Assonance & Alliteration: Always Appropriate in Small Doses

Guest Post by K. Scott Forman


K. Scott Forman is an eclectic writer with dark tastes: suspense, horror, mystery, fear. The classic prose of Poe and Lovecraft, the poetry of Blake and Coleridge, and more recent writers Robert R. McCammon and Sylvia Plath, all find space in his heart. Scott believes in Fear, the strongest emotion: fear feeds suspense, horror, and mystery, and through Fear, writers create the best stories. His most recent work appeared in the anthologies It Came from the Great Salt Lake and Gothic Tales of Terror. Scott is a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University and teaches English Composition at Weber State University.

With so many stylistic choices, most writers select the easiest forms to use in their writing, including simile, imagery, and the use of sensory words. These choices evoke a feeling or mood in readers’ minds. An example of imagery-rich sensory words appears in Shelley’s pièce de résistance, Frankenstein:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Shelley delivers on the senses of sight, sound, and touch as if she just joined a writing group that recommended she use some form of sensory stimulation on each page of her novel other than taste or smell. She did swell!

What if there was something that could utilize sensory words, go deeper, be subtler, and deliver the same results as the Pied Piper of Hamelin? A literary Jedi mind trick? You’ve read the title, so you know Assonance and Alliteration are this something: two powerful tools, when used sparingly and correctly, bring a rhythm or cadence to one’s writing, a music that the reader usually does not detect consciously, but can’t forget.

As writers, we hear these two terms and think poetry, but they are not exclusive to the rhyme and meter of the poetic forms. Again, an example from Shelley:

He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.

Assonance takes place when two or more words in a sentence, usually close to one another, repeat the same vowel sound. These words usually start with different consonant sounds: away and waves. Alliteration is similar to Assonance, but instead of vowel sounds, the same first consonant sound occurs in words close together in a sentence. Shelley does this in the same sentence with darkness and distance.

The goal is to be subtle, but not just tickle the subconscious. The blow must deliver a subdural hematoma that the reader will not soon forget, kind of like a catchy song that sticks in one’s head. The key, again, is not to overdo it. Overdoing is not the same thing as volume: a writer can use this on every page, paragraph, or even sentence of their work, but just not get caught doing it by the unsuspecting reader. Here are a few examples that make it look easy:

The soul selects her own society.
Emily Dickinson

I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me.
George Orwell, A Hanging

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. . . .
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Strips of tinfoil winking like people
Sylvia Plath, “The Bee Meeting

Soft language issued from their spitless lips as they swished in low circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds, dragging their long tails amid the rattling canisters.
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

And here’s an example of what can happen when the writer is paid by the word:

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

A word of warning, if Melville was not enough: do not ruin these stylistic tools by making them the latest and greatest thing since the introduction of articles, or the letter S, or the comma. Learn the music; learn your own song and voice. Here are a couple surefire ways to become proficient at using Assonance and Alliteration.

1. Read! Read a lot! Read across genres, across types, poetry, prose, essay, and everything in between. Find the writers who use these tools well.

2. Jump right in without looking. See how it feels. Try it out on your beta readers, or your writing group, or even your mom, girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other (although moms are notoriously as reliable as Holden Caulfield).

Your readers may say, “Ooo, aahh, something is wrong here, but I think I like it.” Or “Hey, you’re really trying to be literary here, aren’t you?” Congratulations. You’ve just expanded your repertoire as a writer, probably for the better, and it can be fun, the reason most of us started writing in the first place.

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.