What are Literary Devices?
We writers are always looking for ways to strengthen our storytelling. One of the most impactful techniques to do this is using literary devices, which are effective techniques used to hint at different ideas, themes and meanings in a story. Literary devices are used across different genres, and each one serves a specific purpose. They are tools that will take your writing to the next level – making it more impactful and engaging for your readers, hooking them in from the first page until the last.
In this guide, we’ll examine the definitions of literary devices and examples of different literary devices. It’ll be everything you need to know to maximise the effect of literary devices and use them to strengthen your storytelling.
Understanding Literary Devices
A literary device is a technique that writers use to express their ideas and hint at larger themes and meanings in a story. These devices are excellent ways to enhance writing, strengthen the narrative and engage readers, helping them to connect to the characters’ themes.
There are many different styles of literary devices, and most are used in tandem; some are used at sentence level, looking at flow and pacing, while others are a broader approach, serving the story as a whole. Understanding different literary devices and maximising their impact can significantly improve your writing and a reader’s experience.
Let’s take a look at popular literary devices in more detail and see if there are any you recognise…
List of Literary Devices
An allegory is a literary device that uses plot and characters to express and explore abstract and complex ideas. This might be used to present issues in a way that is understandable and approachable for the reader. We see many allegories in fairy tales and Biblical stories.
A literary device similar to this is ‘anthropomorphism’ – a type of personification that gives human characteristics to either objects or non-humans, such as animals.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most famous allegorical novels (and is also an example of anthropomorphism in literature). Using animals to represent different political beliefs and the rise of communism, it’s a multi-layered commentary with a strong message beneath the story’s surface.
Alliteration is a literary device that is a collection of words or phrases that reflect repetition, and all begin with the same sound. It gives more stress to the consonants and creates something memorable in your writing, particularly when choosing the title of your book. For example, Jane Austen’s use of alliteration in her book titles, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, made them memorable at the time and classics today.
An allusion is a literary device (not to be confused with ‘illusion’) that references something in the real world, whether a person, a place or an event. This device can connect with your readers and paint an accurate picture of a situation. An allusion example is referring to someone as ‘a total Scrooge’. This reference (thanks to Dickens famous work) would immediately paint an accurate picture in a reader’s mind without elaborating further. They would know this person is tight with money and is miserable and grumpy.
An anachronism is a literary device that can portray an intentional error in the era of a story. This device can be used to comment on a theme or even for comedic effect. For example, a character appearing in a different time period, using speech from a different era, or technology appearing before its invention. William Shakespeare used anachronisms in his writing, like the dollar currency in Macbeth and the clock in Julius Caesar (mechanical clocks were not invented in 44 AD).
Anaphora is a literary device used to emphasise a phrase or words to reinforce meaning and feelings for the reader. This is when a word or phrase is repeated, typically at the beginning of successive sentences or phrases.
The perfect anaphora can be found in the novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett – “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” This quote reinforces the relationship between the two characters. A famous example in speech is Winston Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches.’ He rallied the troops and the British people in this speech, and throughout it, repeated the phrase “we shall fight” – invoking strong responses and stirring emotions.
We touched on anthropomorphism earlier when we discussed an allegory. To anthropomorphise is to ascribe human traits, emotions or behaviours to non-human beings, like objects, animals or phenomena. This literary device differs from personification, which creates imagery, as anthropomorphism is literal. For example, Cogsworth the clock and Lumière the candlestick in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast are household objects that act and behave like humans. And Pinocchio was anthropomorphised when he gained the ability to talk, walk, think, and feel like a real boy.
An archetype is a literary device that brings familiarity to a story – it’s typically a “universal symbol” with qualities or traits that readers can easily identify. This literary device is used to reveal characters, images or themes that are instantly recognisable to any audience. The literary Hero Archetype, for example, is typically noble, courageous, self-sacrificing and will right wrongs and fight injustice.
A cliffhanger is a classic literary device used as an effective way to keep your reader’s attention – such as the revelation of who Luke’s father is in The Empire Strikes Back. It marks the end of a part of the story (the end of a chapter or TV episode), but with the purpose of keeping an audience engaged. A common way to do this is through shock factor, an abrupt ending offering no obvious resolution (until the person turns the page, buys the next book, or watches the next episode).
Colloquialism uses informal language and slang, and when used as a literary device, it can build a character’s personality and authenticity through their dialogue. A colloquialism is a word or expression common within a specific language, geographic region, or historical era. Therefore, it can also indicate the setting of a story in the context of time and place. The language Holden Caulfield uses in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a great example of colloquialism.
Dramatic irony is a literary device used to create situations where the audience knows more than the characters. Therefore, the actions of the characters have a different meaning for the audience. Typically, this device often lends itself to tragedy, as demonstrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when the audience knows that the lovers are both alive but the characters think the other is dead.
