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A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Literary Fiction
By Georgina Roy
Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis’s guide on the one genre that a lot of writers secretly wish to excel at: literary fiction. Literary fiction is widely considered to be superior to genre fiction – wherein genre fiction is considered commercial.
In other words, many writers consider literary fiction to be true form of art, while genre fiction seems to fall into another category – a piece of fiction that is not art. Some even go as far to consider genre fiction a money maker, while literary fiction has worth that goes beyond that.
We here at Writing Tips Oasis believe that each genre has its own merit – and as such, we decided to tackle literary fiction and add it to our growing collection of writing guides.
First and foremost, and most importantly, literary fiction is a genre – and like any genre, you need to understand what the genre is, what are the unwritten rules of the genre, what are the readers’ expectations of the genre, and more. Because of that, we decided to dedicate the first part of the guide on understanding literary fiction.
Another important note we wish to make is that all tips about writing – found in books, in articles online, including Writing Tips Oasis, need to be adapted. As in, every tip you ever read that worked for a different writer, will need to be adapted and modified to fit your own personal storytelling and writing style and method.
So, let’s continue to the guide. Keep writing – and good luck!
Table of Contents
Part I: The Truth about Literary Fiction
1. what is literary fiction, 2. what is not literary fiction, 3. literary fiction myths, 4. treating literary fiction as just another genre, part ii: writing a literary fiction novel, 1. the importance of plot, 2. the importance of characters, 3. how to create a character driven plot, 4. prose and fine writing, 5. purple prose and excessiveness, 6. common literary novel structures, 7. finding your own style and voice, part iii: finalizing a literary fiction novel, 1. literary fiction demands, 2. the importance of the title and cover, 3. themes, ideas, and stories, 4. thoughts, reflections, and opinions in literary fiction, 5. the main differences between genre and literary fiction novels.
In order to understand literary fiction , first we must get to the truth about it. In these modern times, a literary fiction author is considered to have published a literary fiction novel – and that is usually viewed with regard by the publishing world and the academic world, regardless of whether the literary fiction novel has generated a lot of sales for that author or not.
In addition to that, when a novel has literary merit stemming from social, philosophical or other commentary that can be found among the prose of the novel – it is considered a literary novel. Again, regardless of sales. Often, the authors of such novels are professors at universities, or in other jobs related to academia and, often, the publishing world as well.
However, if a genre novel, let’s say, a mystery one, or a thriller, which has a tight plot, a good story and vivid characters – and, social and other commentary as well – it is bumped up into the literary fiction category, even though the novel is primarily a genre novel.
That, in and of itself, poses the very important question (and this question has been debated by many authors and writers and professors) – what, exactly, is literary fiction?
Let’s say that you’ve decided to write a literary fiction novel. However, you also have created vivid characters and a tight plot. In fact, that plot is so action packed that your agent is wracking his or her brains trying to figure out whether to try to sell your novel as a literary novel or as a genre novel. Which way would you go?
The best way to go for it is to always research the demands of the genre, if we’re taking a look at literary fiction as just another genre (and we will talk more about this later). However, the terms “literary merit” and “commentary” and “philosophy” and all the others are quite vague. If you have one profound sentence in your novel, does that make your novel literary?
If you show scenes of real life, if you have characters learn to improve themselves throughout your novel, but the philosophy is never spelled out in profound paragraphs and sentences, does that mean that your novel is not literary?
If you’re mixing another genre with literary commentary, does that somehow devalue the literary merit of your novel?
The answer to this is not simple, especially because there are so many opposing opinions at hand to choose from. In the end, write the novel that you want to write. If your mind – and if your characters’ thoughts – tend to go in a philosophical direction, then feel free to write it as it is. In the end, if you decide to go away from the literary fiction and label your novel as a genre novel, you’ve done nothing wrong.
Among the most successful literary novels, you will find titles that also belong in the more commercial genre category. And, if your novel has literary merit, your novel will definitely be bumped into the literary fiction category – regardless of its commercial success.
On the other hand, it is very easy to define what is not literary fiction.
Genre novels that do not have any kind of literary merit are easy to distinguish. They’re often considered brain candy, or, novels that serve only as entertainment and an escape. In other words, when you’re done reading a genre novel that doesn’t belong in the literary fiction category, you will feel like you read a pretty entertaining novel, but it doesn’t leave you with a really profound feeling of having been on a hero’s journey of your own.
In other words, you don’t really learn anything from those novels. That doesn’t mean that these novels don’t have value of their own. Quite the opposite, in fact. People read novels for many reasons, and entertainment and escapism are among those. A really deep literary fiction novel can make you think and leave you with a profound feeling that you’ve discovered a new insight into human nature, however, would you really constantly be reading novels like that? At some point, are you reading stories or are you reading philosophies?
The readers always decide for themselves. Your job is to write the story you want to tell (and, literary fiction is still fiction – and fiction means stories, not just philosophies).
However, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been literary fiction myths that have built up over the years. And we cannot talk about writing literary fiction without busting some of them.
Here is the most common myth about literary fiction: literary fiction doesn’t need a plot. That is wrong. Plot is not something that can just be excluded from a story. Plot is the backbone of the story, the blueprint of it and it is what gives the story a proper beginning, middle and end. The real truth is that in a literary fiction novel, the plot can be both action-based (or plot based) and character-based. In most cases, a literary fiction novel will have a plot that is based on character. It means that the events of the plot itself are internal – however, they will be caused by parallel external factors.
Another myth is that literary novels cannot be mixed with other genres. For example, it’s a myth that you cannot write a literary fiction novel that also belongs in the science fiction genre. What if you create a science fiction world, place your characters there, and have your protagonist change profoundly throughout the novel? What if your writing and your prose belong in the literary genre – but the story doesn’t?
However, on the other side of the coin, one can find the myth that literary fiction novels are the luxury brand of literature – and that while literary fiction novels are widely acclaimed, they also would not sell well. This is for all aspiring literary fiction writers out there: a good novel will find a way to break through and sell. Do not shy away from writing the literary fiction novel you wish to write just because some authors and writers believe that literary fiction does not do well in sales. In the end, what you need is a really good story, even if that story is represented in a literary fiction novel.
Many authors will claim that it is impossible to look at literary fiction as just another genre – however, that is just another myth in and of itself. The belief that literary fiction is on a level above genre fiction is also a myth – especially because when you look at literary fiction as just another genre, you will be open to all the possibilities of genre bending and mixing that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
In other words, treating literary fiction as just another genre enables you to write a science fiction literary novel, or a mystery novel that will also belong in the literary fiction genre.
On the other hand, it is also perfectly fine to keep looking at literary fiction as a step above commercial genre fiction. If that suits your purposes during the writing of your novel, then go for it. In the end, you need to perceive your novel in a way that you want to perceive it, regardless of what other writers and authors say about literary fiction.
What we can easily conclude from all of this is that the way you perceive your novel – and the way that others will perceive it, both authors and readers – will be different. You might think you’ve written a good genre novel, and all of a sudden, the writers’ community is praising it as literary.
On the other hand, you might believe that you’ve written a good genre-bending novel that can be both a literary and genre novel, only to have readers shy away from it because it’s too literary – or maybe even not literary enough. Every novel that you will write will feel like a gamble – you did your best, but that doesn’t really guarantee you anything, especially in this day and age.
Remember, getting acclaimed rewards doesn’t mean getting sales and popularity as a writer (not that they don’t help). But, if you have a good story and a good novel, and you have a lot of sales and commercial success, it doesn’t mean that your novel will not be accepted and appreciated by the writing community. In other words, just because your novel is genre bending and can be sold as a genre novel, it doesn’t mean that it will not receive literary fiction awards – especially if it has literary merit and is an excellent novel.
Now that we (attempted) to define literary fiction in a more rounded way, it’s time to take a look at how to write the literary fiction novel. Just because the expectations of the literary fiction are a bit difficult to define, that doesn’t mean that they cannot be defined. If the marking of a good literary fiction novel is literary merit, then we can try to break down this merit into edible bits and pieces and tips that you can use to your benefit.
And because we also want to enable you to write the story that you want to write, we are talking about writing a literary fiction novel in the same way as writing a novel in any other genre. And just like any other genre, this means that the basis of your novel will fall on plot and vivid characters – everything else, including the social commentary or philosophy that you wish to share with the world – becomes second to the plot and the characters. So, let’s take a look at how you can build a literary fiction book that will please the critics – but still entertain your readers immensely.
Many writers think that it is not plot what makes the readers sigh when they’ve finished a novel, but characters that are vivid and realistic, characters that have become our own avatars in that story, and through those avatars, we’ve also lived the story and learned from it. And while it’s true that vivid characters we can relate to enable us to live the story, it is the plot that gives us that sense of satisfaction – the sense of having read a rounded story that has a defined beginning, middle, end – and most importantly – a point.
The difference between the plot in a regular genre novel and the plot in a literary novel is that the plot in a literary novel is character based, while the plot in a genre novel will be action based. The regular genre novel focuses more on what happens – external plot, while in a literary novel, the plot focuses more on whom it happens to – internal plot. And constructing a plot is most easily done in three steps:
- Inciting Incident: the incident or event that sets the story in motion.
- Plot Point 1: when the protagonist makes the wrong decision within the story.
- Plot Point 2: when the protagonist makes the right decision near the end of the story, which leads to the resolution.
Characters are important – as previously concluded, they are the avatars through which your readers will experience the story. Regardless of which point of view you use to tell the story, the readers need to be able to connect with your characters. In a literary novel, where the plot is mostly internal, the side characters that appear can be:
- Major secondary character that accompany the protagonist throughout the novel.
- Minor characters that appear in an episodic fashion: when they’re needed.
Ideally, every character in your novel will have a character arc. In a literary novel, many characters can have their own stories and arcs that usually relate to a theme. However, you can only cram so many themes and ideas into one novel, and one thing to keep in mind is to ensure that these complement each other. In addition, beware of using too many of them – you can only tackle so many themes in a way that leaves the readers satisfied. For example, if you’re trying to tackle difficult themes like domestic violence and rape, make sure that you give them their due. Otherwise, many readers who have actually experienced these things will be left feeling unsatisfied – or even worse, hurt and misunderstood.
Remember, your characters and their vividness in a literary novel falls second hand to what these characters represent. But both of these things fall behind the importance of their role: if a character doesn’t add to the story, then that character doesn’t belong in the novel. For that reason, you need to know, at all times, what are you trying to say with each character, and then, you need to give those characters their own backstories and their own stories within the course of the novel – especially for the major secondary characters. On the other hand, even the episodic characters need the same. Then, when they slowly fade into the background, the readers understand that these characters have completed their role in the story, and are being replaced by other characters.
In a literary novel, the plot will most often be character driven. If we take the guidance we previously presented on building a plot, then we would have the inciting incident, plot point one – where the protagonist makes the wrong decision, and plot point two, where the protagonist makes the right decision. Ideally, the inciting incident happens in the middle of the first act, and plot point one is the end of the first act. The end of the second is marked by the second plot point, and the third act is the resolution. In a genre novel, the inciting incident and plot point one can happen a lot earlier, with most of the novel focusing on the second and third act.
In a literary novel, however, where the plot is driven by character rather than action, the inciting incident and two plot points will be completely internal. Here, we do not care much about what happens – the focus is rather on the result of that event within the protagonist. You need to send your protagonist on a spiritual journey – or a journey of the mind – and while this journey should be caused and influenced by external events, the crux of the plot is focused on what the protagonist has learned along the way.
Genre bending novels, or novels where the literary genre is mixed with other genres, like mystery or romance, have plots that are a perfect blend of action and character. The protagonist goes through both an external and an internal journey within the course of the novel, which is what sets apart these novels from genre novels.
Here is a truth about literary fiction: if you promise, you need to deliver. That is, if you want to label your novel as literary fiction, you need to deliver prose and fine writing that taste like fine wine. There is no definite formula as to what fine writing exactly is – and in a lot of ways, appreciating prose and fine writing is a very subjective thing.
Most writers would describe it as poetic writing – although this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need find ten different ways to describe pouring rain. While the genre novel writer can write in a simpler way, the literary fiction writer must pay attention to how he or she constructs sentences and paragraphs. For example, literary fiction prose will be peppered and riddled with metaphors, and the characters will speak in a manner that’s engaging and intelligent, yet deep and profound. In literary fiction, you can witness how syllables of different words complement each other to make a sentence seem like a piece of well-composed music. And yet, within it, it’s very easy to give in to excessiveness – which, inevitably, leads to purple prose.
Where do you draw the line between fine writing and purple prose?
The easiest way to determine whether you’re going into purple prose territory is to choose your favorite passage or chapter from your novel – and give it to someone to read. More importantly, listen to their feedback. If they failed to comprehend and understand what you wrote, then chances are you’ve given in to excessiveness, which resulted in purple prose.
Purple prose is not necessarily a bad thing for a literary novel. After all, literary fiction is praised for fine writing. However, you need to decide on what is more important: the actual prose or the readers who are supposed to enjoy your novel and (hopefully) learn something from it. If purple prose prevents you from doing that, then maybe you need to rethink your writing style – and maybe kill a few of your wordy darlings in order to achieve this.
We’ve already established that literary fiction novels also need a plot – with the sole difference that it’s character based. In addition to this, there are two other types of structures often found in literary novels: the coming of age, and the picaresque structure. Many writers also consider coming of age and picaresque to be separate genres of novels, however, both of them belong under the umbrella of literary fiction as a whole.
Coming of age as a structure is very easy to understand (even if it’s not so easy to portray): we follow the protagonist throughout his or her life, from childhood to adulthood, and often, the protagonist engages grand philosophical ideas throughout his or her life, and we get to engage in those ideas as well. Among the most popular examples of this include The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .
The picaresque novel, on the other hand, often features one protagonist, while all the other characters appear in an episodic fashion. The picaresque novel has been around since the 1500s, even though the term wasn’t coined until the 1800s. The mosaic-like novel often depicts characters of lower standing, and often, the depiction is comic and satirical.
However, one of the best things about literary fiction is the freedom in choosing your own structure. The slow pacing of the novel itself, and the character-based plot gives you the freedom to construct it in any way you wish. You may construct your novel in a rose pattern, where each part of your novel will unfold a new revelation for the characters and for the readers, breaking all other structures – and still managing to engage the readers and keep their attention glued to your words.
All writers have their own writing style and writing voice. Moreover, writers have different voices and styles in different novels – different series, and this is also true for literary fiction. Your first literary fiction novel will be different than your second one, and so on.
So, how to find your style and voice? Moreover, how to ensure that your writing style will pass the “literary prose” bar?
The best thing to do is to read literary fiction, not just the classics like Catcher in the Rye , but newer literary novels as well, like Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and others. Remember, everything you read, you absorb within you. You will find yourself regurgitating favorite phrases that you read in your favorite books, even though you’re not conscious of doing that. For that reason, the second step is always to write, and then keep writing. When your aim is a literary novel, then you need to try to emulate a literary style. The more you write, the better you will become at it. You will notice it in your sentences – you will probably even notice it in speech.
In addition, try to work some writing exercises in your daily writing routine. In these exercises, your task would be to write paragraphs, sentences, and titles that are both creative and read beautifully. Try using more metaphors and similes, rather than writing everything in a straightforward manner. While straightforward prose is good for genre fiction (and we will get to the differences between genre and literary fiction in the third section), literary fiction demands fine writing and beautiful prose. And it is your task as the writer to deliver it.
The reason why we named this section “finalizing” is because the best way to write a novel is to write it in the way that you want to write it. Use any kind of aid you can possibly think of to improve upon your prose, however, the story, the characters, and the things you wish to tell in a novel will be told best when you do not think about the demands of literary fiction as a genre.
For that reason, it is during the editing process when you should focus on those demands. Ideally, the first editing will be on a macro level, where you need to read through your novel (even better: get a beta reader – another pair of eyes will help you see problems in plot, characterization, world consistency and continuity).
Now, the second level of editing goes beyond the story and should focus on the writing. When it comes to editing a literary novel, this would be the edit when you need to make sure that your novel delivers everything promised by the label of literary fiction. For that reason, we’ve dedicated this section to the demands of literary fiction, the incorporation of ideas and themes, how the title of the novel and the cover will help you set your novel apart from genre fiction, and the differences between genre novels and literary novels.
Here are some of the most common rules that pop up about literary fiction:
- Character-based plot;
- Slow pace that allows for relation of themes and philosophies;
- Beautiful prose;
- Purple prose – if it suits your writing style and you know it will suit your target audience;
- Creative use of language, metaphors, and similes;
- A cover and a title to set your novel apart.
However, the term literary is very subjective. Some readers enjoy reading literary novels, others will read a literary novel for the story and not see your novel as literary. In the end, the term literary fiction only matters to critics and academics, and authors who aim for literary fiction awards. If your aim is the same, then the best thing you can do is to try to emulate the literary fiction novels which have been hailed as such by the critics and which have received awards for literary merit.
Keep in mind, though, that even the critics are subjective. You might have written the best literary novel of all times, however, there is always a chance that the literary critics will just pass it over and not consider it to have literary merit. Here, we will mention a beta reader again: especially if you can find someone who has read many literary fiction novels and knows the most common markings of a literary novel. That beta reader can give you the kind of constructive feedback you need to ensure your novel shows literary merit and deserves a spot in the hall of literary fiction.
Here is the thing: in the digital age, genre novels can have beautiful covers that are worthy of all literary fiction covers. However, the cover of a literary fiction novel will still set the novel apart from the rest. This means that you need to pay special attention to the font used on the cover, and the illustrations on it as well. Both of these need to match the themes that will be found between the covers. For example, with regards to illustrations, if a key theme in your literary fiction story is the breaking up of a family that was once unshakable, appropriate imagery on the cover needs to depict this occurrence. Moreover, literary fiction is usually published in hardback or trade paperback – which means the book is published in paperback, but it is the same size and quality as hardback books, rather than mass paperback (which are smaller and printed in larger quantities, reserved for genre books).
Now, when it comes to the title – the title will set your novel even further apart. This is where your ingenuity and creativity need to come to the forefront and deliver not only a straightforward title, but a title that will also relay an idea. For example, here are some titles of genre novels:
Egomaniac (a romance novel by Vi Keeland)
Dating You Hating You (another romance, by Christina Lauren)
And here are some literary fiction titles:
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (by Lesley Nneka Arimah)
Sing, Unburied, Sing (by Jesmyn Ward)
The Ninth Hour (by Alice McDermott)
While there are genre novels with wonderful titles, the literary fiction novel titles always carry with them the theme of the novel. The title gives us a glimpse not into the story itself (as it is with genre novel titles), but into the underlying theme as well.
Every novel needs an idea and a theme, and every story relays something from the real world. Whether your novel is a mirror into your characters’ souls, or it is a window through which your characters see the world, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that there is an underlying theme or idea that will be shown throughout the novel. This idea or a theme needs to be both on your character’s mind (or your protagonist’s mind) and within the story. Otherwise, there will be no connection between the story and the idea – there will be no cause for the protagonist to be focusing on that theme, and as a result, your novel might lose the literary merit you’re aiming for.
In any novel, readers enjoy reading the plot that’s on the surface. However, in a literary novel, there is always the underlying theme that shows what the meaning of the novel is about, that is, the underlying theme gives the literary novel its meaning. And readers of literary fiction expect the theme to show itself through both the events of the plot and the thoughts and changes in the protagonist, and his or her character.
There are many themes that you can tackle in literary fiction, from taboo themes like the relationship between a professor and a student, to dark themes like family violence, rape, death, and so on. When it comes to tackling these themes, please keep in mind that you need to do them justice – because chances are, many of your readers will have gone through the same experience.
Here, we wish to talk about preaching.
Any writer who aims for a literary fiction novel aims so because he or she has something to tell to the world. Maybe you wish to share your own philosophy on what real love should feel like, or maybe you wish to show your readers how a real human being deals with the death of a loved one.
What you must never do is preach. And it is very easy to slip into preaching mode when you’re writing a novel, especially if you feel that the things you have to say are important. The best way to ensure that your voice as the author doesn’t slip into the voices of your characters is to ensure that each character, first and foremost, talks differently. Second, you need to ensure that the things that the characters are saying make sense – as in, that character would say that, because those words stem and come from his or her personality. For example, you cannot have a 10-year-old child talk like an adult and philosophize about life. A 10-year-old child will philosophize about life, true, but he or she will do it in a childish way, using the words of a child, not the words of an adult.
On the other hand, always remember that your readers will understand that these are your words. It is very easy for our own personality to slip into our words, and as a result, your story might not show the readers what you think about the world, but who you are. A racist character that doesn’t change within the course of the novel implies that you believe that racism is okay. And while the previous example is crude, it gets the point across: your story shows who you are, regardless of how explicitly you relay your opinions.
We already talked about some of the differences between genre and literary fiction novels. Here in this section, we want to put them all in one place.
Genre fiction has action based plot, while literary fiction focuses more on character. In genre fiction, the actions of the protagonist move the story forward, while in literary fiction, it is the thoughts of the protagonist and his or her personality as a character that are more in focus.
Genre fiction is usually written in prose that is straightforward. You will not find ten different ways to describe snow in a genre novel. But, you might find a paragraph in literary fiction that only describes someone’s laugh. In genre fiction, descriptions are more straightforward and short. In literary fiction, the act of a breakup can mean the character starts thinking about being unraveled among the stars above. Metaphors and similes are the marks of literary fiction prose, while a more straightforward prose dominates genre fiction.
