Rhetoric and Fiction

Somebody over in the Hut forums tossed out a link today. It was to a series of essays by Orson Scott Card about the art and the business of writing. Uncle Orson wrote some of my favorite ever stories. Although we have parted ways lately (I wonder if he misses me…?) I have a great deal of respect for the man both as a dude and a writer. My first exposure to his work was long, long, ago, when I read a novella of his in Analog. He later turned that into Ender’s Game, a novel that did pretty darn well and (I assume) laid the foundation for his career. I expect he cringes now when he reads it, seeing all the things he could have done better, and by now there is a large body of critics devoted to finding things Uncle Orson could have done better.

Anyway, today I was reading thoughts on writing from a man who is both a successful writer and a successful teacher of writing. The essays I read were on the issue of style. He was answering the question “How do I improve my style?” and his response was that you can’t improve your style, except you can stop yourself from thinking too much about your style and therefore making your style artificial and forced. That’s not earth-shattering news, but his solution was one I had not heard before. A rough paraphrase: Tell the story. Find the most effective words to convince people and make them care. That’s rhetoric. Hone your rhetoric and your style will shine free and unencumbered.

That’s a very rough paraphrase (the ‘free and unencumbered’ part is all me), but the message is there, one that I could really benefit from. Mr. Oxford says rhetoric is “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, esp. the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.” Who doesn’t want to be good at that? Hell, it’s an art! I often describe my short stories as ‘atmospheric’, but I need to remember that the atmosphere must have rhetorical value; it must promote a story.

I’ll never give up atmosphere, though. I love it too much. Sometimes the mood is the reason.

Mr. Scott Card’s point is well-taken, however. His use of the word rhetoric in the realm of fiction caught me off-guard (although that may just reflect my less-than-literary educational background), but once I read it, it was obvious. Suddenly seslf-aware, I look back now at the last few paragraphs in this episode and chuckle at the briar patch of rhetorical devices.

It’s something I think I already knew, something I was already aware of at the functional level, but by stating the idea explicitly I have been granted a very powerful question to ask myself when evaluating my own work. Beauty doesn’t matter if the words don’t do their job.

2 thoughts on “Rhetoric and Fiction

  1. I am certain my august sister, whose formal knowledge of rhetoric regularly taunts mine on the linguistic playground, will have something to add here. You can learn from that lady, and may people already have, but I think she will join me in saying please don’t get caught up in the formalities. As the dictionary said, rhetoric is an art.

  2. How many times I have heard someone say, dismissively, “Oh, that’s just rhetoric,” as if content were the only thing, and presentation unimportant.

    For an argument to be persuasive, it must connect with the reader or listener on many levels, informatively, logically, and emotionally. And rhetoric is the key to making those connections.

    Good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is always about connections.

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