I love a good list, don?t you? I love lists on places to visit, and lists of activities to do, and I especially love lists of things to look for in fiction and include in my own work. And with that in mind, I?ve put together a comprehensive list of literary devices.
A list of literary devices is one of the best things to have at your fingertips ? whether you?re a writer or a reader.
There are hundreds and hundreds of literary devices, so in this article, I?ll go over the most common ones, and when you should use them. I?ll also give you some well-known examples from literature, TV, and song.
But before we get carried away, let?s take a look at what a literary device is.
A literary device is an element or technique that authors use to produce a particular effect in their writing. Literary devices add color and depth to a work and bring attention to important dialog or action.
Literary devices are either a literary element or a literary technique. What?s the difference?
Well, a literary element is something that is used to develop a narrative, and a writer cannot craft a story without them. Literary elements include plot, setting, character, dialog, and conflict.
A literary device is something the writer uses to bring greater understanding or depth to their work, such as aphorism, metaphor, or personification. A writer can write a story without using a literary device ? but when they improve your work, why wouldn?t you use them?
Understanding literary devices gives the reader a better understanding of what the author really thinks or intends to say. Once you have a good grasp on technique, you can change the way you read? for the better.
So without further ado, let?s get on with it!
The Great Big List of Literary Devices
DefinitionAllegory is a technique where an abstract idea is used to create a lesson. It uses characters, and it uses story to bring abstract concepts to life. Allegories use symbolism heavily, and nearly every part of an allegory can be interpreted as having a second meaning that contributes to the whole.
When to use itWhen you want to write something that conveys a lesson but is still interesting or fun.
ExampleFranz Kafka?s Metamorphosis is a excellent example of an allegory. In the story, Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover that he has turned into a giant dung beetle. The story deals with the isolation of humans in modern society.
DefinitionAlliteration is when the first sound of a word is repeated several times in succession. Children respond well to alliteration, and you?ll find that many children?s stories, poems, and tongue twisters feature it heavily.
When to use itTo slow down the reader or draw attention to dialogue, or to a character.
Example?He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws. And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.? – The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson.
DefinitionAn allusion is a reference to something from a different story, such as referencing Noah?s flood to let the reader know just how torrentially it is raining.
When to use itWriters use allusion to add depth or context to a work. It can be a little bit risky because you don?t know necessarily know that your reader is familiar with that story. For that reason, Shakespeare and the Bible are referenced frequently ? but these days, even those works are taking a bit of a gamble.
?As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,I take a look at my life and realize there?s nothing left.?
– Coolio, referencing Psalm 23 in the classic song, Gangsta?s Paradise.
DefinitionAnachronism is when something happens that should be attributed to a different time from when it actually happened. Often, it is a mistake, where an inappropriate phrase or object appears in a period piece.
When to use itAnachronism can be used as a deliberate literary device ? say, if the writer is trying to make a historical piece contemporary, make a commentary on current events, or are writing about time travel.
ExampleIn Back to the Future, Marty McFly plays Chuck Berry?s 1958 hit Johnny B. Goode at Hill Valley High?s 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
DefinitionAnaphora is a type of repetition. It uses a repeated phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences to provoke an emotional response from the reader or the audience.
When to use it
- When you want to give a memorable speech that rouses feelings and spurs a call to action.
- In a poem to create a pleasing rhythm.
- In a song to create a catchy chorus.
ExampleMartin Luther King Jr. used anaphora throughout his famousspeech, I Have a Dream, most notably in the refrain, ?I have a dream?? but he also used it throughout.
?And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.?
– I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King Jnr.
DefinitionAnastrophe is a literary technique, where the writer reverses traditional sentence structure. Subject, Adjective becomes Adjective, Subject.
When to use itWhen you want to create a dramatic emphasis? or simply when you want to sound like Yoda.
Example?Powerful you have become Dooku; the dark side I sense in you.? ? Yoda, Star Wars: Episode II ? Attack of the Clones, George Lucas/ Johnathan Hales.
Yes, Yoda does this all the time, but when it?s less pronounced than the little green Jedi?s strange vernacular, it can be very effective. Here?s Will Shakespeare using anastrophe to poetic effect in Romeo and Juliet.
