Writing Right with Dmitri: The Mysteries of the In-Joke

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Writing Right with Dmitri: The Mysteries of the In-Joke

Editor at work.

As I told FWR the other day, he knows useful things. I only know useless things, like how to parse verbs in dead languages, and where to put commas. I also know a bit of GuideML, which is useful only on h2g2, and HTML, which is useful only online. But I'm glad to share what I know. So in the immortal words of Gwen DeMarco of Galaxy Quest, 'Look! I have one job on this lousy ship, it's stupid, but I'm gonna do it! Okay?' Today, I'm going to show you a trick or two about how to place in-jokes in your writing.

There's a television show I've been binge-watching on Netflix called Person of Interest. It's so good, I'm watching it for the second time. Long after I've forgotten the plots to Glitch and Broadchurch (who was that woman, again? Why is David Tennant so angry?), I can recall scenes from Person of Interest. It's a remarkable story, witty, savvy, and able to sustain a surprisingly large cast without losing the audience. It even survived the addition of a large dog as a sidekick without losing its appeal. Kudos to the writers.

Person of Interest is a philosophically complex tale about artificial intelligence, government ethics, and the future of humanity, but it is also quite funny in the most unlikely places. This is largely due to the writing team's deft use of the in-joke. By 'in-joke' I mean in this case, a joke based on recurring plot and character features of the story's universe.

Here, Jim Caviezel, a good-looking and physically-fit actor of about 50, plays The Man in the Suit, known to his few friends as John Reese (not his real name). John is ex-Special Forces, ex-CIA, and all grumpy badass. The actor pulls this off nicely by using a poker face whether he's cracking a dry joke or threatening the numerous Bad Guys in this convoluted tale. The writers use in-jokes to good effect here. For instance, The Man in the Suit is being sought by the New York Police, the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. Still, he goes about his derring-do, never changing The Suit. Until his employer, Harold Finch (also a pseudonym), sends him to dope out a scandal on Wall Street. Finch insists Reese get fitted for a new suit: Wall Street will notice.

Finch's pseudonyms are another in-joke. They're all based on bird names. Harold is variously Harold Crane, Harold Crow, Harold Wren, even Harold Egret. After a while, we're dying to know why. We eventually find out what it is with Harold and birds.

In-jokes are a very useful tool to have if you write stories in a series, such as novels with the same detective or POV character. Agatha Christie did this a lot with Poirot or Miss Marple. Television writers feast on it. Even h2g2 writers do it: FWR is getting mileage out of the denizens of the Daydream Journal (see this issue for the latest adventure of the Man from Delaware). In the past, I've written stories about Robert Thigpen, the dog-friendly North Carolina printer, and Horace, the fussy (and hard-drinking) editor. In-jokes can be fun: at their best, they deepen characterisation and are crowd-pleasers. Here are a few tips for making your in-jokes fun.

  • Establish a quality, circumstance, or tic of your character. Then think of funny variations. Think about Detective Monk: he has crippling OCD, and he's a germophobe. Hand him a toddler with a runny nose.
  • Make sure the audience will get the joke. Don't make bilingual puns unless you know your audience is bilingual. (Thanks, FWR, for pointing this out.) Don't make your audience memorise a lot of drivel to get the joke, either.
  • Use change-ups. Sure, your character has a characteristic catchphrase. But maybe he/she fails to say it? Or says it a different way, thus confounding the sidekick's expectations?
  • Don't run the joke into the ground. Don't overuse the trope, and don't push your characters around just to be cute. That gets stale easily.
  • Make sure the in-joke doesn't weaken your character. In one episode of Person of Interest, Finch and Reese, both complex fugitives living off the grid, have to take care of a baby. Neither of them speaks baby talk or behaves in an undignified way. But the reaction of their reluctant ally, Detective Carter of the NYPD, is priceless. Carter, a mother herself, is appalled to learn that Harold has entrusted babysitting duties to a hired international assassin. Fortunately, she doesn't find out about the incident with the crawling baby and the gas grenade…

So: in-jokes, or in-universe jokes, can greatly enhance the fun of writing and reading. You and your audience will both benefit. It's like spice in a recipe, though: a little goes farther than you thought. A soupçon now and again adds flavour.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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