Category Archives: voice

25 Mar

The Art of Using Literary Devices and Techniques

Guest Post by Melissa Donovan

When I first learned about alliteration in a writing class, I couldn’t believe there was a word for it. I used it in my poetry all the time! Then I learned about anastrophe and deus ex machina and I began to discover a whole world of literary devices and techniques.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds of accented syllables in a phrase: dancing dragons.

I discovered literary techniques that I’d seen in storytelling but hadn’t used in my own work. For example, anastrophe is when the usual word order of a sentence or phrase is reversed. One of the most famous characters in the movies speaks almost exclusively in anastrophe: Yoda doesn’t ask “Are you ready?” He says, “Ready are you?”

There were also literary devices that I’d neither noticed nor used. Deus ex machina is when a character or event is suddenly introduced in a narrative for convenience. For example, when all the main characters are trapped and some long-lost cousin who has never been mentioned suddenly appears and rescues them, this is deus ex machina, and it’s usually seen as a cheap way to resolve a sticky situation.

What Are Literary Devices and Techniques?

So what are literary devices and what applications do they have for writers?
Wikipedia defines a literary device as follows: “A literary technique (also known as literary device) is any standardized method an author uses to convey his or her message.” According to Wikipedia, this can include foreshadowing, flashbacks, and plot twists, things we all recognize as elements of storytelling.

I’ve found some resources that make a distinction between storytelling techniques, which deal with the structure of a story, and language techniques, which deal with how we choose and use words.

Understanding and Identifying Literary Devices and Technique

Have you ever come across a word, phrase, or sentence that mesmerized you, but you couldn’t figure out why? It might have been a line of dialogue that stuck with you or a compelling scene in a story. You know there’s a reason it was so effective but you can’t put your finger on it.

In these cases, there’s a good chance a literary device or technique is at play. And if you can identify these devices and techniques, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to make the best possible decisions in your own writing.

For example, we all know there are a dozen ways to write a sentence. If we’re trying to choose the right word for a sentence and there are several to choose from, we might make our decision based on a literary device.
Let’s look at an example. In the sentences below, would you choose the word store or market?

I have to stop by the store.
I have to stop by the market.

I would probably choose store because of the alliteration that occurs with the words stop and store.

While this is something a lot of writers do naturally—choose a word because it’s the one that sounds the best—it’s immensely helpful to have a more concrete reason, to know that you’re choosing a phrase because it applies alliteration rather than “just because it sounds good.”

When we adopt literary devices and techniques into our vocabularies, we can talk about writing, language, and story more efficiently and intelligently.

Using Literary Devices in Your Work

Let’s say you’re working on a novel and trying to polish a sentence that’s giving you trouble. You’re looking for the right word—the perfect word. If you have studied literary devices, then they are at your disposal and can help you make smarter choices about which words and phrases to use.

Literary techniques can also be immensely helpful in storytelling. When I’m working on a story and get stuck, I often turn to a list of storytelling techniques to see if any of those techniques could help me get unstuck. I almost always find a solution, something that propels me past whatever obstacle I’m facing.

Literary devices and techniques are valuable tools that we can use to better understand literature. By applying these concepts to our own writing projects, we can strengthen our work and make it more compelling.


Fiction Notes has posted before on How to Use Words: 8 Literary Devices, How to Arrange Words: 20 Literary Devices and How Winston Churchill Used Literary Devices. (That’s 28 literary devices to study and use in your next piece of writing!)

About the Author: Melissa Donovan is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas. She has also authored a book of creative writing exercises and works as a web designer and copywriter.

16 Sep

Sentences: Control of Voice

Creating the voice you want for your story or novel begins with Word Choices. It continues with control of your sentences. I emphasize control because many writers–well, they just write. Without consideration of sentence structures.

Sentences, as the basic building block of the written word, need careful attention. You can write long, short, simple, complex, parallel, convoluted or fragmented. Yes. Fragments work.

When do you use which sentence structure. Here’s where it helps to read your work aloud, listening for a smooth flow. Does the writing disappear and let the story come forward, or does the writing force you to stop and read again for clarity? Are there frequent stutters as the rhythm of the piece breaks down?

Where do you want the emphasis?

