By: Lucia Tang
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” ―
We all might be Muggles at the end of the day, but the truth is that a writer is much closer to the wizarding world than anyone else. Sure, we can’t turn hedgehogs into pincushions just by chanting in Latin, but at our best, we can make magic with our words.
A lot of our literary spells stem back to one thing: rhetorical devices. They might sound a little dull and remind you of high school English exams. But a splash of alliteration or a well-placed touch of synecdoche can turn a simple, but perhaps dull, sentence into word magic, enchanting in its persuasive power for both fiction and non-fiction authors.
Alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds across successive words, makes your turns of phrase stick in readers’ heads. It’s undoubtedly one of the business world’s favorite rhetorical tricks, a surefire way to help a brand name or a slogan worm its way into would-be customers’ brains — think of Best Buy, American Airlines, and even Coca-Cola.
But alliteration is far more than a corporate branding trick. Poets also use it to make their language sing. Think of Milton describing the stag, as it’s created: “Behemoth, biggest born of Earth.” Take a leaf out of his book, and your prose will take on a musical quality that’s impossible to forget.
Writers tend to be cautious about repetition, for good reasons — rambling redundancy (see, I’m making use of alliteration already) tends to make readers roll their eyes and shut their books. But a small dose of it, purposefully applied to your prose, can enchant instead of bore.
Enter anadiplosis, a popular speech maker’s trick you’ve probably been hearing your whole life. In this form of repetition, the word or phrase at the end of one clause reappears at the beginning of the next one. Think of Yoda’s immortal lines: “Fear to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Skillful rhetors like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. often chained several instances of anadiplosis together, creating an irresistible flow to their words to send shivers up your spine. But you don’t have to be listening to a world-class speaker for anadiplosis to hit you hard. Try it in your writing and see how it brings your prose to life.
As you’ve probably noticed, poets tend to love their rhetorical and literary devices, and anthimeria is no exception. This linguistic trick swaps in one part of speech for another — for instance, by using a noun as a verb. When we “hashtag” our Tweets or complain about our failures to “adult,” we’re using anthimeria in real-time. And that technically places us in rich literary genealogy — we’re heirs to Shakespeare, whose King Lear complained that the “thunder would not peace” at his bidding.
If you’d like to take a shot at Shakespearing your sentences, look for verbs you’re not entirely satisfied with — the ones that strike you as imprecise or all too predictable. Are there any nouns you could transfigure into verbs in their place?
In this shadiest of rhetorical devices, a speaker brings something up by denying that it should be brought up. It’s the kind of thing you’d imagine a bona fide Mean Girl deploying against her social rivals: “She’s actually super nice, so there’s no need for people to keep bringing up that time she cheated on Chad. It was so long ago, you know?”
Apophasis is a rhetorical device with a lot of personality. It works excellently in dialogue for snarky anti-heroes or shadowy henchmen. But it can also add a perfect touch of poison-tongued irony to your narration — especially useful if you’re trying your hand at satire.
Aporia expresses doubt or confusion for rhetorical effect, often by weighing two options in a particularly vexing dilemma. Think of Hamlet’s infamous “to be, or not to be.” The Bard deploys it to characteristically significant effect, situating his audience in the Danish prince’s emotional world.
You often see aporia as a series of rhetorical questions. Place it in a character’s mouth, or save it for an interior monologue. It’s a perfect way to draw the reader into subtleties of characterization that can be challenging to capture, from their inner conflicts to the values they’re starting to question.
This one’s easy to implement. Just remove the conjunctions from your writing, and you’ve got a case of asyndeton on your hands: think “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Oxford comma fans might find themselves gritting their teeth at the lack of and’s and or’s demanded by grammar. But there’s no denying that the resulting sentences can be stunners, with a gaunt elegance suggestive of modern poetry.
If you’re going for the opposite effect — a kind of harried breathlessness — try polysyndeton instead. As you might have guessed from the etymology, that means using many conjunctions instead of none, so that your novels and essays and stories and plays sound like, well, this.
The White House has been home to some dazzling speakers over the years, and among them, President Kennedy stands out. Just think of his most memorable line, a perfect bumper sticker-sized bit of patriotic sloganeering: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
JFK furnishes an excellent example of chiasmus in the wild. It’s a kind of criss-cross structure — the original Greek means “X-shaped” — where the first of two parallel clauses is both repeated and reversed by the second. You can map it out as A-B-B-A — in this case, “your country”-“you”-“you”-“your country.” The resulting sentences combine the satisfying familiarity of repetition with an element of surprise.
You might remember hearing about meiosis in high school biology, but don’t worry: you don’t have to know anything about cell division to make use of this rhetorical device. Also known as litotes, this meiosis means ironic understatement, like referring to a catastrophic accident as “a bit unfortunate,” or a Booker Prize victory as “not bad.”
Play with meiosis if you’re struggling with writer’s block. You might have a character who seeds much of their dialogue with meiosis — say a sardonic Brit or a Southern belle who weaponizes it in the spirit of petticoated passive-aggressiveness. Or, if you’re writing a humorous piece, your omniscient narrator might resort to meiosis to describe the failings of your lovably incompetent cast, say, by referring to an unlucky hiker who causes an avalanche with his clumsiness as “somewhat lacking in mountaineering skills.”
Because it describes non-human things or concepts in human terms, you might think of personification as a form of implicit metaphor. If a leaf “pirouettes in the wind,” for instance, it’s being likened to a dancer. And if your character wakes up to her alarm’s “angry chatter,” then the clock’s being equated with, well, someone who’s mad.
Personification can be a great way to add color and personality to your static descriptions, investing them with an emotional richness that will serve your writing well. Just think of Emily Dickinson: one of her best-known poems portrays Death as a kindly country gentleman. It renders a vast and shadowy abstraction on a human scale — making it all the more poignant in the process.
We use synecdoche all the time, say, whenever we refer to our cars as “wheels” or proclaim that “two heads are better than one.” It’s a form of figurative language that uses a part to represent a whole — two heads, for instance, for the two people they’re attached to.
But synecdoche isn’t just a mainstay of slang and clichés; it’s also a significant toolkit in poets’ arsenals. Eliot, for example, deploys it in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to memorable effect in:
There will be time; there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
Think of it as a way to lend emphasis to what’s thematically essential to your story. Synecdoche shines a spotlight on the crucial part of a whole so that the rest of it sinks into shadow.
In zeugma, you use a single word in two different senses. Don’t be surprised if you get some shocked laughter in response — the resulting turns of phrase can often be darkly funny. Imagine, for instance, a story that starts: “Last Friday, John lost his favorite sweater and his belief in God.”
Like many rhetorical devices, zeugma is a great way to modulate your readers’ emotions. You might not be able to cast a tickling charm on anyone, but you can charm them to laughter with your words. Best of all, they’ll be more likely to thank you than to report you to a Hogwarts prefect.
Bio: Lucia Tang
Lucia Tang is a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley and writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers.
In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee and planning her historical fantasy novel.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
What advice would you like to share with the readers and writers on Two Drops of Ink? Do you write poetry, prose, or solve problems for bloggers and writers? Then consider a guest submission today.