Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Maureen Joyce Connolly, the author of Little Lovely Things, who is here to speak about infusing ‘literary’ elements into fiction.
What is really meant by literary writing? And does the traditional interpretation serve a useful purpose for writers hoping to expand and grow their skills? Instead of a genre, I actually like to think of literary writing as more of a state of mind created by the author, one in which the story is enriched by certain elements that create an enhance reading experience.
The time-honored view of literary fiction references writing in which theme and character supersede plot. Readers have supposedly come to expect characters to change and grow in the painful, often plodding ways. The storyline can be slow and digressive. In contrast, non-literary fiction is supposedly deeply plot-driven and readers are primed to expect twisty-turny story shifts without much character growth. The reality is that a good story requires both a well-thought-out plot and imaginative detail that compel the characters forward.
In my own writing, I make a point to immerse my characters in a thematic, rich environment, but I do not believe a fast-moving plot needs to be sacrificed to achieve this. Karin Slaughter is a terrific example of an author whose writing blurs the line between the traditional literary versus non-literary. She writes hard-boiled murder thrillers that include finely wrought characters and deep attention to theme. This, I tell you, is magic. No matter your favored genre of writing, with a little extra intention, you can infuse any type of writing with the elements of literary that enrich any story.
So how does one successfully infuse a popular genre such as thriller with literary elements?
Writer – Know Thyself!
Understanding the motivation behind the particular story you’ve chosen to tell can be very revealing and a great place to start. For instance, I write to express issues that I feel are universally relevant. My debut novel, Little Lovely Things addresses the theme of self-rescue. It focuses on a successful woman and medical student, Claire, who on the verge of ‘having it all’, is caught in a terrible circumstance, and ends up losing everything, when her two young girls are abducted.
I was inspired by my own struggles as a working mother. While I was never a doctor like my main character, I was still compelled to balance the needs of my career with those of my home life. My goal was to illustrate how difficult that can be and devastating when it goes wrong. From a larger point of view, I wanted to take a character to the very edge of despair and see how she engaged emotionally to rise from the ashes that had become her life.
It is often easy to get caught up in daily writing without spending the time to truly explore the larger questions your story asks. In other words, clearly know your theme. Write it at the top of every page if you must – I do! Be mindful of the implications that theme brings to bear. It should serve as a guide in large and small ways as you plot the actions you choose to move the story forward.
For example, In Little Lovely Things, after Claire’s children are abducted, she avoids emotional devastation by neglecting her marriage and burrowing into her work. This is, of course, an understandable and relatable response. But in order to fulfill my theme, she must change. I have to get Claire out of this hole and into the light. I designed a storyline that forced her to recognize the need for her to take action to emotionally rescue herself.
Understand the Arc
There must be a turning point in every story. But it should never be a plot-driven device. Literary writing calls for an organic build-up culminating in a hard-won realization. For example, in my novel, Claire visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Fisher. He encourages Claire, through therapy, that she must adjust her old ways in order to “learn to walk sideways like a spider on the wall. Very few people, are, let’s say fully upright.” But this approach is just words to Claire until she has a meltdown where she verbally attacks Howard and walks out. A self-reckoning follows which ultimately this leads to a break-through for Claire after which she discovers that one of her children may still be alive.
The cornerstone of a literary point of view can be distilled into one word: character. Make a point to spend a little extra time with them than you usually would. Award-winning author Hilary Mantel talks about how she sees her characters walking through rooms, choosing places to sit. I create timelines from birth for every one of my characters, no matter how minor – even if it isn’t directly relevant to the story. It provides a little insight into who they are. Give them foibles and quirks but most of all give them interesting traits rooted in their backgrounds. This allows you to convey backstory without digressing. One of my characters, Colleen, a young girl, is trapped, unknowingly, as a captive. We come to realize that she was born with a rebellious spirit in actions she performs, including dying her hair a different bright color every day using Kool-aid powder.
Metaphor, similes, analogies oh my!
