Sit up straight. Eyes and ears facing forward, please. The teacher is IN.
The following is a list of basic literary devices. Literary devices? I know! It sounds impressive. Sorry if you feel like you’re back at school. But sometimes we forget about this stuff and I do think it’s worth revisiting. You could also think of these as Literary Tricks if you like. Consider them next time you’re reading. See if you can spot them. Devices such as these will enrich your writing and help bring it to life. In artistic terms they add shadow, tone and contour. Use these wisely and people will sigh when they read your work. Maybe even think you’re some kind of Word Magician…
As you become more aware of these they will naturally influence your imagination and filter into your work. But BE CAREFUL. Try not to force them. To begin with it’s enough to have them in the back of your mind. You do not have to learn their formal names. And they should NEVER be the focus of your writing. I’m using CAPS because it’s so important that you not get hung up on literary devices or overdose on them. Remember, the best writing is tight. Flowery writing is not only unfashionable it’s tedious to read.
- Onomatopoeia: words that sound similar to what they are describing e.g. hiss, boom, crrrack. Extremely useful if writing picture books but can also be (very selectively) extended into other fiction for kids. Consider, We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. Uh-oh! Grass. Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy!
2. Pathetic fallacy: When the term was first coined in the 19th century, ‘pathetic’ was used to refer to feelings ie pathos. Pathetic fallacy literally means ‘fake emotions’.
Basically, this is when human emotions or conduct are attributed to nature or inanimate objects. Angry sunset. Miserable rain. Playful sunbeams dancing across the fairy fields… Ha ha! Yes, well, maybe not. NB The term can also be widened to include the weather reflecting the mood of the characters. And this is when pathetic fallacy gets to be fun. For example, stormy weather might reflect a character’s mental deterioration, confusion or mounting passions.
Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. “Wuthering” being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.
We soon learn that Bronte is speaking of her protagonists here as well as the setting. In children’s literature, C S Lewis is using a form of pathetic fallacy when all of Narnia freezes under command of the White Witch (Always winter never Christmas). Pathetic fallacy is literally one of the oldest tricks in the book (it was hugely popular in Victorian and Gothic literature). Used well it is always evocative. It’s also fantastic if you’re writing melodrama for preteens (as I gleefully discovered). See the climax in the Crystal Bay Girls, Quincy Jordan. In a self-righteous huff, Harris (the love interest), has gone surfing during a terrible storm, pp 209-210:
The beach is deserted in both directions. The wind booms across the water. The waves are choppy and unpredictable. We squint through the rain. I lick my lips. I can taste the sea spray… ‘Harris!’ we yell… Everything is lost on the wind.
For a terrific visual example, watch the opening scenes to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Check out the weather! See and hear and ‘feel’ how it is reflecting the mood of the characters and keeping pace with the action. It starts off stinking hot, oppressive. Tempers are flaring, Dudley is in full blown bully mode. The tension is tangible, you can feel the heat radiating off the screen. And then the sky darkens. The wind howls. The temperature plummets. The Dementors appear — and our blood runs cold.
Final note, pathetic fallacy is often used as a form of foreshadowing.
3. Foreshadowing: This is when the writer gives us a hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the start of a story or a chapter. It’s a delightful device and readers of all ages revel in it; it entices the reader into the story and piques their curiosity. Think of the opening lines to Lemony Snicket’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning. (Yes, even the title uses foreshadowing).
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.
Of course, we don’t have to be as blatant as Mr Snicket. And don’t forget, we can go back and plant some foreshadowing after we’ve written subsequent drafts. It does not have to happen instantly or during the first, wonky stages of creation.
When thinking about foreshadowing it’s good to keep in mind:
4. Chekhov’s gun: ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’ Anton Chekhov
I always paraphrase this: ‘If there’s a gun in the first act it must go off in the third.’ Easier to remember, yeah? Make sure your guns go off. There’s nothing worse than a set-up that doesn’t come through on its promise.
Once again, we should worry about Chekhov’s Gun when we’re rewriting. Not during initial creation. But it’s a terrific device to have in mind when we’re tightening our story and ensuring that plot points and major events are well seeded.
