Enrich Your Prose with Figurative Language
Our word choices can either enrich or flat-line our prose. The sound of words combined together in a sentence can enhance our readers’ enjoyment of our writing, or invoke less positive emotional responses. Let’s look at three of the more common elements of figurative language that affect a word’s sound: alliteration, assonance, and consonance.
Alliteration—words that begin with the same vowel or consonant.
Note the words beginning with the consonant “s” in the examples from Susan May Warren’s novel, Sons of Thunder. Also notice the hard “k” sounds in sky, slicked, skin, and shank; and the “r” (and “d”) sounds in appeared, ruddy, reedy, and version.
"Under the wine-soaked sky, he appeared every inch the ruddy fisherman’s son, a younger, reedy version of Markos, with his salt-slicked skin, a dark shank of hair tumbling over his eyes."—Sons of Thunder
"Just because we serve it to swine doesn’t make it slop. Ava’s quiet voice spilled inside like a drink. No, not slop."—Thunder
In the example from The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver uses alliteration in words beginning with “b” and “c.”
"We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle . . . and the Lord knows (…) they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”—Poisonwood Bible
Assonance—words that may not begin with the same vowel but share an exact-sounding vowel embedded in the word.
Note the embedded "u" sounds in this excerpt and the alliterated consonant “p” in the first example.
"Even if Dino managed to swim into the puckered lips of the cavern, the cave had already begun to fill and soon would engulf the escape, perhaps purge any air supply from the deep veins inside."—Sons of Thunder
Kingsolver uses words embedded with a long “a” sound in way, baking, and bread, and a long “oo” sound in cook, good, wood. She also uses alliteration in baking bread, tender thing, fire first, and die down.
"The only way to get a slow heat for baking bread or cooking a tender thing like an omelet is to build up a big fire first with good, stout wood and then cook while the coals die slowly down."—Poisonwood Bible
Consonance—words that may not begin with the same consonant but share an exact-sounding consonant embedded in the word.
Note the embedded "r" sound in this excerpt from Sons of Thunder. Warren also uses the hard “k” sound in dark, caught, back, black, and scarf, and alliteration in appeared, apron, and around. Just as an aside, I also like the way she implies the passage of time with words and phrases like today, this moment, and lines of tradition.
"Today, this moment, Ava Stavros appeared every bit the mother of the groom, lines of tradition worked into her brow, her long dark hair caught back in a black scarf, an apron around her sturdy form."—
Sons of Thunder
Now it’s your turn. Look for examples of alliteration, assonance, and consonance in your prose. Were they planned or accidental? Do they work? By that, I mean, do they sound pleasing to the ear or over written? You can judge best what you like. Look for examples in the prose of authors who incorporate figurative language in their writing. Your tastes may not lead you to write, as Susan May Warren does, lyrically, almost poetically. But be aware of your word choices and make them work for you to set tone and mood of your prose as well as support your themes.