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Using Figures of Speech in Picture Book Writing

Where the Wild Things Are book cover

Figures of speech. You knew them well enough to pass that high school English test a million years ago, but have you considered how figures of speech can make the picture books you’re writing even more awesome? 

Figures of speech can add nuance, sophistication, and complexity to a picture book manuscript. Consider Maurice Sendak’s 1963 masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are. Throughout the book, Sendak uses figures of speech to convey meaning, deepen character, modify pacing, and illuminate the reader’s imagination. Let’s take a look at how he does it.

First, a quick summary. It all starts when Max, the main character, misbehaves and chases the family dog with a fork. His mother (who remains offstage) sends him to his room without supper. There, dressed in a wolf suit, Max watches his room turn into a jungle. When a boat appears, he sets sail for the land of the wild things. Sendak writes, “…and he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.” 

Notice how Sendak chooses the “wrong” prepositions to describe Max’s voyage. He sails through night and day, he sails in and out of weeks. Most people sail for a night and a day and for many weeks. Sendak’s choice to make time something physical that can be sailed “through” and “in and out of” is entirely intentional. It conveys meaning to the voyage and heightens its imaginary nature. Believe it or not, this technique of purposefully committing a grammatical error (in this case, by using the wrong prepositions) has a name. Rhetoricians call it enallage

So Sendak utilizes enallage to convey meaning in his story. Is there a way you could use enallage to convey meaning in your own writing?

Upon his arrival to the land of the wild things, Max meets the beastly giants. Sendak writes, “They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws…” Not that you could have missed it, but let me point out how the word “terrible” repeats four times. This figure of speech, also called repetitio, emphasizes the “terrible-ness” of the wild things and describes the scene the way a young boy like Max might. 

So Sendak uses repetition to deepen character. Is there a way you could use repetition in your work to deepen character?

In the same phrase, Sendak uses the conjunction “and” over and over. He writes, “…and gnashed…and rolled…and showed…” The rhythmic repetition of this simple connective word makes it seem as if the list of terrible things will go on forever and forever and a day. It slows the pacing of the story and gives the sentence a sense of power. This is also a figure of speech – called polysyndeton, or repeated use of conjunctions.

So Sendak uses polysyndeton to slow the pace and give his words power. Can polysyndeton change the pace of a passage in your picture book or give it more power?

Later, Sendak uses a rare figure of speech, one you might not consider a figure of speech at all – the omission of all words. Called reticentia, this figure of speech is used over a six-page spread of illustrations in which Sendak shows the wild rumpus in silence. “And now,” cried Max, “Let the wild rumpus start!” As the pages turn, all sound effects are left to the reader’s imagination. By carefully examining the character’s expressions as well as the details on the page, the reader is able to interpret what’s happening all by herself. (I hear drums and wild things grunting!) This is a generous gift, indeed, for at the end of the day, most children read books to ignite their imaginations.

So Sendak uses reticentia to give readers an opportunity to activate their imaginations. Can reticentia be used to strengthen a picture book you are working on? 

There are many other useful figures of speech that could make your picture books even more awesome. To learn how to use them to great effect, check out How to Write a Children’s Picture Book Volume III Figures of Speech by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock, the book that inspired this blog post. And good luck!

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© Danielle Sunshine, All Rights Reserved
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So It Goes Design

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