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Allusion: Definition, How It Works & Examples In Writing

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Allusion can be one of the most powerful literary devices when used properly.

Allusion can show up in almost any type of writing.

So whether you’re learning how to write a blog post or are getting started on the next great American novel, allusion can serve you well.

Keep reading to learn more about what allusion is and how you can use it to make your writing more interesting.

What Is Allusion?

An allusion is a literary device that references a literary work, pop culture, history, a well-known figure, and more.

Allusions can directly or indirectly reference a topic but usually don’t explicitly mention it.

Allusions typically reference topics from the cultural zeitgeist so that most readers will understand them.

Also Known As:

  • Echoism
  • Homage
  • Reference

Simple Definition: How To Explain Allusion to a Child

You can explain that an allusion hints at or refers to something many people are familiar with.

The simplest way to describe an allusion is to use concrete examples.

A well-known example is Superman and Kryptonite (Superman’s weakness).

Authors may refer to something as someone’s kryptonite, like “puppies are her kryptonite.”

That means that puppies are her weakness.

Why Is Allusion Used?

Allusion has many uses. It can be used to enhance an idea or strengthen imagery.

Sometimes authors use it to create a bond with the reader, helping them connect with a particular culture or generation, making a piece more relatable.

Sometimes, by drawing a connection between two (seemingly) different things, the author can create a deeper meaning.

Types of Allusion

By understanding the different types of allusion, you’ll understand how to use them most effectively.

  • Apparent Allusion: An apparent allusion refers to a specific subject but challenges it in some way.
  • Casual Allusion: A casual allusion is more of a passing reference.
  • Corrective Allusion: A corrective allusion references a specific subject but corrects it in some way. It can often change the way people see an original work.
  • Multiple Reference: Some texts continue to refer to a specific subject throughout the writing. Multiple references may also be called conflation.
  • Self-Reference: For self-reference, the author recalls one of their own works.
  • Single Reference: A single reference alludes to one specific work. It’s mentioned once, and the text moves on.

How Do You Identify Allusion?

Allusions can sometimes be tough to spot. If it’s a common reference, you may be able to easily identify the allusion.

Some allusions have become so commonplace that people don’t even realize it’s a reference.

For example, many people say, “There’s no place like home,” even if they’ve never seen or read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

You can sometimes identify allusions if you spot something unfamiliar in a text.

If something doesn’t make sense or you don’t recognize a name, it may be an allusion.

You’ll need to research it to be sure, though.

How Do You Use Allusion in a Sentence?

Writing a great allusion takes a few steps.

First, you must identify a clever or relevant reference to allude to in your text.

You can look to popular works or topics like the Bible, classic literature, famous songs, films, and important historical events.

Find one that fits with the idea you’re trying to express.

Next, write the sentence or paragraph using plain language.

For example, “Forced to take care of his alcoholic mother, the boy seemed burdened by his life.”

Next, rewrite the sentence with your allusion.

Your sentence becomes, “Forced to take care of his alcoholic mother, the boy carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

The allusion references the story of Atlas.

For another example, you could say, “Andrea was one of the kindest people I’d met, always helping others in need.”

To add an allusion, change it to “Andrea was a Good Samaritan, always helping others in need.”

What Is the Most Popular Example of Allusion?

There are many famous allusions, but perhaps the most famous allusions are inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Films, songs, TV, comics, and even medical conditions reference the book.

The Matrix contains many Alice allusions, including when Trinity urges Neo to “follow the white rabbit.”

The famous Jefferson Airplane song, “White Rabbit,” alludes to the story as a metaphor for drug use.

In everyday speech, we use the phrase “down the rabbit hole” to describe a convoluted experience.

There are many comic book characters named after Alice characters, including the Mad Hatter and Cheshire.

Other Famous Examples of Allusion

Some works are rich with allusions, while others create inspiration for authors wanting to utilize allusion in other works.

The Bible

The Bible is one of the most-read books of all time, so it only makes sense that it would be the source of many allusions.

Eden and Heaven have both become synonyms for Paradise. We also refer to untrustworthy people as snakes.


Shakespeare is the source of many allusions, but The Bard was also gifted at crafting his own allusions.

The Taylor Swift song “Love Story” references Romeo and Juliet.

Throughout his plays, Shakespeare also makes several references to Greek and Roman characters.

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series has many allusions.

Rowling famously draws from Greek and Roman mythology along with classic fantasy works for her stories.

For example, the character Sirius is named after the dog star. It’s also later revealed that his Animagus is a dog.

Other Modern Examples of Allusion

Below are a few more examples of allusion to inspire you.

Examples of Allusion for Kids

Allusions for kids have to reference subjects that kids are likely to be familiar with.