Genre fiction has an underlying theme, true, but this underlying theme may need to be teased out of all the action. On the other side, the theme in a literary fiction novel is always there and tangible to the reader.
The main difference is the aim: genre fiction novels tend to entertain, to offer a place where you can escape from the real world. Literary fiction novels aim to engage the readers’ minds. Literary fiction novels tackle themes about life that wouldn’t come up in a regular genre novel. In other words, a literary fiction novel might not be the ideal place to escape the world, because literary fiction tends to portray real life. This means that there will be a little bit more chaos to the story, characters that are a little bit too realistic, themes that may hit a little bit too close to home. As the writer, you need to decide just how close to home you wish to hit. Many writers go for deep impacts that leave the readers both emotionally and intellectually affected after reading the novel. Other writers go deep into the philosophy of the themes, and their novels leave you thinking about those themes for a long time after finishing the last page.
Some literary novels have themes that are so positive and good that reading those novels feels like therapy. This cannot be achieved with a common genre novel that only offers entertainment and a means to escape (although, this in no way diminishes the worth of genre novels – in fact, sometimes, being able to escape reality in a book is therapeutic, while reading a literary novel with a theme that hits too close to home can just make the reader spiral into desperation at being unable to solve his or her problems).
As we previously mentioned, the title itself, and the cover itself, of a literary fiction novel will set that novel apart from the genre novel. Moreover, bookstores dedicate separate sections for literary fiction.
It is worth noting that we live in the digital age of e-books. Previously, in order to be able to publish a literary novel, you needed certain credentials: perhaps a teaching position, or something else that would be used to distinguish yourself as an author. Nowadays, however, you do not need any of this to publish your own novel, be it a literary fiction novel or not. Yet, at the same time, anyone can self-publish e-books on Amazon. As a result, today, unless a big publishing house stands behind your literary fiction novel and publishes it, you will need to work really hard on the marketing aspect in order to ensure that your book will be picked up by the right audience. In fact, this is true about genre fiction as well.
How to begin the process of writing a literary fiction novel?
First, we would advise you to determine whether literary fiction is something that you really want to do. Because often, there is a stark difference between the novel you wanted to write and the novel you actually publish. In fact, many published authors say that the first draft barely even resembles the final one. Many writers tell of the pain of having to kill all the things they really loved about the novel – because they were not necessary to the stories. Since we talked about theme, will the theme match the events in your novel? Will it make sense for the characters to be thinking and speaking about things that almost never happen in the novel?
More importantly, how much of the plot is action based, and how much of it is based on your characters? If the plot depends on action, do you go for a genre novel, or do you change the plot to fit the literary fiction limits?
Have you considered writing a genre-bending novel? A novel that has both literary merit, and action-packed plot? As we said at the beginning of this guide, the rules that determine the literary merit of a novel are not clear and are quite subjective.
On the other hand, if writing a genre bending novel that has both a mystery plot and literary merit due to how much you also focus on your characters and your protagonist will bring more readers to you as an author, then is the ‘literary fiction’ label really that important to you?
In the end, the best advice we can give is this: write the story you want to tell. Write it in the style that comes most naturally to you – be it straightforward, workmanlike prose (usually found in genre fiction), or purple prose sprayed and riddled with metaphors that are both profound and beautiful at the same time. And then, if the literary fiction label really means that much to you, then do your best to ensure that the cover, the title, the themes, and the prose in your novel will match the so-called rules of the literary fiction genre.
A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Literary Fiction is an article from Writing Tips Oasis . Copyright © 2014-2018 Writing Tips Oasis All Rights Reserved
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://writingtipsoasis.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/photo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own. [/author_info] [/author]
What is Novel? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples
A novel (NAH-vull) is a narrative work of fiction published in book form. Novels are longer than short stories and novellas, with the greater length allowing authors to expand upon the same basic components of all fictional literature—character, conflict , plot , and setting , to name a few.
Novels have a long, rich history, shaped by formal standards, experimentation, and cultural and social influences. Authors use novels to tell detailed stories about the human condition, presented through any number of genres and styles .
The word novel comes from the Italian and Latin novella , meaning “a new story.”
The History of Novels
Ancient Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit narrative works were the earliest forebears of modern novels. These include the Alexander Romances, which fictionalize the life and adventures of Alexander the Great; Aethiopica , an epic romance by Heliodorus of Emesa; The Golden Ass by Augustine of Hippo, chronicling a magician’s journey after he turns himself into a donkey; and Vasavadatta by Subandhu, a Sanskrit love story.
The first written novels tended to be dramatic sagas with valiant characters and noble quests, themes that would continue to be popular into the 20th century. These early novels varied greatly in length, with some consisting of multiple volumes and thousands of pages.
Novels in the Middle Ages
Literary historians generally recognize Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji as the first modern novel, written in 1010. It’s the story of a Japanese emperor and his relationship with a lower-class concubine. Though the original manuscript, consisting of numerous sheets of paper glued together in book-like format, is lost, subsequent generations wrote and passed down the story. Twentieth-century poets and authors have attempted to translate the confusing text, with mixed results.
Chivalric romantic adventures were the novels of choice during the Middle Ages. Authors wrote them in either verse or prose , but by the mid-15th century, prose largely replaced verse as the preferred writing technique in popular novels. Until this time, there wasn’t much distinction between history and fiction; novels blended components of both.
The birth of modern printing techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in a new market of accessible literature that was both entertaining and informative. As a result, novels evolved into almost exclusively fictional stories to meet this upsurge in demand.
Novels in the Modern Period
Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’s 1605 work The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha , frequently shortened to Don Quixote , is the first major Western novel. The popularity of Don Quixote and subsequent novels paved the way for the Romantic literary era that began in the latter half of the 18th century. Romantic literature challenged the ideas of both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Age by focusing on novels entrenched in emotion, the natural world, idealism, and the subjective experiences of commoners. Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, James Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Shelley all emerged as superstars of the Romantic era.
Naturalism was, in many ways, a rebellion against romanticism. Naturalism replaced romanticism in the popular literary imagination by the end of the 19th century. Naturalistic novels favored stories that examined the reasons for the human condition and why characters acted and behaved the way they did. Landmark novels of this era included The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, McTeague by Frank Norris, and Les Rougon-Macquart by Émile Zola.
Novels in the Present
Many popular novels of the 19th and 20th centuries started out as serializations in newspapers and other periodicals, especially during the Victorian era. Several Charles Dickens novels, including The Pickwick Papers , Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo , and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin began this way, before publishers eventually released them in single volumes.
In the 20th century, many themes of naturalism remained, but novelists began to create more stream-of-consciousness stories that highlighted the inner monologues of their central characters. Modernist literature, including the works of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf, experimented with traditional form and language.
The Great Depression, two World Wars, and the civil rights movement impacted the American novel in dramatic ways, giving the world stories of war and the fallout of war (Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms , Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front ); abject poverty and opulent wealth (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath , F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby ); the Black American experience (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man , Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God ); and countercultural revolution (Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ).
Changing sexual attitudes in the early and mid-20th century allowed authors to explore sexuality in previously unheard-of depth (Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer , Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus ). By the 1970s, second-wave feminism introduced a new type of novel that centered women as authors of their own fates, not as romantic objects or supporting players existing only in relation to men (Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying ).
Throughout the 20th century, the popularity of the novel grew to such an extent that publishers pushed books more firmly into individual genres and subgenres for better classification and marketing. This resulted in every genre having breakout stars who set specific standards for the works in their category. At the same time, there is literary fiction, often considered more serious because of its greater emphasis on meaning than genre fiction’s entertainment value. However, authors can blur the line between genre and literary fiction; see Stephen King’s novels, Lessing’s space fiction novels, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, to mention just a few. Both genre and literary fiction have legions of devoted fans.
Serialized novels fell out of favor as the 20th century unfolded. Today, novels are almost always published in single volumes. The average wordcount for contemporary adult fiction is 70,000 to 120,000 words, which is approximately 230 to 400 pages.
The Many Types of Novels
Literary novels are a broad category of books often regarded as having more intellectual merit than genre fiction. These novels are not as bound to formula, and authors feel greater freedom to experiment with style ; examine the psychology and motivations of their characters; and make commentary on larger social conditions or issues. Literary novels possess a certain amount of intellectualism and depth. Their language is rich, their descriptions detailed, and their characters unique and memorable. Examples of popular literary novels include The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
In contrast to literary fiction, authors of genre novels tend to follow more of a basic plot formula, and they paint their characters with broader strokes and less nuance and complexity. Stories in this vein accentuate plot over character. The accepted norms of genre fiction allow a reader to pick up a certain kind of novel and, in general, know what to expect from it. However, the boundaries of genre fiction are considerably malleable, and you could just as easily classify many genre works as lofty as any literary novel. Also, many genre novels fall under more than one genre. Below are several major genres/subgenres of the contemporary novel.
Bildungsroman/Coming of Age
A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel that highlights a period of profound emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual growth for a young protagonist. Depending on the nature and depth of the story and the author’s goals, a bildungsroman can skew toward a young readership or an adult one. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain are two notable bildungsroman novels.
Children and Young Adult
More of a catchall term than a genre, children and young adult novels center on young protagonists having formative experiences. Plots deal with issues and challenges of special interest to young readers, such as friendship, bullying, prejudice, school and academic life, gender roles and norms, changing bodies, and sexuality.
Classic children and young adult novels include Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. More recently, some young people’s literature has had a crossover appeal to adult audiences, with the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins garnering legions of fans both young and old.
Death and romance are major plot points in gothic novels. The supernatural, family curses, stock characters like Byronic heroes and innocent maidens, and moody settings like castles or monasteries usually figure prominently in the storylines. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux are two beloved gothic novels.
Historical novels take place in the past, where plots typically involve a specific historical event or era. The novel may or may not include fictionalized versions of real people. Authors of historical fiction often conduct in-depth research of the times about which they write to provide readers with a vivid reimagining of what life was like. Popular historical novels include The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, and Roots by Alex Haley.
Authors of horror novels write plots and characters intended to scare or disgust the reader. The stories frequently incorporate elements of the supernatural and/or psychological components designed to startle the reader and get them to question what they know about the characters. The Shining by Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and Dracula by Bram Stoker are perennial favorites of this genre.
Mysteries tell stories of crimes and the attempts to solve them. There are multiple types of mystery novels, such as noir, police procedurals, professional and amateur detective fiction, legal thrillers, and cozy mysteries. Examples include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.
Picaresque novels feature the adventures of impish, lowborn but likeable heroes who barrel through a variety of different encounters, living by their wits in corrupt or oppressive societies. Picaresque novels reached their peak of popularity in Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries, but authors still occasionally write them today. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling , by Henry Fielding is a classic picaresque, while A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a more recent one.
Roman à Clef
A roman à clef is an autobiographical novel, which fictionalizes real people and events. An author of a roman à clef has the freedom to write about controversial or deeply personal, secretive topics without technically exposing anyone or anything—or exposing themselves to charges of libel. They can also imagine different scenarios and resolutions for real-life situations. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Devil Wear Prada by Lauren Weisberger are both roman à clefs.
Romance novels are love stories. The main plot usually features the dramatic courtship of two characters as they discover their feelings and attempt to be together. An antagonist frustrates these attempts but rarely wins, which means romance novels almost always end in a happily-ever-after.
Contemporary romance, historical romance, inspirational romance, and LGBTQ romance are just a few of the subgenres on the market. Examples of romance novels include A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks.
A satirical novel humorously criticizes someone or something. The author will typically employ exaggerated plots and characters to underscore a specific fallibility or corruption. Common targets include public figures, laws and government policies, and social norms. Satires can possess considerable power by using humor to comment on societal or human flaws. Animal Farm by George Orwell and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are masterworks of the genre.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Science fiction novels deal with emerging or new technologies, space exploration, futurism, and other speculative elements. Similarly, fantasy novels integrate elements that defy known scientific laws, with magic and folklore often playing a major role in the worlds and characters created by the author. Science fantasy novels are a subgenre that combine these two forms. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and The War of the Worlds are prime examples of science fiction, while The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin are enduring fantasy classics.
The Great American Novel
A uniquely American phenomenon is what novelist John William DeForest called the “Great American Novel.” The definition of this term is open to some interpretation, but, in general, it refers to a novel that captures the spirit and experience of life in the United States and the essence of the national character. Since DeForest coined the term in 1868, many novels have claimed this title, though there’s no single organization or institution that bestows such a designation. Books cited as a Great American Novel include Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Novels’ Different Styles and Formats
Authors can write novels using any number of techniques. A straightforward narrative that utilizes a conventional plot is just one approach. Others include:
An epistolary novel tells its story through fictional letters, newspaper and magazine clippings, diary entries, emails, and other documents. The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos are examples of epistolary novels.
An experimental novel plays with traditional form, plot, character, and/or voice . The author might invent techniques or words that present their story in innovative ways. Such works are sometimes challenging and exhilarating for readers, and they inspire looking at the novel as an ever-evolving art form. Popular experimental novels include Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.
Modernism as a distinct literary form flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernist fiction challenged conventional ideas of structure and linear storytelling and is a precursor to today’s experimental fiction. Individualism, symbolism , absurdity, and wild experimentation were common in modernist novels. Ulysses by James Joyce and Nightwood by Djuna Barnes are quintessential modernist novels.
Philosophical novels are, more than anything, novels of ideas. They put forth moral, theoretical, and/or metaphysical ideas, assertions, and speculations. They’re not necessarily academic works; they still include plots and characters, but these exist as symbols of a larger philosophical theme. Examples of philosophical novels include The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch.
Sentimental novels tug at the heartstrings. Authors design these novels to appeal to readers’ sympathy and compassion. As its own literary form, sentimental novels—like The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson—abounded during the 18th century. Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty and Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart are more recent novels written in this style.
Novels written in verse are rare in today’s literary landscape, but they have their roots as far back as The Iliad and The Odyssey . The narratives blend fiction and poetry by telling a fictional tale through traditional verses of rhythms and stanzas . Two contemporary verse novels are Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.
The Function of Novels
Compared to short stories and novellas, novels give authors the opportunity to create more detailed plots, characters, and worlds. An author can delve more fully into the trajectory of the story and the evolution of the characters, presenting struggles, conflicts , and, ultimately, resolutions. For readers, novels also entertain and educate. They can be an escape and a leisure activity, one that engages the mind in a way that other forms of entertainment cannot. They are instructive as well, informing readers about society, history, morality, and/or aspects of the human condition, depending on the novel.
Novels have never been entirely without controversy. They give authors an outlet to create imaginative stories, but they can also function as commentaries on the societies that publish them. Governments, schools, and other authority figures and institutions might see such novels as subversive and even dangerous. This has led many countries, including the United States, to ban novels deemed offensive. Novels banned by authorities at one point or another include The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
- Bildungsroman/Coming of Age: Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- Children and Young Adult: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie
- Epistolary: Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
- Experimental: Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
- Gothic: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus
- The Great American Novel: Toni Morrison, Beloved
- Historical: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
- Horror: Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby
- Literary: Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Modernist: Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
- Mystery: Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train
- Philosophical: Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
- Picaresque: William Makepeace Thackeray, The Luck of Barry Lyndon
- Roman à Clef: Carrie Fisher, Postcards from the Edge
- Romance: Nora Roberts, Northern Lights
- Satire: Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
- Science Fiction and Fantasy: Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower
- Sentimental: Maria Susanna Cummins, The Lamplighter
- Verse: Allan Wolf, The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic
Examples in Literature
1. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Don Quixote is a satire of the chivalric romances popular during Cervantes’s time. Middle-aged Don Quixote of 16th-century La Mancha, Spain, spends his life reading these epic tales. They inspire him to revive what he sees as the lost concept of chivalry, so he picks up a sword and shield and becomes a knight. His goal is to defend the defenseless and eliminate evil. His partner in this endeavor is a poor farmer named Sancho Panza. They ride through Spain on their horses, searching for adventure, and Don Quixote falls in love with a peasant named Dulcinea. Don Quixote and Sancho embark upon multiple quests to restore lost honor to the nation. Ultimately, Don Quixote returns home, denounces his knighthood, and dies of fever, bringing an end to chivalry.
2. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility is a classic Romantic -era novel that also contains some satirical elements that wittily criticize the social decorum of the time. In 1790s England, Henry Dashwood’s death leaves his wife and three daughters nearly destitute. The older daughters, Elinor and Marianne, realize their only hope for saving the family is to find suitable husbands.
Sensible Elinor falls for Edward Ferrars, while romantic Marianne feels torn between dashing John Willoughby and sturdy Colonel Brandon. After recovering from a fever, Marianne realizes Colonel Brandon is the steady force she desires, not the impetuous Willoughby, and after some initial confusion, Elinor learns that Edward is in love with her. The young women marry their suitors, and the two couples live as neighbors.
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby is a novel that examines the American Dream, class inequality, and themes of love and loss. Nick Carraway arrives on Long Island in the spring of 1922, moving into a cottage next to a sprawling estate owned by elusive millionaire Jay Gatsby. Known for hosting lavish parties that he never attends, Gatsby is an almost mythic figure in the community. Nick learns that Gatsby is passionately in love with Daisy, the wife of Nick’s old college friend Tom, who has a mistress named Myrtle.
Nick wrangles an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties, and the two become friends. Through Nick, Gatsby arranges a meeting with Daisy, beginning an intense affair. One night, Gatsby and Daisy are driving home and accidently run into and kill Myrtle. Daisy was the one driving, but Gatsby takes the blame, and Myrtle’s husband kills him. The entire experience leaves Nick cold toward New York life, feeling that he, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom never fit in with this world.
4. Toni Morrison, Beloved
Beloved is an historical novel that delves into the lasting psychological effects of slavery. Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman, lives with her daughter Denver in 1870s Cincinnati. Paul D, a man enslaved with Sethe on the Sweet Home plantation, arrives at their door, and not long after, a mysterious young woman—only identifying herself as Beloved—arrives as well. Sethe eventually believes that Beloved is the incarnation of her youngest daughter, who she killed to prevent her capture and sale into slavery.
Sethe grows obsessed with Beloved, losing her job, pushing away Paul D, and alienating Denver in the process. Denver reaches out to the local Black community and gets a job working for a white family. When Denver’s employer comes to pick her up for her first day of work, Sethe, by this time delirious and delusional, thinks he’s a slavecatcher coming yet again to take Beloved. She attempts to attack him but is held back by the townspeople, an act that seemingly sets Beloved free, and the mysterious young woman disappears in a cloud of butterflies. Denver supports the family, and Paul D returns to Sethe and reminds her of her worth.
Further Resources on Novels
Jane Friedman answers the question, What is a literary novel?
The Guardian has a list of their picks for the 100 best novels written in English .
Literary Hub offers insights into the Great American Novel .
Writer’s Digest shares the 10 rules of writing a novel .
Writing coach Vivian Reis coaches beginners through the writing of a novel .
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Genre Tips: How to Write Literary Fiction
Ironically, the term literary fiction is often used in opposition to the term “genre,” which I guess means we have the “literary genre” and the “genre genre.” (And now that I think about it that way, it cracks me up. #sorrynotsorry :p ) Literary fiction is a somewhat contested term, used by some writers to indicate a “higher level” of writing and by others as a crack at elitism. Back in the day when what is properly considered “genre fiction” was classed only as lowbrow pop fiction for the masses, literary fiction was the domain of the “serious” writer. These days, however, when so many “genre” entries are themselves high art, the borders of what is literary fiction and what is not have become a bit mistier.
It also used to be (and still is to some degree) considered a rule that genre fiction focuses on plot (i.e., events happening to the protagonist), whilst literary fiction focuses more on character and theme (i.e., how the protagonist reacts to events). Although each of these approaches create significantly different reading experiences (both of which are legitimate and wonderful in their own right), this argument between “plot and character” has been largely responsible for creating the dualistic idea that story must be one or the other—and that one must be better than the other. Of course, the truth is story requires both plot and character. You can’t have one without the other. All stories have plot except perhaps the most wildly experimental novels (which, honestly, I would class as a genre of its own).
So if we can’t narrow down the strict definition of literary fiction as fiction that…
- focuses on drama
- offers existential themes
- is artistic
- emphasizes beautiful prose
- crosses over into no other genre
- values character over plot
…then how can we determine what is literary fiction—and what is not?
5 Tips for How to Write Literary Fiction
Unlike genres such as romance and mystery , literary fiction is not defined by its beats. Nor is it strictly a milieu backdrop like fantasy and historical fiction . It can be set anywhere, anytime. It can focus on love stories, on murder investigations, on supernatural evil, on presidential assassinations, on slices of life. It can feature characters who are human, animal, or even inanimate.
It’s kind of like that old saw: “You know it when you see it.” For my money, literary fiction is primarily defined by attitude and perspective. Any story could be told as literary fiction; what makes it so is how it is told.
Although literary fiction contains all the same structural pieces as any other type of story, it is more intent on the journey than the destination. It looks around. It wants to see and observe; it wants to stop and ask questions. Usually, it does so from a slightly distanced perspective. Even if it utilizes a deep POV that puts readers right there in the characters’ heads, what is evoked is the sense of being one step back from the action, observing, commenting, noticing the deeper meaning.
