Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Elusive allusions

No podcast review today, but I'll post one later this week. Today, I want to talk about using allusions in writing.

I like using allusions -- indirect references to other stories -- to add resonance to my writing. When the reader understands the allusion, depth is added: all the emotional complications from the original story are brought to mind and linked with the current story.

However, that "when" is actually an "if" because the reader may not get what seems to the writer to be the most obvious of references.

Case in point: I was listening to Christmas carols the other day, and "The most wonderful time of the year" came up. A line in there has always bugged me. "There will be scary ghost stories." Why? Ghost stories are for Halloween. I didn't know anyone who sat around telling ghost stories for Christmas. This weekend, however, it finally hit me--Scrooge, with his ghostly visitors in [i]A Christmas Carol.[/i]

In retrospect, that seems obvious, but it took me years to draw the connection. (And it's possible that I'm wrong, that in fact, the song writer was talking about people sitting around talking about ghostly hitchhikers and the like. That's the other side of allusions -- people reading things into your work that you never intended to be there. My friend Margaret refers to this as the "reader 50%.")

Another example: When I was working for a couple of years between college and graduate school, I made an off-the-cuff remark about Daniel in the lion's den. The person I was talking to had never heard of Daniel, never read the Bible, and wouldn't get anything but the broadest references to anything contained therein. "Wrestling with an angel" wouldn't mean any more than the obvious to her, and if she heard a friendship described as being like that of David and Jonathan, she wouldn't know who was being discussed.

Does that mean we shouldn't use allusions?

No. If we have more layers in our mind as we write, some of that may spill onto the page, adding complexity. And even if all of our readers don't get the allusions, those who do will find the story deeper.

What it does mean is that if we rely on an allusion for understanding of the story or explication of plot, we are limiting our audience, which is fine as long as you understand that going in. Of course, this is true of any tool we use as writers -- we need to understand the benefits and drawbacks of the tool and the way we're using it.

How have you used allusions in your writing? Or are there other tools that you have found work great when they work but can't be guaranteed to reach all your readers? Let me know in the comments.

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