Metaphor. Foreshadowing. Boy wizards. Most of us know the common elements of fiction. But there’s an endless supply of devices authors use to augment their work, including some that demand such a high degree of difficulty that they’re rarely employed. We’re betting you haven’t seen these techniques in recent bestsellers—though they might’ve been more interesting if you had.
1. The Intrusive Narrator
Otherwise known as an omniscient narrator, this third-person storyteller is more than just a mere chronicler of events: he (or she) also editorializes, providing subjective insight into characters and situations. In Jane Eyre—ostensibly a first-person work—Charlotte Bronte interjects by describing details of a room or foreshadowing events and addressing the reader directly. In The Princess Bride, author William Goldman provides two intrusive narrators: fictional storyteller S. Morgenstern and Goldman himself, who claims to have abridged Morgenstern’s manuscript after it was read to him as a child. “This is my favorite book in all the world,” Goldman explains, “though I have never read it.”
A common prerequisite of writing is being literate, though that didn’t slow down some of the authors from earlier civilizations who had something to say. They employed an amanuensis, essentially someone to take dictation for them, while they recited their work verbally. Many contemporary writers reject this practice—which can now be done via software—because they prefer to see the words appear on the computer screen or paper. But Henry James and Dostoevsky employed women who actually acted as sounding boards, reacting to the story being told. It could change a narrative’s direction: Dostoevsky even called his typist (and later wife) a “collaborator.”
A common presence in cartoons, a charactonym is a name that’s overtly reflective of a character’s personality. Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash are charactonyms with training wheels; few authors are that on-the-nose. Charles Dickens was renowned for proper names that acted as descriptors: His Mr. Gradgrind was a tyrannical headmaster; Mr. Jaggers, a tenacious lawyer. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally well-stocked, though more subversive: Draco Malfoy resonates as a likely antagonist, Draco is Latin for dragon, and Rowling has indicated that Malfoy is French for "Bad Faith."
4. Reverse Chronology
Starting with an ending and ending with the beginning, novels told in reverse trade surprise for unspooling exposition. Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow places its protagonist—a German Holocaust physician—as an elderly man postwar at the start and charts his journey until the book ends with his birth. Rebecca Makkai’s Hundred Year House begins in 1990 and wraps up in 1900, guiding the reader through a reversed series of occupant drama in a Chicago Mansion.
5. The Second Person
Sometimes seen in short stories, the second person narrative is a tricky one to pull off in book-length form. While ostensibly immersive—the author directly addresses the reader, making him/her an active participant in the story—it’s also oddly displacing. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is one of the few major novels of the past decades to attempt it, implicating the reader in a lurid tale of debauchery. The most popular example of the technique is the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which allowed young readers to make decisions inside the story.
6. Poetic Novels
While some readers might describe a novel as poetry, it’s usually not meant literally. Poetic novels are told through verse in their entirety. Don Juan is one example, with the titular womanizer’s exploits related through more than 16,000 lines of verse. Karen Hesse’s 1997 novel, Out of the Dust, which describes a Dust Bowl family’s struggles in 1935 Oklahoma, is comprised entirely of free-verse poems.
7. The Book-Length Sentence
Of all literary devices, the level of difficulty in an entire book comprised of one sentence is substantial—that’s probably why only a handful of writers have ever tried it. The most notable is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a 1964 novel about a loquacious shoemaker that the New York Times described as “an unbroken highway of text.” Considering Hrabal’s objective, that should be considered a compliment.