They breathe life into the dead facts, they give flavor to bland content, they make melodious the monotonous, they make memorable the eminently forgettable.
In short, literary devices can turn the insipid into the inspiring, thus a lazy browser into a lit up reader.
It’s all in the rhythm and the beats and the imagery. The headline and opening two paragraphs employ the following rhetorical devices: parallelism, contrasting pair (antithesis), rhythm of four (tetracolon) and a touch of rhyme. If you cannot identify them all now, you will after reading this post. In fact, you’ll begin to recognise them all around you, in most everything you read and hear from now on.
You can begin by reading or listening to the great speeches of the ages — try Martin Luther King Jr, Winston Churchill, Maya Angelou, Anita Roddick or Barak Obama. They are Olympic champions of composing words that captivate an audience and make them want to pay attention, want to understand, want to believe and want to remember the ideas put forward.
My point is that clear, concise and compelling communication is not just in what you say but how you say it too. It’s that “how factor” that seduces your audience into wanting to buy-in. And when they buy-in, they naturally feel that the choice is their own, not some trick or dupe on your part. Literary intelligence is not exclusive to the Oscar Wildes and Jane Austens of this world.
Now before we get cooking like Maggie Beer and Simon Bryant (The Cook & The Chef), allow me to take us on a short detour into the origin of rhetorical devices. Although you might want to scroll past the next paragraph, it’s well worth reading because it sheds enormous light on the name of the game we’re playing here.
The origin story of literary devices was told to me by one of my CAE Copywriting Masterclass students, a librarian by profession. She explained that a very long time ago, way before the written word, when stories were told by word-of-mouth, storytellers developed ways to remember how the story unfolded (especially when it came to epic tales like The Illiad and The Odyssey). Literary devices were invented to serve this purpose for both the teller and especially the listener who would share it via their social medium of the time — the campfire or town square. The musical dimension of rhetorical devices was a natural by-product since Homer and his contemporaries told their stories accompanied by a lyre (hence the word “lyric”), and so we can safely assume they sung the story — melody being another handy memory device.
So if you’re serious about the craft of writing and story-telling, learn and apply a sprinkling of these literary techniques in your own content. You will add beauty, emphasis, tension and a kind of freedom of thought and expression you may never have imagined before. Who knows, you might even tap into your inner-Wilde and inner-Austen.
But remember that literary devices, like herbs and spices in cooking, are the means to palatable writing, not the endgame. They should not be used excessively; they should not be employed carelessly; and they should not call attention to themselves. You don’t want to come across as a fancy footworker in smarty pants.
While there are approximately sixty literary devices in the writer’s toolkit, I have chosen nine — Alliteration, Allusion, Simile, Metaphor, Parallelism, Tricolon, Tetracolon, Antithesis and Procatalepsis. These are the most common types you’ll find in every day. There are a few more presented in the TedEd video below that’s worth viewing for the sonic ‘n’ hypnotic effect of rhythm and beats and patterns of expression.
But let’s discuss and demonstrate the nine patterns of expression I have chosen for this post:
Parallelism is a recurrent structure using a word or a phrase expressed repeatedly to highlight and add equal weight to ideas in a text. See how it’s used in the opening paragraph of this post:
|They breathe life into the dead facts, they give flavor to bland content, they make melodious the monotonous, they make memorable the eminently forgettable.|
Each of these phrases begin with a recurring word (“they”) plus a verb; and all four phrases are roughly equal in the number of beats (one syllable = one beat). Parallelism is particularly useful in delivering a lot of information. It not only structures and adds emphasis to each idea, it also creates a mental and sonic balance, rhythm and shape that elevates a passage above the white noise of information overload. Here are a few more examples of parallelism you may be familiar with:
|Like father, like son.|
|Easy come, easy go.|
|They seek him here, they seek him there, those damn Frenchies seek him everywhere. |
Then there’s the greatest opening hook of any classical book (in my humble opinion) by Charles Dickens in 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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.|
And the all time classic in parallelism is I Have A Dream by Martin Luther King. As you can see, I have included a link to this half of his speech, although I recommend you read his entire speech; it is a masterclass in rhetorical devices and worth googling. But in this linked extract, you will see how I have a dream structures his entire message of freedom and justice across the length and breadth of the United States of America. You will also see two other remarkable examples of parallelism in the so-called dark arts of advertising by DDB (VW) and Abbott Mead & Vickers (Chivas Regal). In these two examples, you get to see the light arts of persuasive salesmanship.
Antithesis sets up two contrasting ideas by juxtaposing them. Both the first paragraph (life/dead, flavor/bland, melodious/monotonous, memorable/forgettable) and second paragraph of this post use contrasting pairs to telegraph the point that these writerly techniques can transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse:
|In short, rhetorical (literary) devices can turn the insipid into the inspiring, thus a lazy browser into a lit up reader.|
This line contrasts “insipid” with “inspiring” and “lazy browser” with “lit up reader”. The effect is to send the reader in one direction, then in the opposite direction. The result is disarmament, thus letting the idea go in without any resistance.
