Being a Better Writer: References and Pop Culture

Hello readers, and welcome back to another post of Being a Better Writer, coming to you bright and early this Tuesday morning.

Yeah, Tuesday. Mondays shifts at my part-time job again. Just a fair heads-up, I’ve got a Monday shift next week too, so next week’s BaBW post will also  be delayed. It happens. And I need the money, so …

Oh, and I apologize in advance if this post seems a little scatter-brained. I’ve not been sleeping well lately, and that’s probably had a detrimental effect on my writing.

Right. Back to the topic at hand. Which is a request topic from one of you readers! And an interesting one at that, one I wouldn’t have likely come to on my own. See, this reader asked after right and wrong ways to do pop-culture references in a book. And while yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this … it’s not a topic I would have thought to discuss until it was posed!

This is why reader questions are always good to hear. Sometimes there’s just a topic I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own, but someone else has. And in this case, it’s a topic that’s worth talking about.

So, references and pop culture … Where do we start? Well, how about some definitions and clarifications for those who aren’t quite certain what I mean when I talk about these terms?

Simply put, references are when a book, movie, game, or other creative work in some way directly or subtlety point at another’s work. Like a reference card in a library, they direct the audience’s attention elsewhere than the work at hand. Reasons vary, and we’ll get into that later.

How this ties into pop culture, however, is where things get pretty important. Pop culture is, well … A good description of pop culture is an interchange of ideas, thoughts, and other cultural aspects surrounding a form of popular mass-media. For example, one could easily call Star Wars a source of plenty of pop culture, and you’d be right to do so. Star Trek would be another, musis bands another, etc, etc.

So, taken together, these two tend to play out in a fairly predictable way. Creators will create something that references something from pop culture, be it a song, a movie, a character … Whatever. They’ll have a character in the background that looks suspiciously similar to another character from a rival series, just as a sort of wink and a nod. Or they’ll drop a name that happens to be similar to some other product—their own or someone else’s, it doesn’t matter.

So, a reference is pointing the audience at another work, while a pop-culture reference is … well, the pop-culture centric version of this. For example, a reference would be something like what the creators of Girl Genius do in a lot of the background scenes of their webcomic (which is fantastic, by the way): Put in little nods to their own work and others, such as one spread of a cityscape that features a bunch of signs advertising various shops around town … and said shops happen to bear names of other webcomics across the web. So a reader who notices this has had their attention subtly nodded in the direction of those other comics.

Okay, so that’s a reference. Now what about a pop culture reference? Well, it’s essentially the same thing, except it won’t always be referencing a work as a whole (such as with the webcomic titles example), but rather something that seized the public mind and culture that grew out of something popular.

Confused? Think of it like this. Seen Toy Story 2? The battle between Buzz Lightyear and Emperor Zurg atop the elevator where Zurg says “I am your father.” and Buzz screams “Noooooo!” very dramatically? That’s a pop culture reference to, of course, The Empire Strikes Back, and the famous line which became so engrossed in the public mind. So engrossed, in fact, that you’ve probably seen it referenced in any number of films, movies, books … it’s everywhere. It’s a very prevalent bit of pop culture.

Okay, now drawing a line between a reference and a pop-culture reference might be splitting hairs for some, but I want that distinction to be there. Because it’s an important distinction. Because now, I want to talk about one more thing that is going to come up in your work: the fourth wall.

The fourth wall is a common term for the “invisible” wall between your readers and the scene you’re presenting to them. The term stems from film, where a common set for the actors to perform on is made up of three walls: The back wall and the two sides. The “fourth wall” is the one the audience is looking through … sort of like a one way mirror. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist—the audience needs to see the scene, after all, and a wall would get in the way. But if the camera were to pan to another part of the room, the audience would assume that there would actually be a wall where the camera just was.

So: Assumed wall—fourth wall. Make sense? Right, now let’s go one step further. In the world of entertainment, anything in the “scene” that draws the audience’s attention to the fact that what they are seeing/reading/experiencing is, in fact, a creation, is referred to as “leaning on the fourth wall,” ie drawing attention to the fact that what the audience is participating in isn’t real. One can go even further and acknowledge the fourth wall. For example, if a character in a film makes a joke or a comment that only the audience would get, not the characters in the film, and then they all look directly at the camera, that is directly admitting that the fourth wall exists.

Now, acknowledgement of the fourth wall is important because of something you have to recognize: Any, and I do mean any, time you make a reference of any kind, pop culture or otherwise, you are drawing attention to that fourth wall. And so the question becomes then how much attention do you want to draw in that direction?

This question really will be the basis for whether or not you decide to put references of any kind in your work. Because no matter what, a reference, properly seen, does draw attention to the fourth wall. It reminds the audience that they’re entertaining a created work.

Well … not always. And here’s where we start to get into the fine details of things. See, there was a caveat in that sentence above. Properly seen. What if your reference isn’t immediately visible?

