Do Popular Culture References Add Depth or Badly Date a Story?
“There were always tales passed from mother to daughter, father to son. Down through the generations they came, so that we would never forget that place, that magic, that elemental and awesome power that abided in our forbears. In each generation the power of the tales rests with us, the storytellers. I weep, I cry with joy, I exult in the God-power of the words.
“And so I have tried to pass them on to another generation, to keep alive the mortal power of our earlier selves, even as the world changes and dies, sleeps and awakes anew to the force that gives life to our souls. So that some child can hear the tales and find them awakened in herself to pass on to yet another generation. “
– Evangeline Walton
When my grandparents told stories about the days of their youth, I wasn’t conscious of a overt attempt on their part to pass on bits and pieces of a past that changes and dies with every generation. Their tales seemed more like memories, funny or odd or sad, that were somehow tied to the present moment.
If they intentionally wanted to pass on the knowledge and wisdom and popular culture of another age, they hid those intentions well. What I heard were stories. I never knew if they were true. But that didn’t matter. They made me laugh or they made me admire the storyteller for surviving a chilling moment. They made me feel that the past isn’t gone as long as we remember it and then tell somebody else about it.
Writing gurus often tell beginning writers to be very careful with references to popular culture. Today’s fad may be gone and forgotten before a manuscript reaches a publisher and–with luck–comes out as a novel or short story a year later. Such references date a story in a bad way because they pull readers out of the scenes rather than enhancing the scenes.
If you’re writing a story about a coach and his high school football team and insert a reference about deflated footballs, will anyone know what you’re talking about eight months from now? Football fans, yes. The general public, maybe. On the other hand, if deflated NFL footballs continue to be an issue for many years, then the reference may turn into something that endures, for better or worse, and is worth passing on when it fits the context of a story.
It’s tempting, I know, to include the latest celebrity moment or a comment about an exciting scene from, say, a TV show like “Scandal.” There’s something empowering, especially when we’re young, in keeping up to date. Yet, if I say something about Olivia Pope being kidnapped in the story I’m writing today, I may have lost you already if you don’t watch “Scandal” every Thursday night. How many more readers will I lose a year from now or five years from now?
During the days when “Dallas” was watched by almost everybody and talked about by almost everybody else, there were plenty of references in comedians’ stand-up bits, feature stories and commentaries about Who Shot JR and how the writers figuratively threw away the plot line of an entire year of the show by having Bobby Ewing step out of the shower.
When I search for “Who Shot JR” on Google, I get a large number of hits, including a Wikipedia article that explains it. In spite of all those entries, “Who Shot JR”–in and of itself–has probably become too weak a reference for use in most fiction some thirty years after the episode of “Dallas” aired on CBS.
When I search for “Bobby Ewing Shower,” I also get a lot of entire, including a Wikipedia article that describes how the character played by Patrick Duffy was killed in the 1984-85 season and then returned to the show a year later by stepping out a shower, indicating his death had been a dream.
When we choose references for our stories that we hope won’t become dated, we’re being subjective, I know, deciding like gods that one thing has endured (or will ensure) with enough power to help a story and another thing has faded away (or will fade away) so much that it can only weaken a story. As I think of this, I remember what I was taught in journalism school: nearest=dearest. If something relatively small happens in a town far away, your newspaper probably won’t mention it. If the same thing happens where you live, it might be front page news. Only “large events” or small evens that keep happening from far away get noticed.
I see popular culture references the same way. Large events–however you choose to define the term–are going to endure. So will small events that happened over time. World War II was large, so I can safely mention it in a story even though (unfortunately) many of today’s readers won’t know when it started. Party line telephones aren’t large in the same way, but they were a fact of life for years. Perhaps, with a short description, I can mention them even though some of today’s readers don’t know what a land line phone is, much less a phone line shared by multiple families.
Can we mention Bobby Ewing and JR? We can, but we’ll have to be more descriptive by saying something like, “Those were the days when we all watched the soapy TV drama ‘Dallas’ and argued about who shot JR Ewing and whether the Bobby Ewing shower scene was the best or the worst screenwriter’s idea in a month of Sundays.” Now, even readers who have never heard of the show will “get it.” The protagonist is talking about a long-ago TV program. Readers can move on without feeling misled or derailed the way they would be if the author wrote a line of dialogue like, “Hey, after all, I’m not the one who shot JR.” That dialogue will lose almost everyone to the detriment of your story.
Whether or not you as a writer want to mention a TV show or whether you as a reader care about it is a hard call for anyone to make. When we make that call as authors, we try our best to remember how our grandparents took the large and small events of their earlier days and made such wonderful stories out of them. Sometimes, the stories were good because of the way the stories were told and sometimes they were good because the references in them were near and dear and large enough to endure on their own.
When we make the call to include a popular culture reference or a current news event, we’re always taking a risk. If we’re truly psychic, perhaps we can look into the future and say “this is something that will be remembered, so it will work in my story.” It’s easier to include references to history when you’re looking back in time because we know whether the subject or the event or the product has endured or not.
Some writers have an innate sense about what will endure with enough strength of make sense twenty years down the road in the stories they’re writing today. The rest of us write about the past and hope that we’re not the only ones who remember the references we’re including. Either way, the purpose of the references is to advance the plot, add detail to your descriptions, enhance the reader’s understanding of a character, or add depth to your theme or setting.
That’s why we’re told by writing gurus not to use references that soon become dated. When we do, they’re like anti-matter in a story that is otherwise the kind we loved to hear grandpa tell on an rainy night when the power was out across the neighborhood. Grandpa passed on a lot of knowledge to me about storytelling.