I'm working on a modern fiction drama in an urban setting. I'm trying to be real in terms of conversation threads--music, movies, drugs, etc. Here's my problem: I've never done a realistic modern drama before. By and large, I'm glowingly positive of the references the characters make (and yet trying hard not appearing to be obviously doing so), but I was wondering if anyone has experience with this. Of course, I'm a poor-as-dirt artist, so I'm not so worried about getting sued as I am about a publisher not being interested without massive revisions. If you have experience, do you think there are taboo subjects? For instance, I'm staying away from anything "Star Wars" because I'm sure George Lucas would show up at my house with a collection box. I live in the U.S., and I'm not really looking for legal advice.

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    A completely different angle on your question: putting in actual names of "modern" music, movies, etc. may fix your story in a very specific time. In five years, 10, 20, this may make your story feel very dated, and if the references are crucial to the plot, your future reader may miss some information. Not necessarily deal-breakers, but things you should consider. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 3 '15 at 11:10

As others have mentioned, the more current a reference, the quicker it goes stale. But that isn't necessarily a reason not to do it. Plato's work is crammed with pop-culture references, and people still read him 2000 years later.

I'm not a lawyer, but I see no reason you would get in trouble via pop culture references unless you're libeling someone, using someone else's character in your work, or quoting a significant portion of someone's else's writing (i.e more than one quick phrase).

In general, lawyers follow the money. In practice, you most likely wouldn't get sued unless you wrote a best-seller or if you were referencing a property that gets misappropriated so often that it's worth having someone on retainer to seek out unauthorized usages.


Legally, short quotes from someone else's work are almost always "fair use" and shouldn't cause you copyright trouble. If you are quoting an entire song, or many pages out of a book, then you can get into trouble. But having a character say "Wow, he looks like Darth Vader" is almost certainly not something you can be sued over.

As you and others note, having characters make pop culture references can certainly make a story sound more "real". And it can be a convenient shorthand. A reference to a well-known song or movie can bring all sorts of images to the reader's mind with one sentence or even a couple of words.

On the other hand, there are at least three drawbacks:

One: As others have mentioned, pop culture references get dated very quickly. Ten years ago Britney Spears was a huge sensation. Do kids today know who she is?

Two: References that are instantly recognizable to you and your friends will be totally unfamiliar to other people. I'm an old man. I have no idea what singers are popular with teenagers today. Rap fans probably couldn't name top country stars and vice versa. Etc. Maybe your potential readers will all be people with musical, cinematic, whatever tastes the same as yours. But you could be shutting out a lot of people who could have enjoyed your story, but who will give it up in frustration because the culture references make no sense to them.

Three: Personally, I find large numbers of cultural references tedious. I quickly find myself saying, "Yeah, yeah, I get it, you like horror movies. Are you trying to tell a story or just drop a bunch of lines from your favorite movies?" I don't know how many others feel the same way, maybe that's just me.

  • In the end, I wrote it the way it played out in my warped brain. Now I'll cross my fingers and pray that my agent and future publisher feel that it's worthy. – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 23:23

I get it... that's the way people talk! especially movie quotes. if someone doesn't 'get' one of my Patrick Bateman quotes or Silence of the Lambs quotes/references, they have no business hanging out with me (being close to Halloween ... these examples come to mind)

"Do you like Huey Lewis & The News?"

"[Fredericka Bimmel] ... oh yeah...was she like ... a big fat chick?"

these sort of quotes are so tightly bound to popular culture; as you've assumed there is no real legal risk in having your characters drop quotes or lines from songs in their dialogue.

they aren't "significant enough in comparison to the body of the original work," to be legitimately actionable; ok that's the only phrase in legal-ese in this answer.

if you'll recall, Silvio Dante aka The Soprano Family Consigliere aka the bass player from The E-Street Band was constantly dropping quotes from "*The Godfather" trilogy in the script. My assumption is that David Chase wrote in Steven Van Zant's over-referencing of the film because Van Zant dropped these lines all the time to amuse himself and Chase picked on its organic useful-ness in the writing of this series. At no time would Chase Films or HBO be under any threat of litigation for this... if anything the copyright holders probably saw revenue off the "modern references," bringing a whole new generation into the fold of people who love (and quote) the films, especially the 1st two.

