Effect of Alliteration: Handy or Pointless Literary Device?

Pencils ready to practise the effect of alliteration
Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash

If you’re a creative writer, it’s likely you’ve already caught yourself alliterating a few times and wondered whether to keep that special phrase or not. Ask around about this device and you’ll find divided opinions. Some writers and readers consider it a fluffy descriptive tool of a bygone era. Others quite enjoy its playfulness.

This article is here to discuss what the effect of alliteration is compared to other literary devices. Why use it? When to avoid it? While the answers to these questions are subjective, it’s valuable to think about where you stand as a writer. And to know that you’re not alone in your love for fun artistic expression. Let’s start simple…

What Is Alliteration?

Basically, you alliterate when you start adjacent or closely placed words with the same letter. As in: ‘The sweet sparrow sang me a song’. The term originates from the 17th-century New Latin alliteratio, derived in turn from allitero (ad ‘to, near’ + littera ‘letter’). The humanist Giovanni Pontano coined it for his dialogue Actius (1507), which discussed the literary device already popular among writers.

Literary Devices Similar to Alliteration

  • Assonance: repeating vowel sounds in a sentence
  • Consonance: repeating consonant sounds
  • Sibilance: stressing soft consonants to create hissing or other airy effects

How to Use Alliteration

Looking at the differences between these writing techniques, you could say that the effect of alliteration is the simplest to accomplish. Consequently, it’s also the easiest to overuse. And this is where the problem lies. There’s actually nothing wrong with this device, as long as it’s in the right place at the right time. A great modern example? That awesome V for Vendetta alliteration.

What V’s speech teaches us about intricate wordplay:

  1. It can be very impressive and memorable
  2. It grabs your attention
  3. You may feel like revisiting and dissecting it
  4. Not all audiences will appreciate it
  5. It can make the writer, narrator or character sound quite mad

So the first thing to remember is to handle alliteration – and all such literary devices – with care. Now, let’s break down how to decide whether the technique is appropriate and what would make it work within the text.

Accidental or Intentional?

Some writers – poets in particular – enjoy playing with words and creating works filled with linguistic tricks. They can be wonderful to experience, but also difficult to absorb without some effort.

If you go down this route and intentionally include alliteration, be very careful of the way and frequency with which you use it. Also make sure you have reliable and honest readers ready to render their insightful ruling. 😁

It’s normal for alliterations to come out naturally as you write, but the general consensus is that you should probably rephrase on the spot. The device can make your writing feel forced, cluttered, pompous even.

Not ideal if, for example, you’re composing a story about everyday life. While there are, of course, different ways of narrating such themes, including highly creative ones, always keep your target audience in mind and what you’re trying to make them feel.

Think about when you’re telling a friend about a sad moment in your life. How seriously would they take you if you suddenly started rhyming? On the other hand, a scary true story round the campfire can become that much more chilling with a few well-timed effects sprinkled throughout.

How Does Alliteration Help the Text?

This is a vital question to ask yourself when considering whether to keep that accidental wordplay or not. Linguistic features exist to give texture and character to your writing style, but there’s a limit to how much flair each text can take.

The best advice is to practise working alliteration effects into narratives without disrupting their flow. Here’s a great example:

Up the aisle, the moans and screams merged with the sickening smell of woolen black clothes worn in summer weather and green leaves wilting over yellow flowers.

Maya Angelou, I Know why the caged bird sings

You have pretty much all the literary devices mentioned above. But, most importantly, the alliterations are spread out gracefully across the passage. They help create sounds and sensations that draw the reader into the story.

The lesson to take from this is: don’t stick alliterating words too close together. If they do have a role to play in the narrative, rewrite the sentence so they fit in naturally.

Does It Suit Your Purpose?

This point should drive all your storytelling efforts. It’s your tale to tell, so only you get to decide how it’s to be structured. But to do that you need an actual plan, consisting of the narrative’s exact purpose and your authorial voice – click through and find out how to develop this.

Then, when thinking about literary features, it will be easier to pick and choose the right ones for each text you’re working on. It’s so tempting to use everything in your arsenal, but, unless you’re just having fun, don’t do it! The hardest stage in creative writing is learning to reign in that artistic passion and use it strategically instead.

Is It Easy to Read and Understand?

Woman covering her face with a book - effect of alliteration guide
Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

This simple question is at the heart of all this discussion. If the alliteration and any other devices used are making the text illegible, especially for your target audience, then what’s the point of writing it? That’s why you have to be strict with yourself and cut away elements that don’t fit your purpose. The finely tuned wordplays that do remain should then stand out for all the right reasons.

Conclusion

Literary devices are fun to experiment with. However, when it comes to stories you intend to publish in one way or another, you don’t want to overuse them. Alliteration is a pattern that appears too easily and is often just left because you think it looks good. While it definitely can enrich narration, it usually takes a bit more planning and tweaking to accomplish. The key is to read works that use it well and to practise merging the effect of alliteration with ideas of your own.

Have more tips on how to use this tricky device? Comment below or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter.

Your story’s point of view affects its style and features. Why not work on understanding that better and think about how alliteration could be applied to it? Book Breath’s guide on choosing a POV can help.

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Author: Electra Nanou

Wordy weirdo

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