As a writer, it’s important to have many different tools in your toolbox. One of the most important tools is alliteration (sometimes also referred to as head rhyme).
Word alliteration is just as important for fiction and non-fiction writers as it is for poets. Despite this, many writers have never taken the time to master the art. Many writers, in fact, regularly ask themselves, “what is alliteration?”
By mastering the art of creating alliterative phrases, you can sharpen your writing in no time.
What is alliteration?
Alliteration refers to the repetition of similar consonant sounds in a short series at the beginning of two or more words or stressed syllables. The effect is to give a more lyrical and flowing quality to a writer’s prose.
When a word begins with the same consonant sound as other nearby words, a reader immediately takes notice. The use of a repeated consonant sound helps to make writing more memorable, even when words starting with a different letter are placed between the alliteration. In fact, a bit of space between alliterative word scan sometimes make them have more of an impact.
For example, children often grow up hearing and repeating the old tongue twister “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?” In this example, the initial sound of these consonants is repeated to make it difficult to say aloud. But it also has the effect of making the tongue-twister something that people are far likelier to remember into adulthood.
Examples of alliteration in fiction
Fiction is filled with many examples of writers using alliteration to create rhythm. A great example of alliteration is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where the Bard uses alliteration to create a more memorable introduction to the feud between Montagues and Capulets:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.
Just as alliteration can make the introduction to a story very memorable, it can also make endings memorable. Take, for example, this downright haunting example of alliteration from the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatbsy:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Throughout literature, alliteration has helped captivate readers.
Why use alliteration in fiction?
The primary purpose of using alliteration in fiction is to create memorable lines that have a more musical effect. For instance, many remember Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” fondly thanks to its memorable use of alliteration. By using it skillfully yourself, you can give your writing the lyrical and flowing quality of a good song.
With that in mind, alliteration should be used sparingly in fiction. As our earlier alliteration examples indicate, many great writers have had immense success using it to create memorable beginnings, endings, and other passages. But if you rely on it too much, then it may cheapen the effect for your readers.
Using alliterative words to create memorable names
It’s an open secret that alliteration helps you create and draw attention to memorable names—that’s why so many business names rely on it. In literature, the repetition of consonant sounds in names can help make characters instantly recognizable.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, alliterative names like Minerva McGonagall and Severus Snape are easy for readers (especially younger readers) to remember.
Comic books and movies based on comic books contain many great alliterative names, usually for a hero’s alter ego. Spider-Man, for example, is really Peter Parker, and Superman is really Clark Kent. The Superman stories in particular are filled with alliterative names, including Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Lex Luthor!
Using alliteration to create a realistic fictional world
Sometimes writers hesitate to use alliteration in their stories because they worry it’ll make the story seem unrealistic. However, when used sparingly, it can actually make your literary world seem much more realistic.
For example, we already discussed how many business names in the real world use alliteration. Everything from Coca-Cola to Dunkin Donuts to PayPal relies on names with similar sounds in order to create a more memorable brand. Names in real life, too, are often alliterative, including Steven Spielberg, Barry Bonds, Marilyn Monroe, and so on.
By peppering in these kinds of alliterations, it makes your literary world feel more lived-in and relatable to readers. After all, two words with the same sound aren’t that uncommon. In fact, it’d probably be weirder if you somehow ended up with no alliterative names in your story!
It’s far rarer for someone to speak alliteratively in real life. Thus, we recommend using alliteration in dialogue and narration a bit more sparingly.
Examples of alliteration in poetry
While alliteration works well as a literary device in fiction, it really shines in poetry. In fact, you could argue that alliteration has historically been more of a poetic device than a literary device.
To that end, there are many great examples of alliteration in fiction and even more alliteration examples in poetry.
In Poe’s “The Raven,” alliteration dominates each line to great effect:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.
Here, the use of alliteration enhances the initial rhyme scheme and makes each line more vivid, showing us Poe’s mastery of this particular poetic device.
Another classic example of alliteration in poetry comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here, the writer alliterates across different lines rather than in the same lines, and this creates a sense of flow… very fitting for a story about a man trapped at sea aboard a haunted ship!
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon—’
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.
The bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes
The merry minstrelsy.
In each example of alliteration, we see how it helps grab the audience’s attention almost immediately. Furthermore, this repetition of consonant sounds helps the writers keep the audience paying attention throughout the entirety of the poem.
Why use alliteration in poetry?
The primary reasons for using alliteration in poetry is that it sounds good, establishes mood, and highlights rhythm. Skillful use of alliteration often means the difference between a good poem and a great poem
Using alliteration to set the mood
There has always been a close connection between alliteration and mood. That’s because alliterating words have a different sound and feeling than non-alliterating words. For example, think of another of the classic childhood tongue-twisters: “Sally sells seashells by the seashore.” When read out loud, this poem is hard to say but easy to remember because the frequent s sounds create a simulation of the ocean waves gently washing to the shore.
Putting alliteration into different contexts helps to evoke different moods. In our earlier example, the excerpt from “The Raven” helps highlight the isolation the speaker feels as well as his growing obsession.