?Her mother is the lady of the house,And a good lady, and wise and virtuous.I nursed her daughter that you talked withal.I tell you, he that can lay hold of her,Shall have the chinks.? ? Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
DefinitionAnthropomorphism is where you apply human traits or qualities to something that isn?t human-like animals, objects, or the weather. Anthropomorphism aims to make an animal, object, or thing appear like it?s a human, whereas personification is where an animal or thing merely has human characteristics.
When to use itChildren?s literature or cartoons, surrealism or sci-fi.
ExampleName a beloved children?s character that isn?t a human, and you?re probably describing anthropomorphism. Danger Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Donald Duck ? all anthropomorphic characters.
DefinitionAn aphorism is a universally accepted truth expressed concisely. Usually, aphorisms are sharp, witty, and to the point. They are often paraphrased quotes from great works of literature or religious texts.
When to use itTo add a tone of authority.
Example?With great power, there must also come ? great responsibility!?
– Uncle Ben, Spider-Man, Stan Lee
When to use itIn songs, poems, and literature to create flowing sounds that grab the reader/listener?s attention and are pleasing to the ear.
Don?t stop (don?t stop) don?t stop the beatI can?t stop (can?t stop) can?t stop the beatI won?t stop (won?t stop) won?t stop the beat, goEverybody, move your feet and feel unitedOh oh oh. ? Move Your Feet, Junior Senior
DefinitionA caesura involves using a fractured sentence where two different parts are distinguishable but form one whole. When used in a speech, it forces the speaker to take a break. Sometimes poets use II to show caesura, but more often use punctuation.
There are two types of caesura. The feminine, where the pause happens after a non-stressed syllable, and the masculine where the pause follows a stressed syllable.
When to use itTo create a dramatic pause and evoke emotion and theatricality.
I met a traveller from an antique land,Who said-?Two vast and trunkless legs of stoneStand in the desert? || Near them, || on the sandHalf sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,Tell that its sculptor well those passions readWhich yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;And on the pedestal, these words appear:My name is Ozymandias, || King of Kings; ||Look on my Works, || ye Mighty, || and despair!Nothing beside remains. || Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away.?
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
DefinitionConsonance is where consonant sounds are repeated within a sentence or phrase. Repeated sounds mean something; they are there to draw the reader?s attention. Consonance is the opposite of assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds.
When to use it Use it to reinforce a motif or theme, give a poem structure, or to underscore emotions behind the words.
Example?Bye bye baby, baby goodbye(Bye baby, baby bye bye)Bye bye baby, don?t make me cry(Bye baby, baby bye bye)? ? Bye Bye Baby, The Bay City Rollers.
DefinitionChiasmus is a Greek word that means ?diagonal arrangement.? It happens when you use two or more inverted parallel clauses together. The phrases must be related, or it?s not chiasmus.
When to use itChiasmus can be used in speeches and in advertising to create memorable emphasis.
Example?I?d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.? ? Emiliano Zapata?Ask not what your country can do for you ? ask what you can do for your country.? ? John F. Kennedy.
?You can take the girl out of Catford, but you can?t take the Catford out of the girl.? ? Emma Bullen.
DefinitionColloquialism is used in speech when we want to be informal. In literature, it might provide a setting or give information about where a character comes from.
When to use itColloquialisms are also used to make dialogue more realistic. It gives us information about a character, where they?re from geographically.
Colloquialism is like slang, but the key difference is that colloquialism is generally recognized across age and socioeconomic barriers, whereas slang is specific to social groups.
??Cause if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on itIf you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on itDon?t be mad once you see that he want itIf you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. ?
– Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) Beyonce.
DefinitionDiction is the author?s word choice in speech or description. There are so many different words that we can use to mean different things; a careful choice of words can make a huge difference.
When to use it Everywhere. Picking one word over another can affect the meaning of a literary work. Use diction to paint a character, or to set a scene.
?It?s SHITE being Scottish! We?re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don?t. They?re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can?t even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We?re ruled by effete assholes. It?s a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won?t make any fucking difference.? ? Mark Renton, Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh.
DefinitionAn epigraph is where the author cites a quotation from another work of literature. It is often put into italics. Unlike an allusion, the writer directly references somebody else?s work.
When to use itEpigraphs are often used at the beginning of a chapter to set a mood or foreshadow events. Example?Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.? ? , Neil Gaiman
DefinitionWe use euphemisms to stand in for words that might feel inappropriate. In everyday speech, we might use a euphemism when a child is around, or when we feel it?s awkward to address a matter that directly. Often uncomfortable with calling a spade a spade, Brits are masters of the euphemism.
