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Becoming a Truly Successful Fiction Writer

August 7, 2016

 

To be a truly successful fiction writer, attracting readers must happen on every page of your work - ideally, with every line.

 

Over the centuries, the various techniques used by authors to attract, hold and direct reader attention have come to be given names. They are collectively called ‘literary techniques’. But what is described in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published about the various mechanisms used and their role in fiction means that certain literary techniques need re-assessment so that you can use them more effectively.

 

Here is a list of some of the chief techniques used by writers and how they could be redefined with what we now know. There are many more literary techniques which draw upon the secret language of fiction, but this selection at least explains how some of them do:

Alliteration—The repetition at close intervals of initial identical consonant sounds. Or, vowel sounds in successive words or syllables that repeat. This sounds ordinary enough - but why is repeating a sound at close intervals so effective? Because of the vacuum, or gap, between those sounds. Alliteration is a way of creating a rhythm: sound - gap - sound - gap - which resonates with readers and listeners. This is using the principle of ‘missing things’ a micro-level.

Allusion—An indirect reference to something (usually a literary text) with which the reader is expected to be familiar. Allusions are usually literary, historical, Biblical, or mythological. Allusions also draw on the vacuum power of whatever is being alluded to. For example, the apple which Digory seeks from a garden in C. S. Lewis’s children’s tale, The Magician’s Nephew is more than just an apple: the allusion to the apple in the Garden of Eden is obvious, as Lewis meant it to be, and so all the power of that Biblical image and the loss associated with its consumption by Adam and Eve is ‘attached’ to the apple recovered by Digory.

Ambiguity—An event or situation that may be interpreted in more than one way. Also, the manner of expression of such an event or situation may be ambiguous. Artful language may be ambiguous. Unintentional ambiguity is usually vagueness. But intentional ambiguity is like allusion above: it makes the most out of the fact that the audience or reader isn’t perhaps sure of what is finally ‘meant’. For example, in the ending of J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, the Birling family receive a phone call telling them that a police inspector is on his way to ask them some questions. But they have already been subjected to a set of questions by someone claiming to be a police inspector, questions which effectively dismantled their family relationships almost entirely. Who is this new police officer? What are we meant to make of the inspector who has already visited them? Priestley doesn’t answer these questions, leaving a gaping vacuum of ambiguity at the end of his work. And that attracts an enormous amount of attention.

Anaphora—Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of two or more sentences in a row. This device is a deliberate form of repetition and helps make the writer's point more coherent. This resembles alliteration above: the use of repetition sets up a resonant rhythm.

Antithesis—A balancing of two opposite or contrasting words, phrases, or clauses. Antithesis is used to create emptinesses or losses: if a character does one thing, and then its opposite, the reader has had a ‘gap’ created. ‘Act like the innocent flower’ says Lady Macbeth, ’but be the serpent under it.’ Opposites create tensions because they create emptinesses which drag in attention.

Archetype—A term borrowed by psychologist Carl Jung who described archetypes as ‘primordial images’ formed by repeated experiences in the lives of our ancestors, inherited in the ‘collective unconscious’ of the human race and expressed in myths, religion, dreams, fantasies, and literature. These characters, plot patterns, symbols recur in literature and evoke profound emotional responses in the reader because they resonate with an image already existing for us. As described in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published, there are certain definite character archetypes used in most successful fiction.

Aside—A dramatic convention by which an actor directly addresses the audience but it is not supposed to be heard by the other actors on the stage. This enables authors to show readers or audiences what is happening inside the character’s mind and so point out psychological holes which might otherwise have to be inferred by actions.

Catharsis—The process by which an unhealthy emotional state produced by an imbalance of feelings is corrected and emotional health is restored. Traditionally, catharsis is supposed to take place as part of the process of a Tragedy. What we can see with the knowledge of How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published is that catharsis is actually the working out of inner psychological vacuums, which are either filled (in Epics or Comedies) or left unfilled (in Tragedies or Ironies).

Characterisation—The method an author uses to develop characters in a work. Direct characterisation straightforwardly states the character’s traits; indirect characterisation implies traits through what the character says, does, how the character dresses, interacts with other characters, etc. But as we know from How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published, real characterisation has much to do with what a character doesn’t have rather than what he or she demonstrates as a trait.

Chronological Ordering—Arrangement of ideas in the order in which things occur; may move from past to present or in reverse, from present to past. We find that in Epics and Comedies time usually moves in an ordinary forward way, whereas in Tragedies and Ironies, time tends to be mixed up. Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, for example, changes the sequence of events so that what we see on screen is not a standard chronological order; similarly, John Fowles novel The French Lieutenant's Woman has the author step into the story and change time in order to change the ending. (Both are Ironies.)

