Thursday, April 22

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, April 22, 2010 29 comments
I've been hesitant to blog about this topic, because it's one of those things I hide in my writing, there to be found by those who look for it, but I hope not so jarring that it draws attention to itself. But every once in a while one of my critique partners will come across a passage like this in my work:

Snippets of my life appear between arty shots of hydrant rainbows and sullen subway riders. Wide-eyed child watches a huge Snoopy balloon soar past in the Macy’s parade. Skinny kid with braids pokes puddles in Prospect Park. So-serious teen perches on the Public Library steps and sketches lions.

Then come the blinks and the questions: "what is this, poetry?"

Um, yeah. See, I almost can't help myself. I'm terribly addicted to the sound toys of poets, assonance and consonance. Assonance, for those of you who've avoided lit classes, is a repetition of vowel sounds; consonance, of consonants. Alliteration is sometimes used as a blanket term for both, though it is often applied only to repeated initial sounds. Assonance and consonance are repeated sounds from anywhere in a word--beginning, middle or end.

I've decided to come clean about my addiction because A) it's national poetry month; B) I hope others find poetic devices cool rather than hopelessly nerdy; and C) I believe these devices can make anyone's writing more musical.

The thinking behind sound devices is often onomatopoetic; the sound and meaning are linked. If you want to convey a sense of something sliding, for example, you'd choose hissing, sibilant words containing "s", "sh" and "sw." For example, "In her rush, she slipped sidelong, smearing grease along one sleeve."

Have a character in pain? Choose words with lots of O sounds (both short and long) to make the passage seem to groan on the page. For example, "John groped for his coat in hopes the Tylenol bottle hadn't dropped through the hole in his pocket."

I'm not always so calculated about how I choose sounds to achieve a particular effect. It's very easy to overdo it. But I do find that playing around with word choices can yield a more aurally pleasant experience.

In the passage I quoted above from my current WIP, I paired "child" with "wide-eyed" and "kid" with "skinny" rather than the reverse because of the shared vowel sounds. The Macy's parade balloon could have been any cartoon character. I chose "Snoopy" for the double blessing of the "oo" assonance to match "huge" and "balloon" and the "s" consonance to match "soar", "past" and "Macy's". The last two sentences in my example pop with a plethora of "p" repetitions (as did that sentence. See? I can't stop myself!).

Is writing like this crazy time-consuming? I suppose it could be if you aren't attuned to the sounds of words. And if you push the technique too far, you can end up with incoherent sound experiments that seem like bad James Joyce parodies. (Does the world need another Finnegans Wake or Ulysses?)

If you'd like to try incorporating sound devices in your prose, here's what I recommend:
~Study the greats (Plath and Ginsberg are two who come to mind).
~Go lightly.
~Choose lingo that's natural to your character.
~Find ideas in a rhyming dictionary (especially for assonance).

See if some word choice changes can make a plodding passage begin to sing.

How about you? Do you like sound devices? Never notice them? Find them gimmicky? Are they something you'd like to try in your work?
Categories: , ,


  1. I love poetry and I do include it in my writing as much as I can. But I'm afraid of my writing being labeled as "purple prose" so when is too much?

  2. I do like them and I have tried playing with them. I also try not to think too much about it because then it might really tip over into purple prose. :)

  3. Aubrie: In my mind, purple prose ALWAYS uses unnatural lingo that's entirely too high-falutin' for the character and situation. But I hope I've shown that everyday words can produce poetic effects.

    Sarahjanye: Being too deliberate can lean that way for sure. Finding sound patterns in ordinary words is key, I think.

    And now I'm thinking I need to do a post about purple prose. :-)

  4. Very interesting piece. I am personally no poet, but I do love matching just the write . . . er . . . I mean, right sounds.

