Figuring It Out: Using Rhetorical Devices in Your Writing

By Michelle Gunnin


I couldn’t figure it out.  Why did some books enthrall me while others were as slow as molasses?  Why did some stories become classics while others were on lonely shelves gathering dust?  Then, I became an English Language Arts teacher who had to teach figurative language, and I had an “ah-ha” moment. I had never heard of figurative language; they became a standard on my list to teach.

I am not sure if it existed back in the dinosaur ages when I was in school, or if I just didn’t listen when it was taught. The truth is, once I had names for these literary devices, I began to see them everywhere.  It was like when you are considering a new type of car to purchase and you suddenly notice them all around you on the road.

As I studied books with new eyes, I became aware of the fact that good authors knew all about how to use figurative language in their stories to draw in their readers.  It made all the difference between a great book and a boring one.  As a young teacher, I was intrigued with my new-found discovery and wanted to share it with my students.  They were half-hearted at best, except maybe for onomatopoeia.  (After all, it is a big word that’s fun to say.)

Rather than just tell them, I decided to show them the difference between writing with and without figurative language. One day, as they were completing a timed writing for me in class, I wrote the following two examples:

Example #1:

I opened the door to the dark basement.  It was cold down there.  I had to go to the bottom of the stairs before I could turn on the light.  The squeaky stairs were scary to me, and I never liked to go down them.  Once I made it down, I turned on the light and went to my grandfather’s old trunk.  It was in the corner with the spider webs and crickets.  That didn’t stop me from looking inside to see what I could find.

Example #2:

The door swung open and the darkness reached out to greet me.  The cold, damp air sent chills up my spine as I moved towards the stairs.  The light was at the bottom, and though I knew exactly where the string I had to pull was hanging, the twenty steps to get to it seemed to take forever.  The creaking and groaning planks under my feet scared me every time and were mostly successful in their quest.  I learned to move quickly because the quicker I got to the string, the quicker I could begin my treasure hunt.  Moving stealthily, I crept down, like a cat ready to pounce on anything that came my way.

Finally, after what seemed like a year, I made it to the bottom.  I was rewarded with the light from a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.  It was not warm, cozy light, but it was bright enough that it shattered the darkness.  I made my way past shelves stacked with items from years gone by.  In the corner, what I was seeking came into my view.  It was my grandfather’s old trunk, and I knew it was worth walking through spider webs to get to.  Pulling the sticky silk from my hair, and off of my face, I continued towards it undeterred from my path.  The anticipation was pulling me, drawing me in.  Potbellied crickets with their long spindly legs hopped up the walls as I approached. I hate potbellied crickets, they make my skin crawl. I pushed images of being attacked by a giant heard of the insects from my imagination.  Ignoring my fear, I finally reached the trunk in the shadows.  It was big and covered in battered black leather that could tell stories of exotic places if only it could speak.  The lock on it was rusted and it squeaked in protest as I pulled it down and away from the box.  I raised the lid slowly releasing a musty smell.  I peered into the trunk, and do you know what I saw?

These passages are excerpts of my story, but by the end of the 2nd example, my fifth-grade students were on the edge of their seats.  They saw the basement.  They felt the fear.  They were drawn into the story, to the point I had to go home and finish it for them. They asked me every day for a week, “What is in the trunk? When are you going to finish it?”

I told them before I gave them the rest of the story, they had to find the figurative language in the first part.  They noticed right away the second story was longer.  Longer is a problem for fifth graders who want to write as little as possible, yet they admitted the story was stuck in their heads. They got the point that figurative language is a tool to make your writing more interesting for your reader.  I gave them this list and told them to highlight each type. Afterward, they had to go back into their own writings and add/highlight four different types of figurative language.  Practicing in this way made them better writers, over time, as they learned to look for ways to be intriguing.

  • Onomatopoeia-words that are spelled like they sound. Crash, bang, boom.  Sound words.
  • Simile- a comparison using like or as. It has to compare things to be a simile.
  • Metaphor- a comparison that doesn’t use like or as.
  • Personification- giving human characteristics to inanimate objects.
  • Hyperbole- an exaggeration.
  • Alliteration- the same beginning sounds in multiple words for effect.
  • Idiom- phrases and sayings that do not mean what they say.
  • Imagery- descriptive, sensory language that paint pictures in the reader’s mind.

This list is not extensive, but the starting point for teaching young learners how to improve their writing. I found that it doesn’t only work for young writers, but all writers. As I taught these concepts to my students, I began to use them in my own writing.  I began to see them in the writing of others.  I was suddenly aware of what makes a good story into a great one.  I figured it out!

Just in case you are on the edge of your seat, here is the rest of story #2:

Treasure, but not the kind you are thinking of.  There were no golden coins or rare gemstones.  There was nothing from a pirate ship.  No, the first thing I saw was an old army uniform and that may sound boring to you, but to me, it was like finding the mother lode.  Next to the uniform were old sepia pictures of my grandpa with his army buddies.  In some of them, they were smiling and appeared to be cutting up with one another.  Those pictures were of candid moments snapped in a time of war when there wasn’t much to smile about.  My grandpa was young, skinny, and he had hair.  In fact, he was rather handsome in his uniform with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.  If he had been a boy at my school, I would have probably had a crush on him; he was that cute!

But there were other pictures.  Serious faced boys with helmets on and guns drawn.  In those images, there was fear in their eyes.  In those photos, there were black gunships on the horizon in the background and jeeps with mud splattered down their sides, full of more young men.