Dickens used this to powerful effect in his opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities quoted three paragraphs earlier. He combines parallelism with antithesis (what I like to call “contrasting pairs”) — best/ worst; wisdom/foolishness; belief/incredulity; light/darkness; hope/despair.
Neil Armstrong did it when he stepped on to the moon with these words: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind — small/giant; step/leap; man/mankind. You might also notice that the two phrases are also in parallel structure. Here are a few more examples of contrasting pairs out there is the wordiverse:
|Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing. (Goethe)|
|Never turn down a good idea, but never take a bad idea. (David Lynch)|
|All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself. (Shantideva)|
|When they go low, we go high. (Michelle Obama)|
|To Lead people, walk behind them. (Lao Tzu)|
Tricolon is a series of three words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm. In the fourth paragraph of this post, I have used tricolon to unpack and specify in three catchy sound bytes what I mean by quality content — “clear, concise and compelling”:
|… you’ll see that clear, concise and compelling communication is not just in what you say but how you say it too.|
The effect of this rhythm of three is a single, powerful expression that accentuates your point in a pithy and memorable way (and in seven punchy beats). Are you starting to hear the music? Here are some others out there to help you tune in:
|One for the money, two for the show, three get ready, now go cat go. (Carl Perkins)|
|Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?|
|Clear, concise and compelling writing always begins with clear, precise and insightful thinking. (Nicolas Di Tempora)|
|They liked his diffidence when he apologized for the company he kept, his insincerity when he defended the vagaries of his subordinates, his flexibilities when formulating new commitments. (John Le Carre)|
|What if …? Every great discovery in history started with this question. Every great answer came from a desire to improve the world in which we live. And every great outcome took us to a renewed perception of our world. (Copywriting in Action School)|
|Lock, stock and barrel.|
|Power, beauty, and soul. (Aston Martin)|
|Buy it. Sell it. Love it. (Ebay)|
|Thinner, lighter, and faster. (iPad2)|
|Location. Location. Location. (Real Estate)|
Tetracolon is a series of four words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm.The last line of this post’s fourth paragraph does a tetracolon combined with some parallelism (want to):
|… and make them want to pay attention, want to understand, want to believe and want to remember the ideas put forward.|
The effect of this rhythm of four is the same as the tricolon, but with an extra bang for your buck. It drives that final point home and into the garage. But it also adds equal weight to each idea leading to the climactic last.
|How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone! (Bob Dylan)|
|Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat. (Ryszard Kapuscinski)|
|Angry? Frustrated? Depressed? In short, purposeless? (Copywriting in Action School)|
|Part people, part process, part software, and all collaboration is what Building Information Modelling (BIM) is all about. (Copywriting in Action School)|
|Someone who’s walked the walk, talked the talk and made it in the business of succeeding. Someone who’s been a major player and goal-kicker in a public, private or not-for-profit organisation. Someone who’s got a passion to be a mentor. RMIT’s Pride Mentoring Program will match that someone with you. (Copywriting in Action School)|
Allusion is a short, informal reference to a famous person (Einstein), popular culture (VW Commercial featuring a little boy in a Darth Vader costume trying to summon The Force), an historical event (World War 2), Greek mythology (Katniss Everdeen’s character in The Hunger Games archetyping the Ancient Greek goddess, Artemis), a famous quote (Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame), creative work (Dali’s melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory painting) or the Bible (Garden of Eden). In paragraph four, I have compared the speech makers to high achievers we are all familiar with in the most famous sporting event of all — the Olympic Games.