Dramatic irony is not to be confused with situational irony (when readers expect a certain outcome and are surprised by an unexpected turn of events) and verbal irony (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said).
Exposition is a crucial literary device – it is when the narrative provides background information about events, settings, characters or any other relevant element to help the reader understand what’s going on. It is typically used in conjunction with dialogue and description, offering a richer understanding of the story.
Exposition is presented through many methods, including dialogue, a protagonist’s thoughts, a narrator’s explanation or in-universe media, such as letters and newspapers. For example, in the Star Wars movies, the opening title sequence gives the audience the information they need to understand the upcoming events in the film: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
Beware, though, that too much exposition runs the risk of undercutting the emotional impact of a story. As we all know, ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’ where possible.
A flashback is a literary device used to split up the current scenes in a story and look back to something that has happened in the past. It is typically used to build suspense. Flashbacks can also present exposition (revealing information or context about something that’s happened in the past). Examples of flashbacks include memories and dream sequences. In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the alternate chapters in the first part of the book are flashbacks through the medium of diary entries.
Foreshadowing is a literary device that can create and build suspense by indicating or hinting to readers that something will happen later in a story. It creates dramatic tension and can often be used in conjunction with flashbacks. However, the difference between the two is that a flashback directly offers readers exposition or background information. In contrast, foreshadowing is a little more subtle and gives just a hint or a sense of what is to come. The symbolism of Harry Potter’s scar is an excellent example of foreshadowing.
A frame story is when the main or supporting character tells part of the story or narrative. The frame story essentially “frames” another part of it. This device supports the rest of the plot – it is typically used at the beginning or the end of a story, or in small interludes in-between. The movie Titanic is a great example of this. The main plot is set in 1912, but Rose frames the narrative when she looks back over what happened and tells a story within a story.
Humour is a literary device to make readers laugh or keep them amused. It can be difficult to do, as it relies on instinct, making it harder to teach or learn. But there are different techniques, tools and words that can bring funny situations to life and achieve the goal of making an audience happy. Different types of humour include slapstick, surprise, sarcasm and hyperbole, among many others. Humour isn’t only present in contemporary writing, as Jane Austen used humour throughout Pride and Prejudice, especially in conveying the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennet.
Imagery is a literary device that evokes a sensory experience for the reader by using highly descriptive language. Strong imagery will paint a picture by following the rules of ‘show, don’t tell.’ It means playing to the reader’s senses by describing sights, tastes, sounds, smells and feelings to bring a scene, character or situation to life. An example of this in Shakespeare’s work is in The Taming of the Shrew: “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”
In Medias Res
In Media Res is a literary device used when a narrative begins without exposition or contextual information. It is a Latin term that means “in the midst of things”. Therefore, the story launches straight into a scene or in the middle of an already unfolding action, creating suspense and tension immediately. Odyssey by Homer is a famous example of this.
Verbal irony is when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said. It is not to be confused with situational irony; a literary device used when readers expect a certain outcome and are surprised by an unexpected turn of events. There is also dramatic irony, a literary device used to create situations where the audience knows more than the characters. An example of irony in a plot is demonstrated in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, when the characters already have what they are asking for from the wizard.
Juxtaposition is a literary device used to place different themes, characters, or concepts and highlight their differences. Instead of being overtly comparative, juxtaposition is an implied comparison, allowing the reader to discern how both entities are different. Juxtaposition can take many forms, such as human instinct and animal instinct in Life of Pi, and kindness and selfishness in Cinderella.
A motif is a repeated element, whether it takes the form of an image, idea, sound or word that has symbolic significance in a story. The defining aspect of this literary device is that it repeats frequently. Through repetition, the motif helps develop the narrative’s theme and illuminates the central ideas, theme or deeper meaning of the story. Motifs are not to be confused with symbols, which may appear once or twice and help understand an idea in the narrative. An example of a motif is in the Godfather series, through the repetition of oranges featured on screen before a character dies. Another example is in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – trains are a repetitive motif that ultimately symbolises death and destruction.
Onomatopoeia refers to words that imitate the sound of what they’re referring to. It can be used as a literary device to make descriptions more expressive and, therefore, more effective. For example, words such as buzz, snap and grunt are frequently used in children’s books to add action and emotion to a story.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that pairs two words together that are either opposing or contradictory. It can be used as a literary device to allow writers to take a creative approach and play with the use and meaning of words. As a result, it can create an impression and entertain the reader. An oxymoron is about words, not to be confused with juxtaposition, which contrasts two opposing story elements. An example of an oxymoron is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
A paradox is typically a statement that might appear contradictory at first but makes sense after reflection. It’s a literary device that asks people to think outside the box by questioning the logic and provoking readers to think critically. A paradox can also elicit humour and illustrate themes, such as in Scarface: “Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.”
