Fantastic References and Where to Find Them
Narrative design is a true playground for pop culture junkies. It’s a game inside the game, where like-mindedness is the ultimate currency. The love coming from both the creator and the consumer finds its common denominator in references.
Finding the right reference, the one that clearly communicates the desired pop phenomenon but doesn’t take away from the understanding of the whole, might be difficult to come across. Be it personal prejudices, target group inclinations or shifts in public perception–references find reasons not to work well.
Tale of the Whale
A little while ago a news story appeared on the internet: a fisherman had been swallowed by a whale. Luckily, the whale’s throat was too narrow to allow a human being to pass through, so the fisherman survived and of course became viral. Immediately, I thought of Geppetto, Pinnochio’s father, who also had a close encounter with a whale. The rest of the internet didn’t think so. The star of their memeing frenzy was Jonah, a biblical character, considerably older than the Italian carpenter. This made me wonder: what other seemingly popular themes might have slipped out of the mainstream hivemind?
When you think about it, how many of us have actually read Pinnochio and how many of us only have Disney’s interpretation as their sole reference point? Do, let’s say, American or Japanese children have the same exposure to the story as Italians or their neighbors? How big of a presence does an 80 year old cartoon have in the modern world? What about the original story, double that age?
Harry Potter and The Temptation of Christ
Another thing to consider is how the perception of a piece of art or cultural narrative/production can change with time. Take Gulliver’s Travels, Swift wrote it as a satire, mocking politicians and figureheads of the era but in today’s context, even local historians can’t connect all the dots and catch all the references. On the other hand, the original Dracula by Bram Stoker is so sexist and misogynistic it’s become easy to root for the antagonist from the very start. Fairy tales by the Grimm brothers were sadistic, cannibalistic horror shows before being diluted through generations. Even the interpretations of holidays change through time. Halloween used to be about the seasonal harvest and nature, instead of children and candy. Every narrative changes with time, and it’s not only important to keep track of the changes, but also to be aware of the evolution of the concept. In the 21st century–that’s a lot of information.
What does it all mean? Are we living in a world where the Bible and Harry Potter are the only viable references available? Well. Yes and no.
The thing is, not all of the subtext must be read into. The solution is to make it function without relying on its meaning.
If you try to search for universal references, back to Hogwarts it is. But make the context work without recognizing the reference, this will allow you to play with all kinds of niche stuff. For example, let’s look at the Pixar film Soul. The protagonist’s phone rings at one point in the movie, where Jazz lovers could recognize Charlie Mingus’ The Clown. For others, it was just a ringtone. It made no difference in the grand scheme of things but both sets of moviegoers enjoyed the ride. However, it did make those jazz enthusiasts feel special without taking anything away from the rest. That is good narrative design.
Shake your Honeymaker
That’s all there is to it: making people feel special. Universal references are a myth, the world’s outgrown them. Hence, the challenge shifts to a new playing field. Many subtle references are hard to weave into one piece of work but the result is worth it: making people feel special and connected by addressing their particular affinities. Narrative design, from this perspective, becomes a lot like an apiary, constantly tending to a plethora of small, seemingly insignificant pieces that create a beautiful whole, a beautiful story–in the end, providing honey.