Sunday, September 11, 2011


Before I get on with the blog, let me just say my next book is coming out soon.  So, I apologize for my lack of posts lately, but I've been working like a dog.  I'm exhausted but excited.

Now, the word of the day is:  Synecdoche.  It may look like a name for someone came up for their elf ranger in Dungeons & Dragons, but it is actually one of my favorite literary devices.

Interestingly, I first heard this term in a Medieval Lyric Poetry class.  And I couldn't get it through my thick little skull.  I flubbed and failed every single use of the world.  I hate to say it, but it may have been the spelling alone that scared me out of remembering it.  I spent the whole class going, it means the part for the whole, the whole for the part, the partly parsed wombat?  Yeah.  I didn't get it.

While I was studying memoir at Mills College, however, my proff., Elmaz Abinader, made it my favorite word ever.  Every author should use it and every reader should see when a writer has cleverly done so.  Synecdoche not only means that it is a pain in the ass to spell.  Synecdoche means using a part to represent a whole.  The easiest example is a crowd scene.  I use synecdoche in a Rebirth festival in one of my novels, Incarnate (which still waits in the publishing wings).  At first I think Shit!  How do I describe all these crazy outfits and mass celebration that my character can barely walk through.  The reader thinks Shit!  I will totally lose the thread of the story in mass chaos!

Ah.  Here comes synecdoche.  Rather than trying to describe every detail of this crazed celebration, I pick out a handful of images to represent what's going on.  Someone runs up wearing a big snake mask.  A child runs by with a snake banner.  A man makes stew.  Boys jump a fire.  As she walks through the chaos, she notices these carefully applied details, and yes, the culture is obsessed with snakes.  I don't describe everything she sees.  I use careful, spiffily detailed images as she walks through.  This keeps character and reader both grounded.  We all get the sense of what is going on without getting lost in a million descriptions.  Hence, I use a part--a careful image that gives you the sense of the scene--to represent the whole--the whole festival.  Brilliant!  Synecdoche!

Synecdoche has many uses outside writing, and crossword puzzles.  An artist, for instance, often uses synecdoche.  Look at a picture of flowers or a tree.  The artist rarely details every single flower on a plant or every leave on a tree or why that goat is playing violin with the wedding couple.  Instead, an artist often details a few flowers or leaves in a heartbreaking rendering, but the rest are a stroke of gold or green without absolute definition.

Marketing folk use this.  They design an exact profile for who they are selling to, rather than trying to imagine the entire population.

Pretty much any time you use the term, "For example," you are about to use synecdoche.  Synecdoche infuses the human mind.  We don't, perhaps can't, think in terms of messy masses.  Instead, if we can hold onto one beautiful leaf on a tree, one image of what it means to be a friend, one moment in that crowd scene, we synthesize this much better.  We don't get lost in the overwhelming world, but understand that a small piece of the world can tell us so much about the whole.

Plus, it is fun to say:  Sin-eck-do-key.  Synecdoche.  Love it.  Use it.  Lord it over people who don't know it.  After doing that, spread the love.  We all could use a little synecdoche.


  1. so my snapshot/memories are sort of synecdoche?

  2. Exactly. Any time in life we use a part of something to tell us about the whole of something, it counts.

  3. Is it kind of like a literary palimpsest?