What is assonance?
By BBC Maestro
As a writer, you want to be able to draw readers into your story – and there are various subtle ways of doing this through your writing. One such method is through the use of assonance, a clever little literary device that can help to bring your words to life.
But what is assonance? Let’s delve into it in more detail to find out how you can use it in both poetry and prose.
Assonance is a literary technique that makes use of repeating vowel sounds within words, phrases, or sentences. It’s sometimes also called ‘vowel rhyme’ because it has a similar effect in a piece of text as rhyming does.
When we talk about rhyming, we usually mean that the sound at the end of two or more words are similar, such as in the famous poem:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
And so are you
In this little ditty, the words at the end of each line sound similar. This is pleasing to the ear, especially when read out loud, and creates a rhythm within the poem which helps to make it more memorable.
Assonance, on the other hand, is a literary device that helps to create an internal rhythm. The words used don’t necessarily have to rhyme with one another, but assonance still adds a rhythmic quality to the verse or prose. The words don’t have to be directly beside each other, and there’s no set order in which they need to be used (such as at the end of a line of poetry). They just need to be fairly close together, so that the rhythmic effect is not lost.
These famous phrases all make use of assonance:
- There’s no place like home (with the repeated ‘o’ sound in ‘no’ and ‘home’)
- The early bird catches the worm (where the ‘ea’, ‘i’ and ‘worm’ sounds are all similar)
- A stitch in time saves nine (with repetition of the ‘i’ sound in ‘time’ and ‘nine’)
There’s a reason these phrases are so well-known and oft used: because they’re catchy. And part of the reason they’re so catchy is because of the rhythm assonance helps to create.
Although they sound similar, assonance is different from consonance. While assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within a group of words, consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds, such as in the famous poem The Tyger, by William Blake, which uses a repeated ‘r’ sound for emphasis: ‘Tyger Tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night.’
Why do writers use assonance?
As mentioned already, assonance helps to create rhythm in a piece of writing. Read any of the above examples out loud and you’ll see how it flows neatly off the tongue. You might not realise it when reading a poem or novel, but assonance helps us to understand which syllables to stress. This creates rhythm in the writing.
Because of this, assonance is most commonly used in poetry. It helps to create an internal rhyme, allowing the poem to flow more easily – which is why you’ll also find assonance used frequently in music.
As Lee Child explains in his BBC Maestro course on Writing Popular Fiction, “both music and language exploit rhythm and rhyme and resonance for meaning and emotional impact.”
We can see this most clearly in rap and hip-hop lyrics. Look at this example from Eminem’s Lose Yourself:
Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked
He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy, no
He won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes
It don’t matter, he’s dope.
Although the words don’t rhyme, the ‘o’ sound is repeated multiple times, helping to create emphasis throughout the song. This assonance is used elsewhere in the song too, building up the tension in the song – especially when used alongside other techniques like anaphora and epistrophe.
Creating a mood
While rhythm is the most common reason for using assonance, it’s not the only one. The repetition of vowel sounds within a piece of text can – as in the Eminem song cited above – help to build a specific mood.
Some sounds are naturally slower and more drawn out, while others are quicker. The choice to repeat either of these types of vowel sounds can have an impact on the mood of the text, either creating a more sombre atmosphere or making things feel more upbeat.
Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem The Raven uses assonance to create a spooky mood. Read these lines aloud:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door
The repeated use of the ‘i’ sound in the in the lines helps to create a fast-paced rhythm that reflects the quickening heartbeat of the terrified narrator.
Capturing the reader’s attention
Assonance isn’t just a technique used in poetry. It can also be used to significant effect in prose, to keep your readers reading. As Alan Moore states in his BBC Maestro course on Storytelling:
“If you’re writing a piece of text, the reader of that text will be creating a rhythm in their own head. This is the immense importance of having rhythm in your prose, because it’s mesmeric, it’s hypnotic - you can carry a lot of material on just the rhythm of a thing.”
Consider this example from James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man:
Soft language issued from their spitless lips as they swished in low circles round and round the field, winding hither and thither through the weeds.
In one sentence, the ‘i’ sound is repeated eight times. It subtly mimics the whispering described in the passage and helps to capture the reader’s imagination. As Lee Child puts it:
“Those internal rhymes and echoes at the level of individual syllables are like little motors that power the reader through the text.”
So, if you want to create rhythm in your poetry and prose, heighten the mood and emotion of your writing, and get readers gripped, consider using assonance. Maybe it’s something you’re doing already, and you just didn’t realise.
If you want to find out more about using different literary techniques to heighten your writing, then check out the BBC Maestro courses by our storytelling experts Lee Child and Alan Moore.