How to use language for effect

  • Language choice is key when creating setting and atmosphere.
  • Writers use different techniques depending on the effect they want to achieve.
  • The sounds of words, their rhythm and the images they create all count.
Learn how to use language to bring characters and settings to life

The language choices you make when writing can influence the way a reader responds to your stories. Likewise, as a reader it's important to consider choices writers make and the specific effects that these create.

Creating setting and atmosphere

Language choices help to create a sense of atmosphere and setting. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, she describes a storm:

‘About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.’

The use of effective verbs, adjectives and adverbs push the narrative in a specific way. As a writer you need to consider all these ideas when planning your writing.

Here, Brontë has selected verbs such as ‘rattling’, ‘split’ and ‘fell’ to suggest the intensity of the storm. Adjectives such as ‘violent’ reinforce this idea.

Repeating the sounds in ‘rattling’ and ‘clatter’ - the consonance of the double tt - gives a onomatopoeic quality to the description alongside the destructive movement.

Consonance is the repetition of similar consonant sounds in nearby words. Here it creates a harsh effect that reflects the force of the storm.

Onomatopoeia is when a word sounds like the word it is describing. For example, ‘buzz’ or ‘hiss’.

In Wuthering Heights, vivid descriptions of its moody, changeable weather almost turn the moor into a character in its own right

Creating tone

Writers use language to establish tone, the ‘mood’ of a piece of writing. In the opening to The Lie Tree Frances Hardinge creates an unsettling and frightening tone:

‘The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth. The islands just visible through the mist also looked like teeth, Faith decided.’

In the first sentence, Hardinge has used a simile to create a disturbing comparison between the motion of the boat and the action of biting.

A simile is a comparison between two objects using ‘like’ or ‘as’. It is an example of figurative language - language that helps to build up an image for the reader, moving beyond the meaning of the actual words. It seems as if Faith is actually being chewed up inside a rotten mouth and hints that her destination might be a dangerous place.

Hardinge has also used words with lots of ‘s’ sounds that reflects the whooshing sound of the sea around Faith, but also helps to generate a sinister feeling. This repetition of the s sound is called sibilance.

Writers sometimes emphasise an idea through repetition. Repeating words or ideas draw attention to those ideas. For example, at the start of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes:

‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.’

The repetition of ’dead’, and words associated with funerals, leaves the reader in no doubt as to whether Marley is alive or not - important for what is to come in the rest of Dickens’ ghostly tale!

Figurative language is useful to build up a mental picture of what you are describing

Remember

When looking at the writing of others, consider that words and phrases have been chosen deliberately. A writer crafts an effect or emotion in the reader through careful language selection. As a writer yourself, this is worth considering so you, too, can deliberately shape your writing and impact on the reader.

Quiz

Find out if you can use language for effect in this short quiz!

Where next?

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