Utilize your basic writing skills. You learned them in school, now work them! Remember not to overlook the finer details that add enjoyment to a story. Find new and surprising ways to convey information to your reader. Near the end of Little Lovely Things, I describe the stars as “crackling like cellophane.” This of course is not possible and yet, when you read it, you understand what is meant – that I’m talking about a crisp clear night filled with possibility. Why write a standard description when you can infiltrate the imagination of your reader and invite them to join you in discovery?
Excercise your literary muscles
Find opportunities in the small, often overlooked, things in life and expose them to the light. When you train yourself to observe with an eye for detail, it becomes a natural extension of how you write. Be playful. This should be fun! Pour some cereal into your hand and conjure a description that would never appear on the box – these choco-chunkies not only taste like cardboard and as an added benefit, dissolve to mush in just a drop of milk. Okay, not great, but you get the picture.
Finally, don’t forget to actively include the senses. Before you write a scene, close your eyes. Imagine your character in their surroundings – what do they smell, what are they hearing at the moment, are there sensations we should know about? Most importantly, translate this into meaning. ‘Feeling’ the vibrations of heavy equipment rumbling down the street might trigger a sense of helpless in a character, due to a frightening experience as a child.
In summary, a literary viewpoint infuses an organic energy into a story. You are not simply telling a reader what is happening next but creating an immersive experience.
- Clearly identify the theme of your story and use it to your advantage as you develop plot.
- Create character arcs that force your character to take actions related to your theme
- Imbue your characters with backstory through revealing traits
- Use your skills! You are a talented writer, don’t be afraid to show the world.
- Play games to make you a more insightful writer – your reader will benefit!
The most effective way to learn the skill of crafting from a literary point of view in your writing is experience. Try the different strategies discussed, and pressure-test them with someone you trust who has a good ear for the change in tone you are hoping to achieve. And please, share your thoughts.
Maureen Connolly’s background in science and love of the natural world informs and inspires her writing. LITTLE LOVELY THINGS is her debut as a novelist. She is also an award-winning poet, published in diverse outlets such as Emory University’s Lullwater Review and Yankee Magazine.
Have you thought of adding literary elements to genre fiction? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Do you have questions for Maureen?
My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is optioned to be a TV series by Endemol Shine.
It is available in India here.
Reviews are appreciated–please get in touch if you’d like a review copy.
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That has made me stop and think.
There is so much to take away from this post. It’s clear and very well encapsulated. I really liked the summary in the end. Very valuable. Thanks to Maureen.
Fantastic advice. Thank you, Maureen and Damyanti!
Hi Rebecca – Thank you so much for your response, so glad you found it helpful. Best, Maureen
Maureen, you’ve outlined a very complex process with impressive clarity. I’m pleased to see that I infuse most of my writing with at least some of these elements, to a greater or lesser degree. Sara Marian’s THE LIFE AND DEATH (BUT MOSTLY THE DEATH) OF ERICA FLYNN is another one that looks like genre but compels through those literary elements you cite. As, of course, YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN. In fact, if it hadn’t been marketed as genre, I wouldn’t have categorized it as such. Beautiful, rich book! Great post, Maureen! Thanks, Damyanti!
Hello Marian – Thank you for reading and I agree with you that Damyanti’s book is terrific!
Hi Damyanti – Maureen has some very wise advice here – writing novels is very involved – as I’m learning. Your ‘Beneath Your Skin’ is an outstanding read – so great you’ve brought over Maureen as a guest author – thank you … stay safe – Hilary
Hello Hilary – Thank you so much for responding. There are so many elements to writing a novel – it’s best to choose one or two to focus on at one time. Please stay safe as well! Warmly, Maureen
In other words, really stretch as a writer.
My books have all had themes but I didn’t recognize them until after the story was written.
Hi Alex, It’s so interesting that you mention about not discovering the theme of the book until you are finished. I think this is very common and I’m convinced that the writing process can go much smoother if the theme is identified early on.
Best of luck, Maureen
I appreciate this post. Some great information, clearly stated in a conversational tone. Thank you for sharing.
Hi Mike – Thank you for your feedback. Hope you find the information helpful!
All the best, Maureen