1. Alex Brandt

    Alex Brandt Member

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    Pop culture references

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Alex Brandt, Apr 18, 2017.

    I've always enjoyed movies and TV shows that make pop culture references (Community comes to mind) but I'm wondering if making pop culture references in books would be endearing or if it would date the book?
     
  2. JE Loddon

    JE Loddon Active Member

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    It would definitely date the book. Ready Player One got around this by referencing a previous decade. If you are going to do it, refer to things that you're pretty sure people will remember in 10 years time. Enduring references don't age in the same way that references that will become obscure do.
     
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  3. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Active Member

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    It inevitably dates the book, usually for the worse, unless you really pick cultural icons that will be remembered, and the odds are a bit against you there. It can also be endearing if you're really good at it, but that's less of a sure bet. It's not either/or, it's a question of whether you have the latter as well as the former.

    If you're happy to write something really contemporary, it could work great in comedy, but it'll lose impact in a short timeframe if the jokes don't hold up independently, that is, if they're just references to funny things, rather than jokes with inherent humour built into the structure.

    Plus if you expect to publish it, you'll have a much shorter timeframe to complete it, edit it and have people actually read it, before it starts to fall flat.

    That's why pop culture humour generally works better in blogs, editorials, TV shows with quick production, other formats that are quickly produced and immediately consumed, not works for the ages.

    This is part of why you'll find a lot of people won't respond well to pop culture references in the first place, unless you're extremely good at it. You'll also potentially be limiting yourself to a niche audience based on what particular aspects of pop culture you reference.

    Besides, you can always make references to things that have already been proven to be more timeless than anything truly current.
     
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  4. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

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    I would stick with the more "timeless" things, as well, but it also depends on what you're writing. If you're in a world that is very specific, then you may want references to specific things in that world--for example, one of my novels was primarily about music. Along with inventing some of my own bands/artists, I had a number of references to existing artists, both well-known and more obscure. However, in a book that doesn't deal with music at that level, I certainly wouldn't go that deep.

    If my character's a fan of comics, I'd reference Batman and X-Men for sure, since there's no real danger with that. But depending on the needs of the story I could go deeper. If my character is female, she may be drawn to the new Ms. Marvel, for instance. Is that a reference that would date the book? Maybe. But it also has merit regarding showing something about the character that could feel true-to-life, depending on how I pull it off.

    Your story doesn't exist in a vacuum where real life pop culture doesn't exist (unless it does, of course!). You can make up your own, which I think is a very useful tool, but you have access to the world around you as well. Just be cautious about what it is you're going to do. As with any setting or description, don't include everything and the kitchen sink gratuitously. Make sure it relates to the viewpoint character and has relevance to what you're doing. Go timeless when you need something generic, and only go specific if it really makes sense to. Understand what effect it will have--it does date the book, but sometimes your book is set in a specific time frame.

    All that said, I would still tend to leave specific references as Easter eggs and not rely on them to carry the plot--unless, as mentioned above, you are going for a niche audience.
     
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  5. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would say this is pretty much a guaranty. The niche may be large, but it will be a niche all the same. For example: gaming references. Unless one is willing to reach all the way back to 1983, nearly all gaming references will slide off me like teflon. I'll have no idea what you're on about. If it genuinely matters to your storyline, you'll have written portions of your story that are completely opaque to me, even though there is clearly a large audience that will grok the references. Like most things we get concerned about including in our stories, you are guaranteed to filter some potential readers out. There's almost no way not to. You just have to decide how much this matters to you when weighed against wanting to write the story you want to write.

    This was going to be my suggestion to avoid the aforementioned filtration, to wait until the period of time being referenced has become a recognizable period in the past compared to the present. This would also help in defining the borders of said period because in retrospect, periods of time don't always line up with the names we give them. In America, the 50's is really from the end of WWII to about 1965. The 60's doesn't really start until the middle of the actual 1960's and runs through the end of the Vietnam War. 1980-1982-ish is still the 70's. Etc. Etc. Etc.
     
  6. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributor Contributor

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    My father appeared in an amateur production of The Love Match, which had been written in 1955, in 1970. In the play, there is a pun which references Hopalong Cassidy (which had run as an early TV series in the early 1950s); thus, it was "pop culture" when the play was written, but old hat by 1970. As luck would have it, the cast was able to change the reference to Butch Cassidy, which had just come out.
     
  7. Alex Brandt

    Alex Brandt Member

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    Noted. But how does one determine what kind of things will last for years from now? I'm assuming the Marvel movies will be remembered mostly fondly for a long time, Lord of the Rings is always a safe bet, but how does one make these determinations?

