Stuck in a comfort zone with your creativity? Sure, you’re being original with your stories and characters, but what about your wordsmithing? Are you consciously developing yourself in the craft of putting together words in an original way? Something really tasty at least once on every page to keep your reader salivating for more?
When I aim for something lip-smacking good in the culinary world, I leaf through a cookbook, decide what I want to create (cake? pie? cream puffs?) and find a recipe for it. The literary world offers the same kind of instruction for stirring up goodies, but with the result that we’ve created something deliciously unique. How good is that?
The title of this literary cookbook is bor-ing, but don’t let it fool you. And don’t put it back on the shelf without sampling it, either. Remember, we’re wordsmithing here. You’re working at becoming a better writer, at getting your readers addicted to your sweets. Okay, ready? The title is Figurative Speech. Oh, c’mon, just because it was boring in high school doesn’t mean it is now. You’re a cook, baby! Put on that apron and let’s get going!
This month we’ll look at two literary devices that have similar recipes. The name of the second concoction is frightening, so we’ll start with the familiar, comfortable one—understatement. Simply defined, it’s deliberately representing something as less than it actually is, with the intent of emphasizing its importance or seriousness. So if I say, “I need an operation, but it’s no big deal—it’s just a tiny tumor on my brain,” I’ve used understatement to say, gulp, this is serious!
To craft an understatement, think “deliberate + contrast + significance.” Find the event or situation you want to use and discern what its significance is. In the example I gave above, the situation is the brain tumor and the need for an operation. Its significance is that I might die. Saying “I need an operation because I have a brain tumor” sounds sorta factual, huh? Ramp it up by thinking of a contrast—“it’s no big deal”—and then have the character convey the information deliberately (as opposed to ignorantly, etc.). Now what’s being communicated is not just data but the nuance that it’s so horrible the character can’t express his fear that he might die.
Do you see what the understatement does? It evokes emotion that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The addition of the contrast brings in something unexpected (“it’s no big deal”—wha? when you have a tumor on your brain?), and the refusal to state the outcome (“I might die”) spotlights the speaker’s emotion. He’s scared! The reader, in effect, gets a double whammy—the implication of the facts plus the speaker’s own emotion in dealing with them.
If you understand understatement, you can easily segue into the other literary recipe. It’s actually easier to compose, but harder to pronounce. It’s called litotes (LYE-tuh-teez), but you only need to remember that if you want to impress someone. The litotes is defined as an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. Ha!—and you thought the name was bad! A few examples will show how simple it really is: “The hot blonde was not unpopular with the boys.” “Sam was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.” Yep, just use not plus a description opposite to what you mean. A “nice day” expressed as a litotes is “not a bad day.” (See? How many times have you used that litotes?)
The purpose of the litotes is to emphasize. Look at the difference between saying “The hot blonde was popular with the boys” and “The hot blonde was not unpopular with the boys” (waggle eyebrows). Or the difference between “Sam was the dullest bulb on the Christmas tree” and “Sam was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree” (guffaw). Double whammy again, yes?
Use understatement and litotes to call attention to something in your scene, something you want to stand out more than it would otherwise. You’ll spice up the emotion, tickle your reader’s taste buds, and not be stuck with cookie crumbs in your comfort zone.
What do you think? Stir up a batch and give us all a sample.Steph Prichard