Inspiring Reader Allusions

When the local university sponsored a Writer in Residence for anyone from the community to have a free 15 minute appointment with a published writer – I was all over it. That 15 minute appointment taught me how important allusion is.

Allusion: a passing or casual reference, an incidental mention of something either directly or by implication: an allusion to Shakespeare.

The excerpt I sent in was an experiment. I’d written the kind of urban fantasy I wanted to read, but I hadn’t intended to sell it – so I included a few allusions I normally wouldn’t have. I always thought literary allusions were best reserved for works of literary fiction.

In the excerpt, you meet Mrs. Walters-Scott, a rich, garish woman, looked down on by those with ‘old money.’ The allusion to Sir Walter Scott and the popular opinion of his work by his contemporaries was a private self-indulgence for unused research.

The Writer in Residence caught that allusion, but that tuned her reading to look for more.

I named my main male lead Silas because of the supercilious Sssss sound. In one place, Silas pauses in front of a painting featuring a lantern post. I had only intended an allusion to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the lantern post where Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus for the first time. The Writer in Residence nodded. “I can see Lewis, but with the name Silas and the signpost, I immediately thought of Silas Marner by George Elliot.”

I hadn’t wanted to include too many allusions to the classic literature I loved reading, sure no one would ‘get it.’

The Writer in Residence gave me this advice: Write for the people like you, who have read those classics and understand the allusions, but never make the allusion a prerequisite for understanding the story.

Allusion is a very common literary device.

Love Story by Taylor Swift

“You were Romeo, I was a Scarlet Letter…” Of course, she’s alluding to Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. In the video below for Love Story, Swift adds (or the director did) further allusion at moment 2:38 in the video when she plucks cherries from a branch. (You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself.) And those who didn’t catch the allusions still enjoy a song about love at first sight.

American Pie by Don Maclean

This song, released in the early 1970’s, became a hit mostly because of the allusions to contemporary issues and events.

I can’t remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride, But something touched me deep inside The day the music died. I was told he was alluding to the death of Elvis Presley, but popular opinion has this referring to Buddy Holly. Both work, I guess – but this is a risk with allusions at times.

And while the king was looking down, The jester stole his thorny crown. And here, the jester is generally agreed to be The Beatles, stealing the music crown from the King – Elvis.

Allusions to contemporary issues can be very powerful, but also a stumbling block to those unfamiliar with the social and political issues of the day.

Easy ‘A’

This movie is witty and clever. First is the very blatant allusion to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Olive pins a red letter A to her bustier and flaunts her new-found though unearned slutty reputation. But the references to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Demi Moore’s version of the movie The Scarlet Letter “Moore takes a lot of bathes”, Mark Twain, and many others are a lot of fun to catch.

At one point her best friend asks her out. She replies: “Brandon, just a couple of hours ago you told me you were kinsey 6 gay.” This is a reference to the Kinsey Report about male sexuality. On the Kinsey Scale, 6 makes one exclusively homosexual.

Really fun to try and pick them all out.

Blast From The Past

A couple expecting their first child during the Cuban missile crisis go underground for 30 years to survive the ‘fallout.’ Their son is appropriately named Adam – that’s an allusion to the Bible – hope you caught that. Of course, who does Adam meet and fall in love with once the 30 years is up? Eve. Tell me you saw that coming…

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

The latest version of the Narnia classic has the lion, Aslan quoting Christ when he kills the White Witch: “It is finished.” In fact, the allusions in the book to the Bible are quite numerous.

Readers will always bring their own history and experiences into the book with them, but do you purposely include allusions to other works, events or people? Do you feel that allusions add meaning to the story?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

12 comments on “Inspiring Reader Allusions

  1. I do like to use allusions in my stories. Mostly I use it in dialogue and for a humorous effect.

    I was surprised at the explanation of the allusion to “the day the music died” and American Pie. I though it referred to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. And I thought the jester was Bob Dylan.

    But whatever the allusions refer to, it’s a great song. Just shows that every reader taked the allusions and plugs them into their knowledge-base.


  2. Great post! I’ve included some in my current story, Jane Austen and Wizard of Oz (directly and indirectly) and one LOST reference (which none of my critiquers have caught yet but doesn’t impede the understanding of the sentence at all). One indirect allusion I had to make direct because critiquers thought I was using a cliché and not understanding it was a quote (argh!): I had the heroine whisper to herself just as she was about to launch into her made-up cover story: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, eh, Isabelle?” so I had her internalize right before that Sir Walter Scott popped to mind and had her quote the rest of the line.

    I love doing these, but you’re absolutely right, they need to not impede the understanding of the story.

  3. I’d also like to say that allusions should be followed up a bit–no rabbit trails. I’ve read a couple books lately that lead one to believe there will be explanation, or that the hint was given for a purpose–and it comes to naught. This is frustrating for the reader.

    A side note: American Pie was about Buddy Holly (although I think it can work for Elvis).

    Thanks for sharing this. Good advice!

  4. Thanks for stopping by. I’d always heard he was referring to Elvis – but both he and Buddy Holly were dead before I was born so maybe I should have double-checked my facts with someone who had lived that history ?? lol That’s the problem with allusion – when readers ‘don’t get it’ or get it wrong.

  5. I don’t really use allusions in my writing. I have used little shout outs in the witty banter between characters, but I don’t know how many if any will make the final cut. We will see. I do enjoy it when I find it in other books though.

  6. I like to use allusions if they make sense, and if most of the readers will catch them. Sometimes I intentionally add one here and there, but all too often they turn up accidentally. Sometimes because of the setting, sometimes because of my busy subconscious. I’m generally startled when a reader points one out.

    Case in point: My antagonist is a pious, self-righteous man whose original name was Neil Pharis. This was the first name that came to mind and I wrote it into the story without much thought. A beta reader told me I MUST change his name since the allusion was too obvious to be considered clever. Turns out, Neil Pharis’s pious and self-centered family was “The Pharises.” Ha. The reference to Biblical Pharisees was obvious to everyone but the author. Thank goodness for beta readers. 🙂

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