How to Use Allusion Like a Master Storyteller

by Pamela Hodges and Sue Weems | 23 comments

Master storytellers often use allusion to add richness or depth and to let readers make deeper connections to a story. Let's look at a definition, some allusion examples, and how to use allusion in your own writing. 

How to Use Allusion Like a Master Storyteller

Allusion is more than a literary device you learn about in an English class. Allusions are a master technique for storytellers, and you can learn how to use them too. 

Definition of allusion

A literary allusion is a reference to a person, place, event or another piece of literature. It can also be an indirect reference to a popular cultural event or figure. Allusions can be used to add depth, complexity, or humor to a piece of writing.

The dictionary definition for allusion is based on the root word allude: to suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at, refer to, touch on, suggest, imply, mention (in passing)

As a literary device, allusion functions figuratively, meaning the original reference prompts us as readers to attach additional symbolic meaning to the situation. 

Examples of allusion

In the summer of 2023, the blockbuster film Oppenheimer hit theaters, a biopic thriller about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who headed the Manhattan Project in charge of creating the first atomic bombs. It was adapted from the book by Kai Bird and Martin J, Sherwin titled, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and first published in 2005. 

The title of Bird and Sherwin's book is a powerful allusion to the Greek myth of Prometheus, sometimes called the God of Fire who is best known for stealing fire from Olympus to give it to humankind, as a symbol of human advancement. Prometheus was punished by being chained to a mountaintop where an eagle descended each day to devour his liver. Prometheus' story is often told as a warning of overreach, especially related to science or technology.

But allusion can show up anywhere in a story from a character's name to a situation to a setting detail. In everyday speech, if someone is described as “pushing a boulder uphill,” that is a reference to the Greek myth of Sisyphus who cheated death twice and was punished by Hades who forced him to spend eternity rolling a boulder uphill over and over. The figurative meaning is that a task will never end.

If you describe a location as a “Garden of Eden,” you're making a Biblical allusion to the garden outlined in Genesis. The figurative meaning may be complex, as the Garden of Eden is a paradise, but Adam and Eve were banished from it for eating of forbidden fruit according to Genesis. When John Steinbeck named his novel East of Eden, he knew the implications of the allusions to the Biblical reference to a passage about Cain and Abel. 

Allusions allow writers to use indirect references to give a moment more meaning and to spark associations and connections in readers. 

Why use allusion? 

Writers use literary allusion (or just allusion in general) to avoid what story master Robert McKee calls “writing-on-the-nose.” 

“Writing on-the-nose means putting a character's fullest thoughts and deepest emotions directly and fully into what she says out loud.”

— Robert McKee

Real life is often not direct. There is subtlety and hidden meaning in people's words and actions. There is what is said, and there is subtext, what they really mean.

Allusion is the solution to writing on the nose. Rather than telling your reader exactly what is happening and what they should think about it, allusion allows you to give your reader hints so they can draw their own conclusions.

Not sure you should use allusion in your writing? Here are five reasons that might convince you:

  1. Allusion creates suspense because readers gather information gradually rather than learning it all at once.
  2. It is not boring because readers get to think through what's happening rather than being handed all the answers.
  3. It is realistic because real life is not usually direct.
  4. It gives dialogue and action hidden meaning.
  5. When you use literary allusion effectively, it can add shades of meaning and depth. 

If you are writing on the nose, the reader won't have to keep reading, because you told them everything directly. But if you use allusion in your writing, your readers will have to keep reading to find out what the story means.

How to use allusion: a personal example

I (Pamela) recently wrote a story about a friendship. In this excerpt, what am I alluding to about the friendship? Read it and then I will ask questions after you read it.

When my coffee mug had a slimy film on the bottom from the soured milk, she said, “You can’t teach this year. Someone complained.” She pulled out a piece of paper folded in half to fit into her handbag that was too small. She put the paper on the table between our empty coffee mugs.

The milk had a slimy film on the bottom. The milk was soured. What do you think this meant?

What do you think the reference to the handbag being too small meant?

Consider how she put the piece of paper between the coffee mugs. What might be the underlying meaning?

The soured milk was hinting at a friendship that had soured. The handbag being too small referred to her thoughts being too small. The piece of paper that was placed between the coffee cups meant that what was written on the piece of paper had become between the friendship.

I could have written. “My friendship wasn't the same anymore after she showed me the paper.” But the imagery makes a stronger impression because it creates mood and feeling.

Hinting at meaning in a story brings depth and strong images. It gives the reader a chance to think about what has happened or is about to happen.

