Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Does Alliteration Ever Help?

Alliteration is a technique that has always been a mystery to me. It's the term used to describe phrases or sentences that repeat particular sounds, mainly in the first syllables of words, such as "The cats crashed on the couch."

We're probably all familiar with this, but I wonder if anyone has ever used it effectively. The technique originated in poetry, which may be cited as the justification for its existence, but I see it often enough in fiction writing. From my experience it gets just as many compliments (I like the alliteration here!) as it does criticisms (You have some awkward alliteration here.)

I have used it on occasion myself in places where I thought it was helpful. For example, if I had a sentence like "Alfred was furious." I might revise it to "Alfred was angry." because to me it pairs the subject of the sentence with his emotion a little more powerfully. Even that explanation feels a little forced to me, though. Sometimes I begin to wonder if the only reason writers use alliteration is just to prove that they know what it is.

Do you use alliteration? When have you found it to be the most effective?

28 comments:

  1. I use it sparingly. I had a friend in college who for some reason thought it was the most brilliant literary device ever conceived. He had some spiel about rhythm and trances and speaking to the heart and not the brain and I never understood a word that kid was saying.

    I sometimes use it as you did, to emphasize a parallel structure. The only other time I can think of that I've used it was one piece where the first word in every paragraph started with the same letter, as did the last word (a different letter). It created an interesting rhythm if you caught it.

    Which is to say I think it was a cheap gimmick.

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  2. I Always Avoid Alliteration, Always.

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  3. I'm with Nevets...use sparingly. Sometimes alliteration can enhance the cadence in a sentence, but oftentimes it is very distracting.

    Plus, the most important thing (to me) is the meaning of the words used. If you skewer the meaning, even slightly, by trying to use a word with the same starting sound, you failed.

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  4. I never really try to use it, but occasionally it will happen in my writing. If it comes out naturally, it sounds better to me than forcing it, but I would say I cut it out at least half the time in the editing process.

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  5. Like C.N., I use alliteration sparingly, as an emphasis ro parallel structure.

    But I do use it during particularly rhythmic scenes, or pieces that are meant to flow more than the average. Really, I think it depends on what kind of writing and characters you have.

    Lisa Kilian

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  6. Overdone, it can prove very distracting to readers. The argument for it is it can subtly carry across an emotion using onomatopoeia. An annoyed character might, for example, spit out a string plosive sounds.

    One gal in my writing group absolutely hates alliteration no matter what, never uses it, will edit it out of her work. But I don't care for her writing style at all. It's completely unmusical to me. So, I suppose there's a huge matter of personal preference in this whole question.

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  7. I don't consciously do it. Every once in a while, when I re-read a passage and I'd notice one or two. I usually end up keeping one if it doesn't sound too cheesy. After all, it is a sound thing.

    I've noticed it done well, though not often, but for me, it smacks of gimmickry.

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  8. As a follow-up note, I was thinking about it, and I think one of the main reasons I don't do it, apart from the gimmicky feel, is related to what Rick said. For me, synonyms are not generally interchangeable. I think the nuances and slight differences make for precise application of the words and too often swapping something in just because of the sound or appearance changes the meaning in ways I care about.

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  9. Poetry. Lyrical writing. I love alliteration, but I rarely use it consciously. Since I studied poetry for 4 years in college, I tend to use poetical elements in my writing naturally. I like that because then they don't feel forced, as you say. I've seen alliteration used in terrible ways, and I agree that some writers seem to use it just to prove they know what it is. Never a good idea.

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  10. Nevets, I personally like those sorts of devices in a story/book as long as it doesn't compromise the rest of the work too much. There's a book called The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, and the first letter of each chapter can be combined to form some sentence and the last letter of every chapter can be formed to make some sentence. That's gimmicky to some people, but I think it's cool.

    Project Savior, I think that's a wise choice.

    Rick, thanks for your thoughts. I think I used to feel that way, but lately I'm actually okay with compromise word meanings for other devices. I don't know what that says about me, other than that I'm really really really cool.

    Tony, that's interesting. Thinking back, I realize I cut a lot of them out too.

    Lisa, that's a good point. It does seem to make the language flow better. I guess I never really work that way, or rather, I should say I work for a different sort of flow. But, this makes sense.

    Laurel, I didn't think of it as carrying emotion. I'll have to ponder that more. Thanks for the idea! I do see that preference is part of the discussion here. It seems about 50-50 in my experience as to who likes it and who doesn't.

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  11. Yat-Yee, only rarely do I purposefully put it in. I guess sometimes I feel like it helps in some way. Maybe I should be paying more attention in my reading so that I can catch when it is used really well. I'm sure I'll learn something.

    Michelle, this flow idea makes sense. I should look back at my own work to examine the sections that I think flow the best. I'll probably learn what I think makes good flow, and I can compare it to other styles.

