Dated References and Why You Should Avoid Them


How do you want to be remembered as a writer? When I think of some of the great literary classics, I think “timeless.” A great work of fiction should speak to anyone from any time. It should explore the human condition and concepts that should resonate throughout the ages. Love, hate, jealousy, revenge, intrigue, mystery, adventure, humor, satire, life, death, etc. People have been using writing and fiction to explore these themes since writing was invented. They’re timeless.

You know what wrecks a piece of fiction and ruins its ability to be timeless? Dated references! Mentioning a current popular song, musician, hairstyle, fashion, buzzword, the latest movie, or the freshest meme. Things that have not yet proven the test of time DO NOT BELONG IN FICTION!

A few years ago, I was reading a new urban fantasy novel when BAM – the main character brings up listening to the music of Lana Del Rey and specifically mentions one of her latest songs. As a metalhead, I had to stop and ask, “Who?” After a Google side-quest revealed that the aforementioned artist was a fairly new up-and-coming pop singer (at the time I was reading that book anyway), I had to stop and ask myself. “Is anyone going to get the reference to this pop star’s latest song ten years from now? 20? 50?” Suddenly that book was screaming, “HEY, DID YOU KNOW I WAS WRITTEN IN 2015!?! IT’S 2015!” It really threw me out of the story, and I HATE that.

I hate when a writer goes into too much detail on current trends that date the story, and not in a good way.

“He put on a groovy new pair of bell-bottoms.”

“She smiled as she walked out of the salon with her fresh new highlights/layers.”

“She opened her Motorola flip-phone, and her heart jumped when she saw his text message.”

“He said ‘Yolo’ before throwing himself in front of a moving car.”

If you write that shit in your story, we know EXACTLY when you wrote it. Now, if you’re writing non-fiction or a story that is supposed to take place at a particular time or location, sure, you’ll get a pass. Like how Stranger Things is supposed to be set in the 80s, and therefore we enjoy every dated 80s reference the show throws at us.

Conversely, if the time period is meant to be vague, not having references that indicate exactly when your story takes place lets the reader immerse themselves in the story. When was it written? Who cares! It feels like now. It feels like yesterday. It becomes timeless because someone can pick up that story 10, 20, 100 years from now and still lose themselves in the greater themes you explore, and they won’t get distracted by awkward dated references.

Now, not ALL pop-culture references are a no-no. One way to reference pop-culture and not horribly date your story is to first stop and ask yourself, “Has this already proven the test of time?” For example – Star Wars. I’m writing this article in 2018. Star Wars has been around for about 40 years by now; it’s huge, it’s stood the test of time. EVERYONE knows what Star Wars is. If you reference it, odds are your readers will get it. That current pop song that’s at the top of the charts today? You don’t know! That song may be completely forgotten in a few years, or even a few months. Sure, you like it, but avoid referencing something that may alienate future (and by future, I mean WAY future), readers. Mentioning Stairway to Heaven, a classic rock song written over 40 years ago that people still know about, that’s okay. Why? Because it’s stood the test of time! Not all music, fashion, trendy words, and popular actors that are well known today will be relevant in the future.

Unless you have a time machine, and you know that yoga pants and skinny jeans will be the enduring style for the next 40 years, avoid writing them into your story. T-shirts, which have been around for ages already and probably aren’t going anywhere, are safe.

Stop and ask yourself, “Is this cultural reference going to be relevant in the future?” And if you don’t know, because nobody knows the future, it’s best not to write it.

Write a story that is for EVERYONE. Now. Tomorrow. For the next decade. For the next millennium. Write a timeless story!

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