By definition; nothing should ever be "off-limits" to a writer. Topics are bounded only by the writer (and editor/mktg/publisher/legal/proofreader as appl) only limits I have for myself is that the idea of kids getting hurt really bothers me, so it's rare that a fictional character in one of my stories would do this; even one designed to be despicable.

This, of course, doesn't stop me in my non-fiction work from attacking what we call "blue-banders" or "cho-mo's" in the LA/OC Metro area.

I hope that I define the "progressive, open-minded thinker" that is only an extreme conservative when it comes to The Constitution. Therefore; taboo subjects do not exist.

the more your characters speak like real people do, on the street, in the present, the more understandishable your dialogs be...and the more your audience connect with your characters on a realistic/emotional level. if any of this makes sense you're on the right track, Stu.

  • Thank you, both. As to the dated feeling, it occurred to me early in the process. However, as hard as I tried, the story worked better this way. I might be able to get away with a year or two ambiguity, but then I was like 'Screw it. Let my agent or publisher bong it.' There are some examples from best-selling authors (Clancy and Grisham, for example) making an explicit timeline, but in general I agree with you and am going to roll the dice (or face a six-month delay in rewriting). The second answer is what I was hoping to hear. I was even thinking about making an index. – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 13:05
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    If by "there are no taboos" you mean that there is no subject a writer could discuss that should result in his books being banned or the writer being imprisoned, I absolutely agree. But there are plenty of subjects that a writer could discuss that make me not continue reading the book. I've read books that go into graphic, detailed descriptions of a character defecating or vomiting. I find that just unpleasant. I don't want to read it. I've read books that glorify evil, like praising communists as the saviors of the world. I read non-fiction books that I totally disagree with, and ... – Jay Nov 3 '15 at 22:04
  • ... occasionally influential novels, on the "know your enemy" philosophy. But in general I just throw such books away. I'm not interested. My point being: Sure, you're completely free to write books that anger or disgust 90% of your potential readers. But then don't be surprised when you don't have a lot of readers. – Jay Nov 3 '15 at 22:05
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    Stu -- you are welcome. @Jay +1 for buffeting my answer from an audience POV; which, ultimately far outweighs any writer's or editors opinion. Toilet-humor isn't for everyone -- I enjoy a good dick/s#!t/fart/@$$ joke as much the next guy, but when becomes a centralized theme? --> the story is lost on me. The pg-flipping stops. if that's going to happen to one, even 10 percent of my readers, but the offensive subject in question is crucial to the story; it stays. so +1 for the appended comment and for remembering the most important editor -- the audience. – Tapper7 Nov 11 '15 at 5:06

Another way of thinking is that many writers avoid references to pop culture for fear of dating their work.

If you were watching a Humphrey Bogart movie and it referred to President Roosevelt, you would go, "Wow! That's a long time ago!" Because their is no such reference in Casablanca, it is a timeless classic, despite being set in word war II.

My $.02 worth.

  • Yes. My issue with time ambiguity is based on a few seminal events in my story. It's a year-in-the-life sort of thing. I could increase ambiguity by decreasing specificity. The more I do so, the bigger the rewrite, and the more watered down The story gets. But thanks for the input, that was a good example. – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 14:34
  • Excellent. I'll take a few more ideas/suggestions/answers then close the question – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 22:16
  • Here's another tidbit: In the story, one of the peripheral characters decides to quote an entire stanza from a song--about six lines. Although the Constitution gives me the right to do so, if this book does even OK, somebody's going to come with their hand out. Should I contact the artist ahead of time? (I'm planning to, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.) – Stu W Nov 3 '15 at 22:29
  • I agree with the basic idea. but Casablanca isn't the best example. The story is very clearly and explicitly set during World War 2. The whole idea of a French resistance fighting Nazis pretty much makes it clear that it's not set in 2015. – Jay Nov 11 '15 at 15:17
  • @Jay It was the example that came to me that most people would recognize. I'm sure I could come up with a better one if I studied on it. – Thom Nov 12 '15 at 12:34

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