5. Sensory detail: descriptive imagery that draws on all the senses including sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. Sensory detail is crucial to bringing our stories to life. It gives them immediacy and helps our readers connect with what we’re saying. For instance, as I write this post there is Japanese incense burning in my studio, sweet and delicate.The morning light is filtering through the blind. Men are shouting on a nearby building site and I can hear the beep beep beep of a truck reversing.
Sensory detail is so important that my girl and duck students have a checklist at the back of their book, Writing Books For Children: Ten Top Tips.
6. Synaesthesia: ‘I taste colours’. We all associate colours with mood. For example, ‘to see red’ is to be angry. With the use of our imagination and a touch of cross-referencing, we can also smell sounds, taste colours, hear textures. How does ‘black’ sound to you? What colour is the smell of firecrackers? Used sparingly synaesthesia can be effective. I used synaesthesia in The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack, p66:
Angus looked up from his drawing. The rain had stopped but the sky was dark and low and the wind was temperamental. It was hotter now, and clammy. Steam rose from the asphalt. Water gushed down the gutters, gurgling into drains choked with leaves and shredded jacaranda blooms. Everything smelt…green.
7. Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’. ‘The biscuit tasted like a coat button.’ ‘It’s as black as troll poo in here.’ Both examples from my own work, I can proudly say.
Again, use sparingly. Contrary to what Miss Sternberger might have said, creative writing does not revolve around similes and metaphors.
8. Metaphor: a figure of speech wherein one thing is not only compared to another, it is said to be that other. Macbeth says that life is a pathetic actor, not that it is like a pathetic actor. Thus he is speaking metaphorically:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
Imagine if Will’s editor had changed this to a simile. Life is like a walking shadow… It is like a tale told by an idiot. Eeew! It’s so weak by comparison. I can hardly bear to think about it.
But Shakespeare is one thing. What about kids’ books?
Where the Wild Things Are. Man. Now there’s a metaphor. The wild place Max visits is of course a metaphor for his own fraught emotional landscape. He goes within but the reader is (ostensibly) taken on an outbound journey. Lovely stuff. And a classic example of the subtle almost subconscious way that metaphor communicates. Little ones get it. Even if they can’t articulate why they get it.
9. Point of View (often abbreviated as POV): We covered this in week one when we discussed voice. But it’s worth mentioning again.
Give thought to whose point of view your story might be told from. Will it be told through the eyes of one character or several? Whichever approach you take, POV will have a huge impact on every aspect of your story from voice to tone to pacing to characterization and plot. Coraline by Neil Gaiman is told entirely from Coraline’s POV. This approach is helpful in children’s literature as it is less challenging to read and firmly directs the reader’s attention (and emotions) toward a central hero; the reader always knows who to barrack for. Harry Potter is another fine example of limited POV. In this series we have hundreds of characters entering and exiting, it’s a fairground of characters. But we never lose sight of Harry because all events are channelled through him. Basically, if Harry doesn’t see it, it doesn’t happen.
Consider POV next time you’re reading a children’s novel. Think about the alternatives. Ask yourself if the author has made the best choice, or how a different approach to POV might have affected the story.
10. Anthropomorphism. Yeah, I can’t say it either. It refers to the attribution of human characteristics or intentions to animals, plants, inanimate objects, natural phenomena etc. We take anthropomorphism seriously in kids’ literature. I remember sitting in a publishing meeting when the conversation turned to a certain mouse. We were arguing about what type of bag she would carry. The writer had mentioned a backpack. But the editor felt this did not reflect the mouse’s personality. As far as the editor was concerned this was a yellow handbag kind of mouse…
Of course, examples of anthropomorphism abound in children’s literature and kids’ authors have a field day with it. Personally, it’s one of the reasons I started writing for kids. I LOVE using anthropomorphism. As a reader, one of my favourite examples is Calcifer, the fire demon in Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Calcifer started out as a falling star. But Howl (the magician) caught Calcifer before he hit earth and was extinguished. Calcifer is now bound to the hearth where he heats and powers Howl’s castle…and adds his two bobs worth to the conversations. Adore alert! Brilliant.
I hope this wasn’t too much like your fourth form English class. It’s basic stuff, I know. But as I said, it’s helpful to revisit the basics. Over and over. Until they’re entrenched in our big, brainy bonces and spill out into our writing and storytelling. Revisiting these old devices is like practicing scales. And that’s my last simile for today.
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