Sound interesting? Then let’s take a quick overview of how to write literary fiction.
Story Structure in Literary Fiction: Understanding How to Intertwine Inner and Outer Conflict
Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)
The notion that “literary fiction” is synonymous with “plot-less fiction” is a misconception. What’s true is that literary fiction is not as dependent upon or hemmed in by specific beats as are genres like romance and mystery. However, the basic structural arc underlying a story’s plot becomes all the more important in supporting and unifying the often sprawling and sometimes abstract events and motifs within a literary story.
What’s also true is that the plot in literary fiction is often less concerned with its story’s external conflict (even if it’s rip-roaring) and more concerned with the characters’ internal conflict . You might say literary fiction is more interested in character arc than structure. But (surprise!) that, too, is a false paradigm. Why? Because the mechanics of character arc are inherently structural.
Plot structure can be viewed as the emergent of character arc. The entire arc of what we recognize as story is merely the externalized structure of the natural and inevitable pattern of human transformation. In short, if a literary story creates a magnificent character arc, you can be sure it is also well structured.
The structural beats in any story will tell you what it is about. In a literary story, those beats will focus intently on the inner conflict and evolution of the characters. Even if you’re writing your story with a relatively loose focus on structure, just double-checking that the ten major structural moments are all focused on your character’s internal journey will help you ensure both plot and character are powerfully aligned.
Those structural elements are:
- Inciting Event
- First Plot Point
- First Pinch Point
- Midpoint (Second Plot Point)
- Second Pinch Point
- Third Plot Point
- Climactic Moment
For Example: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beloved classic The Great Gatsby is a pitch-perfect example of how external conflict (of which there is plenty, as Gatsby jets around NYC, causing and enduring all manner of havoc) can play out primarily through the lens of a character’s internal conflict (in this instance, through the observations of narrator Nick Carraway, who stands at a remove from the relational machinations of Gatsby and the other characters and who undergoes a Disillusionment Arc as a result).
>>Click here for examples of Nick’s Disillusionment Arc used in the series “How to Write a Negative Character Arc”
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (affiliate link)
Character in Literary Fiction: Backstory As the Origin of Motivation
Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)
Genre fiction asks, “What will happen?” Literary fiction, however, is often more concerned with, “What did happen?” Its most urgent question is, “Why?”
Although sometimes this exploration may offer an external plot that is intent on uncovering revelations new to the main characters, it just as often focuses on diving deep into an exploration of the characters’ own pasts. Memories, feelings, events, old hurts, lost loves, delusions, and dreams—all are excavated and reexamined in the characters’ search for meaning.
Backstory and its motivating “Ghosts” are important catalysts for the character arc in any type of story, but in literary fiction the uncovering of how the past has affected the future is often of primary importance. Alternate timelines are a popular device in literary fiction, allowing backstory to be explored side by side with the characters’ current dilemmas. Even when a story is told in a linear fashion, it is understood that much of what we see is context for a final realization.
This emphasis on the causal effects within a character’s personal development doesn’t necessarily require a huge or shocking event in the character’s backstory. Rather, the emphasis is on the why of how characters ended up where they did or are making the choices they are currently faced with.
For Example: Toni Morrison’s finely-wrought Beloved drops a horrifyingly shocking backstory bomb halfway through when it reveals what happened to main character Sethe’s “almost crawling” baby girl. In a different type of story, this revelation might have been played for all the drama it was worth. In this quiet exploration of the effects of slavery, the revelation is equally quiet, made all the more horrifying by its unflinching deliberateness in examining the reasons for and effects of Sethe’s choices. Although it is a huge plot moment, it is chiefly utilized as an exploration of character.
Beloved by Toni Morrison (affiliate link)
Theme in Literary Fiction: Theme as Message vs. Theme as Question
Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)
Although theme will emerge from any well-constructed plot and/or character arc , literary fiction is noted for its conscious exploration and execution of its themes. Heavy-handed themes that present themselves as “answers” to their readers are not welcome in any type of story, and this becomes all the more true in a literary story that very likely will be exploring its themes “on purpose.”
For example, a genre action story about a brave naval admiral may express themes of courage, duty, and honor merely through the external actions and outcomes in the plot . A literary story will go deeper in examining the character’s interiority, as he struggles literally with these questions in his own mind.
Ironically, this means literary fiction can easily come across as far more moralistic and “on the nose” than most genre fiction. The key to any successful exploration of theme is focusing less on the answers or “lessons” and more on the questions that are inherent within the character’s struggles . There is never any need to spell out a thematic premise for audiences; the outcome of the plot events will always present the author’s thesis on how certain causes lead to certain effects.
Particularly in literary fiction, which can sometimes be more open-ended than other types of stories, thematic emphasis should be less on proving a certain point and more on an honest exploration of how certain thematic questions affect the characters’ outlooks and choices. Arguably more than in any other genre, allowing characters to choose wrong and then showing the effects of those choices in the end can be especially powerful in literary fiction.
For Example: The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro utilizes flashbacks to explore the choices of its protagonist, lifetime butler Stevens, who chose to remain loyal to his Nazi-sympathizing employer, not because he agreed with the politics but because he was so identified with his work. This raises questions he must explore in his present as he seeks to reunite with a woman he might have married, had he made different choices.
The Remains of Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (affiliate link)
Scene Structure in Literary Fiction: Controlling Pacing via Action and Reaction
That certain “attitude” of literary fiction, its focus on the interiority of is characters, and its leisurely pacing can be tricky to define, much less evoke in one’s own writing. One of the best hacks can be found in scene structure .
Scenes can be divided into two basic parts: action and reaction. These two parts are sometimes referred to as “scene” (action) and “sequel” (reaction), which can then be divided down further into three parts apiece:
Scene (Action) :
- Goal (character wants something)
- Conflict (an obstacle is introduced)
- Outcome (the initial goal is either obstructed or leads to a new goal)
Sequel (Reaction) :
- Reaction (character reacts emotionally to the previous outcome)
- Dilemma (previous outcome has created a new problem)
- Decision (character decides upon new goal)
Stories that emphasize external action usually put more weight upon the action half of the scene. In these stories, sometimes the reaction half may be summarized rather than dramatized to allow the narrative to return to the action as quickly as possible.
Literary stories, however, flip the script. In literary fiction, the reaction or “sequel” is usually more markedly emphasized. The action still happens , just as in any story. Indeed, literary stories can be just as full of war-time explosions, psychopathic murderers, and passionate trysts in the rain as any other type of story. The difference is that the action portion of the scene will not always be heavily dramatized. In some instances, the action may not be dramatized in the story’s “real time” at all, but rather looked back upon from the character’s reaction phase.
For Example: I first noticed the use of this technique when reading Kathryn Magendie’s Sweetie , about a timid young girl who befriends a feral mountain child. The book’s leisurely emphasis of sequels over scenes takes nothing away from its potency or urgency.
Sweetie by Kathryn Magendie (affiliate link)
Prose in Literary Fiction: When Beauty Is Truth and Truth Is Beauty
Those who love to read literary fiction or want to write it often return to the genre again and again simply for the beautiful artistry of its prose. Although beautiful prose can be found in any genre, it is a necessity in literary fiction. Not only does it help pull readers into a story in which it’s possible that, strictly speaking, not much is happening, it is also an important tool for deepening the story’s thematic exploration.
Readers of literary fiction expect more from the genre than just a good story (although they expect that too). They expect a kind of truth from the prose that is found nowhere more strongly than in poetry. Literary novels are, in their way, like beautiful prose poems. Their word choices are exquisite—every syllable chosen not just for its efficacy, but for its symbolic effect. More than that, the prose creates a mirror that is held up to both our darkest and most beautiful parts. Those mirrors are only clear when the wordcraft has been honed to communicate not just to the readers’ conscious mind, but to the parts of them that exist beyond the words.
For Example: One of the most gorgeous books ever written, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern evokes its fantasy worldscape through prose that is, as one reviewer put it , “seductive and mysterious.” This is also a wonderful example of a “genre” story that crosses over into literary fiction.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (affiliate link)
More than anything else, literary fiction is a style. It evokes an effect that allows it to explore life itself with a magnifying glass—to go deep in observing the tiniest details and the most tempestuous human experiences. It is a beautiful genre that can be melded with almost any other style to create unforgettable stories that appeal to many different types of readers.
Stay Tuned: Next week, guest poster Oliver Fox will close out the series by talking about Horror!
Previous Posts in This Series:
- How to Write Fantasy
- How to Write Romance
- How to Write Historical Fiction
- How to Write Mystery
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your thoughts on how to write literary fiction? Tell me in the comments!
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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel , Structuring Your Novel , and Creating Character Arcs . A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.
Thanks for another wonderful post! This entire series has been helpful to me. I especially appreciate your clear and concise description of “Literary” fiction – a classification that has baffled and, at times, irritated me in the past.
So glad you’ve enjoyed the series!
I typically don’t read or write literary fiction, but I do recall reading some of Patricia MacLachlan’s books when I was eleven or twelve. Her writing style was full of prose, and it inspired me to use more literary elements in my own writing.
Yes, it’s hard to beat a book with beautiful prose.
This article has helped me to see that the elements of my two novels fit into this genre of literary fiction. I appreciate your clarification, despite the “misty” nature of the concept.
I love stories that sort of blur the line over into a more literary style.
Profound, thought-provoking, memorable. Wouldn’t these words all describe literary fiction? We all have our writing goals, and I think most of us want to write exciting best sellers. But I wonder which type of novels are read over and over and treasured on our book shelves, in our minds, and in our hearts? Which novels have we read over and over and passed on to friends and family? In my life there are few such novels. Personally, I think the literary novels create a world where you look forward to visiting everyday in your easy chair. To me, that’s something even better than excitement. That’s enchantment.
Oooo! “Enchantment.” I think you’re exactly right!
Thank you for your well thought out, detailed post. When asked what genre I’m writing in I say ‘literary fiction’ but until now I couldn’t have provided a succinct description of what that is. Now I can. 🙂 More importantly, you’ve given me a couple things to contemplate in depth and to use as I work on my novel. Many thanks.
That’s great! Happy writing. 🙂
This is the best article on literary fiction that I’ve found on the web. Seriously. I’m finally certain what “genre” to use when I query. Thanks.
Glad it was helpful! Good luck with the querying.
While I was reading your description of literary fiction, with the strong character focus, and the emphasis on `why’ they act as they do, I thought to myself `hey, maybe this is secretly my genre, and I never knew!’ Then I got to the bit about beautiful prose… Nope, my prose is strictly utilitarian. But I do have a deep appreciation for beautiful writing, and I love a strong focus on characters inner lives, the `why’ behind the `what,’ if you will.
This isn’t to say that only literary fiction emphasizes character. Any genre can choose to spend a lot of exploration on the “why” of things.
I didn’t write anything last week, but I meant to. I found your description of the various types of mysteries succinct and edifying. I am finding all of this series to be interesting and helpful. I usually try not to read literary fiction because in my experience (which I have to admit is limited) it leaves me feeling let down in the end. Maybe it’s way to close to reality. It’s usually ‘haunting’. In my opinion, literary fiction changes you, in a way that commonly called genre fiction does not. Having said that, I think that Daphne du Maurier borders on literary fiction, and I’ve read ‘Rebecca’ many times. I still find it haunting. I consider Anita Shreve to be literary, and her prose is beautiful, and I have re-read some of her books. I’m still angry with Donna Tartt over ‘The Little Friend’. I enjoyed the book, but I am still frustrated by not having a difinitive answer about how Robin died. You get my drift…
Terrific essay, as are most you write. Writers toss around the term literary fiction, claiming that’s what they write, when it’s clear they aren’t. This essay puts it in perspective. I’ve always thought the genre is more concerned with the beauty of prose, the paradoxes in life, the humanity of people with their flaws and near perfections than it is concerned with sales or fitting into a specific genre. A book on what constitutes literary fiction would make a great addition to my reference shelf. Any ideas Ms. Weiland? And don’t tell me to try it. I’m not up to it.
Glad you enjoyed the post, Dennis! I’m not familiar with any particular guide that discusses literary fiction specifically. Perhaps someone else will chime in with a resource?
I was implying you could write one 😉
Hah. You never know. 😉
Thank you so much for this post! I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what genre my WIP is because it mainly focuses on character, theme, and ‘stop and think’ moments though it has plenty of plot too. I now realize that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction category! You did an excellent job in laying everything out so clearly, thanks again!
Literary is such a beautiful genre. It can also be one of the toughest to write, because there are so fewer places to hide than in genre fiction. But when it’s done well, it’s simply magic.
The more I listen to these genre essays, the more I realize that, at least for me, writing is more a continuum than a particular genre. Writing can, and probably should, have elements of many of them. Maybe not all at once, but over the course of a career I think a writer should touch all these bases. That’s the adventure of writing!
Honestly, that’s my preferred experience as well. As I mentioned at the top of the series, I haven’t written much about specific genres in the past, mostly because I don’t really experience stories *as* genres. Genres are, of course, useful when you’re hunting down a particular type of book. But good storytelling is just good storytelling.
I think it was Matt Bird who said literary fiction is about “the workings of fate,” compared to genre stories that are about the hero’s agency. I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule, but an interesting insight nonetheless.
I’ve always loved stories that blend literary theme and style with genre plotting. It’s a spectrum in the sense that stories aren’t just one or the other, but it’s also a tug-of-war because pushing a story in one direction necessarily pulls it away from the other.
Nobody asked for books suggestions but here they are anyway: anything and everything written by Michel Faber (my personal favorite is “The Book of Strange New Things”). He has such a solid, innate sense of structure, so his books *feel* well paced, but they’re totally literary. I think the reason they keep me engaged is because I love character change, and his characters are always changing on every single page. It’s not for no reason he’s my favorite author of all time.
I appreciate that insight as well! I think there is a lot more blurring of the lines between those two approaches these days, and those stories are often some of my favorites.
I went through a phase of reading literary fiction, which I loved. This article describes it so well, everything I appreciated about it but didn’t know how to say. I’m interested in character interiors, and in the truth and beauty aspect of literary fiction. Thanks for this wonderful series.
Truth and beauty. Always. 🙂
Thanks again for a most helpful and interesting post. I can now reevaluate my stories which didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. It’s now another new beginning for me. mikiel
Rise, phoenix, rise!
What makes a work “literature” has always been a bit of a mystery. You made it so clear that I now can’t believe that “what makes a work literature” was ever a question. Your books on writing and this podcast are great! Thank you!
Wow, what a great post! I’ve been struggling to nail down the genre of my current project. It’s heavy on character, theme, and those “stop and think” moments, but it’s got a solid plot too. After reading this, it’s finally clear to me that it fits perfectly into the literary fiction
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Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: A How-To Guide for Litfic Authors
- February 6, 2023
Orna Ross, Director of ALLi
We've all heard the widespread false news that self-publishers cannot succeed in the literary fiction genre. Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors , and an award-winning self-publisher of literary fiction and poetry, dispels the myths and gives guidance. With thanks also to Melissa Addey , Roz Morris and Hannah Jacobson of BookAwardPro .
What is Literary Fiction?
Literary fiction (litfic for short) is the genre of storytelling that explores the most complex social and psychological characteristics of the human condition, in original, expressive, and sometimes experimental ways.
The most defining quality of literary fiction is its original and skilful use of language.
NY Book Editors define literary fiction as a type of fiction that “doesn’t adhere to any rules. Anything can happen which can be both exciting and unnerving for the reader. Sometimes, literary fiction takes a common theme in mainstream fiction and turns it on its head.” Sometimes it's just an old story told uncommonly well.
Readers who enjoy literary fiction (or litfic for short) appreciate a writer's style and technique, and enjoy stories told in subtle, nuanced and original ways. That's utterly part of their pleasure in the work, what makes a book “good” for them.
Other readers, those who most appreciate plot, pace, and known patterns, can find litfic boring, puzzling or too much like hard work.
Literary fiction, historically and culturally, is often associated with a certain level of prestige, intellectual engagement, and artistic merit. It's seen as a form that challenges and engages rather than adheres to specific market-driven conventions.
This is why it is typically thought of as being more “highbrow” than other genres, appreciated more for its creative virtuosity than its commercial appeal. It is the stuff of which national and international literary prizes are made.
Classifying Literary Fiction
The classification of literary fiction is a topic of some debate in literary and academic circles. While it's frequently treated as a distinct category, especially in bookstores and publishing, whether it's a “genre” in the same way that, say, science fiction, romance, or mystery is a genre can be contested.
Literary is often a label that somebody else gives you. I don't think anybody sits down to write a literary novel. We write what we can, as best we can. The challenge I set myself as a writer is to write something that's honest and true, using the words, characters, and construction, that can capture everything I want to say (which, as my family can attest, is always a lot!).
As a reader that's what I most appreciate in a book, too. What Jane Austen defined as “only a novel. Only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
We often define literary fiction by comparing it to what it is not: popular fiction, commercial fiction, mainstream fiction and genre fiction.
All of these create confusion.
Popular fiction: Many litfic works are highly popular, many books that are categorized as popular fiction fail to win readers.
Commercial fiction: By this logic, if a “literary” work sells millions of copies it would then move into the “commercial” category?
Mainstream fiction: Things get even more blurred when considering differences between literary and mainstream fiction, works that do not fit neatly into a specific genre category but appeal to a broad audience due to their general themes and accessible narratives.
Distinctions can be fluid, and a book might be categorized differently depending on who's making the classification.
Is Literary Fiction Just Another Genre?
All fiction belongs to a genre of some sort, as you discover when you first self-publish and have to assign a category to your book. Is literary fiction just another genre, once that is given privileged attention just because it's the kind of fiction people in publishing like to read?
Yes and no.
Litfic is a genre, with its own specific characteristics and conventions. In the publishing industry, it is treated as its own category, as evident in how books are marketed, where they're placed in bookstores, and the categories used in literary awards. And readers often approach literary fiction with different expectations than they would a genre or mainstream book.
On the other hand, unlike clearly defined genres like “cosy mystery”, “steampunk”, or “paranormal romance,” literary fiction encompasses a vast range of topics, settings, and approaches and resists such categorization. The emphasis on internal landscapes over external markers makes it less tied to specific tropes or settings.
So literary fiction both is and is not a genre. It embraces all genres, as well as being a genre in itself.
Often, it embraces multiple genres in one book. My novels are historical murder mysteries, multi-generational family sagas, women's fiction, and more.
Literary Fiction “Versus” Genre Fiction
- Genre Fiction is predominantly driven by plot, often adhering to established patterns and nuances of its specific genre. Less like to stop for discursive asides, less likely to deliberately puzzle and challenge the reader, the storytelling is immediate and approachable. Whether it's heart-tugging moments in romance or edge-of-the-seat moments in thrillers, the pacing in mainstream fiction keeps the reader eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next.
- On the other hand, Literary Fiction thrives on character-driven narratives. These tales often play with and transform genre expectations, pushing the boundaries of conventional storytelling techniques. Such writings are usually nuanced, avoiding clichés both in plot structure and language. Here, the narrative isn't just about the external journey but dives deep into the protagonist's inner world, the storyline, and the broader societal context. It may also rely on symbolism or allegory to impart a deeper takeaway.
This isn't about a hierarchy in writing quality. It's about distinct styles and approaches to storytelling.
It's worth noting that each genre has its own essence, and classifying one as superior to the other is plain wrong. Just as we wouldn't say a crime writer is inherently better than a romance writer, we shouldn't perceive mainstream fiction writers as any less skilled than those who write litfic.
Both styles of writing presents their own challenges and each requires a specific set of skills.
A writer's progression in their craft doesn't mean transitioning from genre to literary fiction. A genre writer honing their skills won't evolve into a litfic writer unless they were to make an active choice to do this, and most won't want to. Rather, they’ll perfect their own skills and talents in their own sphere.
By distinguishing literary fiction from genre fiction in this way, it's often implied (whether intentionally or not) that literary works have a higher value or are more intellectually “worthy'” than other forms of fiction. This creates an artificial hierarchy that can undervalue genre fiction, and create undue pressures for literary fiction authors.
Over time, what is considered “literary”can change. Books that were once deemed popular fiction in their time are now studied as literary classics. How many book prizewinners of 50 years ago are still read today? Similarly, many genre fiction authors have pushed the boundaries of their genres, incorporating deep thematic elements, complex character developments, and innovative narrative techniques.
It's hard to categorize creativity.
Reading and writing are inherently fluid and subjective experiences, and deeply personal. What resonates as “literary” for one person might be different for another. The terminology, though helpful for publishers, booksellers (which we are when we become indie authors) can sometimes constrain our understanding and appreciation of the vast landscape of fiction as writers and readers.
The market is usually driving these distinctions rather than the content of the book or the work of the author.
Qualities of Literary Fiction
In contrast to more escapist genres, where the primary goal might be to entertain or provide a temporary departure from reality (such as through fantastical worlds, thrilling events, or idealized romances), litfic tends to anchor its narratives in realities that are either recognizable or relatable. These realities might be rooted in the mundane, everyday experiences or in larger societal issues that are difficult to grapple with.
More true to life.
Emotions are usually mixed, characters often ambivalent, and situations a mix of good and bad–just like in life. And crucially, the characters' may not all live happily ever after.
