9.21.2011

Allusions and Associations? You're boned.

New weekly feature: Wordcount & #Writetip Wednesday. Everything is alliterative.

Wednesday-Wednesday Weekly Wordcount: 6,300 added to Gloaming, of 20,456 total.
This Week's Reads: Hunger Games, Gamble of the Godless (review soon!), and three chapters of Embassytown.

Weekly Words: Allusions and Associations 

Biblical allusions are especially popular because the biblical stories are well-known among English-speaking readers. But there are other many-millions-selling stories you could make use of (note that LoTR and The Hobbit take second and third top selling; fantasy authors everywhere have already experienced the joy of alluding/plot-stealing from them). And yet, biblical allusions remain by far the most popular to jaw about. Whether you see these as anchors to the canon of western literature, a vise squeezing the view of literature, or just plain glorified fanfiction, they can make, break, and problematize everything you write. Allusions are a tool at your disposal to link a character or situation into an existing framework.

Eve of the snake.
Get it? Get it? Ugh....
According to DeviantArt, I
painted that 6 years ago. I've improved.
Love them or hate them, you can't get through high school English without writing an essay on some Christ-figure character (Simon, from Lord of the Flies?! Your teacher will be deeply impressed that you did your SparkNotes homework). Pause. About all those reaching high-school and college essays. Is this what the canonized writers wanted? Did they  all mean to lay a biblical read-down on their text?

Well, some probably did. But not all. Allusions can be nothing more than similar features or offhand comments that get blown out of proportion in the reader's mind. Even if you don't intend to allude to anything at all, apophenia being what it is (some people call it patternicity (and is apparently also a TED talk, and reminds me that most of psychology is renaming the same concepts over and over again). In any case, people will find the patterns they are encouraged to find, or want to find in whatever they're reading.  This can make symbols pop with undue significance and characters fall into two-dimensional stand-ins for someone else in another story.

Allusions, even if you mean to use them, can bite you two ways. If you allude to stories without researching the connotations, you may convey nuance you don't mean. And if you rely too much on the nuance, 90% of your readers will miss it. (I remember one creative writing workshop I was in had a new allusion-dependent story each week, and it was maddening. The author would always get so offended when people didn't get it.) Writing tip: don't assume that just because you loved The Waste Land, that people will take the time to read the myth of Philomel as referenced in your story (unless Bettermyths blogs about it). And if your fiction can only be explained by a hypertext interface (or two), you might want to consider adding at least a comprehensive superficial plot on which to hang your allusive genius.

In conclusion, 'ware the allusion. Associations will slip into your story one way or another, though they may not be the right ones. Chances are it will be reminiscent of other stories. (If it is utterly unique, it is most likely incomprehensible.) Associations are sneaky. Sneaky like a snake, and just as treacherous (or does that depend on point of view?). Do your research before you reference, because you don't want to make a huge deal then get it wrong.

Really, whatever you do, your readers will get a random selection of their own associations.
#Writetip: Don't stress it. Just don't make your story hinge on one absolute allusion. 
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