Literary devices are different techniques used by writers to create a special effect with their writing. They do this to convey information or help readers understand their writing much deeper.
These devices are generally used for emphasis or clarity. Identifying different literary techniques helps you understand why the writer wrote what he wrote. For example, identifying symbols in a story makes you figure out why the writer might have chosen to add particular words and expressions. It will also let you see what attitude the writer has with respect to particular characters in the story.
Getting to know these literary devices can make a written work’s overall meaning or purpose make more sense to you. For example, you may be planning to read (or re-read) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. When you know that this particular book is a religious allegory with references to Christ (represented by the character Aslan) and Judas (represented by Edmund), you will understand why Lewis uses particular words to describe particular characters and why particular events happen the way they do.
Finally, literary techniques are important to know because they make texts much more interesting and fun. If you read a novel without knowing any literary devices, likely, you would not be able to see many of the layers of meaning interwoven into the story through different techniques.
Listed below are several common literary devices. You would see most of these devices in everyday prose and poetry. This list is not exhaustive as you could also come across some other literary devices in turn. Each literary term is described in detail and examples of how they are used are included. This list of literary devices is arranged in alphabetical order.
An allegory may be a story that’s used to depict a message about real-life (historical) issues and/or events. It’s descriptive of the entire story, book, or play.
Example: George Orwell’s dystopian book Animal Farm is an allegory for the events preceding the Russian Revolution and therefore the Stalinist era in early 20th century Russia. Within the story, animals on a farm practice animalism, which is communism. Many characters correspond to actual historical figures: Old Major represents both the founding father of communism Marx and therefore the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin; the farmer, Mr. Jones, is that the Russian Czar; the boar Napoleon is representative of Joseph Stalin; and therefore the pig Snowball represents Trotsky.
Alliteration is a series of words or phrases that each one (or almost all) starts with the same sound. These sounds are consonants that give more stress to the syllable used. You will generally see alliteration in poetry, book titles, and tongue twisters.
Example: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” with this saying, the “p” sound is repeated at the beginning of all words within the series of words.
Allusion is seen when a writer makes indirect regard to a figure, place, event, or idea which is gotten from outside the text. Most allusions make regard to other works of literature or art written within the past.
Example: “Stop acting so smart—it’s not like you’re Einstein or something.” this is often an allusion to the famous scientist, Einstein.
An anachronism occurs when there’s an intentional error within the chronology or timeline of a text. This might be a personality who appears during a different period than when he lived, or a technology that appears before it had been invented. Anachronisms are usually used for purposes of comedy.
Example: A story that features a king within the Ancient Greek empire who says, “That’s dope, dude!” would be an anachronism, because this type of language is extremely modern and not essentially present within the Greek empire.
Anaphora may be a literary device seen when a word or phrase is repeated at the start of multiple sentences throughout a bit of writing. It’s wont to emphasize the repeated phrase and evoke strong feelings within the audience.
Example: A famous example of anaphora is Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. Throughout this speech, the phrase “we shall fight” was repeated while he listed the various places where the British army will need to keep fighting during the second war. He did this to rally both troops and therefore the British and to offer them confidence that they might still win the war.
An anthropomorphism is seen when something nonhuman, like an animal, place, or inanimate object, behaves like a human.
Example: Children’s cartoons show many samples of anthropomorphism. for instance, Mickey and Minnie Mouse can speak, wear clothes, sing, dance, drive cars, etc. Real mice can’t do any of those things, but the 2 mouse characters behave far more like humans than mice.
Colloquialism is seen when informal language and slang is employed. It’s generally employed by writers to offer some sense of realism to their characters and dialogue. Sorts of colloquialism include words, phrases, and contractions that are not real words (such as “wanna” and “ain’t”).
Example: “Hey, you wanna eat?” This piece of dialogue may be a colloquialism because it uses common everyday terms like “hey” and “wanna”.
An epigraph is seen when a writer inserts a famous quotation, poem, song, or other short passage or text at the start of a bigger text (e.g., a book, chapter, etc.). An epigraph is usually written by a special writer (with credit given) and used as how to introduce overarching themes or messages within the work. Some pieces of literature, like Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, incorporate multiple epigraphs throughout.
Example: At the start of Ernest Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises is an epigraph that consists of a quotation from poet Stein, which reads, “You are all a lost generation,” and a passage from the Bible.
