Rhetorical devices: Your secret writing weapon
When a book instantly grabs me and draws me in, I like to go back later and analyze why. Sometimes, it’s the subject matter. Sometimes, it’s the narrator’s voice. Sometimes, it’s a simile or metaphor that hooks me. Always, it’s the strong writing. Strong writing means that the arrangement of words on the page “works.” Strong writing is an art that we can learn.
Many award-winning, best-selling authors have a secret weapon that helps them produce strong writing. That secret success weapon is the use of rhetorical devices.
Award-winning poet and author Jack Remick discusses his use of rhetorical devices in his interview with Joel Chafetz. He says that the devices all conspire to create a certain cadence in his work. He goes on to say:
…”it’s not enough to put the words down, that’s information. You have to make the words dance and rhetoric can make your words dance. Most people dismiss rhetoric but rhetoric cannot be dismissed. Rhetoric can give you rhythm, rhetoric can give you cadence, rhetoric can give your writing new life. So the writing in Blood is thick with rhetorical devices. And that’s what you’re picking up—the poetry of violence couched in rhetorical devices driving images at full speed so the story spins out ahead of you, drawing you along with each one.”
I’ve used rhetorical devices in my poetry for years–alliteration, assonance, similes, metaphors, etc. These are some of the more common devices with their definitions below:
Alliteration: The repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables, as in ”on scrolls of silver snowy sentences” (Hart Crane). (www.thefreedictionary.com).
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words. It is used to reinforce the meanings of words or to set the mood.
Consonance: is a poetic device characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in “pitter patter” or in “all mammals named Sam are clammy” (http://en.wikipedia.org).
Metaphor: a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar. (http://www.merriam-webster.com)
Below is an example of these devices in one stanza of my poem, “Prayers for Father”:
I imagined a tumor
pressing on your frontal lobe
causing that stutter and slur
of words you uttered each evening,
“bitch” and “whore” becoming beach and oar—
waves to wash me away from you.
Recently, I learned from writing mentor Margie Lawson about other rhetorical devices and I’m having fun learning them and trying them out in my writing. (You can purchase her Deep EDITS System that includes rhetorical devices for $22).
Did you notice anything about the first paragraph of this post? I used a few devices such as:
Anaphora: repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three or four successive phrases or sentences.
Amplification: repeating a word or phrase and adding more detail to emphasize a point.
Conduplicatio: repeats a key word (not just the last word) from a preceding phrase, clause, or sentence, at or near the beginning of the next.
Parallelism: refers to a syntactical similarity where parts of sentences have a parallel structure.
Can you spot any other rhetorical devices that I used?
For a more thorough list of these secret weapons, check out A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices.
Exercise: Take one or two paragraphs of your own work and see what rhetorical devices you can implement. Look for areas where you really want to grab the reader: beginnings, turning points, chapter endings, book endings, etc.