How to Use Allusion in Your Writing

Posted on Aug 2, 2020

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If you need a unique way to deliver an emotion or concept efficiently in your creative writing project, you might try the literary device: allusion.

In this blog, we’re going to:

  • Talk about an allusion is and what they’re used for
  • Look at some examples of allusions in different forms
  • Learn how to use allusions in our own writing

What is Allusion?

An allusion is a figure of speech that indirectly refers to something or someone from another text without specifically mentioning it. An allusion is not something that’s directly focused on in text–it’s more like something the writer mentions in passing, expecting the reader to notice and understand it from general knowledge or common experience.

Using an allusion is a way to simplify the delivery of an emotion or concept–relating a new situation to a situation or thing or person the reader should already be familiar with is a creative shortcut to that connection.

Common allusions are references to characters and events in the bible, in greek mythology, and in classic literary works such as Shakespeare. These figures and events are well-known enough that most readers will understand an allusion to them.

An allusion is different from a reference in that a reference is direct, while an allusion is an indirect reference.

There are two general types of allusion: internal and external.

An external allusion is in reference to something outside the story–a separate text by a different author.

An internal allusion is in reference to something inside the story–the author referring back to something they’d mentioned earlier.

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Allusion Examples

Let’s look at some different forms allusions can take.

Many allusions take the form of a reference to a character. It might be indirect, like in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: Five score years ago, a great American in whose symb­olic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

He’s obviously referencing Abraham Lincoln, but he doesn’t have to say his name. We know from his allusion to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago”) and by the mention of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But sometimes writers will directly refer to a character by their name.

You might hear someone with a sour attitude or selfish tendencies a “Scrooge”. This is an allusion to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a book most American readers are familiar with.

Maybe you’ve read a story where a character called another character by someone else’s name:

  • “Einstein” could be a nickname someone uses for a character who is very smart (or very dumb, if they’re using it sarcastically).
  • “Brutus” or “Judas” might be used if someone has been betrayed.
  • “Nimrod” might be used for a character who is a great hunter (or a very bad hunter).
    Fun fact: Bugs Bunny used the name Nimrod (a Biblical hunter) to make fun of Elmer Fudd. Because the audience didn’t understand the reference, they took context clues and assigned “nimrod” a definition akin to “stupid” or “clumsy”. In modern slang, that’s how “nimrod” is used. This is a good example of what can happen if you use an allusion that isn’t well-known enough for your audience to catch.
  • “Romeo” is often used to refer to a character who’s lovesick or charming. “Juliet” is also used commonly for the female equivalent.

Here are a few more examples:

“Montag stopped eating… he saw their Cheshire cat smiles burning through the walls of the house.” is a quote from Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, alluding to Alice in Wonderland. He doesn’t explain who the Cheshire cat is–he just trusts the reader to understand.

The entire book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is an allusion for the biblical story of Jesus’s crucifixion. 

An allusion so common it’s cliche is saying someone “carries the world on their shoulders.” You may not even recognize it as an allusion, since it’s so widely used. It refers to Atlas, the Greek god portrayed in portraits and sculptures holding up the globe of Earth.

As you can see, allusion takes many forms, and each form does a slightly different job.

How to Use Allusions in Writing

Besides allowing you to make bigger connections with fewer words, you might use an allusion for the feeling of exclusivity it provides–readers who understand what you’re alluding to will feel closer to the story and the writer, feeling they’re in-the-know.

Allusions can also provide a certain legitimacy to a text by grounding it in a universe with another well-known, or in other way successful, piece of literature.

So how should you use allusions in your own writing?

Here are a few guidelines you might follow:

  1. Be careful not to allude to something very obscure. The point of an allusion is that the majority of your audience will understand it. If it’s impossibly niche, it loses value.
  2. Be mindful of what you allude to! If you allude to something modern, like a person who is alive today, you run the risk of the allusion aging poorly. For example, allusions to Woody Allen or Mike Tyson might not be taken the same way that they were pre-exposure of their crimes.
  3. Try not to use an allusion where, if your reader doesn’t understand it, the entire scene or line doesn’t make sense. There’s no allusion or reference you can make that EVERY reader would understand–just be sure the sentence or scene still makes sense, even without the inside knowledge. (Think about Bugs Bunny using “Nimrod.” Most viewers didn’t understand it, but they knew it was an insult.)

Allusions are great for making quicker connections between your subject and reader, spicing your story with an exciting and familiar reference, and giving legitimacy by grounding your text in the same universe as successful media works. Use them carefully, like with anything else in your writing, and enjoy the benefits!

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