I’ve been known to describe myself as a member of the Tamarian species.
There is an amazing episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok.” In this episode, Captain Picard meets the Tamarians, a species that the Federation has had absolutely no luck learning to communicate with. Because though the Universal Translator translates the alien language to English, the Tamarian’s word choices make no sense. The Tamarian Captain keeps using the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” which means literally nothing to Captain Picard.
Throughout the course of the episode, it’s discovered that the Tamarians essentially speak using references. Everything the Tamarian Captain says is a reference to some story in his culture, and that’s why Captain Picard couldn’t understand. Because he didn’t know the reference.
I have a habit of speaking like this in every day life. Of filtering thoughts and experiences through stories. This sometimes makes it hard for my friends to understand me, and sometimes I have to stop and explain myself. And that’s fine. Because conversations are a back and forth. I get a chance to explain myself.
Books, movies, and other media, however, do not.
I recently read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is fantastic. I devoured the entire thing in one sitting, needing to know what happened next. However, the entire time I was reading the book I felt like I was missing something. Why? Because the entire book was one long 1980s reference. And as someone who was barely alive in the 80s, most of the references went over my head. Ready Player One isn’t just a SF story about virtual realities. It’s a love letter to the 80s, and that’s something I just couldn’t appreciate like it was meant to be.
In this case the references didn’t throw me out of the story, but they did make it clear that no matter how much I enjoyed the book this book was not written for me.
On the other hand, we have The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It’s not not quite as littered with references, but Harry Dresden lives in the real world and is something of a geek. Everything from the name of his car (the Blue Beetle) to his Mickey Mouse alarm clock (which is adorable) is a reference.
In the latest Dresden File book, one of the climatic moments is a fairly obvious (and very purposeful) Star Wars reference. And every one of these little geeky gems has only served to endear the entire series to me. It makes me feel like Harry Dresden is someone I could be friends with, and above all, I am the intended audience of these books.
That is the danger of references. References are like an inside joke between the author and the reader. When the reader gets that joke, it feels brilliant and special. It’s an instantaneous connection. But when the reader doesn’t, it’s alienating.
And this is why every writer must think carefully before using a reference. We have to ask ourselves why we’re using it, if it’s a reference our audience will understand, and whether the reader will be lost if they don’t understand the reference. Because a lost reader is a reader who may set down a book and never pick it up again, and that is something no author wants.