Comic relief—Humorous speeches and incidents in the course of the serious action of a tragedy; frequently comic relief widens and enriches the tragic significance of the work. What we have also seen in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published is that ‘comic relief’ could be called 'vacuum relief’: the unremitting progress of the protagonist towards deeper and deeper emptiness is occasionally relieved (and therefore enhanced) by the presence of a comic companion who creates minor moments of fulfilment, which communicate as laughter.

Conceit—Unusual or surprising comparison between two very different things; a special kind of metaphor or complicated analogy. Similar to allusion, a conceit places two or more images next to each other so as to draw on the power of each.

Connotation—Rather than the dictionary definition, the associations associated by a word. Implied meaning rather than literal meaning or denotation. This is also similar to allusion and conceit in that these associations are used by the author to add to the vacuum power of the work. For example, in Forster’s A Passage to India, the infamous Marabar Caves which form the central point of action in the novel are both physical caves with unusual sound properties but also have connotations of psychological states and what happens there in the novel has connotations of something sexual.

Consonance—Repetition of a consonant sound within two or more words in close proximity. See ‘Alliteration’.

 

Contrast - when an author places something next to something distinctly different, drawing attention to the contrast between them. What is actually drawing the attention, almost physically, of course, is the vacuum created by the absence of the other thing. Light and dark, for example, are contrasts, but the gap in light created by the absence of darkness and the gap in darkness created  by the absence light are the things which mechanically attract attention.

Dramatic Irony—When the reader is aware of an inconsistency between a fictional or nonfiction character's perception of a situation and the truth of that situation. Dramatic irony is a straightforward use of attractive power: the reader or audience is in a position to observe something which the character is not. This highlights the losses or gaps or missing pieces of knowledge in the character, and thus draws in more attention.

Elliptical—Sentence structure which leaves out something in the second half. Usually, there is a subject-verb-object combination in the first half of the sentence, and the second half of the sentence will repeat the structure but omit the verb and use a comma to indicate the ellipsed material. Elliptical sentences are used so often in writing and speech that most omissions go unnoticed. For example, a common overlooked use of an elliptical sentence is those which take a compound subject: A. ‘Bill and Joe just jumped’. B. ‘Bill (just jumped) and Joe just jumped’. Anything where anything is said to have been missed or is missing should alert you by now that attractive power is being used, even if very subtly.

Emotional Appeal—When a writer appeals to an audience's emotions (often through ‘pathos’) to excite and involve them in the argument. As we now know, emotion is created using emptinesses, losses, threats, fears, risks, and so on.

Ennui—A persistent feeling of tiredness or weariness which often afflicts existential man, often manifesting as boredom. Ennui results from the long-term presence of an unfilled vacuum.

Epiphany—A major character's moment of realization or awareness. An epiphany is actually a moment when an emptiness, minor or major, gets filled.

Figurative Language—A word or words that are inaccurate literally, but describe by calling to mind sensations or responses that the thing described evokes. Figurative language may be in the form of metaphors or similes, both non-literal comparison. Shakespeare's ‘All the world's a stage’ is an example of non-literal figurative language.

Flat Character—A character constructed around a single idea or quality; a flat character is immediately recognisable and may be a simplified version of one of the character archetypes outlined earlier. However, a rounded character is created by giving the figure more losses or threats. Essentially then, a flat character is one with no emptinesses, as outlined in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published.

Foil—A character whose traits are the opposite of another and who thus points up the strengths and weaknesses of the other character. Like the shadow protagonist mentioned in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published, a foil is used to highlight the deficiencies or gaps in a character.

Genre—French, a literary form or type; classification. e.g. tragedy, comedy, novel, essay, poetry. As we have seen, the four basic genres, Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy, are created by patterns of emptinesses and whether those gaps are filled or not.

Hubris—Overwhelming pride or insolence that results in the misfortune of the protagonist of a tragedy. It is the particular form of tragic flaw that results from excessive pride, ambition, or overconfidence. The excessive pride of Macbeth is a standard example of hubris in English drama. Also spelled hybris, this is a manifestation of the inner psychological vacuum found particularly in tragic protagonists. Considered to be a ‘tragic flaw’ in conventional terms, hubris is actually a response to a deeper underlying psychological wound or absence.

Imagery—The use of images, especially in a pattern of related images, often figurative, to create a strong unified sensory impression. Imagery, like allusion or conceit, uses the power of other things or ideas to enhance the object or thought in question.

Irony—When a reader is aware of a reality that differs from a character's perception of reality (dramatic irony). The literal meaning of a writer's words may be verbal irony. Generally considered to be a discrepancy between expectation and reality, Irony as a genre draws its power from the accustomed expectations set up in readers and audiences by Epic patterns, as described in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published.

