Shelley Widhalm

Ways to Add Complexity to Writing

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on May 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

As I write, I am not consciously trying to insert subtext and symbolism in the chapters of my story as it unfolds.

But if I achieve one or both, the two literary devices can add complexity to how I tell that story.

Subtext, or the undertone, is the content the characters or narrator do not announce explicitly. It is implicit, the unspoken thoughts and motives of the characters and the content underneath their spoken dialogue. This implicitness can point to conflict, anger, conceit and other emotions.

When I write, I want my characters to say one thing but mean another, to not express how they really feel when they are in situations that make such expression difficult. I want them to have an inner life that they do not completely understand, so that their actions are not self-evident.

As for symbols, I typically write from a brief outline, not planning to use a person, object, event or situation to represent something else in addition to its literal meaning.

In my latest novel project, “Dropping Colors,” my writer’s group pointed out that my mention of a skeleton key that Kate kept that her father had lost is intriguing. The key, mentioned in chapter 1, is something I will include in the end of the book, but its meaning is not yet clear to me.

I like that I will be discovering that meaning as I dig into Kate’s character, adding another layer to the text that may surprise me.

Metaphors and similes are two of my favorite literary devices. I love comparing things, coming up with my own slant on how to describe my dog, for example.

A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike things, using the qualities of one object or idea to illustrate the qualities in the other. “My dog is a teddy bear” is a metaphor.

A simile is a type of metaphor that compares two things using the word “like” or “as,” such as, “My dog barks like a Great Dane.”

Another type of comparison is a literary analogy, which compares a subject point by point to something else that is familiar. The key to an analogy is to find some characteristics of both that have similar qualities.

The key to adding complexity to text is to consciously use some of the literary devices but also to let the devices arise out of the process of discovering what your characters want to say and do and be.

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  1. People who read my manuscript have made comments such as “I loved your symbolism when . . .” or “Your metaphor for the daughter’s longing for her dead mother was . . .” I thank them and then privately wonder how I missed seeing my symbolisms and metaphors.

    Did that make sense?

  2. Interesting post. I hadn’t thought a great deal about this. The more naturally you can do this sort of thing, the better, I think. So I agree with your closing statement.

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