Epistrophe is nearly an equivalent thing to anaphora, however, the repeated word or phrase appears at the top of successive statements. Like anaphora, it’s wont to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
Example: In Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech, “The American Promise,” he repeats the word “problem” for the epistrophe: “There is not any Negro problem. There’s no Southern problem. There’s no Northern problem. There’s only an American problem.”
A euphemism is when a more mild or indirect word or expression is employed in situ of another word or phrase that’s considered harsh, blunt, vulgar, or unpleasant.
Example: “I’m so sorry, but he didn’t make it.” The phrase “didn’t make it” may be a more polite and less blunt way of claiming that somebody has died.
A flashback is a disruption during a narrative that depicts events that have already occurred, either before this time or before the time at which the narration takes place. This device is usually wont to give the reader more background information and details about specific characters, events, plot points, and so on.
Example: Most of the novel Wuthering Heights by Bronte is a flashback from the purpose of view of the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, as she engages during a conversation with a visitor named Lockwood. During this story, Nelly narrates Catherine Earnshaw’s and Heathcliff’s childhoods, the pair’s budding romance, and their tragic demise.
Foreshadowing is when a writer indirectly hints at—through things like dialogue, description, or characters’ actions—what is supposed to return afterward within the story. This device is typically wont to introduce tension to a narrative.
Example: Say you’re reading a fictionalized account of Earhart . Before she embarks on her (what we all know to be unfortunate) plane ride, a lover says to her, “Be safe. Wouldn’t want you getting lost—or worse.” This line would be an example of foreshadowing because it implies that something bad (“or worse”) will happen to Earhart.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that’s not meant to be taken literally by the reader. It’s generally used for comedic effect and/or emphasis.
Example: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” The speaker won’t literally eat a whole horse (and presumably couldn’t), but this hyperbole emphasizes how starved the speaker feels.
Imagery is when a writer describes a scene, thing, or idea in order that it appeals to our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing). This device is usually wont to help the reader clearly visualize parts of the story by creating a robust picture.
Example: this is often an example of images taken from William Wordsworth’s famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:
When all directly I saw a crowd,
A host of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing within the breeze.
Once you read this, the image of the scene being described are often imagined or pictured clearly.
Irony is when a press release is employed to precise a meaning that’s opposite to the one being expressed literally. There are three sorts of irony in literature:
• Situational irony: When something happens that is the opposite of what was expected or intended to happen.
• Verbal irony: When someone says something but means the other (similar to sarcasm).
• Dramatic irony: When the audience is conscious of true intentions or outcomes, while the characters aren’t. As a result, particular actions and/or events convey different meanings for the audience than they are doing for the characters involved.
• Situational irony: A boy wakes up late for college and hurries to urge there. As soon as he arrives, he realizes that it’s Saturday and there’s no school.
• Verbal irony: One example of this sort of irony are often found in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” in this story, a person named Montresor plans to urge revenge on another man named Fortunato. As they toast, Montresor says, “And I, Fortunato—I drink to your long life.” This statement is ironic because we the readers already know by now that Montresor plans to kill Fortunato.
• Dramatic irony: In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo commits suicide so as to be with Juliet. The irony comes in when the audience (unlike poor Romeo) knows that Juliet isn’t actually dead but asleep.
Juxtaposition is the comparing and contrasting of two or more different (usually opposite) ideas, characters, objects, etc. This literary device is usually wont to help create a clearer picture of the characteristics of 1 object or idea by comparing it with those of another.
Example: one among the foremost famous literary samples of juxtaposition is that the opening passage from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the simplest of times, it had been the worst of times, it had been the age of wisdom, it had been the age of foolishness, it had been the epoch of belief, it had been the epoch of incredulity, it had been the season of sunshine, it had been the season of Darkness, it had been the spring of hope, it had been the winter of despair …”
Malapropism happens when an incorrect word is employed in situ of a word that features a similar sound. This misuse of the word typically leads to a press release that’s both nonsensical and humorous; as a result, this device is usually utilized in comedic writing.
Example: “I just can’t wait to bop the flamingo!” Here, a personality has accidentally called the flamenco (a sort of dance) the flamingo (an animal).
Metaphors are when ideas, actions, or objects are described in non-literal terms. In short, it’s when a writer compares one thing to a different. The 2 things being described usually share something in common but are unalike altogether other respects.
A simile may be a sort of metaphor during which an object, idea, character, action, etc., is compared to a different thing using the words “as” or “like.”
Both metaphors and similes are generally utilized in writing for clarity or emphasis.
