Chip MacGregor

September 2, 2014

Quotations in Writing, or: Unashamedly Exploiting Readers’ Emotional Reactions to Other Books


brick green no smile b:wI went to the movies over the long weekend (twice, actually) and found myself tearing up over a TRAILER, for goodness sake. Now, it’s fairly easy to make me cry in a movie– I’m a sucker for a good montage underscored by emotive music– but I never cry over a trailer. Well, almost never. One out of four, at the most. Anyway, the guilty trailer this time was for “Interstellar,” and for the first 3/4 of it, I wasn’t really even sure what the movie was about other than a bleak future and Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut, and I definitely didn’t think I was emotionally involved, but THEN Michael Caine started reading Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in a rich British voice over dramatic shots of peril and an emotive soundtrack and all bets were off. The manipulative folks who put that trailer together were able to tap into the existing emotional ties I have to that piece of poetry and suddenly, I saw their story as ten times more compelling and profound. Well played, trailer-makers.

In the same way, authors who effectively quote or reference other works of literature in their stories are able to draw on my existing set of emotions towards that work and manipulate me (in a good way) into a heightened feeling of connection with a story or camaraderie with the author. Obviously, quoting or referencing a superior piece of work is not going to trick a reader into thinking that a crappy story is actually brilliant or profound (I probably wouldn’t have cried had the Michael Caine voiceover accompanied a compilation of funny cat videos), but when used naturally in an already-strong story, it can be an effective device for creating a deeper bond between your reader and a story/character, or even between your reader and you as the author.

As a reader, I’ve encountered this many times– a rom-com protagonist constantly references Jane Austen, a novelist prefaces his book with a line from Shakespeare, a heroine is inspired to rebel against her ultra-controlling society after being inspired by a line of poetry from a forgotten age, etc. In cases where the writing/story is otherwise bland or forgettable, these literary references or quoted lines merely illuminate the inferiority of the original material by comparison, and though I greet these references fondly in the moment, they don’t draw me into the story any further or make me care any more about the characters. When, however, a reference or quote is paired with excellent writing, or factors largely in the plot or framing of the book, the author reaps the benefit of having all my existing feelings on the referenced work carry over (to some extent) to his writing. The following examples are just off the top of my head, and some aren’t too well known, but the fact that I can remember these and many more from my personal reading speaks volumes on the way a well-placed reference or quote can create a stronger connection with your story or characters on the part of the reader.

  • Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins. This middle-grade novel opens with the “What thou seest when thou dost wake, do it for thy true love take” line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and this sets the scene for the achingly lovely and funny coming-of-age stories connecting the various characters in the book.
  • Matched, by Ally Condie. This dystopian YA title takes place in a future in which society has whittled all the creative content in the world down to 100 carefully chosen songs, poems, and stories preserved for people to experience, the idea being that when people have too much content around them, they fail to appreciate any of it– all other stories, poems, and songs have been destroyed and are illegal. When the protagonist’s dying grandfather gives her two illegal poems, the strange new words excite in her both passion and a curiosity about what other beauty has been lost to civilization as a result of the sameness imposed upon it. The two poems, “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the above-mentioned “Do Not Go Gentle,” fuel her growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and give her the courage to stand against her society, and their repeated use serves to link the reader with the unfamiliar environment of the story.
  • Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke. The whole Inkheart series is a valentine to book lovers, taking place in a universe where books quite literally come to life and people actually enter into the world found between the pages of a book. As such, each chapter is prefaced by a themed-to-the-chapter quote from popular books and poetry. Each chapter heading that comes from a familiar book not only serves to set the tone for the chapter to come, but incites in the reader the excitement we feel when we discover that we have a favorite book in common with an acquaintance; a feeling of camaraderie and connection and of being understood which causes the reader to connect even more deeply to the story and the author going forward.

Though by no means a device which fits all books or should be forced in a story in an attempt to forge a connection with a reader, quotations and references to other works can help a reader “make friends” with a story and its author in a lasting way. If you have a poem or book or author you’re particularly passionate about, or which you found yourself drawing on for inspiration while writing a story, consider whether there might be a natural place to let your reader in on that connection through a preface quote or an allusion on the part of a character.

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  • Laura Droege says:

    Okay, I know that I already commented, but I came across a blog post that I thought might be of interest to my fellow Christian writers. It’s not on-topic with this particular blog post, but I still want to share it, if that’s okay.

    It’s adapted from a commencement speech by Gregory Wolfe. In it, he shares the “seven habits of highly creative writers according the St. Augustine.” Wonderful insights into what it means to be a Christian and a creative writer. Funny and serious and thoughtful, all at once. Well worth reading.

  • Laura Droege says:

    I like your insights here, Erin. I’ve been inspired to read some classic works because of a book that references or draws from those works. (For example, I started reading Virginia Woolf because of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and I’m wading through Dickens’ Bleak House because of a mystery novel that drew from it.)

    Here’s a question, though. What if the work referenced is one that the reader dislikes or hates? I’ve worked in a few Moby-Dick inspired things in my novel; the protagonist is a literature professor who specializes in Melville, and her scholarly work factors in the plot. But some people loathe Moby-DIck (which I find baffling, as I adore the book) and I wonder how this will factor into their emotions as they read my book. Any thoughts?

  • jacqueline gillam fairchild says:

    Dear Erin: I love all your thoughts. I am one of those people who read a blog while at work, in-between whatever. Sometimes I can read a couple of sentences (I own a British tea room) or maybe a paragraph or two. It depends on what the outside demands are on me.

    I am not that different than a busy mom who is interrupted by a crying child or a hungry little one.

    Life is there–all around us all the time and sometimes it not only gets in the way of our enjoyable moments such as reading a blog, but it takes first place.

    I will leave a site open and come back to it. Maybe in five minutes. Maybe in an hour. But when I come back to it I cannot jump right back in if the writer’s thoughts are all written in one gigantic block of words. Often I give up and move on.

    I feel the same way when I read a novel. Often it is to put me to sleep. And then the next night I pick up where I left off. But I have given up on authors who use a page as a paragraph.

    My feelings are the same for blogs. If you would consider breaking your thoughts up. Using the space bar. Making the writing quick and grabby for the reader. I believe more would be read. And more thoughts would be retained.

    It is just an idea. I do not know if you submit your thoughts in snappy short paragraphs and then they are formatted into one huge lump. But it is something to think about.

    Thank you for your thoughts.
    Warm regards,
    Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild
    Her Majesty’s English Tea Room
    Author:Estate of Mind

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