Metaphor—A comparison of two things, often unrelated. A figurative verbal equation results where both aspects illuminate one another. Metaphors may occur in a single sentence, as a controlling image of an entire work or can be implied. A so-called ‘dead metaphor’ is one that has been overused that its original impact has been lost; an extended metaphor is one that is developed at length and involves several points of comparison. When two metaphors are jumbled together, often illogically, it is referred to as a ‘mixed metaphor’.

Mood—An atmosphere created by a writer's word choice and the details selected. Syntax is also a determiner of mood because sentence strength, length, and complexity affect pacing. But the engine behind mood is a secret attractive power: what missing thing or gap or unknown is being created?

Oxymoron—A rhetorical antithesis. Juxtaposing two contradictory terms, like ‘wise fool’ or ‘deafening silence.’ Oxymorons draw on the power of contrast, as described above.

Paradox—A seemingly contradictory statement or situation which is actually true. This rhetorical device is often used for emphasis or simply to attract attention. Paradoxes, like oxymorons, draw on the power created by contrasting things.


Parody—An exaggerated imitation of a usually more serious work for humorous purposes. Exaggerations create vacuums which are then filled ludicrously, creating laughter. For example, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series takes the standard patterns of Epic fantasy and exaggerates them, then fills those vacuums in comic ways.

Pathos—Qualities of a fictional or nonfictional work that evoke sorrow or pity. Over-emotionalism can be the result of an excess of pathos. Real pathos - i.e. pathos that works to draw in and hold reader attention - is powered by underlying loss or gaps. For example, in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, there is a great deal of emotionalism. What makes it work (and makes the book one of the biggest selling novels of all time) is that the emotions are based on real and cataclysmic events (losses, wounds, pains) that took place during the French Revolution.

Periodic Sentence—A sentence the meaning of which does not become clear until right at the end—e.g. in the opening line of John Milton’s epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’: ‘Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden, till one greater man/Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,/Sing heavenly muse…’ Clearly making the reader wait creates an unknown and therefore attractive power.

 

Peripety—A reversal in the hero's fortunes, which of course means the creation of a gap.


Point of View—The perspective from which a fictional or nonfictional story is told. First-person, third-person, or third-person omniscient points of view are commonly used. This is a complex subject which requires a separate study in terms of the secret power of attraction in fiction, but for now we can measured that a successful author makes a selection of from which point of view to tell a story based on the amount of attractive power created. For example, the substance of the tale of Wuthering Heights is somewhat incredible, being the extreme dramatisations of two families living on the Yorkshire moors, but we see the story told through the maidservant of the household and then we have it conveyed to us through an ‘outsider’, Mr. Lockwood. The effect is to remove us by at least two layers from the action itself, which actually serves to increase the attractive power.

Round Character—A character drawn with sufficient complexity (or gaps, losses, threats, risks) to be able to surprise the reader without losing credibility. See ‘flat character’ above.

Satire—A work that reveals a critical attitude toward some element of human behaviour by portraying it in an extreme way, usually targeting groups or large concepts rather than individuals; its purpose is customarily to inspire change. See ‘parody’ above.

Setting—Locale and period in which the action takes place. This is very important and deserves its own study too, but its power to assist in generating attraction fairly obvious: for example, the setting of A Passage to India in dilapidated Chandrapore enhances the vacuums, as does setting Wuthering Heights in the bleak moorscape of Yorkshire.

Simile—A figurative comparison of two things, often dissimilar, using the connecting words: ‘like,’ ‘as,’ or ‘than.’ See ‘metaphor’.

Soliloquy—When a character in a play speaks his thoughts aloud —usually by him or herself. See ‘aside’.

Symbol—A thing, event, or person that represents or stands for some idea or event. Symbols also simultaneously retain their own literal meanings. A figure of speech in which a concrete object is used to stand for an abstract idea —e.g. the cross for Christianity. This relates to what has been said about ‘connotation’ above. Symbols work because of attractive power and connotation as outlined in How Stories Really Work and the e-course How to Write Stories That Work and Get Them Published.

ThemeA central idea of a work of fiction or nonfiction, revealed and developed in the course of a story or explored through argument. In a successful work of fiction, a theme should be represented by a clear core gap or unresolved mystery or question, and readers should be drawn on into understanding the author’s theme and message by the power of that question or gap.

Tragic Flaw—Tragic error in judgment; a mistaken act which changes the fortune of the tragic hero from happiness to misery; also known as hamartia. See ‘hubris’ above. ‘Hamartia’ is another word for ‘inner psychological vacuum’.

 

Attracting readers, then, is about more than devising characters who attract reader attention and then developing plots which move the reader along. It uses the methods above, and others, to hold the reader to every page, every paragraph, every sentence where possible.

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