See, this is where things get tricky. Some references are meant to call attention, to get the audience to look elsewhere for a moment, to make the fourth wall flex, and reward the reader with a light joke or a moment of “Hey, I like that too!” But some are not. Some are meant to be clever, hidden, noticeable only to a select few.

For example, it’s entirely possible to write an overt reference in which a character sees a television show that the author likes, mentions the show, brings attention to it, and then moves on. That’s a reference. But it’s also possible to write in a reference that only a few may spot. One that can “fly under the radar” for most readers. For example, there are one or two moments in Colony where one of the main characters casually drops very applicable platitudes about combat that happen to be references to one of my favorite webcomics, Schlock Mercenary. But the furthest she comes to identifying the source is ‘an old comic a lot of mercs enjoy’ which answer satisfies her teammates. A reader of Schlock Mercenary? They’ll pick right up on the source immediately (in fact, several of my alphas and betas did, and loved it). But because it wasn’t overtly saying “Look at me, I am a reference to this comic” plenty of other readers were able to read through it, nod at her advice, and move right on.

The difference here is that one is only noticeable by those who are already “in” on the reference. Some references demand attention, demand that the audience acknowledge them, while others simply sit back, quiet and unobtrusive in the background, waiting to be noticed … and if they aren’t, then they’re just a bit of window dressing.

Now, if you want to go this latter route, with the quiet and unobtrusive reference, there’s something you need to remember: It has to be unobtrusive. A fourth-wall leaning reference? It can jar your reader (which, admittedly, is dangerous) because that’s what it’s there for. But a silent one cannot. Which means in turn, however, that it must serve some purpose in the story. If you have a neat reference to something, if it’s set on its own simply to be a reference, it will feel out of place. For example, if you are describing a street as your protagonist is walking down it and spend a sentence or two on a building that has no other purpose than to be a reference … Well, that info doesn’t fit. Your reader is going to notice it because it will stand out. It comes across as excess information. Worse, it comes off as useless information to any reader who doesn’t know the reference. And we don’t want that.

So rather than leave it standing on its own, you need to blend it. Want a reference to a specific building from some show, movie, or whatever? Blend it in with a description of the whole street, so that it feels just like any other building. A reader who then recognizes the reference will likely spot it for what it is, but one who does not will simply read it as one more part of the street.

Again, this is all up to you and what sort of audience you’re catering to. Myself, I prefer unobtrusive references, ones that blend into the story and fit until a sharp-eyed reader who is familiar with the reference material spots it. In this way they get to feel clever about finding a little reference, and I get to keep regular readers who won’t notice it immersed in my work.

But if that’s not what you’re aiming for, then you could choose to make your references more open. Basically, you’ll just want to do the opposite of what I would do to make them hidden. Don’t blend them, but rather make them standout. Make it clear that they are references. I’ve done this as well, when writing characters that like to make references as part of their own make-up.

Again, this comes with risk, because every audience has only so much patience and tolerance for diversionary references. Some may find even a little to be too much. Again, know your audience.

Now, one last thing that I said I was going to come back to later. Now I’m coming back to it. Pop culture references? There’s an inherent risk with them.

I’ve linked this before, I believe when discussing colloquialisms, but take a quick look at this XKCD strip. Now let the mouse hover over the image so that you can see the alt-text. See where I’m going with this yet?

Pop culture references can be an amazing boon for a story’s appeal … when the pop culture is relevant. The moment the winds of culture and popularity shift, so goes the appeal, and a story that relies on its pop culture references can find itself struggling with audience that has no idea what most of its references mean.

Above, where I was talking about how obvious references can annoy readers? Well, imagine how annoyed they might be when they know they’re looking at a reference, but they have no idea what it means?

This is the danger with relying on pop culture references, especially if you’re referencing something modern. You might get lucky and pick something that becomes timeless. Or you might pick something that’s forgotten about a month or two after you’ve laid it out, making it well and truly out-of-date by the time it arrives. Or just as bad, pick something timeless that becomes so overused it becomes a joke in and of itself … at which point everyone acknowledges it, but with a groan of “Again?” when they encounter it.

Worse, sometimes it might not even fit. While this applies to regular references as well, pop culture references suffer the largest brunt of this due to their source. But either way, if you do work in a reference, make sure it isn’t completely at odds with your genre and theme. You don’t after all, want a line from Aliens to be both quoted and acknowledged by Ancient Mongel Weather-wizards, do you? Keep things  at least somewhat making sense and congruent with your story, theme, and setting.

So, what does this all make references to pop culture? Risky. But not risky enough that you shouldn’t use them. In fact, that just about sums up this whole post. References, in any form, require tact. Practiced application. Maybe a little bit of a test run. But they’re still pretty fun to use, if you so desire. There’s nothing wrong with them as long as they’re used properly. Sparingly as your audience can handle. Cleverly.

Don’t overwhelm your audience. Think about that fourth wall and how much you want to draw your audience’s attention to it. Does your story want to be sparing? Or heavy? Do the references you’d like to make even fit?

Again, it’s all up to you. Just know that whatever you do, you should be careful with it.

Good luck, choose your references well … and get writing.


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