The Art of the Literary Device by Heather Haven

Google states 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.”

And that’s probably as good of an explanation of a literary device as any other. It changes hues from one genre to another. Probably not that much, but enough to separate the people who know what they’re doing from the attempters. I was an attempter in the field of romance. Once. At about chapter 8, I was bored out of my mind. Where’d the dead body go, I asked? So, I added one. Instantly, there was a lot more zip to everything, including my step. But it was no longer a romance story. Let’s face it, if there’s no dead body in my novel, I’m not interested in writing it.

According to song and legend, Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first to qualify as a mystery writer. One of his short stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from 1841, paved the way for a lot of us. Arguably, there are 10 device steps that are needed in order to write a good mystery: a hook, atmosphere, a crime, a sleuth, a villain, narrative momentum, a trail of clues, foreshadowing, red herrings, and, of course, a satisfying ending. It sounds a lot easier to do than it is.

But other genres have latched on to their own devices. I don’t always know what they are or recognize them when they’re hurled out at me. But when I do catch on, I try to learn from them, even if they aren’t applicable to what I do.

Recently we went to see the national tour of Ain’t Too Proud the Life and Times of the Temptations, the Broadway musical. The musical is based on the book “Temptations” by the group’s founder, Otis Williams. For those of you arriving from another planet or born after the year 2010, they were the biggest singing group to come out of Motown, rivals to Diana Ross and the Supremes. And if you’re going to ask who Diana Ross and the Supremes are, please don’t do it in my presence. Or allow me to get a strong scotch first.

Ain’t Too Proud was one of the best productions of any show I’ve seen in a long, long time. Each performer was of star quality, from the leads to people playing multiple roles. The acting, singing, dancing, costumes, lighting, and sets went to a level of perfection seldom achieved in live theater. I have a background in theater and worked backstage on Broadway for 10 years, so naturally, I think I know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t mean I do, but try telling me that.

Anyway, the writer of the musical’s book, Dominique Morrisseau, is first-class. The storyline was clear, well-paced, entertaining, emotionally moving, and all the stuff a really fine book to a musical ought to be but seldom is. And the writer applied a device using verb tenses that astonished me. I will try to explain it. There would be a scene where one character would initially say they were going to do a specific thing. Then after a small amount of dialog, that same character would repeat the same line, but state they were doing that specific thing.  Further on in the scene, the same character would use the same sentence, but this time announcing the long-term result or outcome of what they’d done. So we would go future, present, past, in one fell swoop. Whether it was a few months or years, the plot advanced solely due to these tense changes. I did note that the same words had to be used each time in the sentence and said by the same character for clarity, but this device worked.

It would be great to know if any of you have either seen this device used before or have used it yourself. It was a first for me. And I loved learning about it! But whatever you do, try going to see Ain’t Too Proud. It will make you and your heart sing.

4 thoughts on “The Art of the Literary Device by Heather Haven

  1. Marilyn, we drove 110 miles round trip to San Francisco to see the play. It was worth every mile! Thanks for your kudos!


  2. I would love to see any large production play… Something that is on my bucket list. That’s interesting that you picked up on that in the dialog. I would have been so engrossed in everything else I would have missed it.

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    1. Paty, I don’t think I got it the first time, but I was really paying attention to this character and noticed her doing it. Then I was on the lookout. As far as I could tell, it happened three more times in the play. Thanks for your comment!

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