CAESURA. Derived from the Latin, the name of this device comes from the same base as the word “caesarian,” so it is associated with “cutting” or “slicing” off part of a sentence or a rhythm (in poetry) into two distinct parts that still remain intrinsically joined. In modern fiction, you are most likely to see caesura used with an em dash (—) or exclamation mark to create a long pause at the “departure” point. Such a pause adds dramatic or emotional intensity, and is especially effective to convey surprise.
For instance, “Gone!—yet his bed was still warm.” In poetry, caesura follows the patterns of speech and is the breath we usually take in the middle of a line (known as a “medial” caesura in those instances, although it can also occur the beginning or end of a line). It is usually represented by // in poetic works. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Mother and Poet,” initial caesura is introduced at the first line.
“Dead! //One of them shot by the sea in the east”
Caesura is said to be feminine if the pause follows an unstressed syllable, and masculine if it follows a stressed syllable.
CATACHRESIS. From the Greek for “misuse,” as a literary technique catachresis can be said to be a hodgepodge of devices that serves to create impossible imagery. Think mixed metaphor, but with hyperbole and metonymy thrown in. Poet e.e. cummings often used catachresis, jumbling together various senses. For example: “The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses.”
Of course, eyes don’t have a voice, so this is classic catachresis. It has the effect of making you stop and think about the words, which means you focus on the words voice and deeper. Coupled with the overwhelming imagery of eyes and roses, it has a powerful pull, even if eyes don’t really have a voice, strictly speaking.
Shakespeare also used catachresis rather frequently, such as “to take arms against a sea of troubles” (a sea can’t be fought with weapons) and “I will speak daggers to her”—both from Hamlet. Although entirely figurative, because you can’t literally speak daggers and a sea doesn’t really have “troubles” (a case of personification), readers have no problem imagining what is meant. For the most part, you want to use catachresis sparingly, but in some instances, particularly if you’re using it in confusing action scenes to give a jumbled emotional effect or to portray conflicting or confused emotions, or even just to create vivid but unusual metaphors (again, sparingly or it will seem like you’re a serial metaphor mangler), it can work very well.
CHIASMUS. It sounds more at home in a list of mythological beasts, but chiasmus is a combination of two parallel yet inverted phrases or concepts. Usually, words or phrases are repeated in a reverse order in chiasmus, which accounts for the device’s name: referring to the Greek letter chi, represented as a “cross” in Greek, which is indicative of the “crossover” nature of this device.
For instance, Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or Byron’s “Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure” are both examples of chiasmus. And, of course, there’s always the ever-sassy Mae West with, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” (Go, Mae!)
Often overlapping with antimetabole (which will feature in another such post on some other day, when I can eke out time), it doesn’t always require an identical swapover, only a certain parallelism. For instance, “Naked I rose from the earth; to the grave I fall clothed.” Even spoonerisms can sometimes be used to create the effect of chiasmus, such as in this Randy Hanzlick song, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me/Than a frontal lobotomy.” (And so would I, thank you very much!)
LITOTES (pronounced Li-to-tees) are negative expressions of affirmation, and are sometimes more simply known as ironical understatement. More often than not, they are used to soften something that might otherwise have a negative connotation. E.g. “She was not a bad poet” also implies that she wasn’t a very good one, but the former is far kinder.
In today’s vernacular, you might commonly hear litotes such as: “How are you today?” Answer: “Not bad.” Litotes such as this are very common in Australian English, and Aussie comedian Carl Baron performs a skit about Strine (the Australian language), which you can watch here if you’re so inclined. The language “litotes” part starts at about 1.44.
One of the most famous of all litotes is the Rolling Stones song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” which is a double negative that of course, really means they’re likely getting plenty of satisfaction—and with Mick and Keith’s track record, who can argue? So there you have it. Four weirdly named devices to think about as you edit that first draft. Watch this space for more posts on literary devices coming soon, including antimetabole, anastrophe, hyperbaton, and zeugma. Happy word-smithing!
Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share any of your own examples of the above devices in the comments.