Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Clever References

Writing Wednesday

I once heard of a study which claimed to show that modern children were much smarter than their ancestors because of The Simpsons. Okay, it wasn't simply because of that one program. The study tracked the number of reference to things, ideas, or events outside of the immediate story. They found that number increased over time. In other words, what the average viewer was expected to "get" moved in the direction of more and briefer references to a broader background of common knowledge.

Working references to popular culture into MG and YA work is tempting because it shows that you're oh so clever. But it's difficult enough to do that you should probably avoid the temptation.

First, there's the practical matter that most references will date your story. [Don't believe me? Find a picture of yourself twenty years ago--the trendier the better. How proudly would you display that picture now?]

Second, and more importantly, references to popular culture will almost always pull your reader out of the story, either to shake their heads if it's clumsy or in admiration if it's clever.

Consider the following lines from Phillip Reeve's Starcross. Together with Larklight and Mothstorm, the three MG books tell rollicking tales of daring-do in the space-ways of the solar system in a steampunk world where Isaac Newton's discovery of the alchemical secrets of spaceflight propel the British Empire across the stars. In that world, the American Revolution was only the American Rebellion (thanks to the Royal Navy's aether ships). In the midst of a series of adventures, a French agent, who has just revealed her plans to relaunch the Liberty (the one American aether ship from the rebellion) says,

"My grandfather hoped that he might capture a British warship or two, and set up a free American settlement upon one of the outer worlds ... He dreamed of founding a Rebel Alliance which would strike at your empire from a hidden base ..."

This is perhaps the best embedded reference to popular culture I've ever read: every single word in the sentence is both completely consistent with and fully motivated by the story. It's beautiful because it works on so many levels. And yet when I read it, I dropped right out of the story in admiration.

You're probably on less shaky ground if, like Reeve, you're working with comic material. That said, I still think the best advice is to minimize your references.

What do you think?

Image: Simon Howden /

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