When to use itIn a novel, where a writer has a character using a euphemism, they may be portraying them as a fun character, who is a bit tongue-in-cheek ? or one who is too embarrassed to call things out for what they are
?He?s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He?s expired and gone to meet his maker! He?s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn?t nailed him to the perch, he?d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He?s off the twig! He?s kicked the bucket; he?s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin? choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!? ? Monty Python, John Cleese.
DefinitionTypically flashbacks build suspense towards something that?s going to happen.
When to use itTo show the past and explain why something is currently happening, or why a character is behaving the way they do.
ExampleWe see excellent use of flashback in Phoebe Waller-Bridge?s Fleabag, where she demonstrates the emptiness of the main character after her friend?s death by sharing flashbacks of the two.
Definition Foreshadowing is where the author subtly lets the reader know the ending or an upcoming event. He or she may foreshadow the future by using phrases, imagery, or events. This effect allows the reader to feel more intelligent than the characters.
When to use itForeshadowing is often effectively used in horror films to build tension. But, it can be used to equal effect in comedy as a joke set up.
ExampleTake The Office ? that cringy feeling you get because you know that Michael Scott is going to do something completely idiotic? That?s foreshadowing. One great example of that is the first episode of The Office whereDwight hums Little Drummer Boy, Angela?s favorite song, only to end up dating her. It?s very subtle, but details like this build clues to where the writers are going.
Definition A hyperbole is an exaggeration of an action or idea for emphasis. You might be more familiar with the term ?a figure of speech.? The effect a hyperbole creates is often larger than life.
When to use itIn speech or song writing to evoke strong feelings in an audience, to leave an impression on the reader, or for comic effect.
?If teardrops could be bottledThere?d be swimming pools filled by models.?
– idon?twannabeyouanymore, Billie Eillish.
DefinitionOften used when a character is speaking out loud, hypophora is where a character asks a question and then immediately answers it themselves. (Do not confuse it with hypophora, which is an eye condition).
When to use itWhen you want to show that your character is problem-solving and has reached a conclusion. Or, when you?re giving a speech and want to provide an answer to a question your audience wants to hear.
Example?After all, what?s a life, anyway? We?re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider?s life can?t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone?s life can stand a little of that.? ? Charlotte?s Web, E.B. White. ?You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength..? ? Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940.
Definition Irony is where a writer uses words deliberately to say the opposite to what they mean. There are three types of irony; verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.
Verbal irony is where what we say is the complete opposite of what we mean. It?s sarcasm when it?s used in a witty manner ? dramatic irony, where we know as a reader what?s going to happen before the characters. And situational irony is when we expect a particular outcome, but we are surprised by what happens.
When to use itTo make an artistic statement, or to make people laugh.
In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, we know that the witch has poisoned the apple and disguised herself as an old lady, but Snow White doesn?t. BAM! Snow becomes a victim of dramatic irony.
In the first act of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo only wants to go to the ball to see Rosaline, but he goes there and falls in love with Juliet instead. BAM! That?s situational irony.
?Like rain, on your wedding day?? No, Alanis, that?s just unfortunate. Commonly misused, The Oatmeal does a great job of explaining what is and is not ironic.
DefinitionIf you?re detail oriented, chances are you already love isocolon. This literary device is where the writer takes two more phrases or clauses that have a similar structure, rhythm, or length and lines them up on top of each other. You often see this in poems, and you?ll also spot it in advertising, particularly brand slogans.
When to use itWhen you want your readers to remember your message. When you?re writing a snappy Instapoem.
?Veni vidi vici? ? Julius Caesar
?When I am sad and wearyWhen I think all hope has goneWhen I walk along High HolbornI think of you with nothing on.? ? Celia, Celia, Adrian Mitchell.
DefinitionImagery is a literary element that creates a visual representation of an action, idea, or thing to appeal to the reader?s senses. When you want to add color to your writing and bring your reader into the story. (Think Wizard of Oz where the film suddenly switches from black and white to color).
DefinitionJuxtaposition is where you place different story elements side by side, to provide contrast and highlight the differences.
When to use it For dramatic or stylistic effect or to provide a comparison or contrast. You see this everywhere ? in books and films, on the news, even Instagram ?before and after? shots.
Example Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are juxtaposed characters. J.K. Rowling uses one to provide a contrast to the other.
