Writing Techniques and Devices Should Serve the Story

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

In my second-to-last installment of ThrillerFest recaps, I’d like to look at a theme that came up in several different panels I attended. Writing techniques and devices should serve the story. Whatever you do in your writing, it needs to work for your story and not against it. Whether you include taboo topics, or humor, or scientific facts in your story, these elements must serve the story.

I’ll give an example. Some time ago, I was in a writing class where a fellow student was working on a novel in which a traumatic event propels a the protagonist to make drastic changes to his life. The premise of the story was fine, but the problem that the class kept running into was with the traumatic event, which was the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11. As New Yorkers sitting in a New York classroom only a few short years after that tragic day, we couldn’t look at that event as only an inciting incident to the novel. It felt like it should be all or nothing: either the book was about 9/11 or it wasn’t. We couldn’t wrap our minds around a middle ground.

Looking back, I realize now what was spurring the class’ reaction: as soon as details began to foreshadow the events of 9/11 we as readers began to brace ourselves for the tragedy of those events. But when the book skimmed over the events with a short chapter and then a flash-forward, we felt as if we had been tricked. It felt like that taboo subject had been used only to hook us to the story and when the book didn’t deliver on it, we felt manipulated. I learned a lot in that class about using techniques and devices to serve the story, and this theme kept coming up again and again in ThrillerFest.

John Gardner calls it the “Narrative Dream,” that feeling you get when you’re reading that you’re pulled right into the story. With me this happens to such an extent that I can’t hear anything around me and I feel like I’m there in the world of the book. I suspect most readers experience something similar when they curl up with a well-crafted story. So, when a writing technique jolts us out of that Narrative Dream and makes us aware that we’re reading a book and not actually there, then that technique is not serving the story.

This idea holds true whether the device or technique you’re using is a taboo subject, or humor, or references to science. There has to be a reason in the story to justify it, or else it simple pulls the reader out of the Narrative Dream. That said, you also don’t want to try so hard not to disturb the Narrative Dream that you attempt to please everyone. It’s inevitable that some readers may not agree with some of your literary choices and that’s OK.

“We are not in the business of pleasing all people
all the time.”
~Brad Park


And it’s important to remember that there’s a very fine line between strong emotions. Love and hate are just a whisper apart. Similarly terror and humor can exist together (think, for instance, of the roller-coaster experience). A great example of how humor can exist even in a sad moment is in the movie Steel Magnolias in the scene following the funeral. M’Lynn (played by Sally Field) delivers her monologue, ending as follows.

M’Lynn: … I just wanna hit somebody ’til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard! [continues sobbing]
Clairee: Here! [grabs Ouiser by the shoulder and positions her in front of M’Lynn] Hit this!

While adding humor might seen counter-intuitive in a serious moment like this, it adds comic relief and works well because there is such a fine line between strong emotions like sadness and laughter. Think about it, sometimes we laugh so hard that we cry. Why shouldn’t it be possible to cry so hard you end up laughing?

Ultimately, it comes down to this: whatever techniques or devices you include should serve the story. If it pulls the reader out of the Narrative Dream, then it doesn’t serve the story and you should take it out. Otherwise, just remember that you can’t please everyone so you might as well write the story you want to write, rather than trying to chase after what other people may want to read.



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