Literary Techniques

Recently, I’ve been looking for guidance about writing short stories. Why? Because short stories are recommended for new fiction writers, and I’m new to fiction writing. They help us hone our skills before delving into the complex work of writing a novel. Practice makes perfect. Mistakes can be made without wasting a lot of time because writing is an investment of time. Staying true to my nature, I ignored this advice and dove head-first into a novel. I might be setting myself up for failure, but I feel have nothing to lose at this point.

So if I’m not creating short stories to practice the craft, why am I interested in learning about writing them? Simply said, to make money. According to some sources, making money selling short stories might be as improbable as a new writer tackling a novel. The trade-off is the loss of time spent on my book. But at least, I’ll be practicing my craft using the recommended approach. A win-win from my point of view. And if I’m lucky, I’ll make a few bucks, too.

During my quest to educate myself, I happened upon a book about the subject. The Write Practice Presents: Let’s Write a Short Story! by Joe Bunting. It contains a lot of great content about writing short stories and selling them, too. While I highly recommend this resource, this post is not a book review. It is about something I learned about my own writing during this exploration.

My ah-ha moment occurred while reading a segment about the literary techniques used for award-winning stories. Namely, Pulitzer, Book, and Nobel award-winning pieces. Now I am not a literary writer by any stretch of the imagination. My genre of choice is speculative fiction, urban fantasies in particular. The style of this genre tend to be edgy; some have a noir feel to them. But my style is more characteristic of literary writing.

Let’s start with a list of the techniques cited:

1. Using long sentences
2. Using short sentences
3. Lyrical prose
4. Making and allusion
5. Using an eponym for character names
6. Be specific
7. A story within a story
8. A wide scope

Using Long Sentences
Whether it’s technical or fiction writing, I tend to write long compound sentences. Here’s an example of my writing:

Holding her Celtic cross necklace in the palm of my hand, I whispered a few verses of her favorite song, “Vincent,” into it and told her to wear it tonight to keep my spirit near her heart.

My sentences aren’t too long. The above example is only thirty-seven words, which is about average for my long sentences. Eleven words less than Cormac McCarthy’s forty-eight word sentence cited in the book. Neither of them even close to the Tim O’Brien’s seventy-seven word cited example.  

Another difference is both book samples are full of conjunctions whereas I rarely use more than one in my long sentences. Also, they disregard the punctuation rules whereas I’m a stickler about it, even if it’s first draft. I know it’s a fault, but I unabashedly own it.

Using Short Sentences
One of my favorite techniques is punctuating my long sentences with short sentences. It’s so satisfying.

Twilight cast brilliant shades of yellow and orange bleeding into red, purple, and deep blue upon the horizon as we cruised over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the gateway to our destination, Sullivan’s Island. Red brake lights flashed intermittently.

They are great at grabbing the readers’ attention after a series of compound sentences or long run-on sentences, full of conjunctions.

Lyrical Prose
My style has a lyrical quality:  

A warm summer breeze scented with the sweet fragrance of nearby lilac blossoms caressed my skin. My grandpa sat next to me. With each gentle rise and fall of the swing, his voice grew stronger and louder, drowning out the static noise ringing in my ears, until I heard his words.

I hit the jackpot with this example of my writing. It includes a long, a medium and a short sentence. More importantly, it has quite a rhythmic flow to it. I used it as my illustration because several critique partners commented on its quality. In particular, they noted my descriptive language which I think is characteristic of fantasy writing. But not so much for urban fantasies like my story. Descriptions in this genre are more straightforward, not too fluffy or willowy.

Making an allusion
This term was new to me; I had not heard of it before I reading this book. It involves making a reference to another literary work by using an image, a character, or even a direct quote. Most readers won’t recognize when an allusion is made, but it’s exciting for those who “get it.” It adds depth to their reading experience and makes them feel like they connect with the author on a different level.

Technically, I don’t make allusions. Instead I pepper a lot of symbolism throughout my story. For example, the theme of my story is new beginnings, and I refer to birch trees whenever possible as they are symbolic of new beginnings. A grove of trees is described as a grove of birch trees. A character throws a couple more birch logs onto the fire. Another character makes a cup of tea with Chaga mushroom, which grows on birch trees. Most readers will miss these subtle details, but they will be really cool for the reader who picks up on them.

Using an eponym for character names
Eponym, another literary term I was unfamiliar with, but its definition is simple. It means naming a character after someone famous in some manner. Oddly enough, I was very deliberate when I bestowed my characters with their names. I wanted them to be have significance and mean something to the reader. Some of the names I use are Lilith, Sam, Darcy, Quillon, and Damion. They are a bit cliché, but again, I proudly own it. Other names include a nod to King Arthur and Magnum PI.

I suspect I’m not unlike my peers when it comes to character names. They are something most writers are thoughtful about. If you’re a writer and haven’t thought about the role of your characters’ names, you might to think about them. On a side note, rethink using names that are difficult to pronounce. While they add nuance to your story, they can distract your readers, too.

Be specific
This technique means not speaking in generalizations, and I associate it with the artful use of descriptions. Based on examples in the book, literary writers describe blue birds as blue jays and red birds as cardinals. Or the wind whipped the willow’s branches rather than the tree branches.

If one thing is consistent in my young writing career, it is my descriptions. I’m a very descriptive writer, and critique partners either love them or hate them.