Here?s another excellent example of juxtaposition ? this Teletubby video with the music replaced with Joy Division. It takes something joyful and replaces it with something depressing, creating an effect that?s both comical and creepy.
DefinitionWhen a writer uses litotes, they are using a negative phrase to say the opposite of what they mean.
When to use itWhen you want to make an ironic statement that grabs the reader?s attraction. Also, when you?re insulting someone, but trying not to look too much of a jerk.
?He?s not the sharpest knife in the box.? i.e., he?s stupid. ?The apple doesn?t fall far from the tree.? i.e., she?s similar.
?Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record.? ? Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller?s Day Off, John Hughes.
DefinitionA malapropism is where a character messes up what they?re trying to say, often using a similar sounding word and replacing it with something else. Writers use it for comic effect, or to show stupidity.
When to use itYou could use it ironically, but you run the risk that your joke might fall flat. Better to save malapropism for demonstrating that your character isn?t the sharpest crayon in the knife drawer (see litotes, above).
Example?She says like, literally, music is the air she breathes. And the malaprops makes me want to f-ing scream.? ? The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt., Father John Misty
DefinitionA metaphor is a literary device that says an object is something else, which brings new meaning to the original object. It?s similar to a simile, but instead of using the phrases ?like? or ?as,? the writer says the object is something.
When to use itWhen you want to give the reader a fresh way of looking at something.
ExampleShakespeare loved a bit of metaphor; he used them all over the place. Here are a couple of his best-known examples:
?All the world?s a stage,And all the men and women merely players.? ? As You Like It
?It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.? ? Romeo and Juliet
DefinitionMetonymy is like symbolism exaggerated. An object might not just symbolize something else; it could be used as a synonym for that thing or idea. The object and the thing it symbolizes are always closely linked. Sometimes a writer will use a single object to stand in for a whole institution.
When to use it When a sentence can be shortened with a symbol, characteristic, or idea.
Example?The White House declined to comment. ?Here, The White House represents the President and his staff.
?The pen is mightier than the sword,? Richelieu, Edward Bulwer Lytton. Here, pen stands for writing and sword stands for physical force.
DefinitionA motif is a repeated symbol, idea, or structure within a literary work to emphasize the theme.
It may be the same reference (e.g., the central character keeps seeing a black crow), or several symbols all meaning similar things (e.g., a black crow, a skull, a clock to symbolize the futility of man). Motifs can be concrete or abstract and are used to emphasize a central message and drive an idea home.
When to use itWhen you want to create a theme or mood.
ExampleOne of my favorite authors, Murakami uses recurring motifs, and you?ll often find themes of loneliness, walls to different universes, talking animals, awkward sex, and innocent girls with strange powers appearing throughout his work. Here?s a very cool screen-printed motif map that one designer made to track Murakami?s motifs in Sleep.
When to use itWhen you want to show that your character is problem-solving and has reached a conclusion. Or, when you?re giving a speech and want to provide an answer to a question your audience wants to hear.
Definition Onomatopoeia is where a word is written the same as it sounds when spoken aloud.
When to use itTo describe a sound more realistically, to make your writing a little more lively, or for comic effect.
Example?All the little pigs, they grunt and howl(Grunt, howl, grunt, howl)The cats mee-yow(Mee-yow, mee-yow)The dogs bow-wow(Ruff, ruff, ruff, ruff)Everybody makes a rowDown on Jollity Farm.? ? Jollity Farm, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band
DefinitionAn oxymoron is a literary device that puts two ideas together that seem contradictory. Where juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, an oxymoron uses words.
When to use itWhenever you want the reader to pause and think about what you?re saying.
DefinitionParadox means something beyond belief. It?s basically where the writer asks people to think differently. Not to be confused with oxymoron, or juxtaposition, a paradox is a phrase that seems larger than life but is actually true.
When to use itWhen you want the reader to think about illogical or true ideas.
Example?I can resist anything but temptation.? ? Oscar Wilde
?Someday, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.? ? C.S. Lewis
DefinitionPersonification is when the writer gives inanimate objects or ideas human traits, like the weather, or a feeling. Because we understand what it is to be human, we can relate more to an abstract concept when it is given a human quality.
Personification is not to be confused with anthropomorphism, where human characteristics are given to an animal. Personification is much more abstract.
