By Brian Kaufman
As a baby, my parents liked to tell me how I heard my first violin and burst into tears. The pure, rich tones sound more like a human voice than any other instrument, except maybe a blue guitar note. That’s why emotional scenes in movies make use of an orchestral background. That’s why Alfred Hitchcock used short, shrieking violin notes to accompany the shower stabbing in Psycho.
In a movie, if you want to grab the audience by the throat, you turn up the volume on that natural voice. You amplify. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you know this. If you have ever wondered why the commercials on your radio are louder than the regular broadcast, you have an answer.
But as a writer, you don’t have the assistance of a sound engineer to enhance and amplify. You need amplification tactics.
When texting, for example, A MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS is the equivalent of shouting. Only sometimes a good idea in your fiction, however. The genteel equivalent—italics—can be easily overdone. Worse, italics for emphasis and other uses (like internal dialog) can be misunderstood.
First, let’s define amplification from a writer’s perspective. We want to examine tactics that make the prose stronger and louder for emphasis.
The Roman statesman Cicero believed that amplification (auxesis) was vital because it provoked emotion from the audience. When attempting to persuade, orators use logos (an appeal to logic), ethos (an appeal to beliefs), and pathos (an appeal to emotion). Amplification works best for pathos. “Loud logic,” for example, is not more effective than logic plainly stated.
The whole meaning of auxesis includes elements of magnification and growth. However, only some English language words are the exact equivalent. For the Greeks, auxesis had much to do with the speaker’s attitude toward the importance of the passage in question. Amplification allows the writer to say, “Hey! This is critical!” or “Here comes something of great emotional import!”
Suppose you want to amplify a passage. What kinds of tactics can you use? Here are some ideas, offered in no particular order:
- Be quotable. Going back to movies, can you think of a favorite line that is highly quotable? (Think of Tarantino scripts, for example.) One way of amplifying a scene is perfecting a single sentence to make it memorable and engaging. When Rhett says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” the passage works because it carries layers of meaning within eight simple words.
- Use strategic paragraph breaks. Typically, you end a paragraph with a summary sentence. By moving that sentence down to its own section, you give the line emphasis:
I headed across the yard, confident of my relative safety. We lived in a well-lit, gated community with private security on duty 24 hours a day. I ignored the row of shrubs to my right. Why bother? Nothing bad ever happened here.
I was wrong, of course.
- Use concrete imagery. First impressions matter. When Denis Lehane introduces a character in A Drink Before the War, he makes sure the volume is turned up:
“Sterling Mulkern was a florid, beefy man who carried weight like a weapon, not a liability. He had a shock of stiff white hair you could land a DC-10 on and a handshake that stopped just short of inducing paralysis.”
Visceral, concrete descriptions put the reader in the scene, allowing them to share the full scope of the writer’s intent.
- Use active verbs. If a passage uses to-be verbs (like “was”) coupled with -ing verbs, the resulting prose tends to slip into the background. Verbs that detail the action directly serve to let the reader know what’s important.
- Understate. This is not to say that passive language doesn’t have a place. An understated line can call attention to itself through humor. In David Burton’s Blood on the Mountain, a character assures an injured friend, “I think you be okay. I think it is not serious.” Then, after a moment of reflection, the same character adds, “Maybe a little serious.”
- Use literary devices. Hyperbole exaggerates for effect. (“Your painting looks like Michelangelo vomited.”) Redundancy repeats for effect. (“No. No. Hell no.”)
- Punctuation. The easy way to amplify is the exclamation point, of course, but there are subtler means. For example, using an em dash to set off a description will call attention to the details.
In The Twits by Roald Dahl, the author uses several amplification tactics at once:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.”
Here, Dahl describes a person whose inner ugliness manifests itself so profoundly that one can’t bear to look (hyperbole), a notion he drives home with repetition (every day, every week, every year) along with active verbs and concrete description.
How can you incorporate amplified writing tactics? First, go back to auxesis. What descriptions or actions do you consider the most important to boost? Your intent is the fulcrum upon which amplification rests. Don’t amplify the whole story—that would be like reading a tale written entirely in CAPS.
Once you’ve decided what essential moments you want to highlight, look over the list of tactics and choose one or more to help emphasize your message.