The reference is a powerful, yet often unwittingly misused tool in the writer’s belt. The right reference in the right time and context can leave an audience rolling with laughter or if everything go awry, scratching their scalps bloody.
As the name implies, a reference is the act of bringing up an event, concept, saying, folk story, person, or just about anything in relevant context to the story being told. This leaves a wide canyon to cover and no good jumping off point.
But to start at the basics, the simile is the simplest way make a reference and most people will do so automatically. Rich as kings. Sly like a fox. Dull as a rock. The point of comparison is made with something of which most people have a preexisting understanding. Kings are rich in treasure and land. Foxes are clever in their ability to sneak into or out of places. Rocks don’t make for good conversational partners.
Most of the ones you can think of off the top of your head are rote but it can be a great aid to know the origin of the phrase. “Don’t blow a gasket,” pedantically references the breaking of an engine’s gas seal due to high pressure. “Is this the hill you want to die on?” has both military roots as a tactically poor place to carryout a last stand and religious connotations with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as the beliefs that will lead to one’s ruin.
Knowing where these references come from allows the writer the flexibility of matching subtext which elevates the prose. For instance, an ignorant character could misuse a reference in dramatic irony. A ruler or leader might say of themselves, “I’m as wise and forethoughtful as Oedipus.”
Additionally, knowing the origins of the references will help prevent writers from misusing one themselves. This is especially the case when the references have significant meaning to a culture or society or religion or group. Don’t think it a limiter but an opportunity to learn. It’s not that you can’t use the references because you’re not apart of the demographic in question but knowing were you could inadvertently prod a few nerves will help you from running your mouth and not being able to explain yourself afterwards.
One area where you can shine with your references is in the scary worlds you make up. Blowing a gasket doesn’t work in an era without steam engines. As arid as the desert won’t have meaning in a world covered in ice. All your pop culture jokes and movie references lose their coherence. Coming up with new references is daunting because they have to be understood by both the characters in the fictional world and the audience in their world.
Don’t explain enough context and the point won’t land. Have a character explain the meaning of each metaphorical phrase and they sound robotic. (But what if they were robots hmm?) An easy work around is to have a fish out of water character (and by extension the audience) be told the duplicitous meanings by a learnt character. It’s effective but it gets old fast.
The benefits include dashes of worldbuilding from the reference’s specific origin specific in the fictional universe. It could be that the phrase “Boarheaded” comes from a warrior chieftain infamous for his brashness and ceremonial long tusked boar mask. After hearing that I’d like to meet that character and see if the story is true. “Is this the hill you wish to die on,” could be in reference to when the great general Shafaht made his first and final tactical mistake by posting his troops on a hill sacred to the guardian spirit Trata. Angered by their presence and the general’s lack of belief and offerings, the guardian spirit loosened the soil on the hill, destroying the army’s emplacements and letting them be overrun. The moral of the phrase now becomes one of warning to avoid an ill-planned misstep that could befall the greatest of men via a simple disregard for their circumstances.
Alternatively, if you want originality in a real-world setting, you can build on a reference. If a character is bewildered by the speed of incoming information they could say, “There’s 25 hours of news a day on the TV.” And if that character’s snarky child wanted to tell them how fast information is actually transferred nowadays, they could retort, “It’s more like 25 hours of news a second.” Besides being accurate, the new phrase highlights the difference in perspectives and knowledge of different generations towards modern media. It says that you’re not behind on the news if you turn away from the screen but you’re behind from the moment you were able to perceive light and sound.
One thing I’ve always liked about Disney films is their incorporation of the real world into their universes. There’s a great Easter egg in Zootopia which references other Disney movies with bootleg DVDs of Pig Hero Six and Meowana. A simple twist on a name can be wonderful for a light-hearted story.
On the slyer side, The Lion King shows Scar in discourse with a skull as a nod to the play Hamlet for which it’s based. With as tight a script as most Disney movies have, their references must have significance to justify their existence.
Most of the time, the purpose for including a reference revolves around the character making the reference. These often reveal character like when someone refers to themselves with mention of another person. “I want to fly like Jordan,” shows who the character looks up to, hints at their interests, and suggests the scope of what they wish to achieve.
A character could get the reference wrong and show their lack of intelligence. They could make an outdated reference no one around them understands revealing their age and inability to connect with the youth. A freshly dethawed Captain America would be a prime example of this conflict. A slummy, hard-boiled character whose worldview has been narrowed by their traumatized upbringing might surmise, “The point of The Boy Who Cried Wolf is don’t get caught without a burner.”
And if you want a reference to land, consider the person delivering it. Most references are so commonplace (to the author) that they get misused due to that normalization. An office-worker my have more papers in their inbox than they can handle but if they were born and raised in Florida all their lives they’re less likely to say, “I’m snowed under.” Remember who’s speaking.
Most of these examples have been in the context of being delivered by characters through dialog and with stories of their own. Reason being, there’s a great leap between these users and when a narrator gives the same references.
An old character spouting an outdated reference and expecting a laugh from the other characters nearby can be humorous. A writer spouting the same and expecting a laugh from the audience is pathetic and shatters the fourth wall that you were possibly enjoying yourself.
Don’t forget the core of writing is communication. If no one can understand the point you’re trying to make because the shorthand used to explain the conflict drew a blank in their mind, then you haven’t communicated your point.
“The bandits are deep in those mountains; their home turf. Finding them’ll be like finding a needle in a haystack. But we can’t let them escape today and come back tomorrow to overrun the village.”
Sure it’s a cliché (or two) but the central conflict for an entire act or story is summed up in three sentences.
It’s better than:
“The Hititats have stowed themselves deeper than voles in those peaks. Observing betwixt the seams of a fine silk, that’s how grim our quest must be endured. Still, them springing like conifers out their mounds into our lands is inexcusable.”
I’m being hyperbolic with this example but there are some people who take references that seriously. I once came across a publishing house which expressly stated in their submission advice to avoid too specific references with the editor stating, “No one cares about how the rug really tied the room together.”
My heart is with that editor. A reference to something I like won’t make me care about the thing referencing it. Ready Player One is probably the best example of this from the stance that without its likeable protagonist the story would’ve died a death.
As a whole, references are a great way to improve a story’s economy of words, convey emotions, stakes, characteristics, personalities, draw allusions, build tension with dramatic irony, and good for the nice old-fashioned joke.
Like any element of a story, a bit of forethought and review reveals the place of a reference in your story. Where it has the greatest impact and interweaves seamlessly into the fabric.