Situation: You have an imaginary world, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever, and you are at a point where, as an author, you know a suitable quote for the situation a character is dealing with. Is it inappropriate to quote from something that might not even happen in that universe?


A character is in trouble situation on a planet and danger is closing in. He is in a good mood and he is speaking over a com with his mates, quoting: "Houston, we got a problem." But in this universe for example Earth does not exist.

Can i have your opinion on this?

  • 5
    Btw. the correct quote is "Houston, we've had a problem"
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 11:35
  • I made a translation for this particular example.
    – Ernedar
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 13:36
  • How comes you translated into a language of a planet which doesn't even exist ? :-) I mean, seriously, when you tell a story, you rely on common words and commons expressions and common allusions to transmit it to the reader. This is a convenient convention, even if this is fiction work in a universe where Earth and english don't exist. But quoting Houston seems to much distracting. Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 15:07
  • 2
    What's a falcon?
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 19:11

8 Answers 8


Please, don't.

I have often encountered this in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it breaks my make-believe. I am immediately thrown out of my beautiful escapist reverie and back on my sofa. I hate when authors do that. I expect a fiction to be consistent, and the narrator has to be part of the fiction if this is to work.

The only setup where a quote like yours is acceptable is if the narrator/protagonist is transported to the fantasy world and experiences and evaluates it before the background of our own world. Then you can imagine something like:

"Houston, we got a problem."
"What is a you-stone, John?"

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    "My name is Yvonnsen, Greg. Not Hew-stone."
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 13:53
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    Earth doesn't exist, but does Houston? It's jarring when authors use a well-known phrase where it would make no sense... but I'd argue it would also be acceptable if there was a Houston in that universe, and you'd already previously set up that someone once famously told Houston they had a problem, even if the Houston and the problem were totally unrelated to aerospace, then it's a clever in-joke. But only if you set it up well earlier without fanfare, otherwise it's trying too hard. :)
    – neminem
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 16:20
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    Yes. The whole idea of fiction is supposed to be that I am, for just a moment, pretending that this is really happening, that this is true. When the writer shoves in my face that it is just a story, I feel like he has betrayed the contract between writer and reader. It can sometimes work in a comedy story, but even there I'd be careful.
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 20:02
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    +1 another alternative is to use this as an opportunity to flesh out your fictional world. What would be your fictional world's equivalent of Apollo 13? How would your characters treat it? "Calling Morrtown, we have a problem", he said ironically, mimicking the chillingly calm voice from that notorious last broadcast. "Please don't make jokes about the Morrtown disaster" she replied coldly. "Oh, come on, it was years ago! No-one of high breeding died." And your readers will get that 'the Morrtown disaster' is a story like Apollo 13, but with a twist that makes this world a little richer. Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 11:49
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    @neminem In-jokes, like using names of famous SF authors, break my suspension of disbelief, too. I really, really want a fiction to be consistent and not remind me that it is just made up.
    – user5645
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 12:23

For your "Houston" example, definitely not if Apollo 13 is not culturally relevant to the person saying it.

You can use some sayings from this universe in your universe, for example

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Because this could come about without someone having seen The Godfather Part II. It's just advice.

But any quote or saying that relies on the speaker having access to a cultural facet that they do not have access to would not make any sense.

  • "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." That's not from The Art of War, that's from The Godfather.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 17:45
  • @Kevin good to know. Proves my point then :D
    – Matt Ellen
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 17:49
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    Actually, the original quote is from Machiavelli's The Prince. The original quote is: The new Prince must strive to hold close his allies, but it is of more importance to hold close his enemies. However, some English translations also translate it as: Princes, especially new ones, have found more fidelity and assistance in those men who in the beginning of their rule were distrusted than among those who in the beginning were trusted. So the closest is Machiavelli in the original Italian
    – slebetman
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 4:25

If the quote is in reference to something that would not exist at all in the world you've created, it is completely inappropriate.

Even if it happens to be a quote that would make contextual sense (no references to anything in our world), I would still avoid it.

References to things that happen in our world, in a world that is not ours, only serve to pull the reader out of the narrative flow - whether they reference something that is in our world, or are just a quote from an historic figure or novel. There is no reason for those characters to know about that quote, and using it cheapens the value of the fictional world, while robbing you of the opportunity to write your own memorable quote for the situation.

