Defamiliarization in Literature: What It Is & How to Guide

Posted on May 17, 2023

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In the world of writing, we indie authors constantly strive to captivate our readers, leaving a lasting impact on their hearts and minds.

Among the myriad techniques at our disposal, defamiliarization stands as a potent tool, capable of transforming the familiar into the extraordinary.

By altering our perception of the world, defamiliarization opens doors to innovation, inspiration, and boundless creativity.

In this guide, we will embark on a comprehensive exploration of defamiliarization, unraveling its secrets and unveiling its immense potential, specifically for writers.

What is defamilliarization?

Defamiliarization, a concept coined by the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky in the early 20th century, involves presenting ordinary objects, concepts, or situations in an unfamiliar or startling way. It is a powerful technique that challenges our perceptions and forces us to see the world through a fresh and invigorating lens. For writers, defamiliarization becomes a vehicle to transport readers into uncharted territories, awakening their imagination and deepening their engagement with the written word.

So, how can writers effectively employ defamiliarization to breathe life into their creations and inspire awe in their readers?

Let us delve into practical techniques and strategies that will empower writers to unlock the hidden beauty within the mundane and craft unforgettable literary experiences.

Here are ten ways to use defamiliarization in literature

Could one or more of these techniques be a good fit for your next work of fiction?

1 – Shift perspectives

One of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal is the ability to shift perspectives.

By challenging themselves to see the world from different angles, writers can offer readers fresh insights and provoke thought-provoking interpretations. Whether it is through the eyes of an unconventional narrator, an unreliable protagonist, or by delving into the minds of multiple characters, embracing diverse perspectives can unveil new dimensions within a story and captivate readers with unexpected viewpoints.

2 – Juxtapose the unlikely

Writers can forge unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated elements to create a sense of wonder and surprise.

By juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, writers can generate a collision of ideas that sparks inspiration. This can be achieved through clever metaphors, juxtaposing contrasting imagery, or intertwining disparate themes. The key is to challenge readers’ expectations, presenting them with unexpected combinations that ignite their imagination and encourage them to see the world in a new light.

3 – Play with form and structure

In addition to the content itself, the form and structure of a piece of writing can be defamiliarized to captivate readers.

By breaking free from traditional structures, writers can experiment with unconventional narrative techniques, non-linear storytelling, or even the use of fragmented or stream-of-consciousness prose. Such innovative approaches disrupt the familiar patterns of storytelling, creating an immersive reading experience that keeps readers engaged and eager to uncover the hidden depths of the narrative.

4 – Reveal the hidden

Writers can peel back the layers of the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary hidden beneath.

By highlighting the unnoticed details, the overlooked aspects, and the inherent beauty of everyday life, writers invite readers to contemplate the world with newfound wonder. This can be achieved through vivid descriptions, evocative language, and careful attention to sensory details. By immersing readers in the intricacies of the world, writers breathe life into their narratives and foster a deeper connection with the readers’ own experiences.

5 – Embrace metaphor and symbolism

Metaphors and symbolism are powerful tools that allow writers to transcend the limitations of language and convey complex ideas in a profound and evocative manner.

By employing metaphorical language and incorporating symbolic elements, writers can defamiliarize the familiar, offering readers deeper insights and encouraging them to explore multiple layers of meaning. Metaphors and symbols have the power to tap into readers’ emotions, creating a rich tapestry of imagery that resonates long after the reading experience is over.

6 – Twist time and space

Writers have the ability to bend the constraints of time and space within their narratives, defamiliarizing the ordinary notions of chronology and physicality.

By incorporating elements of time travel, alternate realities, or nonlinear storytelling, writers can challenge readers’ perceptions and transport them to unexplored realms. This disruption of the familiar constructs of time and space not only adds an element of intrigue but also allows for fresh perspectives and surprising revelations.

7 – Experiment with language

Language itself can be defamiliarized to captivate readers and ignite their imagination. Writers can play with word choices, sentence structures, and linguistic devices to subvert expectations and create a unique literary experience.

By breaking free from conventional language patterns, writers can engage readers with unexpected rhythms, vivid imagery, and linguistic surprises. This experimentation with language creates a sense of novelty and enhances the readers’ engagement with the text.

8 – Engage the senses

Incorporating sensory experiences within writing is a powerful way to defamiliarize the familiar. Writers can paint vivid scenes by appealing to readers’ senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

By immersing readers in a multisensory experience, writers can transport them to different worlds, evoking strong emotions and deepening their connection with the story. By defamiliarizing the sensory details, writers can elicit a heightened sense of presence and bring the narrative to life.

9 – Challenge assumptions

One of the key aspects of defamiliarization is the ability to challenge assumptions and question established norms.

Writers can delve into societal expectations, cultural conventions, or personal beliefs to provoke thought and stimulate introspection. By defying the status quo within their narratives, writers create opportunities for readers to reevaluate their own preconceived notions and broaden their perspectives.

10- Cultivate curiosity

Curiosity is a driving force behind defamiliarization. Writers can foster curiosity within their readers by creating narrative gaps, leaving room for interpretation, and posing thought-provoking questions.

By nurturing a sense of wonder and intrigue, writers can compel readers to actively engage with the text, sparking their imagination and inspiring them to seek out new insights and connections.

Now that you understand defamiliarization in literature, will you use it?

As we embark on our writing journeys, it is essential to remember that defamiliarization is not a strict formula but a mindset that invites exploration and innovation.

By embracing the power of defamiliarization, writers can transcend the boundaries of the ordinary and create fictional works that leave a lasting impression on readers, resonating long after the final page is turned. 

In essence then, the above guide is just that; a ‘guide’.

It should be viewed as a helpful starting point for writers to use in order to spring forwards and experiment and explore on their own.

By its very nature, defamiliarisation is not bound by convention or status quo and therefore has more scope for creativity than perhaps some other literary techniques.

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