In the last couple of weeks, I’ve mentioned allusions a couple times (“A Book Review: Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves” and “I’m Going To Be Doing This All Day“), but I never really explained what they were (sorry!). An allusion is basically a reference to something else. It could be a reference to a famous work of literature, a movie, a song, a famous person from history, or just about anything the audience might recognize. They’re kind of inside jokes to the educated audience. They give the reader a little thrill (I know about that!), and they’re great for adding layers of meaning to a piece.
Here are a few examples to show how they can be used in fiction and nonfiction, starting with one that basically tells the audience that it’s an allusion
“I’d love you in war and peace – or Moby Dick, any of the classics.” – Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H
At first, he was talking about literal war and peace, but then, he mentions Moby Dick to change the original statement into an allusion to War and Peace (and a pun). The lightning quick humor and educated references are a huge part of the characterization of Hawkeye.
In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss peppers her explanation of punctuation with rapid-fire references that add humor like Hawkeye’s banter yet aren’t pointed out as allusions.
“Who cares if members of your family abhor your Inner Stickler and devoutly wish you had an Inner Scooby-Doo instead?”
If you know who Scooby-Doo is, this makes perfect sense and pretty much fits most people’s reactions to grammar sticklers. If you don’t know who Scooby-Doo is, you get a vague idea that it’s someone who’s less harsh about grammar, and you keep reading. Not understanding doesn’t keep you from grasping the big idea, but you probably won’t get the joke.
That’s the reason it’s dangerous to base too much of your story on an allusion. If the story isn’t interesting or understandable without knowing the allusion, you’re risking losing a good portion of your possible audience. It’s much safer to use allusions to add meaning and humor but not to rely on them for the big idea.
For example, you don’t need to understand the subtle allusions to Firefly in Castle (both aural and visual) – it’s definitely fun for those who do though!