Rather, litfic resolutions invite readers to imagine what happens in the afterlife of the book. Readers enjoy pondering the characters' futures in this way. They want the story to have a resolution, of course, but nothing too tidy, clichéd or unrealistic.
This truer-to-life quality is one of the things that attracts readers. Literary fiction readers need to be more open-minded and patient than the average reader, and appreciative of slow-burn storytelling that for them is as impactful and memorable as fast-paced plots are for others.
Attention to language.
For literary fiction writers, the way a scene is depicted can be as significant, if not more so, than the scene's content itself.
Oscar Wilde, when asked how his day's work had gone, spoke of spending the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back in. This quote is also sometime attributed to Flaubert, a notoriously slow writer. “I have just spent a good week,” he wrote to a friend midway through Madame Bovary, which took seven years to compose. “Alone like a hermit and calm as a god, I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature. I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning; I have written eight pages.”
Litfic writers can relate, as they work on crafting their sentences with meticulous care, using evocative language, intricate metaphors, and lush descriptions.
This is why literary fiction generally takes longer to write and why thinking in terms of word-count, which works so well for genre fiction writers, may not work for us.
Marketing Literary Fiction: The Challenges
Marketing literary fiction as an indie author poses unique challenges compared to other genres.
Here are some of the main difficulties and considerations:
- Undefined Target Audience : Unlike specific genres with well-defined target audiences (like YA or legal thrillers), literary fiction often appeals to a broad spectrum of readers, making it challenging to identify and target a precise demographic.
- Branding and Positioning : Creating an author brand around literary fiction can be more nebulous than, say, being a romance or horror author. The eclectic nature of literary fiction can make consistent branding a challenge.
- Less Defined Tropes : Genres often have specific tropes or elements that readers expect. Literary fiction doesn't have such clear-cut expectations, making it harder to market based on content.
- Lack of Series Potential : Writing series is a marketing advantage that indie authors have perfected. While genre fiction revels in series, and some literary fiction series are available, litfic is typically standalone.
- Competition with Trade Published Works : Many established literary authors are backed by major publishing houses with heftier marketing budgets and industry connections. For indie authors, competing in this space can be daunting.
- Reviews and Critical Acclaim : Literary fiction often relies on reviews, literary awards, and critical acclaim for visibility and validation. For indie authors, accessing major reviewers or getting nominated for prominent awards can be a significant hurdle.
- Distribution Challenges : Many bookstores, literary festivals, or events may have a bias towards traditionally published books, making it harder for indie authors to get physical shelf space or invitations to literary events.
Despite these challenges, many indie authors have found success with literary fiction by leveraging social media, building strong reader communities, engaging in book clubs, participating in indie author events, and employing creative marketing strategies that highlight the unique qualities and depth of their work.
Sometimes litfic authors get in our own way. We can be particularly resistant to marketing and promotion, have untested negative beliefs about self-publishing litfic, and repeat assumptions that we haven't tried and tested for ourselves.
There are many myths about self-publishing literary fiction but most of them are untrue.
Self-Publishing Literary Fiction: Mislabelling
ALLi Campaigns Manager Melissa Addey
The term “literary” has an intrinsic value judgment to many people, associated with “quality”. Thus, authors might label their work as literary with the belief that it conveys a certain level of professionalism, rather than aligning with the conventions and expectations of the literary fiction genre.
When readers pick up a book labeled as literary fiction, they come with certain expectations—complex characters, thematic depth, nuanced prose, and often a more introspective or contemplative narrative. If the book does not deliver on these expectations, readers might feel disappointed or misled.
Says ALLi's Campaign Manager, Melissa Addey:
“Often authors use literary to mean ‘good quality', which is not what literary fiction is. I searched for litfic as a genre on our member database and out of 200+ who had ticked literary as their genre, many did not seem to fit the genre. This is problematic. It implies the possibility of mis-selling books to the wrong readership, which causes a raft of problems.”
Authors who inadvertently mislabel their work might face backlash from readers or critics who feel the work doesn't “measure up” to literary standards. This can affect reviews, future sales, and the author's overall reputation.
As well as leading to less effective promotional campaigns, misplaced bookstore shelving, incorrect targeting of review outlets and more, implicit in confusion of “literary” and “quality” is the problematic assumption that genre fiction cannot also be of high quality. This can perpetuate snobbish attitudes toward genre fiction and undervalues the craft of genre fiction writing.
The Place of Prestige: Awards and Editorial Reviews
A paid editorial review from a brand name like Blue Ink or a prize win might not move the needle for genre readers, for litfic readers it can (sometimes) make a difference. On the other hand, litfic readers are a discerning lot and they are used to being oversold to, with ecstatic reviews, and book blurbs.
Will it make a difference for your book? There is no way to be sure without testing and trying. Invest in an editorial review. Seek out awards to enter and don't hold yourself back by thinking your book's not good enough. Let somebody else be the judge of that.
Hannah Jacobson, Book Award Pro
“When it comes to winning prestigious awards, the challenge for self-publishing authors is twofold,” says Hannah Jacobson, ALLi's new Awards Advisor and founder of ALLi Partner Member, Book Award Pro . “Awareness and navigation. Firstly, awareness that your book could suit the award requirements; secondly, actually navigating your book through the submissions process, which can be lengthy and cumbersome.
“For example, the Pulitzer Prize openly accepts self-published works. However, many indies are unaware of this openness…and thus never navigate their works through the process. How unfortunate! Lack of awareness leads to no submission, which leads to lack of recognition in these award programs. It is a vicious cycle, but one we can certainly break. Show up, give your book every chance to gain recognition (whether through smaller awards or famous ones), and the literary world will take notice.”
Many significant literary awards are now opening up to indie authors.
- The Premier’s Literary Awards
- The Arnold Bennett Prize
- The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards
- The British Book Awards
- The Commonwealth Book Prize
- The Rathbones Folio Prize
- The Jhalak Prize
- The Lambda Literary Award
- The Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year
- The Pulitzer
- ALLi's awards rating page (currently being updated)
- ALLi's Ultimate Guide to Winning Book Awards: Tips and Tools (blog post)
- ALLi Prizes for Indie Authors , our short guidebook, packed full of tips and advice for preparation and submission. ALLi members can download a complimentary ebook copy of Prizes for Indie Authors in the Member Zone. Navigate to allianceindependentauthors.org and log in. Then navigate to the following menu: BOOKS > SHORTGUIDES. Other formats are available to members and non-members in ALLi’s Bookshop
Prestige in other forms can give you a leg up in this category too, says Melissa Addey.
Consider MAs and PhDs. You can even get a studentship for a PhD in Creative Writing, which in the UK means you get paid approx. £17,000pa (and all your fees paid) for 3 years. A ‘full-time' PhD actually takes up about 2/3 full-on days plus some thinking time per week. Or writer residencies in prestigious places is another option. I was one for the British Library, which opened many, many doors for me. Try to align yourself to some high-level institutions Also grants from prestigious funding organizations, the chance to lecture at a university or well-known educational establishment can all boost your profile and help you to reach the right readers. It takes research, a lot of applications and some practise, but there is definitely a spiral of success that happens, whereby people don’t want to be the first in line to give you a grant/opportunity, but want to join in once someone else has!
Consider targeting literary festivals where literary fiction takes prime focus. Again, don't assume they don't welcome indies, many do. For example the very prestigious Hay on Wye, which has multiple events in the UK, Peru, Spain, Columbia, Mexico and Texas, is open to indie authors. Check out our resources on the Open Up to Indie Authors campaign page (log in needed)
Research their themes and styles, then pitch yourself as a speaker, workshop facilitator or as part of a panel.
Marketing for Self-Publishing Literary Fiction Authors
What, then, is the best way for a self-publishing literary fiction author to market and promote their books?
Literary Fiction Covers
As in every other genre, covers are crucial and your cover should be the very best you can buy. Melissa recently had an author lament that no-one reads their books because they are too literary.
“I read one of the books and actually, it would appeal more broadly because although it is very well written and literary it is also engaging, but its cover is almost deliberately off-putting to a wider audience. It looks like a really ‘classic’ textbook that you’d be set at school and some people are going to be very turned off by that. Have something that looks like thought went into it … but don’t assume there might not be a bigger audience than you’re giving readers credit for.”
As it's common for literary fiction releases to be slower, try and keep an eye on current trends. With slow releases, a new cover can make readers feel this is a new and interesting read (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy was fully re-covered as each new book came out, to match the current trends around the time of each publication date).
Roz Morris, literary fiction author says,
“I’ve come across many literary indies whose covers are letting them down. They want to be taken seriously and I've tried to kindly suggest they could present their work professionally – and they reply that the quality of their words is all that matters. But literary novels have to communicate a well honed aesthetic sense. Nuance is everything. A terrible cover will send the message that the writer has no sensitivity. If anything, the covers for literary fiction have to be even more polished than genre covers.”
Roz Morris covers, designed by Roz Morris.
Use a different kind of blurb: ones based on plots and questions ( how will he ever…?) are unlikely to strike home. Depth and complexity should be reflected in the blurbs.
Give a light plot blurb ‘intro’ and then focus on the themes and ideas being explored within the text and the likely emotions or the ‘thought journey’ the reader will experience.
Literary fiction often features characters who are morally ambiguous and possess personal flaws, captivating readers with their intricate backstory and inner psychology. They may even be evil or unlikeable. The blurb should hint their complexities and imperfections are revealed in a nuanced manner, allowing for a deeper exploration of their motivations and faults.
Gather a group of authors who also write literary fiction and carefully curate the quality of those books and their covers, so that you are confident that your joint reading community will appreciate this curated list. You can do this via BookFunnel by setting up invite-only promotions.
You don’t need to discount the books, you just all promote them via your own channels saying, ‘perhaps you’d like to explore these books.’ This can get a noticeable and positive response. If you create a group that works, consider planning regular such mentions, especially as members bring out new books. Literary fiction authors often write more slowly and so benefit from keeping attention on their works and having people ready to mention a new launch.
Newsletter swaps or BookFunnel co-promotions would work well here.
Book Pricing Strategies
Consider how you price your work. Readers who like literary fiction may consider very low permanent (no promotional) prices an indicator of poor quality and be put off. Also consider what formats you publish in: offering multiple formats is desirable, as many litfic authors like to read in print and without an audiobook, you can be invisible to younger generations, who like to consume their fiction in audio format.
Ensure that your books can be ordered into bookshops (and mention that on your website). Some literary readers, who tend to be thoughtful folk, pride themselves on not using the larger online retailers.
Conversely, don't assume that other tried and tested indie strategies — free book giveaways — don't work for literary fiction. As we've seen, it's a broad church and not all litfic readers want the same things.
Test and try. Iterate. Improve. Explore and experiment until you hit on what's right for you and your books.
How to Market Literary Fiction: Roz Morris Case Study in Newsletters
Roz Morris is a novelist, memoirist and writing coach. She’s taught masterclasses at international events and for The Guardian in London. She’s a story consultant for a thriller publisher in Dublin and a regular panelist on the Litopia YouTube show Pop-Up Submissions, with literary agent Peter Cox. She’s acclaimed for her own novels: My Memories of a Future Life, Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award), and Ever Rest (finalist with honourable mention in the Eric Hoffer Book Award) . She’s also the secret hand behind ghostwritten books that have sold more than 4 million copies. Find her on her website , her newsletter and you can tweet her on @Roz_Morris
Roz Morris, ALLi Magazine Editor
Q. Does advertising work for literary fiction?
I’ve tried advertising but never got much traction. Literary is a broad category and the competition is too rich for me.
I could advertise in niches for the subject of each book, but I’ve found that to be ineffective because subject niches are quite literal. For instance, one of my novels features a dual timeline and other incarnations. If I advertise in those subject areas, readers tend to want a traditional treatment, not a quirky story with an unconventional take.
I’ve found the best marketing tool is myself. If I speak at an event or on a podcast, or if I hold a book-signing, I sell books. I can involve people in what I write and what I’m interested in, and that personal touch seems to do the trick.
Q. How can indies translate that to a bigger audience?
I use my newsletters. I used to be wary of newsletters as a marketing tool, but now I love them.
To start with, I was put off by the standard advice – to offer giveaways, previews, special offers, bonus chapters and so on. Much of that is impractical for me. I have a small catalogue, so giveaways would soon bleed me dry. If I wrote about the next book I hoped to have on sale, I’d be writing the same update for years. ‘Did a bit more this month. It’s coming along. It’ll be finished, oh, I don’t know when.’ Readers would get mighty tired of that.
So for a long time, I thought I couldn’t send a newsletter because I wouldn’t have news.
Things changed when I found myself writing a literary travel diary, Not Quite Lost . It was an unexpected thing and I wrote a newsletter to explain, including why I had doubts, because who would be interested in my diaries? Several subscribers wrote back cheering me on. It was the most personal newsletter I’d ever written, and they liked it. I suddenly saw. I could write about life between launches and book events – as a 24/7 creative person.
I now send a newsletter every month, and only a small part of it is works in progress or sales stuff. The rest is personal adventures that arise from books I’ve written, adventures that might end up in future novels or memoirs, books I’ve recently loved and want to share, creative friends I want to celebrate. I wrote about a highway I used to drive on that had been returned to nature – continuing the spirit of my travel memoir. I wrote about meeting a friend from my teen years and discovering how we had both turned into professional creators.
The essence of it is connection, as it is when I’m able to present my work in person.
Is it effective? That’s impossible to measure. Some people unsubscribe, but who doesn’t get unsubscribes? Some write back every month and continue the conversation, or just say they enjoyed it.
Q. How do you attract new subscribers?
I have design experience so I create graphics for each edition of the newsletter, which I share intensively around my socials. I use them as headers, changed each month, on my Facebook page, Tumblr and Linked In, so people can see what I’ve been doing recently. They’re also in my email footers and at the end of every post on my blog. When new people sign up, I have a welcome sequence that explains who I am and what I’m about. People write back to that too. It certainly seems to generate a sense of connection.
Q. Do you use lead magnets to attract new subscribers?
I don’t use them myself. Some literary writers offer short or flash stories as an incentive, but short form is a discipline of its own and not all novelists find it natural. I don’t, and anyway, short form fiction wouldn’t be a faithful showcase for my work.
That’s a crucial point – whatever you offer, whether through a freebie or the newsletter content itself – should be true to the books you write. That’s the relationship you’re building.
Above all, it’s important to own your identity as an artist. Know what’s true to you and what isn’t.
And know that your work has value in itself. A lot of writers think the only thing they have to offer – if they can’t give special deals – is advice for other writers. I made that mistake myself, thinking my own work had to take a discreet and embarrassed back seat. (Although I’m also an editor and writing coach, so writing advice is not entirely irrelevant.)
But much of conventional newsletter theory asks what value we are offering to readers. If your newsletter is a good read, and interesting to the right people, that is value. And the literary crowd, more than anybody, appreciates the writer who has a mind they enjoy.
You don’t need extra offers or bells and whistles and bribes. Take the long view and be yourself.
Author: Orna Ross
Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing.
I am a UK-based British author. Of the awards noted, my books would only be eligible for the Rathbone award. However, it’s important to note that you can’t nominate your own books for the Rathbone. Books are nominated by members of the Academy. Each member can nominate up to three books. The way in would be to court a member of the Academy and persuade them that your book was worthy. I imagine that unless you’re lucky enough to know an Academy member, it is quite a closed world!
Thanks for this dose of reality!
Yep. The British Book Award has a criteria of already successful, so that’s little help when you’re trying to make a breakthrough. I’ve tried entering a book in the Booker (one I published for someone else) and the criteria are really stacked against small indie publishers – the qaulity of the book is irrelevant. The big publishers maintain their fortress walls.
Hi Steve, With the British Book Awards, Self-Published Titles is a category all of its own. However, the award is for book design and production rather than the quality of the writing . ‘The judges will be looking for exceptional design, free of typographical errors, with particular emphasis given to excellent layout and standards of typography.’ It is a completely different slant than other awards.
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What Is a Literary Novel?
Today’s guest post is by Dr. Sanjida O’Connell, a literary author based in the UK. Her latest book is out in paperback, Sugar Island .
The Literary Novel. We all know one when we see it, although deciphering what it is or telling someone else how to spot one is problematic.
In a tautological definition, literary works are often defined as those that win literary awards, such as the Booker Prize for Fiction. Which would rule out any novels written before 1969 being classed as literary. Another definition is that this type of fiction is “writerly”—clearly nonsense since every book is, by definition, writerly—someone wrote it, after all!
Recently a number of critics, publishers and publicists have suggested that literary fiction is simply a genre, like crime or chick lit and should be marketed as such (to ever decreasing readers, according to April Line in her guest post here, Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention .
I am defined and marketed as a literary author, although I have never won the Booker. I didn’t set out to be in this genre, but now 15 years since the first of my four novels was published, I’ve been wondering exactly what it is that makes a book literary.
First, for me, is that it should be Intellectual . A literary novel is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. The theme of my first novel, Theory of Mind (perhaps too densely cluttered with ideas), was on the nature of empathy viewed through the prism of a young boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a sociopathic boyfriend, a robotics expert and the emotional life of a bunch of chimpanzees.
A.S. Byatt, who famously won the Booker for Possession and who “wept and wept” when her publishers asked her to remove chunks of Victorian prose and poetry, said that she had accepted her novel would only be read by academics and that she imagined she would certainly “fall into the intellectually challenging box.”
Linked to their intellectual side, I think literary works have Depth . Of course, novels with great plots usually have sub-plots too, but I’m talking about the interweaving of ideas, themes, plot, and sub-plots. My third novel, The Naked Name of Love , took me ten years from concept to publication and that, plus the Big Ideas (God, evolution and love), helped give it depth. My fourth, Sugar Island (out in paperback this March), was written much more quickly and I believe it has less depth. It wasn’t just the time it took to write but also the themes. Sugar Island deals with slavery, with freedom and free will, and because as a society we find slavery abhorrent, there is perhaps less to explore since the issues are so much more black and white for us than they were at the start of the American Civil War.
Critics often say that literary novels are about Character and commercial “mainstream” fiction is about plot. This seems a bit of a simplification. I do think literary novels should have fantastic characters, but the best books all have fantastic plots too. For me, in a literary work, the plot stems from the characters. The main character behaves in a particular way because that is who he or she is and it is their key character traits that drive the plot. Thrillers, for instance, can often have a plot that is external to the character. I’m exaggerating, but in this genre almost anyone could be the “hero” and go through the same process. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a classic example of a pulse-quickening, page-turner, but would seeing into Robert Langdon’s soul help move the plot along?
And last but not least is Style . I think we all expect a classic novel to be written in such beautiful prose it makes you want to weep, pause and stare at the sky or feel the words rolling through your mind like pebbles smoothed by the sea. Again, this is not to say that novels in other genres do not need to think about style but the prose can be more workman-like if plot is the driver. Take Stephanie Myers’ Twilight Saga. Supremely popular, these books do not fit into the literary fiction category. They do have interesting characters, they contain ideas (about the nature of vampires and vampire-human hybrids), they reference literature (Tennyson, Wuthering Heights , Romeo and Juliet ), but they are predominantly plot-driven, the prose is on the workman-like side, the characters are not deep and the books lack depth. They’re still a great read.
So what I’m saying is literary books are not better than any other type of book and elements of what makes literary fiction literary are found in most novels. But if literary fiction is what rocks your world, then go for Wuthering Heights .
How do you define literary fiction?
Dr. Sanjida O’Connell is a writer based in Bristol in the UK. She’s had four works of non-fiction and four novels published: Theory of Mind, Angel Bird (by Black Swan), The Naked Name of Love, and Sugar Island (John Murray).
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I’ve often attempted to characterize literary fiction; you’ve done well in capturing the elements of what make literary fiction what it is, and how it stands apart. I’ve always gravitated towards the idea of developing really great characters, putting them in a room together, and seeing what happens – plot based on how character conflict moves it along, not characters created to move along the plot. I see that as a big element. Also probing those deep thoughts or constructing intellectual space within the novel (i.e., Melville’s chapters upon chapters of whale biology and whiteness) is elemental for literary fiction. I’m a also huge on having stylistic elements in there as well. Most commercial fiction novels are written at a high school (or lower) reading level. Literary fiction must challenge even the most intellectual reader with words, and inspire the most creative soul with its imagery! I would say literary fiction has got to be a book that acts upon the reader’s mind and soul, not passive entertainment. Thanks for this post!
Thank you! Very insightful comments.
Where I get stuck is exactly with your last comment, how challenging to make a piece of writing. My tendency is not to explain too much but let the reader work it out herself – readers are intelligent, right?
But publishers seem to want more explanation to make the work accessible to a lower reading level and therefore more commercial.
I get confused by the term every time I hear it, it sounds like it’s doubling up on itself. But fair enough, I think I get where you’re coming from. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not it’s better than other genres in writing, because let’s face it; the bottom line is whether it is an individual reader’s preference, and whether the individual book is written to that reader’s taste… right?
But I guess novels that are ‘literary’ may be more likely to stand the test of time. I’m thinking of novels that we view as ‘classics’ now but may not have been viewed as literary when they were written, e.g. Dickens; Austen. We’ll just have to hang around a few more decades and see what’s still in print…!
