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Writer-Talk Tuesday: The Literary Stuff

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

As someone who majored in English, I had terms and concepts like “symbolism” and “theme” shoved down my throat in every class. Maybe my thickheadedness regarding these concepts was a result of my inborn stubbornness, but I couldn’t point out a symbol or tell you the theme of a piece to save my life. (Thank goodness for Cliffs Notes—the way we dullards figured these things out in the pre-Wikipedia years.)

But after so many years of hearing about these concepts and having occasional A-ha moments when I discovered one of these literary nuggets on my own (or “got it” after someone else said something that sparked a connection for me), they actually started taking root.

Then, as I started delving into Critical Reading in grad school (which I mentioned yesterday), I not only started finding it easier to pick out these literary elements, but I realized that I was starting to use them in my own writing as well.

It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a category romance, a sci-fi thriller, or a historical epic, every story contains literary elements—it’s up to us to know what the elements are so that we can recognize them. So here is a very general overview of some of the biggies.

Theme: I was in college before I really got a grasp on what “theme” meant when analyzing literature. At its most basic level, theme is the message of the story—not the subject matter, but the “leave behind” or “moral of the story.” To illustrate, let’s look at Green Eggs and Ham. The subject matter of GE&H is that “green eggs and ham are worth eating, no matter the location,” while the theme is “having an open mind.” Theme can be intentional or unintentional by the author. I know that I, personally, do not set out to write a story with a specific theme; rather, as I write, a theme emerges, sometimes spiritual, usually something that I personally am dealing with at the time. Examples:

  • The Wizard of Oz: No matter how far you roam, there’s no place like home.
  • Pride and Prejudice: Love is more important than wealth or social status and can overcome all obstacles.
  • The Star Wars saga: Everyone deserves a chance at redemption.

Imagery: “In a literary text, [imagery] occurs when an author uses an object that is not really there, in order to create a comparison between it and one that is, usually evoking a more meaningful visual experience for the reader.” What this basically means is the images that are called to mind by the prose. They can be concrete (descriptions of characters/settings) or figurative (feelings, emotions, ideas), sensory (sight, smell, touch, etc.) or kinesthetic (movement).

Figurative Language: This is the author’s way of turning a phrase to convey meaning. If well done, you may not even notice they’re there, unless you train yourself to notice them. However, if they’re not natural to the author’s writing style, they will stand out like a goose in a hen-house.

  • Metaphor: comparing two very different things by substituting one for the other or saying one is the other. (“The fog comes on little cat feet . . .”)
  • Simile: comparing two things using like or as. (“My love is like a red, red rose . . .”)
  • Allegory or Parable: This was Jesus’ preferred method of getting a message across. On the surface, it says one thing, but when you dig deeper, you find there’s a hidden meaning. Or, in other words, something concrete used to explain something symbolic or thematic or amorphous.
  • Analogy: This is very similar to metaphor and allegory—it’s the way of using a concrete idea to explain something difficult (such as comparing the first three chapters of the book to a first date).
  • Personification: attributing human attributes to non-human objects. (“The rain wept down the windowpanes . . .”)
  • Synecdoche: “A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).”
  • Paradox: a statement or idea that seems contradictory upon first blush, but may actually be true. The oxymoron is an example of paradox. (A deafening silence, a painful joy).
  • Hyperbole/Overstatement: intentional exaggeration. (“He finally picked up, but not until the phone rang five million times.”)
  • Understatement: to purposely downplay something to illustrate its significance or importance or grandeur.
  • Irony: Saying one thing but meaning the opposite. (Such as the the use of the phrase, “How nice,” when the speaker means “Ewww, that’s awful.”) Using contradictory ideas to portray what the author really means.

Alliteration: Unless you’re very new to my blog, you know how much I like alliteration. I fell in love with this literary device when I was in high school and first learned to put a name to it. There’s simply something satisfying and sonorous about using words that start with the same sound. It’s become such an integral part of the way I write, that most times, I don’t even realize I’ve done it until I go back and re-read my work aloud. Yes, my example in this paragraph sounds forced, because it was just to convey the meaning. But when done well, it flows and you might not even realize it’s there.

Connotation: Most words have both a denotation (the literal definition) and a connotation (the implied or understood meaning). For example: GOLD. The denotative meaning is a yellow, malleable, heavy metal element (Au on the periodic table). The connotative meaning can be anything from luxurious wealth to gaudy bling. Used literarily, the author could write that the woman “slithered” into the room. It doesn’t mean she literally got down on her belly and moved like a snake. It gives the connotation that she is snakelike in her movements, possibly in her intentions.

Unreliable Narrator: This is not found as much in modern literature as in classics. Henry James was a master at using the unreliable narrator. This is the method of writing such that the reader believes everything as the POV character sees it, only to realize later on (perhaps at the climax, perhaps sooner) that everything they’ve learned through that character’s POV isn’t real or true. This is the character who views the world through rose-colored glasses, the character who has an agenda, or the character who is going crazy but thinks she’s completely sane. A great example of an unreliable narrator is in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

You’re never going to use all of these in your writing—don’t even try! But familiarizing yourself with these will allow you greater insight into other authors’ approach to writing as you read, which will help you to start making these part of your own writing toolbox. And you may discover that you’re already using many of these without even realizing it!

  1. From a Foolish One permalink
    Tuesday, February 21, 2012 2:04 pm

    Excellent run down, Kaye.
    I love symbolism and imagery. Just comes natural to me. The Bible is full.
    Love the brevity of poetry, saying volumns with only a few words of imagery or symbolism.
    God bless.


  2. Tuesday, February 21, 2012 6:02 pm

    I must admit – so many of these escape me or at least send my mind into a crazy whirlwind. I really enjoy learning these things – thanks for sharing with us. Unreliable character sounds fascinating – I think I’ll look up The Yellow Wallpaper.


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