    Beautiful passage, by the way. :)

  5. I think that this is an example of what makes us writers tick, work, and express ourselves. I am not a giant poetry buff but I do appreciate the essence of it; to me it is often musical and can contribute a lot to how I write. I think it also offers a place of rest from all the sharp edges and challenges we face in life. Make sense? If not, I can claim to be an eccentric writer:)

  6. I don't set out to write lyrically but I often do. I think it's the way I express words on page, but I don't want anyone to be brought up short by it. That's the question to ask, I guess, does the poetic nature flow with the story and not take the reader out of story. Because in fiction writing the story is the point. Actually, in poetry the best of it also has a point and is not just well-crafted language. Thanks again, Laurel, for a post that makes me think about craft. You are so good that!

  7. Interesting, I've never thought about sounds in my writing but I do think a lot about rhythm. I might give this a go - but then again, it does look quite time-consuming.

    Thanks, though!

  8. I so get you Laurel. I do like sound devices. I've read great writing and the devices were an element that helped make it great. Naturally in my own writing, they do appear and I can have a lot of fun. Yes, I do have to weed them out later, but I still learn as I let them flow during the creative process, finding new ways to express.

    Thanks for the recommended readings on the topic.

  9. I think so much of our writing comes from what sounds natural and good to us in our minds. That is why our literary voices differ so much. this is impressive, but it would take me two hours to craft a paragraph like you show here. the fact it comes to you so easily is a gift.

  10. I do it almost unconsciously, now, you know. I'm a sucker for alliteration, so I'll almost always pair nouns and adjectives/adverbs that start with the same letter.

    Example from current short story: "I lay awake listening to the ticking of old timbers cooling and the soft scratching of mice behind the walls."

    lay...listening, ticking...timbers, soft scratching (and then mice and walls, for the consonance). I just like the way it sounds, is all.

    My CPs usually tell me if it's too much. :)

  11. I love poetry and think it is wonderful when it's hidden in books. I hope to include it in mine too.

  12. This a great post! I honestly can't stand poetry, but there is so much poetry in writing and song and I love both. I love the idea of applying poetry mechanics to a paragraph in a story. Thanks, Laurel!

  13. Janet: Thanks. I recommend looking at contemporary poems, because they use these more subtle sound devices more than the old rhymey stuff. You may find you like poetry more than you expected.

    Karen: I like that image of creating refuge very much. Musical prose can transport readers that way.

    Tricia: I agree that overdoing it will jar and detract from the story. It's one of the reasons I like assonance a lot--it's extremely subtle, while alliterative consonants are more obvious (and grating when overdone).

    Talli: Fun is key, I think. If incorporating sound patterns feels like a chore, readers will feel it. All I can advise is play and see if it feels natural to your style.

  14. Lynn: glad to know I'm not alone in my addiction! Yeah, I do at times have to chop away a sound experiment gone wrong, but as you say, I have to go with the flow during draft stage and let the word music in my head get out.

    Plath is awesome at assonance, Ginsberg at really explosive sound combinations. Joyce is just jaw dropping in his use of sound, to a degree that Finnegans Wake is almost unreadable. You've been warned. :-)

    Tess: Your comment reminds me a little of the "heart song" concept in Happy Feet. :-) That each has a tune he or she brings to the world that is unique. Rhythm is another way to "sing" as is a whirling plot or dancing dialogue.

  15. Simon: you've got some assonance going there, as well: the "A" in lay awake and the short "i" in listening, ticking and timber.

    Another trick to try (since I know you love those) is progressive consonance--picking up a sound from one word and carrying it forward. Like in my example "Snippets of my life appear between arty shots of hydrant rainbows and sullen subway riders. Wide-eyed child watches a huge Snoopy balloon soar past in the Macy’s parade." Subway is a carrying word that plays off the repeated W of rainbows, wide and watches as well as the S in sullen, riders, watches, Snoopy, soar and Macy's.

    Ok, I must be certifiably nuts that I notice this stuff. LOL.

  16. Southpaw; it's like hearing a distant song, isn't it, when you find poetic lines in prose? Glad to hear you like doing it too.

