Strengthen Your Writing with Rhetorical Devices

by Jami Gold on June 30, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Crop stems in winter snow with text: Rhetorical Devices: Turning Language into Emotions

Some in the literary community assume that genre writers don’t care about the deeper aspects of writing craft. While it’s true that literary fiction is more well-known for its use of figurative and lyrical language, genre fiction can use the same literary tools.

Now, if you’re anything like me, and your English or grammar instruction was less than ideal, you might not be familiar with the term rhetorical devices. I certainly wasn’t.

When I first heard the term, I assumed it had something to do with arguing or making a point, like a rhetorical question. Eh, in a way, I wasn’t too far off. But once I did learn about them, I quickly became aware of how using rhetorical devices can strengthen our writing—even if we’re writing genre stories. *grin*

What Are Rhetorical Devices?

Rhetorical devices are simply ways to use language to affect our audience. We probably use several of these methods without realizing there are other similar tools sitting right alongside them in the literary toolbox.

Common rhetorical devices include:

  • Similes: Comparing two things using the words like or as:
    “Her smile was as warm as a summer day.”
  • Metaphors: Comparing two things without using like or as:
    “Her eyes were ocean-deep.”
  • Alliteration: Using words with similar beginning sounds close together:
    “Her heart hammered.”
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that imitate the sound they describe, such as: splash, plop, sploosh, whiz, etc.

Why Should We Care?

It’s good to be aware of the rhetorical devices that crop up in fiction writing so we can write more purposefully. Lazy, un-purposeful writing is more likely to be filled with clichés and sit limply on the page.

All of those examples above are methods for using language for a purpose. Obviously, we’re comparing, creating tongue-twisters, or making funny sounds. But we can have a greater purpose in mind with those techniques too.

Purposeful writing can add more emotion to our descriptions, rhythm to our sentences, and faster pacing to our paragraphs. In short, purposeful writing is stronger.

If we weren’t aware of a rhetorical device like alliteration, we might create a tongue-twister in our writing accidentally. Many readers “hear” the words they read in their head, so an unintended tongue-twister could pull readers out of the story while they chuckle over the collision of words.

Similarly, similes and metaphors tend to emphasize concepts, as they make readers think through the comparison. If we weren’t aware of the purpose of the technique, we might emphasize a concept that didn’t need emphasis. (Or we might create a bad comparison, like one of those “worst similes and metaphors from high school students” articles. *snicker*)

So the more rhetorical devices we know, the better we can use them when we want to strengthen our writing. And the better we can avoid using them when they’re a bad match for our purpose.

What Do We Mean by Purpose?

Above, I alluded to a big reason—or purpose—for why we might use rhetorical devices. Many devices provide a way to emphasize an aspect of our writing.

The more words we use on a concept, the more we’re telling the reader that the concept is important. So similes and metaphors emphasize a concept because the comparison adds more words to the description.

For example, in romance stories, authors often use similes or metaphors when describing the hero or heroine to emphasize how appealing, interesting, or attractive they are to the other party. At the same time, those authors wouldn’t use the technique when describing a secondary character. Why? In a romance, no one cares if the protagonist’s best friend‘s eyes are like pools of clear-blue water. *grin*

Similarly, other purposes will have their time and place for when they’ll help our writing—or when they’ll hurt it. Let’s take a look at some of the other purposes, as well as a few examples of what rhetorical devices could help us with that purpose…

Four Reasons to Use Rhetorical Devices

Purpose #1: To Add Emphasis

We can emphasize a concept in our story by using more words, making our words more memorable or interesting, or by repeating words. In addition to analogies like similes and metaphors, we can emphasize with:

  • Amplification: Repeating a word or phrase within a sentence while adding more detail:
    “Love—true love—is what brings us together today.”
  • Epizeuxis: Repeating one word to make it more important:
    “Our day at the beach was fun, fun, fun.”
  • Rhetorical Questions: Asking a question where an answer isn’t expected:
    Why would an innocent visitor leave a trail of blood?”
  • Hypophora: Asking a question and immediately answering it:
    Why had she agreed to go along with the plan? Oh yeah, because she was an idiot.”
  • Polysyndeton: Adding more conjunctions than necessary, dragging out a list:
    “The girl argued and quarreled and whined and begged, but nothing changed her parents’ minds.”
  • Asyndeton: Omitting conjunctions to create an emotion:
    “The dark skies filled her with despair, with longing, with loneliness.”
  • Commoratio: Repeating an idea with different words:
    “She was doomed. Finished. Dead.”
  • Litotes: Describing what something isn’t to imply what it is:
    “She eyed him from across the room. Yeah, he wasn’t hard to ogle.”