In short: By using a real-world quote as a literary shorthand, you sacrifice the quality of your work and the originality of your world. Unless you've crafted a world where the quoting character specifically is from Earth, don't do this.


I've actually seen this used deliberately, to help establish the character of the... err... character in question.

In the first chapter of The Tales of Paul Twister, we're introduced to Paul, a thief-for-hire in a magical world who's got a bit of a sour, snarky attitude about the world around him in general and his line of work in particular. He's been hired for a job that looks like it'll be easy, and then things go sideways and he decides to turn on his employer. And then we get this:

[The employer] gasped and wheezed. “What are you doing? This is treachery! We had a deal!”

I growled at him in my most menacing tone of voice. “I am altering our deal. Pray that she does not alter it any further.” Yeah, I know. No one in this wretched kingdom is gonna get a reference like that. But it made me sound all badass, which is what I was going for.

And then the reader realizes that a handful of things that seem a bit unusual about Paul so far suddenly make sense: he's "not from around here;" somehow the protagonist in this high-fantasy story is from modern-day Earth.

This may or may not be at all relevant to the story you're working on; simply including it as an example to show that doing something like this can have a valid use in some stories.


This is certainly valid in some contexts, e.g., in a parody, or while leaning on the fourth wall, for example


"And using this device you can communicate if there are any issues." explained Houston.

"Oh, great, but what if I have to fix it first, «Houston, we've had a problem?»"

However, I would advise you against using it if you are not 120% sure it will be received well by the readers, in particular if it breaks the willing suspension of disbelief.

I hope this helps ;-)


Character is in trouble situation on a planet and danger is closing in. He is in a good mood and he is speaking over a com with his mates, quoting: "Houston, we got a problem." But in this universe for example Earth does not exist.

I'm going to edge away from the opinion part and try to focus on the when and why it may be appropriate. As with so many things in writing, this is from personal observation more than it is a decree.

Who is your target audience? Is your story intended to be light reading? Use out-of-universe colloquialisms as you see fit, if you feel they help make a point. Are you writing something more involved, where the expectation is that your audience memorize or visualize your setting? Stick to your setting; it might be disingenuous to your audience otherwise.

What is the focus of your story? Is it a period piece, a walk-of-life in a specific setting? Out-of-universe is not your friend: a slip-up may be forgiven, or it may ruin the experience for your readers. Is the actual setting a story aid, a backdrop more than it is the point of the story, then a brief out-of-universe reference might do the trick.

Out-of-universe references can be a useful tool because they may connect more directly with your audience (1). Used sparingly, they can bring a point across succinctly or effectively. But use them too often, and you're telling the audience that, yeah, this story might have been better in a different setting.

(1) Emphasis on "may" because cultural references, by their nature, require knowledge of the culture in question. "Shall we play a game?" may instill a sense of foreboding in some, and be non-sensical to others.


It very largely would depend on the quote you are using, and how you are using it.

Using 'Houston we've got a problem' on a planet that has no Houston is going to leave the reader a little confused. Using 'Foobar we've got a problem' would fit better, and the reader would understand the context you're likely aiming for.

The thing to be careful of is to avoid making your writing sound clichéd, unless very carefully used reusing quotes can make your writing feel tired. It also robs the story of your involvement.

I'd imagine that if Arnie had used somebody else's quote instead of 'I'll be back' the story would have suffered, and could have been much less successful.


In my opinion it's ok to use such quotes, if an "explanation" is following, like: "He didn't really know, why those words appeared in his mind. They made no sense, but jsut sounded right in this situation."

However, if you use this too often, it surely will break the idea of your story.

  • 4
    This is usually called "hanging a lampshade" and is a duct-tape fix on a problem in your narration you are aware of but have no better way to fix.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 12:25
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    IMHO that would only be appropiate if he came from Earth but he was amnesic. It would be better to reattribute the quote to an in-world character, like a Shakespeare quote to an old writer from your world (that apparently, wrote something similar to Shakespeare in ours ☺).
    – Ángel
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 14:15

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