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When I first learned about alliteration in a writing class, I couldn’t believe there was a word for it. I used it in my poetry all the time! Then I learned about anastrophe and deus ex machina and I began to discover a whole world of literary devices and techniques.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds of accented syllables in a phrase: dancing dragons.
I discovered literary techniques that I’d seen in storytelling but hadn’t used in my own work. For example, anastrophe is when the usual word order of a sentence or phrase is reversed. One of the most famous characters in the movies speaks almost exclusively in anastrophe: Yoda doesn’t ask “Are you ready?” He says, “Ready are you?”
There were also literary devices that I’d neither noticed nor used. Deus ex machina is when a character or event is suddenly introduced in a narrative for convenience. For example, when all the main characters are trapped and some long-lost cousin who has never been mentioned suddenly appears and rescues them, this is deus ex machina, and it’s usually seen as a cheap way to resolve a sticky situation.
What Are Literary Devices and Techniques?
So what are literary devices and what applications do they have for writers?
Wikipedia defines a literary device as follows: “A literary technique (also known as literary device) is any standardized method an author uses to convey his or her message.” According to Wikipedia, this can include foreshadowing, flashbacks, and plot twists, things we all recognize as elements of storytelling.
I’ve found some resources that make a distinction between storytelling techniques, which deal with the structure of a story, and language techniques, which deal with how we choose and use words.
Understanding and Identifying Literary Devices and Technique
Have you ever come across a word, phrase, or sentence that mesmerized you, but you couldn’t figure out why? It might have been a line of dialogue that stuck with you or a compelling scene in a story. You know there’s a reason it was so effective but you can’t put your finger on it.
In these cases, there’s a good chance a literary device or technique is at play. And if you can identify these devices and techniques, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to make the best possible decisions in your own writing.
For example, we all know there are a dozen ways to write a sentence. If we’re trying to choose the right word for a sentence and there are several to choose from, we might make our decision based on a literary device.
Let’s look at an example. In the sentences below, would you choose the word store or market?
I have to stop by the store.
I have to stop by the market.
I would probably choose store because of the alliteration that occurs with the words stop and store.
While this is something a lot of writers do naturally—choose a word because it’s the one that sounds the best—it’s immensely helpful to have a more concrete reason, to know that you’re choosing a phrase because it applies alliteration rather than “just because it sounds good.”
When we adopt literary devices and techniques into our vocabularies, we can talk about writing, language, and story more efficiently and intelligently.
Using Literary Devices in Your Work
Let’s say you’re working on a novel and trying to polish a sentence that’s giving you trouble. You’re looking for the right word—the perfect word. If you have studied literary devices, then they are at your disposal and can help you make smarter choices about which words and phrases to use.
Literary techniques can also be immensely helpful in storytelling. When I’m working on a story and get stuck, I often turn to a list of storytelling techniques to see if any of those techniques could help me get unstuck. I almost always find a solution, something that propels me past whatever obstacle I’m facing.
Literary devices and techniques are valuable tools that we can use to better understand literature. By applying these concepts to our own writing projects, we can strengthen our work and make it more compelling.
I might have mentioned this before, but in a former life, I was a drama major. Perhaps this is why I think of picture books as "performance pieces." After all, picture books are meant to be read aloud.
Jill started off this topic with her discussion of rhythm and rhyming picture books. Jill is a far braver soul than I. I have published six picture books (with another on the way) and none of them rhyme. My brain doesn't work that way.
This is not to say that my stories don't have rhythm. They do. Jill covered this pretty well in her last post so I won't belabor the point here. I'll just say that if you aren't sure if your story has that "swing," read it out loud. Better still, have a non-judgemental friend read it to you. If you find yourself stumbling over your own words, or if your friend's voice hits a word that sounds like an out-of-tune piano key, go back to Jill's post.
So if I don't rhyme, how do I (hopefully) hold my listener's interest?
