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Elements of Fiction: Literary Techniques

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February 2010
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The fiction writer’s choice of “literary techniques” is an important element of fiction. There are many techniques available to the writer, such as allusion, alliteration, allegory. Some popular techniques/devices include symbolism, imagery, and figurative language–such as simile, metaphor, and personification. The writer can use any number of literary techniques to tell his/her story. Unlike the other elements of fiction, which must be part of the story, the fiction writer has a choice about the literary techniques to use. The writer’s choice often depends on the type of genre he/she is writing and personal preference.  As well, the writer uses more techniques in a novel than a short story. The writer uses these techniques in his/her writing for the purpose of creating a more interesting, meaningful, authentic, and entertaining story. The following identifies the most common literary techniques that fiction writers use:

  • Allegory
  • Symbolism
  • Irony
  • Imagery

 

  • Allegory. The writer creates a story in which the characters and events form a system of symbolic meaning. George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is a story in which each animal represents a specific person from the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

 

  • Symbol. The fiction writer can use a word, object, action, or character in the story to suggest or mean something other than its dictionary or literal meaning. For instance, an owl can represent “wisdom.”

Symbols can be universal or cultural. These types of symbols are known to both the writer and the reader.

The writer can aslo be  use contextual symbols.  These are created by the writer for the story, and must be discovered by the reader. For instance, a motif is a recurring symbol that  is incorporated by the writer into the story to express deep meaning.

As well, a contextual symbol can be an archetype.  An archetype is a recurring symbol that embodies some essential aspect of human experience.  An archetype can be a theme, symbol, setting, or character. Essentiallly,the archetype is an “original model” or “type” after which other similar things are patterned.For instance, “‘Frankenstein’ , ‘Dracula’ , ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’  are  archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories. The archetype has a dual nature, in the sense that it has its literal meaning and another meaning,  such as wind, sun, fire, water, and the four seasons. Examples of archetypal symbols include the snake, whale, eagle, and vulture. An archetypal theme is the passage from innocence to experience; archetypal characters include the blood brother, rebel, and loving prostitute. There are many others.

 

  • Irony. The writer can use three types of irony. The first is verbal irony. Essentially, the intended meaning of a statement is different from the actual meaning. It is often a form of sarcasm. The second type is situational Irony. It occurs when the expected outcome of an action is different than the actual outcome. The last type is dramatic irony. Essentially, the audience knows more about the character’s situation than the character does.

 

  • Imagery. The writer uses language that appeals to the senses to create “word pictures” in the mind of the reader. The writer can use imagery that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.

Imagery can be figurative or literal. Example: “The war zone looked like the moonscape” is an image that is based on a simile. Figurative imagery is based on figurative language. Literal imagery is the use of concrete and specific language to create vivid images. Example: The boy walked along the muddy, wet, gravel road, as the red maples and crimson birch blew in the cold autumn wind. 

 Some other popular literary devices include alliteration, foreshadowing, juxtaposition, word play, and stream of consciousness.

Figurative Language

A writer can also use figurative language to create a more interesting and meaningful story. Figurative language is language used to make a comparison between two different things. Common figures of speech include the following:

  • Simile. A figure of speech in which the writer makes a direct comparison between two unlike things, usually with the words” like” or “as.” Example: Her cheeks were as red as cherries…He runs like a race horse.

 

  • Metaphor. A figure of speech in which the writer makes an implied comparison between two unlike things, without using “like” or “as.”Examples: Love is a treasure box…Life is a journey, not a destination.

 

  • Personification. A figure of speech in which the writer assigns human qualities or attributes or abilities to an animal, an object, or an idea. Example: The angry wind knocked over the chair and slammed the shutters.

 

  • Hyperbole. A figure of speech in which the writer uses to exaggeration or overstatement for emphasis. Examples: The journey took forever…He was so hungry that he ate everything in the refrigerator.

 

Resources for Writing Fiction

There are several good books available to help you learn about the elements of fiction. The following books—and resources that I recommend— were used to research this article:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
  • Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing by Colin Bulman
  • The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
  • How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction by Jack Hodgins

Next, I will discuss  “dialogue”, an essential component of fiction and one that the aspiring writer needs to master, in order to craft memorable fiction.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please post them to this blog.

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