So sometimes I get an idea that forms specifically around some aspect of pop culture. They're often song lyrics. If the reader knows the song, they appreciate the symbolism and allegory or whatever other crazy stuff I didn't quite intend but they decided to see in it, and if they don't know the song they go "it's nice, but what was that song?" Granted that I have eclectic tastes in music, but this has even happened with Elton John lyrics.

SO how do I approach referencing something that a good portion of my readers won't be familiar with?

  • What medium are you working in? Novel, short story, web fiction, fanfiction, blog? Commented Mar 6, 2011 at 23:03
  • 1
    Well, I dabble in a couple different mediums, but this issue is mostly a problem for short stories. With longer works or continuing works you can set things up earlier and make the reference be to your set-up instead of to the original piece, and with fanfiction the entire thing is a pop culture reference. But when I'm writing something, say, between 1,000 and 5,000 words, I don't have room to establish anything before introducing the element of pop culture.
    – Turnips
    Commented Mar 6, 2011 at 23:08
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    "If the reader knows the song, they appreciate ... whatever other crazy stuff I didn't quite intend but they decided to see in it" - I'm not clear whether you see this as desirable or undesirable.
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 8:36
  • A small clarification, if you will. You write: I get an idea that forms specifically around some aspect of pop culture. Do you mean that you write stories which are, to some extent, dramatizations or allegories of song lyrics, and knowing the song is basically the key to understanding the story? Or do you mean that within a (stand-alone) story, you sometimes refer to song lyrics, assuming it's clear why they're relevant to whatever's going on, but readers find these references/call-outs to be confusing and unclear?
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 8:53
  • A) Recognizing the song is a good thing. How they interpret the use of it is really case-by-case. B) The second one. The song lyric generally provides some metaphor for what's going on or sets some mood. But that aspect is kind of lost when the reader doesn't know the song.
    – Turnips
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 17:03

2 Answers 2


To a certain extent it depends on how closely entwined your reference is to the intended appreciation of the story. To take the example of a pop song: if you need to listen to the song to really get the story then I would tend to leave that as an unspoken rule. Make sure people get what the song is so they can track down a copy but there's no need to ram it down their throats.

If it goes even deeper so a reader needs to understand things about the artist and the context in which the song was written, what was going on in the news when it attained its highest chart position and other ephemera surrounding the song production the situation changes. In that case you need to evaluate whether your writing could genuinely be seen as an independent piece of work, or if it is, in essence a "bonus feature" to the thing that you're referencing.

In the first case then the best thing to do is to not really mention it explicitly. If people get it then fine otherwise, as it's an independent work in its own right, also fine. Some people will get a little added wrinkle on what is, no doubt, already a fine piece of work. You should, however, be careful to ensure that other readers don't even really think they've missed anything.

If the latter case then be up front to your audience somehow that this is essentially a commentary upon a specific song and "for psycho fans only" (that's a Tenacious D reference by the way).

As long as you give your audience the information they need then nothing is really "wrong".


I can think of two suggestions:

  • Have the character sing or quote the verse you're referencing. If you were to have this brainwave in real life, you'd have to explain it to your friends who haven't heard the song anyway, right?
  • Put the verse as a block in italics as a sort of one-paragraph preface. Stephen King did this in beginning of The Stand.

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