Pop Culture in Fiction

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 19 2011

It’s very common for writers to use pop culture references in the fiction they’re writing. For example, it’s a lot easier to compare someone to Tom Cruise or a situation to The Sixth Sense than it is to really take the time and energy to describe that person or situation in your own words. If you ask me, or even if you didn’t, I think this is a very dangerous habit.

One of the reasons I don’t like this, besides the fact that I feel it’s lazy writing, is because I’m not a huge pop culture junky. Don’t get me wrong, I live and breathe Top Chef, but I rarely see movies. In fact, and I hate to admit this, the last time I saw a movie in the theater was more than five years ago. No joke. If your average reader is anything like me, you’re going to lose her with your first reference. She won’t get it.

The other reason I dislike pop culture references is that they quickly date your book. I read a YA recently in which the author used The Sixth Sense as an example. The Sixth Sense was released in 1998, when most of your YA readers were about four, maybe. Now, I’m not saying they haven’t seen the movie, and maybe it’s enough of a classic that they have, but this still sounds like a rather adult comparison to me, and one that definitely dates the book. Wouldn’t a young adult more likely think of something more recent, more relatable to their world, not a movie they would deem a classic?

What about a book that’s published, or still in publication, five years from now? At that point your readers weren’t even born when The Sixth Sense was released. Now, how does that date your book?

While I think it’s okay to use some pop culture in your writing, my suggestion is to use it sparingly and only if you absolutely need to.


31 responses to “Pop Culture in Fiction”

  1. Avatar Sommer Leigh says:

    I agree, I don't like pop culture in books I read unless it is tied to the setting or premise of the story specifically. If a story is set during a particular summer in the 80s, referencing music, events, movies, etc is important to the setting. If it is supposed to be a universal, anytime story, no pop culture references please.

  2. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    Definitely be careful which ones you use, exactly for that reason. I think for the most part a writer could get away with Star Wars references, possibly some Clint Eastwood western references (or John Wayne, I suppose, but I suspect there's an entire generation or two that don't know who he was), and probably a Harry Potter reference. Some pop culture stuff is almost universal, but much of it isn't as pervasive as people think. Although I see a lot of movies, both in the theater and on DVD, I've never seen The Sixth Sense (although I know about the ending).

  3. Avatar Charlotte says:

    A great post. I'd never thought of it before, but so true. My thoughts as I was reading were about people's individual tastes. You referred to Tom Cruise who I think is a dish. My best friend who can't find a single attractive attribute on him would be quick to argue. If he was used as a description for an example of a character in a book or story, she'd be left with the wrong impression, and possibly turned off to the character.

  4. Avatar Tracy says:

    I agree with Mark. Aside from using pop culture references sparingly, use ones that are multi-generational. Elvis, The Beatles, Lord of the Rings, etc. are a few that people, regardless of the generation their from have at least heard of before.

    And personally, I think pop culture references should only be used to add a humorous aspect to a scene, not as an excuse to get out of explaining something in proper detail.

  5. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    Using pop culture references dates your book. This could be great, if you're writing something historical and you use it to that effect. Anything universal and lasting enough to prevent dating wouldn't be pop culture, just 'culture.' Lord of The Rings, Beatles, Elvis, John Wayne, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Trek, Star Wars and Alfred Hitchcock – that level of integration into our culture, are probably safe.

  6. I did worry about that when I wrote a YA book in which I wanted the character's sister to like all the regular pop music–justin beiber, lady gaga, kesha, etc. However, I went back and tried to change it to general references, thinking if it ever got published, those stars might be dated by then. I read a recently published book with dozens of Britney Spears references and they made me laugh–not what the author intended in that particular book.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for this post Jessica! I critique a friends work, and they have a ton of references like this. They always have brands of fancy electronics and clothes written down, instead of explaining that the things their characters own are expensive because they're a rich character. I try to tell them that some people don't know whether those brands are for "well off" people or not, but he always just goes "People will know". I don't know how many times I've told him to change it because it's not a proper descriptive tool, but he never does. I'm glad I'm not the only one that thinks this though!

    I do agree, you shouldn't fill your book with pop culture references. I mean, I'm only exposed to a very small part of pop culture (the part I like), so I wouldn't know about a lot of music that's out right now. So saying the name of a hip band to explain what type of music a character is into, or a brand of fancy headphones doesn't quite work for me: I don't know if they're a popular band or not. And like another commenter said, if you don't like that type of music, or don't think that brand of headphones is expensive at all…you've completely lost your reader. Best to just describe things if you ask me, it saves the reader from a lot of confusion, and stops the reader from just saying "stop being lazy author".

