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10 Writing Techniques That Every Writer Needs To Know
Have you ever finished writing a poem, a short story or, god forbid, a novel and found that it is a little flat? The plot is fine, your protagonist and antagonists are strong and the themes are evident but there is just something missing. That magic ingredient that turns a good plot into a great story, or a solid poem into something memorable is not, contrary to popular belief, the result of some kind of mystical inspiration but is usually from the use of tried and tested literary techniques.
Here are ten techniques (in no particular order) that all writers should be aware of with a few useful hints of how to use them (and maybe what to avoid).
Synesthesia has its etymological origin in the Greek for “perceive together” and it is a metaphorical tool whereby one sensory experience is used in a description with an alternate sense. For example saying there is a loud colour is a form of synesthesia as you are using the visual noun of colour with the audio adjective of loud. It is the sensory mismatch which marks it out from other descriptive forms. Other common uses are
Synesthesia can be used in a number of ways to aid. It can be used to help create an emotional reaction, for example a sweet smell may evoke a pleasant reaction in comparison to a bitter smell. It can also be used to add deeper layers of understanding and to help to set a more convincing scene for the reader.
Some of history’s most famous writers have used synesthesia, including Dante, Shakespeare, Frank Herbert, William Faulkner, Dean Koontz and Vladimar Nabokov.
Nabokov saw sensory reactions as an organic part of language and speaking to the BBC in 1962 he said: “The long “a” of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French “a” evokes polished ebony.”
Some Onomatopoeic Words
Onomatopoeia takes its name from the Greek meaning “name I make” and it is when a word mimics the source of the sound, or where the sound suggests the source. Most commonly animal noises are onomatopoeic, words like moo, roar, meow, purr etc… are all noises made by animals and I doubt very much that I need to tell you which word relates to which animal.
Away from animal sounds phonetic imitation can be seen throughout the English language. Personally I have always liked how you can see the word shimmer when you read it.
Very much like synaesthesia the use of onomatopoeia is a very useful tool in creating a stronger sensory understanding of your story world as they usually give a strong audio or visual reaction which will help to engage your reader more effectively.
It is also possible to create the same effect as onomatopoeia in a sentence without using onomatopoeic words. The most famous example of this is in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner when Coleridge writes…"furrow followed free" to describe the ripples in the water behind a fast boat.
3. Sensory detail
Following on from the two above I thought it was best to talk a little more about sensory detail, seeing as both of the above are techniques which are useful in eliciting a sensory response.
Sensory detail is what it says on the tin: writing which involves one or more of the five sense sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. It is very difficult to imagine good writing which doesn’t use sensory detail, whether it is in novels, short stories or poetry. Using sensory detail allows you to place your character in a setting which becomes real to the reader, or it allows you to share your characters experiences with your audience in a more convincing way. Often they can be used to create an emotive response, for example as a character becomes scared you might say “His heart beat faster as he heard the shuffling steps edging closer down the shadowy passage.”
Other examples of sensory detail include: “The young feline had fur as soft as down”, “The harsh light temporarily blinded the prisoner as he struggled in his chaffing bonds”, and “Tyres squealed as he pulled away”.
Sensory detail should be used to set scenes and when describing action, but be very careful that you don’t start over-writing. There are many times when less is more.
Wade Winston Wilson aka Deadpool
Alliteration occurs when a series of words have the same letter at the beginning or in stressed syllables. It is a device which is very good for making a phrase or name memorable as well as helping create a rhythmic effect in poetry.
There are many good examples of alliteration and they are perhaps most famously used in tongue twisters such as “She sells sea-shells down by the sea-shore”. Aside from tongue twisters (itself alliterative) the technique is very useful in marketing as it makes the campaign easier to remember and you will often see alliteration in company names (Coca-Cola springs to mind but there are many others). It is not usual recommended to use alliteration in prose writing as it will appear contrived and may break the suspension of disbelief. The exception to this is in character names, particularly in children’s books or fantasy adventures, where alliterative names are easier to remember. From Bilbo Baggins to Richard Rahl fantasy authors have a long history of alliterative names. Comics also enjoy having fun with alliterative names. Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthur shares alliterative roots with Lois Lane, Superman’s long-time girlfriend. Marvel have Peter Parker (Spiderman), Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) and Susan Storm (The Invisible Woman) not to mention bad guys such as Doctor Doom amongst many others.
Alliteration can also exist within a word when stressed syllables occur. An excellent example of this is Kookaburra.
This is a little bit of a cheat as sibilance is actually a sub-type of alliteration where the first letter and stressed syllables all begin with the letter ‘S’, or more specifically where the letter is used to create an hissing sound. I have included it separately because the hissing sound marks it out from standard alliteration and provides a use that is useful in characterisation and scene development similar to that discussed above in sensory detail.
Sibilance can also be created using ‘Z’, ‘SH’ or sometimes even a soft ‘C’ and like alliteration it is commonly used in poetry for example in Ted Hughes Thistles he uses sibilance “Thistles spike the summer air” to create a sharpness to the words.
Where sibilance can be used in standard prose is in helping to foreshadow a scene where we are expecting deceit and betrayal. By carefully using sibilance you can set your audience into an appropriately wary frame of mind as sibilance will often bring to mind the serpent.
Be wary of falling into a trap of cliché as you use sibilance, as it is very easy to paint a villain in two dimensions by merely using sibilant speech.
