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How To Use Allusion Like Taylor Swift

Last week, I read an article about Taylor Swift, whom I knew nothing about except that she apparently wears Converse, sits on the bleachers, and doesn’t wear short skirts.

The article mentioned that Taylor will often write songs about her celebrity ex-boyfriends, like that guy who always takes his shirt off in the Twilight movies, and one of those kids in that Disney channel band—Jonah-something-or-other—and the tool-of-all-tools, John Mayer (he can play a mean guitar, though).

Apparently, Taylor Swift puts secret codes into her songs to give hints to her fans about the identity of the celeb she’s singing about, like capitalizing letters in her liner notes that spell out their first name.

Taylor Swift Chalkboard

Like the line of her song “Better Than Revenge” which says, “She’s an actress. She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress.” That one was about Camilla Belle who allegedly stole the little Jonas Brothers kid from her.

Her fans (who call themselves Swifties. Great right? My fans will be called Bunties) go nuts for this kind of stuff. They scour through her liner notes with magnifying glasses, trying to crack the code. Who is this one about? Which teen celebrity is she talking about here?

Taylor Swift Meets Cormac McCarthy

That’s the power of allusion. In literature, an allusion is a brief reference to another piece of work. It’s powerful because it makes the people who crack the code feel like they’re in the club, like they’ve been introduced into a secret world in the artist’s mind.

Here’s an example from the first page of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:

His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.

Did you get the allusion? Try reading it again.

Still didn’t get it?

Ok, let’s do a bit of detective work. Go to BibleGateway.com and search for “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in the King James Version (don’t read further until you’ve done it—that would be cheating!).

In Joshua 9, we see that the Hivites deceived the Israelites into making a pact with them even though God told the Israelites to destroy them. When they found out they were deceived, the Israelites made the Hivites their slaves, people to chop wood and carry water.

What does that mean in Cormac McCarthy’s novel? It means two things, the main character is deceptive and white trash.

But you might ask, Who would possibly get that? It’s so obscure!

I would answer, Exactly!

The few people who figure the allusion out feel elite and sophisticated. Possessing knowledge that someone else is missing is one of the most powerful feelings in the world. All those Swifties are enraptured with a teenage country singer who doesn’t have that great of a voice (I just listened to “Mean“—which is, according to commenter Chels, about a music critic, by the way—and felt bad I said that. Sorry Taylor. I think you’re awesome. Hugs.), and a big part of it is because they know things about a celebrity that no one else knows.

One of the reasons McCarthy is my favorite novelist is because I know that reference above and you didn’t. Exclusivity is an irrational and powerful thing.

PRACTICE

The most alluded to book in history is the Bible. Flip through your King James Version (or use BibleGateway.com) and pick a detail from a random verse. Then, practice alluding to it by writing a story about a teenage country singer on the road.

Write for fifteen minutes or so, and post your practice in the comments when you’re finished.

See ya Partner ;)

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://sarachoe.com sara choe

    i will get to this eventually. i should be wrapping up some copy about our college missions trip locations for fall ’12.

    “I know that reference above and you didn’t. Exclusivity is an irrational and powerful thing.” — i’d never heard of mccarthy. so, you got the exclusivity thing in spades, my friend.

    - sara choe, buntie.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! Thanks Sara. You made my day.

  • http://sarachoe.com sara choe

    i will get to this eventually. i should be wrapping up some copy about our college missions trip locations for fall ’12.

    “I know that reference above and you didn’t. Exclusivity is an irrational and powerful thing.” — i’d never heard of mccarthy. so, you got the exclusivity thing in spades, my friend.

    - sara choe, buntie.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! Thanks Sara. You made my day.

  • Guest

    The tour bus pulled into the hotel parking lot at about a quarter to six. They had arrived right on schedule. The manager reminded them they had a couple of hours before rehearsal and to meet back at the bus at eight sharp. The three members of the band, Huey, Dewey, and Louie immediately unloaded their instruments and luggage in their assigned rooms and headed straight for the hotel lounge.

    Meanwhile, Naylor Quick, the country’s hottest teenage sensation was still on board the bus quietly tweeting her fans, “Super excited about tomorrow nite. I <3 NY.” Naylor had groupies, lovingly called Quickies, in every city in America. So as she prepared to disembark the tour bus, her body guards prepared for the mayhem.