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I have to agree with you, though I have used a pop culture icon, namely Dirty Harry, in my current book. I thought long and hard about this before putting it in, but I believe this character has become well enough known that it will work and not necessarily date my story. But, yes, I have been careful to avoid these references for the very reason you expressed and that is I do not want to date my story.

  9. Avatar Malin says:

    I think the amount and style of pop culture references should be based on the narrator of the story. If you have a main character (limited POV) who is a sucker for films or music, it makes sense to add such references.

    With your example – YA with Sixth Sense reference – it probably doesn't make much sense unless that film has made a deep impression on the main character/narrator.

    These things are really tricky – I would say there are no strict rule to follow.

  10. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I am one of those who doesn't "get" pop culture references. In my case, it's because I haven't watched television since the mid 1990s when our kids were still home. They always throw me for a loop when I come across them in a story, and obviously I avoid them in my own because I just don't know them.

  11. Avatar Levonne says:

    Thank you for that advice. I understand your reasoning. It makes sense to me. I'll keep what you say in mind as I edit and write.

  12. Avatar Fiona says:

    Excellent point. A friend once gave me a piece to critique and it was so full of "in jokes" related to certain pop culture references that I didn't get it at all. It was funny to a small circle of friends but had no reach beyond that.

  13. Avatar Eileen says:

    How do you feel about technology references? Cell phones, texting versus email etc. With all of it changing so quickly what do you advise writers?

  14. Avatar Shakespeare says:

    Even more, the references will be dated a hundred years from now.

    Yes, I'd like to make a little money publishing. More than anything, though, I'd like what I write to last. And too many of these references, often for the reasons you mention, might mean my lit. doesn't last a decade.

    Justin Bieber isn't going to get me there… and even if I am only thinking of now, the use of his name will not really add anything substantive to the readers' understanding, for we don't have the perspective on him that readers might have in a few years. What if a star who is really popular and cool one year becomes lame or creepy the next? I can string out a list of people who fall into this category, Tom Cruise included.

  15. Also, political references for made by the characters in a story may not only date the reference, but put some of the readers off. I read a novel about a woman who killed her boyfriends rather than break up with them because she did not want to hurt their feelings. The main protagonist referenced a CNN Crossfire segment (which is now off the air) and commented on a guest on the program who had some interesting viewpoints. This did nothing to advance the story except to place it in a time capsule and perhaps label the author with a political perspective which the reader should not be aware of while reading the story as intended.
    Pop culture references made in the distant past may be appropriate if the story takes place in the 1950's perhaps, and the character references "Howdy Doody."

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    A very good point, and one I confront every time I stand in front of a class full of undergraduates — who were about age 8 on 9/11 and for whom "Ronald Reagan" and "Bill Clinton" are, as James Michener once put it, as "distant on the ear" as Eisenhower and JFK were to me, c. 1981.

  17. Most classics have a sense of timelessness to them. That doesn't mean their devoid of setting, time and place, it's just that the reading of the stories transcends those elements.

    This is difficult to do when a manuscript is sprinkled with pop culture references. What appears trendy, hip and "relevant" to someone today will be old, dated and completely uncool in a matter of months or years.

    Why do your story a disservice by including future stumbling blocks like current bands, video games, tv shows?

    — Tom

  18. I learned this lesson the hard way in eighth grade, where I compared the setting in a story I was writing to the Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back…and was asked what the heck that was.

    Cultural references can be used effectively, and seem to have the greatest chance if they are something so ubiquitous and commonplace that everyone is likely to understand it…at which point they lose some of that pop-iness. (Or at least everyone in your target audience. For example, avid zombie lovers might recognize references to classics in that genre that the rest of the population wouldn't understand.)

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow. I live for pop culture. And, frankly, I think most of those people who were given kindles, iPads, and other e-readers as Christmas gifts would agree with me.

    In case no one's watching, reading is now becoming pop culture 🙂

  20. Avatar Karen says:

    I just finished editing the first draft of my first novel and took out all pop culture references for the exact reasons mentioned here in the blog and comments section. The ones I HAD used: a popular singer’s name and Facebook. The Facebook one I debated on- will the social media monster last the test of time? Will it be around 15 years from now? if someone’s (hopefully!) reading my book will they get it?

    I played it safe and removed everything.

    Glad to hear that the general consensus is that I made a good decision.

