Poetic devices can communicate big ideas
Want to write a novel that packs a big, emotional punch? One of the best things you can do for your writing is read poetry—or, perhaps even better, listen to poetry spoken aloud. You can use poetry to improve your prose and make your novels evocative, engaging, and atmospheric. Basically, poetry can make you a stronger writer! Here’s why:
Poems are often bite-sized, but they communicate big ideas. By taking up less space than a novel, every word in a poem must count. In fact, sometimes each word does double duty, communicating not just its typical meaning but an entire image or theme beyond that, too.
How does this work? Through the use of poetic devices. Poetic devices are a special kind of literary device that can help you communicate with your reader, such as alliteration and allusion. (We’ll cover what these are below.) But these devices are not confined strictly to poetry. You can use these in a novel, too.
You can use poetry to improve your prose by using the following poetic devices. Test them out yourself!
Alliteration is a string of repeated consonant sounds, like “t” or “b”. Often, when reading it or speaking it aloud, the reader must slow down so they don’t trip over the words. Try it yourself with this old tongue twister:
The big black bug bled black blood.
The effect is slow, steady, and suspenseful. If you’re writing a horror novel and want to create tension, the repeated consonant sounds of alliteration can lend a harsh, sharp quality to your words. Try is with the letter “s” and see how it sounds to you!
An allusion is a reference to something historical, like an event or person, or perhaps mythological idea, that your reader may know. Allusions conjure up images in your reader’s mind without you having to spell them out. This can be very effective when you want to communicate a big idea in a small space, like a poem, but it can also help you communicate ideas in a fresh way in a novel.
For example, let’s say your character is watching the sun rise. Of course, you could simply say that the sun rose, but you could also say it without saying it, as in:
Apollo drew his chariot of fire across the sky.
This is an allusion to the Greek god of the sun, Apollo. It’s a good idea not to overuse allusions like this, as they could bog down your writing. (Sometimes, the sun just rises.) But, when used sparingly, allusions can give your writing a literary quality.
Much like alliteration, assonance is the repetition of a letter or sound. However, instead of consonants, this time it’s repeated vowel sounds. This repetition doesn’t slow down the reader as much as alliteration does. In fact, it’s quite pleasing to the ear. Think about the repeated “a” sounds in this example:
I wandered along the bay, alone at last.
If you read it aloud, it’s almost musical. This trick of repeated vowel sounds can lend a rhythmic quality to your words that might come in handy when trying to convey a dreamy atmosphere.
Often, we avoid repetition in prose. The same word repeated in a paragraph can be a kind of “echo.” However, there are times when repeating a word—or a different word or phrase that means something similar—can create emphasis. If you’re trying to convey a powerful idea, try repeating it in a new way. Here’s an example:
I loved him, but it was more than love; I adored him.
Here, the repetition of the idea of love makes the speaker’s adoration much stronger than if “I loved him” had stood alone. The reader gets a strong sense of the depth of the speaker’s emotion. Used sparingly, this repetition can reinforce your themes and ideas.
You may remember this term from high school English class. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like an image, such as smash, which conjures the sound of breaking glass, or vroom, which sounds like a car.
These word-sounds may seem silly at first, but they actually contribute to the sensory quality of your writing. After all, your character doesn’t just notice the things they see, they also notice the things they hear. For example:
The burbling brook wound through the woods.
Here, “burbling” brings to mind the sound water makes as it streams along a channel and splashes over rocks. It evokes the sense of hearing.
When you personify something, you give it human qualities. You can personify just about anything—an animal, an object, or an idea. This is an incredibly powerful tool for a writer, and it can communicate strong emotions and create deep atmosphere. You might find that you are using personification already naturally. For example:
The shadow crept across the floor, reaching for me with cold fingers.
Here, we are personifying a shadow by giving it the ability to creep and reach with human-like hands. It lends an eerie tension to the sentence. Do you do this already in your own writing?
Try it yourself: Use poetry to improve your prose
This is not an exhaustive list—there are other poetic devices you can use to improve your writing—but this is a start.
One of the best ways to learn more is to simply read more poetry. Read it to yourself, read it aloud to someone else, or attend a reading and listen to a few poets. (Many writers’ organizations have live Zoom poetry readings these days.) As you listen or read, think about the techniques the poet used and the strong emotions and images they conjure in your mind. How can you use similar devices in your own novel? You, too, can use poetry to improve your prose!