Reader Nancy asks the best questions, y’all–seriously. Her university studies always seem to kick off great questions, and every few weeks she shoots me an email full of the most intriguing ones. I started to compose a response to her last one when it occurred to me that it would be fun to answer it here. So…here’s what reader Nancy wanted to know:
Did you ever struggle with grasping/understanding any literary devices(LD)? Are there any you love or loath to use or see? For that matter, do you use any on purpose? Or do you go back and read a manuscript of yours and go, “well I’ll be, there’s foil and mirroring”? Or is this all stuff you work through before you actually put fingers to keyboard? Do you have a list of most LDs and pick out which one’s you want to use?
The short answer to all of this is “kinda”. From a young age, I was shuttled off to advanced reading classes, and the result of that was learning the mechanics of literature pretty early on. I honestly don’t remember when I first heard words like “alliteration” and “foil”. They were just there. And because I read a lot–I mean a LOT–I absorbed the narrative structure even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about what the devices were. But between honors English classes, AP English classes, and an English degree, I soon learned EXACTLY what they were. And once you learn the devices in a classroom setting, what you keep looking for is writing that makes you FORGET the devices. When I find myself thinking, “Oh, check out that bitchen foil,” I’m usually not that engaged with the prose of a book. But if I get all the way through before looking back on the devices, that’s the mark of a book I really enjoyed.
The first books I read after picture books were mysteries–Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, then Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. After a few false starts, I decided I wanted to write a mystery and figured I needed several of those “how to” books to figure out the intricacies. Except that I already knew them. It turns out I had read so many mysteries, I understood the genre in a pretty fundamental way. I knew about laying clues, red herrings, playing fair, etc. (It’s a lot like wine tasting. For the longest time, I thought all white wine tasted basically the same until after two years of drinking nothing but pinot grigio, I ordered a glass and recognized the pinot grigio-ness of it. I had been exposed to it so often, that I got it, even if I hadn’t talked to experts or read articles or studied. But that glass made me realize I would know the difference if a waiter had brought me a Chardonnay instead.)
And yes, I do absolutely use devices, but even when I use them consciously I don’t always think of them using the traditionally accepted labels. I knew I wanted a foil for Julia Grey who would be a little more insouciant, bossier, more sure of herself. I wasn’t thinking “foil” when I created Portia, but I was certainly thinking of the purpose of a foil, if that makes sense. I wanted balance for Julia, someone whose shadows would emphasize her brightness.
The devices I use on a regular basis (off the top of my head) are: suspense, foreshadowing, symbolism, simile, and foil. I try to steer clear of the deus ex machina…