As an avid reader you get to experience a plethora of stories – get a feel for what is engaging and memorable, and what isn’t so much. Also having a literary degree under your belt also helps provide the tools to identify concepts to critique and improve your writing.
I’m primarily focusing on long-form fiction writing, novels that I like to read for this discussion, though the concepts can be loosely applied to many other forms of writing.
To help add complexity and depth to your narrative does not always mean throwing in a bunch of action scenes and having break-neck pacing. There are many novels that are quietly resounding – and those types of stories usually depict the use of subtext and theme more clearly.
Subtext is the goings-on between characters that is not said aloud in dialogue. Emotional energy. Motivations. This can be illustrated in symbolism, description of facial expressions and actions contra to the meaning of the dialogue, narrative tone, inner dialogue, things that are hinted at but not totally explained. It’s up to the reader to draw a line between all the dots to bring about a twist on the meaning. We usually see this in conflicted characters and/or motivations. The best way to convey this type of writing tool is by creating complex characters from the outset and planning out when to reveal certain aspects through interaction throughout the story or scene. Slowly revealing underlying motives of the character. It shows growth and development, hidden depth and complexity, and can lead to a transformative plot point later in the story.
On a lighter side it can add that little something extra to your narrative that is superfluous to the plot by adding some levity, interest, or tension.
Further to this concept, symbolism can be even more powerful. An object, thing, idea, quote, that captures the hero’s quest, transformation or state of being, can help the reader identify a deeper meaning hidden in your narrative. You can also use this kind of tool to substitute for controversial or difficult topics you many not wish to spell out directly in your narrative; or work around to keep your novel in a certain genre and demographic. For instance, dealing with death or child abuse in a middle grade novel: using symbolism to convey meaning without actually writing disturbing scenes is a great tool.
Symbolism is usually strongly connected to the core theme of your story.
Having a theme for your novel is important to keep your narrative focused and on track. No meandering plots. A reader will lose interest if you are continually shooting off in tangents. Most of the time readers are in for a hero’s journey, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, an inner spiritual journey, or finding strength… there has to be an end goal. And the theme will reflect the tone of the novel, the path from the start to the end. For instance, revenge, growth, love. You will need to tie into this theme at the beginning, at a turning point in your story and again at the conclusion for it to work.
And there’s no rule to say you can’t have more than one theme – but don’t over complicate you novel.
I also find it handy to apply these concepts and tools to each character. Not only does this help to create a fully realised cast, but it also allows you to identify superfluous characters. That way you can cut them from the story to keep up the tension and pace.
The best idea is to start using these tools and concepts at the planning stage, but there is no reason why you can’t introduce them after a first draft to elevate the professional edge of your writing. We all have a different creative process, so it all depends on how you like to write.
But these are just some points to initiate a discussion, or things to think about when you cast a critical eye over your own writing. The more we can help each other produce amazing novels, the more enriched our literary landscape with be.
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