Literary Devices Part I (Sound) | NY Book Editors
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Literary Devices Part I (Sound)

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The sweet sound of language.. comes across even when you're reading in silence.

Recently, we published a post on how studying poetry can make you a better prose writer. In it, I discussed a number of literary devices that I first encountered during my undergraduate studies in poetry writing. Learning about techniques commonly used in poetry has a great influence on my creative life in the years since, even as I switched to other literary disciplines.

Over the next couple of posts, I want to discuss a few of these techniques in a bit more detail, and introduce you to some ways that writers can use the aesthetic properties of language to affect their readers’ experience. This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive guide, but hopefully it will help you notice how language is used in the books, stories, and essays you read, which can in turn help you use language more consciously and creatively in your own writing. What’s incredible is how quickly language skills become internalized once you learn to pay attention them, and how over time conscious and attentive reading can make you a better writer almost by osmosis.

I’m going to divide the techniques we look at into two (completely unofficial) categories: techniques that use sound, and techniques that use rhythm. Today we’re going to focus on sound.

Techniques that use sound play with the literal sounds of the words when spoken aloud. However, you don’t have to actually read aloud in order to appreciate the effects of sound in writing – when you’re intimately familiar with a language you can (and involuntarily do) echo its spoken properties in your head as you read silently. The three sound elements I want to discuss are assonance, alliteration, and the qualities evoked by different letters.

1. Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within a phrase or sentence. This creates a sense of “internal rhyme” (i.e. a rhyme that doesn’t fall at the end of a line or phrase) and can give your prose a musical quality. I find that assonance also tends to have a hypnotic, soothing, and sometimes even ghostly effect – perhaps because vowel sounds tend to be longer and involve more breath than consonants, and as such drawing attention to these sounds has a way of emphasizing the more spacious elements of words.

Let’s light a fire between these trees.
“And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags through dust and ashes, circling the dead fire, the charred billets and chalk bones, the little calcined ribcage.” – Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark

2. Alliteration

Alliteration is a similar and probably more recognized device, which involves stringing together similar sounds at the beginnings of words. When these sounds happen to be vowels, assonance and alliteration overlap. Like assonance, alliteration can have a sing-songy affect, but rather than be soothing I find that alliteration tends to be the opposite – it wakes us up, grabs our attention, and makes the words pop. As such, alliteration is commonly used in brand names and slogans (PayPal, Best Buy, American Apparel). It can be a great device for creating a perky or humorous feeling in the reader, but overuse it and you risk making your prose sound cutesy or gimmicky.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” – Vladamir Nabokov, Lolita

3. The Sound of Certain Letters

As an extension of both of these devices, as you pay attention to the sound of language you may begin to notice that different letters have different sonic characteristics, which can illicit various sensations in the reader. This can be true of vowels, consonants, and any combinations thereof, but I think it’s particularly interesting to study the characteristics of different consonant families.

For example, breathy “s” and “f” sounds, which are known as “fricatives,” often have a light, sensual, or even ghostly effect when strung together – probably because they are technically “noiseless,” relying only on controlling the flow of air out of the mouth.

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.” – James Joyce, The Dead.

By contrast, consonants that fall into the “stop” category have the opposite effect – they’re emphatic, wakeful, and even jarring. They do the opposite of what fricatives do, which is to abruptly interrupt the flow of air out of the mouth. “Labial stops” (“b” and “p”), which are made by interrupting the flow of air with the lips, have an explosive and even slightly silly sound when alliterated; hard “velar stops” (“k” and “g”), which are made at the back of the tongue, often sound slightly aggressive when strung together.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Go to the garden and get that crazy cat away from the rose bushes!

So there you have it – a few of the myriad ways that the sound of language can be used to enhance the “feel” of your writing. If you’re really fascinated by this stuff you should read more poetry and maybe pick up this book, because again, while these devices are widely used in prose, they tend to be much more pronounced in poetry.

Stay tuned until next time when we talk about rhythm, and please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions, or even some of your own examples in the comments!

– By Tania Strauss

Image Credit: Flickr, San Francisco Foghorn

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