  • A Cinderella story: This type of story features an underdog who rises far above their station, like the beloved Princess.
  • Just keep swimming: This line from Finding Nemo has become a common phrase we use to remind someone to keep going.
  • He’s such a Scrooge: We use the name Scrooge from A Christmas Carol to refer to someone who doesn’t like Christmas.

Examples of Allusion in Literature and Writing

Almost all writers use allusions in some form.

  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton: The book has multiple references to Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” especially the iconic line near the end, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville: The opening line, “Call me Ishmael,” is a reference to the Biblical character.
  • I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.: In his iconic speech, King references Lincoln’s iconic speech with his use of the phrase “five score years ago.”

Examples of Allusion in Language

We use lots of allusions in everyday speech, often without realizing it.

  • Achilles’ Heel: We use the term to refer to someone’s weakness, just as Achilles’ heel was the one vulnerable spot on his body.
  • Turning into a pumpkin: We often tell someone to be home on time or they’ll turn into a pumpkin, just like Cinderella’s coach.
  • Forbidden fruit: We talk about forbidden fruit as something we want but can’t have, referring to the fall in the Garden of Eden.

Notable Writers Who Used Allusion

Almost all types of writers use allusion. Below are a few of the most famous:

Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire uses extended allusions in his retelling of fairy tales and children’s books in novels like Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. 

For example, Wicked is set before The Wonderful Wizard of Oz takes place.

It tells the story of Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (Glinda) but makes many references to the original book and film.

Even Elphaba’s name is an allusion to the author L. Frank Baum – her name sounds like his initials.

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman makes multiple allusions to the Bible and turns biblical themes on their heads in the His Dark Materials series.

The series follows Lyra and Will, two kids from parallel universes.

Throughout the series, they learn about evil, lose their innocence, and take the place of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Ernest Kline

Ernest Kline’s futuristic gamer novel Ready Player One is full of 1980s pop culture references.

One of the characters is building a replica of the Iron Giant.

An entire sequence has many allusions to The Shining.

The two main characters drive a souped-up DeLorean from Back to the Future and a motorcycle inspired by the one from the Japanese anime Akira.

What Is the Opposite of Allusion?

Since allusion references another work, the opposite would be to ignore the work completely, even if there is a connection.

Instead, the author would describe the subject in a unique way.

Allusion vs. Allegory

An allusion is often a quick reference to another work, event, or person.

An allegory is usually extended throughout part or all of a work.

It’s used to elaborate on a larger idea.

It can sometimes be a seemingly simple story with a more complex underlying meaning, such as The Chronicles of Narnia.

Other Related Literary Devices To Know

Below are a few other important devices related to allusion that can help you when writing different content types:

  • Allegory: Allegory often uses a simple story to convey a loftier idea with political or moral significance.
  • Metaphor: A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two unrelated subjects.
  • Diction: In writing, diction is a writer’s particular word choice and style.
  • Colloquialism: Colloquialisms are similar to slang and aren’t typically used in more academic styles of writing. However, slang is more informal.
  • Euphemism: Authors use euphemisms as a substitute for saying something that may be inappropriate, embarrassing, or unpleasant.

Writing Tools To Help You Out

Do you want to incorporate more literary devices like allusion into your writing?

Writing tools include some of the best tips for writers and can even help you discover things to write about.

  • Writing Helpers: Writing helpers are tools for helping you write by making suggestions for improving clarity, checking grammar, and helping you avoid plagiarism. It doesn’t create the content for you but checks the text you’ve already written.
  • AI Writing Software: While you may not want to let AI writing software take over the entirety of your writing, it can help you find new topics, create outlines, and improve SEO rankings. It can significantly speed up your process as it can guide you through much of the planning.
  • Grammar Checkers: Even if you read over your drafts carefully and self-edit, you’ll want to choose one of the best grammar checkers on the market to help with the final proofreading process.
  • Content Creators: Content creators don’t offer many features like AI writing software but will generate content for you. Although you’ll need to do a lot of editing, it can be helpful when you’re short on time or out of ideas.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you still have questions about this literary device? We have answers to common questions about allusions below!

Can an allusion be a quote?

Yes. A quote can be an allusion, particularly a direct allusion.

It works best when a character says a famous quote for effect.

For example, if your character is betrayed by a friend, they may say, “Et tu, Brute?”

Can an allusion be a simile?

A simile is a comparison of two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.”

You’ll often find an allusion inside a simile.

For example, someone may say, “The four-year-old prodigy is like a little Einstein.”

Wrapping Up

No matter what you write, you can use allusion to make your writing more interesting and connect with your readers.

If your goal is to be concise, then allusion can get an idea across much quicker than a full explanation.

Allusion and other literary devices can spice up your writing.

Be sure to keep reading and taking in new content so you’ll have fresh source material for your writing.

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