Allusion reveals the story beneath your story

In a creative writing class I took at college, the professor asked if we thought the protagonist, the woman in the story, thought about her husband. I raised my hand and shared over five references in the story where she professed her love for her husband. I took her proclamations literally and missed the references to her being in love with someone else. She kept professing her love to hide her affair.

Allusion can involve saying one thing and meaning another. I read the story literally, though. I took the protagonist's professions of love literally and missed the hidden meaning.

The author was hinting at the affair by having her proclaim her love so many times.

When you write a story, there is the story you are telling and there is the hidden meaning.

“A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what's obvious to everyone on the street.”

—Robert McKee

Write your stories to be like life, but give them depth and meaning by alluding to the truth. Trust that your readers are smart people who will catch your clues. Keep the readers turning the page.

When you write, do you try to write directly, or do you hint at meaning through subtext? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes where you hint at something and don't write about it directly. It can be a scene from a work in progress, or it can be about something that has already happened. Maybe it is a scene from a recent family get together.

Share your story in the Pro Practice Workshop, and then leave feedback for your fellow writers. When you read the stories, try and guess what the writer is hinting at within their story.

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Pamela writes stories about art and creativity to help you become the artist you were meant to be. She would love to meet you at pamelahodges.com.

Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.

23 Comments

  1. Ramona

    I have to disagree with the first allusion. Especially with the idea that doing anything but in realism is assuming the audience is dumb. Sometimes, in real life, people are blunt and honest so don’t allude to anything. “it’s realistic” can be an argument for on-the-nose writing as well since there are people who mean what they say and things are what they are originally appear. Can it be boring? Sure. But allusion can be downright confusing and both will lose readers.

    Sometimes on-the-nose can be more poignant than allusion. Sometimes allusion actually detract from the story, making readers put the book down instead of turning the page. It’s more of a “don’t always write on-the-nose and don’t always use allusions”. They both have a place in the story, just like showing and telling both have a place in the story.

    Reply
    • Ogbu Eloka

      You are right. Overusing Allusion could be decisive and will misdirect the reader’s mind but all the same we ought to use Allusion if we must keep the audience alive. Being blunt and honest does not help the reader, it might have been fun for the writer but the reader is way more smarter than you think and expects the writer to be smarter than he is.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Ramona,
      You are right, some characters in a story might be blunt. So they would speak directly. Often in a story, there is subtext, just like in real life. We don’t always say what we mean. The most important aspect of any story is the story. Allusion is a method, use it if it works with your story. My two favorite books on story are by Robert McKee, “Story” and “Dialogue.”
      Thank you!
      Pamela

  2. I'm determined

    El Presidenté clapped his arm about the younger man, and steered him around the gathering. “This is the man who will succeed me. Full cheers for Jormé Tomas!” Those present cheered, and clapped their hands somewhat perfunctorily. People took edgy glances at each other. “Is this it? Has our leader voluntarily surrendered command?”
    El Presidenté continued beaming as he introduced the younger man to the various members of his cabinet. “Maria! I come home to you this night!” El Presidenté reverently removed the chain of office from around his neck, and hung it on the younger man’s shoulders. “El Presidenté!” the older man shouted. Cheers for El Presidenté!”
    The sun glowed on the chain of command as the new president was ushered towards the external stairs that descended from the balcony. “Go. Go,” called the ex-President. “Let your wife enjoy your company for the last night. My Maria can attest how rarely she received me at home.”
    The wariness eased from Jorme’s shoulders. He started down the stars. A moment later a sniper fired. One head shot. The General removed the golden chain from Jormé Tomas’s body and reverently carried it back up and replaced it around the neck of the President.
    “The traitor is dead, El Presidenté.”
    The new, the pre-existing President raised his arms out wide, as though to say, ‘Look at me!’
    Those present knew what was expected of them They clapped, and called out, “Bravo, El Presidenté!”

    Reply
    • WendS

      love it

  3. Keke Ochuko

    I’m not sure I agree with the example of the slimy coffee mug and small handbag, and its not just because I completely missed the allusion altogether. It’s because I think the allusion was WAY overdone, judging from what you said the meanings were.

    If I was reading a story that had your excerpt somewhere in there, I’ll either wonder (for like 3 seconds) why the writer is drawing my attention to these items that might have no significance or I wouldn’t even notice altogether.

