The Dirty Rhetoric Guide to Horrifying Writing

The Dirty Rhetoric Guide to Horrifying Writing

Bram Stoker conceiving of Dracula. Mary Shelley constructing Frankenstein. Edgar Allan Poe contemplating his carrion raven. Nevermore! Nevermore!

Halloween wouldn’t be the same without such authors and their creations wouldn’t be the same without the power of words – the power of rhetoric. Long before the silver screen gave us the shiver scream, these undead characters existed solely in the written word.

It’s almost All Hallow’s Eve, so what better time for the Dirty Rhetoric Halloween guide to spooktacular writing?

What’s more atmospheric than the dull repeated chime of a Transylvanian church bell in some vampire benighted village? In horror writing, repetition is a favorite.

9Triple-Repetition“The horror… the horror… the horror”

Joseph Conrad used a Triple Repetition to make his point in ‘Heart of Darkness’, written in 1902. So perhaps we’d better start to classify Real Estate Agents alongside horror writers. After all – what is a haunted house without ‘location, location, location’?


7Trio“The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.”

Horror writer H. P. Lovecraft was equally aware of the power of repetition in his 1929 short story, ‘The Dunwich Horror’. This time however those bell-chime repetitions are coming as a Trio – three short phrases that while not exactly the same, have a repeated structure. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, as Julius Caesar famously said, shortly before he too came to a quite horrible end.


5ABA“And yet this house….was entirely different – horribly different”

Repetition, repetition, repetition, and yet this repetition is also horribly different. It’s using a structure of A-B-A to emphasize the sheer horror of the house.The story was ‘The Empty House’, written in 1906 by Algernon Blackwood, the most prolific writer in the history of the horror genre.

4Last-Word-Repeat“To hell with you and your souls!’ he shouted. “Why do you plague me about souls! Haven’t I got enough to worry, and pain, and distract me already, without thinking of souls!”

A little soulful horror there from the character Renfield in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Why do we hear this soulful message of the night so clearly? Simply because it has been repeated at the end of three successive phrases. This Last Word Repeat technique is always sure to impress your message on your audience.

The passage actually contains a second rhetorical technique, because as well as the Last Word Repeat, there is also a curiously high number of ‘and’s. Rather like in this passage from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’:.

2Noisy-Comma“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.”

Wilde really wants us to hear every one of those phrases…’ old, and horrid, and dreadful.’ So rather than just put them into a list separated by commas, he overdoes the conjugations and makes them stand-out proud. We call this technique a “Noisy Comma”.


And-There's-More“I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!”

Flying monkeys anyone? This is possibly the first horror line you ever heard as a kid, and all wrapped-up in the sugared packaging of the Wizard of Oz. What a place to hide such a scary witch. (She certainly had me hiding behind the couch!)

Writer L. Frank Baum used a rhetorical structure called ‘And There’s More’ to give the witch just that added touch of menace….. ‘not only am I going to get YOU, but that adorable puppy as well’!

And finally – to end our Halloween tour of horrible rhetoric, let’s finish with the classic ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. What would Halloween be without Ichabod Crane and his headless pursuer? And what would Halloween be without the element of surprise?

6Splat“He would have passed a pleasant life of it, in despite of the Devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was — a woman!”

After that ever increasing list of beings most sinister – ghosts, and goblins and a whole dragoon of witches – who would have expected that Crane’s ultimate challenge was simply another mere mortal? Washington Irving has marched up a hill of challenges, and then cheekily pushed us over the edge. SPLAT! Down we fall into his surprise ending. Not surprisingly that’s why we call this technique – the ‘SPLAT!’

Happy Halloween everyone. May your writing take flight with the witches and contain more rhetorical brains than an overfed zombie .

Peter WattsPeter is a writer, trainer, and speaker on all aspects of presenting. He coaches business executives on how to be at their best when on their feet.

His blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines core disciplines of public speaking and looks at how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. Follow him @speak2all.