In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
Previously in this series:
The Rule: Avoid Alliteration, Always
The pithy way this rule is usually stated is derived from a 1986 Writers Digest article by Frank L. Visco which took the form of a list of “rules” the author had “learnt” (sic) over the course of his writing career. The article, which has been quoted in numerous places, has been circulated widely, especially in recent years, through meme culture and social media. The statement in question leads off the set of rules, in which the statement of each rule violates the very principle it purports to teach.
While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, the rules it professes are, by and large, considered “good” advice by the writing community.
Alliteration, especially when done excessively, is supposed to be distracting. It supposedly takes the reader out of the story and makes them focus on the delivery rather than the content.
There is a long tradition of using alliteration in English language literature. In fact, alliteration has been there right from the beginning. Anglo-Saxon epics, such as Beowulf, which is considered by many to be the first foundational text of English literature, is built around an alliterative structure. Seamus Heaney’s landmark verse translation keeps this structure, and his translator’s introduction explains his methods, the anonymous poet’s techniques, and the traditions upon which they both draw better than I ever could.
Shakespeare used alliteration (Love’s Labour Lost, for example), but I’d like to begin our discussion in earnest with a poet from the next generation, Alexander Pope whose poem Sound and Sense is both a poem and an instruction manual for writing poetry. Throughout the sonnet, Pope uses the techniques he wants his reader to learn, most of which have to do with the sound the language make, including alliteration, but also rhythm, meter, assonance, and consonance. These devices are categorized as “sound and sense” devices to this day. In the couplet that gives the poem its title, Pope writes:
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
This couplet states the poem’s argument, which is that the poet–or any writer for that matter–should use their devices in harmony with, or to accentuate the content and/or message, of the piece. Throughout the piece, Pope uses the devices he intends to teach, but does not name them explicitly.
Pope employs alliteration throughout the poem, including in the above-quoted couplet. The leading “S” sound is repeated 3 times in the stanza’s second line, and five times in the next couplet:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
The alliterative sound is not necessarily in consecutive words, which is actually the correct way to write alliteration. As least where poetry is concerned, alliteration is not, as it’s commonly defined the repetition of a sound at the beginning of a word, it’s actually the repetition of that sound on the stressed syllable.
One of my favorite examples comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
The repeated S sound occurs at the beginning of “silken” and “sad,” but in the middle of “uncertain” and “rustling.” But read the line out loud. Notice how the S sound falls on the stressed syllable, whether it comes at the beginning of the word or not:
AND the SILken, SAD, unCERtain RUStling
If you transpose “silken” and “sad”, the alliteration won’t read as well, first, because of the meter, and secondly, because the alliteration won’t sound as natural.
The reason Poe’s line works so well is that the sound does, indeed, echo the sense. Not only is there an onomatopoeia in the “s” sound, which mimics the curtains rustling in the wind, but the hypnotic use of alliteration combines with the trochaic meter–the opposite of iambic, which is the most common English language meter–highlights the dream-like quality of the encounter (“while I nodded nearly napping”; the nightmarish Raven perched atop the bust of Athena, a symbol of rationality)–to “shush” the reader to that dream state with the repeated, soporific “s” sound.
She wends her way around her walk
And round and round she goes.
Scanning the opening line, we get:
she WENDS her WAY aROUND her WALK
The alliterative “w” sound is used on the stressed syllable (although I use iambic rather than trochaic meter in this poem.)
Some might say that alliteration is an antiquated device found mostly in older poems (and poems like mine which pay homage to them), but modern poets use alliteration prominently as well.
The first line of the excerpt employs alliteration in the same manner as Poe. The D sound is repeated on the stressed syllable. Later in the excerpt, Gorman uses alliteration in a similar manner to an anglo-saxon poet, as she moves the “f” sound around to different places in her lines.
Later in the collection, Gorman highlights alliteration as an essential literary technique, one which defines the poet, and speaks to the power of poetry. In her poem “Memorial”, Gorman writes:
But why alliteration?
Why the pulsing percussion, the string of syllables?
It is the poet who pounds the past back into you.
Thus, arguably the biggest contemporary superstar in poetry (is that even arguable at this point?) uses alliteration in her poetry.
Gorman, Poe, Pope, and the Beowulf poet refuse to avoid alliteration; the rest of us should follow their example.
Alliteration works in non-poetic writing as well. One of my favorite examples of alliteration in prose writing comes from Charles Dickens’ description of the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities:
Deep ditches, double drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. Through the fire and through the smoke — in the fire and in the smoke, for the sea cast him up against a cannon, and on the instant he became a cannonier — Defarge of the wine-shop worked like a manful soldier, Two fierce hours.
Deep ditch, single drawbridge, massive stone walls, eight great towers, cannon, muskets, fire and smoke. One drawbridge down! “Work, comrades all, work! Work, Jacques One, Jacques Two, Jacques One Thousand, Jacques Two Thousand, Jacques Five-and-Twenty Thousand; in the name of all the Angels or the Devils — which you prefer — work!”Thus Defarge of the wine-shop, still at his gun, which had long grown hot.
In the first line of each of the two excerpted paragraphs, Dickens uses similar phrases which feature alliteration. In each example, Dickens’ uses the repeated hard “d” sound to represent the thud of the cannons against the walls of The Bastille. Like Poe’s, Dickens’ alliteration is also onomatopoeia, and, therefore, as Pope advises, even in prose, the sound echoes the sense. Moreover, the missing “d” in the second paragraph highlights the fact that one of the two drawbridges has been taken out by the rebels’ cannons. The missing “d” sound highlights the missing drawbridge.
Another more modern example is found in the film V for Vendetta, written by the Wachowskis and directed by James McTeigue. In one of the most popular scenes from the film, V, played by Hugo Weaving, gives a speech in which nearly every word begins with the letter “v,” in tribute to the Alan Moore’s comic which inspired the movie, in which each chapter title is a “v” word (in fact, many of the “v” words used in the speech are taken directly from those chapter titles).
When I watched the movie in the theater, this speech drew appreciative applause from the audience, who seemed thrilled by the alliteration as the speech built to a crescendo–take that, Frank L. Visco!
Of course V for Vendetta followed a long tradition of comic book alliteration. The great Stan Lee loved alliteration, especially when naming characters: Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Read Richards, Matt Murdock, The Fantastic Four, the list goes on.
I could go on as well, but I think I’ve made my point.
So, why is alliteration looked down upon? It seems that it’s because people misinterpreted a joke. Visco, who ironically uses alliteration to criticize its use, was clearly writing tongue-in-cheek. One could even say that the fact he opens with the alliteration “rule” shows he recognizes its power. Meme culture has contributed to the proliferation of Visco’s rules, and, as with so many other things, its has stripped the the original article of its context.
While it is true that alliteration can take a reader out of the story or be distracting if its used poorly, the same could be said for any literary technique. A bad simile or metaphor will take the reader out of the writing just as quickly; poor rhythm in poetry will do the same. Any device can be overused, and the writer must strive use them all judiciously. That is true about alliteration, but it is not unique to alliteration.
The fact is that proper alliteration makes writing memorable, which is why it often used in marketing. It is a signature device of writers ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, to Stan Lee, Charles Dickens, to Amanda Gorman.
Avoid it at your peril.