We’ve all seen the advice. Avoid alliteration. Don’t use onomatopoeia (Don’t worry. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll explain later.) Don’t rhyme. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Just Don’t!
I call BS on the list of do not that tell a writer to avoid using tools in their tool box. Any tool. The tools are there to be used when and where appropriate. Poets are encouraged to play with and use any and all of these devices. But, novelists are often told not to use them. Why? Can any and all of these things be done poorly? Of course. But you can’t learn to use them unless you practice.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
A writer’s job is to paint with words. We’re telling a story, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. We’re also conveying emotion, subtext, and visceral experiences via a medium that is one dimensional. This is where these often over-looked and poo-pooed literary tools come in handy. Words have a rhythm when you string them together to make a sentence. Some sentences are short. Some are so long they take up an entire paragraph by themselves. Much like a painter studies a photograph or other form of visual art to discover new ways to capture light or movement, a good writer studies poetry and other forms of the written word to get a better grasp of how to paint with these tools
One of my writing craft bibles is Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. I regularly take this book off the shelf, flip it open to one of the exercises, and play. There’s a feeling of freedom that comes with dropping the supposed ‘rules’ long enough to play with language in a new way.
Let’s dig in and talk about what these tools are and why we should learn to use them.
Per the dictionary: Onomatopoeia is “the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.” Buzz, sizzle, crack, pop, cuckoo, moo are all words that form the sound associated with them. They can add flavor to a piece by drawing attention to the sounds themselves. The draw back is that it can easily be overdone. If every sound is expressed through onomatopoeia, the story is going to read like a children’s book. And for a good reason. This device is often used in children’s books as a teaching tool. What sound does the cow make? Moo. But, using it a short story or novel can lend a rhythm to the words.
The fire cracked and popped. Meat sizzled in the pan. We’re told to choose active verbs. To write dynamic prose. Onomatopoeia is one way to accomplish this.
“He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.”
(For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway)
Alliteration is “the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.” It is another device that is often used in children’s stories and storytelling. The wonderful thing about alliteration is that it can draw attention to the sound of the story itself. When it’s overdone, it reads like Elmer Fudd as he attempts to say Porky Pig.
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
(The Dead by James Joyce)
“Up the aisle, the moans and screams merged with the sickening smell of woolen black clothes worn in summer weather and green leaves wilting over yellow flowers.”
(I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)
Repetition is a literary device that repeats specific words or word sets to create an effect. There are many different types of repetition. You can see a full list here: https://literarydevices.net/repetition/
Repetition can serve a few different functions. Traditionally, it was used in oral storytelling as a means to help the story teller remember lines and details. In modern literature, it draws the reader’s attention to certain elements. As with any of these devices, repetition must be done with purpose. Just repeating a word because you can’t think of a better one isn’t true repetition.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”
(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
Rhythm is the cadence the words take on both as they are read silently and as they are read aloud. The flow of the words. Poets will focus on the meter depending on what form of poetry they are writing. Novelists can use rhythm to create a sense of staccato action or the slow, unfolding of something. The structure of the sentence, the word choices, the number of beats that make up the sentence and then the next and the next all lead to creating rhythm.
“When she opens the bedroom window, the noise of the airplanes becomes louder. Otherwise, the night is dreadfully silent: no engines, no voices, no clatter. No sirens. No footfalls on the cobbles. Not even gulls. Just a high tide, one block away and six stories below, lapping at the base of the city walls.
And something else.
Something rattling softly, very close. She eases open the left-hand shutter and runs her fingers up the slats of the right. A sheet of paper has lodged there.”
(All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)
These are just a few of my favorite literary devices, and I’m always impressed when I see them done well. What are your favorite literary devices that seem to get a bad rap with ‘the rules?’