    From the window of the bus, Naylor’s posse estimated a mob of at least a hundred Quickies in the hotel parking lot. Her manager/father had instructed her body guards to pay close attention to the men in the crowd. Ms. Quick had a way of attracting a certain type of man. Her father said they were the kind of men who took fire in their bosom. He laughingly said, “If you see smoke coming from their clothes, take ‘em down!”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Huey, Dewey, and Louie? Naylor Quick? Quickies?!?! Really Tom? :)

      Nice reference, Proverbs 6, right?

      “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adultress will hunt for the precious life. Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?”

      Does that make Naylor Quick the whorish woman?

      And that last line! Hilarious. I love to see you in all your sarcastic glory.

      • joco

        Running low on caffeine this afternoon, cut me some slack :)

        Very impressed with your elite knowledge of the Bible (or use of BibleGateway.com)

        My first plan was to make H,D and L men with fire in their bosom, but they quickly turned into drunks, so I decided Naylor was probably a little slutty when daddy wasn’t around.

        BTW, I totally agree with your statement, “All those Swifties are enraptured with a teenage country singer who doesn’t have that great of a voice.” I think this allusion thing may be the secret to her success.

      • joco

        At about 3:00 this morning I woke up and realized Naylor Quick sounded like “Nail her, quick!” So to answer your question, Ms Quick is the whorish woman.

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          My neighbors at the coffee shop are looking at me funny because I just snorted into my cup. Then, as I typed this out to you, I giggled madly again.

      • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

        That last line tore me up! I loved everything about this story.

  • Anonymous

    The tour bus pulled into the hotel parking lot at about a quarter to six. They had arrived right on schedule. The manager reminded them they had a couple of hours before rehearsal and to meet back at the bus at eight sharp. The three members of the band, Huey, Dewey, and Louie immediately unloaded their instruments and luggage in their assigned rooms and headed straight for the hotel lounge.

    Meanwhile, Naylor Quick, the country’s hottest teenage sensation was still on board the bus quietly tweeting her fans, “Super excited about tomorrow nite. I <3 NY.” Naylor had groupies, lovingly called Quickies, in every city in America. So as she prepared to disembark the tour bus, her body guards prepared for the mayhem.

    From the window of the bus, Naylor’s posse estimated a mob of at least a hundred Quickies in the hotel parking lot. Her manager/father had instructed her body guards to pay close attention to the men in the crowd. Ms. Quick had a way of attracting a certain type of man. Her father said they were the kind of men who took fire in their bosom. He laughingly said, “If you see smoke coming from their clothes, take ‘em down!”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Huey, Dewey, and Louie? Naylor Quick? Quickies?!?! Really Tom? :)

      Nice reference, Proverbs 6, right?

      “Lust not after her beauty in thine heart; neither let her take thee with her eyelids. For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adultress will hunt for the precious life. Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Can one go upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned?”

      Does that make Naylor Quick the whorish woman?

      And that last line! Hilarious. I love to see you in all your sarcastic glory.

      • Anonymous

        Running low on caffeine this afternoon, cut me some slack :)

        Very impressed with your elite knowledge of the Bible (or use of BibleGateway.com)

        My first plan was to make H,D and L men with fire in their bosom, but they quickly turned into drunks, so I decided Naylor was probably a little slutty when daddy wasn’t around.

        BTW, I totally agree with your statement, “All those Swifties are enraptured with a teenage country singer who doesn’t have that great of a voice.” I think this allusion thing may be the secret to her success.

      • Anonymous

        At about 3:00 this morning I woke up and realized Naylor Quick sounded like “Nail her, quick!” So to answer your question, Ms Quick is the whorish woman.

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          My neighbors at the coffee shop are looking at me funny because I just snorted into my cup. Then, as I typed this out to you, I giggled madly again.

      • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

        That last line tore me up! I loved everything about this story.

  • Chels

    mean is about a music critic (don’t remember his name…). innocent is about kanye! ;)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Chels! Are you a Swiftie?

  • Chels

    mean is about a music critic (don’t remember his name…). innocent is about kanye! ;)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Chels! Are you a Swiftie?

  • Adriana Willey

    hitting the open road fifty miles out of town, i let out my breath. “the leech has two daughters. omg”, i mutter under my breath. i loosen my grip on the steering wheel and free my hair from it’s tie. control is not so important out here. i let go a little more. foot on the gas, music all the way up, i roll my head to the beat. my hair flies and my thoughts shake loose. more than i realized were there came flying out:

    “if she didn’t freak out so much, i would have told her. i wouldn’t have had to sneak”

    “i’ll never forget the disgust in her face, what she said when she found out.”

