How to Write an Allegory

Part I

Allegories are a very funny genre. They have a lot to say, but they want to say it in a mysterious or slightly cryptic way. They can be broken down into two basic categories. The first, one we’re quite familiar with, is a story that more or less forms a big equal sign to an actual event, movement, or person in history. It is a stylized, metaphorical way to tell an historical tale. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a famous example of this. Orwell sought to capture the nuances of the Russian revolution and Soviet Era by making very neat one-to-one relationships between his farm animals and key characters in the revolution. The pigs were leading revolutionaries, the Lenins and Stalins. Their frightening dog cohorts? The secret police. The big horse everyone loved? Certain Russian heroes who were used at first, then eliminated when their popularity became too volatile too control. Napolean the donkey? The skeptics of the regime, who managed to survive by keeping their mouths shut. By the end of the tale (spoiler alert), the pigs have started walking on their hind legs like the humans they replaced, just as the Communist dictators ending up no better than the Czars they overthrew. After the jump: the second kind of allegory.

The second is a vaguer and altogether more nebulous genre of literature. People will often debate over whether these even qualify as allegories, but they are still representing real elements of history or reality, just in a less tidy way. It is sometimes hard to figure out exactly what these stories are concluding. They almost always have an ominous undertone, though, a breath of the darkness of the real world. A good example of this kind of allegory is Shirley Jackson’s haunting short story “The Lottery.” In it [SPOILER ALERT! Go read the story here and then come back], a cheerful small town community is gathered for some sort of annual festival in which everyone draws a piece of paper out of a box. Everything seems normal until a dark shadow seems to loom over the story, and we learn that the one person who draws a paper with a black mark on it gets stoned to death by the rest. “The Lottery” is a nightmarish tale about conformity and groupthink; it is most often interpreted as an allegory of the holocaust. Because of its nebulous shape, the story can actually be applied to many different chapters of human history, but it allegorizes a common theme of human behavior.

Considering these two kinds of allegory, it’s first necessary to choose what kind of allegory you really want to write. Are you wanting to closely and cleverly mirror an actual event? Or are you aiming at a more general human truth that needs to be made slightly surreal in order to be given expression? Both can provide startling and dynamic stories with a lot to say. That’s one big requirement of both forms of allegory, however: you must have something to say. You must feel something strongly about an issue and want to represent it in fiction. So: how do you go about it?

The next step, once you’ve picked the issue or event you want to represent, is to pick what sort of setting you’re going to represent it in. By setting, I really mean context. Are you going to use a George Orwell or Aesop motif and use animals? It’s popular and many writers have done it successfully. Will you be using elements of the surreal or fantastical? Allegories don’t necessarily need them. For example, warfare can be allegorized as the playground scuffles of young children. The thing about writing an allegory is that even without the fantastic element, you are creating a fictional world. This world may operate with rules completely different from our own, but it has to have its own rules, its own internal logic. Without that, the story will be incoherent. That’s why an allegory is a kind of story that does actually require a little planning beforehand. It’s a genre that requires structure and symmetry, planning and coherence. So spend some time thinking before you start writing. Return to Creative Writing Corner later this week for part II of how to write an allegory. And start thinking!


  1. Liz Miller says:

    You described allegorical writers in this way: “They have a lot to say, but they want to say it in a mysterious or slightly cryptic way.”
    I appreciate and respect the useful information you’ve compiled, but find fault in this view of allegory. Yes,it is cryptic – sometimes mysterious. However, to “leave it at that” betrays the truest objective and power of allegory: to create unforgettable moments that resonate with the writer’s philosophy. It is an effective (and memorable) vehicle to influence change and persuade. A paragraph of non-fiction is easily forgotten, but an encounter in the Slough of Despond with Giant Despair can last a lifetime with vivid feeling and scope. I would argue that good allegory is much less described as ‘cryptic’ as it is ‘illuminating.
    Thanks for the great work you put into this instructional piece.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this useful info, but just for the record, when you were discussing Animal Farm the character was BENJAMIN the donkey, not Napoleon

  3. Katy says:

    Lord of the Flies is a good example, too. Thank you for all your help!! And thank you for the quality article!
    I’ll be referring to this a lot, I bet!

  4. Dawn says:

    Let us not for “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”… In my opinion, one of the best allegories of all time.

  5. Angela Dye says:

    This was a great piece! I also appreciated the comments! I have always written poetry for my own sense of self help. On two occasions, I have also dabbled with writing short love stories. While I never published any of those pieces, I am a published author of nonfiction. I am an educator. My first book was on student empowerment and my next two are on the relationship between social power and learning and the relationship between schooling and the black community. Even though I will continue to write nonfiction, I have an urge to return to my first love for creative writing. In synch with the first comment, I want to write in a way that illuminates the human elements of my practice/research in the areas of oppression and empowerment. I think allegories would allow a perfect marriage between my formal and informal works. I actually think I might be able to say more by saying less using figurative and colorful expressions. This article was great in helping me think more thoughtfully about what has privately been in my heart!!! Thank you!

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