How to Use Allusions in Your Writing

The topic of how to properly use allusions came up the other day, when a friend of mine asked my opinion on references. “Allusion, Michael,” I replied. “A reference is something a comedian does for money.” Still, the question piqued my interest. Allusions are a common literary device, especially in contemporary fiction, but the question of how to use them well is rarely raised in writing workshops or classrooms. That’s why today we’ll be looking at the humble allusion to see what it is and how it can be a useful tool in any writer’s toolbox.

What is an Allusion?

At its most basic, an allusion is a way of bringing something to mind without directly stating it. For example:

As the car passed into the small town of Elsinore, he finally realized that his father was really and truly dead.

“Elsinore” is the city Hamlet famously takes place in, making it an allusion to Hamlet. There are many reasons to use allusions, but this example demonstrates one of the most popular: implying a connection between two things. The implication is that the situation of the grieving son in the example is somehow parallel to Hamlet grieving for his father and the reader is expected to keep that connection in mind as the story develops. It may be used for foreshadowing, implying tragedy and madness later in the narrative, or it might simply be the writer’s acknowledgement of his sources. In either case, the allusion is a useful tool that can be used to manage the reader’s expectations.

Allusions can also be used as a sort of idiomatic short-hand. For example:

The thief spent his time in a ugly, grimy pub, surrounded by his merry men.

The phrase “merry men” brings to mind the English folk hero, Robin Hood. Since Robin Hood is a man that robs from the rich to give to the poor, the readers will be expecting the thief to have similar qualities. Whether this expectation is supported or subverted, it will still stand as a way of implying certain qualities about the character very quickly.

How Do You Use Allusions?

But even though allusions can be useful, they can also be misused quite easily. The danger comes from the fact that an allusion is only useful as long as someone notices it and since an allusion can often be dependent on someone having a similar cultural experience, they can just as easily exclude your audience from understanding your work if you are not careful. For example, for anyone that has never seen the American television show Arrested Development, the joke in the first paragraph is a bit of odd and out of place nonsense.

This is why it is important to consider what type of audience you want before using allusions in your writing. If you only are writing to a bunch of American nerds, constant allusions to obscure Image comic books will probably be fine, but if you are writing to an international audience, you might want to reconsider alluding to old SNL skits.

The important thing to do is experiment and find out what works for your style of writing. As long as you’re thoughtful and deliberate about the use of allusions in your work, there shouldn’t be any major problems. Have fun with them and if all else fails, read something by the poet T.S. Eliot and do the exact opposite of that.

Next time, we’ll take a look at swearing, sex, and violence by discussing how to decide what’s appropriate content for your work. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

If you want to ensure the allusions in your manuscripts are firing at full power, stop by Wordsmith Essays’ order page today, where our team of international editors will be more than happy to give your work a through check.


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