The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Enhancing Style with Rhetorical Devices

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.

The Truth About Writer’s Block

I’ve heard people say that claiming you have writer’s block is akin to a plumber saying he’s got plumber’s block. To me, that comparison is ridiculous.

Plumber's Block - 2
A plumber has the exact same wrenches and other tools he uses every day on the job. He has a clear-cut list of skills he needs and issues he’ll face, and he’ll use the same tools to fix them. Chances are he’d better make use the same fitting he did on a similar job yesterday, or the connection will leak.  Continue reading

13 Tips for Writing Picture Books

Years ago, I judged a local writing contest and had the opportunity to read a large stack of picture book manuscripts. I loved it!

As I read, I saw many of the same problems again and again. (AND I realized my manuscripts had some of the same problems.)

So, I came up with this list of tips for the contestants (and myself!):


picture books


  1. Keep the writing tight. Make sure every word needs to be there. Words not propelling the story forward must be deleted!
  2. Introduce the problem fast, within a few lines, and preferably in the first line.
  3. Give the main character a problem, a BIG problem, something which makes the readers root for them. And make the main character solve it themselves. They need to grow.
  4. Create a story that works with illustrations, that can’t be told without the illustrations. The pictures need to tell part of the story. There’s a big difference between a magazine story and a picture book story. A magazine story describes everything. A picture book shouldn’t. And the words of the picture book, when read without the pictures, should inspire pictures in the mind of the reader.
  5. Make sure your story is actually a picture book, a picture book for children and not something else masquerading as a picture books, such as a story for adults, young adults, middle school kids, or chapter book readers.
  6. Make the problem relevant to your target audience.
  7. The main character needs to be a child or a child-like character.
  8. A great picture book ending is a bit like the punchline to a joke. Make sure it’s satisfying and snappy. Don’t let it drag, but don’t let it end too fast either.
  9. Find a new voice and a new way to tell your story. Make it quirky, unusual, or unique.
  10. Dialogue can make a story more engaging to read aloud. Some stories work without it, but most of my favorite books to read to my kiddos have dialogue. Any excuse to talk in silly voices is always a good thing.
  11. Write a story that, first, entertains, not teaches a message. Yes, many picture books have a message, but the fun story must always come first.
  12. Read, read, read! Read new picture books being published. Be familiar with what modern children and modern publishers are interested in and what kind of stories they like, not what you want them to like. Read picture books to kids. Notice what delights them. Notice what makes them laugh. Notice what keeps their attention. And notice what they want you to read to them again and again and again.
  13. A great resource for learning to write for children is Picture Writing by Anastasia Suen. She’s brilliant at teaching how to use words to create pictures in the minds of your audience.

Some of the Shakespear’s favorite picture books:

Image result for billy twitters and his blue whale problem    Image result for tap the magic tree Image result for pssst by adam rex   Image result for The end picture book  Image result for a visitor for bear   Image result for lullaby with brave cowboy Image result for not a box      Image result for strictly no elephants     Image result for big bigger biggest book   Image result for the doghouse book  Image result for duck on a bike Image result for this is a moose book   Image result for bark, george   Image result for please, mr. panda  Image result for owl babies   Image result for boy and bot   Image result for my friend rabbit book  Image result for i'll wait mr. panda


Erin Shakespear writes silly perinictures books and middle grade fantasy novels full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.


65 Things Writers Love

It’s the month of love! So, with the help of my friends, I made a list of some of the many weird, useful, and surprising things writers love to play with, eat, do, and use while writing.


  1. Space heaters (warmth is a common theme!)
  2. Scrivener

    “Literally have no idea how I ever wrote, let alone edited, without Scrivener!” –Lindzee Armstrong

  3. Hand bound journals
  4. Note cards

“I use them all the time to write ideas on, outline, remember some grand idea (ha!), or to help keep me on track. When back-to-school supplies are on sale, I have to buy some. I also love using the sticky notes that are like 1/3 of the size to use as tabs with a note on it to mark places in books for research.” –Wendy Jesson

  1. Highlighters
  2. Lemon drops
  3. Dove chocolates
  4. Toys and good luck charms

    “I have a figurines of Rey and BB-8 from The Force Awakens watching over my laptop when I work.” –Melanie Bennett Jacobson                                                                                                      thor

  5. Fountain pens
  6. Pilot Frixion pens, extra fine point
  7. Ergonomic keyboards
  8. Slippers

“Slippers are a must. You can’t be creative if your toes are freezing.” –Micheal Bacera

  1. Liquids

Whether it’s Diet Dr. Pepper, Mello Yello, tea, or straight up water, writers need the perfect drink to sip or guzzle.

