The use of literary theory in writing fiction is an often overlooked or completely disregarded aspect of writing in today’s world of “packaged artist” writers—often wrapped up and sold like McDonald’s cheeseburgers to kids inundated with commercialization and pop-culture. Is this good or bad? Does it really even matter?
What Is Theory?
For simplification, lets look at musical theory. I’ve been playing guitar all my life and have come across three basic archetypes of guitar players:
- Plays by ear or feel
- Plays what is written (as in classical guitar)
- Plays Jazz or progressive types of music (using ear, feel, reading and theory)
Some blues guitarists scoff at the idea of learning theory (like the names and functions of scales, chords, arpeggios, scale modes, etc.), believing it will ruin their raw heartfelt emotion. Classical guitarists often only play what is written but cannot improvise or freely “jam” with other musicians. Jazz oriented players (many of whom play classical, blues and rock) do it all: read music, know the mathematical theory of music, and can improvise music off the top of their heads.
Basically, music theory is a descriptive language or technical system to understand how and why things work.
The same thing is true of literary theory, and if studied, can give you a sophisticated understanding of literature and wider scope of imagination. Most writers—even if they know nothing about literary theory—apply some aspect of it in their writing without thinking about it. Reading about or studying literary theory can be arduous and make you feel nonplussed because of its dry technical format. If a musician learns the lydian augmented scale, nobody would want to hear them play or practice it because it’s not music—it’s a scale found in music. But without knowing that scale and how it fits with certain chords in a song, they could never express the certain vibe and texture of that scale’s mood and sound. The goal is to learn the scale and how to apply it in the real world without sounding like you’re just playing a scale. You learn it and forget it—enabling you to break the rules and still sound correct.
Basic Literary Theory
To avoid writing something dry, theoretical and philosophical—I’ll try to keep everything in layman’s terms. Here are two examples with explanations:
- Intertextuality: a term coined by Julia Kristeva to designate the various relationships that a given text may have with other texts. These intertextual relationships include anagram, allusion, adaptation, translation, parody, pastiche, imitation, and other kinds of transformation. In the literary theories of structuralism and post‐structuralism, texts are seen to refer to other texts (or to themselves as texts) rather than to an external reality.
This is much simpler than the above description would have you believe. Basically,when a writer borrows ideas from other books, movies, TV or even a painting—it is in a sense intertextual; meaning it has an interrelationship or intertwines with other texts. A parody of something is highly intertextual. If you write your own version of Dante’s Inferno—which has been done numerous times by many authors—it is intertextual. It seems simple on the exterior, but there is no end to the extent you can apply this idea in your own writing. I suggest reading about it and you’ll begin seeing examples of it everywhere. The greatest example of intertextuality is in the Bible. This begs the question: is intertextuality a form of plagiarism or a way of paying homage?
- Defamiliarization: the artistic technique of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar. A basic satirical tactic, it is a central concept of 20th century art, ranging over movements including Dada, postmodernism, epic theatre, and science fiction.
Defamiliarization is a personal favorite theory of mine and I use it extensively in almost everything I write (though I really don’t think about it). It is the essence of literariness. In simple terms, it’s a way of breaking all known convention and expectation. Many readers of literature at some point in their lives grow to like certain things and dislike others, while I generally do not. I like pretty much any and all literature as it all has something to offer. Some people like happy endings in stories while I prefer to kill the person you’re cheering for and let the abomination live on.
An example of defamiliarization would be a story like this:
A woman skins her newborn baby with a straight razor. Now, the reader would expect other characters in the story to be appalled or mortified. The police would surely come and toss the mother in jail or have her executed. This is what is expected. To apply the theory of defamiliarization: what if the baby murdering mother was not criticized? What if her friends celebrated the killing? What if the media branded her a hero? What if her husband—who should be sickened—is instead joyous, helping her cook and eat the baby? What if he made a hat out of the baby’s skin and the pope labeled him moralist of the decade?
While my example may be sinister and extremely disgusting, it certainly breaks expectation and takes the reader into unfamiliar territory. In my upcoming novel, the main antagonist is a 22 year old woman who rapes, beats, and brutally murders men. It’s not something you read everyday and is quite offensive. Just wait until you read the fallout from her rapes and how the men react. I leave nothing to the imagination and describe in spectacular detail, every nuance of the rapes. I’m sure your ideas are different than mine, but that makes life interesting.
Learning literary theory in and of itself will not make you a better writer; however, if you really learn some theory and more importantly, learn to use it naturally in a story—it can open a whole new universe of ideas. Here’s a great site listing many elements of literary theory from the University of Toronto English Library: Glossary of Literary Theory. I suggest learning a few at a time and perhaps reading a few books about it. Then apply the concepts in your own writing or learn to identify them in your favorite novels. The point is not to think theoretically, but to be aware of the theories and how they work. Knowledge is a powerful tool.
Leaning literary theory is not about bogging down your thoughts with unusable technical concepts; it’s about freeing your mind to write beyond genre and develop more powerful levels of expression. It’s like having a thousand new colors on your palette.