by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Have you ever wondered if they watched movies in the world of Star Wars? Or if the superheroes in the Marvel films were aware of DC’s Superman and Batman? Some of the most fun moments in Ready Player One were seeing characters ranging from Freddy Krueger to the Iron Giant co-exist in the same world, as they do in our own. Seeing the characters in a Steven Spielberg film actually be aware of Spielberg’s other movies presented an entertaining existential challenge that worked alongside the larger thematic questions that the film was addressing.
Whether we recognize it or not, when we tell stories, we make constant decisions about the relationships between the world of the story we are creating and the real world we live in. Sometimes we avoid mentioning the sorts of details that make characters most like us – the music they listen to, the TV shows they binge watch, and the movies that inspire their lives. Bringing these pop culture products into a script can be problematic, as they can date a story or isolate an audience that doesn’t feel the same resonance with the film or TV show the character loves. Other times, knowing that a character in a film was impacted by a TV show that impacted us can make that character even more relatable for us.
Here are three questions to consider when including stories inside your own story.
1. Does it help the audience better understand your character?
Any details we include about a character’s preferences should help to reveal who that character is. Knowing that Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft likes jelly beans doesn’t reveal anything about her psyche, though this writer is pretty confident that would be her snack of choice. However, finding out that Wade Watts has a deep knowledge of the Atari 2600 game, Adventure, which was popular decades before he was born, tells us that he pines for something missing in his world. That missing element turns out to be real world connection and becomes significant to the plot.
2. Does it help the audience better understand the world the characters live in?
Instagram is mentioned and seen throughout the film Gemini. Its inclusion reinforces the image driven, celebrity-crazed world that the protagonist, Jill, lives in. It also becomes a significant tool in solving the mystery at the heart of the story. When pop culture phenomena open up the world of the characters and are useful as plot elements, their use feels even more organic. Knowing that Orange is the New Black exists in Dominika’s world in Red Sparrow might be a fun bit of trivia, but doesn’t really tell us anything about the high stakes domain of espionage that she is a part of.
3. Does it cause the audience to ask other questions that will be distracting?
While seeing E.T. exist in the world of Ready Player One is rewarding, we notice that Spielberg was careful not to include X-Men. It could be distracting if we remember that Tye Sheridan, who plays Wade Watts, also played young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse. Including this, while it might be a fun Easter egg, calls out the philosophical problem of whether this film could exist in the world of Ready Player One, since the same actor plays in both. While there could be explanations for this, as storytellers, we don’t want the audience drifting off into philosophical considerations instead of staying engaged with the narrative at hand. Walking the line with including other stories inside our own story can be tricky. When done well, the audience is rewarded and further engaged. When distracting, the audience may lose the through-line of what is happening in the story you are telling and might never return.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.