Thursday, December 23

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 23, 2010 9 comments
On we go with my countdown of the most popular posts of 2010 here at Laurel's Leaves. Today's repost originally appeared in April, National Poetry Month.

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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?


  1. Your writing is beautiful and mature and it's just how it should be. I love pouring over words in dictionaries and thesauruses and have recently bought a rhyming dictionary, though I'm aware that some rhymes can jar or be predictable. I love playing with words, too. MERRY CHRISTMAS :O)

  2. Huh, I missed this the first time around. Nope, I love poetry and try to write my prose as poetry.

  3. To be honest, I don't know a lot about poetry. I don't read it. I don't write it. Something I'm actually going to change in the new year (reading it at least) But I do love this idea of sound devices! I'm going to pay a lot more attention to that. So very cool.

  4. I don't really notice when a writer uses sound devices in their writing, unless it's fairly pronounced, and more like poetry. I'll have to think about that when I'm reading!

  5. I think it's fantastic if you can work poetry into your writing like that. I did it once (lightly!) in a book I wrote that's set up as a series of diary entries. So I guess my answer is Yes!

    Merry Christmas, girl~ :o) <3

  6. Madeleine: Wow, thanks for that amazing compliment. What I find useful about the rhyming dictionary is how it groups words by sound pattern. No other resource does that. It's SO helpful when creating assonant lines especially.

    Victoria: Though I've only read a short piece of your work, I do remember how lyrical and poetic your style is. Your poetry love shows.

  7. Melissa: There's a whole wonderful world of beauty you're sure to find by reading poetry. I'd recommend mixing time periods when you read. You'll probably find contemporary stuff more accessible, but there's lots to be learned from earlier generations, too.

    GE: writers like Tolkein do it all the time, but indeed sound patterns are often quite subtle in the work of those who do it best.

    Leigh: Your diary form with poetry sounds interesting. I keep thinking I ought to look into the whole verse novel genre, read more of it and see if it's a fit for me. Hesse's Out of the Dust is the only I've read.

  8. Yes, I am somewhat aware of sound devices and use them when convenient, but I don't torture the sentences to make it work out unless I'm writing a poem.

    Which, incidentally, I just did. And posted on my blog. What an odd coincidence.

  9. PS it's not nearly as good as yours, because I don't spend a lot of time on poetry, but it's nice to just write what I'm feeling sometimes.