In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams takes a scholarly look at sentences and how to manage them. Of course, there are lessons on omitting the passive voice, creating strong subjects of sentences and making sure there is clarity throughout. He also speaks of putting the emphasis where you want it to be. For example, I often ask people to look at a paragraph and identify the most important word/phrase in that paragraph. Williams says the ends of sentences are positions of emphasis or stress. So, I ask the writers to reword the sentence and put the most important word last.

Consider the differences between these two sentences.

  1. The Revolution has begun.
  2. It was the beginning of the Revolution.

#1 is shorter and emphasizes that something has started.
#2 is longer and emphasizes there is a Revolution. It uses the “It was. . .” construction to push the important information to the end of the sentence. A careful writer would weigh the disadvantage of the weaker to-be verb with the advantage of putting the word “Revolution” in the position of stress.

The choice depends on where you want the readers to focus. It’s a choice that affects style, clarity and, of course, voice.

Here are other posts on using great sentences to create voice.

14 Sep

Voice Begins with Word Choices

Voice begins with the right choice of words

Word choices matter!

Each story or novel has its own diction, or the group of words that could be used for this story. For example, a historical fiction would have different word choices than a romantic comedy. Of course, there’s lots of overlap, but each story has certain words that you would say are inappropriate or are exactly right. In other words, the story is a context for making choices; and each choice will affect the overall context.

  1. Word origins can make a difference: fire is a strong Anglo-Saxon word, while inferno is a Latin-based word.
  2. Length or syllable count matter: fire is single syllable, while inferno has three syllables.
  3. The connotations of words matter. Does inferno carry connotations of hell? While fire makes you think of a cozy campfire? Connotations can be personal, but they also are cultural and these nuances matter.
  4. The formality of words, from formal to informal, can change voice.
  5. Progressions–for example, comparative to superlative–also affect voice.
  6. Jargon is the specialized vocabulary for a subject: for example, in baseball, you would talk about steals, earned runs and RBIs. Slang is contemporary language that means something to today’s audience only.

Words That Mean Something Else

Classic rhetoric discusses tropes, or the ways that words are used. Sometimes we call this figurative language, but it’s mostly how the word is used. Here are some common tropes.

  1. Metaphor/Simile: Two unlike things are said to be alike. The comparison is implied for a metaphor, but explicit for a simile.
    Ex. Eating, he was a pig.
    He ate like a pig.
  2. Synecdoche: Part stand for the whole.
    Ex. He’s in trouble with the law. (Law stands for police or legal system.)
  3. Syllepsis: Use of one verb that is understood differently in relation to two or more objects.
    Ex. His boat and his dreams sank.
  4. Anthimeria: One part of speech is exchanged for another.
    Ex. They enrolled in parenting class. (Parent is a noun used as an adjective.)
  5. Periphrasis: Substitution of one or more descriptive words for a proper name.
    Ex. Blue-Eyes can croon a great tune.
  6. Personification: Attribution of human qualities to inanimate objects or abstractions.
    Ex. No one, not even rain, has such small hands. (e.e. cummings)
  7. Litotes: Use of understatement to intensify an idea. It usually involves denying the contrary.
    Ex. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  8. Oxymoron: Juxtaposition of two contradictory words.
    Ex. To win is to lose.

For more on how Word Choices Affect Voice, read these:

Do you have any examples of how word choices changed the voice of a story?

31 May

Long and Short: Sentences

Importance of Sentence Variety

My niece was here this weekend and we talked about her college writing experience. She said they try to change her habitual writing of high school into something more sophisticated. For example, they eschew the five-paragraph essay, rightly so. Instead, they look for more sophisticated structures.

But when I teach writing, I focus on not just on structures, but on the craft of writing itself. It begins with sentences, especially with sentence variety: long, short, simple, complex, convoluted, straight forward, building with a series, stopping abruptly, or continuing forward to complete a thought.

One of the most helpful things I ever did was work through The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success. It forces you to look at sentences in all their simplicity, complexity and glory.

For example, do you know how–it’s really easy–to interrupt a sentence with another sentence and correctly punctuate it? The patterns encourage writers to gain control of their language and punctuation, to throw fear of commas and semi-colons and colons out the window, and start writing what they want to write.