This is a wonderful article. Thank you for defining a genre that is a mystery to many but a joy to those who write within it. Cheers!
Thank you Stuart!
I have written what I believe to be a literary novel, but is is published by a genre publisher. So one element that you miss out of your definition of what is considered “literary” is that a publisher has not labeled it as something else for marketing purposes.
That’s true. I’ve been told by my publisher that they don’t like publishing books that could fit in more than one genre so tend to choose the genre they want to market the book in.
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So kind of you, Jean. Thank you.
Thanks Sanjida, I enjoyed this thoughtful post on what literary fiction is or is perceived to be by modern readers. I was disappointed that you selected Stephanie Meyers as the representative of “pop” fiction instead of Rowlings. Classically educated during a time when educators believed it was important for every child to have a superior education, we read Silas Marner in third grade while they now assign this magnificent book to college students. I do agree that literary novels are more thought provoking, but as the post you sited above, I cannot see why we feel the need to classify it as better, deeper or that readers are so uneducated they are unable to appreciate something that does not involve the equivelent of a car chase in film. Reading choices are based more on the “time” than culture and language. Carnegie was not permitted to enter a library in Pitsburgh and thus we have public libraries today. This was also a time when the “masses” were not educated beyond third grade. That public education and mass media has expanded the availability of books and other forms of entertainment, does not mean that the same people who once read “literature” are not still reading it … it means that the rest of the world is reading and viewing what appeals to them. In an odd way, your work and the work of those who write the most thought provoking angst of the human condition, have the same readership you had 100 years ago when there was no middle class, when what was defined as the “under” class had no education and little spending power. I feel sad that literary writers are not seen in the same light as popular fiction writers, but they are still being read by the same small group of readers. What makes me feel sadder is the need to define this under appreciation by claiming the rest of the reading public is not bright enough to appreciate the mastery of language. The analogy might be that the film version of A Room With A View was not a summer blockbuster like Lethal Weapon … the joys of Masterpiece Theatre is not as widely viewed as Desperate Housewives. In a wonderful turn of events, Downton Abbey is as popular as the new Sherlock on Masterpiece, which is as well done as the new Sherlock by Robert Downey, Jr. or as complicated as The Death of Roger Ackroyd or The Black Cat in literature, unless of course, you believe that Agatha wrote down to the general reading public. It would be so nice to live in a world where you could make as much money as James Patterson, but it would also be nice to have more women reviewed by the “reverant” New York Times Book Review, or to see more women represented on the 100 best novels ever written as published by Random House. Count them: Not more than ten women are among the 100 best novels ever written. And to this day the real name of the “female” author of Silas Marner (on the list by the way) is not given. Looks like you are fighting two battles to be recognized, not just by the general reading public, but by the same all white male establishement who judges what is the best for the general reading public. Good luck with that J
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Florence.
I picked the Twilight Saga simply because it’s very popular and I’ve read all the books in the Saga. I found I couldn’t get past page 1 of JK Rowlings first book. Great that children are reading, but I agree, it would be refreshing if younger children were encouraged to read classics too.
I too feel sad that literary fiction isn’t read by more people but I certainly don’t think it’s because readers aren’t bright enough. It’s a matter of taste and time – and marketing by the publishing industry.
At a book signing on Saturday, a woman said to me she didn’t want to buy my books because she was looking for a novel to read on the beach and she didn’t want to have to think too hard. Fair enough!
Thanks for all the points you made.
It is refreshing when one thinker can, so distinctly, clarify for us essentials that we can sense but not distill into words. Currently, I am working toward a PhD, but I have an MFA in Creative Writing and I taught English for years; in the interim, I have written four literary novels–and I am surprised every time when someone says, “What’s that?” Perhaps the next time a fellow teacher or a learned friend who is not familiar with the term, let alone its components, asks me I will have an able answer.
Thank you, that’s very kind of you. It sounds as if you are far more qualified than I am to comment as I didn’t study English past age 18. Best wishes with your books.
Seems to me that “literary” is just another genre.
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The Award-Winning Novels of 2023
The books that took home this year’s biggest literary prizes.
Another year, another crop of newly-minted literary honorees.
From the Pulitzer to the Booker, the Nebula to the Edgar, here are the winners of the biggest book prizes of 2023.
Congratulations to all!
PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION
Awarded for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Prize money: $15,000
Trust by Hernan Diaz (Riverhead)
“[An] enthralling tour de force … Each story talks to the others, and the conversation is both combative and revelatory … As an American epic, Trust gives The Great Gatsby a run for its money … Diaz’s debut, In the Distance , was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Trust fulfills that book’s promise, and then some … Wordplay is Trust ’s currency … In Diaz’s accomplished hands we circle ever closer to the black hole at the core of Trust … Trust is a glorious novel about empires and erasures, husbands and wives, staggering fortunes and unspeakable misery … He spins a larger parable, then, plumbing sex and power, causation and complicity. Mostly, though, Trust is a literary page-turner, with a wealth of puns and elegant prose, fun as hell to read.”
– Hamilton Cain ( Oprah Daily )
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper)
“I already know: My favorite novel of 2022 is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, this is the story of an irrepressible boy nobody wants, but readers will love … In a feat of literary alchemy, Kingsolver uses the fire of that boy’s spirit to illuminate—and singe—the darkest recesses of our country … Kingsolver has reconceived the story in the fabric of contemporary life. Demon Copperhead is entirely her own thrilling story, a fierce examination of contemporary poverty and drug addiction tucked away in the richest country on Earth … There’s the saving grace. This would be a grim melodrama if it weren’t for Demon’s endearing humor, an alloy formed by his unaffected innocence and weary cynicism … With Demon Copperhead, she’s raised the bar even higher, providing her best demonstration yet of a novel’s ability to simultaneously entertain and move and plead for reform.”
– Ron Charles ( The Washington Post )
Finalists: Vauhini Vara, The Immortal King Rao (W. W. Norton & Company)
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
Recognizes an outstanding work of literary fiction by a United States citizen. Prize money: $10,000
Blackouts by Justin Torres (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Torres’s lyrical new novel, Blackouts, these two forms—erasure poetry and queer history—collide to create one epic conversation between a pivotal 20th-century queer sexology text and two unreliable queer Puerto Rican narrators … The supreme pleasure of the book is its slow obliteration of any firm idea of reality—a perfect metaphor for the delirious disorientation that comes with learning queer history as an adult … Torres haunts this book full of ghosts like a ghost himself, and with this novel, he has passed the haunting on, creating the next link in a queer chain from Jan to Juan to nene to you.”
– Hugh Ryan ( The New York Times Book Review )
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Chain-Gang All-Stars (Pantheon) Aaliyah Bilal, Temple Folk (Simon & Schuster) Paul Harding, This Other Eden (W. W. Norton & Company) Hanna Pylväinen, The End of Drum-Time (Henry Holt & Company)
Awarded for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK. Prize money: £50,000
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch (Atlantic Monthly Press)
“If there was ever a crucial book for our current times, it’s Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song … The book is also reminiscent of Anna Burns’s Milkman in that it’s an important story aching to be told, heavy with the reality it bears. While Burns wrote of sexual harassment, Lynch’s dystopian Ireland reflects the reality of war-torn countries, where refugees take to the sea to escape persecution on land. Prophet Song echoes the violence in Palestine, Ukraine and Syria, and the experience of all those who flee from war-torn countries. This is a story of bloodshed and heartache that strikes at the core of the inhumanity of western politicians’ responses to the refugee crisis … Lynch’s message is crystal clear: lives the world over are experiencing upheaval, violence, persecution. Prophet Song is a literary manifesto for empathy for those in need and a brilliant, haunting novel that should be placed into the hands of policymakers everywhere.”
– Aimée Walsh ( The Observer )
Sarah Bernstein, Study for Obedience (Knopf Canada) Jonathan Escoffery, If I Survive You (MCD) Paul Harding, This Other Eden (W. W. Norton & Company) Chetna Maroo, Western Lane (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Paul Murray, The Bee Sting (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
INTERNATIONAL BOOKER PRIZE
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Liveright)
“Mr. Gospodinov…is a nostalgia artist … His books are preoccupied with memory, its ambiguous pleasures and its wistful, melancholy attraction. He is most drawn to minor and personalized details … The book flows between the remembered and the purely imagined as easily as it wanders through time … The novel rambles among elaborations of its fantastical conceit, flashbacks to the narrator’s youth, and meditations on the current condition of Europe with no apparent cohesive structure. Caveat lector: This makes for an extremely diffuse and piecemeal book. But the absence of a stabilizing center of gravity is symptomatic of a continent still recovering from the hammer-blows of World War II and the Cold War … Mr. Gospodinov also grasps the dangers of escapism … This difficult but rewarding novel concludes with an image of Europe brought to the brink of renewed conflict—an abstraction that recent events have imbued with the terrible force of reality.”
– Sam Sacks ( The Wall Street Journal )
Boulder by Eva Baltasar, tr. from Spanish by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories) Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, tr. from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Archipelago) The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, tr. from French by (World Editions) Standing Heavy by GauZ’, tr. from French by Frank Wynne (Biblioasis) Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, tr. from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey (Bloomsbury)
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
Given annually to honor outstanding writing and to foster a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature. Judged by the volunteer directors of the NBCC who are 24 members serving rotating three-year terms, with eight elected annually by the voting members, namely “professional book review editors and book reviewers.”
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“The strangeness of living in a body is exposed, the absurdity of carrying race and gender on one’s face, all against the backdrop of an America in ruin … Ma’s meticulously-crafted mood and characterization … Ma’s gift for endings is evident … Ma masterfully captures her characters’ double consciousness, always seeing themselves through the white gaze, in stunning and bold new ways … Even the weaker stories in the book…are redeemed by Ma’s restrained prose style, dry humor, and clever gut-punch endings. But all this technical prowess doesn’t mean the collection lacks a heart. First- and second-generation Americans who might have been invisible for most of their lives are seen and held lovingly in Ma’s fiction.”
– Bruna Dantas Lobato ( Astra )
Percival Everett, Dr No (Graywolf) Jon Fosse with Damion Searls (trans.), A New Name (Transit Books) Mieko Kawakami with Sam Bett and David Boyd (trans.), All the Lovers in the Night (Europa Editions) Namwali Serpell, The Furrows (Hogarth)
Chosen from books reviewed by Kirkus Reviews that earned the Kirkus Star. Prize money: $50,000
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead)
“If you think this novel is beginning to sound too nice, too pat, you don’t know McBride’s writing. He crowds the chaos of the world into his sentences … McBride’s roving narrator is, by turns, astute, withering, giddy, damning and jubilant. He has a fine appreciation for the human comedy … McBride looks squarely at savage truths about race and prejudice, but he also insists on humor and hope. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It pulls off the singular magic trick of being simultaneously flattening and uplifting.”
– Maureen Corrigan ( NPR )
Jamel Brinkley, Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Elanor Catton, Birnam Wood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Kelly Link, White Cat, Black Dog (Random House) Paul Murray, The Bee Sting (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Jesmyn Ward, Let Us Descend (Scribner)
WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION
Awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom.
Jacqueline Crooks, Fire Rush (Viking) Louise Kennedy, Trespasses (Riverhead) Priscilla Morris, Black Butterflies (Knopf) Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait (Knopf) Laline Paull, Pod (Pegasus)
PEN/ FAULKNER AWARD
Awarded to the author of the year’s best work of fiction by a living American citizen. Prize money: $15,000
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Eerie and intimate … Though the literary ruse drives its plot, The Book of Goose is mainly concerned with the lack of personal agency afforded to two very different girls—and how this shapes their destinies. Both want more than their village can offer, but until they write their book, only Fabienne has some power in her dealings with adults—because she scares them. When their book’s success gives Agnès a measure of control over her future, the friendship takes a stark turn. Not since John Knowles’ A Separate Peace has a novel wrung such drama from two teens standing face to face on a tree branch … In prose shorn of unnecessary modifiers and frills of any kind, Li capably depicts the way a strong-willed sadist can browbeat a peer into subservience.”
– Kevin Canfield ( The Star Tribune )
Jonathan Escoffery, If I Survive You (MCD) Laura Warrell, Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm (Pantheon) Dione Irving, The Islands (Catapult) Kathryn Harlan, Fruiting Bodies (W. W. Norton & Company)
PEN/ROBERT W. BINGHAM PRIZE FOR DEBUT FICTION
Awarded to an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. Prize money: $25,000
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (Tin House Books)
“Talty depicts the relationship between David and Paige perfectly—the siblings clearly care for each other; it’s evident beneath the bickering and the long periods when they don’t see each other … The story ends with both mother and son experiencing terrifying medical emergencies; it’s almost excruciating to read, but it’s undeniably powerful, and, in its own way, beautiful … Talty’s prose is flawless throughout; he writes with a straightforward leanness that will likely appeal to admirers of Thom Jones or Denis Johnson. But his style is all his own, as is his immense sense of compassion. Night of the Living Rez is a stunning look at a family navigating their lives through crisis—it’s a shockingly strong debut, sure, but it’s also a masterwork by a major talent.”
– Michael Schaub ( The Star Tribune )
Sindya Bhanoo, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (Catapult) Meron Hadero, A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times (Restless Books) Morgan Thomas, Manywhere (Picador) Jasmine Sawers, The Anchored World (Rose Metal Press)
ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE IN FICTION
Awards established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. in the previous year. Administered by the American Library Association.
Prize money: $5,000 (winner), $1,500 (finalists)
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka (Knopf)
“Brief quotes give the text the veneer of nonfiction, and keep the narrative at arm’s length, rather than pull you close as fiction often attempts to … We leave the pool in the novel’s second half, and are firmly anchored aboveground with Alice, diagnosed with dementia, and her unnamed daughter … Otsuka’s prose is powerfully subdued: She builds lists and litanies that appear unassuming, even quotidian, until the paragraph comes to an end, and you find yourself stunned by what she has managed … It’s in [the] dissonance that the novel’s halves begin to meaningfully cohere … The puzzling narrative structure makes a kind of poetic sense as myth … The Swimmers makes an archetypal story wholly personal … In a time of monotony and chaos, when death is as concrete as it is unimaginable, and when cracks can and do appear in the pool for no discernible reason, The Swimmers is an exquisite companion. Though it doesn’t answer the unanswerable, the novel’s quiet insistence resonates: that it is our perfectly ordinary proclivities that make us who we are.”
– Rachel Khong ( The New York Times Book Review )
David Santos Donaldson, Greenland (Amistad Press) Morgan Talty, Night of the Living Rez (Tin House Books)
INTERNATIONAL DUBLIN LITERARY AWARD
An international literary award presented each year for a novel written in English or translated into English. Prize money: €100,000
Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp, trans. by Jo Heinrich (Peirene Press)
“Every now and again, you come across a book you instantly know you must read and will devour … Oskamp tells their stories with a refreshing compassion—no poking fun at the former GDR as with Thomas Brussig and co., nor the anger and outrage of Jana Hensel. Oskamp is a curious observer and gleans intimate insights into the lives of the many who carried on as best they could when things got tough. Chapter by chapter, we are invited into their private sphere and bear witness not only to their tragedies, illnesses, and bereavements but also to their triumphs and their great fortitude. Marzahn, mon amour captures a piece of modern German history and brings it right down to the human level.”
– Catherine Venner ( World Literature Today )
Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner) Kim Thúy (translated from French by Sheila Fischman), Em (Blackstone) Ivana Sajko (translated from Croatian by Mima Simic), Love Novel (Biblioasis) Fernanda Melchor (translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes), Paradais (New Directions) Percival Everett, The Trees (Graywolf)
CENTER FOR FICTION FIRST NOVEL PRIZE
An annual award presented by The Center for Fiction, a non-profit organization in New York City, for the best debut novel. Prize money: $10,000
We Are a Haunting by Tyriek White (Astra House)
“A gorgeous novel about loss, survival and community … The structure of We Are a Haunting is inventive; the switching of viewpoints makes it feel like an extended conversation between Colly and Key … White’s characters are masterfully drawn, and his use of language is brilliant … This is a stunningly original and beautiful novel of devotion, a book that gives and gives as it asks us what it means to be part of a family, of a community.”
– Michael Schaub ( NPR )
Elizabeth Acevedo, Family Lore (HarperCollins / Ecco) Christine Byl, Lookout (Deep Vellum / A Strange Object) Eskor David Johnson, Pay As You Go (McSweeney’s) Jamila Minnicks, Moonrise Over New Jessup (Hachette / Algonquin Books) Tracey Rose Peyton, Night Wherever We Go (HarperCollins / Ecco) Esther Yi, Y/N (Astra House)
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE
Recognizes outstanding literary works as well as champions new writers. Prize money: $1,000
(ART SEIDENBAUM AWARD FOR FIRST FICTION)
The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad (Riverhead)
“With each character’s journey, author Ahmad explores the multifaceted nature of longing and loss and what the loneliness they engender is all for. This novel has everything a reader could ask for: a sizzling, noirlike plot; political intrigue juxtaposed with a rich intergenerational family saga; capacious, conflicted characters, including women who may be marginalized by society but are masters of their own narratives; and sublime sentences. A debut novelist, Ahmad manages this complexity seamlessly … A feat of storytelling not to be missed.”
Maayan Eitan, Love (Penguin) Sidik Forfana, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs (Scribner) Oscar Hokeah, Calling for a Blanket Dance (Algonquin) Morgan Thomas, Manywhere (Picador)
Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu, tr. Sean Cotter (Deep Vellum)
“…a novel made from other novels, a meticulously borrowed piece of hyperliterature. Kleist’s cosmic ambiguity, the bureaucratic terror of Kafka, the enchantments of García Márquez and Bruno Schulz’s labyrinths are all recognizable in Cărtărescu’s anecdotes, dreams and journal entries. That fictive texture is part and parcel of the novel’s sense of unreality, which not only blends the pedestrian and the bizarre, but also commingles many features of the literary avant-garde. Although the narrator himself is largely critical of literature … he also affirms the possibility inherent in the ‘bitter and incomprehensible books’ he idolizes. In this way, he plays both critic and apologist throughout, a delicious dialectic whose final, ravishing synthesis exists in the towering work of Solenoid itself.”
– Dustin Illingsworth ( The New York Times Book Review )
Anna Dorn, Exalted (Unnamed Press) James Hannaham, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta (Little, Brown and Company) Jamil Jan Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories (Viking) Fernanda Melchor (translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes), Paradais (New Directions)
Presented by the Mystery Writers of America, honoring the best in crime and mystery fiction.
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka (William Morrow and Company)
“… poetic and mesmerizing … It’s an impossible weight for a mother to imagine, but Kukafka handles it with grace and empathy and terrible, enduring beauty … a victim-forward narrative that is a relief to read after years of serial killer hagiography. It’s also no less thrilling … a career-defining novel—powerful, important, intensely human, and filled with a unique examination of tragedy, one where the reader is left with a curious emotion: hope.”
– Tod Goldberg ( USA Today )
John Darnielle, Devil House (MCD) Gabino Iglesias, The Devil Takes You Home (Mulholland Books) Nita Prose, The Maid (Ballantine) Kellye Garrett, Like a Sister (Mulholland Books) Chuck Hogan, Gangland (Grand Central Publishing)
(BEST FIRST NOVEL)
Don’t Know Tough by Eli Cranor (Soho Crime)
“ Don’t Know Tough takes the adage of ‘Faith, Family, and Football’ and reveals it to be a vicious canard, or at least a decent cover for the common failings of god and men, the violence on the field an acceptable proxy for the violence that exists behind closed doors. A major work from a bright, young talent.”
Erin E. Adams, Jackal (Bantam) Ramona Emerson, Shutter (Soho Crime) Katie Gutierrez, More Than You’ll Ever Know (William Morrow & Company) Grace D. Li, Portrait of a Thief (Tiny Reparations Books)
Given each year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for the best science fiction or fantasy novel.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
“ Babel has earned tremendous praise and deserves all of it. It’s Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass by way of N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season : inventive and engaging, passionate and precise. Kuang is fiercely disciplined even when she’s playful and experimental: In an author’s note, she invites readers to ‘remind yourself this is a work of fiction’ before proceeding to footnote the text with the vicious hindsight of a historian. Like the silver bars at its heart—like empires and academic institutions both— Babel derives its power from sustaining a contradiction, from trying to hold in your head both love and hatred for the charming thing that sustains itself by devouring you.”
– Amal El-Mohtar ( The New York Times Book Review )
Travis Baldree, Legends & Lattes (Tor Books) Nicola Griffith, Spear (Tordotcom) T. Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone (Tor Books) Tamsyn Muir, Nona the Ninth (Tordotcom) Ray Nayler, The Mountain in the Sea (MCD)
Awarded for the best science fiction or fantasy story of 40,000 words or more published in English or translated in the prior calendar year.
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher (Tor Books)
“… clever and bold-hearted … Marra’s hard-fought journey from third-string princess to hero will delight fantasy readers. Kingfisher’s signature offbeat humor remains as entertaining as ever, and her treatment of domestic abuse is filled with compassion and dignity. This rollicking feminist fairy tale is filled with redemption, community and courage, its dark passages the road to a satisfyingly uplifting endgame.”
