Writing

What Is Allusion in Writing? Learn About the 6 Different Types of Literary Allusions and Neil Gaiman’s Tips for Using Allusion in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 3 min read

An allusion is a popular literary device. Allusions are used to develop characters, frame storylines, and help create associations to well-known works. Allusions can reference anything from Victorian fairy tales to popular culture, and from the Bible to the Bard. Take the popular expression “Bah humbug”—an allusion referencing Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol. The phrase, which is often used to express curmudgeonly dissatisfaction, is associated with the tale’s egregious character, Ebenezer Scrooge.

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What Is Allusion in Writing?

In literature, an allusion is a figure of speech that refers to a famous person, place, or historical event—either directly or through implication. The origin of the word allusion is in the Latin verb “ludere,” which means to play, mimic, mock, or deceive.

Allusion is not to be confused with foreshadowing, which is a reference to something that has not happened yet. Both are used to give readers more insight; however, while allusion is used to create context, foreshadowing is used to create tension.

How Is Allusion Used in Writing?

Allusions are used as stylistic devices to help contextualize a story by referencing a well-known person, place, event, or another literary work. These references do not have to be explicitly explained; more often than not, writers choose to let readers fill in the blanks.

6 Different Types of Literary Allusions

In studying the allusive references in Virgil’s poem “Georgics,” academic R.F. Thomas distinguished six different types of literary allusions with varying degrees of obscureness:

  1. Casual reference. An offhand allusion that is not integral to the plot.
  2. Single reference. The viewer or reader is meant to infer the connection between the work at hand and the allusion.
  3. Self-reference. A reference by the writer to another work of their own.
  4. Corrective allusion. A comparison that is openly in opposition to the source material.
  5. Apparent reference. An allusion that seems to recall a specific source, but challenges that source.
  6. Multiple references or conflation. A variety of allusions that combine cultural traditions in a single work.

How Do You Use Allusion in Writing?

Writers can use allusions to build trust with their readers, contextualize characters, and to help disclose mysterious plot points. Here are some ways allusions can help to support a story:

  • Character development. Using well-known figures as character inspiration can help to define characters and associate familiarity with the reader. For example, King Triton in The Little Mermaid bears resemblance to Poseidon, the god of the sea.
  • Context. An allusion to another work can delineate differences or similarities between the two. The 1999 film The Matrix draws parallels with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The film’s protagonist, Neo, follows a character called the “White Rabbit Girl” to a mysterious underworld, much like Alice’s journey to Wonderland.
  • Exposition. Allusions can be used to help piece together thrillers or mysteries, offering readers clues that intimate other stories. In Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, allusions to Shakespeare’s Macbeth foreshadows the story’s plot and the motivations of its characters.

Neil Gaiman’s Tips for Using Allusion in Writing

Author Neil Gaiman often includes allusive references in his works to provide context and generate interest in specific topics, and they are just as wide-ranging as his storytelling interests, referencing Egyptian and Greek mythology, Victorian fairy tales, Beowulf and Norse mythology, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and modern cinema, to name a few.

For example, his novel Coraline has similar themes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Gaiman encourages writers to be open to bringing all sorts of inspirations into their work. He advises keeping a list of interesting things and creating a “compost heap” to mine ideas from.

Gaiman offers up these tips to writers who want to use allusions as a jumping off point for a new work:

  • Change point of view. Choose a familiar story, and retell it from the perspective of an alternative character.
  • Modernize themes. Put a contemporary spin on a classic story with a gender-swap, or tell the story through a more modern perspective.
  • Switch a story element. Set the story in a new, surprising locale. For example, the 1980 film In the Snow Queen turned Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale into an opera set in space.
  • Make it yours. Incorporate your own personal history or experience into a familiar story. An example is The Godfather, which weaves the screenwriter Mario Puzo’s family history with elements of Shakespeare’s history play, Henry IV.

Learn more about how Neil Gaiman uses allusions in his work here.