In my day job, I’m a college English professor, which means I get to read lots of student essays. Frequently, students will ask me what they can do to write better–how they can push an essay from a B+ to an A-. Students at this level are already pretty good writers. They understand paragraphing and structure–but what their writing often lacks is a distinctive style. The same is often true of creative writers.
Style is not the same thing as voice, though the two are related: where style comes from the arrangement of sentences and paragraphs, I think of voice as that thing that emerges when you cross style with a particular point of view. So an author might have a writing style that crosses several books, each book might have a distinctive voice because of the character perspective. (This Writing Excuses Q&A tackles this a bit.)
One of my favorite exercises for style is the rhetorical exercise Imitatio, where students take passages from different writers and try to write a passage of their own that mimics the style of the original. But that’s not really what I want to talk about here.
Today, I want to talk about how mastering a few rhetorical devices can help you add power to your writing style. (Some of you may want to argue that these are in fact literary devices–but as someone with a PhD in English/rhetoric, I promise that literary studies borrowed them from rhetoric. :))
Most people are familiar with metaphors from high school English classes–a direct comparison between two objects. But metaphors, used consciously, can do more than add a pretty image to your words. Metaphors can shape the way we think (consider the difference between “a war on drugs” and drugs as “an epidemic”)–and they can craft a powerful emotion and mood in a scene.
Maggie Stiefvater is an expert at this. Consider this passage from The Scorpio Races:
The Scorpio drums pound a ragged heartbeat as I wind my way through the crowds that fill the streets of Skarmouth. The cold air smarts as I breathe it in; the wind carries all sorts of foreign scents. Food that’s only made during the race season. Perfume only women from the mainland wear. Hot pitch, burning rubbish, beer spilled on the stones. This Skarmouth is raw and hungry, striving and unknowable. Everything the races make me feel on the inside is bleeding up through the seams in the street tonight.
Here, Stiefvater uses metaphor as well as personification (giving an inanimate thing living qualities) to convey a mood for Skarmouth–a familiar village turned hungry and dangerous and presaging the dangerous, bloody races that follow.
Parallelism and Climax
These two rhetorical figures often go together: parallelism means using a similar structure or arrangement of sentences and clauses; climax often uses parallel sentences of increasing importance to build to a powerful point (or punchline).
Take, for example, this passage from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride
Clearly, something about the farm boy had interested [the Countess]. But what? The farm boy had eyes like the sea before a storm, but who cared about eyes? And he had pale blond hair, if you liked that sort of thing. And he was broad enough in the shoulders, but not all that much broader than the Count. And certainly he was muscular, but anybody would be muscular who slaved all day. And his skin was perfect and tan, but that came again from slaving; in the sun all day, who wouldn’t be? And he wasn’t that much taller than the Count either, although his stomach was flatter, but that was because the farm boy was younger.
Buttercup sat up in bed. It must be his teeth.
The parallel structure–the list of characteristics followed by a dismissal–sets up a familiar pattern and expectation for readers, so that when Goldman violates that expectation, it drives the point (and the humor) home even harder.
Here’s an example of how parallelism and climax can make an emotional point, rather than a comic one, from Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars
Think of the sound you make when you let go after holding your breath for a very, very long time. Think of the gladdest sounds you know: the sound of dawn on the first day of spring break, the sound of a bottle of Coke opening, the sound of a crowd cheering in your ears because you’re coming down to the last part of a race—and you’re ahead. Think of the sound of water over stones in a cold stream, and the sound of wind through green trees on a late May afternoon in Central Park. Think of the sound of a bus coming into the station carrying someone you love.
Then put those together.
And they would be nothing compared to the sound that Mrs. Baker made that day from somewhere deep inside that had almost given up, when she heard the first line of that telegram.
Schmidt also uses anaphora, or the repetition of initial sounds, to reinforce the parallel structure. It’s that repetition, followed by a break in repetition, that makes the final, climactic item so powerful.
A chiasmus is a rhetorical device that relies on the repetition of key ideas in inverse order: ABC followed by CBA. Typically, the most important idea comes at the center of that chiasmus.
This one comes from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts, all men are created equal.
If you look closely at the passage, you’ll find the paragraph is bracketed by the repeated idea that there’s one human institution where all people are equal. And at the center of the passage? “That institution . . . is a court.” The chiasmus helps underscore the main idea and give it power. Lee could have simply led Atticus Finch say, “the courts make everyone equal,” but by adding the chiasmus, his speech takes on additional weight.
Antithesis is the figure perhaps most beloved by President John F. Kennedy (“Let us never fear to negotiate. But let us never negotiate out of fear.”)–the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas, where the juxtaposition gives both resonance and makes them more memorable.
This passage comes from C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, where a priest is trying to explain to the king how true worship differs from the king’s rather shallow conception of it.
I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.
Though the priest could have said simply that the gods are mysterious and unknowable, instead he juxtaposes contrasting ideas (clear and thin; thick and dark) to convey the mystery instead of telling listeners.
Of course, there are lots more rhetorical tropes and figures–if you want a more comprehensive list of devices (including alliteration and other familiar devices), check out The Forest of Rhetoric.
What is your favorite rhetorical device? What tricks have you found for enhancing your writing style? What do you struggle with most in developing a style?
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.