|They are Olympic champions of composing words …|
Allusions can be shorthand for adding emotion or significance to a passage by drawing on the reader’s prior associations with the object. The most effective allusions are based on the fact that there is an accepted knowledge shared by author and reader. I chose the Olympic allusion because I am certain you know exactly what I mean by that. Here are some others that have stimulated the memory and enriched the mind:
|Big Brother — From Orwell’s novel, 1984, it is now shorthand for referring to mass surveillance and abuse of government power.|
|Watergate – Since the infamous 1972 President Nixon scandal, the suffix –gate has been added to many dozens of names to refer to scandals. Here are some from the A–Z list in Wikipedia:|
|15-minutes of fame — from Andy Warhol famous comment that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”|
|Catch 22 — from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 meaning a situation that has no good solution.|
|Achilles Heel – Achilles is the hero of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. He was invulnerable except for his heel. Since then, “Achilles’ heel” has referred to a strong person’s one point of weakness.|
And here’s a short riff on allusions from around the traps:
|Jay Z says he’s the new Sinatra since he made it here and can make it anywhere.|
|Lennon got into trouble for once saying The Beatles were bigger than Christ.|
|The guy thinks he’s Rambo or something.|
|Your emails read like War & Peace.|
|Here is a list of The Usual Suspects.|
Alliteration is a popular poetic technique in which the consonant sound of words are repeated in close succession. In the last line of this post, I drive the point home with a little extra rev on the accelerator to make obvious the consonant “m”:
|… that puts into music many of these amazing rhetoricals for making everyday writing memorable, remarkable and imaginative:)|
This device calls attention to the propositional content in the phrase and fixes it in the reader’s mind. Although alliteration usually happens when the beginning sounds of words repeat, such as:
|Trials and tribulations.|
|Sun, sea and sand.|
|Freedom for your feet.|
|From chaos to clarity to control.|
|Reduce. Re-use. Recycle.|
|Clear, concise and compelling.|
|The daily diary of the American dream (Wall Street Journal)|
|The best four by four by far (Land Rover)|
Alliteration can also works when the end sound of words repeat:
|All Our Exes Live in Texas.|
|Beanz Meanz Heinz.|
And then there’s Martin Luther King Jr again. See how he seamlessly weaves the alliteration into the text so that it’s barely noticeable, and he also employs a contrasting pair:
|I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.|
Analogy comes in two forms: simile and metaphor. While both compare two things which are alike in some way, similes equate ideas and metaphors unite ideas. In paragraph six of this post I have mentioned two Australian celebrity food making connoisseurs. If I was to appeal to my international audience, perhaps I should name Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, but Maggie and Simon’s co-cooking is to die for:
|Now before we get cooking like Maggie Beer and Simon Bryant …|
Similes compare a noun to a noun by the conjunction like; and a verb or phrase to a verb or phrase, by the conjunction as. Here are some examples of both types:
|Ideas came like a string of pearls.|
|It was as black as a moonless night.|
|My heart is like an open highway.|
|How does it feel to be like a rolling stone.|
|He was as cool as a cucumber.|
|And it seems to me you lived your life, Like a candle in the wind.|
|Songs are like elevators between floors of our lives.|
Metaphor, on the other hand, asserts one thing to be another thing. This whole post is based on the metaphor of herbs and spices such that the headline reads:
|Rhetorical Devices: The Writer’s Herbs and Spices.|
I’ve also used metaphor in a paragraph below comparing sparse usage (miso soup) with lavish usage (minestrone) with the added bonus of alliteration without conscious intent. Those happy accidents of rhetorical spins are simply little gifts from heaven. Rejoice and be grateful when they come your way. Here are a few choice metaphors that paint vivid pictures in the mind’s eye:
|All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. (Albert Einstein)|
|Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. (Pablo Picasso)|
|Conscience is a man’s compass. (Vincent Van Gogh)|
|Sport is war minus the shooting. (George Orwell)|
|Marriage is not a house or even a tent. (Margaret Atwood)|
We have five senses. So you can use metaphors to express the taste, smell, sound and feeling of things too:
|TASTE: The party ended on a sour note.|
|SMELL: They were bittersweet memories.|
|SOUND: It was the high note of the evening.|
|FEELING: The weight of the world is on his shoulders. (This also makes an allusion to Atlas.)|
Now don’t get too carried away with these literary devices. Like I said earlier, they are not meant to show how clever you are with words. They are only there to add a little flavour and texture to your writings, just as a chef adds herbs and spices to give their cooking a little mmmm and aaaah. To make sure you don’t turn a miso soup into a minestrone, here are four caveats for using rhetorical devices in your writing:
Now for the the final in this selection of “usual suspects” in daily writing: —
Procatalepsis is different from all the above literary devices because it is something you do, not write. I used it in paragraph six when I sensed you might prefer to skip the origin story in your rush to get to the techniques:
|Although you might want to scroll past this paragraph, it’s well worth reading because …|
It is the act of anticipating an objection or action and addressing it before you move on in your discourse. This permits your argument to continue moving forward while taking into account a reader’s points or reasons for opposing or resisting your proposition. It is as if you were conversing with your reader like they were sitting across the table from you, and listening to what they have to say, and you responding accordingly. Procatalepses simulate the two-way dialogue, and shows your reader that (1) you are aware of their existence (2) have their best interests at heart and (3) there is some kind of reasonable response you can give them to satisfy their doubts, concerns, fears or skepticism. Here are a few expressions that create that kind of connection:
|You might think that this is another marketing ploy but …|
|You may ask …|
|You might wonder …|
|A commonly held perception is that … but …|
|You may already know this fact, but …|
|It may be hard to believe but …|
Here’s a simple rule to let you know when to do the procatalepsis: it’s not just what you put into the write but also what the reader takes out of it that completes the communication (can you tell which rhetorical device is employed here?). The better you know your reader, the more accurately you’ll second-guess their thought or feeling to what you just said in your writing. This extra-sensory reception will inform you of the need to address their reaction.
To wrap up, I’d like to leave you with this mind-blowing video that puts into music many literary devices for making everyday writing memorable, remarkable and imaginative. There’s also my Copywriting in Action Online course that dedicates one of the eight sessions to copywriting with literary devices.