Summer Challenge

Summer is a challenging time for some writers because kids are home. So here’s a perfect challenge for you, a challenge that will improve your writing with very little effort!

Are you holding back because you don’t know how to punctuate something? Try this summer challenge with a partner: each week choose a new sentence pattern and use it somewhere at least five times. Have your partner check up and make sure it was used correctly. The first few patterns are simple, but the book builds in complexity. You’ll come out of the summer with a stronger control of the language you use in any context, but it will particularly help your fiction. Really. (Isn’t THAT a great sentence fragment, used correctly? You need to control even those rogues.)

After you’ve worked through the patterns in this book, there are two a final challenges.

  • Write at least a 100 word sentence, correctly punctuated.
  • Correctly use a sentence fragment. Really.
21 Nov

How to Fight Writer’s Depression

I am almost sad and depressed today. Why? Because I’m looking at the wrong things. Writers of picture books or novels must remember to pay attention to their work, not the audience’s appraisal of their work.

The Audience is Always Late

The audience is always late to the party. When I sold The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, it was three years before a reviewer ever saw the book. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and BCCB. It was an Irma S. and James H. Black Picture Book Award Honor Book. In fact, I have a file that lists the awards this book won. And it will be released in paperback in February!

In reality, when I sold the book in 2000, I was an “Award-Winning Author.” It’s just that no one knew it until 2003, when they saw the book.

The audience appreciation is always way later than the creative process.

Pay Attention to the Creative Process

On days like today, when I have a tendency to look at reviews, royalties, agents, awards, sales, speaking engagements, or any other outward measure of success, I have to pull myself back. They only speak about yesterday’s projects, not today’s.

The only thing that matters TODAY is the current project. And the writing went really well yesterday on my WIP, as I finally started figuring out the tricky POV. The writing is going well! And that is reason enough to throw off the stirrings of depression and rejoice. The writing went well yesterday and it will go well today. Rejoice.

12 Jun

Story Tension

How do you create tension in a story? I’ve been talking with a friend and his gut instinct is to withhold certain information, for example, the exact location of the scene.

Story Tension

In How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card says that tension is created by withholding “what happens next.” You give the reader specific, interesting information about what is happening at this specific moment and the reader will turn the page to find out what happens next.

My friend, though, says that as a reader, he likes to know more than the characters in the story. So, for example, in a mystery, he doesn’t mind knowing up front who the killer/criminal is. Then, when the killer interacts with another character, as a reader, he enjoys the thrill of knowing something the character doesn’t know. To him, that’s great tension.

Or, he likes to withhold information, such as the location of a scene, to keep the reader guessing for a time about where exactly the story is taking place.

I tend to agree with Card; however, I see my friend’s points for special situations.

How do you see tension played out in a story?

06 May

Starting a Novel with Voice

I’m still looking for a way into a new novel. So, here’s my plan for today: experiment with voice.

Starting with Voice

I’m reading Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. While I don’t like every exercise they suggest, there are some interesting ones.

For my purposes today, Chapter 25 is entitled, “Working with Short Forms to Discover Your Story.” They suggest you write a short piece, just a paragraph or two, each emphasizing a different aspect: character, plot, images, or tone. This should tell me/might tell me what sort of approach to use to the novel I’m planning.

  • For voice, they give an example from Sandra Cisnernos’, House on Mango Street, talking about a Hispanic neighborhood entirely from a character’s viewpoint. “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared.”
  • For plot, there’s a short story by Augusto Monterroso and a prose poem from Danhil Kharms, which they describe as a “tiny Russian novel in a paragraph.” “Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died.”
  • Short examples of prose imagery from Portugese writer Ana Hatherly are called “tisanas” and feature outlandish imagery that takes surprising leaps. “Once upon a time there was a landscape where there were never any clouds. To make it rain it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers. (from Tisana #87)
  • For tone, they offer a paragraph from David Ignatow called, “I’m a Depressed Poem.” “You are reading me now and thanks.”

It is interesting to see how the voice of each of these is dominated by what interests the writer the most.

Actually–I have two or three ideas for a new novel, so I may do this for each of the ideas, and see what voice emerges that excites me.

Starting a new novel is hard work!

