) Campbell Award. That's a book that basically is all about the in-joke, and thus can't be disrupted.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:31 pm (UTC)
Ouch... I'll admit that my protagonist's name is a tribute to Asimov, but that's such a minor detail I don't know how many readers will make the connection and it shouldn't make the slightest difference.

Like you say, I could see the flooding of SF tributes working in a different kind of book, but not one that's trying to be serious. It completely snaps suspension of disbelief to accept that all of these characters just happen to share the same names as various SF greats...

I need to pick up one of DeCandido's books one of these days.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Colfer's book yet -- is that one worth picking up?

I think you can also get away with a bit more of this in books that are more humorous or satirical...
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
I love Spider Robinson, but he's extremely prone to this problem -- although part of the issue is that some of his referential bits are to things that became too popular (there's a chapter or short story in one of the Callahan's books which contains a particularly painful extended Princess Bride riff, which might have been understated at the time but was less so by the time I read it in the late 1990s).

In a less nerdy context, I also felt like Jasper Fforde fell prey to this problem.

I also think there's a connection here with how people work nerdy references/injokes into conversations in real life. If references are too aware of themselves, are used too overtly as a "hey, look at this awesome club we all belong to, gang!" signifier, and/or are otherwise poorly integrated into the conversation, they become less funny and more awkward.
Aug. 11th, 2011 02:34 pm (UTC)
I've also run into the injokes as an exclusionary thing. Not always deliberately, but I definitely don't want readers to feel like the one person in the conversation who's shut out of all the jokes.

Robinson's work always felt to be much more firmly anchored at the center of fandom. The ones I read worked for me, and I enjoyed them, but I don't know how many of his books would be able to reach a broader audience. (Which, depending on who you're writing for and what your goals are for the book, might or might not be a problem.)
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:07 pm (UTC)
Like everyone else is saying, I don't mind the ones it's easy to not notice. I've read a number of books set in some contemporary city where the author lives, and there are characters or bands or random comments that I'm pretty sure are based in reality or in local in-jokes, but they flow in with the story even if you don't know the reference point.

re: your second rule
The one that gave me the full on flung-out-of-the-story vertigo feeling was one that I did get, and wished I hadn't. In the otherwise seriously fabulous Boneshaker by Cherie Priest there's a dirigible named after an LJ handle. I know I'm part of some utterly tiny percent of readers who'll catch the reference, but man was it jarring. I kept hoping for an in-story explanation, some throwaway line about why in this world it had that name, and it never came, so I never managed to repair my mental continuity; it just yelled out 'LiveJournal! Your world! The Internet!' every time it sailed into the story.

Edited at 2011-08-11 03:49 pm (UTC)
Aug. 11th, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC)
I remember coming across that in Boneshaker. I think she mentions it in the afterward, doesn't she?

That's an interesting example. People who aren't aware of that LJ handle should be fine, since they won't realize there's an inside joke there. But if you do ... it's kind of like when I read about the heroic death of Captain Frank Wu in a Julie Czerneda book. Fun, but also a little jarring since I know that guy... I don't know if there's any way to do that and not have it be at least slightly jarring, though. It's the dissonance of real world and ficitonal world colliding.
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
To go to a different genre here, if you've ever read one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels there's usually some point where Clive writes himself into the narrative - usually saving the heros butt. This usually throws me right out of the stories. One can admire the enormous clanking balls though, and it's still fun. *wonders if she's the only one here who reads these.*
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:59 pm (UTC)
I used to read Dirk Pitt® when I was in grad school - fund adventure novels that made for decent escapism. But I quit about the time that "Dirk Pitt" started being marked on the back cover copy of the Dirk Pitt® novels. And now it just feels ridiculous for every mention of Dirk Pitt® to be "Dirk Pitt®".

And now I have typed Dirk Pitt® so much that the words are losing all meaning...
Aug. 11th, 2011 03:58 pm (UTC)
I am extremely against inside jokes in books. I think the risk of popping the reader out of the story is great, but worse, there's the risk of alienating them -- of making them feel like there's a joke but that they're just not smart enough or part of the right groups in order to get it.

So, no author inside jokes for me, but in-character jokes are always fine. Just gotta keep the line separate.

I will name characters after people I know, but not use any other characteristics of those people. That's my line, but I don't expect anyone else to draw it in the same place. :)
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
"there's the risk of alienating them -- of making them feel like there's a joke but that they're just not smart enough or part of the right groups in order to get it."

(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 11th, 2011 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jennreese - Aug. 11th, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Aug. 11th, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC)
My gold standard for Doin It Rite on this is Jane Dentinger's theatrical mysteries. I am emphatically Not A Theater Person, and I'm quite sure that there are little in-jokes and side-references all over them that I'm missing -- but the plots don't depend on any of that stuff, and are both engrossing and fair to the reader. And nothing comes out of left field, either; anything that's mentioned has a story-related purpose. This technique IMO turns the in-jokes and side-references into "icing on the cake" -- an extra level of enjoyment for those who will catch them, without being an annoyance for those who don't.
Aug. 11th, 2011 05:42 pm (UTC)
I think "icing on the cake" is a great way to look at this!
Aug. 11th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite TV shows is "Big Bang Theory", which is full of geek references (since it's full of geeks), but the geek references themselves are part of the story. Yes, it's easier because of the nature of the show, but they never slow down the story to stick in a reference. Instead, they build the references into the story. Evil Wil Wheaton, or Sheldon pestering Stan Lee, or Nimoy's napkin, are all hysterical because of how they fit into the story that comes from the characters' personalities.
Aug. 11th, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC)
I think that's a great example of fitting the story. That sort of humor and community is one of the things the series is about, which makes it fit a lot better. And you have "outsider" characters like Penny who let the show explain some of the references for viewers who might not get it.

But yes, they're also good about not losing sight of the story for a gag or joke.
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