– Jaclyn Fulwood ( Shelf Awareness )
John Scalzi, The Kaiju Preservation Society (Tor Books) Travis Baldree, Legends & Lattes (Tor Books) Tamsyn Muir, Nona the Ninth (Tordotcom) Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (Del Rey Books) Mary Robinette Kowal, The Spare Man (Tor Books)
BRAM STOKER AWARD
Presented by the Horror Writers Association for “superior achievement” in horror writing for novels.
The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias (Mulholland Books)
“… riveting … a barrio noir that invites readers to consider the depths of darkness in this world, its material effects, and the cycles of violence we both willingly and perforce enter into … written in both English and Spanish—the former outweighs the latter, and any Spanish dialogue too important to the plot or mood is translated—and takes readers on a journey to hell and back. Whether hell is the American racism, the Mexican cartel industry, Mario’s grief and increasing comfort with violence, or all of the above, it works … The mix of religious, superstitious, and supernatural elements add a dimension to the novel that heightens its horror, but also its social commentary … may not be a cheerful book, but it still allows glimpses of love, moments of connection, and glimmers of beauty to exist. Even if those can’t save us, they point toward what, with some effort and luck, just might.”
– Ilana Masad ( NPR )
Alma Katsu, The Fervor (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) Gwendolyn Kiste, Reluctant Immortals (Gallery / Saga Press) Josh Malerman, Daphne (Del Rey Books) Catriona Ward, Sundial (Tor Nightfire)
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60 Literary Devices and Techniques Every Writer Must Know
A literary device is a writing technique that writers use to express ideas, convey meaning, and highlight important themes in a piece of text. A metaphor, for instance, is a famous example of a literary device.
These devices serve a wide range of purposes in literature. Some might work on an intellectual level, while others have a more emotional effect. They may also work subtly to improve the flow and pacing of your writing. No matter what, if you're looking to inject something special into your prose, literary devices are a great place to start.
Alliteration describes a series of words in quick succession that all start with the same letter or sound. It lends a pleasing cadence to prose and Hamlet and the dollar as currency in Macbeth .
Example: “ One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” — “Death, Be Not Proud” by John Donne
Exercise: Pick a letter and write a sentence where every word starts with that letter or one that sounds similar.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses or sentences. It’s often seen in poetry and speeches, intended to provoke an emotional response in its audience.
Example: Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.
"… and I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.
"… I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Exercise: Pick a famous phrase and write a paragraph elaborating on an idea, beginning each sentence with that phrase.
Similar term: repetition
Anastrophe is a figure of speech wherein the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a typical verb-subject-adjective sentence such as “Are you ready?” becomes a Yoda-esque adjective-verb-subject question: “Ready, are you?” Or a standard adjective-noun pairing like “tall mountain” becomes “mountain tall.”
Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
Exercise: Write a standard verb-subject-adjective sentence or adjective-noun pairing then flip the order to create an anastrophe. How does it change the meaning or feeling of the sentence?
Chiasmus is when two or more parallel clauses are inverted. “Why would I do that?” you may be wondering. Well, a chiasmus might sound confusing and unnecessary in theory, but it's much more convincing in practice — and in fact, you've likely already come across it before.
Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy
Congeries is a fancy literary term for creating a list. The items in your list can be words, ideas, or phrases, and by displaying them this way helps prove or emphasize a point — or even create a sense of irony. Occasionally, it’s also called piling as the words are “piling up.”
Example: "Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?" — Monty Python’s Life of Brian
6. Cumulative sentence
A cumulative sentence (or “loose sentence”) is one that starts with an independent clause, but then has additional or modifying clauses. They’re often used for contextual or clarifying details. This may sound complex, but even, “I ran to the store to buy milk, bread, and toilet paper” is a cumulative sentence, because the first clause, “I ran to the store,” is a complete sentence, while the rest tells us extra information about your run to the store.
Example: “It was a large bottle of gin Albert Cousins had brought to the party, yes, but it was in no way large enough to fill all the cups, and in certain cases to fill them many times over, for the more than one hundred guests, some of whom were dancing not four feet in front of him.” – Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Example: Write three sentences that are related to each other. Can you combine the information into a cumulative sentence?
Literary Devices Cheatsheet
Master these 40+ devices to level up your writing skills.
Epistrophe is the opposite of anaphora, with this time a word or phrase being repeated at the end of a sentence. Though its placement in a sentence is different it serves the same purpose—creating emphasis—as an anaphora does.
Example: “I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there .” — The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Similar terms: repetition, anaphora
Exercise: Write a paragraph where a phrase or a word is repeated at the end of every sentence, emphasizing the point you’re trying to make.
Erotesis is a close cousin of the rhetorical question. Rather than a question asked without expectation of an answer, this is when the question (and the asker) confidently expects a response that is either negative or affirmative.
Example: “ Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them?” — Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Similar term: rhetorical question
Hyperbaton is the inversion of words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence that differs from how they would normally be arranged. It comes from the Greek hyperbatos, which means “transposed” or “inverted.” While it is similar to anastrophe, it doesn’t have the same specific structure and allows you to rearrange your sentences in whatever order you want.
Example: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.” — “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
Similar terms: anastrophe, epistrophe
If you’re a neat freak who likes things just so , isocolon is the literary device for you. This is when two or more phrases or clauses have similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up perfectly. Isocolon often crops up in brand slogans and famous sayings; the quick, balanced rhythm makes the phrase catchier and more memorable.
Example: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez ) is the signature literary device of the double negative. Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case. Don’t worry, it makes more sense with the examples. 😉
Examples: “You won’t be sorry” (meaning you’ll be happy); “you’re not wrong” (meaning you’re right); “I didn’t not like it” (meaning I did)
If Shakespeare is the king of metaphors, Michael Scott is the king of malapropisms . A malapropism is when similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts, typically to comic effect — one of the most commonly cited is “dance a flamingo,” rather than a “flamenco.” Malapropisms are often employed in dialogue when a character flubs up their speech.
Example: “I am not to be truffled with.”
Exercise: Choose a famous or common phrase and see if you can replace a word with a similar sounding one that changes the meaning.
Amusingly, onomatopoeia (itself a difficult-to-pronounce word) refers to words that sound like the thing they’re referring to. Well-known instances of onomatopoeia include whiz, buzz, snap, grunt, etc.
Example: The excellent children's book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type . “Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears: Click, clack, moo. Click, clack, moo. Clickety, clack, moo. ”
Exercise: Take some time to listen to the sounds around you and write down what you hear. Now try to use those sounds in a short paragraph or story.
An oxymoron comes from two contradictory words that describe one thing. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.
Example: "Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. (Find 100 more examples of oxymorons here .)
Similar terms: juxtaposition, paradox
Exercise: Choose two words with opposite meanings and see if you can use them in a sentence to create a coherent oxymoron.
Parallelism is all about your sentence structure. It’s when similar ideas, sounds, phrases, or words are arranged in a way that is harmonious or creates a parallel, hence the name. It can add rhythm and meter to any piece of writing and can often be found in poetry.
Example: “ That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong
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Instead of using a single conjunction in lengthy statements, polysyndeton uses several in succession for a dramatic effect. This one is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flair to their writing, or who are hoping to portray a particular (usually naïve) sort of voice.
Example: “Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.” — The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Exercise: Write three or four independent sentences. Try combining them using conjunctions. What kind of effect does this have on the overall meaning and tone of the piece?
A portmanteau is when two words are combined to form a new word which refers to a single concept that retains the meanings of both the original words. Modern language is full of portmanteaus. In fact, the portmanteau is itself a portmanteau. It’s a combination of the French porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak).
Example: Brunch (breakfast and lunch); cosplay (costume and roleplay); listicle (list and article); romcom (romance and comedy)
Exercise: Pick two words that are often used together to describe a single concept. See if there’s a way to combine them and create a single word that encompasses the meaning of both.
Repetition , repetition, repetition… where would we be without it? Though too much repetition is rarely a good thing, occasional repetition can be used quite effectively to drill home a point, or to create a certain atmosphere. For example, horror writers often use repetition to make the reader feel trapped and scared.
Example: In The Shining , Jack Torrance types over and over again on his pages, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In this case, obsessive repetition demonstrates the character’s unraveling mind.
Similar term: anaphora
Exercise: Repetition can be used to call attention to an idea or phrase. Pick an idea you want to emphasize and write a few sentences about it. Are there any places where you can add repetition to make it more impactful?
A tautology is when a sentence or short paragraph repeats a word or phrase, expressing the same idea twice. Often, this is a sign that you should trim your work to remove the redundancy (such as “frozen ice”) but can also be used for poetic emphasis.
Example: "But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door" – “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
Tmesis is when a word or phrase is broken up by an interjecting word, such as abso-freaking-lutely. It’s used to draw out and emphasize the idea, often with a humorous or sarcastic slant.
Example: "This is not Romeo, he's some-other-where." – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
An allegory is a type of narrative that uses characters and plot to depict abstract ideas and themes . In an allegorical story, things represent more than they appear to on the surface. Many children's fables, such as The Tortoise and the Hare , are simple allegories about morality — but allegories can also be dark, complex, and controversial.
Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell. This dystopian novella is one of modern literature’s best-known allegories. A commentary on the events leading up to Stalin's rise and the formation of the Soviet Union, the pigs at the heart of the novel represent figures such as Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov.
Exercise: Pick a major trend or problem in the world and consider what defines it. Try and create a story where that trend plays out on a smaller scale.
An anecdote is like a short story within a story. Sometimes, they are incredibly short—only a line or two—and their purpose is to add a character’s perspective, knowledge, or experience to a situation. They can be inspirational, humorous, or be used to inspire actions in others. Since anecdotes are so short, don’t expect them to be part of a main story. They’re usually told by a character and part of the dialogue.
Example: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way , part of his series of novels, In Search of Lost Time, deals with the themes of remembrance and memory. In one section of this book, to illustrate these ideas, the main character recalls an important memory of eating a madeleine cookie. “Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.”
23. Deus Ex Machina
Literally meaning “god in the machine” in Greek, deus ex machina is a plot device where an impossible situation is solved by the appearance of an unexpected or unheard of character, action, object, or event. This brings about a quick and usually happy resolution for a story and can be used to surprise an audience, provide comic relief, or provide a fix for a complicated plot. However, deus ex machinas aren’t always looked upon favorably and can sometimes be seen as lazy writing, so they should be used sparingly and with great thought.
Example: William Golding’s famous novel of a group of British boys marooned on a desert island is resolved with a deus ex machina. At the climax of The Lord of the Flies, just as Ralph is about to be killed by Jack, a naval officer arrives to rescue the boys and bring them back to civilization. It’s an altogether unexpected and bloodless ending for a story about the boys’ descent into savagery.
Exercise: Consider the ending of your favorite book or movie and then write an alternate ending that uses a deus ex machina to resolve the main conflict. How does this affect the overall story in terms of theme and tone?
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24. Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is when the readers know more about the situation going on than at least one of the characters involved. This creates a difference between the ways the audience and the characters perceive unfolding events. For instance, if we know that one character is having an affair, when that character speaks to their spouse, we will pick up on the lies and double-meanings of their words, while the spouse may take them at face value.
Example: In Titanic , the audience knows from the beginning of the movie that the boat will sink. This creates wry humor when characters remark on the safety of the ship.
Exposition is when the narrative provides background information in order to help the reader understand what’s going on. When used in conjunction with description and dialogue, this literary device provides a richer understanding of the characters, setting, and events. Be careful, though — too much exposition will quickly become boring, thus undercutting the emotional impact of your work.
Example: “The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Exercise: Pick your favorite story and write a short paragraph introducing it to someone who knows nothing about it.
Flashbacks to previous events split up present-day scenes in a story, usually to build suspense toward a big reveal. Flashbacks are also an interesting way to present exposition for your story, gradually revealing to the reader what happened in the past.
Example: Every other chapter in the first part of Gone Girl is a flashback, with Amy’s old diary entries describing her relationship with her husband before she disappeared.
Similar term: foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is when the author hints at events yet to come in a story. Similar to flashbacks (and often used in conjunction with them), this technique is also used to create tension or suspense — giving readers just enough breadcrumbs to keep them hungry for more.
Example: One popular method of foreshadowing is through partial reveals — the narrator leaves out key facts to prompt readers’ curiosity. Jeffrey Eugenides does this in The Virgin Suicides : “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Similar term: flashback
Exercise: Go back to your favorite book or movie. Can you identify any instances of foreshadowing in the early portions of the story for events that happen in the future?
28. Frame story
A frame story is any part of the story that "frames" another part of it, such as one character telling another about their past, or someone uncovering a diary or a series of news articles that then tell the readers what happened. Since the frame story supports the rest of the plot, it is mainly used at the beginning and the end of the narrative, or in small interludes between chapters or short stories.
Example: In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe is telling Chronicler the story of his life over the span of three days. Most of the novel is the story he is telling, while the frame is any part that takes place in the inn.
29. In Medias Res
In medias res is a Latin term that means "in the midst of things" and is a way of starting a narrative without exposition or contextual information. It launches straight into a scene or action that is already unfolding.
Example: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” — The opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Exercise: Pick a story you enjoy and rewrite the opening scene so that it starts in the middle of the story.
30. Point of view
Point of view is, of course, the mode of narration in a story. There are many POVs an author can choose, and each one will have a different impact on the reading experience.
Example: Second person POV is uncommon because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative style to pull off. One popular novel that manages to employ this perspective successfully is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
Exercise: Write a short passage in either first, second, or third person. Then rewrite that passage in the other two points of view, only changing the pronouns. How does the change in POV affect the tone and feel of the story?
Understanding Point of View
Learn to master different POVs and choose the best for your story.
Soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length (and often in a Shakespeare play). The character in question may be alone or in the company of others, but they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people; the purpose of a soliloquy is for a character to reflect independently.
Example: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, in which he ruminates on the nature of life and death, is a classic dramatic soliloquy.
Exercise: Pick a character from your favorite book or movie and write a soliloquy from their point of view where they consider their thoughts and feelings on an important part of their story or character arc.
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Tone refers to the overall mood and message of your book. It’s established through a variety of means, including voice, characterization, symbolism, and themes. Tone sets the feelings you want your readers to take away from the story.
Example: No matter how serious things get in The Good Place , there is always a chance for a character to redeem themselves by improving their behavior. The tone remains hopeful for the future of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Exercise: Write a short paragraph in an upbeat tone. Now using the same situation you came up with, rewrite that passage in a darker or sadder tone.
Tragicomedy is just what it sounds like: a blend of tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedy helps an audience process darker themes by allowing them to laugh at the situation even when circumstances are bleak.
Example: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events uses wordplay, absurd situations, and over-the-top characters to provide humor in an otherwise tragic story.
An allusion is a reference to a person, place, thing, concept, or other literary work that a reader is likely to recognize. A lot of meaning can be packed into an allusion and it’s often used to add depth to a story. Many works of classic Western literature will use allusions to the Bible to expand on or criticize the morals of their time.
Example: “The two knitting women increase his anxiety by gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen (the men dying), yet don’t care.” The two women knitting in this passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are a reference to the Fates from Greek mythology, who decide the fate of humanity by spinning and cutting the threads of life.
Exercise: In a relatively simple piece of writing, see how many times you can use allusions. Go completely crazy. Once you’re finished, try to cut it down to a more reasonable amount and watch for how it creates deeper meaning in your piece.
An analogy connects two seemingly unrelated concepts to show their similarities and expand on a thought or idea. They are similar to metaphors and similes, but usually take the comparison much further than either of these literary devices as they are used to support a claim rather than provide imagery.
Example: “ It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo.” — P.G. Wodehouse
Exercise: Pick two seemingly unrelated nouns and try to connect them with a verb to create an analogy.
To anthropomorphize is to apply human traits or qualities to a non-human thing such as objects, animals, or the weather. But unlike personification, in which this is done through figurative description, anthropomorphism is literal: a sun with a smiling face, for example, or talking dogs in a cartoon.
Examples: In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast , Mrs. Potts the teapot, Cogsworth the clock, and Lumière the candlestick are all household objects that act and behave like humans (which, of course, they were when they weren’t under a spell).
Similar term: personification
Exercise: Pick a non-human object and describe it as if it was human, literally ascribing human thoughts, feelings, and senses to it.
An aphorism is a universally accepted truth stated in a concise, to-the-point way. Aphorisms are typically witty and memorable, often becoming adages or proverbs as people repeat them over and over.
Example: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” — Alexander Pope
An archetype is a “universal symbol” that brings familiarity and context to a story. It can be a character, a setting, a theme, or an action. Archetypes represent feelings and situations that are shared across cultures and time periods, and are therefore instantly recognizable to any audience — for instance, the innocent child character, or the theme of the inevitability of death.
Example: Superman is a heroic archetype: noble, self-sacrificing, and drawn to righting injustice whenever he sees it.
Exercise: Pick an archetype — either a character or a theme — and use it to write a short piece centered around that idea.
A cliché is a saying or idea that is used so often it becomes seen as unoriginal. These phrases might become so universal that, despite their once intriguing nature, they're now looked down upon as uninteresting and overused.
Examples: Some common cliches you might have encountered are phrases like “easy as pie” and “light as a feather.” Some lines from famous books and movies have become so popular that they are now in and of themselves cliches such as Darth Vader’s stunning revelation from The Empire Strikes Back, “Luke, I am your father.” Also, many classic lines of Shakespeare are now considered cliches like, “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice.
Exercise: Write a short passage using as many cliches as possible. Now try to cut them out and replace them with more original phrasing. See how the two passages compare.
Colloquialism is the use of casual and informal language in writing, which can also include slang. Writers use colloquialisms to provide context to settings and characters, and to make their writing sound more authentic. Imagine reading a YA novel that takes place in modern America, and the characters speak to each other like this:
“Good morning, Sue. I hope that you slept well and are prepared for this morning’s science exam.”
It’s not realistic. Colloquialisms help create believable dialogue :
“Hey Sue, what’d you get up to last night? This science test is gonna suck.”
Example: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh takes place in Scotland, a fact made undeniably obvious by the dialect: “Thing is, as ye git aulder, this character-deficiency gig becomes mair sapping. Thir wis a time ah used tae say tae aw the teachers, bosses, dole punters, poll-tax guys, magistrates, when they telt me ah was deficient: ’Hi, cool it, gadge, ah’m jist me, jist intae a different sort ay gig fae youse but, ken?’”
Exercise: Write a dialogue between two characters as formally as possible. Now take that conversation and make it more colloquial. Imagine that you’re having this conversation with a friend. Mimic your own speech patterns as you write.
A euphemism is an indirect, “polite” way of describing something too inappropriate or awkward to address directly. However, most people will still understand the truth about what's happening.
Example: When an elderly person is forced to retire, some might say they’re being “put out to pasture.”
Exercise: Write a paragraph where you say things very directly. Now rewrite that paragraph using only euphemisms.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that emphasizes the significance of the statement’s actual meaning. When a friend says, "Oh my god, I haven't seen you in a million years," that's hyperbole.
Example: “At that time Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez
Exercise: Tall tales often make use of hyperbole to tell an exaggerated story. Use hyperbole to relate a completely mundane event or experience to turn it into a tall tale.
Hypophora is much like a rhetorical question, wherein someone asks a question that doesn't require an answer. However, in hypophora, the person raises a question and answers it immediately themselves (hence the prefix hypo, meaning 'under' or 'before'). It’s often used when characters are reasoning something aloud.
Example: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” — Daisy in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
An idiom is a saying that uses figurative language whose meaning differs from what it literally says. These phrases originate from common cultural experiences, even if that experience has long ago been forgotten. Without cultural context, idioms don’t often make sense and can be the toughest part for non-native speakers to understand.
Example: In everyday use, idioms are fairly common. We say things like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” to say that it’s downpouring.
Exercise: Idioms are often used in dialogue. Write a conversation between two people where idioms are used to express their main points.
Imagery appeals to readers’ senses through highly descriptive language. It’s crucial for any writer hoping to follow the rule of "show, don’t tell," as strong imagery truly paints a picture of the scene at hand.
Example: “In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.” — Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Exercise: Choose an object, image, or idea and use the five senses to describe it.
Show, Don't Tell
Master the golden rule of writing in 10 five-minute lessons.
Irony creates a contrast between how things seem and how they really are. There are three types of literary irony : dramatic (when readers know what will happen before characters do), situational (when readers expect a certain outcome, only to be surprised by a turn of events), and verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said).
Example: This opening scene from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil is a great example of how dramatic irony can create tension.
Juxtaposition places two or more dissimilar characters, themes, concepts, etc. side by side, and the profound contrast highlights their differences. Why is juxtaposition such an effective literary device? Well, because sometimes the best way for us to understand something is by understanding what it’s not .
Example: In the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities , Charles Dickens uses juxtaposition to emphasize the societal disparity that led to the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”
Similar terms: oxymoron, paradox
Exercise: Pick two ideas, objects, places, or people that seem like complete opposites. Introduce them side by side in the beginning of your piece and highlight their similarities and differences throughout.
A metaphor compares two similar things by saying that one of them is the other. As you'd likely expect, when it comes to literary devices, this one is a heavy hitter. And if a standard metaphor doesn't do the trick, a writer can always try an extended metaphor : a metaphor that expands on the initial comparison through more elaborate parallels.
Example: Metaphors are literature’s bread and butter (metaphor intended) — good luck finding a novel that is free of them. Here’s one from Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass : “Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.”