Purpose #2: To Create Rhythm

We can make our voice stronger by paying attention to the rhythm of our words:

“Rhythmic writing is simply about the way the words come together—syllables, punctuation, sentence length, hard or soft sounds, etc.—to create a sense of a beat.”

Rhythmic prose can be more lyrical, driving, or smooth, all while helping connect readers to emotions in our writing. These techniques also emphasize a concept in our writing as well.

  • Anaphora: Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more phrases or sentences in a row:
    He’d never believe her. He’d never trust her. He’d never love her again.”
  • Epistrophe: The opposite of anaphora, repeating the end of phrase:
    “She would die. He would die. They’d all die.”
  • Anadiplosis: Repeating the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next, as exemplified by Yoda:
    “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Purpose #3: To Add Humor

Many rhetorical devices allow us to add touches of humor to our writing without going for straight comedy. Alliteration could be used for humorous purposes, and we can also add humor with:

  • Hyperbole: Using an exaggeration:
    “She’d hated the rule from the first million times she’d heard it.”
  • Understatement: The opposite of hyperbole:
    “He fell backward from the impact of the bullet, the projectile shredding and tearing through his body. That’s going to leave a mark.
  • Antonomasia: Using a description as a proper name:
    “Nothing but the best would be good enough for Mr. Stuck-on-Himself.”
  • Pleonasm: Using more words than necessary:
    “She was absolutely, positively, never, never, never going to admit that he’d been right.”
  • Tmesis: Splitting a word and adding another word in the middle:
    “Abso-friggin-lutely.”
  • Distinctio: Giving a further definition of a word in a following phrase:
    “I will never agree to this plan, and by ‘never,’ I mean not in a million years.”
  • Antiphrasis: Using a one-word paradox for irony:
    “While the yard was sweltering in the sun, it was a cool 112 degrees in the shade.”
  • Zeugma: Using an out-of-sync phrase for the last item of a list:
    “Before meeting up with her boss, she grabbed her project list, her accomplishments list, and her big-girl panties.”

Purpose #4: To Add Clarity

Genre authors often choose clarity over figurative language that might be a confusing speed bump to readers, but some rhetorical devices help with that issue while also strengthening our voice, slipping in more information (without an info dump), and/or adding sensory information (such as with onomatopoeia words):

  • Appositive: Using a noun or noun phrase to further describe a noun:
    “Cindy, his always-had-to-be-right sister, pointed out the obvious problem.”
  • Parallelism: Using similarly structured phrases to make the grammar of a long sentence or idea easier to parse:
    “She drove to the store, found the ingredients, and baked his cake.” (Each item in the list is a verb/noun combination.)

Want More?

Once we discover rhetorical devices, we might have fun learning about more types to expand our toolbox. We might have a character who turns nouns into verbs (antimeria—”The snowsuit-clad boy turtled across the yard.”). Or a character who interrupts themselves (anacoluthon—”Throw the ball, throw the ball—squirrel!”).

Here are a few links to more information about rhetorical devices:

We can add depth to our writing with these techniques in countless ways. In a deep point-of-view story, the analogies a character comes up with should be unique to them and reflect their experience. A rural artist will think of different similes and metaphors from an urban teacher.

The devices we use might be specific to a character not only because of their voice, but also because of the subtext we want to convey. Some devices will slow down our pacing and some will add tension, speeding up our story’s pace.

Some devices will fit better with certain genres and not as well with others. But a story without any rhetorical devices at all will likely feel more simplistic, just because the use of language will come across closer to “See Spot run” than nuanced and interesting.

