Mastering literary devices is like playing an instrument – you must practice improving your performance by working on only a few songs at a time. So how do you practice? First, start with your own writing. Check to see which devices you are already using. For convenience I usually categorize them according to the following types.
Using “musical words” is selecting words for their unique sounds, such as sloshing and crackling, which are examples of onomatopoeia. Long words, like onomatopoeia, seem elegant to the ear, even if their meaning is not. Short words, especially those ending in consonants, have a sharper, slangy ring.
Consonants are not to be confused with consonance which is another device defined as repeating the same consonant within a word, such as spinning and ringing. If you repeat the first sound (for example, special spinning), that is called alliteration. But, don’t worry if you cannot remember these terms, just remember to repeat sounds occasionally for a poetic effect.
Music is recognizable as certain melodies because of repeated sound and rhythms. Repetition can either move the story along or bring it to a screeching halt. Repeating the same sentence structure makes reading easier and picks up the pace. But, too much of this and the writing seems utterly childlike.
A good melody is also marked by different speeds. Short sentences with direct verbs can be the antidote to a dragging pace. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When you drive a car, alternating between the gas and brake pedals jerks the car uncomfortably. That’s not true of writing. Inserting a five word sentence in the middle of long ones creates an interesting contrast.
These literary terms bring us to the last device we will discuss, which is diction. Diction is demonstrated by a distinct choice of words, and the most obvious being the level of formality. If you use colloquialisms or street slang for effect and you are employing diction as a device. Use of passive is also part of diction. Don’t be so quick to condemn passive verbs. They have their place. They create a style that is gentler and less accusatory than its counterpart. “The door was left open, again.” is a bit kinder than “You left the door open, again.”
As you continue to layer on literary devices you will find a piece will reach a saturation point. You don’t want to force the reader to slog through your text. Learning how to handle and apply literary devices with the right touch will help you to “play the words well.”