25 Mar

Narrator’s Voice

I’ve been thinking about the narrators chosen to read various books-on-tape . As I revise my current novel project, I wonder–
who be chosen to read my current WIP? I need suggestions!

The Voice Problem

One of my favorite fantasy titles is Lirael by Garth Nix, the the first book in the Abhorsen Trilogy.

This week, I listened to the audio version of Lirael, as read by Tim Curry. Curry has read about 77 other things listed on Amazon, including many of the Series of Unfortunate Events–Lemony Snickett.

I love Curry’s voice and his reading. But, I can’t imagine him reading my WIP. Wrong voice.

Suggest a Narrator

One thing that an editor said on a previous version of this story is that she wanted more of a regional flavor to the narrative voice. I’m trying to imagine listening to my story on a books-on-tape and can’t quite hear the voice.

This has a Texas/South/Southwest sort of flavor. It’s an animal fantasy, with a sort of epic feel. It doesn’t have to be a male voice, it could be female.

Who would you suggest as the narrator for such a story? Whose voice has a sort of epic quality, yet that Texas twang?

I wonder–if I had that voice firmly in mind (in ear?), would it help me find/explore/play with the story’s voice better? Any suggestions?

NOTE TO LIVEJOURNAL USERS ABOUT COMMENTS: When you comment on my postings, please come to MY website to comment. If you comment on your Friend’s Page, I’ll never see the comment. It stays on that Friend’s page and I never see it. But I want to read your opinion!

As Always, It’s Easy to Stay Connected

18 Mar

Approaching Voice: summary of comments

This is an attempt to summarize and organize the comments on my posting last week about voice. Thanks to these writers for making comments: Janni Simner, Joni Sensei, Sarah Miller, T.E. Wymer, Lori Van Hoesen, and Linda Urban. Apologies, if I’ve misconstrued anything. Read the full discussion.

Voice: A summary of comments

  1. What is Voice?

    • Define. Definitions of voice are fuzzy.
    • Describe. It’s easier to describe voices, but not much easier:
      Use categories of personality (witty, reserved, observant), narrative tendency/style of speech (mimicry, colorful language, precise speech) .
      Stripped away prose–straight to the point, powerful sentences that create lasting images (ex. Kate DiCamillo in The Tiger Rising)
      Imagery driven with personification (ex. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt)
    • Distinguish among. We distinguish narrative voice (for a certain piece) v. authorial voice (for a canon of writing)? (Does George Clooney always sound like George Clooney, or does he change with each character role?) (Or to reverse that, does Ebenezer Scrooge always sound like Ebenezer, regardless of the actor playing that role?)

      Narrative voice: word choice, attitude, tone, what the character notices, narrator’s voice.
      Authorial voice: transcendent. Complexity v. sparsity of prose, imagery, symbolism, challenge to the reader, provocativeness.

  2. The Appeal of Voice
    Do certain voices have a universal subjective appeal? Why do some people like a voice, but others don’t like that voice?
  3. Learning/Teaching Voice
    • Can narrative voice and authorial voices be taught?
      Some confidence that narrative voice can be taught (planned and structured), but some skepticism that authorial voice can be taught (gut issue: the best thing that most writers can do is get out of their own way). Structured/intuitive, craft/gut–back to this terminology again, but with the twist that some types of voice must be intuitive/are by nature intuitive and can’t be taught?
    • When, in the writing process do you begin to focus on voice?
      Lori uses the first few drafts to explore voice intuitively. In revisions, she focuses more on voice. Could that be reversed and a story begin with voice?
    • Practice and Play

      Write dialogue between vastly different characters: Ex. Biker chick, Pollyanna
      Do the same with a common topic: talk about how tired you are. Ex. of characters to use–single mother, 5 year-old child, 90 year-old man.
      Do Improv acting on that common topic from the differing POVs, then write again.

    • If you begin voice in a structured way, can it then become intuitive or more natural?
  4. Special Problems
    • Multi-voice Project
    • Historical project (or ghostwriting) where you have diaries, letters, interviews, etc. and must recreate the voice found there.
    • First person projects–how to deal with the differences of narrative voice and authorial voice.

More concerns? More to think about?
I’ll be out for a day or two, but will summarize again when I get back.

Copyright, 2008-present. Fiction Notes. All rights reserved.| Privacy Policy
Online Courses