The nigh-on unpronounceable Sesquipedalianism (sĕs′kwĭ-pĭ-dāl′yən) is the more than apt name for the act of using long words and it is something which is almost always best avoided. In the world of writing simple is almost always best.
For a word to be considered sesquipedalianism it needs to be polysyllabic, meaning it should have three or more syllables. Of course, using long words where they are appropriate is not an issue and there are times when you may wish to use longer words in a passage to create a specific effect, but over using long words will almost always come across as pretentious so use caution (of course, if you are developing a pretentious character long words may very well be the way to go).
They are not many successful modern day authors who can be considered to be sesquipedalian artists. Indeed, only one author comes to mind for me immediately, Stephen Donaldson and his multi-million selling Thomas Covenant series. Taken from White Gold Wielder: “She was evil. Her visceral response to the dark might of her tormentors gave her the stature of a Raver. And yet, her instinct for healing falsified moksha. That contradiction no longer paralyzed her. She accepted it.”
Donaldson gets away with it due to the genre he is writing in. High Fantasy covers itself with pretentions (in a good way) and the more convoluted language finds a home there. For most other stories, however, simple is usually best.
Anthropomorphism takes its name from the ancient Greek meaning “human form” and it is the act of giving human characteristics to anything that is not human. It is common in religions as gods are given human characteristics but it also has a long and valuable history in storytelling and you only have to think back to the fairy tales that you were told as a child to see examples such as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood or the wooden doll in Pinocchio.
One of my favourite characters from Terry Pratchett’s popular Discworld series is the self-confessed anthropomorphic representation of Death, a level of self-awareness which helps to make the character both more real and absurd at the same time.
There are also more subtle examples such as when we talk about a “vengeful wind” or an “angry cut”. We are giving human traits to natural occurrences to illicit a stronger response.
The poet Sylvia Plath was particularly fond of anthropomorphism and it can be seen throughout her wonderful collection Ariel. Please watch the video of Balloons for an example of Plath’s anthropomorphic words.
There is no genre or medium of writing where anthropomorphism is not a valid tool to use, but as always try to avoid being cliché.
Mirror by Sylvia Plath
As the name suggests Zoomorphism is related to anthropomorphism but rather than human characteristics it is animal characteristics which are given to the non-animal things. It shares many other traits.
Zoomorphism is also a common characteristic in religions and is a means of bring depth to natural phenomenon such as the wind snarls, or the kettle hissed. These examples exist for much the same reason as their anthropomorphic counterparts.
One significant other use of Zoomorphism which is useful to writers is that of giving animal characteristics to people. We may say that our character has the heart of a lion to suggest our protagonist is brave or that the boy uttered a deep, guttural growl if we want to suggest he is somehow bestial.
Giving these animal characteristics to our characters gives them more colour and allows for quick impressions to be created. For example most people in the West see cows as a timid, placid source of food whereas in some religions, including Hinduism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, see cows see cows as holy creatures, so always be aware of your audience.
A neologism is either the use of a word which has not entered mainstream usage or the use of a word which exists but with a new, not generally accepted, meaning.
Neologism is particularly associated with science fiction novels with many words now in common usage owing their origins to a literary origin such as robotics, beaming and cyberspace. The terms are also commonly used in other novels where building a recognisably different is essential. George Orwell’s 1984 came up with newspeak, doublespeak, and big brother amongst many others. Many neologisms do not make it into the mainstream, for example in Ray Bradbury’s excellent Fahrenheit 451 uses the term Fireman to be a person who burns books in an attempt at thought control but this meaning has not passed into mainstream usage.
They are not restricted to just dystopian novels and science fiction. Joseph Heller successfully introduced the term Catch 22 in his masterpiece of the same name which was set during world war two and the contemporary Gossip Girl books have introduced terms such as fashionista to an unsuspecting public and even footballers have bought terms such as bouncebackability into semi-common usage.
It is the existence and use of neologisms which make for a diverse and adaptable language with the famous philosopher Ludwig von Wittgenstein saying "A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion."
Knowing when to deploy a neologism is essential. If you are taking a new trendy word your child is saying in an attempt to make your novel appeal to a youth market you are likely to be disappointed – most new words do not enter general usage. If you wish your novel to use cutting edge youth language it is best to do extensive research to avoid looking foolish and if you are using them in as part of your world building limit them as too many unfamiliar words will only serve to disorientate your readers (unless you are confident your work will be as good as Orwell’s).
Macbeth and the Three Witches
Archaism is the opposite of neologism; it is the use of language or words which are no longer current.
In literature they have several uses. One is simply because you are writing a period piece and you want to help build an authentic story world. If this is the case be circumspect in your usage as language which is too heavily archaic will be difficult to read and will distract from your story rather than enhance it. You should also be careful in what words you use. The word zounds (an archaic curse meaning god’s wounds) is wonderful in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s A School For Scandal but it would probably draw attention to itself in a modern story set in Georgian England although even then it may work e.g. in a farcical scene.
Archaism’s are also very useful if you are writing a ritual as they work to help create a mythic and rhythmic feel for example the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth say:
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
The final use I would recommend for their use is to establish a character who is out of his own time (although if they are from the future a neologism would probably serve better).
Also remember that scientific and legal jargon will often take the form of archaic language. There are plenty of examples for you to study if you are interested in writing a court room drama.
Thank you for reading and I hope you have found these literary techniques useful and interesting. For more advice on improving your writing style I recommend the great Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a most useful tool for all aspiring (and established) writers.