Obviously, we also have to be careful to not overdo any of these techniques. (I have to cut several anaphora examples from every story because it’s my favorite technique.) But with knowledge and practice and a strong voice, we can make these devices part of how we write—and how we keep readers’ interest. *smile*

Are you familiar with the concept of rhetorical devices? Have you used any beyond the common ones? If you haven’t, does this post give you ideas for how to use them? What are your favorite rhetorical devices? Can you think of other purposes for why we might use a rhetorical device?

P.S. Don’t miss my 6th Blogiversary Contest!

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21 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Martin Ekert June 30, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Probably the best email from an author I’ve ever read.
So instructive and fascinating, without adding the usual waffle that other authors send out.
I learned so much from one single email, and will definitely save it for future reference.
Thanks so much Jami… I really appreciate the effort and your dedication to the craft.
Regards
Martin

Reply

Jami Gold June 30, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Hi Martin,

Aww, thanks! It’s not a topic I’ve seen many cover before, so I had a lot of fun exploring the possibilities. 🙂 Thanks for the blush-worthy comment!

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Glynis Jolly June 30, 2016 at 5:11 pm

I try to stay away from Similes and Metaphors because what I usually write would be clichés. However, you list all sorts of other way to manipulate phases and sentences here. Thank you.

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Jami Gold June 30, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Hi Glynis,

I understand, and that’s why I specified that any comparisons should be unique to our character’s point of view. 🙂

We can think about their experiences from several different perspectives to brainstorm how they’d think. For example:

  • their childhood/family history (Did their parents’ careers influence their thought processes? Did they grow up in day care or with a nanny? Etc.)
  • their education
  • where they live now
  • their career
  • their social class
  • their circle of friends

Our rural artist might compare something to their artist’s tools or how tricky it is to get something right. Or maybe, if they grew up on a farm, they might compare something to farm life. Etc., etc.

Finding turns of phrase specific to a character is one of my favorite things for some reason. 🙂 Hope that helps, and thanks for the comment!

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Iola June 30, 2016 at 10:30 pm

I’ve done Margie Lawson’s online class on rhetorical devices, which was great (I’m another anaphora addict), but you’ve added some she didn’t cover. And that link with 50 … I’m about to be in rhetorical heaven.

Thank you!

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Jami Gold July 1, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Hi Iola,

Yes, I have her Deep Editing class (which might have been where I first heard about rhetorical devices 🙂 ), but I hadn’t studied them in depth until I prepared this post, so I learned a lot while writing this. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Christina Hawthorne July 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Ha, ha, ha. Great post. I know these work because your examples were such a hoot to read. Great fun. What was astounding is how I’ve used almost all of these at one time or another and had no idea 90% of them had formal names. H’m. Does that make me a genius or an idiot? Apparently it’s a fine line.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2016 at 3:18 pm

Hi Christina,

LOL! Yes, this post took me forever to write because I was not only learning about some of these while researching this post (I learn right along with all of you!), but I was also having to come up with those examples. 😉

For your question, as with many things writing, we can often know things on an instinctual level (such as plots, character arcs, and beats), but bringing that knowledge into consciousness helps us strengthen our writing. Awareness helps us ensure that we’re emphasizing the right things to the right level and reminds us of all the tools we possess, etc. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Christina Hawthorne July 2, 2016 at 9:28 am

Awareness. Excellent point. You’re right. Thanks.

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Serena Yung July 2, 2016 at 3:46 am

Hmm, well, even though I was an English major and had to learn a bunch of terms, I’ve come to not think about what type of rhetorical device something is (unless it’s something as obvious as a simile). Instead, I would think about specific examples or specific patterns. When reading books, I might feel that a certain sentence structure the author used is very appealing, and I think that I might want to try that structure in my story. E.g. “James had followed him around like a lamb, hanging on his every word and admiring his swiftness and strength and cleverness.” (From Unnatural by Joanna Chambers, a gay romance I really enjoyed!) In my stories, I tend to avoid the “…and…and…and” kind of phrase, as I’m usually more comfortable saying “his swiftness, strength, and cleverness”. Yet, I felt that this phrase in Unnatural was so nice, that I’m willing to give this type of sentence a try sometime. But I didn’t know a precise name for this rhetorical device; I just remembered how this kind of sentence structure looks like.

