Friday, September 20, 2019

Power Up Your Prose with Rhetorical Devices

By Suzanne Purvis

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Literary devices add zing to your prose, and give you tools to make literary magic. Suzanne Purvis visits the lecture hall again, to share some tips and thoughts on rhetorical devices. 

Suzanne Purvis is a transplanted Canadian living in the Deep South, where she traded “eh” for “y’all.” An author of long, short, flash fiction, and poetry for both children and adults, she has won several awards including those sponsored by the University of Toronto, RWA, Bethlehem Writers, and Women Who Write. You can find her work in print anthologies, magazines, ezines, and ebooks.

She leads workshops at Lawson Writer’s Academy and for Romance Writers of America, including her popular Sizzling, Scintillating Synopsis, Potent Pitches and Brilliant Blurbs, Revision Boot Camp and now she’s honored to be teaching Margie Lawson’s Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices and More class.

Her next class begins October 1st Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices, and More.

Website | Facebook | Goodreads

Take it away Suzanne…

According to the dictionary a rhetorical device is a use of language that creates literary effect.

WAIT! Before your eyes glaze over or you close out the blog, I’m here to tell you, rhetorical devices are not just for poetry or literary work.

In fact, many genre writers use these devices to power up their prose. These devices work in picture books, middle grade, young adult, mystery, romance, horror, paranormal, suspense, well, you get the idea. They work in any genre. And they have the capability of making your writing stronger.

You’re probably already using some rhetorical devices in your writing.

You probably will recognize some, not by their squirrelly-sounding Latin names, but because you’ve read powerful prose using these devices.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s explore a few rhetorical devices, see if you recognize these devices and see how they power up the prose with examples.

The first simple, easy rhetorical device which you’re likely already using is alliteration.

ALLITERATION: repetition of the same beginning consonant of a word within a phrase or sentence.

For the title of this blog, I used alliteration. Power Up Your Prose

You’ll see many titles use alliteration for strength and effect.

Here’s an example of alliteration from Rob Buyea’s Because of Mr. Terupt.
“The first day of school. I was nervous. Somewhat. The sweaty-palms-and-dry-mouth syndrome struck. This wasn’t surprising--after all, I was coming to a brand-new place.
Repetition of S: school, somewhat, sweaty-palm. . ., syndrome struck, surprising.

Here’s an example of alliteration from the middle grade book How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen.
Since Saturday, I’ve fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and reamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling.
Repetition of S: Since, Saturday, Sergio, straight.

In Allen’s example, you may also recognize the rhetorical device of a simile. Remember from high school?

SIMILE: a comparison using like or as.

In the above example Crystal Allen used . . . mashed him like potatoes. Which fits her main character, Lamar and adds humor.

Here’s another fun simile from A Man Called One, by Fredrik Backman
Ove stomped forward. The cat stood up. Ove stopped. They stood there measuring up to each other for a few moments, like two potential troublemakers in a small-town bar.
Another rhetorical device. . .

ASSONANCE: repetition of vowel sounds within a sentence or paragraph.

Here’s a continuation of Lamar’s paragraph from How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen
People call Wednesday “hump day,” but for Sergio it’s “kicked-in-the-rump day.” I’m his daddy now, the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler ever.”
In this example the words using assonance actually rhyme, but that’s not always necessary.

hump and rump, maddest and baddest.

So in Crystal Allen’s one paragraph she used three rhetorical devices and she definitely powered up the prose. Here it is again.
Since Saturday, I’ve fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and reamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling. And it’s just the middle of the week. People call Wednesday “hump day,” but for Sergio it’s “kicked-in-the-rump day.” I’m his daddy now, the maddest, baddest, most spectacular bowler ever.
This example shows strong writing, strong prose, and a strong character voice.

Another easy to spot rhetorical device which I just used above is . . .

ANAPHORA: repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three or four (or more) successive clauses or sentences.

I told you the names of the devices were squirrelly. But forget the names look at these wonderful examples.

Harlan Coben, No Second Chance
I know that I lost a lot of blood. I know that a second bullet skimmed the top of my head, though I was probably already out by then. I know that my heart stopped.
He began each sentence with the phrase I know. . .

Here’s another Harlan Coben’s example from the same book, first chapter:
I remembered waking up that morning, getting dressed. I remembered looking in on Tara. I remembered turning the knob on her black-n-white mobile . . .
Using rhetorical devices often gives a rhythm and flow to the prose.

The repetition of anaphora also sticks in a reader’s mind and they subconsciously think this paragraph is important.

Here’s another example of anaphora from brilliant YA writer John Green. The main character, Quentin Jacobsen, has spotted his neighbor Margo at her locker.

Paper Towns by John Green
I elbowed him in the ribs, but I was still thinking about Margo, because she was the only legend who lived next door to me. Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose six-syllable name was often spoken in its entirety with a kind of quiet reverence. Margo Roth Spiegelman, whose stories of epic adventures would blow through school like a summer storm: an old guy living in a broken-down house in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, taught Margo how to play the guitar. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who spent three days traveling with the circus--they thought she had potential on the trapeze. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who drank a cup of herbal tea with the Mallionaires backstage after a concert in St. Louis while they drank whiskey. Margo Roth Spiegelman, who got into that concert by telling the bouncer she was the bassist’s girlfriend, and didn’t they recognize her, and come on guys seriously, my name is Margo Roth Spiegelman and if you go back there and ask the bassist to take one look at me, he will tell you that I either am his girlfriend or he wishes I was, and then the bouncer did so, and then the bassist said “yeah that’s my girlfriend let her in the show,” and then later the bassist wanted to hook up with her and she rejected the bassist from the Mallionaires.
This is the first chapter of the book. The reader knows Margo Roth Spiegelman is going to be an important character and she’s important to the main character, Quentin.

Here’s one more short anaphora example.

Suzanne Purvis
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Drive Time
Millie nods, and I follow her into the study. But my search turns up nothing. No diary. No ledger. No file of incriminating letters.
This is just a tiny taste of the amazing rhetorical devices that are available to us as writers. In my upcoming Margie Lawson class Deep Editing, Rhetorical Devices and More. You’ll be treated to many, many more and an array of exciting examples. Hope you’ll join me.

Did you notice my use of alliteration. :-)


  1. This tiny taste has me super stoked for the October class. I'm as eager as a beaver with a box of matchsticks. That made no sense but I like the way it sounds!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I can't wait to have an eager beaver in class. :-)

  2. Thanks so much for having me on the blog today. Always a pleasure to be here.

    1. You're most welcome. Good to have you back :) You always share great info.

  3. I love how RDs can shine a light on just about anything you want. So powerful. Suzanne’s expert teaching of Margie’s courses is golden.

  4. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. And you're so right rhetorical devices are powerful.

  5. This is terrific. Thanks for the good suggestions and for having such excellent examples.