Synecdoche is generally defined as a poetic device; it describes what we do when we describe an entity by referring to one of its parts. Despite its classification as a poetic device, we use synecdoche frequently in prose as well as in everyday speech. A rancher uses synecdoche when describing his two hundred head of cattle, and a ship’s captain uses it when he speaks of the seventy souls on his vessel. A skilled prose writer uses synecdoche to draw the reader deep into the world of a written work.
Synecdoche does so much more than just add variety to our descriptions. It also reflect the speaker’s thought process and the world that shaped it. We can tell a lot about a speaker from the words he or she uses as shorthand for other concepts. A single mother in Victorian London may occasionally refer to her four children as four hungry mouths, while a warlord in an ancient Mesopotamian setting may refer to his loyal followers as his six thousand spears. In both of these instances, we get a glimpse into the character’s innermost thoughts. The words they use to represent the concepts of “children” and “followers” tell us which aspects of these concepts are (at least momentarily) most important to them.
Synecdoche is a subtle yet powerful tool for describing a character’s thought process and attitude toward an object, another character, or a situation. Using this device skillfully can enliven prose and shed light on a character’s personality without the need for excessive description. When the time comes to use a synecdoche in your prose, think carefully about which parts of a concept mean the most to your character. Although there are many common uses of this device that work well in prose, you may occasionally find it rewarding to invent a synecdoche that you haven’t seen in use before.