Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Three Fun Literary Devices to Make Your Prose Sing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin, who writes some of the best dialogue in the business. If you’re a fan of The West Wing, you’ve seen a particular trio of literary devices used in almost every speech President Bartlett gives. Heck, you’ve heard these in almost every speech anyone has ever given.

Anaphora, epistrophe, and symploce.

What are they? (besides loads of fun):

Anaphora: The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. The most famous example is probably Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
The repetition here gets you thinking about the contrasts and contradictions of the situation and suggests that things aren’t as simple as they appear. You read on anticipating that things will not be what they seem, and there will likely be two sides to every story. The device creates anticipation for the reader, which sets up the story without you having to spell it out.

Epistrophe: The repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses. And to prove literary devices don’t have to only apply to literature…
I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! 
The repetition here emphasizes an idea (screaming for ice cream) and can work to get readers on board with that idea. You hear something often enough and you start to believe it. Another example here would be Shakespeare's famous speech from Julius Caesar. "But Brutus is an honorable man..." Think about how often those words are said, and what Antony is trying to make his audience believe.

Symploce: The combination of anaphora and epistrophe—the repetition of words or phrases at both the beginning and end of successive clauses. A good example here is Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice.
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The repetition here connects the speaker with the reader, forcing them to put themselves in Shylocks’s shoes. It draws comparisons and gets readers thinking about what’s not being said here. You think you’re different from me, but are you really?

(Here's more on creating a strong rhythm in your prose)

To see a strong example of all of this in action, let’s take a peek at one of my favorite speeches from The West Wing (video at the end for those who want to hear it. The last bit is a special treat just for us writers, one writer talking to another):
More than any time in recent history, America's destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek, nor did we provoke, an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people's strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive.

Forty-four people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men's team were killed and two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire.

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.

If you can read/watch that without tearing up, you’re a tougher person than I. The sheer beauty of the words reaches into you and drags the emotion out. It puts you in the shoes of those who risked all to help others. It makes you think about what you would do and how you fit into this greater idea of American Heroes.

Let’s look closer at the specific areas that use these devices and why they work so well:
We did not seek, nor did we provoke, an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil.
The lyrical quality of this is soothing, yet the ideas are harsh, and the contrast plays off each other magnificently. “Assault on our freedom, confrontation with evil”—strong terms balanced by the poetic “we did not seek…we did not expect…” introductions. It’s just not the same if you write it like:
We didn’t seek or provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We never expected, nor did we invite, a confrontation with evil.
It dies. The music, the inspiration, is gone. This version even feels clunky.

The repetition can also be used to emphasize and make a point. Though it doesn’t show here, there’s actually a pause between “out” and “ran” in the speech that gives it even more oomph.
…they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran into the fire.
The pause and repetition invites you to think for a moment what this means. People put themselves in harm's way and risked death to save others. The truth of it stands out without banging you over the head with it. The subtly of what’s not said is what speaks volumes.
The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels…
What a beautiful way to say people died. Good people, heroes, those who ran into the fire to save others. It not only reads well here, it draws back to those earlier emotions and layers them on top of the idea that people are dead. We know why the streets of heaven are crowded. The repetition of our our our reminds us that we’re all in this together. This tragedy did not happen to strangers, but to us.
This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.
Again, the subtly here is what makes this sing. We’ve already seen what is hard and what is great, and this calls back on all the emotions already stirred by the previous statements (and I’m not even counting the other text in this speech that goes into more details). It ends with punch and a sense of hope, and even better, it’s active. Not we will reach for the stars, but we reach.

Not every novel is going to have an opportunity for an amazing speech, but when we look at how the cadence of our words hits a reader’s ear, we can turn our prose for stating information to evoking emotion. We can emphasize without being obvious. We can establish ideas we want readers to remember. We can connect those ideas and show relationships between concepts.

(Here's more on how word rhythm affects writing) 

Instead of saying the water dripped onto the porch, maybe it dripped, dripped, dripped. Perhaps an internal struggle by the protagonist is a little more poetic. Our descriptions might benefit from a repeated phrase at the right time for a strong emotional impact.

While we don’t want to repeat things for the sake of repeating them, there are times where a passage can gain emotional weight by hearing the same thing more than once.

I’ll leave you with this, from the same episode:

MALLORY: Nice job on the speech.

SAM: What makes you think I wrote it?

MALLORY: "We did not seek nor did we provoke..." "We did not expect nor did we invite..."

SAM: A little thing called cadence.

MALLORY: It works for you.

It works for all of us.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. The King James BIBLE is the major source of these literary devices for many writers, and one of the reasons that they permeate great Southern literature like the works of Faulkner and the speeches of ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr.

  2. Thank you so much for this valuable post! Now I understand what made some of my writing sound so smooth and some of it awfully clunky. I'm definitely taking a look back at your other posts on rhythm.

    1. Glad this made a few light bulbs go off :)

  3. Nice. More than nice. Even greater than nice! I don't think I nailed it…but I tried. Interesting comment, Marilynn. Do believe you're right.

  4. I've never watched that show, but I did tear up at reading that speech. Especially loved the part about angels. What a poetic way to describe death.

    1. It's a brilliant show, and that episode is one of the best.

  5. This speech is so inspirational!I actually favorited the video,because it helps me with what I'm going through lately.I've set a challenge for myself and there are times that I second guess myself.The speech made me emotional not only because these beautiful words made me feel what the speaker wanted me to feel but it also meant sth to me on a more personal level.We need to remember that readers may not relate to the external circumstances of a character's life,but they will relate to his personal journey.We all feel the same emotions and what makes us different is our choices.Each word has power.

  6. Catching up on my mail and just had to comment. Thanks for sharing this cool clip. I adore my copy of Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric. I bought it for myself 2 Christmases ago because I knew no one else would buy it for me. Yeah. I'm that kind of grammar geek. Thanks again.