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Literary Devices: Allusion

One of the most powerful literary devices in the writer’s arsenal is allusion. An allusion is a brief mention of an event, person, story, myth, legend, date, etc. that exists somewhere in the cultural knowledgebase of the author’s target audience. Allusions have the power to evoke powerful primal responses in an audience that our words sometimes can’t accomplish.

Just a few examples that most of you will recognize…

pandoras_boxIf I say “She opened a real Pandora’s box,” you know I mean that someone unleashed a host of problems on an unsuspecting world. When we hear “Pandora’s box,” we tend to get a clenched gut and sweaty palms. Curse words leap to our lips, and we know the author is planning a cascade of bad things—all because of two little words.

If I name my terraformed planet “Eden,” you know it’s a paradise unlike any that exists in the current world—and you wonder where the snake is.The very word “Eden” conjures thoughts of unlimited bounty and a world of ease, but also an underlying threat of expulsion. No mythical garden or paradise has ever existed without end; there’s always something that causes its downfall.

If I tell you the lovers are another Romeo and Juliet, you know it can’t end well for them. Whatever your personal feelings about Shakespeare’s play (personally, I believe we should not inflict it on unsuspecting teenagers), you know that any couple referred to as “Romeo and Juliet” is most likely destined to go down in flames. Or poison and knife wounds, at least.

If you write any kind of Earth-based speculative fiction, you have a world of shared history and story at your fingertips. However, if you write speculative fiction set in an alternate world with a completely different history, you can’t use allusions that exist in this world. All of the most popular sources of allusion—the Bible, Shakespeare, Arthurian myths, American tall tales, Greek and Roman mythology—are sort of off-limits to us. I mean, if we’ve created a completely different world, we can’t refer to a couple being another Romeo and Juliet, since there is likely no “Romeo and Juliet” in the world’s shared knowledgebase.

So How Do You Do It?

Never fear—you can still use this powerful literary device, even if you’re operating in another world.

  • Go a little vague. If you want people to think of your lovers as another Romeo and Juliet, refer to them as “star-crossed.” The concept of stars messing with us in malevolent ways is older than any particular story and fairly universal. Similarly, instead of referring to the Golden Rule, you could have characters discuss how to treat other people and have one say something like, “I try to treat others the way I want to be treated.” You’ve summed up the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), but you alluded to it in a short paraphrase that will likely conjure the thought, “oh, the Golden Rule,” in your reader’s mind.
  • Create universal allusions. It’s a little more subtle, but I think you can make an argument that it’s possible to allude to certain universal codes that we have embedded in our psyches and get readers to find their own allusions in your work. What do I mean? Well, say you want to evoke feelings of patriotism in your reader to get the reader to cheer for your protagonist. You can think of events that are significant to your own nation (9/11, the bombing of London in WWII, the attack on Hiroshima, Cinco de Mayo, etc.) and imagine how that might translate to your character. Perhaps he remembers a time when his father had to beat back the horde of invaders at the city gate and gave up his life. Perhaps every time he hears the drums beat out a particular rhythm, he’s overwhelmed with love of country. You don’t really have to create a huge backstory for this—just a few lines that evoke the same kind of emotions you might have based on your cultural knowledge can give your reader a similar response. You tap into something universal—a love of country—by conjuring up the same feelings we all have when our home soil is attacked, and your reader will think, “wow, that’s just like how I felt when Event X happened.”
  • Make up allusions. If you have a really fleshed out world, you can give your world a common knowledgebase with stories, myths, literature, and history that you can then allude to elsewhere in your work. One really good example, I think, is George R. R. Martin’s use of the song Rains of Castamere in A Song of Ice and Fire. The song’s lyrics refer to the destruction of a Westerosi house by TywinLannister, and Tywin loves the song. When Tyrion and Jaime want to remind others of what happens to people who anger TywinLannister, they mention the song. Just the reminder of Tywin’s utter brutality is usually enough to bring others to heel.

The trouble with this is that you have a lot more work to give the allusion the same weight as one that comes from Earth’s common knowledgebase. You first have to create the event, story, character, song, what-have-you, you have to then give it cultural weight, and you have to use it often enough that it provokes an emotional response in your reader. This can certainly be done, but it takes more work, and you have to be careful not to 1) fall too far into exposition and made-up worlds (so much that you forget to tell the story), and 2) overuse the allusion in an attempt to make it “real.”

Allusion is a tricky thing when you’re working with an imaginary world, but hey, you’re a spec fic writer. If a blind Greek poet can do it, so can you.

Next week: a broad look at plot devices and how they can be useful without being clichéd.

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Literary Devices: Allusion, 9.0 out of 10 based on 13 ratings
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4 Comments

  1. eileen says:

    Hey, Amy, great article, as always!

    I think there’s another kind of allusion fantasy writers can use, and that’s the throw-away made-up one that never gets explained. Tolkien did this in LOTR, when Aragorn said that Gandalf was surer of finding his way home than the cats of Queen Beruthiel on a dark night. To my knowledge, Tolkien never explained this reference anywhere, and yet it works, partly because we can all imagine cats finding their way home, even though we never find out their story or who Queen Beruthiel is/was.

    I think unexplained cultural references like this make Middle-earth seem deeper and richer, as if it extends off the page into unexplored vistas… A very cool technique that fantasy writers could use — carefully.

    • I think you’re right–I think that’s possible, and I think it probably would lend a richness and depth to the world. The only thing that might bother me as a reader would be a reliance on those kinds of things. I’d start to wonder if they were important or if I were missing something.

      But that said, I think I did use a couple of similar allusions in my own work. I think they crept in when I wasn’t looking… 😉

  2. Plenty of food for thought here. These kinds of allusion always remind me of the Star trek TNG episode Darmok, where a culture’s entire communication system is based around cultural allusions.

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