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Talking about movies, books, music, etc. in stories.


DavidAB

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Hi,

I have a question. In my new story I let the characters listen to a band for a couple of pages. The main character describes the music, the effect it's having on him and they talk about it for a while. I think people who know the band will be able to relate to it, but I'm worried that people who don't know the band might feel left out.

 

So my question is, how should I handle talking about movies, books, music, etc. in my stories? Does it add realism? Can it make people feel left out?

 

And when I talk about movies or books for example, how much should I reveal about the plot? Because I don't want to "spoil" anything for the readers who haven't seen/read it yet, but on the other hand they have to know what it's about in order to understand the reaction of the charaters. That's especially tricky when the characters talk about the ending of somthing and react to it.

 

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Interesting question...one of the tenants of a liberal education is that a knowledge of essential literature, art, philosphy, science, music and history are common for all educated people.  Short-hand references can be assumed to be appreciated.  There is a certain snobbish superiority to members of this club and disdain for those that don't get the references.  But time moves on.  The incredible breadth of mankind's expression across all world cultures is beyond common knowledge.

 

So back to your question, any specific reference will define a group of insiders, members of that club.  There will be socio-economic, generational, regional, and taste-based borders.  Universal appeal is probably not possible, but what an opportunity to share a different form of art and culture.  I say make the specific reference, but add a footnote (yikes, is this high school?) guiding the reader to an original source for their own enrichment.

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Sometimes I include a youtube link, this way the readers can get to know the band or movie if they are interested.

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I enjoy pop culture references in fiction, and tend to include some in a lot of my stories. Such references very quickly become idiomatic, especially among your people, that not having them in dialogue feels somehow amiss. Music is also, quite often, very important to my characters, so it would seem wrong not to have them talk about it or listen to it, especially considering that music is so important to me. And of course, the wonderful thing about the Internet is that people can look these bands up.

 

There are many published authors who reference music, films and literature in their work. Neil Gaiman tends to include strings of song lyrics. John Green tends to have at least one band and at least one classical work of literature play a significant part in his books. 

 

That said, when we're talking about more than the odd mention, when you have your characters go very in depth about a band or a book or a movie or a song, make sure that it's important. It should matter to your plot or your character development. Having your characters listen to music and then explain how the music makes them feel is a great way for readers to get into your characters' heads, but be careful not to go too much into the specifics of things. If your reader doesn't know anything about what you're referencing, they may find it tedious.

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One author I follow right here on GA writes about the guys in a wedding band and their personal interactions. He frequently names songs and how they are affecting the characters moods, and their gigs. I usually find myself pulling them up on Youtube to see what they are talking about. I've enjoyed many that I would not have even run across otherwise. I love Aditus' idea about including a link if the song is particularly important to the story!

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One author I follow right here on GA writes about the guys in a wedding band and their personal interactions. He frequently names songs and how they are affecting the characters moods, and their gigs. I usually find myself pulling them up on Youtube to see what they are talking about. I've enjoyed many that I would not have even run across otherwise. I love Aditus' idea about including a link if the song is particularly important to the story!

I, too, follow this story but I'm on the other end of the stick. For the most part, I found the naming of the music intrusive and distracting to the point of needing to decide if I was going to continue reading. In the end I decided to - gloss over / blank out / read past - in no specific order those portions not directly relevant to the bands performance, and found that I still enjoyed the writing.

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One thing I'll warn is that the danger of featuring a song done by a singer-of-the-moment or a hip group-of-the-moment is that they might not be so hip and trendy 5 years from now or 10 years from now. So many forms of pop culture -- TV shows, movies, music, even best-selling fiction -- could seem very dated after a while. As long as you know that going in and don't have a problem with it, it's not a problem.

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I just don't find it appealing for an author to do this huge product dump in their writing. I could care less if I know every brand of underwear they put on during the story, or every sneaker, every song they listen to, etc. So like everything, it should be done in moderation and within the framework of the story. If the character is extremely rich for example, then explaining the nicer high-end things he or she has, fleshes them out. But again, only in small doses. It's not that difficult to get readers to comprehend, "oh they're rich," so...

 

As far as being careful about it, I don't see it being a big deal either way. You can date your writing by picking out certain songs, but that can give your story some realism and depth. Having a character that enjoys the same thing that's currently going on, for example: my character's first Male/Male kiss happened whilst they were sitting in a living room watching Avatar (the blue aliens not the air bender), so that is a cultural reference that could easily become dated, but it added something, especially in one or two later scenes. Although it was a large pop-culture monster, it came and went and not a whole lot of people are still talking about it. :D

 

But there's an Oj's Glove reference in the story as well, so. :P 

 

If anything is done within the flow of the story, that doesn't become a distraction, or is overly used, is likely good for the story, though. So I wouldn't worry too much about it. 

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I think doing it in moderation is what makes it memorable. In Nemesis, Dave gives Nick his Diesel leather jacket. I believe this is the only branded piece of clothing that's mentioned in the whole story, and it features throughout the story. So, when I write 'the Diesel jacket' my readers will think, 'Oh, yeah, the one Dave gave him.' That effect would be lessened if I got into a lot of detail about all the clothes they wear, and it would lose its significance. Also, while Nick does listen to a lot of different bands and artists, and several of them are mentioned by name, the only one whose songs I go into detail about is Placebo, Nick's big heroes. That way, readers know that if I mention a song by name it's likely to be one of Placebo's songs, and they can choose for themselves whether it should be relevant to the story or not.

