You may well have your own ideas about this. Every writer uses allusion in one form or another. It is one of the ways we make sense of our everyday world and, of course, the characters in novels have the same need to create patterns and connections to give meaning and significance to their lives.
For me, less is more. I like allusions to be short, compressed. As soon as they are lengthened or explained, they become references. Mentioned as part of a character’s deep POV thought or in dialogue, they come into play to give further understanding of personality and disposition.
Back to author Hugh Fox and his heroine of In the Beginning. Eve, meeting Richard’s granddaughter Deborah, described the event as “a scene that Renoir hadn’t, but could have, painted.” And the picture is instantly clear—the soft golden light, the rosy cheeked children, the feeling of serenity.
This gives added depth to her sorrows about being childless, which is reinforced with the same imagery in a later dream concerning the child.
The allusions from In The Beginning are perfectly matched to character. Eve lives in Paris, loves France. Her points of reference, the allusions that give her depth, are French, French poetry, music, places. They grow organically out of who she is.
It’s a trick that fits neatly into any novel, not simply into literary novels.
Where Allusion Fails
Contemporary novels are often strongly built on contemporary allusions. The characters shop for well-known brands in well-known stores. They use up-to-date technology and listen to the latest pop music.
The problem for me, apart from the obvious difficulties of trademark dilution and copyright protection, is that it is limiting the novel’s life unnecessarily.
If you study eighteenth or nineteenth century literature, you spend time tracking down obscure references to people, places and events. But nothing then changed nearly so fast as life now. Chart-toppers have a short shelf life. Videotapes, CDs are virtually gone already. Who’s to say the iPod won’t be obsolete tomorrow? In ten or twenty years’ time, it could be as time-consuming for a teenager to decipher today’s contemporary novel as it is to study the eighteenth century Rape of the Lock.
So contemporary allusion is perfect for fixing your novel within a year of its intended timeline, it may then become a period piece. LOL
The other problem is that books today are selling in a global market place. Your allusions have to be accessible across the planet.
Right now it’s late, I’m in need of “ a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down.” My allusion to a Bex, a strong compound analgesic, may still be comprehensible in Australia but it makes no sense in the U.K. Maybe I should stick to the ibuprofen.
Play it Safe
To be safe, allusions should in the main be classic and timeless, totally relevant to the character or story. They can be couched within other figures of speech, hidden or overt, accessible or abstruse depending on your characters and context.
If you are interested in the Power of Allusion...Part 4
My top twenty figures of speech including alliteration, assonance, consonance, metaphor, metonymy, simile, synecdoche, onomatopoeia, oxymoron.
Note: no mention of anaphora. At the moment it's not one of my favourites LOL
Please leave me a comment in the comments box if you want to know why and if you'd like a copy of the list .