Literary techniques, also known as narrative devices, are writing tools that will enrich your story and give it a deeper meaning.
There are many literary devices available to the novelist. A prologue is a good example. In his novel, Montana 1948, Larry Watson opens with a scene that fast-forwards to a later time in the story. The narrator, David Hayden, tells us, “From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting than any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them… “
In the prologue, a young Sioux woman, burning with fever, lies on a cot, while David’s father, a small-town sheriff, begs his wife for help, David’s mother stands at her kitchen with a 12-gauge shotgun in an attempt to defend her family. It’s the tensest scene in the book.
Watson could have begun his novel sequentially, starting with the inciting incident, but he chose a more dramatic technique to hook the reader.
Theme and premise are devices that affect your plot and unify the story. They tell the reader what your novel is really about. If the terms seem oblique, call it “the why” of the novel as Michael Seidman does in his book, Fiction; the “controlling idea” as Robert McKee does in Story, or the novel’s “animating spirit” as Donald Maass does in The Breakout Novel.
If theme is the subject—betrayal, love, revenge, entrapment, for example—the premise is the position the author takes on the subject. Suppose the theme in Montana 1948 is “family ties.” The premise could be “The choice between following one’s conscience and putting a family member above the law can rip apart a family and a town.”
Foreshadowing is a literary device that gives the reader hints of a climactic scene to come. Romeo and Juliet drop clues throughout their story that their love is so strong they will die if they cannot marry and be together.
A symbol is an object or behavior that has a deeper meaning than its literal surface. In my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in, the outdoor theater itself is a monument to the nineteen fifties’ era. Eudora Welty has a character in her novel, Delta Wedding, who carries an empty bag, a material object representing her childlessness. In Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” the narrator calls upon a Muse to tell Odysseus’s journey. The narrator says, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”
The author’s choice of a point-of-view character is a device that has a significant effect on the narrative. For The Starlite Drive-in, I chose a twelve-year-old girl whose innocence exemplified the time period and affected her perspective. In Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, a dog named Enzo observes his owner, Denny Swift, a race car driver, and reflects on the human condition. Whether the narrator is a teenage girl or a canine philosopher, symbolism, allusions, irony, foreshadowing, figurative language, flashbacks, hyperbole, point of view, backstory and plot twists are just a few of the narrative techniques at your disposal.
Don’t waste your time on the shopworn ways of storytelling. Familiarize yourself with all the narrative techniques available to novelists and try them out in your own work. They’ll convey your book’s meaning more dramatically, create powerful imagery, establish your unique voice, elevate your novel and express its “animating spirit.”