As I’ve written about extensively, I employed several literary techniques in my first novel Water Signs, all of which combined, helped to draw readers deeper into the story and sympathize with the main characters. I believe a good non-fiction book should mesmerize the reader to such an extent that he/she loses all concept of time and place, whisked away on a welcome mental vacation where the only thing that matters is what’s going to happen next.
In my loosely autobiographical story, here are the ten techniques that made it possible for me to add vibrancy and authenticity to the settings and characters:
1. Flashback – Throughout the book, I used short-term and long-term flashback as a way of building suspense and understanding a character’s motivation. This technique also allowed me to slowly share information with the reader in a future chapter by not divulging everything that transpires in a particular chapter. For example, in one emotionally tinged episode, Maddy and Ken peruse a photo album from his days in the US Navy, but it’s not until the next chapter that the story of his former fiancee is revealed to the reader — though he shares that with Maddy as they look at the photos.
2. Juxtaposition – As a reader, this has always been one of my favorite devices and I put it to use most often in the first half of my book, to help draw contrasts between characters and to create more intrigue. The best example of this occurs in Chapter One, when readers first meet Maddy and Ken as individuals, before the characters themselves meet each other unexpectedly (for them at least) at the Key West Club.
3. Italics – In Water Signs, I used italics to denote the sharp contrast between what a character says and what they are truly thinking and feeling. This is especially true of heroine Madeline, whose personal development includes learning how to effectively express her feelings, and whose inability to do so in the beginning of the story contributes to much miscommunication and heartache for her and the novel’s hero Ken.
4. Music – Because my story spans 16 years in the lives of its characters and makes use of flashback, I employed musical references to help anchor the reader to the present moment in any given chapter. Thus in 1992 – the year the story begins — I reference popular songs and artists including The One by Elton John and Just Another Day by Jon Secada.
One another level, I selected certain songs not so much for their ability to connect the reader to the year at hand, but to allude to the characters’ origins. The best example of this is the reference to Then Came You by the famous Philadelphia band, The Spinners.
5. Sports – Growing up in the Philadelphia area in a family of sports fanatics, professional sports was a huge part of my life. Throughout the novel, the characters discuss many real-life events including the Philadelphia Eagles defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game in 1981 and the Philadelphia Phillies beating the Kansas City Royals to win the World Series in 1980. Pro football is a shared passion of Madeline and Ken, and one of the many things lacking in the relationship/marriage he eventually shares with Erin. Similarly, Dr. Rose’s (based on my own dad) love of baseball and the Phillies helps to bring his character to life.
6. Technology – The progression of technology from 1992-2008 also helps anchor readers to the timeframe of the unfolding plot. So in 1992, unwieldy car phones are the latest rage, but by 1995, Maddy notes how phone booths will soon become extinct, having relocated to South Florida and observed their nearly ubiquitous presence (along with the now-defunct pagers). By the end of the book, she’s working for a company that provides e-proposals to the hospitality industry. Look for Madeline to expand her use of technology to include internet radio hosting in my forthcoming sequel.
7. Food - Of all the techniques I used, food was probably the most fun possibly because the Philly area is famous for its excellent culinary traditions. Whether it’s tomato pie, spaghetti with mussels or Italian wedding cookies, I employed food descriptors to evoke the ambiance of the geographical locations in which the plot plays out. Look for an e-book soon on The Food of Water Signs.
8. Branding – Another method of creating a palpable appreciation for the Philly area, South Jersey Shore and South Florida in my novel is the use of brands. From Tastykake and Turkey Hill to Wawa and Herr’s, readers get an appreciation for what’s most popular in the geographic regions from which the plot unfolds.
9. Water Imagery – Perhaps one of the most important techniques of all, water imagery is at the heart of the novel — and not simply as a means of paying homage to the title. Water in religious and spiritual traditions is a symbol of rebirth and renewal, and thus underscores one of the book’s most important themes.
It is also a symbol of the emotions, which play a significant role in character development, particularly for Maddy. She suffers for years with panic and anxiety disorder — a gross distortion of the emotions that negatively impacts the physical body — without actually knowing what it is — until she reads the packaging for the medication prescribed by her doctor. Prior to her unusual cure by a psychic, the only time she finds relief from her sometimes frightening symptoms is when she’s immersed in water, whether swimming in a pool, riding a wave in the ocean or standing under the pulsating refreshment of a hot shower.
Ken, although not a co-sufferer with this affliction, often heads to the beach or to the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier when life seems overwhelming. In Part Two, when rocked by Maddy’s unexpected arrival in Florida — blissfully unaware of his engagement to another woman — the pier is his destination of choice when he seeks his mother’s counsel in person.
On a basic level, the coastal locations of the story, the characters’ shared Pisces sign and Ken’s US Navy service contribute to Water Signs’ “escapist” quality, conjuring up images of beach-inspired beauty, majestic ocean waves, colorful fish swimming beneath the sea’s surface and American heroes serving their country on awe-inspiring aircraft carriers.
10. Dreams/Journals – As a lifelong keeper of journals many of which I employed to fill in details of the plot, I cannot stress enough the importance of writing down your thoughts and recording your dreams (the latter I’d often do in an attempt to decipher whatever message my psyche was trying to convey while I slept). Not only did my own journals play a critical role in fleshing out the plot, so did actual dreams.
In one very heartbreaking chapter, Maddy dreams that Ken has arrived on her doorstep to announce he’s broken off his engagement to Erin because he’s still in love with her. It’s so real to her that when the alarm clock goes off, she cannot determine whether it actually happened or if it was just a product of her imagination. And a few days later, Ken really does unexpectedly knock on her door, though the conversation does not play out quite the same way in reality. This is all taken directly from real-life experience.
So there you have it, my Top Ten Favorite Literary Techniques. As a professional writer, what are yours? Let me know in the comments….and happy writing!