Everything I need know about Allusion I learned from “The Big Bang Theory”

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Allusion is when a reference to something–a person, place, thing, or work of literature–is mentioned in a story. The idea is that people get what the reference means and the connection brings a deeper meaning to the reader’s experience. As an English teacher, I already knew about allusions and how they worked, but it wasn’t until I started watching The Big Bang Theory that I learned how to use them in a piece of writing to help develop rich settings and characters.

[Tweet “It wasn’t until I started watching @BigBang_CBS that I learned how to use allusions in writing.”]

Let me explain. For those who have never seen it, The Big Bang Theory follows the lives of four stereotypically nerdy scientists as they struggle on the outskirts of popularity. They eat, sleep, breathe, and live sci-fi, sometimes literally (remember Sheldon’s Gorn-infested sleep or the group’s misadventures as a Star Trek Next Gen landing party?). Their lives are programmed around television schedules, comic-cons, new sci-fi movies, and trips to the comic book store. But what makes this show especially enjoyable for me are the endless references–some of them quite obscure–to current popular culture. As a devout Trekker and sci-fi enthusiast, I identify with the boys and their never-ending struggle to fit in.

[Tweet “Read about my ‘The Big Bang Theory of Allusion’ as a way to make characters seem real. #WritingTip”]

I’ve adopted what I’ve dubbed “The Big Bang Theory of Allusion” in The Revenant (and my current work in progress tentatively called I Was, Am, Will Be Alice). The theory tells us that, because as writers we want our characters to seem as real as possible, we should make them consumers of current and real popular culture. This is not a new idea. Shakespeare did it, referring to bible passages or ancient Greek and Roman mythology (keep in mind he had 500 years less of popular culture to draw on). In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee draws on civil war knowledge, politics, and what we now think of as classical literature, but which would have been popular and current at the time, such as Ivanhoe, Dracula, and Tom Swift. Many of the references to movie stars such as Mae West, alluded to in Tennesee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire may be lost on today’s readers, but at the time of its release, these references would have brought a deeper meaning to the story for its audience.

The main allusions in The Revenant are about superheroesSuperman, Batman and Spiderman–but there are also references to characters in the sci-fi canon. Zulu, the male protagonist, imagines himself Khan Noonian Singh on the deck of the S.S. Botany Bay fighting his nemesis Kirk, as well as Hook on the deck of the Jolly Roger seeking out his nemesis, the crocodile that bit off his hand. Kat, the female protagonist, imagines herself as Buffy of vampire slayer fame and Zulu as her Angel. Zulu prefers to think of himself as more of the Spike type. Going after bad guys like he does, Zulu draws parallels between himself and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, the vigilante who satisfies his need to kill on people who have circumvented the law. There are also references to Hiro Nakamura of Heroes comic book and television show fame. Fans of these shows will recognize the allusions and understand the thoughts of the characters making the comparisons; others might recognize the references as allusions but miss some of the meaning, and that’s okay. We don’t need to know anything about The Gray Ghost Dill offers to swap with Jem if he touches Boo’s house in Mockingbird other than that he’s staking a treasured book on the bet.

[Tweet “Does using too many allusions date your work? That depends on syndication and DVDs. #WritingTip”]

The concern with over-use of allusions is that it may date a piece of literature. How many people will remember shows like The Big Bang Theory or Dexter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer ten years from now? How many in twenty? Given the examples in this essay, quite a few, I’d say. Classic Trek was cancelled in 1969, yet the legacy of that show is still going strong. Shows like Buffy, Heroes and Dexter are still sold in DVD/BluRay collections and available for streaming online anywhere from two to ten years and more after cancellation. Given that The Big Bang Theory is now in syndication, chances are it will continue to be broadcast to tickle the funny bones of future generations with its allusions, keeping anything it references in mainstream popular culture, for years to come.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on The Revenant Blog Tour. For past and future posts, see my Blog Tour Itinerary.

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