Similar term: simile
Exercise: Write two lists: one with tangible objects and the other concepts. Mixing and matching, try to create metaphors where you describe the concepts using physical objects.
One metaphor example not enough? Check out this post , which has 97 of ‘em!
Metonymy is like symbolism, but even more so. A metonym doesn’t just symbolize something else, it comes to serve as a synonym for that thing or things — typically, a single object embodies an entire institution.
Examples: “The crown” representing the monarchy, “Washington” representing the U.S. government.
Similar term: synecdoche
Exercise: Create a list of ten common metonymies you might encounter in everyday life and speech.
Whatever form a motif takes, it recurs throughout the novel and helps develop the theme of the narrative. This might be a symbol, concept, or image.
Example: In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, trains are an omnipresent motif that symbolize transition, derailment, and ultimately violent death and destruction.
Similar term: symbol
Exercise: Pick a famous book or movie and see if you can identify any common motifs within it.
51. Non sequitur
Non sequiturs are statements that don't logically follow what precedes them. They’ll often be quite absurd and can lend humor to a story. But they’re just not good for making jokes. They can highlight missing information or a miscommunication between characters and even be used for dramatic effect.
Example: “It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.” — Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Exercise: Write a conversation that gets entirely derailed by seemingly unrelated non sequiturs.
Paradox derives from the Greek word paradoxon , which means “beyond belief.” It’s a statement that asks people to think outside the box by providing seemingly illogical — and yet actually true — premises.
Example: In George Orwell’s 1984 , the slogan of the totalitarian government is built on paradoxes: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” While we might read these statements as obviously contradictory, in the context of Orwell’s novel, these blatantly corrupt sentiments have become an accepted truth.
Similar terms: oxymoron, juxtaposition
Exercise: Try writing your own paradox. First, think of two opposing ideas that can be juxtaposed against each other. Then, create a situation where these contradictions coexist with each other. What can you gather from this unique perspective?
Personification uses human traits to describe non-human things. Again, while the aforementioned anthropomorphism actually applies these traits to non-human things, personification means the behavior of the thing does not actually change. It's personhood in figurative language only.
Example: “Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin.” — The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Similar term: anthropomorphism
Exercise: Pick a non-human object and describe it using human traits, this time using similes and metaphors rather than directly ascribing human traits to it.
54. Rhetorical question
A rhetorical question is asked to create an effect rather than to solicit an answer from the listener or reader. Often it has an obvious answer and the point of asking is to create emphasis. It’s a great way to get an audience to consider the topic at hand and make a statement.
Example: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” — The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Writers use satire to make fun of some aspect of human nature or society — usually through exaggeration, ridicule, or irony. There are countless ways to satirize something; most of the time, you know it when you read it.
Example: The famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic example of satire, poking fun at “travelers' tales,” the government, and indeed human nature itself.
A simile draws resemblance between two things by saying “Thing A is like Thing B,” or “Thing A is as [adjective] as Thing B.” Unlike a metaphor, a similar does not posit that these things are the same, only that they are alike. As a result, it is probably the most common literary device in writing — you can almost always recognize a simile through the use of “like” or “as.”
Example: There are two similes in this description from Circe by Madeline Miller: “The ships were golden and huge as leviathans, their rails carved from ivory and horn. They were towed by grinning dolphins or else crewed by fifty black-haired nereids, faces silver as moonlight.”
Similar term: metaphor
Authors turn to tangible symbols to represent abstract concepts and ideas in their stories Symbols typically derive from objects or non-humans — for instance, a dove might represent peace, or a raven might represent death.
Example: In The Great Gatsby , Fitzgerald uses the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg (actually a faded optometrist's billboard) to represent God and his judgment of the Jazz Age.
Similar term: motif
Exercise: Choose an object that you want to represent something — like an idea or concept. Now, write a poem or short story centered around that symbol.
Synecdoche is the usage of a part to represent the whole. That is, rather than an object or title that’s merely associated with the larger concept (as in metonymy), synecdoche must actually be attached in some way: either to the name, or to the larger whole itself.
Examples: “Stanford won the game” ( Stanford referring to the full title of the Stanford football team) or “Nice wheels you got there” ( wheels referring to the entire car)
Similar term: metonymy
Zeugma is when one word is used to ascribe two separate meanings to two other words. This literary device is great for adding humor and figurative flair as it tends to surprise the reader. And it’s just a fun type of wordplay.
Example: “ Yet time and her aunt moved slowly — and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tete-a-tete was over.” — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Zoomorphism is when you take animal traits and assign them to anything that’s not an animal. It’s the opposite of anthropomorphism and personification, and can be either a physical manifestation, such as a god appearing as an animal, or a comparison, like calling someone a busy bee .
Example: When vampires turn into bats, their bat form is an instance of zoomorphism.
Exercise: Describe a human or object by using traits that are usually associated with animals.
Similar terms: anthropomorphism, personification
Readers and writers alike can get a lot out of understanding literary devices and how they're used. Readers can use them to gain insight into the author’s intended meaning behind their work, while writers can use literary devices to better connect with readers. But whatever your motivation for learning them, you certainly won't be sorry you did! (Not least because you'll recognize the device I just used in that sentence. 😏)
Ron B. Saunders says:
16/01/2019 – 19:26
Paraprosdokians are also delightful literary devices for creating surprise or intrigue. They cause a reader to rethink a concept or traditional expectation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraprosdokian)
17/01/2019 – 02:07
That's pore, not pour. Shame.....
↪️ Coline Harmon replied:
14/06/2019 – 19:06
It was a Malapropism
↪️ JC JC replied:
23/10/2019 – 00:02
Yeah ManhattanMinx. It's a Malepropism!
↪️ jesus replied:
07/11/2019 – 13:24
Susan McGrath says:
10/03/2020 – 10:56
"But whatever your motivation for learning them, you certainly won't be sorry you did! (Not least because you'll recognize the device I just used in that sentence. 😏)" Litote
Comments are currently closed.
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the 31 literary devices you must know.
Need to analyze The Scarlet Letter or To Kill a Mockingbird for English class, but fumbling for the right vocabulary and concepts for literary devices? You've come to the right place. To successfully interpret and analyze literary texts, you'll first need to have a solid foundation in literary terms and their definitions.
In this article, we'll help you get familiar with most commonly used literary devices in prose and poetry. We'll give you a clear definition of each of the terms we discuss along with examples of literary elements and the context in which they most often appear (comedic writing, drama, or other).
Before we get to the list of literary devices, however, we have a quick refresher on what literary devices are and how understanding them will help you analyze works of literature.
What Are Literary Devices and Why Should You Know Them?
Literary devices are techniques that writers use to create a special and pointed effect in their writing, to convey information, or to help readers understand their writing on a deeper level.
Often, literary devices are used in writing for emphasis or clarity. Authors will also use literary devices to get readers to connect more strongly with either a story as a whole or specific characters or themes.
So why is it important to know different literary devices and terms? Aside from helping you get good grades on your literary analysis homework, there are several benefits to knowing the techniques authors commonly use.
Being able to identify when different literary techniques are being used helps you understand the motivation behind the author's choices. For example, being able to identify symbols in a story can help you figure out why the author might have chosen to insert these focal points and what these might suggest in regard to her attitude toward certain characters, plot points, and events.
In addition, being able to identify literary devices can make a written work's overall meaning or purpose clearer to you. For instance, let's say you're planning to read (or re-read) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. By knowing that this particular book is a religious allegory with references to Christ (represented by the character Aslan) and Judas (represented by Edmund), it will be clearer to you why Lewis uses certain language to describe certain characters and why certain events happen the way they do.
Finally, literary techniques are important to know because they make texts more interesting and more fun to read. If you were to read a novel without knowing any literary devices, chances are you wouldn't be able to detect many of the layers of meaning interwoven into the story via different techniques.
Now that we've gone over why you should spend some time learning literary devices, let's take a look at some of the most important literary elements to know.
List of Literary Devices: 31 Literary Terms You Should Know
Below is a list of literary devices, most of which you'll often come across in both prose and poetry. We explain what each literary term is and give you an example of how it's used. This literary elements list is arranged in alphabetical order.
An allegory is a story that is used to represent a more general message about real-life (historical) issues and/or events. It is typically an entire book, novel, play, etc.
Example: George Orwell's dystopian book Animal Farm is an allegory for the events preceding the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era in early 20th century Russia. In the story, animals on a farm practice animalism, which is essentially communism. Many characters correspond to actual historical figures: Old Major represents both the founder of communism Karl Marx and the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin; the farmer, Mr. Jones, is the Russian Czar; the boar Napoleon stands for Joseph Stalin; and the pig Snowball represents Leon Trotsky.
Alliteration is a series of words or phrases that all (or almost all) start with the same sound. These sounds are typically consonants to give more stress to that syllable. You'll often come across alliteration in poetry, titles of books and poems ( Jane Austen is a fan of this device, for example—just look at Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility ), and tongue twisters.
Example: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." In this tongue twister, the "p" sound is repeated at the beginning of all major words.
Allusion is when an author makes an indirect reference to a figure, place, event, or idea originating from outside the text. Many allusions make reference to previous works of literature or art.
Example: "Stop acting so smart—it's not like you're Einstein or something." This is an allusion to the famous real-life theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.
An anachronism occurs when there is an (intentional) error in the chronology or timeline of a text. This could be a character who appears in a different time period than when he actually lived, or a technology that appears before it was invented. Anachronisms are often used for comedic effect.
Example: A Renaissance king who says, "That's dope, dude!" would be an anachronism, since this type of language is very modern and not actually from the Renaissance period.
Anaphora is when a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple sentences throughout a piece of writing. It's used to emphasize the repeated phrase and evoke strong feelings in the audience.
Example: A famous example of anaphora is Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech. Throughout this speech, he repeats the phrase "we shall fight" while listing numerous places where the British army will continue battling during WWII. He did this to rally both troops and the British people and to give them confidence that they would still win the war.
An anthropomorphism occurs when something nonhuman, such as an animal, place, or inanimate object, behaves in a human-like way.
Example: Children's cartoons have many examples of anthropomorphism. For example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse can speak, wear clothes, sing, dance, drive cars, etc. Real mice can't do any of these things, but the two mouse characters behave much more like humans than mice.
Asyndeton is when the writer leaves out conjunctions (such as "and," "or," "but," and "for") in a group of words or phrases so that the meaning of the phrase or sentence is emphasized. It is often used for speeches since sentences containing asyndeton can have a powerful, memorable rhythm.
Example: Abraham Lincoln ends the Gettysburg Address with the phrase "...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth." By leaving out certain conjunctions, he ends the speech on a more powerful, melodic note.
Colloquialism is the use of informal language and slang. It's often used by authors to lend a sense of realism to their characters and dialogue. Forms of colloquialism include words, phrases, and contractions that aren't real words (such as "gonna" and "ain't").
Example: "Hey, what's up, man?" This piece of dialogue is an example of a colloquialism, since it uses common everyday words and phrases, namely "what's up" and "man."
An epigraph is when an author inserts a famous quotation, poem, song, or other short passage or text at the beginning of a larger text (e.g., a book, chapter, etc.). An epigraph is typically written by a different writer (with credit given) and used as a way to introduce overarching themes or messages in the work. Some pieces of literature, such as Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick , incorporate multiple epigraphs throughout.
Example: At the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's book The Sun Also Rises is an epigraph that consists of a quotation from poet Gertrude Stein, which reads, "You are all a lost generation," and a passage from the Bible.
Epistrophe is similar to anaphora, but in this case, the repeated word or phrase appears at the end of successive statements. Like anaphora, it is used to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Example: In Lyndon B. Johnson's speech, "The American Promise," he repeats the word "problem" in a use of epistrophe: "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."
A euphemism is when a more mild or indirect word or expression is used in place of another word or phrase that is considered harsh, blunt, vulgar, or unpleasant.
Example: "I'm so sorry, but he didn't make it." The phrase "didn't make it" is a more polite and less blunt way of saying that someone has died.
A flashback is an interruption in a narrative that depicts events that have already occurred, either before the present time or before the time at which the narration takes place. This device is often used to give the reader more background information and details about specific characters, events, plot points, and so on.
Example: Most of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a flashback from the point of view of the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, as she engages in a conversation with a visitor named Lockwood. In this story, Nelly narrates Catherine Earnshaw's and Heathcliff's childhoods, the pair's budding romance, and their tragic demise.
Foreshadowing is when an author indirectly hints at—through things such as dialogue, description, or characters' actions—what's to come later on in the story. This device is often used to introduce tension to a narrative.
Example: Say you're reading a fictionalized account of Amelia Earhart. Before she embarks on her (what we know to be unfortunate) plane ride, a friend says to her, "Be safe. Wouldn't want you getting lost—or worse." This line would be an example of foreshadowing because it implies that something bad ("or worse") will happen to Earhart.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that's not meant to be taken literally by the reader. It is often used for comedic effect and/or emphasis.
Example: "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." The speaker will not literally eat an entire horse (and most likely couldn't ), but this hyperbole emphasizes how starved the speaker feels.
Imagery is when an author describes a scene, thing, or idea so that it appeals to our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing). This device is often used to help the reader clearly visualize parts of the story by creating a strong mental picture.
Example: Here's an example of imagery taken from William Wordsworth's famous poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud":
When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden Daffodils; Beside the Lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Irony is when a statement is used to express an opposite meaning than the one literally expressed by it. There are three types of irony in literature:
- Verbal irony: When someone says something but means the opposite (similar to sarcasm).
- Situational irony: When something happens that's the opposite of what was expected or intended to happen.
- Dramatic irony: When the audience is aware of the true intentions or outcomes, while the characters are not . As a result, certain actions and/or events take on different meanings for the audience than they do for the characters involved.
- Verbal irony: One example of this type of irony can be found in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." In this short story, a man named Montresor plans to get revenge on another man named Fortunato. As they toast, Montresor says, "And I, Fortunato—I drink to your long life." This statement is ironic because we the readers already know by this point that Montresor plans to kill Fortunato.
- Situational irony: A girl wakes up late for school and quickly rushes to get there. As soon as she arrives, though, she realizes that it's Saturday and there is no school.
- Dramatic irony: In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , Romeo commits suicide in order to be with Juliet; however, the audience (unlike poor Romeo) knows that Juliet is not actually dead—just asleep.
Juxtaposition is the comparing and contrasting of two or more different (usually opposite) ideas, characters, objects, etc. This literary device is often used to help create a clearer picture of the characteristics of one object or idea by comparing it with those of another.
Example: One of the most famous literary examples of juxtaposition is the opening passage from Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities :
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …"
Malapropism happens when an incorrect word is used in place of a word that has a similar sound. This misuse of the word typically results in a statement that is both nonsensical and humorous; as a result, this device is commonly used in comedic writing.
Example: "I just can't wait to dance the flamingo!" Here, a character has accidentally called the flamenco (a type of dance) the flamingo (an animal).
Metaphors are when ideas, actions, or objects are described in non-literal terms. In short, it's when an author compares one thing to another. The two things being described usually share something in common but are unalike in all other respects.
A simile is a type of metaphor in which an object, idea, character, action, etc., is compared to another thing using the words "as" or "like."
Both metaphors and similes are often used in writing for clarity or emphasis.
"What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." In this line from Romeo and Juliet , Romeo compares Juliet to the sun. However, because Romeo doesn't use the words "as" or "like," it is not a simile—just a metaphor.
"She is as vicious as a lion." Since this statement uses the word "as" to make a comparison between "she" and "a lion," it is a simile.
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A metonym is when a related word or phrase is substituted for the actual thing to which it's referring. This device is usually used for poetic or rhetorical effect .
Example: "The pen is mightier than the sword." This statement, which was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, contains two examples of metonymy: "the pen" refers to "the written word," and "the sword" refers to "military force/violence."
Mood is the general feeling the writer wants the audience to have. The writer can achieve this through description, setting, dialogue, and word choice .
Example: Here's a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: "It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors." In this passage, Tolkien uses detailed description to set create a cozy, comforting mood. From the writing, you can see that the hobbit's home is well-cared for and designed to provide comfort.
Onomatopoeia is a word (or group of words) that represents a sound and actually resembles or imitates the sound it stands for. It is often used for dramatic, realistic, or poetic effect.
Examples: Buzz, boom, chirp, creak, sizzle, zoom, etc.
An oxymoron is a combination of two words that, together, express a contradictory meaning. This device is often used for emphasis, for humor, to create tension, or to illustrate a paradox (see next entry for more information on paradoxes).
Examples: Deafening silence, organized chaos, cruelly kind, insanely logical, etc.
A paradox is a statement that appears illogical or self-contradictory but, upon investigation, might actually be true or plausible.
Note that a paradox is different from an oxymoron: a paradox is an entire phrase or sentence, whereas an oxymoron is a combination of just two words.
Example: Here's a famous paradoxical sentence: "This statement is false." If the statement is true, then it isn't actually false (as it suggests). But if it's false, then the statement is true! Thus, this statement is a paradox because it is both true and false at the same time.
Personification is when a nonhuman figure or other abstract concept or element is described as having human-like qualities or characteristics. (Unlike anthropomorphism where non-human figures become human-like characters, with personification, the object/figure is simply described as being human-like.) Personification is used to help the reader create a clearer mental picture of the scene or object being described.
Example: "The wind moaned, beckoning me to come outside." In this example, the wind—a nonhuman element—is being described as if it is human (it "moans" and "beckons").
Repetition is when a word or phrase is written multiple times, usually for the purpose of emphasis. It is often used in poetry (for purposes of rhythm as well).
Example: When Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the score for the hit musical Hamilton, gave his speech at the 2016 Tony's, he recited a poem he'd written that included the following line:
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
Satire is genre of writing that criticizes something , such as a person, behavior, belief, government, or society. Satire often employs irony, humor, and hyperbole to make its point.
Example: The Onion is a satirical newspaper and digital media company. It uses satire to parody common news features such as opinion columns, editorial cartoons, and click bait headlines.
A type of monologue that's often used in dramas, a soliloquy is when a character speaks aloud to himself (and to the audience), thereby revealing his inner thoughts and feelings.
Example: In Romeo and Juliet , Juliet's speech on the balcony that begins with, "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is a soliloquy, as she is speaking aloud to herself (remember that she doesn't realize Romeo's there listening!).
Symbolism refers to the use of an object, figure, event, situation, or other idea in a written work to represent something else— typically a broader message or deeper meaning that differs from its literal meaning.
The things used for symbolism are called "symbols," and they'll often appear multiple times throughout a text, sometimes changing in meaning as the plot progresses.
Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby , the green light that sits across from Gatsby's mansion symbolizes Gatsby's hopes and dreams .
A synecdoche is a literary device in which part of something is used to represent the whole, or vice versa. It's similar to a metonym (see above); however, a metonym doesn't have to represent the whole—just something associated with the word used.
Example: "Help me out, I need some hands!" In this case, "hands" is being used to refer to people (the whole human, essentially).
While mood is what the audience is supposed to feel, tone is the writer or narrator's attitude towards a subject . A good writer will always want the audience to feel the mood they're trying to evoke, but the audience may not always agree with the narrator's tone, especially if the narrator is an unsympathetic character or has viewpoints that differ from those of the reader.
Example: In an essay disdaining Americans and some of the sites they visit as tourists, Rudyard Kipling begins with the line, "Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead." If you enjoy Yellowstone and/or national parks, you may not agree with the author's tone in this piece.
How to Identify and Analyze Literary Devices: 4 Tips
In order to fully interpret pieces of literature, you have to understand a lot about literary devices in the texts you read. Here are our top tips for identifying and analyzing different literary techniques:
Tip 1: Read Closely and Carefully
First off, you'll need to make sure that you're reading very carefully. Resist the temptation to skim or skip any sections of the text. If you do this, you might miss some literary devices being used and, as a result, will be unable to accurately interpret the text.
If there are any passages in the work that make you feel especially emotional, curious, intrigued, or just plain interested, check that area again for any literary devices at play.
It's also a good idea to reread any parts you thought were confusing or that you didn't totally understand on a first read-through. Doing this ensures that you have a solid grasp of the passage (and text as a whole) and will be able to analyze it appropriately.
Tip 2: Memorize Common Literary Terms
You won't be able to identify literary elements in texts if you don't know what they are or how they're used, so spend some time memorizing the literary elements list above. Knowing these (and how they look in writing) will allow you to more easily pinpoint these techniques in various types of written works.
Tip 3: Know the Author's Intended Audience
Knowing what kind of audience an author intended her work to have can help you figure out what types of literary devices might be at play.
For example, if you were trying to analyze a children's book, you'd want to be on the lookout for child-appropriate devices, such as repetition and alliteration.
Tip 4: Take Notes and Bookmark Key Passages and Pages
This is one of the most important tips to know, especially if you're reading and analyzing works for English class. As you read, take notes on the work in a notebook or on a computer. Write down any passages, paragraphs, conversations, descriptions, etc., that jump out at you or that contain a literary device you were able to identify.
You can also take notes directly in the book, if possible (but don't do this if you're borrowing a book from the library!). I recommend circling keywords and important phrases, as well as starring interesting or particularly effective passages and paragraphs.
Lastly, use sticky notes or post-its to bookmark pages that are interesting to you or that have some kind of notable literary device. This will help you go back to them later should you need to revisit some of what you've found for a paper you plan to write.
