June 28, 2017



Rhetoric is the art of persuasion through manipulated language and is as old as language itself. Aristotle, writing about rhetors (orators) and less cynical than I am, thought that the best orators detected ‘the persuasive aspect of each matter.’ Maybe he didn’t mean style over substance (or maybe he did) but there is no doubt stylistic devices used in rhetoric today often play on human weaknesses rather than logic.


Kids are good at rhetoric, although they tend to limit themselves to just one of the stylistic devices: repetition—also called amplification (I want, I want, I want). Politicians and dictators are brilliant at it because it can make bollocks sound perfectly sensible, and it enables questions to be sidestepped by soundbites. Watching a man in uniform speaking on TV back in the 90s in a communist country I won’t name, I asked my host to translate.  ‘Our country is overrun by rats. Infested by rats. There is only one way to deal with rats,’ was the gist of it. For a brief moment I fell into the trap of concluding ‘yes, exterminate them,’ before thinking, hang on, he’s talking about people!


We all use rhetoric without realising but, as writers, we should understand the science of it for a very good reason: characterisation and voice. In fiction, you as the author will draw characters. If you’re any good your reader will know which character’s speaking at any one time by their ‘voice’ (style of speaking/thinking) and a character favouring certain rhetorical devices over others can help establish that distinctive voice.


Your characters will also have points of view and they will argue and disagree because conflict is what engages a reader. Unless you put convincing arguments/opinions in the mouths or minds of both protagonists and antagonists, those conflicts will fall flat. Nobody intentionally acts monstrously. Monsters rationalise their actions, no matter how awful. Stalin thought he was the saviour of Russia not the mass murderer of his country’s men and women. Those bigots and racist, those cold-hearted capitalists, murderers, terrorists, wife beaters, rapists, delinquents and bank robbers who populate your novel will only truly exist in your readers’ imagination as ‘real’ people if they convincingly defend their actions. Some guilt maybe, maybe a lot, but also justification that will engage the readers’ sympathy, however briefly. How do you justify the unjustifiable? By rhetoric of course.


Some common devices in addition to repetition and metaphor for the rhetoric master:


Allusion (a passing reference to a person, thing or event): ‘You call me as you once called Nelson Mandella, a terrorist. What will you call me tomorrow?’ 


Antithesis (a striking juxtaposition of opposites): ‘You worship God, but you love the devil in me.’


Hyperbole (exaggeration): ‘I work every minute of every day just for you, my people.’


Enumeratio (making a point with detail): ‘I locked myself in a room, put chairs up against the door, sealed the windows and chained myself to the floor, but there’s no stopping me when I turn green.’ Ps, the detail doesn’t have to be accurate. Donald Trump recently detailed all of the jobs he’d created since taking office. Time magazine examined the claims and found them to be inaccurate. But so what? Detail is persuasive even if it’s bollocks, and maybe Donald wasn’t interested in facts but prestige.


Epithet (an adjective or descriptive phrase): ‘He deserved to die, he was a dirty old man.’


Metanoia (qualification of a statement for effect). ‘You are the bravest soldiers in Britain. No, surely the bravest in the world!’


Analogy (like a simile but longer). ‘I’m like a pussycat, waiting to be stroked and ready to pounce.’


Anaphora (also repetition but this time repeating a word or phrase in successive phrases). ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields…’


There are many other rhetorical devices, flattery, understatement and false modesty for instance, and what they have in common is poetic licence. Poetic devices like rhythm and rhyme, too, all with the aim of persuading by stimulating feelings over fact (notice the alliteration of ‘feelings over fact’, that’s rhetoric). Used well, playing on the prejudices and ignorance within us all and our susceptibility to the music of language, it’s a fabulous tool for writers.


Next week: I read an interesting article last week about a once struggling but now successful writer. It gives hope for us all, so I’ve decided the next post will be about the journey to publication and sales. There aren’t any easy, quick or surefire answers (unless your dad or mum’s a publisher and dotes on you), only the hard-slog route that may lead nowhere.



Book review/recommendation: The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings


A story of interconnecting lives and times, of real and surreal moments, of fact mixed with fiction. Three characters, a mathematical genius, a performer desperately wanting fame and a people trafficker, loosely connect and disconnect as others live and die around them. Never have rats been more nightmarish. Never did I think I could sympathise with a people smuggler who uses illegal immigrants to remove the asphyxiated bodies of his trade from the back of a truck. It’s from that horrendous incident that the story evolves. It’s a mind-bending look at globalisation, of modern life’s unfathomability (or maybe not), and I didn’t fully understand it. Yet I enjoyed it immensely.

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