author, creative writing, writing

What studying literature teaches us about writing novels

Learning is important to all writers. And the exciting thing is that we learn all the time. Every word we write, every word we read, brings us more understanding and knowledge and skill. It is a game of practice and discovery, being a writer.

I’m a uni student, and in studying English Literature and Creative Writing, I’m truly discovering more and more about my passions in life. This year has been very heavily focused on dissecting literature, and in helping me learn how to pick apart the books I read, it is also helping me to pick apart the books I write.

In my ‘learning journal’ I have 7 headings under which I can take notes about a story. And these are each vital points to think about when writing. Take a look…

Narrative and narrators
Narrative and narrators are vital to consider. I mean, this is the who and the how of story telling. Narrative choices include writing in first or third person and past or present tense. But the biggest choice of all is who is going to tell your story? Which perspective (or perspectives) is needed? Who will tell the story the best? It can also be fun to write scenes from different perspectives for a fresh insight into certain characters and plot points.
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Characterisation
Each character must have as much packed into them as a real person. Personality traits (good and bad), likes and dislikes, wants and wishes, dreams and goals, motives. They have to have a past and a future, relationships, fears, hobbies, possessions. A character must be made up of some many things that can be picked apart to reveal why the way the act and behave makes sense to who they are.
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Story and plot
There’s no story without plot. Whether you are a plotter or a panster, your novel comes down to this; What is the story you are telling? What are the morals and messages? What is your truth? The plot is the reason anybody picks up a book to read it. One thing I’m learning is how plots have intricate structures, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes down to it. Your structure can be bent to suit your needs as the story teller, but it still needs to be there. It’s what sets the pace.
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Imagery and symbolism
I never thought about symbolism much in my stories until studying literature and realising quite how many amazing novels use it. Sometimes it is subtle, other times it is obvious, but it always has an impact. And there’s nothing more satisfying as a reader than noticing all this little strands that help build the bigger picture.
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Setting
Setting is as important to a story as characters. It can even help enhance characterisation. If you took a plot but changed the location, you couldn’t write the exact same story if you tried. You’d have to adapt to make it suit its new setting. This is why it’s so important to choose the right setting for your novel. When you’re writing, take some time to sit down and make notes on why your setting is where/what it is. It’s eye opening.
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Time and duration
I’ve learned how important time/duration is to a story. Some books tell a story that spans over years, and yet a story of the same amount of words might take place over the course of a few days. Duration can really help set the tone of the novel, and different time spans work for different types of book. A suspenseful thriller may take place over a few heated weeks. A coming of age novel might span a year, or a number of years, to allow maximum character transformation. It is a surprisingly important thing to consider.
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Themes
All books have themes. What are yours? I confess, when writing, I don’t always consider this. But it’s fun to sit down and pick apart my plot ideas to figure out the themes. And it gives me, as the writer, a deeper understanding of my novel and what I want it to portray. Themes can be anything from love or death, heroism or self-discovery, gender expectations or prejudice…and most books have way more than one. Sit and have a think about yours.
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Has anybody else studied literature in this way, either formally (at school/college) or just in general (as an avid reader and book lover)?

Share your thoughts below,
Until then,
Keep writing,
M
x

You can find me on Twitter and Instagram

16 thoughts on “What studying literature teaches us about writing novels”

  1. I suppose I’ve studied it informally? I’ve always loved reading classic literature. And you’re so right on with setting!! It’s one of my favorite things to write in stories. It just can enhance the story so much and setting almost has a story in and of itself, you know what I mean?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you familiar with The Writer’s Journey? It is an amazing book that explores the underlying monomyth of all story-craft: the hero’s journey & various personality archetypes. An essential toolkit for every writer!

    Liked by 1 person

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