Personification means assigning human traits to describe non-human entities or inanimate objects to express something creatively and imaginatively. It is not to be confused with anthropomorphism, which actually applies these traits to non-human things – whereas personification means the behaviour of the object or entity does not change – it’s personified in figurative language only. This literary device might be used to create life and explore abstract ideas and themes within inanimate objects and animals by applying human behaviours and emotions. For example, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House turns the house into a living entity through personification.
Point of view
Point of view is a vital literary device, as it’s the angle of perspective in the narration of a story. It’s a crucial decision because each point of view will have a different impact on the story and the reader’s experience. The point of view effectively governs the audience’s access and determines how much they will know as the story develops.
The most common points of view in literature are the first and third person. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The first-person narrative (using pronouns I/we) allows the writer to connect with the reader, as this perspective means the reader has access to the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings.
An example of a first-person point of view is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, when the story is told by Scout. From a storytelling perspective, the third person narrative (using pronouns she/he/they) is flexible because it allows you to write from multiple characters’ perspectives and show their actions and thoughts. An example of the third-person (omniscient) point of view is Middlemarch by George Eliot. The second person point of view is less common, as it uses the pronoun “you” to bring the reader into the story, for example, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.
Repetition means intentionally repeating a word or phrase two or more times. While you don’t want to overdo it, occasional repetition can be an excellent tool to bring clarity to an idea, make something memorable for a reader, drill home a point or create an atmosphere. The best example of this is in horror stories, as horror writers use repetition as a literary device to make readers feel trapped. For example, in The Shining, Jack repeatedly types out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” This reveals Jack’s downward spiral as cabin fever takes over. It is not to be confused with anaphora, which is specific in its intent to repeat, and the repetition is typically at the beginning of consecutive sentences, phrases, or clauses.
Satire is a literary device used to make fun of human nature or society to expose or correct it. It is typically done through exaggeration, amusement, contempt, ridicule or irony, usually with the hope of creating awareness and subsequent social change. Satire can be overt or subtle but is common throughout history and popular culture. Examples of this in film and T.V. include Deadpool (satirises the superhero genre), Shrek (satirises fairy tales) and Family Guy (satirises American middle-class society and conventions).
Situational irony is a literary device used when readers expect a certain outcome and are surprised by an unexpected turn of events. This is not to be confused with verbal irony or dramatic irony, which we already covered. An example of situational irony in a plot is demonstrated in the T.V. programme Schitt’s Creek when a wealthy family is catapulted into a less privileged life.
A soliloquy is typically a speech or monologue involving a character speaking their thoughts out loud and usually at length. These are frequently in theatrical plays. The purpose of this as a literary device is for the character to reflect independently – they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people. It’s an effective device because it offers insight into a character’s internal thoughts, reflections and emotions. Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech is a classic example of a soliloquy.
Suspense is a vital tool that writers use to keep their readers interested throughout the story. There are many ways to use suspense as a literary device. For example, raising questions and withholding information. The purpose of suspense is to create a feeling of anticipation that something exciting, risky or even dangerous will happen. It helps readers to engage with characters and evokes emotions, such as sympathy, towards them.
In Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, the dark atmosphere creates questions about what is happening in her hometown and how the complex protagonist will deal with it when she’s already struggling with complex personal issues.
Symbolism means using symbols – a word, object, character, action or concept – in a story. These symbols can represent abstract concepts and ideas beyond the literal meaning and evoke additional meaning and significance. This is not to be confused with a motif, which is an element that’s repeated frequently to develop the narrative and illuminate the central themes or ideas in a story. An example of symbolism would be The Great Gatsby, when Fitzgerald uses the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg to represent God and his judgment of the Jazz Age.
The tone of a story is crucial for any writer, as it refers to the overall mood and message of the story. Tone is a literary device that sets readers’ feelings and can be established broadly through voice, themes, characterisation and symbolism. The techniques can be even more specific through word choice, punctuation and sentence structure. Tone can range from cheerful and humourous, to melancholic and regretful. Through tone, the writer essentially creates a relationship with the reader, which influences the intention and meaning of the words. This is why tone is so important. For example, the tone of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities demonstrates that the story is serious due to the formal, rich language he used.
A tragicomedy is a blend of both tragedy and comedy that typically helps a reader process darker themes by adding humour and helping them laugh at a situation, even when the circumstances are bleak. When using this literary device, the characters are typically exaggerated, with jokes throughout the story, and sometimes there might be a happy ending. An example of this is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which uses bizarre situations and over-the-top characters to provide light in an otherwise tragic story.
Make your Story Stronger
Strengthening our storytelling abilities is something we writers are always working on (our blog is an excellent resource for this) and a good grasp of the most effective literary devices is certainly beneficial for authors. Literary devices are tools that will take your writing to the next level – making it more impactful and engaging for your readers, hooking them in from the first page until the last. This is exactly what we want to do when telling a story, so these techniques are worth bearing in mind when writing.
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers, providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter. For more writing articles take a look at our blog page or join our free writer’s community.