Monday, January 9, 2017

Understanding Literary Devices - We have it all wrong

During the last two years, my son has been enrolled in Advanced Placement English classes at his high school. Known as AP Classes, these offer students “advanced” knowledge and are considered much more rigorous. The idea is that these classes will be taught at a “college level” and, if the students pass a test at the end of the year, they will receive college credit for the course.

This year, the students were working heavily with “literary devices” that supposedly, refer to the typical structures used by writers in their works to convey his or her messages in a simple manner to the readers. As my son was pouring over this huge list of words (15 pages in fact) of literary terms, it really got me thinking that potentially, we are missing the point here. This got me thinking about other situations when it came to writing and literature. As students, I am sure we have studied these a million times over the years.  

I remember speaking with one of my authors after the recent RWA Conference where, at a workshop she attended, the instructor was noting that “adding these devices to your writing will further enhance the quality of the story.” My author, who, by the way had already written 45 some odd books came back questioning her own writing. Was this really the golden key to getting to that New York Times Best Seller List? She examined her writing with a fine-tooth comb and struggled to find her intentional use of the devices. She told me that she simply “wrote the story and used words, phrases and so forth as the need arose.

I even pulled out a couple of “creative writing” textbooks that I have on my shelf and, sure enough, there were chapters devoted to the inclusion of literary devices in the writing. Authors would use phrases such as “to increase the imagery of the story, the addition of [insert literary device] will greatly enhance the quality of the writing and make it a much stronger piece.

I should note, I was finding examples of this in all forms of writing. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama all pushed heavily the idea of intentional inclusion of literary devices in writing.

As I dove deeper into this idea, I was finding this extended to a lot of other areas as well. If you listen to interviews with authors on the radio or television discussing their books, the interviewer will often bring up various literary devices the author used within this new “ground breaking novel.” And, sure enough, the author will nod (or at least I have an image of the author nodding) adding a thoughtful smile and agreeing, “Ah, yes. I remember writing that scene well and I indeed felt that the inclusion of that metaphor to the African God Asase to refer to the way humans are both the creator and destroyer of things.”

At this point the interviewer nods, and the viewer (or the listener if on the radio) feels a sense of overwhelming intelligences. We think, “No wonder the book is so amazing.” And generally followed up by “I only wish I was as intelligent as that author and potentially even that interviewer.”

But as I think about this, I am really starting to wonder. Are literature instructors missing the point when they are teaching these novels to students in our K-12 system and potentially at the college level. To further extend this thought. Are those instructors out there teaching writing to new and upcoming authors missing the point and guiding the authors in the wrong direction? Are authors really sitting down as they write and deciding consciously to use that literary devices, or are we as readers just making things up.

I remember an example from a literature instructor I had at the University of Puget Sound. This guy was awesome! Now, I may get some of the details wrong here, but you can get the idea from the story. He described a graduate class at a university. The professor had arranged to bring in a famous author to discuss his recent work (we’re talking a Kurt Vonnegut level author here). Now, for a graduate level literature class, this is the stuff we wet our pants over. We get to talk to the author! One student in the class was actually writing her PhD dissertation on a work of this author so it was really a blessing in disguise. When it came her turn to ask questions, she brought up how amazed she was of his insertion of that metaphoric blue door in one particular chapter. What inspired him to use that metaphor, she asked. His answer was devastating. “The door was blue because it had to be a color.” That was it!

That same year, I remember making a snide remark when one instructor asked why we thought Shakespeare had written a play we were discussing? What message was he trying to get across? My comment? “Food.” He was a starving artist and needed to pay the bill. Crank out a play, put it on for the masses and get the money to pay rent and get a pint of ale. At some level, we have to be out of our mind to think he wrote these for something bigger.   

I believe the thing to remember here is that we use these terms, not so much to write the stories, but simply to have a common language to talk about the stories with others. We have to be cautious about implying that the authors we read are intentionally sitting down and adding these elements to their stories. Sure, it might happen every now and then, but these literary devices are often a result of accident on the part of authors.

Good writing does not come from the intention insertion of innovative and interesting devices. Good writing does not come from carefully crafting single sentences that will stand out bring divine inspiration for the readers.

We seem to be teaching people (readers and writers alike) the wrong message. We seem to be pushing the idea that to be a great writer requires knowing how to intentionally insert these various literary devices into our writing and somehow the message the story becomes even greater. We seem to be pushing the idea that these authors we have read, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Allcott, and so forth are great because of their knowledge of these literary devices and how they could intentionally work these elements into the stories. The reality is that these authors are amazing because they are great storytellers and can connect with the readers. They have the ability to portray humanity.

When we look up which division literature courses fall in education, we see these courses show up in “the humanities.” These are, as describe by Stanford University as “the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.”

As authors, we don’t want to spend our time forcing the story through the application of these literary devices simply to make the story great. We want to tell our story. If you think about it, the stories we have fallen in love with over the years are because of the characters, the plot, the setting. We love Laura Ingalls Wilder because she is that young child who saw the world in a way we had only hoped to see. We love Beth, Amy, Jo and Meg because of that bond they shared and how that family represented what seemed to be an ideal. These stories came to life for you because of the story. For you modern readers, we love Jamie and Claire because of their love that truly did transcend time. It wasn’t about how these authors worked in an Anaphora or Epanalepsis to make a point.

So what am I saying here? Let’s read and enjoy stories. Let’s talk about how these stories get a message across to us about humanity and who we are. Let’s talk about what we can learn from these words. And as writers, let’s tell that great story. And if you happen to work in an element of alliteration and you become amazed and astonished at your awesomeness, then I applaud you.


  1. Thank for writing this! I'm doing some work in popular culture right now and the songwriter I'm discussing probably didn't know any of this, but his lyrics (i.e., poetry) touched people in a magical way.

  2. This is one of the best posts you've ever written! As I read along, I kept thinking "this a terrific paragraph and makes the best point yet "... until I read the next paragraph. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. Thank-you for your observations. Kate M.

  3. As someone who comes at this question with 2+ degrees in literary criticism, a number of published genre novels, and years of teaching the writing of fiction, I think writers need to understand what they are writing.

    An overindulgence of literary devices in literary fiction is perfectly fine because literary fiction is about the writing, not the story. Popular/genre fiction is about the story, and the writing must never interfere with the story. Obvious literary devices interfere.

    However, deeper elements like literary devices in the writing can be there, and the writer will discover them like bits of gold left by their subconscious in the rewriting. At that point they can be polished a bit but not enough that they distract from the story.