    No one’s gonna think “her handbag is too small” jeez, that must mean her thoughts are small. Because it doesn’t mean that in real life. Besides, one has nothing to do with the other.
    In poetry tho, this type of “allusion” could work. Just not in story writting.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Keke Ochuko,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      Writing is open to interpretation, in the context of the whole story, the allusion makes more sense.
      The coffee mug and handbag are hints. Some people might pick up the hints, and other’s might not. So, as a writer, I can try to make the hints more obvious, or I can accept that not everyone will “like” what I write.
      Or maybe I should never use examples from my own writing. 🙂
      xo
      Pamela

    • WendS

      On their own they seems strange I admit but not when used in context I think they are fine allusions.

    • Treading Water

      Thank-you, Thank-you, Thank-you! I now know I’m NOT mentally deficient! I read the same explanations to the Allusions paragraph, and also wondered what reference to a slimy cup bottom had to do with a sour relationship! I might have said something about it, but without a direct correspondence, such as “The soured milk in my coffee cup reminded me of my relationship!” This would lead a reader to their own conclusion that the relation is soured without saying it!

    • Natasha

      I agree that if you want readers to understand their relationship is soured, you need to use hints that make it clear. Yes, you can supplement your writing with these allusions but unless you make it a little more obvious (still SHOWING it, not telling), the reader will probably never pick up on what you mean. Maybe it sounds better in context, but why not show their dying relationship through dialogue or a change of atmosphere between them or even a change in habits (for example, one character used to pass by the house of the other every afternoon to say hi but one day they stop doing that). This lets the readers assume things and draw conclusions, too.

  4. Ogbu Eloka

    It was this sort of argument that always brought her back to the world she’d left. Aneka never wanted to let the cat out without having the rats away first, all she wanted was to live with the pledge that everything was going to be okay but she can no longer deny the fact that they weren’t.
    “I found out your little secret” Joel shouted at her as though she was a stranger. “How come you never invited me to the party?” Joel completed with an absurd look.
    She looked down at her toes, the same thing Joel had come to realize she does whenever she’s angry but had tend to do nothing about it. Aneka could imagine what it would be like if she hadn’t accepted to be with Joel from the first instance. she looked up at Joel, this time she had decided to let the cat out while the rats play. there was nothing more to talk about since all chances has been wasted.
    “You can find out whatever it is you wanted to find out. This is the same reason I call it something else that is not secret.” She was surprised at the level of her voice but at the same time glad to have taken the right action.
    “Thank you for inviting me into your heart. You are the best” Joel said as he planted a strong kiss on Aneka’s cheek while he puts a ring into her finger and mutters the unusual “Will you marry me?” The kiss had reminded Aneka all that she had forgotten and again she wished she had never let the cat out while the rats were playing; Joel had good intention this time but in return she said “No, I can’t marry you Joel”
    All she wanted was to see the shock in Joel’s face before she says something in reverse but there was not one, just a plain face that explained all she’d ever wanted to know.

    Reply
    • Farzeen Rahman

      I loved the ending 🙂
      All she wanted was to see the shock in Joel’s face before she says something in reverse but there was not one, just a plain face that explained all she’d ever wanted to know.

  5. Lyn Blair

    Author Chuck Palahniuk talks about unpacking the details in an essay he wrote called, “Beware the Thesis Statement” https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B13ktOR7zuMeWUIwVXNHZjdsRDg/edit

    I think this relates well to what Pam is talking about with allusion.

    When you describe physical details of your character’s surroundings and your character’s reaction to them, you make your point indirectly and create an allusion that makes readers curious. Palahniuk says not to start out with “thesis statements.” Examples he gives of thesis statements are books that open with statements like:

    Robert woke up hating his life.

    Lydia never could get along with her upstairs neighbors.

    Pam didn’t start out saying, “Their friendship was over,” which would’ve been a thesis statement, totally lacking in allusion, and would’ve taken all suspense out of the scene.

    Pam unpacks a detail and creates an allusion with her coffee cup. A slimy film from sour milk in a coffee cup sets up the mood. While you may not instantly think the friendship has soured, it foreshadows that what comes next isn’t going to be pleasant. The paper being too big for the handbag makes you feel an awkwardness, like things aren’t coming together easily. Telling her friend she can’t teach anymore because of a complaint sets up a barrier and putting the paper between them symbolizes a disconnection. Why? The character could’ve handed the paper to the friend and as she did so, she could’ve shown some compassion by saying she was really sorry, but no, she set it down on the table between them — and that said “you’re on your side of the table and I’m on mine.”

    I think Pam makes makes the point about allusion beautifully and in the context of the rest of the story, the underlying meaning would become even clearer to readers.

