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Rhetorical Devices in Literature and Speech

by Don Daniels, “The Rhetorical Oracle”

Do you want to write good fiction? Or great fiction?

Somerset Maugham was addressing a friend’s class on English literature when a student asked him, “How do you write a great novel?” Maugham replied: “There are three rules for the writing of a great novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Of course, that’s just a witticism. It wasn’t actually true, and not just about there being three rules. It also isn’t true that nobody knows what they are. Because you know what they are. I know what they are. Any writer knows what they are. All writers know what they are. We just can’t agree on what they are because we all have at least three rules of our own.

Let me share mine, and why I choose these three:

Great fiction must have memorable characters. Great fiction must have unforgettable scenes. Great fiction must have inspiring lines. And the reason why: Because a work of fiction cannot possibly achieve greatness if people don’t remember reading it!

So, how do you make people remember? For that, we turn to the magic of rhetoric. Most people correctly associate rhetoric with speech, But what is rhetoric, exactly?

rhet·o·ric (noun)

1. the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.

You have probably already been using many of them, not knowing that have names. Like most writers, you do a lot of reading and you’ll have seen them even if you didn’t know what they were called. In these articles, you’ll learn their names and how they are most effectively used. You probably began consciously using similes and metaphors in middle school, after you learned what those rhetorical devices were called. The rhetorical devices we’ll be looking at in this continuing series are less common; however, using them is no more difficult.


We can start with anaphora since it is an introductory technique. That’s what it’s called when you repeat an introductory word or words in successive clauses or sentences. You probably first encountered this in a children’s book such as Green Eggs and Ham. Remember?

I do not like them in a house.

I do not like them with a mouse.

I do not like them here or there.

I do not like them anywhere.

Winston Churchill and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. were probably two of the best orators of the twentieth century and devices like these are why lines from their speeches are so inspiring:

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

In the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

When you write you use your literary voice, so you can effectively use rhetorical devices. I used Great fiction must have as an anaphora in the introduction in this article:

Next: epistrophe

Let me bookend this entry with the opposite-end technique: epistrophe is the repetition of the same words or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Probably the example most of us here in the United States will remember is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

From The Grapes Of Wrath:

The big sycamore by the creek was gone. The willow tangle was gone. The little enclave of untrodden bluegrass was gone. The clump of dogwood on the little rise across the creek - now that, too, was gone.

In my introduction, I turned knows what they are into an epistrophe. Another great technique is to juxtapose both of these and even blend them together; use the same or similar words, as anaphora and epistrophe in the same passage. In another part of the same speech:

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannotbe satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can neverbe satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

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