Repetition, for one thing. There's nothing like a little group participation, whether you are reading to one child or seventy. If you want a good example of that, check out my First Grade Stinks. The title is also the main character's catch phrase whenever she is frustrated by yet another unfamiliar aspect of a new grade and teacher. After awhile, the listener will chime in as well. (Loudly.)
I love to play around with words. I'm a big believer in alliteration. In Camp K-9, Roxie goes to camp with a Pooch Pouch and makes friends with Pearl the Pug. A word of caution. Be spare with the mirroring consonants. When my daughter was small, there was one particular picture book (no titles mentioned here) that her father and I tried to hide at storytime. Why? Seemingly every word in this book began with the letter "p." It was not a short book either. Two pages into it and my husband and I were sputtering and stuttering like Porky and Petunia Pig. Sometimes, we got so flusterated that certain expletives (not written by the author) slipped into the narrative.Not good. Not good at all.
My favorite writing technique (in novels as well as picture books), is the use of sounds. (There is a polysyllabic word for this that I can't spell, and I am using a computer that doesn't have autocorrect.) The stories I remember from my own childhood were actually songs, like "Old MacDonald Had. a Farm" and "The Wheels on the Bus." When I began writing my own stories, without really thinking about it, a "moo moo" here and a "cluck cluck" there showed up on my pages.. Sounds are fun to write, fun to read and gives the listener another opportunity to "read along." (The only one who doesn't enjoy my "sound technique" is the copy editor who sends me notes questioning the correct spelling of "va-va-varoom.")
If you want to see me go crazy with the sound effects, check out Surprise Soup. In fact, when I was writing it, I began by listing all the kitchen sounds I could thing of. Here is a partial list: chippity-chop (a knife), ka-rickety-ritch (a manual can opener), splishety-sploosh, slippety-slop, shakety-shake (ingredients going into the soup pot.) Once I had a list of thirty-something sounds, the story wrote itself.
A successful picture book is one that a child wants to hear over and over (and that the reader can read over and over without wanting to rip out his/her hair.) I think playful language is the grace note that adds zip and zing to "Jill's swing," and a little fun for the adult reader as well.
Don't forget that the deadline for our latest book giveaway Forget Me Not by Carolee Dean is this Thursday, Oct. 11. Good luck!
As promised, I have cudgelled the brains over my student's question: How do you know what parts to rewrite? How do you know what words to change?
There are, I've concluded, two levels to rewriting: the big and the small.
The big takes in the whole of the book or story – never mind this or that word, does the whole thing work?
The small concentrates on words, sentences, paragraphs at most.
So, to begin small...
One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever came across was: Read your work aloud. It's a good idea to train yourself to hear a voice speaking the words in your head, even if you're reading or writing silently. This helps you to 'hear' the rhythms and stresses even as you invent the words - but it doesn't replace reading aloud.
Feeling your lips, tongue and throat shaping the words you've written, and hearing them, forces you to concentrate on every syllable, on rhythms, and on the sense. Reading by eye alone, you can skim through sentences, and even whole paragraphs if you're a very fluent reader (as writers tend to be). You can miss the small details of sound.
But words are, ultimately, meant to be spoken, not read. Poetry, as a poet once told me, is rhythm, not rhyme – and rhythm is sound.
But, when I rewrite, what am I listening for? How do I know which words to change?
Well, I consider if my words are easy to say, and pleasing to hear. The twelfth Leith Policeman dismisseth us. Beware of such jaw-breakers. What the eye reads easily may be a clog to the tongue – and I want that talking-book deal. So if I catch myself writing a tongue-twister, I rewrite it.
I'm on the listen-out for repeated sounds that jar. 'My keel coursed cruel care-halls - ' The Anglo-Saxons were keen on alliteration, and if consciously done for effect, it can be wonderful. But if I've repeated sounds through carelessness, and it's spoiling the rhythmn or sound, I change the wording
Are the words I've chosen the best ones for the job I wanted them to do? English is crammed with words that are close in meaning, but have their own nuances, weights, textures and colours. 'Amble' has a clumsier and more endearing sound than 'stroll'. 'Lope' is quite different from either. 'Smirk' has very different connotations from 'smile' or 'giggle'. Is there another word that's a closer fit for my meaning? That means the same, but has a better sound or stress for that sentence? Or has a sound that better fits the sense?