    “she wants to keep me prisoner, never let me go”.

    “i swear i hate her. why do i even care?”

    my knuckles are white again. the thoughts are multiplying instead of emptying. things are spinning out and i can’t let them. i must tighten around this ache.

    i step harder on the gas. i need out. i need dark corners of a land she can’t reach to become my home. i need to become a person she can’t reach even more.

    ps. this is my feedback to you. as much as i enjoy your thoughts, i’d love to see some of your practices!! join us!!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Very interesting. I wonder what the fight was about. Was it between her and her mom?

      Corners of a land. Was that your reference?

      I particularly liked this line, “i must tighten around this ache.” I always enjoy it when you put things in a unique way. I don’t think anyone would ever say it like that, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  • Adriana Willey

    hitting the open road fifty miles out of town, i let out my breath. “the leech has two daughters. omg”, i mutter under my breath. i loosen my grip on the steering wheel and free my hair from it’s tie. control is not so important out here. i let go a little more. foot on the gas, music all the way up, i roll my head to the beat. my hair flies and my thoughts shake loose. more than i realized were there came flying out:

    “if she didn’t freak out so much, i would have told her. i wouldn’t have had to sneak”

    “i’ll never forget the disgust in her face, what she said when she found out.”

    “she wants to keep me prisoner, never let me go”.

    “i swear i hate her. why do i even care?”

    my knuckles are white again. the thoughts are multiplying instead of emptying. things are spinning out and i can’t let them. i must tighten around this ache.

    i step harder on the gas. i need out. i need dark corners of a land she can’t reach to become my home. i need to become a person she can’t reach even more.

    ps. this is my feedback to you. as much as i enjoy your thoughts, i’d love to see some of your practices!! join us!!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Very interesting. I wonder what the fight was about. Was it between her and her mom?

      Corners of a land. Was that your reference?

      I particularly liked this line, “i must tighten around this ache.” I always enjoy it when you put things in a unique way. I don’t think anyone would ever say it like that, but I know exactly what you’re talking about.

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  • TB

    joe, i’m always so impressed with your writing. you see the world in a way that is unique yet fascinating.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Why thank you TB ;)

  • TB

    joe, i’m always so impressed with your writing. you see the world in a way that is unique yet fascinating.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Why thank you TB ;)

  • Robear

    Loved your shibboleth.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I “think” I know what that word means. You mean, calling people swifties and bunties?

  • Robear

    Loved your shibboleth.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I “think” I know what that word means. You mean, calling people swifties and bunties?

  • http://profiles.google.com/lialondon.g Lia London

    I think I’ve seen allusion used more often than not as way to INclude people and bring in a shared common experience that makes the author’s job easier. Someone dropping the line, “We’re not in Kansas any more” immediately conjures up Dorothy in the Land of Oz, and with it the idea that all things are about to get really weird. “Et tu, Brutus?” and we flip to Shakespeare’s Caesar, feeling the pain of betrayal by even the closest of friends.

    That, or I miss all the obscure allusions and thus am not part of the elite group! :D

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Exactly, Lia. You feel included, but the person from India who’s never seen the Wizard of Oz is completely lost. Where the heck is Kansas?

      It’s still an inside joke. You get it or you don’t. Those who get it feel included, those who don’t either feel excluded or never knew what they missed.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lialondon.g Lia London

    I think I’ve seen allusion used more often than not as way to INclude people and bring in a shared common experience that makes the author’s job easier. Someone dropping the line, “We’re not in Kansas any more” immediately conjures up Dorothy in the Land of Oz, and with it the idea that all things are about to get really weird. “Et tu, Brutus?” and we flip to Shakespeare’s Caesar, feeling the pain of betrayal by even the closest of friends.

    That, or I miss all the obscure allusions and thus am not part of the elite group! :D

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Exactly, Lia. You feel included, but the person from India who’s never seen the Wizard of Oz is completely lost. Where the heck is Kansas?

      It’s still an inside joke. You get it or you don’t. Those who get it feel included, those who don’t either feel excluded or never knew what they missed.

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  • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

    Here’s my take.

    ……

    She patted her neck with a tiny white cloth. It was hotter than hell out there – probably a hundred degrees or more. She hiked up her dressed just above her knees and stuck out her thumb as he sped by in his ’78 Chevy Nova. Brand new. Burgandy. But he didn’t stop.

