Literary devices–subtext, symbolism, metaphor, and so forth–are all tools that you can use to take your story to the next level. Below are some considerations for writers who are thinking about incorporating literary elements int their fiction and a few tips for getting it right.
Know What You Want
Intention is what separates a literary device from a gimmick. The biggest part of making literary devices work for your story is to know what you want and what you’re getting at. Ask yourself what point you’re trying to make with the story, and what bigger ideas you’d like to convey to the reader. This will allow you to consider how the structure of the story, the points of view, character development, etc. can be used to present and comment on those ideas.
Literature makes an argument—if not multiple arguments. It is not about snobbery. It is not about showcasing beautiful writing and it’s not about demonstrating the author’s brilliance. Literature presents and provides a comment on a complicated idea. Knowing what you’re getting at allows you to hone in on it and to adjust the story to better suit your point.
The Story Should Work on Multiple Levels
Not every reader is going to pick up on all of the big ideas. Some don’t feel like doing the literary heavy-lifting. Some readers—particularly younger ones—might not have developed those close reading skills yet. Sometimes there’s just a lot going on in the story and catching all of it is a big task. As such, it’s generally in your interest to make sure that the story is working on multiple levels.
Generally speaking, you want a surface narrative that has a satisfying story arc and makes sense even if readers pick up on absolutely nothing else. Then there is the subtext, symbolism, and other important rhetorical details that build off of the surface level. These add depth and complexity. They may complicate or completely change the reader’s understanding of what happened. They may also open the way for multiple interpretations. This is where things get interesting. But again, even if readers ignore this level, the surface level story should be enjoyable—or at least coherent—in its own right.
Break Some Rules
Literary fiction is where the rules of conventional writing become the most flexible. Plenty of excellent works of literature have abandoned conventional story structures. Some pull off anticlimaxes or nested POVs with multiple framing devices. Others throw the core elements of storytelling—plot, dialogue, and in some cases basic spelling and grammar—to the wind. And they get away with it.
How does this possibly work?
Literary writers know what rules they’re breaking, and what effect it will have on their story when they break that rule. More so, they know what point they’re trying to make. They have good reasons for breaking rules, and when they break them, they do so with intention. Once you know how and why the basic principles work, they are yours to break and bend however you’d like. Play with writing conventions to better suit your story.
Be Aware of Cultural Baggage
Certain symbols come with their cultural baggage. This means that when readers see them pop up in your work, there are a number of strong associations that are already attached to them. This is something that happens across the board—symbolic acts, objects, and names can all come pre-loaded. The more distinctive the thing is (naming a character after Merlin) and the stronger the real-world associations are (use of an actual national or religious symbol), the more likely it is that the baggage will seep over into your work.
Loaded symbols are neither a good thing nor a bad one. On one hand, if the parallel is unacknowledged or is largely ignored by the story, it can be a bit of a struggle to get readers to move past their initial associations. Likewise, it can be distracting if this ends up drawing comparisons that aren’t exactly apt (likening a couple to Romeo and Juliet as they head off into the sunset for their happily ever after), which often leaves readers feeling as the writer has missed the point of their own reference.
On the other hand, if you’re aware of the cultural baggage you can comment on, reinterpret, or provide a counterpoint for it. The idea is not to avoid loaded symbols, but to be aware of what they imply and what they are likely to call to mind. Know the associations. Use them. Play with them. Subvert them.
If you’ve given something in your story some sort of symbolic or metaphorical significance, it is not your responsibility to stop and explain what exactly it means. That’s the reader’s job. Your readers are smart people. That’s why they’re reading your book. Have faith that they’ll be able to get the point without any hand-holding.
Not stopping to explain has a couple of benefits. First, it keeps the story moving and removes a bit of unnecessary narration and/or internal monologue from the story. Second, it leaves a bit to the reader’s imagination and allows them to interpret things on their own. It opens up space for readers to think about things, to dwell on your story a bit, and to come to their own conclusions. This means more complexity and more interest.
Writing Like A Boss: A Note on Reading Literature
The best way to learn how literary devices work is to read some literature. That said, be advised that there’s a lot of gate-keeping that goes into what enters the literary canon, which means a lot of books by dead white men. Not because dead white men write better than everyone else, but because living white men have a disproportionate say in what we consider canonical. So while there are a lot of solid books by dead white men:
- Just because it’s not on the literature shelf doesn’t mean it’s not literature.
- Just because it is on the literature shelf at the library doesn’t mean it’s good, or that it will resonate with you.
- Find the books that do resonate with you. Study those.
- Dig around a bit and look for some different voices. You’ll get more ideas this way, more perspectives, and some damn good books that a lot of people miss out on.
- Literature isn’t inherently better than genre fiction. Even if a book isn’t literature per se, you might learn something from it.
Updates have been spotty. Sorry about that. Updates will continue to be spotty for the next two or three weeks since I’m moving across the country and starting grad school.