A Short List of Prose Techniques

A Short List of Prose Techniques
Developed from the works of Jorge Luis Borges,
the essays of Virginia Woolf and Beloved by Toni Morrison
Many of the techniques that writers use fall into two categories: Tropes and Schemes (Schema). “To trope”
means to turn, to twist a word or phrase into a representation of something else: thus, two of the most widely-known
tropes are metaphor and simile. A scheme is a rhetorical figure that involves using less radical linguistic manipulation
than a trope — many schema describe a certain placement or arrangement of words in the text — to achieve special
Rhetorical schema used by Morrison, Borges, and Woolf include:
Anaphora—A precise use of parallel style through the repetition of the opening word or phrase throughout a sentence, a
paragraph, or a passage of text. In Chapter 7, Paul D. recalls the common miseries of African-Americans:
“Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him,
slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop…”
Apostrophe—Any speech that directly addresses someone or something that cannot understand, or cannot respond, to the
speaker. Apostrophe occurs when one character “speaks” to another that isn’t present, an animal, an abstract
concept or an inanimate object.
Asyndeton (“without connectors”)— Originally a rhetorical device in ancient Latin, asyndeton refers to a series of words
or phrases joined together by commas, as in this passage describing Baby Suggs in chapter 15: “Giving advice;
passing messages; healing the sick hiding fugitives, loving, cooking, cooking, loving, preaching, singing…”
Oxymoron—The paradoxical juxtaposition of opposites, Oxymoron can be seen as the most extreme form of the
transferred epithet; O. occurs when an adjective and noun contradict each other: “cold fire,” or “rainy desert.”
Parallel Style: The repetition of the form of the presentation of similar (parallel) ideas, examples, etc. From Chapter 23:
“Yes. I was on the other side. You came back because of me? Yes. You re-memory me? Yes.”
“Pairs of modifiers”—The use of a pair of radically different types of modifiers for a single noun or phrase: an author
will sometimes juxtapose a concrete modifier with an abstract modifier (“I felt visible and vulnerable”), or she
will pair a physical descriptor with a mental descriptor (“a wounded and happy soldier”).
Polysyndeton—The opposite of asyndeton; polysyndeton refers to a series of words or phrases joined together by the
same repeated conjunction(s). In Chapter 10, the men sing “of bosses and masters and misses.”
Precise Use of Abstract Nouns—Morrison uses general and abstract nouns to refer to specific, limited, and concrete
situations. While describing Sethe and Paul D. in Chapter 2, Morrison describes “… the clutch and helplessness
that resided in the hands” and “the sadness that crouched in corners.”
Repetition—The repetition of words, phrases, sentences and even paragraphs creates many unifying elements, or motifs,
throughout the works of all of our great writers.
Rhetorical question—A question raised without response or resolution. When people begin to resent Baby Suggs in
Chapter 15, they ask themselves “Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the
center of things?” Woolf asks rhetorical questions frequently in her essays, as Borges does in his stories and
parables, to guide, enlighten and inspire the reader through this kind of “shared inquiry.”
N.B. Our great writers use punctuation and sentence structure to carefully and rigorously control the presentation of
ideas and images, and the relationships she creates between them. Closely examine their use of commas, dashes, and
semicolons to control the succession and the progression of ideas, images and descriptors in individual sentences.
The Tropes used by Borges, Morrison and Woolf include hyperbole (obvious over-exaggeration), metaphor,
personification, and simile, of course, as well as:
Epithet—The creative re-naming of a character, usually for symbolic or metaphorical purposes. A fellow soldier calls
Macbeth “Bellona’s bridegroom” (the groom of the goddess of War, Bellona) since he fights so well.
Hypallage—The use of one adjective and a pair of nouns, usually in the form “the adjective noun of (very different)
noun.” In this device the adjective (or other modifier) that would “logically” modify one of the nouns is applied
to the other noun in the same phrase. The poet John Keats uses a hypallage when he describes “the murmurous
haunt of flies.” Borges writes of the “desperate hands of the thief,” while Virginia Woolf beckons us to join
“the vast republican army of anonymous trampers” in Street Haunting—a double hypallage! OK?
Litotes—Borges frequently expresses an idea by negating its opposite: “Within a few days no one was unaware of the
fact that the silent man came from the South.” About his story The Lottery in Babylon, he once wrote that it is
“not entirely innocent of symbolism”; he states elsewhere that mirrors are sometimes troubled by the breath of a
man “who is not dead.
Metaphoric Use of Verbs—The use of verbs, which do not “logically” describe the situation at hand, but which
illuminate that situation. In Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, there is a mirror that “troubles the depths of a corridor”;
later in the story the characters discover that the mirror is “spying” on them as they talk.
Metonymy—The substitution of a word by a word closely related to it, as in the phrase, “The Vatican did not respond
well to Moscow’s offer of help,” in which we have substituted the names of capital cities for the authorities they
represent. We use metonymy whenever we tell someone to “come inside out of the cold,” since we substitute
one attribute of the outside world (the low temperature) for the outside itself. Borges, describing the fall of the
city of Connaught, uses metonymy when he writes, “Tall, silent horsemen patrolled the roads; ashes and smoke
rode the wind…” here, ashes and smoke (the effects of fire) are used to represent fire itself (the cause that
produced the ashes and smoke).
Symbolic (“Canted”) Names—The use of a symbolic or otherwise meaningful name for a character, a setting, etc. The
name of Ireneo Funes, the main character of Funes the Memorious, derives from the Spanish word “funesto,”
meaning a disaster; the idea that this man has a “disastrous memory” is one of the key themes of the story.
Synecdoche—Often regarded as a special type of Metonymy, synecdoche is a substitution of a part of something for the
whole, or (sometimes) the whole for the part. Speaking of the fleet that sailed to re-capture Helen of Troy,
Homer uses the synecdoche “1000 sails” to describe the 1,000 ships. Borges uses synecdoche when one of his
characters states that “…I had to flee from Captain Madden. His hands and his voice could call at my door at
any moment.” Here, he uses parts of Captain Madden to represent the man himself.
Transferred Epithet— The use of an adjective (or other modifier) that does not “logically” modify the noun to which it
refers, but which nonetheless illuminates that term, creating a new phrase with expanded (and perhaps
metaphoric) meaning. One of the “most famous” transferred epithets comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“dusty death.” Borges, in his Garden of Forking Paths, describes an “unsuspected light” and a “dreaded
N.B. Our great writers use all of these techniques to create the following effects:
—Irony (although there are those who argue that irony is a technique; we’ll discuss this together in class)
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