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What do you think of throwing in pop culture references when writing?

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Hi everyone.

Just wondered what opinions were in throwing in the occasional pop culture reference in stories. My novel I'm outlining for NaNoWriMo this year is about a boy and girl who get transported to another world. It's sort of a medieval/Renaissance style world with a few quirks I may or may not add. I already have some scene ideas in my head, like throwing in a "We're not in Kansas" line. Or, when my lead male wears that style of clothing for the first time he makes a "Men In Tights"

I may go with some of these ideas just for my first draft (it'll help meet my word count, anyway) However, I'd like my story to be publishable one day. What are your opinions?

And is anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year?
Klaark's avatar

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Go for it. Try not to be cliche and try to go beyond "Hey,this is a thing. Ha, ha."
Alberic of Krufton's avatar

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Depends on the reference, I guess. The problem, of course, is that pop-culture items don't age well at all. For example: I'm currently reading This Side of Paradise, published 1920. The main character, being college-educated, references a ton of contemporary writers; reading this book over ninety years later, nearly all of it goes over my head. Humorously enough, it's remarked in-story that a whole laundry list of writers will fade into obscurity within the next decade or so; turns out, I've never heard of them, and neither have you, probably.

I get the same feeling reading books from the 1980's that reference popular songs of the time. Being only three months old at the end of that decade, I don't actually know the music that well, so I always have to look things up. It'd be different to have actually lived in that era, but eventually people grow old, and commonplace things become forgotten.

So. I generally disapprove of it, myself, mostly because of that. Depending on the setting as well, it may pop some peoples' suspension of disbelief.

"Oh, gawd, this was a good book until they brought up Ke$ha!" gonk
Alberic of Krufton
Depends on the reference, I guess. ...

So. I generally disapprove of it, myself, mostly because of that. Depending on the setting as well, it may pop some peoples' suspension of disbelief.

"Oh, gawd, this was a good book until they brought up Ke$ha!" gonk


What about in the case of my story where the people making the references are from 2013 but in another time and place? And it would just sort of slip out in conversation.
Alberic of Krufton's avatar

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To the contemporary reader, this is fine. The characters are modern, and the references well-known and current.

However, your grandkids would probably ask you to explain a few things from back in the 'teens. Perhaps academia will publish histories of the time for them to reference on their fifth-gen information devices.
Just like anything else, it depends on the execution. Even "cliches" aren't always necessarily bad.
Aha's avatar

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The problem with pop cultural references is that it's almost impossible to know what will have a long shelf life and what won't. You could make a reference to Harry Potter and within a couple decades people will be scratching their heads wondering what you are talking about. Music trends especially tend to be so nebulous that it's probably best to avoid using specific bands in your story.

However, most of what you gave as examples should be fine. The Wizard of Oz is one of those things that has so far managed to stand the test of time. Even if someone hasn't see it, they will most likely get the reference. Same with things like Star Wars and Gone with the Wind. Older big names can have staying power, but even then I would use them sparingly.

The biggest problem with pop culture references though, is that you date your story. The more references, the more likely it is to become obsolete within a shorter time span. It won't appeal as much to future generations if they don't get the reference.

So it really depends on the reference, the way you used it, and how universal you want the story to be.
Aha
The problem with pop cultural references is that it's almost impossible to know what will have a long shelf life and what won't.

Who cares? At worst, your reader will ignore it as trivial flavouring. At best, they'll look up what the reference was. If they're reading a novel, chances are they have reading comprehension beyond third grade.
Sure I'm repeating some of what's been said. Being dated is one thing. Consider this: What if the reader doesn't get it?

It depends a lot on the audience and how obscure the reference is. I have a few in my pieces on occasion. I tend to treat them more like easter eggs than not. If you know, great. If not, it shouldn't get in the way.

Example:

One character might say "Be seeing you." This is a reference, in my mind, to Babylon 5. It's a nod to B5. If you get it, super. If not, it shouldn't bother you.

The Kansas line: I think that falls under this as well. It could be confusing depending on the context, but "We're not in Kansas anymore" can be worked out.

