Wordplay often involves picking specific words or word combinations to create double meaning. It’s usually used to add humor, and a lot of it involves puns. Puns take homophones (words that sound alike but aren’t) and put the wrong one into the circumstances. If the sentence is talking about steak, for instance, the writer might use “stake” instead. These are also heavily associated with one-line jokes (“groaners”).
Which day do chickens hate the most? Friday. Get it? Fry-day!
In non-groaner form, puns are a great way to add deeper meaning, humor, and characterization. Here are a couple examples:
Shakespeare commonly used puns to add multiple meanings: either for humor or to let a character slip something past another character (like a flirtation, a feeling of dislike, etc.). Hamlet has a good example toward the beginning when Hamlet says that he is “too much in the sun.” On the most surface level, this appears to be a witty response to Claudius asking Hamlet why he is still so deep in mourning (“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”). With the pun of “son” and “sun,” however, Hamlet is also saying that he is uncomfortable with his new relationship as the “son” to his father’s brother (Mom married Uncle Claud – no way!). There are even more layers of meaning than these two, and they all come from that one play on words.
In Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, part of the plot is an ongoing confusion between Alice who is very literal (see child), and the world of Wonderland which is full of puns. The Mock Turtle is part of mock turtle soup. The turtle teacher is a tortoise because “he taught us.” Alice knows the mouse’s tail is long, but why is it sad? (tale). The entire storyline is one confusing mess of puns after another.
For a more modern example, crack open J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. She uses puns and multiple meanings as part of her worldbuilding. For example, Diagon Alley is a pun of diagonally. Since Diagon Alley is hidden from the non-magic world, it can be considered diagonal to the muggle world. Puns in names are a quick way to add details to the setting or characters.
There are so many ways to use puns and plays on words. They can be subtle or blatant (You could even have a character who tells groaners all the time, and other characters run when they see him coming). However you choose to use them, puns are a great tool to have in a writer’s arsenal.