Postmodern Writing Techniques by Mark H. Philips

We, as writers, live in a postmodern world. What started in the late 1950s as an avant-garde experimental rejection of the dominant writing conventions has seeped into the mainstream to such an extent that we are hardly surprised any more by the audacity of it all. Postmodernist writing tricks have become standard options for mainstream writers to such an extent that many are now clichés. Indeed that’s almost what Postmodernism is: Conventions are my playthings. My palette is chock full of literary conventions, clichés, and tropes from every different period of time and every culture on the planet, and I can mix and match them in any ways that are likely to amuse and astonish me and my readers. And my readers are as hyperaware of all the tricks and clichés as I am, so it’s getting harder and harder to amaze them.

Prior to the 1950s writers were incredibly constrained. They only had the one world—the “real” one. There might be incredible problems associated with describing it in amusing ways or revealing its inner workings or seeing it clearly, but there was still only that one world. Even, bizarrely enough, the writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror, were writing about one real world of their own creation. They had to write as if the world they were describing was the one real world.[1] Whether you were a Victorian realist or later a modernist writer, your job was to use the magical tricks of writing so as to hypnotize your reader into believing that the world you were describing was real. Here’s a quote by John Gardner concerning the experience of reading “good” fiction,

We have the queer experience of falling through the print on the page into something like a dream, an imaginary world so real and convincing that when we happen to be jerked out of it by a call from the kitchen or a knock at the door, we stare for an instant in befuddlement at the familiar room where we sat down, half an hour ago, with our book.[2]

This attitude about “good” writing is deeply inculcated in most writers. How often have we heard a critique group member say that a particular passage “threw me out of the story”? But this is a bad thing only if it is unintended. What about intentionally breaking the illusion? Well the postmodernist writers do just that, intentionally write what in Gardner’s view is “bad” fiction.

Why would someone want to write “bad” fiction? Well originally it was a quite subversive move. Gardner meant by “good” and “bad” both aesthetic and moral categories. “Bad” writing is immoral writing. “Good” writing is moral writing. The deep reality the “good” writers were trying to get us to see was the future that our flawed society is stumbling ever towards. “Good” writers help to achieve the coming Golden Age. For Victorian Realist writers that coming Golden Age usually involved God and Social Justice. For modernist writers that Golden Age usually meant the fulfillment of Western Liberal Culture—the end of poverty, disease, ignorance, war, and oppression. And if God was dead, then the scientists, technologists, psychologists, entrepreneurs, and social engineers would be our vanguard into the Promised Land. And they would do it the same way that Michelangelo sculpted David—by bashing into dust everything in the block of marble that was not David, not in tune with their vision. Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil and a set piece of modernist utopian aspirations, is what the new perfect cities will look like (or at least what modernist architects back in 1956 thought the future would/should look like).[3]

The postmodernists of course reject all this with a vengeance. They have seen what this sort of thinking has done to indigenous populations and cultures, LGBT communities, people of the wrong religion, the wrong gender, the wrong race, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong socio-economic class. Postmodernists are too cynical to buy into any utopic visions—the inevitable creative destructions associated with utopic visions turn all too destructive for far too many.

For the postmodernist there are lots of realities—it’s a smorgasbord out there: fill your plate with whatever odd mixes you want and have fun. They think nothing of reading their comic books front to back and their manga back to front. Their anti-utopic cityscapes are the gritty anarchic mean streets of the L.A. in the film Blade Runner, a cyberpunk mashup of cultures, times, and ethnicities. Reality is TV and movies and e-books and the Internet and there are thousands upon thousands of worlds. And the barriers between them are porous. As Hakim Bay says in T.A.Z. (1991)

“The death of God,” in some ways a decentering of the entire “European” project, opened a multi-perspectived post-ideological worldview able to move “rootlessly” from philosophy to tribal myth, from natural science to Taoism—able to see for the first time through eyes like some golden insect’s, each facet giving a view of an entirely other world.[4]

A corollary to the sharp divide between modernist and postmodernist writers is their attitude towards low culture. Modernists are notorious for rigid hierarchies separating writers of trash (romances, detective, horror, fantasy, and SF, etc.) and real writers who are the vanguard of the coming utopia. A real writer discovers the inner truths that will set us free, tell us who we are and who we can be, shines the light of the twentieth/twenty-first century on the outmoded superstitions and prejudices that hold us back from our destiny. The modernist vanguard of the coming utopia don’t read manga or watch cheap Hong Kong kung fu epics with bad dubbing, or Italian spaghetti westerns, or George Romero zombie films, i.e. they could never, ever, grow up to become Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, or the Wachowski siblings. Postmodernists love low culture and gleefully rip off and reclaim its tropes. Especially they love the alternate world speculations and reality bending tropes of the science fiction genre which preceded them. Why especially science fiction?

Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) argues that modernism focused on epistemological issues: how do we know reality and ourselves; how do we know what others are thinking? Modernist writers love to use unreliable narrators and characters whose own worldview distorts their awareness. They dispensed with the charming authorial voice of the Victorian authors and introduced narrators and characters driven by the newly postulated subconscious forces of psychoanalysis. To really, really overgeneralize: Victorian realism begot detective fiction which the modernists ripped off to invent a high art form of detective fiction. Most modernist novels can be viewed as connect the dots puzzles where the narrator (and the reader vicariously) try to decipher the truth behind incomplete, distorted, and misleading evidence and experiences.

In contrast, McHale claims that postmodernism foregrounds ontological issues as is the case with most SF. The dominant themes involve fractured, shifting, multiply-conflicting realities and deliberately breaking down our allegiance and faith in a single world. Postmodernists write “bad” fiction in Gardner’s sense, because they want the reader to reject an uncritical belief in a single reality. McHale uses the term “flicker”—postmodernists love to induce moments when the reader is thrown out of Gardner’s immersive trance by experiencing anomalous, disorienting shifts in the presented fictional world. Reality flickers and the reader is jarred awake.

Most of the techniques listed below are designed to induce this reality flicker. By doing so, the postmodernist wakes the reader from his trance, tempts him to become a more active participant and to realize that there is an author out there actively manipulating him, playing with him, deliberately misusing the venerable tricks of realist writing to screw with the reader’s head in ways that many readers apparently like.

So here are the techniques:

Postmodernists like to play with all of the machinery of fiction writing. Take attribution tags. Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) simply eliminates quotation marks from spoken dialogue altogether. John Barth’s short story “Title” in Lost in the Funhouse (1969) is all dialogue but without any quotation marks. What initially seems like internal monologue of a somewhat conflicted writer with poor self-esteem is actually the author and his wife bickering with each sentence reflecting a change in speaker. Barth goes to the other extreme in “Menelaiad” also in Lost in the Funhouse (1969): the dialogue from multiple characters quoting each other within dialogue, nested within dialogue eventually leads to dialogue contained in “ ‘ “ ‘ “ ‘ “     “ ‘ “ ‘ “ ‘ “ constructions. Why? Mostly to show off, to amaze readers with his virtuosity. The reader is never permitted to forget that she is trying to make sense of a text. Reality flickers with a vengeance. Prose mechanisms designed over generations to be unobtrusive to the point of invisibility are flouted to make them aggravatingly obvious. Of course, while showing off, the author is also making some fascinating observations about how myths are constructed and what agendas they serve. He would no doubt assert that he is breaking the illusion for a reason, liberating the astute reader from naïveté, freeing her from the spell, waking Sleeping Beauty from her narrative dreams with a kiss—or in this case with a slap up aside the head. But one also senses that Barth would, if he could, measure his success by how many times editions of his book got thrown across rooms.

Mark Z. Danielewski in The Fifty Year Sword (2012) has nothing but dialogue and uses elaborate nesting of dialogue within dialogue, within dialogue alá Barth’s “Meneliad”, but he denotes which character goes with which quote by color coding the quotation marks in five different colors.

A similar technique is used In S. (2015) by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams. S. is an elaborate artifact made to simulate an old library book The Ship of Theseus by a mysterious reclusive author V. M. Straka (obviously patterned on the real-life mystery that was B. Traven). The book is artificially aged and discolored, even down to the pickle smell of an old book. The margins of the book are filled with annotations as two university students trade the book back and forth responding to each other’s annotations. The identity of each student is clear since one writes in cursive and the other in block letters. The messages are also in a sense time stamped as the pens they use change over time to new colors. The students have also left multiple clippings, photocopied documents, post cards, decoder devices, and even maps drawn on napkins strategically inserted between the pages. The purported translator of the work also includes inappropriate footnotes which may contain encrypted messages. Of course the reader is thrown out of The Ship of Theseus novel multiple times on every page achieving the postmodernist emphasis on the textuality of the work. Yet the whole effort is amazingly readable and quite suspenseful as the two students get sucked into quite dangerous machinations of sinister secret societies, etc. The book is a tribute to what publishing is now capable of as well as a novel (forgive the pun) way to induce readers to pay premium price for a real book as the whole production would be impossible to transfer effectively to an e-reader format.

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1981) by Italo Calvino a couple of book lovers discover that the novel they have been reading is misbound leaving them unable to finish the story. As they pursue the rest of the story from the publisher, translators, and scholars they continually discover new beginnings of new novels, until the whole work is a collection only of intriguing beginnings in multiple styles.

