Writing Wednesdays: Advice on using some basic literary techniques

Advice on using basic literary techniques, with a focus on 'how much is too much'?

This is at the specific request of Tumblr user axisdreamer, who wanted me to do a post on how I feel about using adjectives, because there’s conflicting advice about using them. And I agree with what she said, to an extent, about how they should be used sparingly.

This post will be more of a ‘how much is too much?’ post with regards to literary tools, including adjectives.


In case you don’t know, an adjective adds to a noun. It is a describing word, eg. a clever man, a red dress, a brilliant light. By all means, yes, use the adjectives – you want to describe things to your readers and they probably want to know to have a clearer image of what’s going on in the book.

And, the adjectives you use can be very powerful if you use emphatic ones (i.e. ones that are effective and give you a strong impression). The adjectives you choose can also help set the scene and give an idea of how your character is feeling, which is another big reason to use them wisely.

It can be a bad idea to use too many all at once. Let’s say you’re describing a dress: The dress is bright red, short, tight, and velvet. Try instead: The dress bares a lot of skin, hugging curves, and it’s a bright red that sets off her blonde hair. Or something like that. You can describe something and avoid just listing adjectives for more effect, sometimes.

Since I’m talking about overusing adjectives, I figured I’d talk about overusing other literary tools, too. Namely, pathetic fallacy, and also metaphors and similes.

When it comes to things like metaphors and similes, it’s a great way of showing how your character feels about something without saying it outright. ‘The new school was a giant, towering over him’ tells you that he (whoever he is) is daunted by this new school, probably nervous. ‘She was like Bambi on ice’ tells you that she (whoever she is) is clumsy, but probably in a cute way. But don’t overuse, again, and use wisely – but don’t avoid them like the plague. (Hey, look, a simile!)

As for pathetic fallacy (this is when you use the weather to create an atmosphere and set the tone) it can be a really good way to set the scene. It can also be a good way of starting a chapter, if you’re a bit stuck. But just remember: when you’re upset, you don’t always walk out the door and find it’s drizzling and the weather suits your mood, do you? (Unless you’re in Britain, I guess. It rains a lot here.)

It can be really great when used well, but it’s something you have to be really careful of not using all the time and making a cliché out of.

You may well find that you use some of these techniques, and others, without even really realising it – and that’s brilliant! You may not even notice them until you read back through your work. At that point, if you find that you’re always using metaphors and they’re all similar ones, maybe go through and take some out and change others.

You don’t have to avoid them, necessarily, but you don’t have to use them every paragraph. I’d say it’s the sort of thing you should use for effect, but less so for the sake of using them.

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