Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 2)

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

In Part 1, we looked at how onomatopoeia and phonetic intensives can help you evoke emotion in your readers when writing emotionally detached characters. Today we will look at two additional sound-related poetic tools that can be carefully crafted to obtain your desired effect and keep your reader engaged.

Poetic Tool #3: Assonance

The long o sound we just looked at is not only an example of the use of phonetic intensives, it is also an example of assonance. Assonance is defined by Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft as the correspondence of vowel sounds in words.

In the following passages from Quaking, the assonance is prominent:

“leering at me, sneering” (Erskine 44)

“his oily voice” (Erskine 45)

“I see his greasy black hair” (Erskine 45)

The context of each of these lines is the presence of Matt’s bully, Rat, and she does not express her emotions at all. Instead, the repetition of vowel sounds in these examples evokes a feeling of unsteadiness and invasion – exactly what Matt must feel but can’t express.

Poetic Tool #4: Consonance

In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky defines consonance as “a repeated consonant sound, as in ‘stroke’ and ‘ache'” (124). Erskine repeats a k/ck sound in the following passages in the context of Matt’s encounters with the Rat:

“His dark hair is rigid and sticks out at the back of his neck” (15)

“His panicked eyes flit around the parking lot” (82).

In this last example, Matt witnesses the Rat’s fear of his own father – a fear she recognizes but cannot name. The repeated k/ck sound is choppy and evokes an uneasy, jittery feeling – the kind Matt was likely experiencing in this scene.

Alliteration is a form of consonance in which there is a correspondence of consonants at the beginning of words or stressed syllables (Burroway 370). Another form of consonance is sibilance, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as an undue prominence of the hissing s sound. Consonance can have a magnifying effect when writers carefully craft their sentences. In the following sentence from Quaking, a general play with consonant sounds results in a very sinister-sounding section:

‘“Chicken-shit!’ the Rat yells in my face, and I clutch my chest but I leave a chink exposed and his elbow catches my rib. He shoves me and I fall to the floor” (Erskine 217).

The hissing “s” and “sh” sounds are sibilant:

shit                  yells                 face                 chest                exposed          catches           

The ‘ch’ sound alliterates at the beginning and middle of some words,

chicken            clutch              chest                chink               catches

furthermore, consonance is developed with the “t” sound,

shit                  Rat                  chest   

and the “k/ck” sound,

chicken            chink  

These sounds all echo each other, thereby increasing the menacing nature of this passage. Because of careful word choices the reader gets the feeling of fear and loss of control that the emotionally detached protagonist either does not admit to or cannot describe.

Poets rely on the sounds of language to evoke emotion in their readers.  Onomatopoeia, phonetic intensives, assonance, consonance are among the many tools they use to achieve this. While these tools will beautify and intensify prose with any kind of character, poetic language is especially invaluable for evoking the emotion that ventures beyond the emotional vocabulary and awareness of those characters who are emotionally detached.

Be sure you didn’t miss the first half of this article: Engaging the Heart – Part 1

Jen Bailey Author PhotoJen Bailey lives in Ottawa, Ontario and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves playing around with rhythm and sound in her writing. Should you like that kind of thing too, she recommends you read Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, and any poetry you can get your hands on.

Follow her musings on writers’ craft and the writing life at writefiercely.wordpress.com

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.
Erskine, Kathryn. Quaking. New York: Philomel Books, 2007. Print.
Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Print.

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