Author’s Corner: What is an Allusion?

What is an Allusion?

I talked in my last column about allusions in dialogue being one of the questions I get quite often. An allusion is a reference within your work to another work: a book, a film, a piece of artwork, a known quotation, or even a real event.

They’re often used to summarize complex ideas in one quick, powerful image, getting your point across without lengthy paragraphs of description.

Think of it as a kind of shorthand that provides greater meaning to what you’re writing about, by relating it to an already familiar story. I often think of allusion as a kind of modern day hypertext, linking the reader to another thought.

However, good allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event being referenced. While they can be an economical way of communicating, you risk alienating anyone who doesn’t recognize the reference, or making it so hard to decipher your reader finally says the hell with it.

As the writer, the absolute last thing you want is for the reader to leave the story.

Author R.L. Herron

Author R.L. Herron

Common Dialogue Examples

Good allusions are also found in dialogue. How many times in simple dialogue have you heard something referred to as a “Pandora’s Box?” It’s an allusion to Greek mythology.

The box was actually a large jar given to Pandora, which contained all the evils of the world. She was admonished not to open it, but curiosity got the best of her, and all the evil was released when she lifted the lid.

Today the phrase “to open Pandora’s box” is an allusion that means to perform an action that may seem small or innocent, but turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences.

“I was surprised his nose wasn’t growing like Pinocchio’s.” This is obviously an allusion to “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” written by Carlo Collodi, where the character’s nose grew whenever he told a lie. Even schoolchildren know the story.

“She acted like a Scrooge and refused to buy anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, and even some things that were.” Scrooge, as most of you know, was an extremely stingy character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Both allusions help cement the writer’s character in our minds without lengthy exposition. We know quite a bit about the writer’s intent for them from one sentence. Both sentences, you will note, are also comments any character might make in simple dialogue.

Thus, allusion doesn’t have to be something that makes reading difficult. It can be found in some of the simplest sentences.

If you pay attention to the conversations going on around you, the occurrence of allusion is common in our daily speech. “Stop acting like my ex-husband please.” That was an actual remark I overheard at a recent social event.

While the reason behind the statement is unknown, the implication of rudeness and distaste in that single sentence tells us a lot about what one character is really saying to another.

Allusion. A useful tool in a writer’s toolbox.

Next: Metaphors

About R.L. Herron

R.L. Herron, the author of multiple works of fiction, including several Readers' Favorite medal winners, lives and writes in Michigan with his lovely wife, an ugly mortgage, and one extremely large cat. His books are all available on Amazon and online with Barnes & Noble. Visit Author R.L. Herron's Website, Broken Glass.

Comments

  1. Ryan Ennis says:

    I like allusions. But I often hesitate to use them in my writing out of fear I will accused of sounding cliche or trite. Just curious what your thoughts are about that.

  2. Ryan – As I said, good allusions are contingent on the reader knowing about the story or event being referenced. While they can be an economical way of communicating, you risk alienating anyone who doesn’t recognize the reference…and last thing you want is for the reader to leave the story, so use them sparingly. The same is true of metaphors. See my next post about that.

  3. Good columns. Good writing advice. Thanks,

Speak Your Mind

*