Mimesis: The Secret to Realistic and Engaging Writing

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Mimesis: The Way to Better Writing

Enhancing Articles & Stories (Fiction & Nonfiction)

If you ever read an article or book and felt unable to stop, you experienced the power of mimesis. The more incredible example occurs when reading something you don’t like and finding yourself unable to disengage. Skilled writers understand mimesis, if not consciously, then intuitively wielding this tool to engage audiences. When a writer says, “I can write anything,” she is in most instances referring to the ability to make some dull topic engaging. More accurately, good writers can write about anything and make the topic believable, which is a learnable skill.

What is mimesis?

This question could fill the blackboards of the world and already fills libraries with literature and philosophy spanning thousands of years. The word “mimesis” is Greek and today means “imitation” but the origin and various understandings date back to Plato. You should study these different interpretations to form your conceptualization of mimesis. For brevity, the modern literary meaning of mimesis roots in the representation of that which is “real” or writing’s artificialness.(1)

If one night I replaced your car with a clay-sculpted replica, what’s the likelihood you would leave the house in the morning and try to open the door of the fake car? As the quality, placement, and construction of my art render the replica believable, many factors impact writing’s believability, such as plot, dialogue, reader perception, mechanics, fluency, and countless others. Perceiving your writing’s subject as a sculpture provides the basis for bringing that idea to life or imitating it in words. However, this is one dimension of mimesis, and the antipode of “realistic” also applies.

In my humorous quest to fool you with a fake car, I decided to sculpt not a perfect replica but instead the perfect form of the car. Whereas your car has paint blemishes and dents, my version of the car looks as though it just rolled off the manufacturing line. Witnessing your reaction to the absurdity of the car’s overnight transformation from old to new causes onlookers much laughter. You just became part of a living satire formed in this prank. Satire, sarcasm, and other rhetorical devices utilize not just a subject’s believability but the unbelievable to draw attention to the topic. This understanding forms the basis of comedic writing, giving a more robust comprehension and writing method to the author who understands how to control the reader through degrees of mimesis.

Using Mimesis

Again, the multitude of ways writers leverage mimesis are too many to discuss in a single article, but understanding some foundational points increases believability. Perhaps most important is rhetorical construction or building your narration believably.

The miracle of writing’s believability often goes unnoticed. Consider a horror book by Stephen King and the reader’s foreknowledge of the story’s fiction. The fact that millions of readers eagerly indulge in his books, knowing they are not real, attests to the power of mimesis. Mimetic power forms not accidentally but from many prior mentioned factors, most notably through the story’s mechanical construction. While there are many ways to write an idea, not all produce engagement with the audience. Note: This applies to all forms of writing: fiction, nonfiction, article, novel, etc. Here is an example of a grammatically and mechanically correct paragraph:

The day stretched in boredom as Janet sat at her desk staring aimlessly at her monitor. She finished her work hours prior and now wasted time pretending to be busy. The boss entered the large office area and caused her to sit up straight and begin tapping the keyboard to appear busy. She breathed a sigh of relief once he entered his office at the end of the bullpen of programmers. She leaned on her arm and began dozing and daydreaming.


The day stretched in boredom as Janet sat at her desk staring aimlessly at her monitor. She finished her work hours prior and now wasted time pretending to be busy. The boss entered the large office area and caused her to sit up straight and begin tapping the keyboard to appear busy. She breathed a sigh of relief once he entered his office at the end of the bullpen of programmers. She leaned on her arm and began dozing and daydreaming.

The repetition of words, mainly pronouns, produces a lack of engagement resulting in the reader pushed further away from the story. This reader alienation represents narrative distance, which roots in the understanding of mimesis. Forums, writing groups, and many editors constantly advise changing repeated words and reducing word volume to avoid tiring readers with repetition or verbosity, yet never apply the same advice to pronouns. This failure results from assuming all pronouns necessary for understanding the story and therefore essential. This assumption is false, and good writers attempt to remove pronoun repetition the same as repeated words. Many people assume this means opening the thesaurus, but sentence construction can accomplish the same effect of making the writing more concise.

Aimlessly staring at the monitor, Janet’s day stretched in boredom, having finished actual work hours prior. The boss entered the bullpen of programmers, causing her to sit up and tap the keyboard, feigning busyness. She sighed in relief as he entered his office across the room. She leaned on her arm, dozing and daydreaming.

The first version is correct but verbose. Although the meaning of the two versions is identical, the second allows for faster, more efficient reading. More importantly, the believability of the passage increases by reducing pronoun instances. Readers are often unaware but feel these instances, which add distance to the narration. The reader inserts into the story imaginatively assuming Janet’s persona, and repeating “she” or “her” reminds the reader of the character, thus removing the reader from the story. The more pronouns used, the more narrative distance created and the less engaging the story. This concept applies to all forms of writing, including the first-person point of view (POV). Stating, “I went here,” “I went there,” and “I did this” constantly increases the story’s artificialness, pushing the reader away.

Conciseness reduces the sense of imitation by increasing reading efficiency, readily seen in the second passage using fifty-five words to convey the same message the first passage performed in eighty-one. (Do not diminish this idea to mere numbers because the quantifying of words forms bad habits.) Reducing verbosity makes writing more realistic by reducing the effort needed to form a thought from the words. Your brain thinks hundreds of times faster than you read or speak, and the longer it takes to read, the more opportunity for the brain to become bored. Verbosity increases artificialness by increasing the time needed to read and imagine the story, thus widening the narrative distance.

Mimesis becomes more complex as one explores the concept further in other redundant aspects of POV. For example, “I, he, she, their, and they” are references to characters, but more importantly, they are illusions of self since the story is only as real as one imagines it to be. Take “I,” for instance, the pronoun identifies the reader as the character, but this illusionary point also limits realness in the iterations of the word.

“I saw Janet sleeping at her desk, drooling on her keyboard.”

Close the distance,

“Janet slept at her desk, drooling on the keyboard.”

We lose no meaning dropping the illusion of character and further close the narrative distance by saying “the keyboard” rather than “her keyboard.” She is sitting “at her desk,” so she couldn’t be drooling on someone else’s keyboard at her desk. Seen this way, the illusion of self and the distance created clarifies further in a redundancy formed from repeating pronouns. This issue becomes more pronounced in third-person novel writing but also short stories and article writing. Imagine the number of instances of pronouns across hundreds of pages, or worse yet, imagine compressed articles or short stories filled with pronoun instances. The mimetic effect glares.

While you cannot eliminate pronouns and only compress narration to a degree, the impact of this practice will astound you. Understanding and actively working to command mimesis almost overnight improves writing in the new awareness of the artificialness and distance your words create.

Note (1): The concept of mimesis could be considered the degree of realness or a continuum from unreal to real, but realness denotes a literary concept of accuracy in writing as opposed to artificialness. This article builds on the assumption of mimesis as the degree of artificialness since all forms of writing represent reality, and more importantly, to avoid confusion with literary realism.

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