Storytelling is an ancient art, and that’s among the reasons why it seems so challenging. Authors take great pains to generate ideas, as all plots seem covered, all characters described, and all writing tricks used.
As a writer working with fiction stories or entertaining web content, you might feel stumped every and now and again because of that sense of frustration.
Plus, there’s so much content available today that people are overwhelmed with choice, which makes it harder for us writers to keep a reader’s attention.
But there’s a solution.
Take a new approach on traditional writing tricks, and you’ll hook people. They’ll navigate through your references to popular literary works and the uncommon stylistic devices you use.
After all, as writer John Barth said in his essay, The Literature of Exhaustion, “An artist doesn’t merely exemplify ultimacy; he employs it.” To surprise readers and win the reputation of a creative genius, consider these writing tricks. Feel free to “steal” them for your own works when looking for writing ideas or eye-catching techniques to make your writing seem fresh and wow your audience.
Did you know that 19th century writer Alexander Pushkin’s contemporaries considered his The Captain’s Daughter an experimental novel? He was the first writer who put real-life historical characters in the fiction world. Now, The Captain’s Daughter—an example of what we call “historical metafiction”—is a classic of world literature.
Or, take Laurence Sterne and Miguel de Cervantes.
The former was the first author to use obscure references to politicians and philosophers in his works; the latter described eccentric characters who populated novellas, old ballads, and legends.
Sterne built sentences that interrupted themselves, reversed plots, and used many bogus references. All that confused readers, who needed to get past the surface difficulties to understand the author’s witty insights. Cervantes provided characters with independent stories of their own, incorporating them into the main storyline and changing the narration tone that way.
Formerly considered eccentric, the works of both are in school curricula today. The same is true with post-modernistic Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller.
So, if you want your writing to focus on quality and originality, take the dare to kick writing traditions and turn the canons inside out. How? Tell a story on behalf of furniture. Write it like avant-garde poetry. Or, start it with a grabbing epilogue.
Every language has a limit and needs constant upgrades to live. So why not help it and change the language rules in your writings? Many authors do that. They play with grammar, invent words to emphasize characters, and mix parts of speech.
Donald Barthelme was among the first writers who tried this trick. Later, he mastered it in The Dead Father by integrating verbal gymnastics and Jacques Lacan’s language philosophy into the plot.
The same method also works in Reinhard Jirgl’s Dog Nights. Here the author breaks the storyline and over-complicates the composition. He experiments with genres and lexical items. All that makes Jirgl challenging to read but, at the same time, turns him into a genius of German literature.
To implement this trick in your writing, don’t be afraid of committing grammar no-no’s like double negatives, starting sentences with conjunctions, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and wrong capitalization.
Or, try creating new words that will become your “authorisms.” Did you know that Walter Scott invented the term “freelance”? And “serendipity” comes from Horace Walpole, who created it in 1754 as an allusion to the old name for Sri Lanka.
And what about using words from foreign languages in your writings? Let’s take “ladranhaiola,” for example: This is the word from Irish-Gaelic, meaning “a day spent in vain though one planned many things to do.”
In 1960, mathematician François Le Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau felt bored enough to create OULIPO. It was a workshop where members created stories with constrained writing techniques. Some didn’t use verbs, while others wrote texts with all words starting with the same letter. Today we can name their few literary works that have stood the test of time:
Georges Perec is known for his novel La Disparition (A Void in English), a lipogram written without using the letter “e.” Another one is Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. By telling us 99 variations of one bus incident, the author demonstrates the variety of storytelling techniques.
Ready to try such tricks in your stories? Spend some time writing a story where all words start with the same letter, or where each sentence begins with a sequential letter of the alphabet.
It is impossible.
If I inspire, I immediately imagine ignorant Indians inside ignited icebergs immersed in ideas idolizing incarnation in individuals.
It is illegal.
It is incredible.
I inked it.”
Sometimes authors don’t reconstruct a language but create a new one. A fictional, often alternative world won’t be complete without corresponding newspeak, will it? It can be a whole new language like in The Lord of the Rings or, at least, some new words in a given language, like in Harry Potter.
A palmary example is Anthony Burgess and his A Clockwork Orange. After visiting the USSR, Burgess created “Nadsat,” a hybrid of English syntax and made-up words based on the Russian language.
As well as Orwell’s “Newspeak” in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, “Nadsat” aimed at depicting a dystopian nature of the world around. Another one is Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, where characters speak the imagined English dialect based on the phonetic transliteration of a Kentish accent.