So yeah, give it a shot. See how it works out. Only in context can you judge the reference. Depending on the reference, it can have negative side effects for their suspension of disbelief, just break the flow, or confuse them.
Serena-Of-Limonium's avatar

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To be fair I actually doubt your Kansas reference is going to fade into antiquity the wizard of oz is a classic and is constantly being re-interpreted to keep it modern. Wizard of oz costumes are still top selling Halloween costumes and Wicked is still incredibly popular.

Even Men in Tights has a shot at being understood in several generations.

If the references are modern but also classic it will be fine. And if you put in something that people reading the book in the future don't understand than they can look it up.
Senator Armstrong
Aha
The problem with pop cultural references is that it's almost impossible to know what will have a long shelf life and what won't.

Who cares? At worst, your reader will ignore it as trivial flavouring. At best, they'll look up what the reference was. If they're reading a novel, chances are they have reading comprehension beyond third grade.

It's almost never trivial flavoring, though. If you say something that no one has a clue about, it stops the flow of the story, pop culture reference or not.

Just because they have a reading comprehension beyond third grade doesn't mean they'll get an esoteric reference that was somewhat meaningful for a brief period of time.

We have trouble understanding stuff from other countries still, but we're magically going to get something we've never heard of about our own because it's flavor?

If a character says gibberish, a read thinks either the writer or the character is having a stroke. No one's going to think it's flavor unless they have very low standards when they read or are extremely gullible.
marshmallowcreampie's avatar

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Sir Icehawk
Sure I'm repeating some of what's been said. Being dated is one thing. Consider this: What if the reader doesn't get it?

It depends a lot on the audience and how obscure the reference is. I have a few in my pieces on occasion. I tend to treat them more like easter eggs than not. If you know, great. If not, it shouldn't get in the way.

Example:

One character might say "Be seeing you." This is a reference, in my mind, to Babylon 5. It's a nod to B5. If you get it, super. If not, it shouldn't bother you.

The Kansas line: I think that falls under this as well. It could be confusing depending on the context, but "We're not in Kansas anymore" can be worked out.

So yeah, give it a shot. See how it works out. Only in context can you judge the reference. Depending on the reference, it can have negative side effects for their suspension of disbelief, just break the flow, or confuse them.


Agreed. So long as the references aren't constant and they don't get in the way, it shouldn't be an issue. It's not so much a matter of dating the work too much, though that could become an issue if you use them constantly and depending on the ones you use. You know all those movies like "Epic Movie" and "Vampires Suck"? Those movies become dated EXTREMELY quickly (within a year or two) because all of the "humor" comes from references, but they only reference movies that come out at the time of that film's release, so there's no knowing if the reference will last long. At least you can reference something like Twilight or Harry Potter and know it will last a few years. But outside of stuff where you're completely reliant on references, it's really no problem as long as they don't get in the way.

But, it really depends on the audience. If you're writing for a very specific audience with specific interests, it's a lot easier to get away with a ton of references. But it's hard to do anything like that if you want a broad audience unless you're using universal references.
dah fuzzinator of dewm!'s avatar

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If you think the story can benefit from a pop culture reference in some way, then knock yourself out.

If the story will improve from having a pop culture savvy oddball, then it wouldn't seem so out of place. If you want to set in an in joke to your life, then it might be enjoyable to you.
Tree Spirit Deora's avatar

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Pop culture references can be really amusing when done sparingly and without going too into it, as Klaark already said. Make sure it fits, and then just move on, so those who get it will and those who won't don't have to worry about it too much. And don't beat your audience over the head with them going "get it? Get it? It's a reference, see?" Lots of cartoons do that now with jokes, and it's annoying.

The other thing about pop culture references is it can really date your work if you're not using already classic ones. This is fine, just something to be aware of.
I'd go for older pop culture references that have already stood a reasonable test of time. The classics, I guess you could say? So the Kansas line works, because The Wizard of Oz has been popular for long enough that it's probably not going to go away any time soon.

If it's an obscure reference, or you don't think it would age well but you still want to put it in, I would say you should do it if you think it helps the story. Sometimes I find myself putting in kind of obscure references, just because it's something I like, but it doesn't really add anything to my story and is easily removable. Then I just have to cut it. But if it adds, then hey. Do it.

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