Writing Lesson Three

In part one and two of this three-part series, we’ve introduced readers to the basic elements of good storytelling. Here, we’ll take a look at some literary techniques, and present a few pointers on how to create a compelling story. 

Following this series, we at The Corvallis Advocate will be welcoming submissions of stories from all genres, to determine three top winners, with awards from local venues. Stories are due by midnight on June 6 and can be sent to editor@corvallisadvocate.com. 


Choruses & Horses 

While reading a book, have you ever noticed that the author was repeating themselves? Callbacks to an interesting or unique phrase are called a chorus 

Usually, you’ll find a chorus repeated three times for a good reason – use a unique phrase once and the reader is impressed, use it twice and the reader thinks you’ve forgotten that you already said it, use it three times and the reader realizes that you’ve repeated it on purpose. We call this the rule of three. 

Sometimes, a chorus is too perfect to be limited to three small usages. There are choruses that will take the reader from anywhere they are in a story and bring them back to a powerful, emotionally charged moment from earlier. When an author repeats a phrase throughout a story, it’s called a horse. Why a horse? Because as my mentor Tom Spanbauer would say, the author rides it through the story. 

Excellent examples in the use of chorus that become horses can be found in “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion and “The Chronology of Water” by Oregon’s very own Lidia Yuknavitch. I highly recommend both of these memoires.  


Other Types of Repetition 

What if you don’t have a phrase, but a word that’s repeated? I encountered this while writing a scene for a novel where there were piles of things throughout a living/dining room area:  

        Piles of old homework and used coloring books, piles of junk mail and unpaid bills, piles stacked inches deep on the coffee table and piles under the coffee table, piles shoved into the couch cushions and into the recliner. Other piles of mostly the same crap set into the corners of the living room where they’d mature into feet-tall piles. Piles of boxes packed up when I was little that stayed packed up and got shoved off to a corner no one used except to pile more piles on. We lied about it when people came over.  

    “We’re in the middle of cleaning.”  

     “We’re reorganizing.”  

      “It never looks like this.”  


For this, I go back to my Spanbauer lessons. He told me to use the word as often as possible, to inundate my reader with the piles, again and again and again. Use the word until you get across the idea that the piles are overwhelming to the characters, just as the word “piles” becomes overwhelming to the reader. 

Dialogue Tricks 

Paraphrasing vs. talking: You can create distance for the reader by paraphrasing what is said rather than inserting the quote marks and making it actual dialogue. 

Ex. I told them to empty the dishwasher Vs. “Empty the dishwasher,” I said. 

Can you feel the difference in those two lines? 

Talking at odds: In Lesson Two, I told you about avoiding the “talking heads” dilemma that some writers find themselves in. But what if your characters are talking and it’s just kind of boring? Try having those people you created talk at odds with one another. 

I’m certain you’ve had one of these conversations – where you’re trying to discuss something important like what to have for dinner, and the other person is talking about something irrelevant like what they should wear on a date. 

Ex. “What’s for dinner?” 

       “Where’s my blue sweater?” 

        “For dinner?” 

        “Or my paisley blouse. That’s nice too.” 

         “I was thinking pizza. Or Chinese.” 

         “I look like a teenager in that black leather jacket. I love looking like   a teenager!” 

This is a fairly simple example, but you can see how the two people aren’t quite hearing each other or paying attention to what the other feels is important. This trick is handy in showing how each character’s brain works. It’s also a good way to create a tension that can resolve in a fight of some kind. 


White Space and Sentence Length 

For readers, there’s something comforting about black letters on a white page. Letters making words making paragraphs filling pages. But, it can sometimes be overwhelming. There are those novels out in the world that go on and on, pages of long paragraphs that never seem to end, leaving you praying inside your head that they will just-finally-reach-a-chapter-break. 

Don’t be afraid to leave a little white space.  

It gives the readers’ eyes a break. 

And, yes, in creative writing you can have a single word sentence.  

In fact, it’s generally considered a good idea to mix things up when it comes to length of paragraphs and sentences. 

Writer and teacher Gary Provost wrote this great example that every writer should take into consideration:  

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. 

Try to keep the lengths of your paragraphs and sentences mixed up. Make it interesting. 


Metaphors & Similes 

Metaphors and similes are literary devices you can use to compare two things. 


  A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is      applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. 

Examples of Common Metaphors  

Anger bottled up inside  Scapegoat   
An endless night  Sea of fire   
Apple of my eye  Home was prison 
Batten down the hatches  Homework is a breeze 
Battle of egos  House of cards 


A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. 

Examples of Similes 

Our soldiers are as brave as lions. 

Her cheeks are red like a rose. 

He is as funny as a monkey. 

The girl was like fresh strawberries in spring. 


Note that the main difference between the two is that a simile uses like or as to compare things. 

Coming back to my lessons from Tom Spanbauer, it’s really nifty to use similes without the like or as.  

Ex. She was a powder puff in her pink muff and pink fur boots. 

He was a tiger of a man, exotic and fierce. 

By doing this, you’re claiming the power of the comparison without weakening it by using those comparison words. It allows your character to really embody the idea. 


A Few Words About Poetry 

Poetry is far more subjective than any other kind of writing. Many people will say they hate poetry because they’ve never read a poem they liked. Or maybe they’ve never read a poem they understood.  

The art of poetry has changed a lot over the centuries. You don’t have to adhere to iambic pentameter – unless you want to. There are prose poems in the world, like this one by Amy Lowell. Even incredibly short poems, like this one by Margaret Atwood. 

Poetry might seem irrelevant or invisible in the world today, but it is the backbone of our culture. If you’re interested in why poetry is so important, read this book of arguments about the function of poetry in the world today by H. L. Hix. 


Books on Craft 

There are many books on the craft of writing, and I’ve read a few of them. I highly recommend the following two books: 

  1. “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King

King teaches through storytelling in an intelligent and engaging manner. Plus getting a look under the hood of how someone as remarkably prolific as King is, is fascinating. 

          2. “Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different” by Chuck Palahniuk 

Palahniuk is a Pacific Northwest guy who has made a mark on literature through a style that is relevant to younger readers through the language used and the evolved way in which he tells his stories. I included him in my earlier article about PNW writers to look for.  



So, you’ve gotten this far, and don’t have an idea yet? Here’s what you do: 

Look around your home for something odd – an old photo, a piece of art that people don’t quite know what to make of, a strange crack in the wall. Now, think of who that photo could be of; Think about the artist making that weird sculpture your grandmother foisted onto you; Think about who made the crack in the wall and why. Now, tell those stories. 

Nothing strange around your house? I would tell you to go out and find something, to go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table, but we’re all stuck at home right now. So, I’m going to give you this URL instead to a long list of prompts that will help you find your tales.  


The Contest 

Submissions and excerpts should be under 1000 words each. All genres welcome, as well as multiple submissions per writer. Prizes to the top three winners. Submissions due midnight on Saturday, June 6. 

Please submit to: storycontest@corvallisadvocate.com 

By Sally K Lehman – The third part in a three-part series of writing lessons from our very own Copy Editor Sally K Lehman, author of In The Fat and the upcoming The Last Last Fight.