Another structural technique is to play with how the text is arranged. Hopscotch (1966) by Julio Cortázar can have its chapters arranged by the reader in whatever order she chooses. John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) allows the reader to pick which of two different endings they want. Lance Olsen in 10:01 (2005) jumps into the bios and inner motivations of the occupants of a movie theater before the feature starts. But the same text can also be consumed as an interactive web version designed by Tim S. Guthrie in which the reader can click on whichever figure in the movie theater she wants in any order to get the same information.

A similar effect to the use of marginalia of S. is generated by use of extensive footnotes to continually throw the reader out of the text. Danielewski in House of Leaves (2000) has copious footnotes, often within footnotes. Sometimes the footnotes are printed as side notes or in the middle of pages. Sometimes they are in mirrorscript so that they have to be held up to a mirror (an example of ergodic text). Sometimes Danielewski sites hundreds of movies or architectural achievements for no apparent reason.

Another author who is notorious for his use of notes is David Foster Wallace. Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest (1996) uses extensive endnotes which are unavoidable as they often carry crucial narrative developments as well as pointless minutiae. In “Octet” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2007) Wallace uses long footnotes discussing how what you are reading is different from what he intended in his outline, what he’s worried didn’t work very well, why he cut out certain parts and rearranged others, as well as what his therapist had to say about Wallace’s obsessive-compulsive need for the reader’s approval. When Wallace later killed himself because of, among other things, his writing insecurities, what seemed like an avant-garde and sometimes pretentious affectation seems, in retrospect, all the more poignant and sad and really fucked up.

A variation of this structural technique is the use of mise en abyme, or writings nested in other writings. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an obvious example of a play within a play. Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) features a purportedly rediscovered lost Shakespeare play along with an extensive introduction by Phillips recounting the pedigree of the play and his conviction that it is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by his conman father. This structural technique was used by Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962) which features a twenty-six page poem followed by a 171 page commentary by a megamaniacal editor who thinks the poem is all about him and his bizarre delusion that he is an exiled king pursued by an assassin.

Jorge Luis Borges loved these mise en abyme tropes most famously in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, and “The Library of Babel” all in the Collected Fictions (1998). For a perfect film use of this trope see Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, N.Y Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) features three levels of embedded texts, a memoir by the last surviving member of a love triangle, a novel of a long ago affair, and the pulp science fiction story the two lovers in that novel weave together in the intervals between sex.

The mise en abyme technique often merges with the use of metafiction in which agents at different levels of the nested works become aware of and interact with each other. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) is Hamlet inside out as seen through the eyes of two minor characters in the original. This is also an example of metafiction because the protagonists begin to suspect that they are in fact characters in a play. Flann O’Brien (a pseudonym for Brian O’Nolan) uses metafiction in his At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) in which a student writes about a writer who in turn writes characters who object to the way he is forcing them to do immoral things and drug him so they can lead peaceful lives free from his interference. Legendary Irish mythological characters interact with characters at multiple levels of narrative insisting on telling their own tall tales.

In the screenplay for the movie version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) instead of exploiting the choose-your-own-ending technique of Fowles, Harold Pinter uses metafiction juxtaposing a straightforward film adaptation with a parallel film showcasing the actors having their own ill-fated love affair. By shifting back and forth between the two plots we are thrown out, constantly reminded that we are watching a film, but also have the opportunity to see the “same” affair played out in time periods with vastly different sexual customs and gender power structures.

For me the most fun example of mise-en-abyme/metafiction is the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series by Jasper Fforde. In an alternate world where reading is the main pastime, Thursday Next works with a branch of the police department that defends the integrity of literature from forgers, plagiarists, and censors. But Thursday also can enter the books themselves and interact with the characters. In the first novel The Eyre Affair (2001), she has to save Jane Eyre from a terrorist and in so doing changes the novel she is trying to protect.

Another variation on metafictional techniques is the use of intertextuality in which an author has characters from other works as well as real people interact with the characters in their fiction. In Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) Richard Nixon tries to seduce Ethel Rosenberg on her way to the electric chair, and later Nixon is sodomized by the superhero Uncle Sam, the embodiment of the American  spirit and the alter ego of whatever President is currently in power (in this case Eisenhower). In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1997), when Max and Annie are in a line at a movie theater arguing about Marshall McLuhan’s theories, Max simply pulls in the real Marshall McLuhan to settle the argument once and for all. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) Seth Grahame-Smith interpolates his zombie subplot within Jane Austen’s otherwise intact novel.