“My writing needs are simple–beautiful folders, Uniball ink pens, hot tea with cream in a pretty mug and a brilliant idea. I can typically pull off three out of the four” –Vicky Lorencen

  1. New notebooks (Oh! How we love our office supplies.)

” .17 Spiral bound notebooks. Seriously. I leave the store with like ten of them when they’re on sale. I always have a notebook with me.” –Chantele Sedgwick

  1. Smooth writing pens

“I love these extremely specific spiral notebooks that I buy at Barnes and Noble. They are maybe 5-1/2 x 8″, and they have colored edges (red, blue, grey, light green, purple, and real) with lines that match the edge color of the particular page. They are by Miquel Rius and made in Spain. And they have perforations to remove the spiral edge if you pull them out. Covers come in red, blue, black, and purple.I love Pilot Precise V5 RT pens in blue because they write super-smoothly.” –Kelly Ramsdell

  1. Raw almonds

    ” Me, writing: *Need a metaphor, can’t think of one, decide to eat.* Almonds contain the damage.” –Melanie Bennett Jacobson

  2. Ergonomic chairs
  3. The app Self-control to keep ourselves off of social media
  4. Mobile ways to keep track of all our words and ideas

“My current favourite is the voice memo function on my iphone. My ideas come while I’m driving rather than in the shower, so I hit record and talk out loud to myself about plot and character arc ideas, worldbuilding details, etc . . . And sometimes I write whole chapters with my thumbs in my “Notes” app and then email them to myself. This is probably why I get so annoyed when my phone rings . . .” –Kimberly VanderHorst

  1. Cajun trail mix from Walmart
  2. An uncluttered mind

“I also like a clean space. My head is so full of stuff that I like to look down at my laptop and only see it.” –Christine Eller


23.. Silence

“I need silence when I write. Music, people talking, the TV… all of that is SO DISTRACTING that I can’t hear the voices – I mean the characters – in my head.” –Shaela Kay Odd

24. Dark chocolate

25. Skinny Pop popcorn

26. Cardigans

27. Legos


“Dark chocolate and Skinny Pop or the words don’t work. I have an Eddie Bauer “sleep cardigan” that covers my hands and can be wrapped around my body several times. I keep LEGO mini figures on my desk to play with, and often will put together LEGO sets while I think. In the last few months I’ve done the Millenium Falcon and the Mines of Moria. I have a stuffed Moomintroll that I hug, and my dog sleeps under the desk so I can roll her around with my feet.” –Jessica Day George

  1. Goldfish crackers
  2. Chocolate chips
  3. Pajama Pants

“I have to be in pajama pants when I write. My favorites are the men’s lounge pants from Walmart (because POCKETS). I have Captain America, Batman, Superman, and Jack Skellington.

I usually prefer to have a snack nearby. Chocolate chips are a frequent go-to, as well as goldfish crackers, or sometimes potato chips. If I’m feeling heathy it’ll be sliced apples.

I ALWAYS have my water bottle nearby. Cold water helps me focus.

(Last one…) I have to write sitting on the couch. I *can* write other places, but that’s pretty much my spot.” –Darci Cole

  1. Camera

“My camera!! I have a 500mm lens that lets me watch wildlife from afar, and document their behavior with photos. In every season, I lug it with me, hiking, kayaking, sailing. I also use the photos at school visits to talk about descriptive words.” –Tamra Wight

  1. Fuzzy socks
  2. Hoodies
  3. Pellegrino

“I need a hoodie and fuzzy socks. When things aren’t going well in my writing, I can hide under my hood. In the summer – Pellegrino and dark chocolate almonds. In the winter, hot chocolate and trail mix.” –Jolene Perry

  1. Pens

“I’m a pen snob. Nothing is more frustrating than having a creative thought and having nothing with which to record it. My weapon of choice is Papermate blue ink. They never explode, and don’t dry out. These are preferable to chanting in line at the bank, and having everyone wondering if you’re nuts.” –Robin Martin

  1. An empty bladder
  2. Entertainment for wee distractors.

“The only thing I need when I write is a second computer, right beside mine, so my youngest can watch truck shows while I work.” –Bethany Wiggins

“Netflix for my kids. Freedom app to disable my wifi. A trip to the bathroom before I get started. And frequently, chocolate chips.” –LaChelle Hansen

  1. Pencils
  2. Fun sticky notes

“Ticonderoga #2 pencils for first drafts; Pepsi Max; sticky notes with funny sayings; my harmonica of rejection to use when necessary; white out to name a few.” –Linda Boyden

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  1. Hand lotion
  2. Inkjoy pens
  3. Covered knuckles

“A cardi with long sleeves that come down over my knuckles. I like my knuckles to be covered. It’s like I’m about to softly punch the world with knitted knuckles.

