Saturday, June 18, 2011
First Page Lightning: Adding Power with Rhetorical Devices By Margie Lawson
When you meet someone new, that’s how long it takes to form an impression. That all important first impression. That hard to reverse first impression. That colors-your-perception-forever first impression.
Look. Blink. Smile.
Your three seconds are up.
Writers have a similar challenge to make a positive first impression on agents, editors, and readers. They have a first sentence challenge, a first paragraph challenge, a first page challenge . . .
The first few pages of most novels are the most rewritten. Writers scrutinize those pages. They revise, rethink, rework, rewrite, reject-and-start-over.
Having analyzed the first several chapters (and beyond) of over a thousand novels, I know what components add power to openings. Many writers overlook one of those options--the power of rhetorical devices.
My research reveals that some New York Times bestsellers almost always use the more obscure rhetorical devices in their first few pages. Harlan Coben almost always uses ANAPHORA in the first few pages of his books. In some books, he uses anaphora in his opening paragraph and several more times in the first chapter.
Lisa Gardner and Stephen White often use anaphora and epistrophe in their opening chapters too.
In my Deep Editing course, I teach writers how to use thirty rhetorical devices. I’ll introduce three of these devices in this blog.
We’ll dive into ANAPHORA first.
ANAPHORA – Using the same word or phrase to START three (or more) consecutive phrases or sentences.
From Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE, opening paragraph:
I know that I lost a lot of blood.
I know that a second bullet skimmed the top of my head...
I know that my heart stopped.
Two more examples from the first chapter of NO SECOND CHANCE:
I remembered waking up that morning . . .
I remembered looking in on Tara.
I remembered turning the knob . . .
I longed for the numb.
I longed for the comatose state of the hospital.
I longed for that IV bag . . .
Here’s an example of using anaphora to start phrases. It’s from Harlen Coben’s THE WOODS, Chapter 1:
I have never seen my father cry before—not when his own father died,
not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard
about my sister, Camille.
Look what Harlan Coben accomplished in that line. He slipped in backstory. But with anaphora, it’s fast and smooth and intriguing.
Here are two examples of ANAPHORA, from Allison Brennan, FEAR NO EVIL,
Chapter 1. It’s two paragraphs.
Fourteen years ago she wanted the exact same thing as Lucy--to
get out from under her parents’ thumb. But that was before she'd
decided to become a cop. Before she realized how truly dangerous
the city could be. Before she realized that justice wasn't always swift,
that the system didn't always work.
That some murders would never be solved.
Stephen White used anaphora eight times in BLINDED. The example below is from Page 1:
It may sound goofy, but I also believed that on good days I could
smell the spark before I smelled the fire and I could taste the poison
before it reached my lips. On good days I could stand firm between
tenderness and evil. On good days I could make a difference.
OKAY! What makes ANAPHORA powerful?
The rhythm . . .
The auditory echo . . .
The repetition of the message . . .
Anaphora speaks to the reader’s subconscious.
Using anaphora makes the read imperative.
Let’s look at another rhetorical device. EPISTROPHE. This one is even more obscure than anaphora. I’ve found thirty times more examples of anaphora, than epistrophe. Yet, it’s equally powerful.
And it’s as fun to write as anaphora. I used epistrophe to draw you into this blog. It’s in my second paragraph, and in my sixth paragraph.
EPISTROPHE – It’s the opposite of anaphora. Using the same word or phrase to END three (or more) consecutive phrases or sentences.
When you meet someone new, that’s how long it takes to form
an impression. That all important first impression. That hard to
reverse first impression. That colors-your-perception-forever first
They have a first sentence challenge, a first paragraph challenge, a first page challenge . . .
Here are more examples of EPISTROPHE from bestselling authors:
From Michael Connelly, the opening lines from THE BRASS VERDICT:
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows
this. The judge knows this. Even the jury knows this. They come into
the building knowing they will be lied to. They take their seats in the
box and agree to be lied to.
The trick if you are sitting at the defense table is to be patient.
To wait. Not just for any lie. But for the one you can grab on to
and forge like hot iron into a sharpened blade. You then use that
blade to rip the case open and spill its guts on the floor.
That’s my job, to forge the blade. To sharpen it. To use it
without mercy or conscience. To be the truth in a place where
Here are the first four paragraphs of HIDE by Lisa Gardner.