“What light through yonder window breaks? It’s the east, and Juliet is that the Sun.” during this line from Romeo and Juliet, Romeo compares Juliet to the sun. However, because Romeo doesn’t use the words “as” or “like,” it’s not a simile—just a metaphor.
“She is as vicious as a lion.” Since this statement uses the word “as” to form a comparison between “she” and “a lion,” it’s a simile.
A metonym is when a related word or phrase is substituted for the particular thing to which it’s referring. This device is typically used for poetic or rhetorical effect.
Example: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This statement, which was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, contains two samples of metonymy: “the pen” refers to “the word,” and “the sword” refers to “military force/violence.”
Mood is the general feeling the author wants the audience to possess. The author is able to do this through the description, setting, dialogue, and word choice.
Example: Here’s a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“It had a wonderfully round door sort of a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob within the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall sort of a tunnel: a really comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, given polished chairs, and much and much of pegs for hats and coats — the hobbit was keen on visitors.”
In this passage, Tolkien uses detailed descriptions to make a comfortable, comforting mood. From the writing, the hobbit’s house is well-cared for and designed to supply comfort. This causes you to because the reader consider an equivalent mood as you read
Onomatopoeia is a word (or group of words) that portrays a sound that actually imitates the sound it stands for. It is generally used for a realistic, dramatic, or poetic effect.
Examples: Chirp, Buzz, boom, creak, sizzle, zoom, etc.
An oxymoron is a combination of two words that, together, express a contradictory meaning. This device is generally used for emphasis, humor, to create tension, or to illustrate a paradox.
Examples: Organized chaos, Deafening silence, insanely logical, cruelly kind, etc.
A paradox is a statement that appears illogical or self-contradictory but, upon investigation, might actually be true or plausible.
Note that a paradox is different from an oxymoron: a paradox is an entire phrase or sentence, while an oxymoron is a combination of just two words.
Example: Here’s a famous paradoxical sentence: “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it isn’t actually false (as it suggests). But if it’s false, then the statement is true! Thus, this statement is a paradox because it is both true and false at the same time.
Personification is when something that is not a human figure or abstract concept or element is described as having qualities or characteristics that are human-like. (Unlike anthropomorphism where non-human figures become human-like characters, with personification, the object/figure is simply described as being human-like.) Personification is used to help the reader create a clearer mental picture of the scene or object being described.
Example: “The wind moaned, beckoning me to come outside.” In this example, the wind—a nonhuman element—is being described as if it is human (it “moans” and “beckons”).
Repetition is seen when a word or phrase is written multiple times, usually for the purpose of emphasis. It is generally used in poetry.
Example: When Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the score for the hit musical Hamilton, gave his speech at the 2016 Tony’s, he recited a poem he’d written that included the following line:
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
Satire is the genre of writing that criticizes something, such as a person, behavior, belief, government, or society. Satire generally employs irony, humor, and hyperbole to make its point.
Example: The Onion is a satirical newspaper and digital media company. It uses satire to parody common news features such as click bait headlines, opinion columns and editorial cartoons
This is monologue that’s generally used in dramas, a soliloquy is seen when a character speaks aloud to himself (and to the audience) in a bid to reveal his inner thoughts and feelings.
Example: In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s speech on the balcony that begins with, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is a soliloquy, as she is speaking aloud to herself (remember that she doesn’t realize Romeo’s there listening!).
Symbolism is seen when an object, figure, event, situation, or other idea is used in a text to represent something else. It usually contains a broader message or deeper meaning which is different from the literal meaning.
The things used for symbolism are called “symbols,” and they’ll generally appear many times throughout a text. They could sometimes change in meaning as the text progresses.
Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the green light that sits across from Gatsby’s mansion symbolizes Gatsby’s hopes and dreams.
A synecdoche is a literary device where a part of something is used to represent the whole, or vice versa. It’s similar to a metonym. In the case of the metonym, you don’t have to represent the whole but only something associated with the word used.
Example: “The captain commands one hundred sails.” In this case, “sails” is being used to refer to ships.
While mood is what the audience is supposed to feel, tone is the writer or narrator’s attitude towards a subject. It can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic.
A good writer will always want the audience to feel the mood they’re trying to evoke, but the audience may not always agree with the narrator’s tone, especially if the narrator is an unsympathetic character or has viewpoints that differ from those of the reader.
Example: In an essay disdaining Americans and some of the sites they visit as tourists, Rudyard Kipling begins with the line, “Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead.” For someone who enjoys going to Yellowstone Park, the person may not agree with the writer’s tone in this piece.