Monday, October 24, 2011

Use Literary Terms As Writing Prompts: Allusion

When I get stuck in my writing, I turn to exercises to prime the pump. One of the exercises I often turn to is using literary terms as prompts. By literary terms, I mean words like allusion, characterization, dramatic irony, foreshadowing, personification, symbol and tone.
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So, I figured I'd share my strategies with you. Maybe it works for you. If it does, then great. For it to work, you must know what the terms mean. Today's term: Allusion



It's not the same as 'illusion.' An allusion is a quick reference, brief mention to something (literary person or historical event, for example) in your work. The assumption is that usually whatever you are referring to is something your audience knows about (although this isn't always the case).


Writers might use allusions to enrich their story, to provide context quickly or draw connections with other works. I have written stories based on allusion prompts. Once in a writing group, we put together a prompt for our monthly writing exercise that looked something like this:

In no more than 5,000 words write a horror story based in Virginia while also using at least 3 allusions.

Now, here's an example from the first part of my Mall Demons Serial, 'Death Speaks Loudest To Those Who Flee.' In the story, one of the demon characters recounts a tale from his past:

Many of their years ago I was apprenticed to Death himself. It was in the year 1187. We were visiting one of the many villages that Richard the Lionheart's crusaders were traveling through...

My mentioning of 'Richard the Lionheart' was an allusion. If you know who he is, I've just drawn a connection between that figure and that historical time and the setting and events of my story. It's brief, but it adds richness that would be missing if I simply wrote something like this:

I was apprenticed to Death himself during the middle ages. We were visiting a village...

The second passage, at least to me, just doesn't carry the same punch. Here's another example from a story I am working on now. It's a sci-fi story, and one of the characters, a child, is explaining the situation to another character:

Then something weird happened... This is when John and, I think, the alien guy showed up. And the alien used his device. Well, it threw everything out of whack, kind of like that episode in Star Trek Voyager when Janeway and Paris got stuck in another phase of reality because of that clock thing and almost got blown up.

I know, the passage is still rough around the edges, but you see the allusion, right? I linked my story's events to similar events from a Star Trek Voyager episode. Anyone in my audience who's seen the episode will draw a connection.


That's it. Simple, right? Try using allusions in your next work. Make it an exercise. Use the prompt I shared above if you like. Let me know how it goes! You can comment below or e-mail me.

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