And if I can, I love writing under this picture:”


–Sachiko Burton

  1. Motivation

“My favorite writing companion is a contract, so I can be sure I’ll get paid. Unfortunately, that’s not usually with me in the creative process, so I need to content myself with a good cup of coffee.” –Tim Davis

  1. “I love Pinterest. It’s perfect for pulling up pictures that look like what I’m trying to write about, and then I have something that I can look at to write a description.

Recent searches include floating cities, mermaid Tiaras, inflatable space stations, and plunging necklines. Pintrest really delivers.” –Don Carey

  1. Detailed outlines

“I have a printed, extremely detailed outline (50-ish pages) next to me. And I have to have a second monitor where I can display my writing log (an Excel spreadsheet). I also have a credenza on which is displayed my large Lego sets that kids don’t get to take apart. (I know. I’m the dad in The Lego Movie.)” –Robnison Wells

  1. Things to play with when we’re stuck.

“Ecojot notebooks. My laptop. Also, I have an abalone shell full of really smooth pebbles on my desk, and I play with them when I’m stuck.” –Kate Messner

  1. Ambience

“I like to burn a candle while I write–especially at night with all the lights off. I’ve even started making my own candles.” –Julie Daines


  1. Coffee shops, libraries, dark and abandoned corners (aka places we can write without distractions)
  2. Inspirational pictures on the wall

    I like having pictures and other items that inspire me and remind me why I am in my writing space.” –Scott Rhoades


  3. Comfort

“I wear onesie PJs sometimes…and drink Crio Brü like crazy.” –Jo Seable Schaffer

“I have a fuzzy blanket on my lap, sitting in my recliner, and my music playing. Sometimes it’s Piano Guys Pandora station, sometimes Celtic – whatever fits the book mood.” –Jaclyn Weist

“Sweats, with a fleece blanket and the chihuahua on my lap.” –Linda Budzinski

“Bra off and pajamas on.” –Courtney Willis

  1. Cuddly company

“My favorite writing accessory? Cats. Cats. Cats. But not kittens – they keep trying to roll around on the keyboard when I’m writing.” –Hillora Lang

  1. Crunchy snacks
  2. Music

“Extremely inappropriate music for the work in progress. The sweeter the topic, the punk-ier the music. Stupid loud too. I’ll be sorry someday.”—Hayley Barrett

  1. The perfect spot

“I write in the basement on a section of the couch that kicks back with my laptop on my lap, and I turn on a space heater in the winter or I’ve used a heating pad for my back.” –Alice Beesley

“This is going to sound weird, but writing with a standing desk. I write more when standing than when sitting.” –Adrienne Monson Torkildson

  1. Document holder  document-holder

“I have this cool editing stand that elevates the pages and puts them at an angle and has space for pens and other writing implements.” –Susan Law Corpany Curtis

56. Sharpies

57. Scrap paper

58. Silly mugs

59. Mirror

60. Tower fan

61. Reference books

“*Sharpies, highlighters, and scrap paper for the ideas that pop up where they don’t belong

*chocolate covered fruit or cocoa-roasted almonds or wasabi almonds (depending on my writing mood)

*water to refill my Shakespearean insults mug (from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild)

*carefully culled Pandora station of stalker songs (when writing appropriate scenes)

*a handheld mirror for figuring out which muscles do what while experiencing [insert emotion of choice]

*”The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi for when the mirror fails me

*tower fan with remote control so I can turn breezes on (or off) as needed” –Teresa T.L. Bruce

  1. Warm digits.


  1. Inspirational words.

“Writers that I enjoy act as a Muses to me. Before writing I read a few chapters by them and that fuels my desire to produce work of the same inspiring quality.” –Tom Baldwin

  1. Books about writing and creativity

“Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and Poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge are my go to books.” Heather VanHoose Truett

  1. Perseverance

“I used to think I needed certain things and a perfect environment to write. But ever since we moved I do most of my writing in my car while I wait for my kids at some kind of lesson or other. It turns out all I really need is something to type on and a place to sit my butt.” –Elissa Barr

erinErin Shakespear writes silly pictures books and middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. After all, they say, “Write what you know.” And with six kids, her days are full of…quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures.