Put Down the Overused Literary Term

Dearest Students,

This post is for you.  Your teachers are allowed to use whatever literary terms they want, because years of trial and error have taught your teachers discretion.  You are a different story.  My hope, however, is that the next time your teacher asks you to do some kind of textual analysis, this post will free you from the overused literary terms.  You will have more fun with the sometimes daunting art of text analysis, and your teachers won’t do backflips out of third story windows because they’re reading yet another essay about Faulkner’s use of “diction.”

As some of you might remember, I participated for the first time in the AP English Literature Reading this past year.  Because of the pandemic, it involved far fewer trips to Utah and in-person friend-making than I was hoping for, but it was a good educational experience and reminded me that I need to read more Washington Irving, as his understated mean-girl sense of humor never fails to delight me.  One of the many educational elements of the experience was my learning new ways I can help you clean up the writing you do for school.  So let’s get cracking!  Here, I will present you with three literary terms that you tend to throw about willy-nilly, thus resulting in a strong desire on the part of your teachers to never see them again.

  1. Juxtaposition

What do I have against good old juxtaposition?  It’s such a fun word to say, and it’s all over your AP study book!  And I do hate to tell you that you should stop using it in your essays, because it doesn’t feel fair.  The problem with juxtaposition isn’t that it’s not a real literary device, or that it’s not useful to think about, or that you can’t build an interesting interpretation from it.

The problem with juxtaposition is that it’s a fancy five-syllable word and you’ve all become addicted to it.  If I had taken a drink every time I saw the words “juxtaposition” or “juxtapose” in a response to “The Spectre Bridegroom,” I would have been dead before my hundredth essay (and I read over 700).  You liked the way it sounded when you said it and your teacher might have nodded approvingly when you talked about it in class, so now you’ve latched onto it like a lamprey onto a big juicy tuna and you keep trying to juxtapose everything.  Many of you, however, aren’t entirely sure what juxtaposition is, and it shows when you try to write about it.

Pictured: you, trying to juxtapose

Juxtaposition occurs when an author places two things close to each other with an implicit invitation to compare and contrast them.  It’s a cute literary technique, a helpful one if you know what you’re talking about, and a direct path to disaster if you don’t.  Arthur Miller, for example, is not “juxtaposing” Elizabeth Proctor with Abigail Williams if, in that particular scene of the crucible, one of them does not appear.  Tolkien doesn’t “juxtapose” the Shire with Mordor – they are two completely different places at opposite ends of Middle Earth.  Du Maurier did not “juxtapose” the second Mrs. de Winter with the first Mrs. de Winter when the latter character never even appears in the story.  Juxtaposition requires that things be placed in some form of proximity.  It’s a more specific and tricky technique than you’re giving it credit for.  But don’t despair, my dears, because there’s something else you can write about instead that still lets you discuss all your favorite parts of the stories.

Instead, Use This: Contrast.

Contrast is so useful that I tell my students to just put it down as the answer if they have no clue, because it’s probably at least a little bit right.  When it doubt, you cannot go wrong writing about contrast.  Contrast is great for you juxtaposers because juxtaposition is a type of contrast, but contrast covers much more than mere side-by-side comparisons.  Dostoevsky’s use of color imagery in Crime and Punishment?  Contrast.  Foil characters in literally all of Shakespeare’s plays?  Contrast.  Janie’s relationships with each of her husbands in Their Eyes Were Watching God?  Contrast.  The way you expected the story to go versus the way it actually went?  Contrast.  Contrast is a stark word.  It demands that things be placed in opposition to one another, and that they react to one another.  Contrast makes the world of literature go ‘round.  You, and this does bear repeating, cannot go wrong by analyzing an instance of contrast.  And whoever is reading the essay will sigh with relief that you did not call it juxtaposition.

  1. Diction

Diction is words.  That’s all.  When you say that an author “uses diction,” as so many of you do, you are telling me that the author has used words.  Telling me that the author used “suspenseful diction” or “romantic diction” or “mysterious diction” is better, but still not good, because I am patiently waiting for you to explain 1) what about the diction (read: the words) is “mysterious” and 2) why the author is using such “mysterious” words.  Too often, you skip out on those last steps, and those are the steps that make diction worth talking about at all.

Instead, Use This: Word Choice.

Word choice means the same thing as diction, but calling this technique “word choice” instead of “diction” will remind you every time you think about it that the way an author chooses her words is much more important than the mere fact that she used some words.  Every word is a choice.  For example, the previous sentence used to read “every single word is a choice,” but I decided to take out the word “single” because I don’t think it adds value to the sentence.  If an author is describing a character who is crying, he can choose to describe the character as “sniffling,” “weeping,” or “sobbing,” each of which gives the reader a different impression of the scene at hand.  Describing a sunset as “golden” points to a different mood than describing it as “blood red.”  When you think about each word or collection of words as a choice, you teach your brain to think about why the author chose to write the way she did, instead of simply being easily impressed by words you had to look up in the dictionary.

Bonus Option: Register.

Register refers to the level of formality in a piece of writing, and it’s a horribly neglected analytical technique.  You can get a lot of mileage out of determining the register and thinking about why the author chose it – especially if it changes within the piece.

  1. Metaphor

You all do love pointing out your metaphors, and I’ll give you credit where it’s due – much if not most of the time, you point them out correctly!  The problem, once again, comes up in that you don’t do anything with them.  Knowing that Shakespeare calls jealousy “the green-eyed monster” in Othello doesn’t help me much unless I know why that metaphor works as well as it does.  I think that what’s going on is that you know what a metaphor is, but you don’t really know much about it beyond that.  

A metaphor (or a simile, your other favorite comparative literary device) is there to help you form an image, usually of something abstract, like jealousy.  People have associated green with the soul-sickness that jealousy causes us for centuries, and Shakespeare helps the image along even further by putting that green in the eyes of a monster that mocks people as it destroys them.  Cool trick, no?  But the art of imagery is full of cool tricks like these.  No need to restrict yourselves exclusively to metaphors.

Instead, Use This: Comparison.

Comparison – as with all my alternate term suggestions – frees you.  It frees you because it encompasses all the – dare I say it – juxtapositions an author might slip into her writing.  It frees you to think about so much more than traditional metaphor.  It helps you to consider why instead of merely what.  Instead of pointing out that Romeo uses a metaphor to juxtapose Juliet with the sunrise, sighing at how romantic the diction is, and moving on, thinking in terms of comparison encourages you to wonder more about what you are writing.  Comparisons, like words, are choices.  Why did Shakespeare make that choice?  What effect does it have on you as a reader?  On a potential audience member?  On Romeo and Juliet themselves?

To summarize: text analysis is not a list of terms to check off, and it’s not a contest to see who can spot the most poetic devices in the “Chimney Sweeper” poems and cram them into an essay.  It’s a careful process of thinking through an author’s choices and bringing yourself and your readers to a better understanding of the piece as a result.  You can use it to help you understand not just literature, but history, science, math, music, art, sports, auto mechanics, and how to go on a romantic date.  Take it seriously.  Perform it thoroughly.  Keep it simple.

A Special Note to You AP English Language Students

Stop writing about authors’ uses of commas or semicolons.  Punctuation is not a rhetorical device.  It’s a grammatical convention.  Saying that a writer uses commas is like saying that a classical composer uses notes.  You’d be hard-pressed to find one who didn’t.

What you are really trying to talk about when you talk about commas or semicolons is an author’s use of long, complex sentences.  Probably, if you look carefully at the rest of the piece, you will notice a contrast (see?  I did it again!) with shorter, punchier sentences.  When you put these together, you will notice pleasing variations in rhythm that make the piece more pleasurable to read or speak out loud.  And all of a sudden, you have something interesting to talk about!  See how much more fun this is?

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