One mark of an advanced writer is their use of figurative language. An on-level writer might use figurative language correctly but will rely heavily on clichés. An advanced writer will surprise us with interesting, often more nuanced use of figurative language. And nowhere is this more apparent than with alliteration.
Most of my students’ alliteration sounded like this:
Billy’s beautiful birds bit blueberries by Billy’s basket!
Alliteration always became tongue-twisters or Seussian nonsense. I wondered: is there really no way to use alliteration without it becoming silly?
Just as Coco Chanel recommending removing one accessory before leaving the house, we can ask students to aim for less alliteration in their writing.
Here’s an example:
The tiny tip of the tailor’s needle twinkled in the twilight.
There are 11 words total and only 5 start with a T, yet the effect is quite clear (bonus for that ‘tw’ sound near the end, too).
Juan’s backpack bulged with books, pulling his body backward as he left his bus.
There are 14 words in this sentence and 6 start with a Buh-sound. Less than half, but it’s still noticeable. There’s definitely a pattern, but it’s not silly like the original bird example where EVERY word started with a “buh.”
So my advice for students is, when employing alliteration, aim for around 50% rather than 100%. It will be powerful, but not ridiculous.
Not Just The Beginning
When teaching figurative language, I love to see how Shakespeare used a particular technique (often relying on the fantastic resource Shakespeare’s Wordcraft). In this case, I moved students from alliteration (just the starting sound) to the more general technique of consonance, in which sounds can repeat within or at the end of words as well.
Here’s an example from Macbeth. Check out those great “F” sounds:
Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well
Or, from Sonnet 1, enjoy those “E” sounds in the middle of words:
His tender heir might bear his memory
Poe’s The Raven is absolutely oozing with consonance. I love how the “S” sound moves around the words in this bit:
the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
So, rather than just repeating starting sounds, my students can aim for consonance, like so:
The stubborn boy nibbled at his kebab and rubbed his grubby hands on his bib.
Now, I’d actually write this out in real-time in front of my students to show how much work it takes to create great figurative language. For this example, I used several online dictionaries that let me search within words as well as a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. Originally I had “burger,” but then I found the far better word “kebab”!
So hopefully these tips will help your students move beyond the most clichéd use of alliteration towards something a bit more subtle and interesting. I also teach this lesson directly over at Byrdseed.TV.
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