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I just don't find it appealing for an author to do this huge product dump in their writing. I could care less if I know every brand of underwear they put on during the story, or every sneaker, every song they listen to, etc. So like everything, it should be done in moderation and within the framework of the story. If the character is extremely rich for example, then explaining the nicer high-end things he or she has, fleshes them out. But again, only in small doses. It's not that difficult to get readers to comprehend, "oh they're rich," so...

 

I think it depends. One of the first authors I know of who specifically mentioned brand names in fiction was Ian Fleming with his classic 1950s and 1960s James Bond novels, and I had no problem with it. Was Bond driving a generic high-speed race car, or was it an Astin-Martin? Did he have a generic expensive watch, or was it a Rolex Submariner? Was he shooting a generic gun, or was it a Walther PPK? 

 

So sometimes, the occasional mentions of brand names are interesting and lend credibility to the story. I don't have a problem with it if some nuggets like this are tossed in from time to time. One can make a good argument that any method used to push verisimilitude into the story is worthwhile, provided it pushes the plot forward and doesn't become intrusive. 

 

Me, I've got characters listening to Apple iPods and wearing Nike T-shirts, and I don't have a problem with it. It's just there, it's mentioned, and we move on. I think brand names are just one of a thousand facets of storytelling, and far from the most important.

 

Music and movies are more problematic, simply because (as I said before) it dates the story. If somebody's listening to a 98 Degrees song rather than a One Direction song, we're clearly not in the present... for most people. 

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I agree with Kitt and Aditus, and others, in that it can actually help to expose people to new music and new films, books, etc, because this is the internet and you can find anything. I also agree that too much "product placement" can be aggravating to the point where i will stop reading - but that is usually because the said "product placement" has nothing to do with the actual story. if the particular song is important, then name it because it matters. Personally, I wouldn't worry about how it 'dates' the story. One of my favourite books, Desert Sons, talks a lot about music (one of the MC's in in a band) and their putting stuff down on tapes and no one has a mobile phone. Everything will 'date' your story - good stories transcend that and are relevant whenever they are read. 

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I think it depends. One of the first authors I know of who specifically mentioned brand names in fiction was Ian Fleming with his classic 1950s and 1960s James Bond novels, and I had no problem with it. Was Bond driving a generic high-speed race car, or was it an Astin-Martin? Did he have a generic expensive watch, or was it a Rolex Submariner? Was he shooting a generic gun, or was it a Walther PPK? 

 

So sometimes, the occasional mentions of brand names are interesting and lend credibility to the story. I don't have a problem with it if some nuggets like this are tossed in from time to time. One can make a good argument that any method used to push verisimilitude into the story is worthwhile, provided it pushes the plot forward and doesn't become intrusive. 

 

Me, I've got characters listening to Apple iPods and wearing Nike T-shirts, and I don't have a problem with it. It's just there, it's mentioned, and we move on. I think brand names are just one of a thousand facets of storytelling, and far from the most important.

 

Music and movies are more problematic, simply because (as I said before) it dates the story. If somebody's listening to a 98 Degrees song rather than a One Direction song, we're clearly not in the present... for most people. 

 

Ian Fleming was the first author to use "product placement" and it worked because it was shorthand to understanding the character - who was essentially Fleming himself, doing an aspirational wish fulfillment number - a social snob who coveted expensive brands as a visible means to display his status and tastes. Incidentally the car was an old Bentley, not the Aston Martin of the films :)

 

You're right about what might be termed "cultural references" dating the story - as the saying goes, nothing dates quicker than fashion :P  A neat way around this is to set the story in the past. That way the writer knows which references had "legs" - or, even better, became iconic - and readers will already know or, if they don't, they're still worth looking up because their quality has been proved over time. Or you can do something like Nick Hornby did in High Fidelity and use references from the past that link to events in the past integral to the story plot.

 

Otherwise, using very current stuff writers risk their work seeming quaint, dated and "old" very quickly.

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Heavy brand placement in stories usually acts for me as a signal that either the character is very status symbol-conscious or the author is. Sometimes the two even merge, like Kay Scarpetta and Patricia Cornwell. If the writer's not very aware of what she's doing, I get alienated by it pretty quickly. 

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Yes, now it does because it's everywhere and it's pretty much all driven by cynical money-making. Fleming can be forgiven because he was the first, he got no endorsement kick-backs and there was a reason. But you need to read the Bond books - not see the movies - to understand why he did it. Both he and the JB character craved social status that they believed top brand products conferred. That was the whole point. You also need to understand the books started soon after the end of WWII when Britain, unlike the US, was a country pretty much ruined by war and in the grip of austerity and rationing. So it worked very well with the British readers it was aimed at who wanted pure escapism from their dismal daily lives into what was then the inconceivably glamorous world of Rolex Oyster Perpetual, Bentley, Château Mouton Rothschild, Taittinger, Krug...  Luckily for Fleming, he chose timeless brands which are as aspirational today as they were then so those cultural references have not dated the novels. But references to movies, books and music won't have the same enduring grab years later.

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