    Also, same question, but regarding politics. Would it be a better idea to address broad American politics (civil rights movement, unjust wars, etc.) or to address specific people (McCarthy, Clinton, Bush, etc)?
     
  8. rktho

    rktho Contributor Contributor

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    Even Christopher Paolini managed to sneak Doctor Who references into his book. And it was set in a medieval fantasy world with dragons. (Only true Whovians would catch the references.)
     
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  9. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Active Member

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    That's exactly the point; you can't make a safe assumption, unless you're choosing a very specific audience who you expect to have a strong interest in a particular topic, like summer blockbusters or hiphop or pro-wrestling. It's a relatively safe bet to take something that's been around for at least 10 years and is still in the public consciousness. That's not certain though, and if you're not confident that you have a feel for what is in the general public consciousness, it might not be the best idea to be making references.

    Regarding politics, I'd go specific if politics is your focus, and you can therefore expect an audience who's interested in the topic enough to either know the details or want to go learn about them. But that applies more to non-fiction. For fiction you may as well stick to the most familiar, timeless examples of the concepts you're talking about, because specific current references are a bad idea for the same reason they are in general.
     
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  10. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Active Member

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    Paolini's not exactly a master to be emulated.

    EDIT: To clarify, just about the only thing Paolini did well was capitalise on an interesting author backstory and thereby catch plenty of attention from non-fantasy-reading columnists who were desperately looking for the next Harry Potter.
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2017
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  11. rktho

    rktho Contributor Contributor

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    Eh, he gets a lot of hate, but he's not bad. He's certainly no Tolkien or Rowling though.
     
  12. Achoo42

    Achoo42 Member

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    I suggest having varied genres of reference so that your niche audience is very wide.
     
  13. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor

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    I think having hidden gems for fans of specific pieces are okay, but I wouldn’t say anything specific.

    “They sat in the movie theatre. Onscreen a monster tormented the dreams of children. Offscreen, real dreams were dying.”

    That’s not explicitly anything. If read a few years ago, you’d likely think of Freddy Kruger where if you ready it right now, Pennywise the clown might be invoked.
     
  14. Fiender_

    Fiender_ Active Member

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    I think that's the best way to do it. A while back, I was reading a book that made references to Spiderman and Star Wars. Both franchises that have proved rather timeless, and yet those references took me out of the book. I've always had a hard time pinpointing why - it doesn't bother me when real-life cities or companies are named. I think part of it is a cringe-response to seeing a writer's interpretation of a fan/fandom which often feels... exaggerated to me.
     
  15. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    Was that one of The Dresden Files, by any chance? I've always loved the way that Harry Dresden drops pop culture references in casual conversation because it characterizes him as a nerdier person than his social circle, and Spider-Man and Star Wars are two of his favorites.
     
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  16. HappyPandaGamer

    HappyPandaGamer New Member

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    I like tasteful pop culture references; like references that are like a nod to things not overblown references. I find that to much of them make the book dated, obnoxious, and trying to hip with the kids.
     
  17. Fiender_

    Fiender_ Active Member

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    No, actually, it was Dreams and Shadows :)
     
  18. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I love pop culture and literary references and do use them from time to time. There is a certain celebrity known for the occasional appearance in my fiction. I'm writing for now. I'm not worried about twenty years from now. I'm sure I'll be writing different stuff then and along the way. I kind of like the ways these references ground a story.
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2017
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  19. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    I've got a good friend who writes many of his very funny stories and his main novel to date 'laid' in the world of heavy metal music. He's in his forties now, but he started with the music 30 plus years ago, and still keeps up. However, he nearly always offers some tiny clue as to what his heavy metal references mean. If he refers to a particular musician, he usually manages to slot in something about him—such as why the main character finds this musician worth mentioning or idolising, or hating.

    I am a total non-afficianado of Heavy Metal music, and I walked away from his main novel, Metallic Dreams, knowing a lot more than I did when I went in. And appreciating the music and culture more as well.

    If these little clues weren't on offer, these heavy metal people would have been just meaningless names to me.

    When dropping in cultural references, I'm not so concerned about the longevity of the piece as I am about how much will whiz past people in the present.

    I think the idea of 'general' cultural references if you're writing for a general audience is a good one. If you're only writing for the people who share your specific interests, then you might not be able to reach people from outwith that group if you drop in too many references that they won't understand. It's a choice you make, really.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2017
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