Playing with Rhetoric

In this year of politics we are likely to hear the common complaint, “Oh, that’s just the candidate’s rhetoric. Wait until they’re in office and we’ll see what really happens.”

picture of jfk inauguration
Kennedy used antimetabole to inspire a generation.

Rhetoric definitely has a bad reputation. The first definition in the dictionary implies that rhetoric allows people to use language for influence and persuasion, but without honesty.

I had a class once in rhetoric. Took it because someone said it was practically an automatic A, and heck, who wouldn’t go for that? Unfortunately, a new teacher took over, and I never worked harder. We had to read Aristotle and discuss the importance and forms of arguments and logic.  Guess what? Aristotle didn't use rhetoric to lie. I barely survived the course.

Today, as a writer, I wish I’d paid more attention. Rhetoric was a good class, and the influence of an articulate speaker (or author) has maintained an important part of my writing aspirations since. If I could come up with phrases like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” I think I would be a happy writer indeed. President Kennedy apparently borrowed the structure of that comment from a school headmaster, but you have to admit, he used it well. That phrase inspired a generation to launch the Peace Corps, go to the moon, and march for peace and equal rights. Rhetoric. Good words.

So, how can we use rhetoric, or more precisely, rhetorical devices to enhance our writing experience? There are whole lists of devices on the Internet that can add emotion, lyrical rhythms, and resonance to our writing. Here are a few:

Alliteration

Alliteration is the recurrence of initial consonant sounds. These sounds can be easy or harsh on the ear, and will draw attention to themselves by their repetition. What if you were writing a story was set in a florist shop? You could name the store, “Moe’s Flowers,” and be done with the job, or you could play with the beginning F sound and create something like “Flo’s Fantastic Flowers,” giving your readers a sense of Flo and her pride in her business without expending a lot of page real estate on that thought.

Epizeuxis

Wow. What an interesting word that simply means to repeat for emphasis. Can you imagine a child who wants the sucker in your hand? What does she say? “May I have that please?” or “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” Can you use that epizeuxis rhetorical tool to enrich some of your characters’ dialog?

Amplification

Similar to epizeuxis, is amplification. This is repeating a word within a phrase to emphasize its importance. In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he used “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to emphasize the importance of those who died on the battlefield, who mourned the lost souls, and who had to rebuild our nation after the great Civil War. When used in a conscious effort, amplification can truly hammer home a point. Maybe you could use it to underscore the theme of your story, as in, “Love is gentle, love is kind,” she said, and kissed the soldier good-bye.

Rhetorical devices are worth studying as you work on your next story. As you engage in rewriting a chapter, maybe play consciously to make a thought stand out using a rhetorical device. Or hide a thought by making it as mundane as possible, sandwiched between phrases that sparkle with their rhetoric.

Do you have a favorite rhetorical device? Please share. Beyond our annual Simile Contest at Colorado Gold, do you indulge in a regular rhetorical device?

Wishing you a creative word day.

Liesa Malik
Liesa Malik is a freelance writer & marketing consultant living in Littleton, CO, with her husband and two pets. Liesa has built on her writing interest with a long-standing membership in Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and recently joined the board of Rocky Mountain Mystery Writers of America. She is the author of Faith on the Rocks: a Daisy Arthur Mystery. Most days you can find Liesa either at her desk or at a local ballroom dance studio. For more about Liesa, please visit her website: LiesaMalik.Wordpress.com. More about Liesa on her website.

One thought on “Playing with Rhetoric

  1. Thanks, Liesa. You’ve cleared some questions I’ve always had about some of this and now I can see how I might be able (and when) to use this in my writing.

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