Looking for more in-depth explorations and examples of literary devices? Join us as we delve into imagery , personification , rhetorical devices , tone words and mood , and different points of view in literature, as well as some more poetry-specific terms like assonance and iambic pentameter .
Reading The Great Gatsby for class or even just for fun? Then you'll definitely want to check out our expert guides on the biggest themes in this classic book, from love and relationships to money and materialism .
Got questions about Arthur Miller's The Crucible ? Read our in-depth articles to learn about the most important themes in this play and get a complete rundown of all the characters .
For more information on your favorite works of literature, take a look at our collection of high-quality book guides and our guide to the 9 literary elements that appear in every story !
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.
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The National Book Awards Opens Up to Writers Who Are Not U.S. Citizens
The awards, which celebrate the best of American literature, are expanding the definition of who qualifies.
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By Alexandra Alter
Since their inauguration in 1950, the National Book Awards have set a lofty goal: to celebrate the best writing in America. And for most of the awards’ history, American literature was defined as books written by United States citizens.
On Thursday, the National Book Foundation, which administers the prizes, announced that it was dropping the citizenship requirement, opening up the prize to immigrants and other longtime residents who have made their home in the United States.
Ruth Dickey, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, said she hoped the change would help broaden the way the book world defines great American writing.
“We are all deeply thinking about, how do we most expansively think about the literature of a place, and how writers contribute to that place?” she said. “How do we think about who are the writers who are part of a literary community, and who are we excluding when we draw certain boundaries?”
In adopting the change, the National Book Awards are following other major literary prizes and organizations.
Last fall, the board that administers the Pulitzer Prizes said that beginning with their 2025 prizes, permanent and longtime residents of the United States would be eligible for its awards for literature, drama and music. Previously, those categories were only open to American citizens, whereas the journalism awards were open to noncitizens whose work was published by U.S. media. The Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation have also expanded their prizes to include poetry by immigrants with temporary legal status.
The movement to expand American literary awards could help drive attention to writing by immigrants at a moment when immigration and the status of migrants in the United States has become a volatile political and social issue.
“At any complicated moment in history, all of us need thoughtful stories from diverse perspectives,” Dickey said. “For us, having a more expansive container as we think about the literature of the United States means we can celebrate and uplift even more stories and voices.”
Some artists and writers had been lobbying for American literary prizes to change their criteria for who is eligible, including those who sent an open letter to the Pulitzer board last summer asking for the prize to be opened to immigrants and undocumented writers.
“We have a duty to ask what constitutes the literature of a nation, and in asking this question, we believe it is essential to veer away from the definitions the State provides as to what it thinks constitutes U.S. selfhood,” said the letter , which was written by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a Pulitzer finalist last year for her memoir, “ The Man Who Could Move Clouds.”
The letter drew signatures from hundreds of writers, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Angie Cruz and Javier Zamora, who published an essay in The Los Angeles Times expressing his disappointment that his acclaimed memoir, “Solito,” was not eligible for a Pulitzer because of the citizenship requirement.
The National Book Awards’ citizenship requirement became a topic of discussion for the foundation’s staff and board last summer. In December, the 20-person board unanimously voted in favor of the change, said David Steinberger, chair of the board of directors of the National Book Foundation.
Even before the December decision, the National Book Foundation was moving toward dropping the citizenship requirement. In 2018, the foundation created a process for publishers to submit work by writers who were not U.S. citizens. Publishers had to attest that the writer had lived in the United States for at least a decade, and that the author was actively pursuing U.S. citizenship, or had no legal pathway to do so.
Now the foundation will no longer ask how long writers have lived in the United States, or whether they are seeking citizenship. The new criteria state that “in addition to authors who hold U.S. citizenship, authors who maintain their primary, long-term home in the United States, U.S. territories, or Tribal lands will now be eligible for consideration.”
The updated criteria will take effect next month, when submissions open for the 75th National Book Awards. The awards, which take place in November, include prizes for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature, and in the past they have gone to acclaimed writers like Robert A. Caro, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich, Colson Whitehead and Jesmyn Ward.
Alexandra Alter writes about books, publishing and the literary world for The Times. More about Alexandra Alter
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How an Author Perfects her Dialogue
Kiley reid’s new book come and get it lets the characters speak at the top of their game..
Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, David Plotz talked with Kiley Reid about her new novel, Come & Get It , and discussed how Reid gets her dialogue to sound so real.
This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: I do think what makes your writing so singular and so distinctive is that you have an incredible ear. And I’m envious of it, as someone who’s been a writer for some of my life and never had an ear like that. How do you listen? How do you create these voices in your head?
Kiley Reid: It’s a bit of a game. Because as I’m sure that you’ve done, if you’ve transcribed anything because you’ve recorded something, you very quickly realize that we do not speak chronologically. We go off on tangents, we say, “um,” and “like,” and “oh my gosh.” And there’s a lot of things that we’re doing in between the things that we’re actually trying to say.
So, while I’m writing, getting hyper-realistic dialogue is really important to me, but it becomes a game of doing [two] things: One, it’s showing characters, for the majority of the book, at the top of their intelligence, showing their best selves—what they think is their best self. And number two, it’s making sure that their best self still isn’t grating to a reader.
When I’m doing interviews with students and getting inspiration, they may say ‘like’ or ‘um’ in the thousands. And so, I want to include some of those likes or ums, but I also don’t want to make fun of those students. This wasn’t a satire this time around, but I want to make it true. So, there’s a lot of give and take there.
I also think just being a writer, you need to put yourself in the position of being a listener and writing down something exactly the way you heard it. That’s the kind of things that I like to read.
Why do they have to be at the top of their game? Why is that important?
I think it’s important to be a democratic and generous writer. Otherwise, you look like you’re making fun of your characters. And I think every character can be interesting depending on the different light that they’re in. And I’m just not really super interested in fiction that says, look at these dumb kids. Especially because they’re not dumb. I want to see them at their best. And then later when they make mistakes, those mistakes hit a little bit harder.
I also feel like there’s a conjuring act here. Because as you said, I guess you wrote it in Iowa; you have lived in Philly; you’ve lived in Ann Arbor since you were in Fayetteville. But you’re conjuring up people who are just mostly Southern, and certainly are the kind of students who would be at University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. How do you get back to them when you’re not with them?
I do a lot of interviews when I’m writing. And this time around I had a research assistant, and that was incredibly useful. I probably formally interviewed about 30 people and then maybe 20 others on top of that, just making sure I was getting things absolutely right.
So, I interviewed some old students, some of my friend’s students, people who went to Arkansas, people from Chicago, baton twirlers. I interviewed a number of people.
And people always ask me, “How do you get people to tell you things?” I’m sure you know people just like talking about themselves. And people were very gracious to me, and I’m really thankful for that.
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Looking for love you'll find it in 2024 in these 10 romance novels.
Who says romance is reserved for Valentine's Day? Love stories are a treat to be savored year-round. To give you a head start in planning your 2024 reading, here's a list of 10 excellent romance novels (I've read them all!) publishing from now into early summer.
Bride by Ali Hazelwood ( Feb. 6)
Bride is Ali Hazelwood as you've always known and loved her – with a paranormal twist. The story follows Misery Lark (iconic name, I know) a vampyre who is suddenly married to the ruthless, probably brutish but also kind of hot werewolf Lowe Moreland in a peacekeeping alliance. Misery must make a life in a hostile territory while trying not to make out with her new husband – who may not trust her but can't seem to keep his eyes off her.
This book is as sexy as it is fun. It's a departure from Hazelwood's more conventional contemporary romances but brings in all the staples of her best work. There's found family, a love interest that's gruff yet obsessed, and most crucially a slow burning tension that lingers in every scene like a scent you just can't shake (there's a significant amount of smelling in this book but I promise it works). Fair warning: If you're primarily a contemporary romance reader, it's worth knowing that a werewolf and vampyre hooking up is going to look pretty unconventional. You may want to brace yourself for some of the knotty, ahem, I mean naughty elements to the romance once the steam really gets going.
Perfect for: Readers who love a little interspecies romance. We know you're out there!
At First Spite by Oliva Dade (Feb. 13)
At First Spite is a story for all the petty readers out there. Athena Greydon moves into the narrow spite house she bought with her ex-fiancé Johnny as a last resort. When she finds out her new neighbor is Matthew – Johnny's judgemental older brother who convinced him to end the engagement – she decides it might be time for some payback. But Matthew is handsome, kind, and seems genuinely remorseful for his role in blowing up her life. And when her mental health starts to slip, he's there too.
This book, despite its playful revenge premise, has one of the most careful and serious depictions of depression and grief that I've seen in a romance novel. It's thoughtful, sobering and real . Dade reminds us that love is more than attraction and butterflies – it's showing up for someone every day even when they're at their lowest.
Perfect for: Readers who crave a story with a plus-sized heroine and understand the inherent romance of someone cleaning your glasses for you. Swoon!
Sex, Lies and Sensibility by Nikki Payne (Feb. 13)
Sex, Lies, and Sensibilit y brings all the romance of Jane Austen's classic tale to a crumbling beach property in Maine. Nora Dash's world is turned upside down when she finds out (at her father's funeral) that she and her sister are really her dad's second secret family. Now Nora's only hope at an inheritance is schlepping off to rural Maine and restoring a dilapidated beach house her father once bought. But in order to do so, she'll have to team up with Ennis "Bear" Freeman, an Abenaki tour guide, who needs the money to protect his community's river from unscrupulous developers.
You want drama? This book gives drama. The emotional twists and turns of this story are as big a part of Nora and Bear's romance as Maine's beautiful landscape. Both characters are trying to outrun their pasts (literally – the duo are former track stars) while denying the emotional tether that grows between them. It's awkward, sweet, and very hot at the same time. And it's especially refreshing to see an interracial romance where both characters come from marginalized backgrounds (Nora is Black and Bear is Indigenous). Their identities are more than window dressing and bring a unique depth to their banter and ultimate romantic connection.
Perfect for: Readers who wish Jane Austen was just a little thirstier.
How to End A Love Story by Yulin Kuang ( April 9)
By all marks, Helen Zhang and Grant Shepard are virtual strangers. But 13 years ago, Grant was involved in the accident that killed Helen's sister Michelle. When the two meet again, it's in a Hollywood writers room where Grant is part of the team adapting Helen's books for TV. Their interactions are charged – with the bitter resentment of past trauma and a surprising spark that it's best they pretend doesn't exist.
Whew! If that sounds like a heavy premise for a romance, you'd be right. But Yulin Kuang (who is adapting and directing Emily Henry's Beach Read for film) makes it work with a raw believability. Helen's journey in particular is wrenching – as she struggles with the expectations heaped on her as a daughter of immigrants and her growing feelings for Grant. Kuang doesn't shy away from the unpleasantness of the premise but rather weaves it into the core of what connects Helen and Grant. Their story is one of healing and forgiveness with all the ugly cracks and personal setbacks that entails. And the sheer yearning and impossibility of their situation will wreck you in the best possible way.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy a truly stomach churning level of angst with a side dish of sexual tension.
Funny Story by Emily Henry ( April 23)
The book begins with Daphne, whose perfect fiancé has just dumped her for his longtime childhood friend Petra. Left with no other option, Daphne moves in with Miles, Petra's ex-boyfriend, who is in the pits of break-up misery himself. The duo decide to make the most of the summer by exploring the town together – with the added side benefit of making their exes jealous along the way. But what happens when your ex's new fiancé's ex is actually lovely and kisses like a man starved? Well, that's a funny story.
It takes very little time for most readers to get sucked into an Emily Henry novel but Funny Story is guaranteed to break records. It's Henry at her absolute best – romantic, melancholic, and so full of heart. By chapter 2, you'll be ready to throw hands for Daphne. And Miles is so magnetically charming, you'll be tongue tied in four chapters or less. That's Emily Henry's speciality – snagging you in and emotionally entangling you with the characters until you're half sick in love yourself.
Perfect for: Readers who see a disaster of a man sobbing to Bridget Jones's Diary and think "I could fix him."
The Paradise Problem by Christina Lauren (May 14)
When Anna Green and grocery-store heir Liam "West" Weston were in college they got married for some free housing and then happily went their separate ways. But five years later, Liam needs to bring his fake wife to a destination wedding to secure his inheritance. Anna agrees to tag along and pretend to be in love – for a cut of the money. After all, it's no hardship to fake a relationship with your gorgeous (legal) husband. Right? As long as they keep their emotions out of the picture, it'll be smooth sailing. Right?
The Paradise Problem is the kind of book you take on vacation and read in one singular sitting at the beach. It's a complete trope-fest in the best possible way. You're looking for fake dating? We've got it! And what about marriage of convenience? That's the fun twist! Opposites attract? Fear not, we've got that too! It's not a complete reinvention of any one of those tropes, but rather a delightful execution of a winning formula (any romance reader worth their salt knows magic happens when you combine fake dating with a destination wedding).
Perfect for: Readers who want a little flavor of Succession-esque family politics in their romance.
Birding with Benefits by Sarah T. Dubb ( June 4)
Who says romance is only for bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 20-somethings? In Birding with Benefits, Celeste, a 42-year-old divorcée, ends up entangled with John, a quiet and sensitive local birder. John is in urgent need of a partner for this year's birding competition and after a comedy of errors (in which Celeste thinks John needs a fake romantic partner), the two become teammates. Celeste doesn't know the first thing about birds but as she spends hours learning from John in Arizona's gorgeous wilderness, she starts to develop a soft spot for the hobby and...her gorgeous teacher.
This romance is so soft and gentle. It's a story about two mature adults who are polar opposites and yet kindred spirits. The passion John and Celeste find for one another while cataloging Arizona's birdlife is warm and steady. And although they've got a few emotional obstacles to work through before a happy ending, it's worth tuning in to see how these birds of a feather find their way to each other.
Perfect for: Readers who like birds and have an affinity for men who work in wood shops.
Under Your Spell by Laura Wood ( June 25)
As the daughter of a legendary rockstar (and even more legendary womanizer), Clementine Monroe wants nothing to do with musicians or their drama. But as luck would have it (or the strange Breakup Spell her sister cast) the man she just had a hot one-night stand with is actually Theo Eliott, world-famous rock star. And to make matters worse, Clemmie's new job calls for her to spend the next six weeks stuck in a house with Theo. Will the two be able to stay away from each other long enough for Theo to finish his album?
Under Your Spell is as enchanting as the name implies. It's both humorous and sweet – with a really compelling cast of characters. Clemmie is an adorably sensible disaster. She thinks she's in control but really she's a mess who would rather avoid any risk than open herself up to heartbreak. Relatable. Theo is a rockstar but really a boy obsessed. I'm afraid he doesn't know how to do anything except win hearts. And Clemmie's sisters – Lil and Serena bring a warm girl power (non-ironic) energy to the whole production. You'll be spellbound with this one.
Perfect for: Readers who may or may not have read One Direction fanfiction in their youth. No judgment!
Ne'er Duke Well by Alexandra Vasti ( July 23)
In Ne'er Duke Well, Peter Kent, a reluctant and scandalous duke must find a way to rehabilitate his reputation if he wants to gain custody of his half siblings. He teams up with Lady Selina, society's most polished debutante. But Selina has a small secret – she runs an erotic library for women. And though she'd rather set Peter up with a wife of impeccable reputation and no life-ruining secrets – the sparks that fly between the two of them are undeniable.
Ne'er Duke Well is a historical romance with the energy of a Parks & Recreation episode. Like the iconic sitcom, the characters in this are all so darn loveable, you can almost see the twinkle in their eyes. There's witty banter and an endlessly supportive love interest (Peter Kent is a regency-era Ben Wyatt). And you've got this comforting feeling that even when things seem unsalvageable, everything will be okay. It's the kind of romance you want to wrap around yourself like a blanket – low conflict with maximum warm and fuzzy feelings.
Perfect for: Readers who love golden retriever heroes and enjoy romances with a focus on family.
The Ornithologist's Field Guide to Love by India Holton ( July 23)
The Ornithologist's Field Guide to Love follows Beth Pickering, a perfectly polite professor who must team up with her maybe villainous (definitely sexy) academic rival Devon Lockley to capture a magical bird and win the ultimate prize – tenure.
This book is so riotously clever it almost defies description. It's like an alchemy of romantic elements held in perfect harmony. India Holton infuses the story with wry wit and meta inside jokes. Every sentence is positively vibrating with the kind of charm that will have you pressing your lips together with laughter. And yet amid all the outrageous and camp fun, Holton also succeeds in building a genuine love story – between two people who have kept the world at a distance for years but somehow find a home within each other And if that doesn't sell you, then you should at least know this book has one of the funniest twists on the "one bed" trope I've read in a long time.
Perfect for: Readers who think every good romance should include at least one ridiculous bit.
Still hungry for more books? Here are three more titles I haven't read yet but am excited to tear into:
- King of Sloth by Anna Huang (April 30)
- Not Another Love Song by Julie Soto (July 16)
- If I Stopped Haunting You by Colby Wilkins (Oct. 15)
Kalyani Saxena is an associate producer at Here & Now. She's a voracious romance reader in perpetual search for the perfect execution of the enemies-to-lovers trope.
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Top travel reads for 2024, from memoirs to nature writing
From epic travelogues and nature writing to a pioneering travel publisher’s memoir, these titles will inspire adventure this year.
The natural world continues to inspire travel writers. Standout books for the year ahead include a collection of stories, illustrations and poems that explore our connection with nature, plus a travelogue inspiring us to discover the small green spaces on our doorstep. Walking remains a popular topic for authors, as evidenced by a pair of upcoming travelogues that hit the trail in rural Spain and Istanbul, respectively, plus a collection of literary works that asks the question: why explore on foot? And to celebrate Bradt Travel Guides reaching its 50 th anniversary this year, founder Hilary Bradt is set to release a memoir about her pioneering journeys both in print and around the lesser-explored corners of the planet.
1. Local: A Search for Nearby Nature and Wilderness
World explorer Alastair Humphries spent a year examining every square metre of a 12-mile radius around his home in suburban England and found wonder close to hand. A former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Humphries has cycled around the globe, rowed across the Atlantic Ocean and even walked a lap of the M25 in one of his pioneering ‘microadventures’. His latest book is a celebration of slowing things down and discovering a small wild world right on your doorstep – it’s also a rallying cry to revitalise Britain’s depleted natural spaces and our right to roam in them. £12.99, Eye Books.
2. Taking the Risk: My Adventures in Travel and Publishing
Trailblazing travel publisher, Hilary Bradt’s eponymous guidebook company celebrates its 50 th anniversary this year. The first Bradt Travel Guide was born on an Amazon river barge in 1974: Backpacking Along Ancient Ways Peru & Bolivia which included some of the very first descriptions of the Inca Trail geared for travellers. Since then, Bradt has published guidebooks to the remotest parts of the planet – Eritrea, Mongolia and Madagascar among them. Championing slow and low-impact travel before the concepts were widespread, this memoir looks at back at a lifetime of trials, triumphs and following the lesser-known trail. £20.00, Bradt.
3. To the City: Life and Death Along the Ancient Walls of Istanbul
A deep dive into the Turkish capital, framed by the crumbling walls of its Byzantine fortifications. Journalist, Alexander Christie-Miller journeys on foot in and around Istanbul’s ancient city walls, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of its identity on the fringes of Europe and Asia. The imperialist rhetoric of current Turkish president Erdoğan still holds Istanbul in the image carved out by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who captured then-Constantinople in 1453. But between the ancient minarets that punctuate Istanbul’s skyline, the author seeks out the real soul of the city in its diverse peoples, past and present, raising up voices rarely heard. £25, Harper Collins.
4. Wilder Journeys: True Stories of Nature, Adventure & Connection
Environmental writer Laurie King and bestselling author Miriam Lancewood have gathered a collection of original non-fiction stories, illustrations and poems examining the human connection with nature, penned by travellers, wildlife lovers and adventurers from across the globe. Take a walk across the desert with American explorer Angela Maxwell, discover how hermit Gregory Smith survived for 10 years in an Australian forest and learn how activist David Malana set up a surf school for people of colour in California. These bold stories aim to inspire you to find your wild animal soul and rethink your relationship with nature. £14.99, Watkins Publishing.
For anyone who loved Laure Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning , this tale of one man’s 761-mile hike across the Iberian Peninsula should appeal. Mark Eveleigh brings the pioneering spirit of adventure previously seen in his travel books on Southeast Asian to the back roads of Spain. The author spent five weeks walking from Gibraltar to Punta de Estaca de Bares in the country’s northernmost tip, taking in blistering sun-beaten planes, grey stone villages hung with mist and vast chains of mountains, in homage to the disappearing lifestyle of the vagabundo , as well as a celebration of rural Spain and its remote communities. £10.99, Summersdale.
6. Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World
Take a literary stroll, from the streets of London to the pilgrim paths of Japan, the jungles of Ghana and beyond. Author Duncan Minshull brings together writing from explorers and adventurers, scientists and missionaries, pleasure-seekers and literary drifters in a new collection of over 50 travelogues that aims to answer the question: why explore on foot? Spanning seven continents, stories date back to as early as the 1500s, and take in lesser-known writers along with the likes of Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Isabella Bird and William Boyd. £15.99, Notting Hill Editions.
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