Use this literary device to make your writing lyrical

Confessions of an alliteration lover

Has a friend or family member ever performed a spot-on imitation of you that left you wondering if you really knew yourself at all? We each have speech patterns -- "Do I really say the word 'interesting' that often? Interesting." -- and favorite topics -- "Another cute thing my dog did today is ..." that make us unique.

We don't want to change who we are but instead celebrate these eccentricities.

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We don't want to change who we are but instead celebrate these eccentricities. And, if you're a writer, you want to be able to identify them; they mean you're finding your voice (ah, the ever-elusive writer's voice!). An editor (hi!) can help with this, as well as a friend or loved one who has a comedy bit about you ready to go.

Part of MFA student Kelly Luce's job as editorial assistant to O. Henry Prize Stories series editor Laura Furman was to read all short stories that passed her desk. That meant she read every short story written in 2014-15, and patterns emerged: Dumpsters, girls drowning at family lake homes, warm beer, cold coffee, comma splices and more. (You can read Luce's full Electric Literature piece here.)

After decades as a writer, I've learned one of my patterns is alliteration. This is when the first consonant in a series of words or the sound in a stressed syllable is repeated. The easiest example, the one that will have you recalling "Oh, that's right" is the tongue twister "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."

More succinctly, John Hollander describes alliteration in his classic text Rhyme's Reason like this:

"Alliteration lightly links
Stressed syllables with common consonants."
Has a friend ever performed a spot-on imitation of you that left you wondering if you knew yourself at all? We each have unique speech patterns and favorite topics. We don't want to change who we are but instead celebrate these eccentricities. And, as writers, we want to be able to identify them; they mean we're finding our voice.

Alliteration is common in marketing and advertising as a memory device: Coca-Cola, Bed Bath & Beyond, StubHub and "You'll never put a better bit of butter on your knife," to name a few examples.

My affinity for this literary device has a couple sources:

  1. My mother's recitation of nursery rhymes in my youth
  2. Edgar Allan Poe

My deep love for Poe is incongruent with other truths about me -- Heck, Nancy Drew books scared me when read at night. (It was a long time ago.) (Decades, promise.) But I love the musical quality alliteration adds to a piece, specifically a piece meant to be read aloud, like a poem or play.

Poe's "The Raven" is a familiar example, as most of us read it quite young. It begins:

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore -- 
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping ..."

There are a handful of alliterative moments in these first three lines alone: dreary and wearyweak and weary; nodded, nearly and napping; and napping and tapping.

Throughout the piece, in addition to alliteration, Poe repeats words to both emphasize them and keep pace; the most obvious being the word "more," which ends every stanza alone or as "evermore" or "nevermore." The "more" sound is hidden in other words he uses, too: lore, Lenore, before, implore, explore, yore, wore, shore, bore, store, core, ashore and adore.

"The Raven" is a perfect introduction to poetry for someone who scoffs at the genre: It's pleasurable, spooky and rhymes, and the alliteration makes it approachable. None of this red wheelbarrow mess, the uninitiated might say.

Once your ear and eye latch onto alliteration, you start to notice it in other works, where it isn't as obvious as "nodded, nearly napping." Helen Chasin's poem "The Word Plum" is an example. Here it is in its entirety:

"The word plum is delicious

pout and push, luxury of
self-love, and savoring murmur

full in the mouth and falling
like fruit

taut skin
pierced, bitten, provoked into
juice, and tart flesh

question
and reply, lip and tongue
of pleasure."

You spot the alliteration of plum, pout and push in the first two stanzas, but she also uses "l" sounds to call back to "plum": delicious, luxury, self-love, full, falling, like, reply, lip and pleasure. That luh-luh-luh sound is alliterative.

  1. Have you spied alliteration in any non-poetry works you're reading?
  2. Or, is alliteration one of your go-to writing devices, too?

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