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  12. Jeff Lindsay uses alliteration all. The. Time. in his Dexter books, but they're first person pov, and I think it adds to the overall tone of the book, that cat and mouse feel like he's just playing around with all that killing people. The character in the books is much less... HUMAN than in the adaptation for Showtime, so I think the style really helps me to get into the book even though the pov character is the most relatable guy.

    Interesting comments! I like to use it for cadence and emphasis, myself.

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  13. Tere, that is a most excellent example. It's making me think of this in a new way. Thanks!

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  14. I don't think I've ever used alleteration conciously but I do like to see it. It, admitedly, pulls me out of the story to say "Ooh, cool, alliteration!" but I still enjoy it. I guess some readers don't.

    I've considrered putting heavy alliteration in some of my legand based manuscripts in the hope that they would sound old and Anglo Saxon but haven't been brave enough to try it.

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  15. Taryn, be brave! Give it a shot and then you can take it out again if you don't like it. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  16. I use alliteration ALOT. I mean, like, seriously. A. Lot.

    If I have a choice of adjectives or adverbs for a given noun or verb, I can generally be counted upon to use ones that have assonant or alliterative value. I'm not trying to show off or anything--it's just what pleases me.

    Anyone doesn't like it, they can shove it up their ever-lovin' ass. (See how many v's I used there? Assonance. FTW.)

    :)

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  17. I like it if it's not a weird mannerism. Though I'm more prone to use long strings of similar vowel sounds, I have alliterated in my works.

    Regarding the precision of words, sometimes you want to blur your meaning rather than intensify the specificity. Sometimes, too, the sound of the language is more important than the content.

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  18. I can be good, it can be bad. It the hands of a master/mistress it can sound beautiful. In the hands of someone else it can sound terrible.

    Like all things, be wise in its use and you'll be fine.

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  19. I use it sometimes, but sometimes I worry that alliteration might be a distraction. If I want the reader to focus on what I'm saying, I don't want them giggling over the alliteration. On the other hand, if I'm shooting for the laugh, I'll go with it.

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  20. The thing to remember about alliteration is that it draws attention to itself. So in passages where you want to point the reader at the artifice of the narrative, it can work. Otherwise it might not, though I think that if you had a really grandiloquent character like an Osric (or a Gilderoy Lockhart for you HP fans), you could have that character use a lot of alliteration. Also I could see it working well in a passage of description if what's being described is very artificial and ornate, like Rococo architecture or the like.

    Has anyone here read Proust in French? I have not, but I get the feeling that Marcel would've been a fan of alliteration.

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  21. the only reason writers use alliteration is just to prove that they know what it is

    I love that. Seriously though, I don't think I've consciously used it. I may have slipped it in where it sounded right though.

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  22. I try not to use it a lot. I used it in my WIP when referring to the first time to a character as "lanky Leonard" in order to help the reader remember him, to stand out from the other 2 characters I was intro'ing at the same time. I think it worked; my critique partner thought so.

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  23. Simon, right on. If people do end up...shoving it...I hope for their sake your book isn't too long.

    Scott, I like the vowel sounds too. I do that more often. I'm surprised you agree about the vague word meaning idea. Yay!

    Martin, I'm so lucky to be incredibly wise. :)

    Dominique, yeah, I do think it can be distracting, which can be good or bad, right? But, that's probably why I end up not doing it more often.

    Scott, that makes sense about Proust. I admit I don't know. I'm only up to kid's book level when I read in French and I'm not very good at that.

    Eric, an intuitive approach is probably a good thing.

    Carol, in that case the alliteration seems to be contributing to voice to, whether the narrator's, or perhaps a projected voice for another character. That seems like a great time to use it.

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  24. @Scott -

    Regarding the precision of words, sometimes you want to blur your meaning rather than intensify the specificity. Sometimes, too, the sound of the language is more important than the content.

    I think this is one of the places where I am just not the literary artist you are. I almost never want to blur meaning, and if I do it is because I want to imply a few very specific options so there will be a precise word for that (at least in my mind).

    And as important as the sound of language is, in my writing content is always far more significant. It is the reason for the writing.

    Alas, I shall never be a great writer in the literary sense. *shrug*

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  25. Nevets: It doesn't all have to be poetry. Well, I like for mine to be, but a lot of this is really a question of voice: How directly does the writer say what he's saying? So while there are times when I want the focus blurred, there are other times when the absolutely precise word is mandatory. Last night I spent half an hour remembering the word "moored" to replace "tied" in a passage about ships at a wharf. "Tied" was okay, but it lacked the specificity of the nautical term. So it goes both ways. Maybe more ways than that.

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  26. I've used it consciously here and there in my novels. I think it adds a nice touch, whether its the sound of the phrase that's important or you're aiming for a poetic effect to a scene.

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  27. I tinkered with the literary device in a MS and it went a little something like this; "illicit little liaison low-key." Yeah, other than in poetry, I guess, the device is kinda irrelevant in fiction writing - at least to me. But if incorporated cleverly, it's cool to point out.

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