    I recently wrote a short story and worked at setting up the mood through allusion instead of stating what the problem was right from the get-go:

    Rap, tap, tap, tap…the tree branch bumped and scratched against the window, and a blustery wind outside bore down and swayed the old oak until its last leaf broke loose from a branch. A whoosh of air caught the leaf, buffeted it around and it spiraled to the ground. Now a complete skeleton tossed by the wind, the tree stood naked and vulnerable to face the winter weather. Christie felt like the old tree, stripped of its protective leaves and dreading what came next.

    Her mood matched the bleak backdrop of the barren landscape and gray sky, and it left her empty inside. She knew what was coming. She saw it in her mind that morning as she curled up under her comforter, surrounded by her stuffed animals, and it would begin the moment Dad walked in the door on Christmas Eve.

    Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    I have definitely not gone down this road. I need to, though! Makes reading more fun….thank you.

    Reply
  7. LilianGardner

    Thanks so much Pam for your post. I enjoy a book much more when there’s an allusion. I’m imaginative and love to fill in the parts which leave me guessing. It’s as if I’m participating in the story. I will try and write with allusions because I want to hook my reader until the very last page.

    Reply
  8. WendS

    when I write I find allusions popping in without invitation. When I look back on what I’ve written I realise I’ve inadvertently chosen very telling language and I can often cut out the bulk of the sentence because a word or two have already told the story.

    Reply
  9. Carl Adams

    I immediately saw the likeness I’d seen before in the women. Her hair bundled high enough into a ponytail and silver earrings dangling from her earlobes. The long red coat reflected in the large windows of the cafeteria. Almost as if she willed it too. And as if looking back her reflection gave an impish smile. The likeness was incredible.

    Reply
  10. Farzeen Rahman

    This might need alot of editing. but i loved the article, so wanted to try it.
    Let me know what you guys think. 🙂
    The birds had been trapped inside the cage since eternity, yearning to get out, to free themselves of all the burden that was overcoming them. But sometimes even wanting what you desire can be hard to get, taking that one step is even harder than you think It is. The birds were the prisoners of their own creation. But this evening something was different, the woman across the table had been siting for hours staring vacantly out of the window, as crowds of people made their way through, their footsteps hitting the pavement, dodging the puddles forming in the rain. Her coffee cold, untouched. The man sitting opposite has been observing her forever, as if longing to approach her. He got up suddenly, fixed his coat and made his way through to the table near the window. The birds became restless flying about in the cage. He mustered up his courage and said, ‘Excuse me’. She didn’t move, the only sound that could be heard was the rain drops falling, she was staring into space at her reflection in the glass, he could see himself in the background too. He could hear the troubled birds chirping loudly, flying about in confusion. Perhaps she was lost in thought and didn’t hear him. He opened his mouth once more but saw another reflection he turned around and saw the waiter. ‘Madam, we are closing’. She seemed to have come back to her senses and turned around and looked at the waiter, through him. Her blue eyes didn’t meet his.’ I am sorry, I must have lost track of time.’ She got up, grabbing her coat, made her way through him and walked out of the restaurant. The tingling of the bell echoed through the rain as the door closed behind her. The man stood there, stoned, looking out the window as the woman disappeared. After a while, which felt like decades, he stepped into the rain, the bell still ringing in his ears. ‘Why is it so silent in here? Where did the birds go? Did they make their way out? But how can they I didn’t set them free? I think the prisoners just died in here, in the cage.’

    Reply
  11. Winnie

    I wondered why I was defending my position. After all it didn’t matter one way or the other if I got my coffee in a mug or a cup.
    “Cold milk and two sugars,” I reminded the coffee monitor. Pam had been nominated by the manager to take over the first week of this experiment to cut down our caffeine intake.
    I suddenly found her staring back at me.
    “What was that?”
    “Cold milk and two sugars,” I repeated.
    “Oh, I thought you said something else,” she said, her voice rising.
    Somebody took her arm and led her away.
    Only after a few minutes did it sink through what I’d really said. We’d broken up a week before, and I still had unfinished business with her.
    Later, perhaps. Right now I’d more important stuff to attend to.

    Reply
  12. njeri marasi

    “piece of paper had become between the friendship” is there a problem with this sentence?
    Great piece though!

    Reply
    • Don Calloway

      I think “…piece of paper had ‘come’ between the friendship” is the correction needed.

  13. kishanu

    thanks for the useful article you wrote and shared with us. Appreciate your work and thanks behalf of my team https://www.snkcreation.com/

    Reply

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