In The Reading Room podcast, in its very first episode to be exact, I talked about how Charles Dickens introduced his characters in his novel, Great Expectations. With this classic story comes great learning of how writers can establish setting and tone from the very first paragraph with literary devices.
Below, I talk about how writers can use literary devices to introduce characters in the opening passages. I also cover how you can set the pace for your novel overall, and how to ensure you move the story forward to keep your readers with you along the way.
If you’re new to literary devices*, or could do with a refresher, read on below for a summary of those identified in the reading of Great Expectations, Chapter 1.
*If you’re familiar with literary devices and feel you could win a quiz on them with your eyes closed, jump straight to the podcast episode to dig deeper into the learnings covered.
Still with me, great! Let’s continue.
So, what do we mean by ‘Literary Device’?
A literary device is a technique that writers use to express ideas, convey meaning, and highlight important themes within a piece of text. A metaphor, for example, is a commonly used literary device. These devices serve a wide range of purposes in literature.
In today’s post, you’ll find a few of the devices used in Dickens’ novel and see how you can use them in your writing.
What is Onomatopoeia?
Pronounced on-oh-mat-oh–pee–uh, onomatopoeia is defined as a word that imitates the natural sounds of a thing to create a sound effect that mimics the thing described. This makes the description more expressive and interesting. For example, “Mary could hear the pitter-patter of rain falling on the pavement like tiny footsteps….”
How can you use this in your writing?
You can use onomatopoeia to add rhythm to your sentences. This makes the description livelier and more interesting, appealing directly to the senses of your reader.
Look at the example used in the podcast episode for Great Expectations, below:
‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.’
We know straight away that Pip is our main character, and this story is being told from his first-person perspective. We are given an origin story at the outset – who he is and where he comes from, plus what matters to him. For example, Pip refers to both his family name and his ‘Christian’ name in the opening lines; this tells us that roots and origin are important to him. The repetition of his ‘father’s family name’ reinforces this idea of origination.
Consider that he is known as and identifies as “Pip”. Like a seed, his given name hints at something small but, by its very nature, will grow and flourish. One would say our great expectations for Pip, and his future, are being marked out and settled into our minds already. The name gives us an idea about the personality or appearance of the character.
The seed for this theme has been planted here for us to later identify it reappearing later throughout the novel.
Onomatopoeia, pronounced as ‘on-oh-mat-oh–pee–uh’
What do we mean by Repetition?
The repetition of words or phrases within a passage provides a rhythm and emphasis to a scene, committing the traits of a character, action, or setting to memory.
Look at the example below:
We can see how this is delivered in Dickens’ use of language and description, which have been loaded with tags. These are often repeated for the reader to build an association accordingly. For example:
‘He tilted me again’ is repeated four times, intensifying the character’s intent to intimidate and frighten the boy.
‘That young man’ is repeated eight times – even though we can tell there isn’t a young man – the repetition is there to instil an image of fear and heightens the threat of violence.
‘A man with no hat and with no shoes and with an old rag tied around his head’ is a sad and desperate sight and is imprinted in the mind of the reader.
‘A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe…’
The convict is showing Pip that he is one step ahead of the boy and any thought of escaping from the threat.
Through the effect of using several conjunctions in close succession, Dickens heightens emphasis on these character tags, painting a picture of desperation; ‘A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars.’
Would you quickly forget a character like that??
Through the stylistic use of repetition at the beginning of a sentence to create emphasis, the description serves the purpose of delivering impact to the passage.
What do we mean by Serialisation?
Serialisation is breaking up a story into smaller, digestible parts. Think episodes of binge-worthy TV series where an episode is stacked for release each week.
Originally, Great Expectations began as a serialised novel; the chapters were released week on week in the All the Year-Round journal created by Dickens himself in 1860. Not only did this format make the story accessible to a larger audience it also drove the structure of the novel itself. Dickens’s choice of plot, character, and style will have been directed by the requirements of publishing at weekly intervals. Details provided for the characters and setting needed to be memorable and impactful enough that readers would return to the story for the next publication.
How can you use it for your writing practice?
Each chapter for Great Expectations serves as a short story within itself. Every sentence in this opening passage is a promise of the whole story and delivers intrigue and the compulsion for readers to continue reading. If readership dropped at any time throughout the weekly instalments, Dickens would have had to adjust the storyline accordingly.
Try it for yourself in a Writing Exercise
Describe an event from memory as if you were telling a story at a family dinner, ending the story with the intention to give the next instalment the following week.
Think of how you might introduce the story and the language you might use; how you’d describe your characters; how you’d alter the pace.
Set your timer for a 20-minute sprint, and write.
Listen to more insights from The Reading Room Podcast
These are just a few of the devices used in Dickens’ novel. Listen to my audio narration for the first chapter of Great Expectations in The Reading Room Podcast here or in your favourite podcast app and let me know if you pick up any other devices in the passage.
If you would like to submit your written work in progress to be featured as a reading for bonus episodes, I’d love to hear from you!
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll come back to you within 48 hours.
Happy writing, with your #eyestothehorizon