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SAY WHAT?   Cultural References in World-Building by Pamela Jaye Smith

I was recently at a pitch session where novelists and screenwriters were giving three-minute overviews meant to engage and interest publishers and producers in their novels or screenplays. Our task was to assess the pitches and offer comments and suggestions.

What stood out were two pitches that did not give enough information about the world the writers had created and therefore caused some confusion.

One had a fantasy aspect wherein the creatures mentioned have different shapes and qualities in different myths. Not making clear at the beginning which type of creatures these were led many to make incorrect assumptions about the nature of the story.

The other was a limited series addressing a cultural legend and revealing the true back-story. The pilot episode didn’t include any reference to the legend itself and so left the audience adrift with nothing to connect to if they didn’t already know the legend…and few did.

You need to be explicit in setting your world, whether in your pitch or in the first pages of your novel or screenplay. We need to understand from the very beginning as much of the setting and characters and laws of physics as possible without destroying our curiosity or giving too many spoilers. We want to be accessible to our readers so they don’t feel totally disconnected, confused, or alienated.


A tool many writers use is cultural references.

Back when people in Western civilization all learned the same things and shared a mythological and religious background, you could pepper your poetry, plays, and prose with references to Apollo’s, Ezekiel’s, or Boudicca’s chariot, Lethe’s stream, Albion’s shores, Gabriel’s horn, the outer rings of hell, and so on. Watch the excellent TV series Deadwood, where characters from saloon owners to local drunks to bankers to dance hall girls quote Shakespeare…and it works.

In Eastern civilization they’d know that Kwan Yin meant motherly compassion, to say “Farewell, my concubine” symbolized sacrificial romantic passion, and ‘the man who danced with cowgirls’ was the blue-skinned god Krishna.

With all the interconnectivity and accessibility of the internet, we have access to so many more cultures and their stories. Using appropriate cultural references in your own stories can instantly hook your readers into all sorts of back-story and information. On the positive side, they can carry huge import; on the negative, they don’t travel well across boundaries and can quickly become dated. Who’ll think Shrek II is clever 50 years from now? (Who does now?)

Battle cries and political slogans use cultural references: “Forward the Light Brigade!”, “Remember the Alamo!”, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, “Yes, we can!”

Generations identify themselves to each other with the passwords of cultural references: “23 Skidoo”; “Groovy, man”; “Gag me with a spoon…or pitchfork”; “Dude, don’t freak out”; “Totally awesome”; “…not”, “my bad”; and so on. And omg, I am so lol, so stop b4 it’s 2 l8. TTFN.



  • Windmills have become a potent symbol for nobly but futilely battling blind forces, a metaphor that traces back to Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, about a misguided knight tilting at windmills as though they were real enemies. At the end of the Oscar-winning film Patton, General Patton strides out into a field of windmills, symbolizing even this great man’s inability to alter the force of politics overriding military prudence in World War II.
  • At the end of Casablanca, when Claude Rains’ Captain Renault begins to side with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, he tosses the bottle of Vichy water into the trash. The French Vichy government had collaborated with the Nazis. By tossing the Vichy bottle, Renault is saying he is no longer going to collaborate with them, but will be switching his loyalty to Rick and Victor Laszlo and will now be fighting against the Nazis.
  • Many spiritual systems see life as a game, sometimes played by gods, sometimes by aliens, sometimes by blind fate. A famous scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal references this idea as Death and the knight-hero play chess on a beach. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Adventure references it with a foosball game, and (500) Days of Summer does it with Cupid playing chess with the heartbroken hero.
  • The film Tropic Thunder is nothing but cultural references, and it’s ever so much fun. Every time we watch it, we try to find more references in dialogue, visuals, even the music. Like Galaxy Quest, however, it stands on its own as a fun and meaningful movie.



You want to be confident that your intended audience will know the reference; otherwise you risk being totally misunderstood. When you want to create an exotic world, use cultural references outside the scope of your audience, as Frank Herbert did in his Dune series of novels. The cultures he drew from were Arabian, Bedouin, and feudal European, which in the ’60s and ’70s America were relatively unknown.

Kim Stanley Robinson in his MARS trilogy also drew from various cultures on earth when creating their reiteration on a terraformed and colonized Mars.

Sometimes you do want to layer a story with deeper significance for that smaller audience “in the know” so you can be more obscure. It’s like planting Easter Eggs in a game.

You don’t want to risk confusing your readers by highlighting something people don’t get. Better to have a third of them spot it, go “Aha!” and love you for making them feel smart than to have two-thirds of them go “Huh?” and hate you for making them feel stupid.



So sure, use cultural references, but make sure they’re not so obscure that they’re totally missed.

Give your readers enough information at the beginning of the story to ground them in your world.

Take advantage of the opportunity to make statements about people, history, society, politics, and philosophy via cultural references.

Love this?

Check out Pamela’s class right here at SavvyAuthors!

Beyond the Hero’s Journey

Having trouble making your story fit the pattern of The Hero’s Journey? Can’t quite make those paradigms match your own characters and plot? Maybe that’s because your story is actually based on a different pattern.

Contrary to popular opinion, The Hero’s Journey is not the only mythic Theme. It’s certainly a good one but it is only one of many. A few years after the publication of Hero With a Thousand Faces, Dr. Joseph Campbell modified his position and observed that for different times and places there were different mythic structures and archetypes.

This book introduces you to many other powerful Mythic Themes ranging from “About Face” to “Damsel in Distress”, from “Stealing Fire From Heaven” to “The Wakeup Call”.

Each Mythic Theme is explained and explored via:

  • Media Echoes – other media on the same theme
  • The Myth itself
  • Mythic Meaning
  • Symbols, Analogies, Metaphors, and more
  • Plot Points – guidelines for your own story
  • Mythic Statements – Theme, Mission, and Lesson

Using the guidelines in this workbook you can:

  • Refine and focus your story theme.
  • Select an appropriate sub-plot to enhance your story.
  • Use the Plot Points as guidelines for plot drivers, incidences, and scenes in your story.
  • Use symbols and images to spark audience recognition.
  • Maintain your originality while tapping into the timeless power of these classic myths.
  • Take your place in the long line of myth-makers who create moving and memorable stories that engage and entertain your audience.

Buy this book!

PAMELA JAYE SMITH is a mythologist, author, international consultant-speaker, and award-winning writer-producer-director with 30+ years in features, T...