In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the writer uses a special form of alliteration involving the repetition of the same words. This helps to evoke the sheer horror of the speaker seeing nothing but fatal cannons all around him:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered.
Here, the cadence of the repeated word “cannon” helps create a sense of dawning horror at the impending doom of so many soldiers.
Using alliteration to highlight rhythm
By adding alliteration to nearby words (not just successive words), you can more easily highlight your poem’s rhythm.
While some poets love free verse, most poets use some kind of rhythm to organize their poetry. However, since poetry is often read silently rather than read aloud, a reader might not immediately notice the rhythm you’re using.
That all changes with alliteration. From the initial sounds of your alliterative verse, readers will pay much closer attention to the poem. In this way, they’re more likely to both understand the rhythm as they read and to remember the poem long afterward. The use of alliteration can also help you create rhythm you might not otherwise have been able to create.
Avoiding cliché alliteration
As great as alliteration is, there is one downside: certain examples of alliteration have become both common and cliché.
For example, we often discuss how a trend well past its prime is “dead as a doornail.” We warn against comparing our own lives to others by saying “the grass is always greener on the other side.” We even encourage people to take control of their lives and situations by telling them to “take a tiger by its tail.”
Alliteration helps make these common examples memorable, but clichés will never help your writing stand out. To make the most of alliteration, you need to come up with more creative uses of this literary device.
The differences between alliterative sounds, assonant sounds, and consonant sounds
It’s easy to assume a writer wants to feature alliteration when you see neighboring words repeating either letters or syllables. However, the writer may instead be using assonance or consonance. If you wish to be both a stronger writer and reader, it’s important to know the difference between these terms.
What is an assonant sound?
We’ve discussed how alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Assonance, meanwhile, refers to the repetition of certain vowel sounds.
We can see an example of assonance in this line from Amy Lowell’s “In a Garden”:
The water fills the garden with its rushing.
Words like “fills,” “with,” “its,” and the -ing in “rushing” show a repeated vowel sound. Her use of vowel sounds in this poem helps her create some of the most memorable and soothing lines in literature.
What is consonant sound?
Consonance refers to the repetition of consonant sounds other than consonants at the beginning of words. To get a better idea of these differences, let’s look at some examples.
One of the more famous examples of consonance is these lines from “Mother to Son,” a poem by Langston Hughes:
“I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark.
Here, the poem repeats a non-initial consonant sound with the repeated use of “in” giving each line a more lyrical quality.
As with assonance, consonance is not restricted to the beginning of words like it is with alliteration is. Unlike alliteration, consonance does not necessarily involve words starting with the same letter.
How to effectively use alliteration
As you can tell, adding alliteration to your writing isn’t hard. But using alliteration to effectively enhance your writing can be much harder.
Fortunately, you can rely on more than our earlier examples of alliteration. Here are some simple tips:
1. Add alliteration after finishing a draft
When it comes to alliteration, it’s far easier for you to add it to your text after you’ve completed a first draft.
There are a few reasons for this. First, in your initial draft, you may want to focus more on fleshing out your characters, expanding your fictional world, and crafting an engaging beginning, middle, and end to your story. Alliteration is more of a stylistic flourish, and it’s easier to add this to what you have written once you have a rough draft under your belt.
2. Choose the right subject
Alliteration is very versatile—it can make certain passages seem more lighthearted in some cases and downright melancholic in other cases. Therefore, its effective use means choosing the right subject to use it on.
You should carefully consider which characters, places, or other thins get alliterative names. The last thing you want is a menacing character to have a lighthearted, alliterative name (and vice versa).
A bit of narrative alliteration can enhance the tension as a character prepares to solve a mystery. Furthermore, a bit of alliterative dialogue is a great way to memorably introduce a new character or even highlight their departure from your story.
3. Find the right words
Our next tip flows directly from the last. Sometimes, the words you choose to be alliterative should complement the mood you’re trying to create. For example, alliterative sibilance (where you start multiple words with an “s” consonant sound) can make dialogue sound whispered. Such alliteration can help any part of your poem or story stand out.
Other times, you may wish to use it to highlight words that are most relevant to either your characters or your story. In our earlier example, Tennyson repeats the word “cannon” to showcase the primary thing that our speaker and his fellow soldiers are worried about. The repitition serves to simulate the feeling of cannon balls firing and falling among the light brigade, making the poem feel more engaging.
4. Use alliteration sparingly
Our last bit of advice is something we’ve touched on before: no matter how you use alliteration, you should use it sparingly.
Alliteration is kind of like a special sauce you can add to enhance certain elements of your rhetoric. Great speakers use alliteration to enhance famous speeches, like when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said,
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
If he had used too much alliteration, the effect would have been much different. But using it to link words like “color,” “content,” and “character” grabs an audience’s attention while also highlighting one of the most important things he has to say.
Become a better writer by mastering alliteration
Alliteration is one of the most powerful tools in your writer’s toolbox. The more tools you have, the more you’ll be able to create, and the better your writing will be.
Chances are that alliteration is responsible for some of the poems and passages you remember very keenly. By adding it to your prose, you can create memorable content that stands the test of time.