(Ouch…. Good luck to translators!)
This trick can be particularly useful to fiction writers, as a whole new language or some new words can illustrate characters or their world much better than long, wordy descriptions.
Sure, it’s time- and energy-consuming to develop the whole new language, given that it needs an independent lexical and grammar structure. But let’s start with made-up words that can work for both fiction authors and copywriters, to illustrate some ideas. Try turning nouns into verbs, adjectives into nouns, and so on.
Sometimes reading is like playing tennis, where we both serve and return a ball. The same goes for so-called ergodic literature. Writers of this genre intentionally involve a reader in story creation, allowing him to frame it.
Let’s take Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch: You can start reading it from the middle or the end. In The Unfortunates, Bryan Stanley Johnson goes further: He writes 27 separate chapters, and you need to combine them while reading. Why not give this trick a try when writing your fiction story?
Start writing a story with its epilogue or catastasis. Try false starts: Start telling a seemingly predictable story but then disrupt it suddenly and begin over again. (Remember Game of Thrones—the series—with Eddard Stark’s sudden death?)
Chamomile (write several stories linked to one central concept), Nest (interlace several narratives into one story), and Junction (write several equally important stories leading readers to a single conclusion) tricks are worth trying too. These storytelling techniques also work in copywriting.
This hardly pronounceable term describes a writing technique of putting one text into another. Such levels may be numerous, and these books are usually about the process of creating other books.
The challenge here is not to get bogged down in the levels when creating and promoting your story structure. When writing a story within another story, creating time frames, or revealing a plot from different characters’ perspectives, make sure to take notes and craft mind maps to avoid getting lost in “who is who” labyrinths.
Examples include At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, where he writes about a writer writing a novel, and The Paper Men by William Golding, where one writer tells about another writer through writing his biography.
Also, it’s worth mentioning Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, interspersing segments of the author’s life through excerpts from four different notebooks. And Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino, which is a metafictional examination of the creative process of writing a novel.
Borrow your book architectonics from other fields, such as music (a fugue) or geometry (a Venn diagram). But make sure you understand the niche you are going to use for a story structure.
A praiseworthy example is Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, which duplicates a dance. Six chapters/steps tell about religious paralysis in the Hungarian hamlet. And the next six “steps” go backward to the story’s beginning, therefore turning it into a Mobius strip.
Take some formats from a niche that inspires you and try creating a story based on it. Divide chapters by rainbow colors or use the Fibonacci sequence to determine the number of words or sentences in your text.
If playing with story structures and languages is not enough for you, come up with a crazy narrative core. It can be something like Adolf in Wonderland or ancient Celts in Wild West. Critics call such stories “weird/bizarre fiction,” and this niche is quite popular today.
Example: A scientist wants to rule the world. He decides to clone Carlos Fuentes for that, but something goes wrong, and he clones silkworms from his tie by mistake.
It sounds crazy, but it’s a plot of the appreciated work by César Aira! His novella The Literary Conference won readers’ hearts for its blend of science fiction, metaphysical incongruities, and surrealism.
Or, try modern painting or ancient calligraphy techniques for writing your story. Tell it on behalf of blood cells or write a novel with the Morse alphabet. Why not, after all?
An excellent example is Solar Bones, a 200-page text consisting of one sentence. The idea came to Mark McCormack, and this story tells about a day from the after-death life of an engineer who wanders Ireland and watches his family.
Don’t be afraid of experiments in writing.
If it were not for bravery, the world wouldn’t see a nonlinear narrative, a stream of consciousness, or a cut-up technique today. Don’t hesitate to seek inspiration and writing ideas in famous literary works. Learn to consume them as a writer, not a reader, picking out uncommon techniques that can serve well to your writing later.
Why not invent your own language rules like Dickens, O. Henry, and Shakespeare did? Or, structure your story out of the ordinary, framing it in multi-levels or telling it from different characters’ perspectives? Feel free to kick traditions, use formats from other niches, or develop a crazy narrative core.
Grow your creativity and emotional intelligence, read a lot, try different writing tricks—even if some seem crazy to you—and your new masterpiece won’t take long in coming.
Lesley Vos is a professional copywriter and guest contributor, currently blogging at Bid4Papers, a platform that helps students and authors with writing solutions. Specializing in data research, web text writing, and content promotion, she is in love with words, non-fiction literature, and jazz.