The last technique I’ll touch on here is magical realism: fantastical characters and events occurring without significant wonder or comment within otherwise realistic fiction. In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) the protagonist transforms into a bug and no one seems to notice or think it strange (affectless character reactions to the bizarre is a common trope because the strange non-reaction makes the reality flicker even more jarring to the reader). In Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (2005) characters talk with cats, a supernatural being disguises itself as Col. Sanders, fish and leeches fall from the sky, and murders can be committed by means of astral projection. In Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers (1997) one hundred brothers assemble in a decrepit mansion library to try to find the ashes of their deceased father. William S, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) occurs in a bizarre Interzone peopled by insectoid Mugwumps and

Followers of obsolete unthinkable trades, doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, black marketeers of WWIII, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, officials of unconstituted police states, brokers of exquisite dreams and nostalgias tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, drinkers of the Heavy Fluid sealed in translucent amber of dreams.

By the way. It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is not only the greatest postmodernist novel, but perhaps the greatest novel written in the English language. Now I have.

At some later date I may do a separate blog on the postmodernist subgenres of cyberpunk and steampunk, and perhaps a blog dealing with postmodernist film techniques concentrating on such masterpieces as Fight Club, the Matrix, Kill Bill, Being John Malkovitch, Deconstructing Harry, the Grindhouse films, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But for now I’ll leave you with two perfect examples of postmodernist technique easily available on YouTube. The Snickers commercial mixing Danny Trejo’s Machete character into the Brady Bunch universe is thoroughly postmodern. Machete started out as a character in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids movies. Then he appears in a fake trailer in between the Grindhouse double feature, but then the fake trailer was turned into a series of outrageous films, and then the character appears as Marsha in the Brady Bunch eating a Snickers bar:

On the music front, check out Elvis Hitler’s “Green Haze”—tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with the lyrics from Green Acres:


Annie Hall. Directed by Woody Allen. Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. United Artists, 1977.

Antrim, Donald. The Hundred Brothers. New York: Picador, 1997.

Atwood, Margaret. The Blind Assassin. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.

Austen, Jane and Grahame-Smith, Seth. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009.

Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Bantam, 1969.

Bey, Hakim. T.A.Z. (The Temporary Autonomous Zone). Brooklyn, Autonomedia, 1991.

Borges, Jorge Luis. The Collected Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Andrew Burley. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1959.

Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Translated by William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Cortázar, Julio. Hopscotch. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.

Coover, Robert. The Public Burning. New York: The Viking Press, 1977.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

———. The Fifty Year Sword. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

Dorst, Doug and J.J. Abrams. S.. New York: Mulholland Books, 2013.

Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. New York, Signet, 1969.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, directed by Karel Reisz, screenplay by Harold Pinter. United Artists, 1981.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: Schocken Books, 1915.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.

Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. Translated by Philip Gabriel. New York: Vintage International, 2006.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Berkeley, 1962.

O’Brien, Flann (a pseudonym for Brian O’Nolan). At Swim-Two-Birds. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1951.

Olsen, Lance. 10:01. Portland: Chiasmus Press, 2005. See also the web version of this work designed by Tim S. Guthrie at

Phillips, Arthur. The Tragedy of Arthur. New York: Random House, 2011.

Powell, Jim. Postmodernism for Beginners. Danbury, CT: For Beginners, 1998.

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1972.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Synecdoche, N.Y. written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1996.

———. “Octet” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. New York: Back Bay Books, 2007.

[1] Of course, if you write a story about someone who invents a time machine, goes back and assassinates Hitler as a baby, and then returns to a greatly altered world you’ve now got two “real” worlds and maybe you can make some profound comparisons. But the new possibilities and techniques being explored by SF writers were mostly restricted to a ghetto of cheap escapist nonsense, hardly taken seriously by anyone. In their pioneering work a lot of postmodernist tropes were being germinated.

[2] On Moral Fiction (1978) by John Gardner, p. 112-113; see also Brian McHale in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) who also used this quote and made this point before me.

[3] This observation is made in Postmodernism for Beginners (1998) by Jim Powell.

[4] T.A.Z. (1991) by Hakim Bey, p. 106-107.

[5] Naked Lunch P. 387-8.



Filed under Writing Craft

4 responses to “Postmodern Writing Techniques by Mark H. Philips

  1. Debbie

    Great post! Thanks a bunch.

  2. Mystery Lover

    I’ve read mysteries that contain puzzles within for the reader to solve. Cash Anthony wrote a short story using this technique in the anthology Deadly Diversions. Would you consider these to be ergodic?

    • Mark

      Absolutely—I enjoyed Anthony’s short story. Makes the reader do something besides just passively absorbing narrative. Dorothy Sayers wrote a Lord Peter Wimsey short that played off a crossword puzzle.

  3. Mark

    You are very welcome.

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