Setting the pictures aside I dug deeper into the trunk.  I found an old box.  It looked like a cigar box with writing on the outside of it.  When I opened it, I found clippings from hometown newspapers.  The pictures in them were of his friends, official pictures that got published when soldiers were killed in the war.  Each one had the name circled in pencil.  I went back to the smiling picture and lined up each clipping making mental notes as to which boys in the pictures were also in the newspaper clippings.

When I finished there were only three soldiers out of the group who had made it home.  My grandpa was one of them.  I sat on the cold floor and looked at each picture wondering how my grandpa survived the war.  I put his coat on to take away the chill.  It didn’t help.

Under the clippings, I found letters – love letters to my grandma when she was his girl.  There were letters with poetry in them that made me giggle and blush.  There were serious letters about war, and funny ones about the jokes soldiers played on each other.  He made promises that if he made it home he would work hard to keep.  Her letters were there too.  She had kept his, and he had kept hers.  They were all wrapped in string together in the box. I put them back like I had found them so they could continue to be together just like my grandma and grandpa in real life – together always.

Next, I found his medals, and notes from his commander thanking him for his heroic deeds.  Running into danger, instead of away from it, seemed to be a common theme from each one.  There were postcards with lovely pictures from different parts of the world.  Each of them was postmarked and had a stamp on it from another country.  His dog tags were there too.  The two tags clinked together making a sound like a wind chime when I held them up.  Each one had his name, rank, social security number, blood type, and religion on it.  If there had been only one it would mean one had been buried with the body, but because there were two tags it meant he had survived.  I put them around my neck as I continued my time machine journey. Under some clothes, pressed towards the back was his hat. It was too big for me and fell over my eyes when I put it on.  I had hoped that my wearing his uniform I would be able to see through his eyes, and it kind of worked.

Sitting in the damp, cool basement my heart was warmer than it had been in a while.  I felt pride rise up in my chest, and understanding.  I knew there was cool stuff in this trunk, but what I saw helped me to understand my grandpa better.   I saw his courage and his fear.  I saw his love for my grandma, and for freedom.  I saw the pain of those he lost and why he had such a passion for our country.

I also saw a lot about myself.  It was like a reflection of my grandpa looking back at me through my own eyes because I love my country and my family.  And after I carefully packed his things away again, and I reached up to turn out the light, I found I have some of his courage too.

Michelle Gunnin

Photo brochure

Michelle Gunnin – an everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at

Michelle on Facebook

Michelle’s book on ‘’

Click the link for all of Michelle’s published works on Two Drops of InkMichelle Gunnin

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

More on Grammar More posts about Writing Advice Our site is accepting submissions. Read our submission guidelines and climb aboard the Two Drops of Ink literary train – it’s on the move! Looking for a summer read? Check out The Book Shelf Poetry has found a new surge of interest. Read some great poetry on our site. Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook



  1. I somehow missed this post earlier,
    Michelle. 🙁 So glad I came across it this evening. I feel as if I’ve just gotten a free writing lesson from an excellent teacher! I remember when we were homeschooling one of the books we used was a book about literary devices. I wish I could remember its name and/or find it! I loved it!
    I not only appreciated the writing lesson, but the beautiful story you wrote and shared about your grandparents and the treasures you found in that old chest that told of both their romantic love and love of country. What a beautiful find! And what a beautifully written story! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for the wonderful lesson, Michelle. And, the even better story. It warmed my heart to read it, and will, hopefully, encourage me to use figurative language more frequently – show, don’t tell.

    My mom was one of the first women to be accepted into the Marines in WWII. Like you, I have photographs and mementos of her service. In addition to those, she had saved all of her letters to her parents. I will be eternally grateful to her for that, since they were an enormous help in writing my memoir. I also have her uniform, but she was tiny, all I can do is look at it!

    I am also grateful to you for including the end of the story!

    • Thanks Mary Jo. I think that generation was amazing and the artifacts are intriguing to me. It is my favorite time period to read. They are all fading so fast and I am afraid we will lose so much history when they are all gone.

  3. Hi, Michelle. An excellent presentation and demonstration of the richness inherent in figurative writing skills. Emphasized with a blockbuster comparison!

    You have passed along knowledge that I will reference and utilize for future writing. I certainly need it!

    Thank you for posting this one, Michelle.

    • Glad it was of some use Slug. It does seem to catch the attention of my students, and when they go back and add figurative language into their first drafts I love to watch them “get it.” Sometimes they say…”That sounds so much better now that I added ______.” That’s when I know I’ve got them! 🙂

  4. Hi, Michelle. Great examples of literary devices, but more importantly, great story-telling.

    I love old trunks. My mother and I each would try to beat the other one to examine a trunk, both in attics of family members, and antique stores. Usually, the family just laughed and said, “There’s no hidden treasure”, but Mom and I knew there would likely be letters, lockets of hair, or newspaper clippings that fleshed out our family’s history. Antique stores, not so much, but we had enough stuff between us to start filling these trunks with our stuff.

    When Mom passed, I found the letters from WWII from my Dad, the diary he kept while in the South Pacific, and all my baby books, where she dutifully recorded my first burp. Thank goodness, she drew the line at other bodily functions. Oh, I digress.

    Thanks as always for contributing to the knowledge base at Two Drops of Ink through your descriptive, engaging, and heart-warming pieces.

    • Marilyn, I think you and I would love to visit antique shops together! Trunks and boxes are my favorite. I have my grandmother’s trunk from when she was a little girl in my dining room, along with an ammunition box from WWII that my uncle brought back and I had refinished. I LOVE old things and the stories they tell. I don’t need anymore furniture in my house…but I still like to browse shops looking for treasures!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.