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Adding Sound to your Prose
When it comes to writing prose, it’s easy to overlook the value of the sound of the words we choose. Issues of word meaning, usage, and sentence structure tend to dominate our attention when editing a draft. But in the pursuit of excellent prose, it can be useful to borrow a few techniques from poetry. Poets understand that sound enriches writing and connects with the reader on a level all its own. For this post, I’ve chosen four techniques that can add sound effects to your writing. Though each of them can be distracting and call attention to the writing if overused, all of them can enhance your writing if used with care. Alliteration: Alliteration occurs when two or more words in a sentence or phrase begin with the same consonant sound.
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
—Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Here, from, forth, fatal, foes, lovers, life are examples of alliteration.
"...neither of those can feel stranger and stronger emotions than the man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunted sperm whale."
—Melville’s Moby Dick
This is not only a great example of alliteration—stranger, stronger, for, first, finds, charmed, churned—but it also exemplifies the technique of assonance, described below—churned, circle, sperm. Assonance: Similar to alliteration, assonance occurs when a vowel sound is repeated several times in a sentence or phrase.
“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
This is one of my favorite lines in all of literature because it’s not only incredibly musical but also conveys so much of the narrator’s affection for Lolita. It accomplishes so much by employing not only assonance—tip, trip, palate, tap, at—but also alliteration—tongue, taking, trip, tap, teeth. Consonance: Consonance is also similar to alliteration in that it concerns the repetition of consonant sounds, but it focuses instead on the sound at the end of the word.
“I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition.”
—Also Nabokov’s Lolita
Consonance occurs in the repetition of the “t” sound in the words it, most, difficult, adequate, that, impact, passionate. Onomatopoeia: Onomatopoeia refers to the use of words that sound like what they mean. Creak, swoosh, gurgle, and clang are all examples of onomatopoeia.
"Who, nothing hurt withal, hissed him in scorn"
—Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Here, hissed is an example of onomatopoeia.
"After a time he began to wander about, going lippity—lippity—not very fast, and looking all around."
—Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit
Lippity is an example of onomatopoeia in this sentence. The meaning of the word is contained in its sound. What do you think of the use of sound in prose writing? Do you think it enriches or distracts? Do you ever incorporate it into your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!