How to Use Allusion Like a Master Storyteller

Don’t write “on the nose.” Writing doesn’t have to be direct. You don’t have to make it easy for your reader to understand what is happening. Instead, use allusion: make a suggestion or a hint of your meaning. Let your reader think.


The only thing you need to do with your nose is blow it if you have a cold.

The Problem With Writing on the Nose

“What are you talking about? What is writing on the nose? I write on paper or use my computer. I don’t write on my nose.”

“Writing on-the-nose means putting a character’s fullest thoughts and deepest emotions directly and fully into what she say’s out loud.”

— Robert McKee

Real life is often not direct. There is subtlety and hidden meaning in people’s words and actions. There is what is said, and there is subtext, what they really mean.

Direct writing eliminates subtext, and the unsaid is said directly.

On the nose writing is boring as there is no suspense. If I can tell how the story will end, I will stop reading or stop watching a movie.

A writer might write directly in a first draft. However, it enriches a story to allude to meaning, as it is natural in real life and gives your reader a chance to think.

Allusion, the Solution

Wait. What is allusion?

Allude: suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at, refer to, touch on, suggestimply, mention (in passing), make an allusion to

Allusion is the solution to writing on the nose. Rather than telling your reader exactly what is happening and what they should think about it, allusion allows you to give your reader hints so they can draw their own conclusions.

Not sure you should use allusion in your writing? Here are five reasons that might convince you:

  1. Allusion creates suspense because readers gather information gradually rather than learning it all at once.
  2. It is not boring because readers get to think through what’s happening rather than being handed all the answers.
  3. It is realistic because real life is not usually direct.
  4. It gives dialogue and action hidden meaning.
  5. It is fun! Readers love mystery!

Have you ever NOT been able to put a book down when you started reading it? Was it because you HAD TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED? (I wasn’t really yelling there, at not least at you.) Finding out what happened is in all capital letters to show you the URGENCY of wanting to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

If you are writing on the nose, the reader won’t have to keep reading, because you told them everything directly. But if you use allusion in your writing, your readers will have to keep reading to find out what the story means.

An Exception to Allusion

Robert McKee in his book Dialogue says that nonrealism is the exception, a place where writing on-the-nose is a good thing.

“Nonrealism employs on-the-nose dialogue in all its genres and subgenres . . . as characters become more archetypical and less dimensional.”

If you are writing nonrealism, write your story as on the nose as you like. If you are writing in most other genres, though, practice allusion so you can convey your meaning with subtlety.

Catch the Meaning in This Example

I recently wrote a story about a friendship. In this excerpt, what am I alluding to about the friendship? Read it and then I will ask questions after you read it.

When my coffee mug had a slimy film on the bottom from the soured milk, she said, “You can’t teach this year. Someone complained.” She pulled out a piece of paper folded in half to fit into her handbag that was too small. She put the paper on the table between our empty coffee mugs.

The milk had a slimy film on the bottom. The milk was soured. What do you think this meant?

What do you think the reference to the handbag being too small meant?

What do you think it meant that she put the piece of paper between the coffee mugs?

The soured milk was hinting at a friendship that had soured. The handbag being too small referred to her thoughts being too small. The piece of paper that was placed between the coffee cups meant that what was written on the piece of paper had become between the friendship.

I could have written. “My friendship wasn’t the same anymore after she showed me the paper.” But the imagery makes a stronger impression because it creates mood and feeling.

Hinting at meaning in a story brings depth and strong images. It gives the reader a chance to think about what has happened or is about to happen.

Another Kind of Allusion

In a creative writing class I took at college, the professor asked if we thought the protagonist, the woman in the story, thought about her husband. I raised my hand and shared over five references in the story where she professed her love for her husband. I took her proclamations literally and missed the references to her being in love with someone else. She kept professing her love to hide her affair.

Allusion can involve saying one thing and meaning another. I read the story literally, though. I took the protagonist’s professions of love literally and missed the hidden meaning.

The author was hinting at the affair by having her proclaim her love so many times.

The Story Beneath Your Story

When you write a story, there is the story you are telling and there is the hidden meaning.

“A story must be like life, but not so verbatim that it has no depth or meaning beyond what’s obvious to everyone on the street.”

—Robert McKee

Write your stories to be like life, but give them depth and meaning by alluding to the truth. Trust that your readers are smart people who will catch your clues. Keep the readers turning the page.

When you write, do you try to write directly, or do you hint at meaning through subtext? Let me know in the comments.

By Pamela Hodges

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