    She dropped her arm and her dress and shook her head and started yelling all sorts of profanities as she sat back down on the dusty gravel on the side of the interstate. That was the first car she’d seen in six hours or more. She turned around and looked at her luggage – probably eight or so in all – and said, “I guess I can’t blame him.”

    About five minutes later, she heard the sounds of a hundred horses echoing off the nearby mountains and caught a glimpse of fumes waving like an ocean in the near distance. As his Nova pulled into view, she stood up and crossed one arm around the other and mumbled to herself. “Be damned if he thinks I’m gonna pull up my dress again.”

    His car slowly rolled to a stop.

    “How long you reckon you been out here.”

    “About eight hours, I suppose.”

    He looked beyond her.

    “Why all that stuff?”

    “Cause my car broke down a few hundred yards back.”

    “I know. I saw it. But I was askin’ about the stuff. What’s it for?”

    “Well, if you need to know, I’m movin’ to Los Angeles.”

    He reached to his dashboard and grabbed a box of smokes and tapped it a couple times. He pulled out the car lighter from the middle console and lit a cigarette and turned back and looked at her.

    “They’re going to eat you up over there.”

    “Sir?”

    “What kinda guitar you have in that box over there?”

    “It was my daddy’s. It’s a Fender but it’s probably all gone to hell now cause of this heat.”

    He looked at her dress. Light blue. Then he looked at the luggage again. He closed his eyes and took a deep sigh.

    “They’re going to eat you up over there. No one finds fame in L.A.”

    “Who said I was lookin’ for fame?”

    “You did.”

    “And when did I say that?”

    “When you hiked that lil’ dress of yours.”

    He paused. She huffed.

    “You’re just giving ‘em permission to sift you like wheat, darlin’.”

    “Damned if I do.”

    He laughed.

    “Yes ma’am.”

    She looked to her luggage and back at the man and said, “So you gonna help me or what?”

    He shut off the car and popped the trunk with the flick of a switch and stepped out. He dropped the cigarette on the gravel and smothered it with his alligator boot. Must’ve cost at least a hundred dollars, she thought.

    “I can drop ya in Vegas. That’s the best I can do.”

    “You live in Vegas?”

    “Hell no. Just where my next show is.”

    “You a musician?”

    “Somethin’ like that,” he said as he placed the last piece of luggage in his trunk. He walked to the passenger side and opened the door.

    “Better get in, darlin’. We got a long drive ahead.”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! I love this, Bo! This dialogue, it’s amazing. What was the reference? “Sift you like wheat”? You use interjections really well. I don’t know. It all feels so real, so true. When I want help on my dialogue I’m coming to you!

      • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

        Exactly. From Luke 22:31. Technically, in the King James it’s “sift you as wheat” but I bent the rules slightly and went with the New American Standard instead, which says “permission to sift you like wheat.” It flowed better with my dialogue. It refers to Satan’s intention to influence Peter in the denial of Christ. Pretty powerful stuff.

        Thanks for the kind words. Just trying to write as if I’m standing alongside the characters watching it all unfold myself.

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          Nice. I might steal that one. :)

          That’s interesting. So are you the kind of writer who doesn’t outline your plot before you write? You just put your pen to the paper and see what happens?

          • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

            For the most part, yes. I’ll think about it for some time, trying to get an idea of my characters and then I’ll just start writing – knowing for the most part where I’m going with the story. This has proven to be quite good and quite bad. Good because it’s allowed me to “live in the moment” but bad because I’ve missed a lot of opportunities to make a better story – forgetting key pieces that I wanted to include, etc.

          • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

            Right. It seems like there are trade offs for both. I try to use a hybrid approach. I free write to get ideas and then outline to make a complete story.

  • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

    Here’s my take.

    ……

    She patted her neck with a tiny white cloth. It was hotter than hell out there – probably a hundred degrees or more. She hiked up her dressed just above her knees and stuck out her thumb as he sped by in his ’78 Chevy Nova. Brand new. Burgandy. But he didn’t stop.

    She dropped her arm and her dress and shook her head and started yelling all sorts of profanities as she sat back down on the dusty gravel on the side of the interstate. That was the first car she’d seen in six hours or more. She turned around and looked at her luggage – probably eight or so in all – and said, “I guess I can’t blame him.”