Another sentence that caught my eye recently, was “I’m not sure why it surprised me when he left–I’d been reminding him for the last twenty-four hours that we weren’t friends, kisses notwithstanding.” (This quote is a major spoiler, so I won’t say which book this came from, haha.) I don’t know why, but I really liked the “…., kisses notwithstanding” phrase, lol. In general, this structure “…., X notwithstanding” sounds nice. I have no idea what to call this phrase structure, but again, it’s in my mind and I’d like to use it sometime in the future.

Nonetheless, I of course have nothing against knowing the names of various rhetorical devices, especially as it would be easier to talk about them if we know what to call them. But for someone like me who used to be obsessed with learning literary terms without actually applying them much, I think it’s more helpful for me to remember specific examples of sentences rather than to memorize lists of terms in an abstract way. It’s like how I find it more effective to remember the precise sentence and context in which a new word was used, rather than to simply note down the new word and writing down its definition, when we’re trying to increase our vocabulary (especially for a non-first language.) It might be a better method for me because it’s easier to see how to apply the new sentence structure to my own writing if I remember an example from a book I love. This might be related to that phenomenon in psychology where it’s easier to recall something learned in context, especially if it’s charged with emotion (i.e. my fanatic adoration of the book or character who said the quote.) But I’m not saying all this to be contrary, though, haha. Just saying that this method of remembering beloved example sentences works better for me personally than remembering the abstract terms and their definitions. (But there’s nothing wrong with learning both the specific sentence AND the term, of course, lol.)

Reply

Jami Gold July 2, 2016 at 11:26 am

Hi Serena,

I have no memory for the names either. LOL! I can sometimes remember anaphora, just because that’s my favorite. 🙂

My point with this post is not to have people memorize the names–I included them only so people could look them up to find more examples. 😉 But as I mentioned to Christina above, I think making ourselves consciously aware of these techniques (even if that just means knowing they exist) will help us bring them out in our writing more. So…I agree! LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 4, 2016 at 6:03 am

Haha yeah! Just to clarify for anyone else reading this, I’m not against memorizing these terms–I’m such a nerd after all, why would I oppose it? Just that it might help some of us to remember a device in a specific context too, not just memorize them without thinking about applications like I did when I was younger, lol. Sorry for my slow response rate —still resting my eyes as much as possible!

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Jami Gold July 4, 2016 at 10:41 am

Hi Serena,

No worries! With my vision issues, I’ve had to rest my eyes a lot too. They’ve been better the last month or so because my day-job schedule has been better, but that schedule is going to get worse again at the end of this month. *sigh* Take care of yourself, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep!

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Serena Yung July 9, 2016 at 8:32 am

Thanks! Yeah, we both need to rest our eyes whenever possible. :O Even though it’s admittedly a lot easier said than done!

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Mary Louise Sanchez July 2, 2016 at 8:14 pm

I will be looking these terms and examples often! Thank you.

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Jami Gold July 2, 2016 at 11:54 pm

Hi Mary Louise,

You’re welcome! I hope they’re helpful for you. 🙂

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Carradee July 4, 2016 at 10:21 am

These tactics aren’t just useful—they’re fun! 😀

I enjoy them both as a writer and as an editor. That’s actually gotten me in trouble, with some publishers I’ve worked with, whose party line was that things like epizeuxis, polysyndeton, asyndeton, anaphora, and pleonasm are “poor writing”. :-/

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Jami Gold July 4, 2016 at 10:59 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Agreed–they are fun! And any editor who can’t pick out the difference between a poor use of the tool (such as when I go overboard with anaphora–LOL!) and a poor impression of the tool itself needs a serious case of side-eye (as one of my editors would say). 🙂 Thanks for chiming in from the editor side of things!

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Sophie July 11, 2016 at 11:33 pm

Ooh, interesting article~ Knowing the names and description of these different rhetorical devices made me realise I use a few of these without even thinking about it. These definitely sound useful, Jami!

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Jami Gold July 12, 2016 at 8:49 am

Hi Sophie,

Exactly! Knowing more can help us use them better too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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