When to use itIn poetry or narrative writing to catch the reader?s attention. It can have a significant impact by bringing a non-living thing to life and making a story more visual or relatable.
Example?Time and tide wait for no man.? ? Geoffrey Chaucer
34. Point of View
DefinitionPoint of view is a literary device that has a massive impact on the reader. Simply put, point of view is whoever is telling your story.
There are four different points of view:
- First person point of view, where ?I? am telling the story.
- Second person point of view, where the story is told to ?you.? ?
- Third person point of view, limited, where the story is about ?he? or ?she.? ?
- Third person point of view, omniscient, where the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all characters and can move between them.
When to use itEverywhere!
- First person feels very natural to writers, but it is limited to only what the narrator can see or interpret.
- Second person feels a little more eccentric. As a writer, you are speaking directly to the reader. The downside is, it can tire very quickly.
- Third person limited helps the writer focus the story by sticking to the main characters.
- Third person omniscience allows the writer to provide different viewpoints. However, it can confuse the reader unless every voice is very distinctive.
- First person point of view is very common in literature. The Hunger Games, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fifty Shades of Grey, all of these are told in the first person.
- Second person point of view is less common. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a good example.
- Harry Potter is written in the third person point of view, limited. We only know the perspective of one character, Harry.
- Little Women (By Louisa May Alcott) is an excellent example of third person point of view, omniscient, where we are given insight into the thoughts and feelings of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
DefinitionOne of my favorite words (seriously, say this out loud, it?s delightful), polysyndeton is the art of using several conjunctions (or connecting words) in succession.
When to use itIn poetry and literature to add rhythm, slow down a sentence, and to build up ideas.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.?- Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin.
Definition Satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or sarcasm to show either a vice or the foolishness of a person or group of people. It?s often used in politics and topical issues. Don?t confuse it with parody. Both use humor but serve different purposes. Parody mimics an original piece of work, where satire doesn?t need to.
When to use itWhen you want to make a political statement through humor or you want to write a relevant comedy show.
In literature, look towards Animal Farm by George Orwell, The World According to Garp by John Irving, and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.
Definition A simile is a comparison of two different things. You can easily spot a simile because the writer will use the words ?like? or ?as.? This differentiates it from a metaphor, where the writer says a thing IS something else.
When to use itIn poetry or literature to call attention to two similar things.
?O my Luve is like a red, red rose, that?s newly sprung in June; O my Luve is like the melody, that?s sweetly played in tune.?
– Robert Burns
DefinitionWhen a character gives a soliloquy, they speak their thoughts out loud, usually alone and to the audience, rather than to another character. You?ve probably heard the expression ?show don?t tell.? Well, a soliloquy ignores that advice completely.
Popular in Elizabethan drama, soliloquies appear less in more modern, naturalistic drama. Why? Well, because they?re usually used to divulge information about how the character is feeling.
When to use it
To illustrate the thoughts and feelings going on in a character?s head when narration just won?t cut it.
Shakespeare also loved a good soliloquy. Romeo demonstrates his love for Juliet in the famous balcony scene, beginning But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? , Hamlet contemplates life and death in To be or not to be, and Macbeth shows us that he decided to kill Duncan in the soliloquy Is this a dagger I see before me?.
Definition Symbolism uses images or objects to mean more than they do on a surface level.
When to use itWhen you want to represent an abstract idea, such as the passing of time, or an imminent threat.
ExampleThe writers of the TV show Heroes use a lot of symbolism in their work. There?s the helix symbol that frequently appears throughout the show which Ando translates to mean ?Great Talent? and ?Godsend.? It appears on significant items, such as Dr. Suresh?s book, Activating Evolution, on paintings by Isaac Mendez, and on Molly Walker?s drawings.
DefinitionZoomorphism is where we give animal-like qualities to anything that is not that particular animal. It can also give features of one animal to another. We see it in Greek mythology, where gods shape-shift and take on an animal form, and we see it a lot in comic books. Batman, Spider-Man, and Black Panther
When to use itWhenever you want to give animal characteristics to a human, for example, you?re creating a new superhero or alternative reality.
Whether you?re a reader or a writer, knowing more about literary devices is a bonus. As a writer, you can use this list of literary devices to add meaning to your work, allowing you to connect deeply with your audience. As a reader, you can use this list of literary devices to better understand the true meaning of a novel, play, or poem.
Originally published at https://www.nicelysaid.net on June 29, 2019.