I made a big, bad mistake while referring to the Big Bad of my Dead Ringers serial. I attributed the term to the old television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“No, no, no,” my beta reader said. “Let the reference stand.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. There’s no need to over explain when using a reference that’s part of pop culture. Even somebody who’s never seen Buffy has heard of the Big Bad Wolf.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in name dropping. Sometimes, the mention of a movie will get across your point in a hurry. Let’s say you’re writing a romance where the characters share a kiss. If the heroine thinks the kiss rivaled the one in Here to Eternity, readers will know she had a pretty good time.
Since television and the movies are gold mines for pop culture references, you can make them work to your advantage in your writing in a variety of ways.
Let the reference stand
Less really can be more. If your hero is as debonair as James Bond or your villain as devious as Cruella De Vil, there’s no need to explain to a reader who they are. Or maybe one of your characters is a thug who makes someone an offer they can’t refuse. The phrase instantly conjures up a mental picture of Marlon Brando in The Godfather and a sense of menace.
The heroine in my serial is a horror-film buff so it makes sense for her analogies to come from scary movies. To make her credible, I watched a lot of them and made references to stuff like vomiting pea soup (The Exorcist) and Nurse Ratchett (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I also used a couple of lesser-known references, like when the heroine expected a motorcycle rider to have a flaming skull. A reader who’s seen Ghost Rider can have the fun of being in on the joke. A reader who hasn’t will still have a visual picture.
The writers for the television series Family Guy are especially good at letting references stand. They’re better at using the technique to comic effect. In one episode, Peter talks to a volleyball and calls it Wilson a la the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. The volleyball corrects Peter, telling him his name is Voit, the name of a sporting goods company. In another episode, Brian the dog and Lois are on rafts in the ocean while Peter swims by wearing shark fins and humming the theme song from Jaws. After Lois tells Brian there are no sharks nearby, we’re treated to the view of a huge, talking shark underneath the surface of the water.
Let the quote stand
Along the same lines, there’s no need to name drop while using famous quotes from movies. Who doesn’t know that “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” comes from Gone with the Wind or that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” was made famous by Love Story?
Instead of using the quotes verbatim, though, try putting a fresh twist on them. Like “Frankly, my dear, I’d give a damn if you did.” Or “If you never say you’re sorry, who’s gonna love you?”
I just finished a Linwood Barclay book where a thug holding a drill asks the poor sap he’s about to torture if he’s ever seen Marathon Man. When the thug instructs his victim to “open wide,” the reference is self explanatory.
Mention Rocky and readers will know you’re referring to a boxer. If you bring up E.T., it’s obvious the subject is aliens. Shawshank Redemption equals prison talk. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest conjures up a psych ward. Star Wars harkens to outer space. The Walking Dead means zombies. You get the picture.
The bottom line is to trust the reader to understand the reference and to resist the temptation to over explain. It goes back to a basic tenet of writing: show, don’t tell. And isn’t that what the best movies–and books–do?
Although leaving her life as a newspaper sportswriter behind for love and romance worked out pretty well for Darlene Gardner, she’s veering off in a haunting new direction with the Dead Ringers serial for the eBook market. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets a seaside carnival, minus the aliens and pod people. The nine volumes in the Dead Ringers serial are available both individually and in boxed sets of three. Click here for retail links.
Darlene has more than thirty romance novels in print, from single-title romantic comedies to emotionally charged family dramas. Updated editions of her romcoms, as well as a couple romantic mysteries, are also available as eBooks. Visit Darlene on the web at www.darlenegardner.com.
Nobody at the summer carnival believes Jade was even in danger except her secretive co-worker Max Harper, a stranger she can neither trust nor resist. But things about Max don’t add up. Like why does he turn up wherever Jade is? Why is he so evasive? And why do people around him keep ending up dead?
Only two things are certain: People in town aren’t who they seem. And things for Jade are about to get much, much worse