Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day 13: Deciding on Device

When reading through Laura Whitcomb's book Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques that Ensure a Great First Draft I was thrilled to learn about the little gem she calls Device.  She was working on her second novel, The Fetch, and had decided to tell it through the lens of a knightly quest, but she found herself struggling to explain her intention to her writing buddies.  This new "lens" clearly couldn't be described as the point of view; she'd known for a while who would tell the story.  It wasn't style because her actual sentence structure would remain true to how she usually wrote.  It was obviously not the tone because the novel's mood hadn't changed.  After a while of discussion she and her friends came to realize she was speaking about the story's device.  The device is not the tone, the voice, or the point of view of your novel, though it affects all three.
"The... device is a contrivance, a way to present your novel in an iconic form so the readers will have a deeper experience of the story," (Whitcomb, Novel Shortcuts, pg 63).
Are you with me so far?  To confess the truth I was still pretty lost until reading through Whitcomb's following list of device examples:
  • The Epistolary Novel - telling the story through a host of medium such as journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, or doctors' notes.  Perhaps the most famous use of such a device is Bram Stoker's Dracula.
  • The Confession - a guilt-ridden narrator reveals former sins or mistakes to another character or the reader.  In Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus we learn of the extreme lengths the narrator, Salieri, went through to frustrate his rival Mozart.
  • The Fairy Tale - stories in which good and evil are in stark contrast, and where good always triumphs.  Do I really need to provide a specific story for this one?  I mean, Disney did a pretty good job making us aware of the whole good vs. evil fairy tale thing.   
  • The Knight's Tale - because I cited this example above I couldn't leave it unexplained.  Told with a language that hearkens back to the romance and chivalry of the knightly era, Laura Whitcomb's novel The Fetch also employs props such as vows, legends, psalms, and the passing of a key.
The exciting part about deciding on devices is that you get to choose how overt or concealed you want that device to be.  Take into consideration Bridget Jones's Diary.  With date headings and detailed recordings of her current weight, and cigarette and alcohol consumption, Helen Fielding used the journal as an obvious and effective device.  We literally feel we are peeking into Bridget's diary and the narration reflects the same frank, in-depth language that one would expect in an actual journal.

Perhaps you'd prefer to go with a more subtle device.  In my own WIP (an historical version of a fairy tale) I've decided on the Gothic device.  Employing dark colors in the language, night scenes, live burial, claustrophobia, old castle-like fortresses, and a Byronic hero I've moved from the typical "good vs. evil" and into the greyer areas of heroes and villains.  I've changed the joyful singing for little enchanted creatures and twisted it to screams of terror at being entombed alive.  Nowhere in the book will I step outside of the narration to point out the Gothic elements; instead they will be the subtle shading that paints a darker version of a familiar tale.

Not every story uses such devices.  Have you ever used one in yours?  Has this article sparked an idea for adding that richer element to your storytelling?

MY DAY 13:  After such a productive weekend I was certain I'd somehow bypassed all the other struggling writers and found my muse with ease.  Unfortunately I felt worn out and uninspired.  But being a real writer means taking the job seriously.  If my husband has to go to work even though he's tired and might not feel like it, then I certainly should too.  (If only I could follow my own advice.... sigh).


  1. I read Novel Shortcuts, too (great read, isn't it?) and had to read the bit about devices two to three times before I really understood it. I don't think I really even grasped the idea fully until I (unwittingly) thought of a device for one of my WIP ideas--then it all came together.

    You explain the devices really well in this post. Nice job. :)

  2. Okay, glad I'm not the only one who had to read it a few times before I fully understood it. :)

    Thanks for the compliment on the post. Always nice to have a pat on the back from someone besides myself.