Alliteration Is Not A Novel Technique

Ugh. This one again.

If you hang out around this blog often (and given its next-to-random update schedule, I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t), you’ll have picked up that I do a bit of tutoring. I generally tutor primary and early high school students. This leads to a lot of hair-tearing on my part.

Not because of the students, mind. The students are usually lovely human beings and it’s great fun to work with them. No, it’s the curriculum that gets me most of the time.

Teachers, I am so, so sorry.

For one reason or another, there seem to be some “rules” taught in English classes whose purpose I am at a total loss to explain. Some of the worst habits I’ve ever seen in writing come from high school English classes.

Some of them, I kinda get. I mean, as much as I will detest the phrase “said is dead” with every corner of my ink-stained soul until the day it’s expunged from infographics everywhere and the earth on which it grew salted and torched as befits its kind, I also kinda get it. One of the things that English class is set up to teach at a primary-early high school level is vocabulary. People don’t enjoy learning vocabulary when you’re just teaching lists of words and definitions (and I would argue that they learn it very badly that way, without context to provide the connotation nuance you miss in the dictionary). So the solution, obviously, is to encourage students to learn new vocabulary words as organically as possible. You’re already making them write, so you attach a reward system to using new vocabulary, and provide examples. And so, the lists of synonyms. It’s not pretty, but it does the job it was supposed to do. It’s just also fallen out of fashion in recent writing styles.

I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.

No, the one that really haunts my dreams is the List of Rhetorical Techniques that gets drilled into students these days.

I had all but forgotten about these, you know. I had buried them deep in the recesses of my brain, along with the antidifferentiation formulae and the word-perfect definitions of the Stroop effect and the King Phil mnemonic.

And then a student brought them up to me again, because it was time for the next group of students to have them introduced and it all came flooding back to me. Appeals (to authority, to safety, to community, to any noun you can come up with that people might occasionally feel emotions about), rhetorical questions, metaphors, similes, imagery (which is somehow its own, vaguely-defined catchall term for anything that goes hand in hand with the word ‘invoke’ in an essay topic).

Alliteration.

I despise alliteration.

Let’s back up for a moment.

Despite my sarcasm in the previous paragraph, the Rhetorical Techniques is actually one of my favourite parts of the English curriculum. Why? It gets students to think about how words are used to create certain impressions, feelings, and opinions. Whether that goes to learning how to react to them later, or learning how to craft them, that’s valuable (vital) information in today’s clickbait world. They need to be able to look at a given piece of media presented to them and ask “Is this trying to make me think something, and if so, what?”

A lot of my teaching method for those, then, is asking students to explain to me what they think the technique is doing. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch, given that’s what they’re asked to do in their essays anyway.

Every student I have ever tutored has been able to grasp the basics of this. I’ve never had a student who wasn’t able to tell me that an appeal to authority was supposed to make the reader trust the writer, because if experts agree with them, they must be right. Even my youngest students can tell me that when you use a simile or metaphor, if you compare the thing to something unpleasant, you’re trying to make people think it is also unpleasant, and if you compare it to something positive, you’re trying to make people like it. Every student has grasped very quickly that a rhetorical question is both to make the audience feel like they’re in a conversation, which means they feel included, and we like people who make us feel included, so we’re more likely to listen to the writer.

I’ve never, ever had a student that had any clue what alliteration does. Answers ranged from “it sounds nice so people like it” to “it makes the speaker sound smarter because they have a big vocabulary” with a healthy share of blank stares and academic terror in between.

This goes for assonance, too, by the way, the more widespread but far less well-known cousin to alliteration.

I once asked one of my high school teachers that question. The conversation went something like this:

“Why is alliteration on there?”

“It’s a writing technique, just like the others.”

“But it’s only used in poetry! It has nothing to do with novels!”

“Novelists use it, too – here’s an example.”

At that point, I generally stopped asking, which proves both that I was very wrong about it not being used in novels (I held some very embarrassing opinions about writing as a high school student), and that I had very little concept of how to ask the correct question to get the answer I wanted.

However, it’s still telling that I remember endless lectures about the Purpose of Imagery and the Purpose of Appealing, but can’t remember a single teacher ever sitting down and explaining the Purpose of Alliteration/Assonance. I have a muddy recollection of something-something poetry, which is good, and something-something flows well and easy to read.

In other words, “it sounds nice and it makes you sound smart, so people like it.”

I mentioned before that I was wrong. I stand by this statement. See, alliteration is used in novels. It’s used quite frequently, especially in novels where one of the draws is the use of language, not just the plot or the characters.

I will also always stand by my claim that even when a choice in art is not deliberate, it is still meaningful. What I mean by this is that even if a writer chooses to use alliteration because “it sounds nice and makes me sound smart”, it still does something to the story, and it is worth knowing what that is.

The trick here is that I was not entirely wrong above. I was wrong about alliteration being only for poetry. I was right in it being poetic in origin.

Alliteration and assonance are techniques in poetry. They make the words sound “nice” – usually musical. It provides a sound-based link between the words as well as a meaning-based link between words, and holy gosh do our brains love them some links. Adding those connections makes the writing a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the brain or the ear, and it makes a novel sound more like poetry.

So when asking “what does alliteration and assonance do for a novel?” the question boils down to “what does an association with poetry do for this particular piece of writing?”

There are many answers here. For better or worse, poetry these days gives a sense of the ethereal – it’s linked with dreams and nursery rhymes, so a novel with the stylistic effects of poetry, even if without the rhyme and meter, will always be subtly reminiscent of the fairy tale or the bedtime story. This can add whole dimensions of theme to some genres.

Sometimes, a poetic effect on words can soften them. It makes harsh reality seem like a daydream, so a book can get away with describing pretty horrific events while giving the whole thing the gloss of history or a museum piece – often seen in literary fiction about wars. The juxtaposition of aesthetically pleasing with unpleasant events can also make it more obvious how terrible the events really were, without the author having to resort to gore and shock tactics to get across the brutality of the things the novel describes.

And sometimes, the nod to poetry can put the reader in the frame of mind of rhyme and meter, so adding alliteration and assonance emphasises the flow of the words in the novel further – creating a more gripping, rhythmic read. I’d be interested to see a thriller try this tack. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done (though film noir comes close), but I would be very interested to see it attempted.

Here’s the point: the crux of the issue. All of those things described above are way beyond what I would expect the average high schooler to understand just by reading. Heck, it took me, a complete word-nerd, more than five years after high school ended to even come close to an answer. Would I have gotten it earlier if a teacher had sat me down and taken me through it? Almost certainly. But I’ve not yet met a teacher who did.

Plus, this is a comparatively advanced technique, writing-wise. I mean, we’re talking about adjusting individual words to reflect choices affecting genre, theme, tone and message all at once. And they’re trying to teach it alongside getting students to think about how they choose metaphors to suit tone and message. My problem isn’t that students aren’t smart enough to understand it, it’s that they’re usually not experienced enough to either describe it or apply it. Not if they’ve only been working through the school curriculum at the curriculum’s pace. It’s the difference between teaching a new Russian learner how to have a simple conversation in Russian and practicing with them, and giving them a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and a dictionary and telling them “Have fun – if you get stuck, Google it!” Sure, they’ll eventually learn the grammar rules and vocab simply by immersion, but it isn’t efficient, it’s likely to cause frustration and tears, and it’s about as applicable to everyday use as the much-maligned chocolate kettle.

Listen – I will admit, nowadays, that alliteration and assonance have their uses. But like so many other things I hate about the school curriculum, it boils down to this: Teach it right, or don’t teach it at all.

At least you can eat the chocolate kettle.

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