  21. Avatar Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you for this post, Jessica. I'll definitely be deleting 3 pop culture references in my WIP.

  22. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    Depending on the character and the situation, I think it could be okay to reference coined phrases from classic movies like Bogart's "Here's looking at you, kid" and Gone with the Wind's "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Even if someone hasn't seen the movie, they've heard the phrase often enough, though then there's the concern of peppering your book with clichés. It's always something. 🙂

    Then there are the slightly more modern coined phrases from movies like "Show me the money" (Jerry McGuire) and "I see dead people" (The Sixth Sense). People may not have seen the movies, but they know the line well enough and it can be funny when used the right way.

  23. Avatar Myne Whitman says:

    Great pointer! My editor also pointed this out, especially the fact about dating the book. I'm a big pop culture fan and it seeps into my work.

  24. Avatar Sheila Cull says:

    Good reading. Thank you.

  25. As always, Jessica, good and useful advice. You rock girl!

  26. Avatar Dara says:

    I don't care for much pop culture in books either. Then again, I mostly read and write historical. That has its own challenges 😛

  27. Avatar Mike says:

    I'm probably in the minority here, but I see all this stuff as necessary and vital in a story. If you're writing a contemporary setting for a contemporary audience, how can you avoid these references? Pop culture isn't just movies, music, and TV. It's the devices that deliver the medium and make our culture who we are at that time: iPods/Pads/Phones, Kindles, etc. It's also reflected in the hardware any profession uses and you have to get those details right. If you have a 2011 police officer as a character, chances are they're carrying not a .38 snubnose, but a tupperware 9mm and a taser. If your main character is a contemporary P.I., he/she would have thousands of dollars of electronic surveillance and computer forensic gear on hand. Even if the main character is a chef, wouldn't his/her 2011 kitchen reflect 2011, just for the necessity of being realistic and accurate? And I guess that's my point. If you're writing to any time period, you have to bring the realism. Film does that with soundtracks and clothing/hair; books need to do that as well. Someone listening to Simple Minds in 1985 will do it with a cassette Walkman. Pop culture isn't just pop — it's our cultural identity at the time, like it or not, and good fiction needs to reflect the temporal setting even if some readers won't get the reference.

  28. Avatar Lucy -- L.C. Blackwell says:

    I think that pop culture references work well in historical fiction IF you provide sufficient context. I'm writing a novel set in the USSR in the 1980s, and I don't hold back from using popular Soviet cultural references–frankly, I can't, or the novel wouldn't be true to it's time–but I try to make sure the reader understands the meaning of the reference, even if it's not familiar.

    Also, I think it's a mistake to try to strip contemporary novels of a sense of time and date–if anything, they need to be more grounded, not less. I'm perfectly happy to be reading something that was written in the 1960s and reflects that, but I want the author to be upfront with me and let me know where I am.

  29. LOG LINE 1
    I need an agent please?
    Brought together under the Big Sky of Montana by lust, wanderlust and suicide, after a first night out bar hopping DEBBIE tells MARK that she has came to Montana with her 12 year old daughter BRITNI to kill herself and her daughter on her 40th birthday. "Paradise Montana" is “memory play” akin to Tennessee William’s “Glass Menagerie,” and character and dialog of Elmore Leonard loosely described as “Lolita meets On the Road.” You will question whether MARK should be Knighted or jailed at the end of the film.

  30. Avatar C. says:

    Maybe its just me being a member of the Google/ Wikipedia age, but when I read a pop culture reference in a book that I don't know, all it does it make me want to find out what it is. If its a good enough book, if I'm immersed in the characters, in the world the author has created, I want to know as much about that character/ world as possible, and that's going to include the culture they belong to and the media they're interested in. Which I think speaks pretty well of an author if a reader still wants to know more about their characters' personas, even after the book has ended.

    Also, unlike a few years ago, when a pop culture item had to make the network news in order to be known by more people than the region it encompassed, now its just a few search words away. Or, if they're hot- linked in your e-book, a quick click away. Sure, books should have a "timeless" feeling, but I think that speaks more to the overall message of the book than the actual "time frame."

  31. Avatar ARJules says:

    Am I the only one that first said "Wow. Sixth Sense was released in 1998? Really?" Followed quickly by, "They were only four?!?!?!?! FOUR?!?!?!?!?!"

    Excuse my while I go stick my head in a gas oven.

    Good points though! To me, it really takes me out of the story when I read an out of date pop reference.