Let’s imagine that you’re watching an artist at work. With an expert hand, she uses different brushes, brush strokes and colors to create her work upon the canvas. You look closer. You see multiple layers of meaning and beauty. The work gets you to think, it gets you to feel. It’s a real masterpiece.
While it’s certainly possible to create a stunning work of art with only one brush, one type of brush stroke and one color of paint, any artist has a greater chance of creating something worthwhile if he or she has a greater range of tools and techniques from which to draw. And the same is true of the writer.
Literary techniques are different tools and strategies that writers, particularly fiction writers, can use to develop their narrative into a richer, more interesting piece of writing.
Today I’d like to share six literary techniques you might not know about, and then challenge you to try incorporating one or two of them into your own fiction writing.
Do you have a poet’s soul?
A kenning is a compound phrase or expression that an author creates to refer to a person, place, thing or idea in a poetic way. Originating in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a kenning serves to enhance the literary richness of your writing. Three examples include: word-artist, meaning poet; battle-sweat, meaning blood; and sky-water, meaning rain. Kennings are usually hyphenated. When the opportunity arises, consider elevating your work, giving it an Old English poetry feel, by using kennings.
Can you distill the essence of something into a word or phrase?
A synecdoche is a figurative way to refer to a part of something that represents the whole. Two examples include “boots on the ground” and “hired hands.” In the first example, we’re referring to soldiers; in the second, to workers, even though in both cases their footwear and their hands are only part of the package. A synecdoche is an artistic way to emphasize the essence of something.
If you’ve ever seen a Disney movie, you’ve seen anthropomorphism at work.
Anthropomorphism refers to giving human emotions or a human quality to a non-human being or object. It is often used by a writer to increase relatability between the audience and the thing being described.
Famous examples include a pair of foxes representing Robin Hood and Maid Marian in the 1973 film Robin Hood, as well as Mrs. Potts, a talking teapot, and Lumière, a talking candlestick, appearing in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.
Anthropomorphism is not just for family entertainment and children’s books, however, as George Orwell’s 1945 political novella Animal Farm proves.
It seems real, but is it?
Verisimilitude is a literary technique where what is said appears to be real, truthful, valid or credible, but it may not actually be so at all. The audience typically recognizes the factual unlikelihood of the tale, but as it hits upon some psychological truth, the audience often feels that the tale could just as well be real.
Examples include War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In Tolstoy’s novel, real historical characters are interwoven with the fictional family. In Atwood’s novel, Christian fundamentalists take over the US government and revoke women’s most basic rights.
Today’s reading audiences recognize the fictional nature of these works, but as they are solid works of verisimilitude, readers feel that they could just as easily be reading a true account instead.
Sometimes it’s better to stick to what the dictionary says.
Denotation is a literary technique where the writer uses the literal meaning of a word. Traditionally, fiction and poetry are filled with figurative speech, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Even Shakespeare and Robert Frost used denotation at times. Denotation allows writers to say what they mean more simply. Also, readers find it easier to decipher the writer’s intention.
For example, a writer could write about a dove, as a particular type of bird, and not as a symbol of peace.
A literary device you’re probably not too unfamiliar with.
A litote is a negative description used as a rhetorical phrase in order to make an understatement. With their ironic effect, litotes are used to add emphasis to an idea.
While litotes are common in older literature, we still use them frequently today. Examples include: “Three cups of butter is no small amount for a cookie recipe.” Meaning, that’s a lot of butter! “He’s not the cleverest criminal.” Meaning, he’s not very smart. “I’m not as fit as I used to be.” Meaning, I’m not in shape anymore.
Tips for Writers
Be honest. How many of the literary techniques listed here were you previously familiar with? Some are not widely known, so I hope you’ve learned at least one new writing technique.
Now will you put them into practice? I challenge you to stretch yourself as a writer and try using at least one of these literary techniques. It can be for a short writing exercise or for your next novel. The important thing is to see what you can do with your new writing tools!
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