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4 Ways to Improve Your Narrative Techniques
Below are some different writing techniques and literary elements to help you develop your creative writing style. This list isn’t exhaustive, however—once you’ve mastered these writing methods, a great next step is to go read a piece of writing from your favorite book and try to identify the author’s techniques. Then, sit down and try to apply those writing techniques to your own writing.
1. Play With Time
There’s nothing wrong with a linear storyline, but jumping around in time has many benefits that can turn good writing into great writing. When you drop the reader in a new place on the timeline of your story, you’re signaling that there’s more to the story than the reader thinks—in other words, that you’ve spent time developing new and surprising aspects of the story.
To break away from chronological storytelling, consider these tools:
- Flashbacks. Flashbacks are when you jump back in time to tell a part of the story that happened in the past. You can use flashbacks to give backstory on a character or event to show how something came to be.
- Flash-forwards. Flash-forwards let you jump forward in time to describe something that will happen, but hasn’t happened yet. Flash-forwards are a great way to show what’s in store for characters in the future or foreshadow their fate—leaving readers to wonder how they got there and what will eventually happen to them.
2. Use Point of View
The point of view of a story is another way of saying who is telling the story. What point of view you want to write in may feel obvious when you’re first developing your story, but try to avoid making the decision too quickly. There are several different options when it comes to point of view, and any one of them could be the perfect fit that brings your story to life.
- First-person. First-person storytelling is told from one character’s eyes and uses words like “I” and “me.” It is a great way to develop voice for your story, because your character’s personality will automatically help you add flavor to the narrative writing. First-person narrators can also be unreliable, meaning they can lie to readers or misunderstand important events, causing interesting tension in the story.
- Third-person. Third-person storytelling is told outside of any character’s head, using words like “he” and “she,” though it usually still follows one character’s experience. Third-person is a great way to help storytelling feel more objective and can help readers imagine the main character since they are watching them interact with the world from outside.
- Second-person. Second-person storytelling is also called “direct address,” and it uses words like “you” to talk to the readers directly. Second-person is the most uncommon point of view, but that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful—in fact, directly addressing the audience is a great way to grab their attention and make them feel complicit in the storytelling itself.
3. Understand Irony
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Irony is the simple literary technique of contrast between what is expected to happen and what actually does. It is a great way to spice up your short story or novel, because it immediately causes tension between characters and in your reader. There are three main types of irony:
- Verbal irony. Verbal irony occurs when a character or narrator says something but means the opposite—often through overstatement (also called hyperbole) or understatement. A classic example of verbal irony is in the first few lines of Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” While Shakespeare writes that both households have dignity, by the end of the lines we realize that neither house has any dignity and are warring against each other.
- Situational irony. Situational irony occurs when the opposite happens of what you’d expect. This is often confused with simple bad luck, but they are not the same—it would be bad luck to trip and fall on the way up to the graduation stage, but it would be situational irony if you did this when you were graduating with a degree in balancing and acrobatics.
- Dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when readers know something that the characters don’t. For example, many Shakespeare plays like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, there are multiple instances of female characters that disguise themselves as men. The audience knows they are women but the other characters do not.
4. Subvert Clichés
Clichés are easy to fall back on when you’re working on a plot or developing a character—but try to resist. Cliché plot points (such as the “chosen one” narrative) and cliché characters (such as the mousy old woman librarian or the spoiled and bratty younger sibling) don’t feel interesting and will lose your reader’s attention.
When you’re writing, you want to make sure that every plot point or character has at least one unique feature—for instance, what if the “chosen one” prophecy was written by a con artist, or the old woman librarian loves to listen to punk rock? Little details like these can help craft memorable and engaging characters that readers will want to stay with for your entire story.
3 Techniques to Write Better Sentences
Good writing is effective on both a story and sentence level. Use the below techniques to improve your grammar, voice, and writing style.
1. Appeal to the Senses
To make your descriptive writing really shine, you need to master sensory imagery. Since we, in real life, experience the world through a combination of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, it’s only natural that your readers will respond best to writing that appeals to those five senses. Rather than just relying on sight—the most common writing method—to describe a room, why not branch out and talk about the way it smells? Readers will remember sensory details that surprise them.
2. Draw Comparisons
Description can easily get boring to write and boring to read—jazz it up with some figurative language. A good author uses comparisons to bring their descriptions to life; comparing the thing you’re describing to something else is like a shortcut to help readers make sense of the image, and it comes with the added bonus of helping you surprise, delight, or intrigue your readers.
Here are three literary terms to learn to help you make comparisons:
- Simile. A simile is a figure of speech in which you say something is like something else. For example, you might describe a character as, “His face was red and glowing like the setting sun.”
- Metaphor. A metaphor is often poetically saying something is something else—for instance, this line from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “Life … is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.”
- Anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when you apply human traits to a non-human or inanimate object—for instance, saying that a chair “sagged sadly” under your character’s weight. The chair doesn’t actually feel sad, but you can use the idea to conjure an image for your readers.
3. Listen to How the Writing Sounds
An oft-overlooked writing skill is sonic pleasure—in other words, how beautiful your writing is to the ear. Writing that is lovely to hear read aloud is incredibly powerful and memorable for readers and listeners alike, and it’s a great way to improve your writing if you feel confident with the basics. There are plenty of different methods to achieve sonic pleasure—here are some literary devices to help you think more about your writing’s sound:
- Alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the beginning sounds of words close together—for instance, the “t” sound in “terrible tyrants tremble.”
- Assonance. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in words close together—for instance, the “ee” sound in “swinging freely through the trees.”
- Onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is the effect of words that were developed to describe a certain sound by sounding similar to the sound—for instance, the word “drip” sounds like the dripping of water, or the word “sizzle” sounds like the sizzling of bacon.
After you’ve mastered the sounds of words, you can move on to sentences—try to vary your sentence structure, which will help make your sentences sound rhythmic when read aloud. You may find that you produce your best writing when you write it with the plan to read it aloud!
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