Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 23, 2014 16 comments
Studying poetry will make you a better writer, no matter what genre you aspire to master. Poetry uses a number of techniques that I believe are quite transferable to other kinds of writing.

Today, I'd like to share a technique to "steal" from poets--using the sound device assonance (repeated vowel sounds) to ramp up the emotion in your fiction. The thinking behind sound devices is often onomatopoetic; the sound and meaning are linked.

morguefile.com

Consider these examples. Say them aloud. How do they make you feel?

1. John groped for his coat in hopes the Tylenol bottle hadn’t dropped through the hole in his pocket.

2. Lisa worried they'd think her rude if she cooed at their cute baby, so she chewed her lip while brooding on his tiny blue shoes.

3. Wading deeper into the creek, Ross felt the coldness seep through his sneakers. Shining eyes seemed to peek through the reeds. A cheeping frog sent a shriek of fear streaking up his spine, but he ground his teeth. Must stay silent. Must not be weak.


In my first example, Can you feel John's inner ache? The repeated oh, oh, aah, ahh,make the passage seem to moan and groan on the page. The repeated O sounds (both short and long) make you verbalize John's pain response.

In my second example, Lisa's entire inner monologue does coo at the cute baby, even if she refuses to do it aloud. The repeated long U sound carries it. This is an excellent, subtle way to add layers of meaning to your character's thoughts. Characters might consciously deny something while the sounds in their words convey a deeper, hidden, unconscious desire for the denied thing.

In my third example, the creepy feeling is reinforced by a series of little shrieks, like one might hear upon having a bug scurry over bare skin: Eeek! Ross is screaming inside, even if he's being tough and silent on the outside.

Your turn:
Chose an emotion you want to convey and think of the most primal sound you associate with it, such as Os for groaning with pain, Es for screaming with fright. Write a sentence, paragraph or scene in which you repeat the sounds.

Hint: a rhyming dictionary will help you identify words with the vowel sounds you need.

How might you use this technique today to improve your writing?

16 comments:

  1. I've been thinking about using a few more poetic techniques to add a slightly more literary edge to some things I'm working on.

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    1. Sound devices can be fun to try. Keep in mind that repeated consonants and rhyme will be more obvious, so you need to go lighter than with assonance, which is more subtle.

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  2. That third example was certainly sinister and spooky!

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    1. Had I used different words-- river not creek, boots not sneakers, marshgrass not reeds, it might not have struck you as much. A thesaurus can be a help when it comes to making sound patterns.

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  3. I've always loved any poetic touch on prose, but I'm wondering now how much I've missed. I can definitely feel everything you described, but I felt it subtly - I'm not sure I would've been able to say what made me feel what I felt...so thanks for explaining it! :)

    Michelle @ In Media Res

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    1. I hope that now you understand the pattern, you'll be able to see it elsewhere--kind of like some of those brain teaser puzzles with hidden images.

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  4. Great tip! I hadn't thought of using sounds in this way, at least not for writing. I've working in branding (specifically naming products and companies) and we used it there. For example, the deep "o" of your first example is good / important for a strong sounding, "weighty" company. But to use it in writing? Thanks for the great tip!

    Visiting via A to Z from Pass the Sour Cream. Co-Author (with my sons) of The Secret of Kite Hill.

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    1. The branding thing fascinates me. Is sound the reason there aren't any cars sold in the US that start with U? (Something we noticed playing a road game on a car trip).

      Anyway, what you've learned from the marketing realm is likely the same thing I'm talking about--an association we make between certain sounds and feelings.

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  5. Cool exercise! I try to use more hissing "s" sounds when I write scenes from my vilainess' pov . . . it suits her character. :) I'll have to try this for other characters and other parts. Thanks for the tip!

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    1. Keep in mind that repeated consonants will be more noticeable, so you'll need to go lightly. Any technique that draws too much attention to itself can grate on readers.

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  6. I love the way you teach us about poetry! Thank you so much.

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    1. You're most welcome. I've had so much fun with this series!

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  7. Laurel,

    Children's picture books are very good examples of the use of assonance. I suppose the words have to sound good and convey certain emotions because they are read out aloud, and need to appeal to a young listener.

    In my own writing, I try to be aware of sentence length and how words sound, even though no one probably reads them out loud. I think prose has a rhythm just like poems do. Anyway, I enjoyed your post and shall be thinking more about assonance in future!

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    1. I agree that picture book writers especially have to be aware of sound because they're nearly always read aloud. Great point. All my favorites to read to my daughter have had an almost poetic quality to the prose, even if they're not strictly written in verse.

      Stories should have cadence. Sentence length is one way to do that, and so is the sound texture of word choices.

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  8. Thanks for this good information. I'll give it a try.

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    1. It can be a powerful way to layer in more emotion to a scene when you are revising. Thanks for coming by!

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