    JEM: I need to get you turned on to contemporary poems, which usually read deceptively like prose, except they're rife with these sound techniques. Way more gripping than the tortured rhyme schemes of yesteryear. Denise Levertov, Scott Cairns, David Citino are some of my faves.

  17. Oh the wonderful world of words!I love playing around with thier sounds.

  18. Hmmm, I'm still skeptical but I'm up for the challenge. Is there anywhere online I can check these bad boys out?

  19. There's nothing I adore more than writing poetic prose. Often, I'm told I tend to overwrite, which makes me sadspice.

    I think it works well in lit fic. I think it can be overdone, but is the mark of a careful and beautiful writer.

    This post was full of awesome. I love the way you explained which sounds evoke which emotions. I love the way you teach. You are so good at explaining things, Laurel! (I know, I sound twelve. Whatever.)

  20. This is so cool, not hopelessly nerdy at all. I never thought of doing that before. I feel like I say that with everything you post, maybe I just need tothink more! I loved everything you said here.

    And Laurel, how's your chapter 11 coming? ;)

  21. This is a great, great post. I studied poetry in great depth in college, and I love to use it in my prose. I recently published a prose poem over on the Rose & Thorn journal. Using sounds and rhythm is something I can't get enough of. :)

  22. Bish: Sound is the writer's playground. :-)

    JEM: here are a few links for ya:
    David Citino sample:

    Denise Levertov online collection:

    Scott Cairns online collection:

  23. Amber: Nothing wrong with overwriting in the early drafts, then paring back. I'll have to write a post about that, too!

    There's a whole field of poetics that goes into the minutae of sounds and their meanings. Might make for an interesting research if you don't think it will make your brain explode.
    And thanks for the props about my "teaching". It's fun to make my weird quirks useful to someone.

    Crystal: Aw, thanks. I'm glad you found it interesting. Ah, chapter 11. One new scene done, and I have a map for the rest. I'm slogging through a narrative summary scene (to move the story faster). I HATE writing those, they feel rushed, though that's kind of the point--to ramp up the pacing. So it's gonna be a day way outside my comfort zone. Sigh. Thanks for holding me accountable. :-)

    Glam: It's what makes your writing so lush! I think poetry writing comes more naturally to me, but I love a good story too, so this is my compromise. :-)

  24. Beautiful, Laurel, as usual. I've never thought about the assonance of my writing, but it does seem to evolve on its own, at least with my current MC. Thanks for another great post!

  25. I LOVE incorporating sound devices into my writing. I think that's the reason I like the revision phase so much, because I'm working on the sound as much as the message of a scene. And, I have to say, the more I write, the more I turn naturally to poetic devices in the first draft.

  26. I think sound devices in writing are great. They enhance the story. Your examples are terrific, terrific, terrific!

  27. Another terrific post/topic, Laurel.

    I too am enamored with using sound devices in my prose. It's a delicate balance, and I try to err on the side of caution.
    Unlike Simon, I do not enjoy the use of frequent alliteration. It quickly gets on my nerves.

    Have a delightful weekend,

  28. I love some forms of poetry. Good topic!

    I do have to stick up for the value of old-fashioned meter. Writing in meter will teach an aspiring writer much about the rhythm of language that cannot be taught analytically.

  29. Jenna: The results are often best when the sound patterns emerge organically, as part of your voice.

    Nicole: Aha! I do that too. My first drafts are usually just nailing down the basics of story. It's in revision that the more musical elements seem to flower.

    Mary: Thanks so much. Musical writing can be lovely, provided it isn't overdone.

    Lola: Yeah, I agree about having a light hand with repeated initial sounds. I prefer assonance--it's more subtle and less likely to grate. Rhyme can be effective in fiction, too, but I go really, really light with it, because it's more noticeable and prone to irritate than even alliteration.

    Rosslyn: I admire most poets like Byron who were able to use meter without torturing natural syntax.

    Practicing "old school" poetic forms is just like learning scales on piano, making you a more proficient artist. Great point.