Do the sentences have a good natural rhythm? Reading them aloud makes this obvious. Am I running out of breath before reaching the end of the sentence, or the next natural pause? Does the sentence have the natural swing of speech's rise and fall? When I read it aloud, does the stress fall on the most important words – the words I really want people to hear? If the answers are 'no', then shorten the sentence, or divide it into two; change the word order, or find other words.
But having said all this about making a sentence easy to read, sometimes I want to make a sentence clumsy or difficult. If I'm describing drudgery, then I want the words I use to be slow, awkward, clumsy, tired. I might want the sound and rhythmn of my words to reflect the sleek quickness, the harshness or the cold of their sense. If what I've written doesn't do that, I try to find words that do.
A frequent consideration is whether the phrase I've used is a cliché – a phrase too over-used and stale to make the reader stop and think about the sense. It isn't easy to avoid cliches, and I am certainly guilty of using them often. For one thing, they're often true – as white as snow, as cold as ice. But I am honour bound to try. So I give the brains another pummel, and see if I can come up with something fresher.
Finally, I check if I mean what I've said. Words can get away from you. A friend of mine, a teacher, once read in a pupil's exercise book: 'I was lying on the settee watching the telly eating peanuts.' She wrote in the margin: 'My telly prefers chocolate.' But it's all too easy, in a moment of carelessness, to mangle your grammar, and say something you never meant to say. So I watch out for this kind of slip and – rewrite it.
Enough for one posting. I don't imagine for a moment that I've said all there is to say on this subject, but something like this goes through my head when I'm rewriting. I'd welcome any additions and expansions – even corrections.
But I hope I've gone some way towards answering my student's question: 'When you rewrite, how do you know what words to change?'
In my next post, you lucky people, I'll consider the book or story as a whole. Unless someone else wants to do it?
I'm going to wrap up my series on Beginnings this week and will start up a new one next week. Please post topics you would like to know more about, and I will surely let you have my two cents.
Today I want to encourage you to zip some creativity into your first chapter language this week. You've got a nifty plot going with a winning hero, and now it's time to brush in the details. Yes, you might want to head over to your poetry tool box and add some imagery and emotion through your word choice.
Think onomatopoeia. Add some words that make noise. So, sigh a melancholy air release or bang, bash, and boink away! Zoinks, Batman! This is great in picture books but you might be surprised to find that YA authors slip in noises too to spice up that first chapter.
Don't stop with making some noise. Chip in some alliteration and assonance along with that onomatopoeia. Add some simile and metaphor. Pull out your classical rhetoric textbook and check out those figures again. Or just head over to The Forest of Rhetoric. I go there regularly to toss on some genius.
Don't go crazy overboard! Nobody wants a little salad with their croutons.
Yes, you are going to fine tooth comb that first chapter and you are going to strike every boring word. You aren't going to run or walk anywhere. You'll dash, dive, saunter or tiptoe. You will make that first chapter the most sparkly writing ever. I know you will.
Whew! You've got lots of work ahead. Good luck as you go forward. After all this you should have a fantabulous first chapter.
Still no doodles. Waiting on the computer fairies to wave their magic wands and heal my sick, sick laptop.
My playlist hit is Josh Radin and "No Envy, No Fear."
My quote for the week:
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Ann Frank
A to Z Challenge Day 17: Q . 4.75 Queenie Mac’s new picture book is called It’s an Absolutely Perfect Day For . . . (back cover): It’s an Absolutely Perfect Day For . . . is a fanciful frolic through the alphabetical animal kingdom with alliterations galore and the whimsical illustrations from each and [...]