A story within a story
I’m not sure if my story within a story is comparable to this literary technique. Simply put, it means one character tells a story to another character. An example used in the book was from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina is a play performed for a drunkard who is made to think he is a nobleman. A little bit of a complicated illustration of the concept, but illustrative nonetheless.

My story involves a legend about the demise of former rulers. Throughout the tale, details about the legend are revealed, which impact the plot. To me, this scenario seems like a story within a story. In fact, a lot of the Book 2 is included in Book 1.

A wide scope
The scope of most literary novels is national or international, meaning they are set in times of war like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Toll set during the Spanish Civil War. Or other notable time periods like The Great Gatsby’s portrayal of the Roaring 20s.

The setting of my story is contemporary, but the legend mentioned above is rooted in the early 19th century England. A time of transition between the Georgian and Victoria eras. The culture and practices of these eras are interwoven throughout my novel. Another technicality where my setting doesn’t quite fit the definition. Yet there is a presence of a historical time period.

Literary writing is about experimental styles and breaking the rules. I’m certainly not an Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, or Cormac McCarthy. But I think I’m breaking the rules of my chosen genre by using some of the same literary techniques used by them.

More importantly, I didn’t intentionally apply these technique; they came naturally to me which still surprise me. It proves we learn about ourselves as we seek knowledge. So never stop learning, make it hobby.

East is West

The woods appeared unchanged on the other side of the archway. Hanging near the horizon, the sun warmed the chill of the previous night as it began its climb. The yellow and orange foliage glistened in its rays. Dew on the green ground cover freshened the air like clean bed linens. The girl basked in the splendor of the new day before continuing her exploration of this unknown path.

Venturing further away from the entrance, the sunlight faded, and a long shadow followed her. A few fireflies blinked in the depths of the forest. As twilight waned, thousands twinkled in every direction, illuminating her way. A cool breeze whistled through the trees, intensifying their enchanting flashes. Mesmerized, she ambled down the path without purpose.

Darkness descended upon the woods. The lightning bugs danced around her. Using her hand, she brushed a few of them away from her face. She imagined her breath’s web ensnaring an errant bug. The trail of luminous juice that it left in its wake as it traveled down her throat. The thought of the magical properties it might have. She giggled and skipped along her way.

The hum of their wings chimed in her ears, compelling her to twirl and prance down the trail. Her movement synchronized with their tune. The trill of flutes, fiddles, and mandolins filled the woodland. But she stopped dead in her tracks when she heard a tiny voice ask, “Won’t you join us in our merriment?”


My inspiration for this bit of fiction was originally posted on Instagram (suzeq221) as part of my #wednesdaywriting initiative. I’d love to hear your story idea inspired by this photo. Where does your imagination take you?

Dear Critique Partner

Let me start by thanking you for your thoughtful feedback about my recent submission. It’s apparent you spent a considerable amount of time on it.

First, I hope my effort to provide a good clean copy for your review didn’t go unnoticed. I don’t believe in submitting a first draft because it inevitably includes more telling than showing, the dreaded info-dumping and careless grammar mistakes. I don’t want these obvious issues to hinder your review. I want you to focus your expertise on the story elements like plot, characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. I think I accomplished this goal as most of your comments are related to what I’m looking for.

I noticed several of your comments were tagged “it’s only my opinionandit’s your story.” Yes, it is my story, and I want your opinion. I want to know what you learned about the world in which my story takes place in. Do you understand their culture and customs? Their magic system? Do my characters have depth, their own voice? Do you know what they look like? Do you care? Are my descriptions flat? Or over-the-top and distracting? In your opinion, what do you think about the pacing, dialogue, the rhythm and flow of the prose? Was there enough tension? So please, please give your opinion to me.

Where you commented you couldn’t remember or recall certain details, I understand. There are gaps in time between the review of chapters. I have the same problem at times. But being a hoarder pays off when it happens to me. I think I have every critique I’ve ever written. The hardest part about looking to see if I missed something is the time it takes to find the right submission. Most of the time, it’s my forgetfulness. If it’s not, I let the writer know to make the detail in question more memorable.

Another favorite comment of mine is “I’m not very good at explaining myself.” I’m sure you’ve gotten it a time or two yourself. I struggle with this remark because we’re writers. Describing a character’s thoughts, their emotions and actions and settings are the essence of our work. So shouldn’t we be able to convey our thoughts in a critique? I know it can take some time to find the right words to express ourselves, but take whatever you need to voice your impression. Otherwise, don’t make the comment if you can’t explain it. Right?

Many thanks for a couple of your suggestions. One of them triggered an ah-ha moment about how to fix a pacing problem that’s been testing my patience. Another inspired me to approach the description of a scene from a different angle. The result was a black and white noir-type setting. Escorted by the detective, the protag trudged down the shady hallway in a surreal daze. Nondescript gray walls, gray doors, gray linoleum. The dim overhead lights cast shadows as they marched towards their destination. The sterile morgue. White walls, shiny white floor, bright lights, and the stark reality. A truly wonderful writing experience for me. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Oh, and by the way, my main character is a woman, not a man. Just want to make sure you knew since you used the masculine pronoun “he” throughout your review.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

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The above post is my cynical look at the critique process. It is a vital part of writing, and I honestly appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive. But at times, I question its authenticity. Yes, we are reminded to take critique comments “with a grain of salt”, which literally means to not take something literally, but to view it with skepticism.