Anthony Doerr graduated from Bowling Green State University with his MFA in Creative Writing in 1999, and he has published a long string of exceptional books since his graduation. His first book, The Shell Collector, won both the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and his latest book, All the Light We Cannot See, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.


Doerr’s work in general, and All the Light We Cannot See in particular, is justly celebrated for its prose style. I’d like to take this blog post to analyze some of the rhetorical figures he uses in his work, and I chose to look at one single chapter, the one that begins on page 12 with the title “Number 4 rue Vauborel.” I chose this chapter out of the many beautifully written chapters for the somewhat arbitrary reason that it was read aloud on the Diane Rehm show.

As readers of this occasional blog on the techniques of fiction know, I have benefited greatly from Arthur Quinn’s book Figures of Speech, and I’ll be using his definitions and examples to analyze All the Light We Cannot See. I hope you’ll find this useful for writing your own fiction. However, I don’t mean to suggest that simply knowing and using figures is the same as writing graceful prose and creating a compelling narrative with great characters, as Anthony Doerr has done. Knowing and understanding techniques will only take you part of the way there.

Anaphora – Repetition of beginnings

In this brief chapter, scarcely a page and a half in length, Doerr uses anaphora three times.

Every second the airplanes drew closer; every second is a second lost.

Where she has lived for four years. Where she kneels on the sixth floor alone, as a dozen American bombers roar toward her.

She should be rushing downstairs. She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.

There is dramatic irony in this chapter. The reader is aware of the danger over Marie’s head even though she does not, and the repetition highlights that dramatic irony and emphasizes the danger that the young Marie finds herself in.

Here’s another example of anaphora, for comparison, from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

They streamed aboard over three gangways, they streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet without a word, a murmur or a look back.

Polysyndeton — Choosing to repeat conjunctions

Polysyndeton is a favorite rhetorical figure of mine. The repetition of the word ‘and’ can lend gravity to what would otherwise be a banal list.

She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.

In this example, the dust and the rugs and the trunks seem like they are all present and heaped up. If the sentence were conventionally written, with an Oxford comma, it would seem like an exhaustive list of the things that are in the basement.

Here’s another example, for comparison, from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.


A repetition of the same word or root in different grammatical functions or forms.

While creative writing textbooks tend to advise writers to avoid repetition, if words are repeated with intention the result can be hypnotic. Doerr’s sentence here uses both Anaphora and Polyopton – the word ‘second’ is repeated three times in a single sentence, and in the latter half, the word serves two different grammatical functions.

Every second the airplanes drew closer; every second is a second lost.

Here’s another example, for comparison, from Cormac McCarthy. Note how thin and rag and dark are repeated in the famous opening of Blood Meridian.

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.


Repetition of grammatical forms.

While it’s frequently good to vary grammatical forms to avoid monotony in your prose, if you repeat the same sentence structure with intention, the result can be striking.

The windowpanes rattle in their housings. The anti-air guns unleash another volley. The earth rotates just a bit further.

In this example, a three-sentence paragraph, Doerr seems to emphasize the danger that is approaching Marie through sentences that sound like a metronome. Each sentence is like a tick of the clock, and the last sentence implies that as the earth rotates, the danger is closing in.

For this blogpost, I limited myself to one short chapter. But striking uses of language are present throughout this wonderfully written novel.