    About five minutes later, she heard the sounds of a hundred horses echoing off the nearby mountains and caught a glimpse of fumes waving like an ocean in the near distance. As his Nova pulled into view, she stood up and crossed one arm around the other and mumbled to herself. “Be damned if he thinks I’m gonna pull up my dress again.”

    His car slowly rolled to a stop.

    “How long you reckon you been out here.”

    “About eight hours, I suppose.”

    He looked beyond her.

    “Why all that stuff?”

    “Cause my car broke down a few hundred yards back.”

    “I know. I saw it. But I was askin’ about the stuff. What’s it for?”

    “Well, if you need to know, I’m movin’ to Los Angeles.”

    He reached to his dashboard and grabbed a box of smokes and tapped it a couple times. He pulled out the car lighter from the middle console and lit a cigarette and turned back and looked at her.

    “They’re going to eat you up over there.”

    “Sir?”

    “What kinda guitar you have in that box over there?”

    “It was my daddy’s. It’s a Fender but it’s probably all gone to hell now cause of this heat.”

    He looked at her dress. Light blue. Then he looked at the luggage again. He closed his eyes and took a deep sigh.

    “They’re going to eat you up over there. No one finds fame in L.A.”

    “Who said I was lookin’ for fame?”

    “You did.”

    “And when did I say that?”

    “When you hiked that lil’ dress of yours.”

    He paused. She huffed.

    “You’re just giving ‘em permission to sift you like wheat, darlin’.”

    “Damned if I do.”

    He laughed.

    “Yes ma’am.”

    She looked to her luggage and back at the man and said, “So you gonna help me or what?”

    He shut off the car and popped the trunk with the flick of a switch and stepped out. He dropped the cigarette on the gravel and smothered it with his alligator boot. Must’ve cost at least a hundred dollars, she thought.

    “I can drop ya in Vegas. That’s the best I can do.”

    “You live in Vegas?”

    “Hell no. Just where my next show is.”

    “You a musician?”

    “Somethin’ like that,” he said as he placed the last piece of luggage in his trunk. He walked to the passenger side and opened the door.

    “Better get in, darlin’. We got a long drive ahead.”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha! I love this, Bo! This dialogue, it’s amazing. What was the reference? “Sift you like wheat”? You use interjections really well. I don’t know. It all feels so real, so true. When I want help on my dialogue I’m coming to you!

      • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

        Exactly. From Luke 22:31. Technically, in the King James it’s “sift you as wheat” but I bent the rules slightly and went with the New American Standard instead, which says “permission to sift you like wheat.” It flowed better with my dialogue. It refers to Satan’s intention to influence Peter in the denial of Christ. Pretty powerful stuff.

        Thanks for the kind words. Just trying to write as if I’m standing alongside the characters watching it all unfold myself.

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          Nice. I might steal that one. :)

          That’s interesting. So are you the kind of writer who doesn’t outline your plot before you write? You just put your pen to the paper and see what happens?

          • http://www.provurbs.com/ Bo Lane

            For the most part, yes. I’ll think about it for some time, trying to get an idea of my characters and then I’ll just start writing – knowing for the most part where I’m going with the story. This has proven to be quite good and quite bad. Good because it’s allowed me to “live in the moment” but bad because I’ve missed a lot of opportunities to make a better story – forgetting key pieces that I wanted to include, etc.

          • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

            Right. It seems like there are trade offs for both. I try to use a hybrid approach. I free write to get ideas and then outline to make a complete story.

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  • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jess

    All in all, a good idea to try with one’s work. ;-D The allusions thing, I mean.

    [By the way, the song about Joe Jonas was actually "Story Of Us", but as you are a guy, I think all of your teen readers will forgive you. (I'm not a Swiftie, and I cannot stand Jonas. Not like anyone needed to know.)]

  • http://twitter.com/JessVerve Jessica Verve

    All in all, a good idea to try with one’s work. ;-D The allusions thing, I mean.

    [By the way, the song about Joe Jonas was actually "Story Of Us", but as you are a guy, I think all of your teen readers will forgive you. (I'm not a Swiftie, and I cannot stand Jonas. Not like anyone needed to know.)]

  • http://www.procurandomilionarios.com/ brazilian men

    Taylor swift is really stunning..

  • http://www.procurandomilionarios.com/ brazilian men

    Taylor swift is really stunning..

  • Katie

    Taylor Swift has an amazing voice! U wish you had her voice!

  • Katie

    Taylor Swift has an amazing voice! U wish you had her voice!