My father explained it to me the first time when I was seven years
old. The world is a system. School is a system. Neighborhoods are a
system. Towns, governments, any large group of people. For that
matter, the human body is a system, enabled by smaller, biological
Criminal justice, definitely a system. The Catholic Church—
don’t get him started. Then there’s organized sports, the United
Nations, and of course, the Miss America Pageant.
“You don’t have to like the system,” he lectured me. “You
don’t have to believe in it or agree with it. But you must understand
it. If you can understand the system, you will survive.”
The family is a system.
LISA GARDNER used the word SYSTEM eight times. Plus—one use of SUBSYSTEM.
She nails the reader again and again and again with that regimented word, system. And she brings it home with her last sentence—a spotlighted, stand alone sentence.
The family is a system.
There’s a page break after that line—then the story kicks in with a vengeance.
I’ll share one more rhetorical device – SYMPLOCE.
SYMPLOCE uses a combination of anaphora and epistrophe – in the same sentences.
The SYMPLOCE example below is from Christa Allan. Christa attended a full day master class on Deep Editing Power in 2007. This is the prologue for her debut novel, a 2010 release, WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS.
Prologue from WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS, by Christa Allan:
If I had known children break on the inside and the cracks don’t
surface until years later, I would have been more careful with my words.
If I had known some parents don’t live to watch grandchildren
grow, I would have taken more pictures and been more careful with my
If I had known couples can be fragile and want what they are
unprepared to give or unwilling to take, I would have been more
careful with my words.
If I had known teaching lasts a lifetime, and students don’t
speak of their tragic lives, I would have been more careful with
If I had known my muscles and organs and bones and skin
are not lifetime guarantees that when broken, snagged, unstitched
or unseemly, can not be returned for replacement, I would have
been kinder to the shell that prevents my soul from leaking out.
If I had known I would live over half my life and have to look
at photographs to remember my mother adjusting my birthday
party hat so that my father could take the picture that sliced the
moment out of time- if I had known, if I had known- I would have
been more careful with my life.
With anaphora, epistrophe, and symploce—once you’ve established the repetition three consecutive times, you can play with it. You don’t have to stop at three. You can have a sentence or two following the last repetition, that don’t carry the repetition. The last sentence could pick up the repetition and end with a rhetorical punch.
Notice how Christa Allan adhered to the tenets of anaphora in the first four paragraphs. The openings and endings are the same, and those four paragraphs are about the same length.
In the fifth paragraph she gives the reader a surprise. She repeats the opening, but then she amplified the middle section and gave the piece a new grab-your-heart ending.
In the last paragraph, she amplified and added power with cadence. Then she surprised the reader in a new way. When the reader sees the lead-in of the anchor phrase, they think it’s going to be the same as in paragraphs one through four. It’s not until the last word, that they get hit with the psychological punch.
That’s Power Backloading.
This blog focused on using rhetorical devices to add power to first pages. They can be used to add power anywhere. Writers could use this stylistic power at the opening of any scene, at turning points, before a page break, at the end of a chapter.
Anaphora, epistrophe, and symploce are three of the thirty rhetorical devices I cover in my one of my writing craft courses, Deep Editing: The EDITS System, Rhetorical Devices, and More.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!
If you have an example of anaphora, epistrophe, or symploce in your work, please post it.
If you’d like to write one, please post it!
Post a comment (you don’t have to include a rhetorical device) and you may win:
1. A Lecture Packet
2. An Online Course from Lawson Writer’s Academy
I’ll post the names of the winners on the blog tonight -- at 9PM Mountain Time
Visit my cyber Open House for Lawson Writer's Academy, July 14, 15, and 16.
You’ll have a dozen more chances to win a Lecture Packet or an online class!
Margie Lawson—psychotherapist, writer, and international presenter – developed psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques used by everyone, from new writers to multi-award winning authors. She teaches writers how to add psychological power to create page turners.
Margie taught psychology and communication courses at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Her resume includes adjunct professor, clinical trainer, facilitator of trauma response sessions, and director of a hospital-based counseling center.
In the last six years Margie presented over sixty full day Master Classes across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Writers who have studied her material credit her innovative editing approaches with taking their writing several levels higher—to publication, awards, and bestseller lists.
To learn about Margie’s 3-day Immersion Master Classes in Colorado, online courses offered by Lawson Writer’s Academy, full day Master Class presentations, on-line course schedule, Lecture Packets, and newsletter, visit: www.MargieLawson.com.
Carla Swafford loves romance novels, action/adventure movies and men, and her books reflect that. Plus she's a rare creature in the Deep South, she loves hockey. Carla's married to her high school sweetheart and lives in Alabama.