Well, I thought that I’d talk about adding pop culture references to stories today. After all, referencing the surrounding culture is something that writers have been doing for many years and it’s basically the modern equivalent of all those references to classical mythology that you see in older 19th/early-mid 20th century novels.
1) Make sure that it’s relevant: This one almost goes without saying but, if you’re going to include pop culture references in your novel or short story then they have to be relevant to what you are writing about. In other words, they actually have to add something to the story in some way or another. You can’t just drop in references purely for the sake of doing so.
In other words, your references should emerge organically from the events of your story and not the other way round. For example, if your story includes a shark attack, then a brief reference to “Jaws” would probably work well. However, adding a random shark to your story just so you can reference “Jaws” will seem a bit random and will probably lower the quality of your story.
A good reference should either help to illustrate something, to tell the reader more about the events of the story, to enhance your characters and/or to make the reader laugh. In other words, they tend to work best when used as similes or parodies. But, whatever they are, they need to feel like an organic part of the story.
2) Explain it: Another thing to remember about adding references is that not all of your readers will understand them, so a brief explanation is sometimes a good idea. This doesn’t have to be a long essay or anything like that, but a very brief description is usually a good idea.
For example: ‘The neon lights and pouring rain made her think about “Blade Runner”. The only things missing were the flying cars.‘. Even if you haven’t seen “Blade Runner”, then these sentences still give you some clue about what the film looks like.
Although you don’t have to do this for super-quick or extremely well-known references, it is still worth doing for references to slightly older, ultra-modern and/or more obscure things. After all, your readers might have different interests to you and/or might be older or younger than you are.
Although your reader seeing a reference that they don’t understand is easier to deal with these days than it was a couple of decades ago (since it just requires a quick internet search), it will still break your reader’s immersion in the story. So, to avoid this, be sure to include a brief description or explanation whenever possible.
3) Music, lyrics and coypright: Although I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, it is important to be careful about using song lyrics in any musical references in your story. In short, you can only directly use/quote song lyrics if you or your publisher is rich enough to afford the expensive royalty payments that the music industry demands for such things.
Fortunately, there seem to be ways around this that don’t involve quoting copyrighted lyrics. In short, either describe the general sound of the song, briefly mention the song’s name and band, or briefly mention the subject matter of the song. For example: ‘The opening riff of Iron Maiden’s “The Wicker Man” sliced through the air like a chainsaw‘ or ‘And, on the radio, Celine Dion sang about everlasting love.‘
Again, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice, so do your own research here. But, as a general rule, it’s usually a good idea to avoid directly quoting song lyrics in your story.
4) Time and date: If you’re setting your story in the past, then referencing films, music, books etc… from the time can be a good way to add an extra level of realism to your story. However, not only do you have to do your research here (to avoid anachronistic references) but you also need to remember that “less is more”.
After all, unless your novel is very specifically a nostalgia-based novel rather than a piece of historical fiction, then too many references is usually a fairly clear sign of a modern writer trying too hard to evoke the past (and can break your reader’s immersion in the historical setting).
Likewise, if you include lots of up-to-date, modern pop culture references in your story, then this will date it when readers look at it in the future. If done well, then this can add extra nostalgia to your story when it is read in 10-30 years time. On the downside, there’s also a chance that future readers might not understand all of the references and/or that it will make your story seem “out of date”. So, if you want your story to be a bit more timeless, then keep pop culture references to a minimum.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