Monday, August 26, 2019

If You're Only Going to Master 10 Literary Devices, Let it Be These Ones

James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place over the course of a single day, but it’s notoriously chock-full of literary devices. Weighing in at over 700 pages long, it’s a masterclass in writerly tricks, with the intimidating heft of a brick. Joyce seems to have never met a literary device he didn’t love, a fondness that made him the bane of many English majors’ existences — but also a celebrated genius. The good news is, we don’t all have to be James Joyce. There’s no need to frantically stuff your novel with every literary device you can think of, in the hopes that it’ll turn it into the next Ulysses. Still, it’s good to have a handful in your bag of tricks — they can punch up your prose, and make your readers unable to look away from your skillful weaving of plot and theme. Just don’t overdo it. If you’re only going to master 10 literary devices, let it be these ones!

1. Simile

Try this one on for size: writers are like chefs, and literary devices are like their seasonings. If that’s true, then the humble simile is definitely like salt. It’s simple and versatile, and you probably need less than you think — just a pinch can add an irresistible savor to your language. You can use similes to add clarity to your narration, and they can also liven up your characterization: the kind of comparisons your protagonist uses in dialogue — or just in her thoughts— can tell the reader a lot about her personality, background, interests, and even mood.

2. Metaphor

If simile is salt, then metaphor’s pepper: they make a natural pair. Metaphor is just about as universally useful, but because it makes comparisons directly, it’s got a bit more kick. You can even use metaphors to enhance the more complicated flavors in your cooking — by which I mean, themes in your writing — by extending them, elaborating on a comparison to evoke greater emotion and truly engage the reader’s imagination.

3. Symbolism

Novels make statements about abstract concepts — but they don’t make them abstractly. Instead, broad generalities like freedom, love, and growing up are fleshed out and animated through character and plot. Symbolism is an indispensable tool in that process: it takes the abstract and gives it texture, shape, and color so that readers can see and feel it instead of coldly grasping it with their intellect. For instance, instead of droning on about the protagonist’s fear of death, you could represent it symbolically with a raven he always seems to see in moments of dread.

4. Motif

Symbols and motifs have a lot in common — both help you get your theme across. But because motifs recur throughout your narrative, they have the added benefit of making your story feel coherent and satisfying. Motifs are also common in visual art. Imagine the effect of looking at an immensely complicated, dizzyingly beautiful tapestry, with a certain repeating element — say, a dove. Seeing that bird appear again and again in the gorgeous chaos of the tapestry will help you make sense of it and appreciate its beauty all the more.

5. Imagery

This sort of thickly descriptive language plays to the reader’s senses, grounding them in the universe you’ve created using vivid visuals. It’s the key to taking your novel from a list of events linked by causality — something like a news report — to an immersive experience like a whole world, something the reader won’t want to leave.

6. Irony

Irony is often misunderstood — its core meaning is one of distance between how things seem and how things are. Maybe we’re clear on the fact that the brave swordsman who saved the princess is really a woman, but Her Highness has no clue (dramatic irony). Or perhaps the conquering hero we’ve followed throughout his training randomly dies of the flu (situational irony), or the narrator refers to a fatal accident as a “slight mishap” (verbal irony). Sure, it can get a little complicated. But if you use irony correctly, it can do so much for you: build suspend, encourage reader investment, and give your writing a more profound quality.

7. Juxtaposition

Like irony, juxtaposition is also a device that plays with opposites. Here, two seemingly opposing things are placed side-by-side: life and death, prince and pauper, fire and ice. They’ll illuminate each other by their proximity, and the aesthetic effect can be very striking, like a visual pattern in contrasting hues.

8. Flashback

Mastering the flashback will give your writing a cinematic quality. It lets you control exactly when readers get access to the information they need to make sense of the story: you can dole it out in drips, making them hang onto your every word. Flashbacks help build suspense, giving you a gripping story full of immediacy.

9. Foreshadowing

Want your readers to think you’re a genius? Foreshadowing is the literary device for you! By seeding your story with hints at how things will pan out, you’ll wow them when they get to the end — and those seeds suddenly bear satisfying fruit. Foreshadowing shows your total control over the narrative, and mastering it will make your conclusions feel earned.

10. Interior monologue

Why do people even read fiction? Being able to get inside someone else’s head is a big part of the appeal. It’s certainly an advantage of our chosen medium over film: when it comes to showcasing a character’s thoughts, no voiceover narration or facial closeup can compare with a simple interior monologue. This device offers direct access to the contents of your characters’ minds, making them more knowable to your readers than even their closest friends. It’s the perfect recipe for emotional investment in your story, and the cherry on top of what should already be extremely strong prose — especially if you’ve taken this advice to heart.


nashvillecats2 said...

As I don't write fiction but try to write poetry some of your devices come into the poetry equasion. (Smile) (imagery) to name but a few.
Found this very interesting to read.

Enjoy this new week.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lee - I sent you an email ... please look! I'm sure these links give a great overview for each device. I know I'd make a lot of mistakes if I ever got to write a book ... I really admire everyone who does ... cheers Hilary

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm good at the last one but still working on the others.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Like Alex, I have a lot to work on.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Those are all excellent - and take a lot of practice to learn to do them right.

Fundy Blue said...

Excellent, informative post, Lee! Thanks you!

Juneta key said...

What a great article. Bookmarked. Thank you.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Sometimes when I start listing all the important parts of a story, I feel a tiny bit exhausted. There is so much to writing than just adding words to a page. Thanks for the reminder!

Pat Hatt said...

The foreshadowing I have down and can pick it up in most stories. Sure a lot to work on and remember indeed.

Ingmar Albizu said...

Loved it. What a great list.

Powdered Toast Man said...

Juxtaposition is such a great word.

Lynda Dietz said...

Hey! Our brains are on the same wavelength these days. I've been doing these on my Thursday Instagram posts. You can never have too much education. Nice post, Lee.

Denise Covey said...

Love it Lee.

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Jemi Fraser said...

I love when my subconscious has foreshadowed something I wasn't completely aware of - happens more often that you'd expect. One of the joys of being a pantser!

Charly said...

I agree with what Elizabeth Seckman said. And also, this is such a great read. Thanks for sharing. Some of these I'm better at than others, and sometimes it depends on the story I'm writing. What I like best is when I do one of these things without thinking about it because it makes the writing sound more natural, if you know what I mean.

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cleemckenzie said...

I'm glad this Reedsy post was something writers appreciated. I like to have lists like these on hand because they help me deepen my stories. I try not to be lazy when I'm developing characters, but those first drafts are, like, "He felt terrible." Well, that's just TERRIBLE! Onward to draft two.

Vicky Cahyagi said...

Inspirative about become professional writer. The difficulty is consistency & always favored by the market

Rosi said...

Thanks, Lee. These are really good reminders that will help us make our writing richer.

V.M.Sang said...

I'm with Emi Fraser. I'm a 'sort of' pantster, although I usually know where I'm going in my head. But suddenly I realise I've foreshadowed something without realising it!
This list is great, and I, too will be bookmarking it. Hopefully it will help improve my writing.