Literary devices are tools in the writer’s toolbox that help you construct a strong story. These tools bring your readers deeper into the heart of your story, shape their perception, and communicates the whole of your vision to the reader.
A few literary devices are well known to any experienced writer and to many well-read bookworms. You’ll recognize poetic imagery along with basic foreshadowing and personification, and of course, you already know how to use metaphors and similes.
But literary devices are much more than just how to describe things or how to juxtapose one thing beside another in a metaphorical comparison. Literary devices can highlight concepts, emphasize your points and foreground story points that could be buried by otherwise turgid prose. These devices change the pace and flow of your writing. Some of these tools work on your emotions, while other devices connect intellectually. All of them draw your attention.
Here are the top 10 literary devices, followed by a further list of more than 52 of these important tools, with examples from literature to demonstrate how they can be used to great effect in your writing!
Top 10 literary devices:
- Point of view
Literary devices vary in their effect and how they are used. Some terms are specific to word usage, while others are broader in application, touching on plot and characterization. Some of these tools are commonly used in poetry (such as metaphor or symbolism), while others are used in certain fiction genres. For example, foreshadowing and flashbacks are often used in detective fiction and thrillers to fill in secrets from a story.
Literary devices can often serve also as rhetorical devices. The tools of rhetoric are persuasive devices to convince a reader to agree with your idea. The difference between literary devices and rhetorical devices is that literary tools aren’t always used to persuade a reader of a point. Art can inform, persuade or entertain.
And now for the grand unveiling — here are 52+ literary devices for all readers and writers!
52+ literary devices and examples
Allegory is a complete work that makes a point through poetry or prose that lays the drapery of story over a larger message. In an allegorical story, every item or character represents an abstract concept or a bigger idea that is not represented directly in the story. For example, a simple children’s tale such as The Tortoise and the Hare is not actually about a pair of animals, but instead is really about hard work and haste.
Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an excellent example of an allegory told in a complete short novella.
In this surreal story, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers that he has turned into a giant dung beetle. The story uses this bizarre twist to communicate deeper truths about alienation in contemporary society.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
– Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Alliteration is the use of sounds or letters to change the cadence of a phrase and for precise emphasis. The repeated sounds are usually consonants, as this provides more stress on each syllable. Books are often given alliterative titles, to emphasize the themes in the books and make them more memorable.
Jane Austen’s book titles are filled with alliteration.
He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws. And terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.
— The Gruffalo, Julia Donaldson
An allusion is an indirect reference to another story or idea which is not part of the main story you are telling. Often, allusions make reference to other works of literature.
T. S. Eliot wrote poems filled with allusions. For example, in his famous poem “The Waste Land,” Eliot writes about April being “the cruellest month.” This is an allusion to the famous opening of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer describes April as a cheerful month filled with stories, pilgrimages, and “sweet-smelling showers.” Yet Eliot believes April to be cruel because of the pain he associates with new life. With this allusion, Eliot is being sarcastic about Chaucer’s worldview.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
— “The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot
Anachronism is derived from the Greek word anachronous, which means “against time.” Therefore, an anachronism is an error of chronology or timeline in a literary piece. Any object or event that is out of time and out of place in a story is considered an anachronism. Anachronism, as a literary device, is often used for comedic effect.
In Shakespeare’s famous play Julius Caesar, the characters are speaking in 44 A.D., far before the time in which mechanical clocks existed. However, in Shakespeare’s play the characters mention a clock, and therefore deliver an anachronism.
Brutus: “Peace! Count the clock.”
Cassius: “The clock has stricken three.”
— Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses or independent sentences. The use of this device is intended to induce strong emotion in one’s audience. This literary device is often seen in poetry and speeches. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. used anaphora throughout his famous speech, I Have a Dream, most notably in the repeated refrain, “I have a dream…”
Another famous example of anaphora is Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. Throughout this speech, he repeats the phrase “we shall fight.” He used this literary device to rally both troops and the British people to win the war.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
— Winston S. Churchill, Prime Minister of England
Related term: repetition
Anastrophe reverses the traditional sentence structure. A typical verb-subject-adjective sentence such as “Are you ready?” turns into adjective-verb-subject question.
As Yoda would say: “Ready, are you?”
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
To anthropomorphize is to apply human traits or qualities to a non-human thing such as objects, animals, or the weather. This literary device is related to metaphor and personification. But unlike personification, which is done through figurative description, anthropomorphism is literal: a sun with a smiling face, for example, or talking dogs in a cartoon.
The following paragraph from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale contains several instances of personification. For instance, buried things don’t really burst upward. Atwood also says that the heat breathes, even though heat doesn’t have lungs and cannot really breathe. Her use of anthropomorphism gives the garden a great deal of felt vitality.
“There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. […] Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in.”
— The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Related term: personification
An aphorism is a truth stated in a pithy manner. Aphorisms are often witty and memorable.
Such statements often become adages or proverbs through constant repetition.
To err is human, to forgive divine.
— Alexander Pope
An archetype is an idea first proposed by the Greek philosopher Plato, who thought that artistic ideas referenced a “universal and eternal form” found outside of nature. The idea of the archetype was important in the psychological work of C.G. Jung, and was later popularized by Joseph Campbell.
An archetype as a literary device is basically a reference to a universal idea, character or concept that provides instant familiarity for readers. Archetypes are references to plot moments, characters or situations that are universally shared. These concepts are often instantly recognizable to any reader — for instance, the innocent child character, or the vulnerable maiden or the muscle-bound villain.
The character Gandalf in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is the archetype of the wise mentor or ancient magical advisor. Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and the wizard Dumbledore in Harry Potter are also references to the same literary device archetype.
Assonance, or “vowel rhyme,” is the repetition of vowel sounds across a line of text or poetry. The words have to be near enough to each other that the similar vowel sounds are noticeable. This literary device creates flowing sounds that grab the reader’s attention. A good example can be found in Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1945 poem “The mother”.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
– The mother, Gwendolyn Brooks
Asyndeton is when the writer leaves out conjunctions (such as “and,” “or,” “but,” and “for”) in a group of words or phrases so that the meaning of the phrase or sentence is emphasized. This literary device is often used for speeches since sentences containing asyndeton can have a powerful, memorable rhythm.
Abraham Lincoln ends the Gettysburg Address with the phrase “…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” By leaving out certain conjunctions, he ends the speech on a more powerful, melodic note.
A caesura uses a fractured sentence where two different parts are distinguishable but form a single whole. When used in speech, this device forces the speaker to take a break. Sometimes poets use the punctuation marker II to show caesura, but more often they use spacing or standard punctuation.
There are two types of caesura: feminine, where the pause happens after a non-stressed syllable, and masculine where the pause follows a stressed syllable.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said-”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… || Near them, || on the sand
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which 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 decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Chiasmus is a Greek word that means “diagonal arrangement.” This literary device happens when you use two or more inverted parallel clauses together. The phrases must be related, or it is not chiasmus.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
— John F. Kennedy
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
— Emiliano Zapata
“You can take the girl out of Catford, but you can’t take the Catford out of the girl.”
— Emma Bullen
Colloquialism is the use of casual and informal language. The word is derived from the Latin word colloqui which means ‘conversation’. Most famous literary works contain at least some examples of colloquialism. This literary device is often used by authors to lend a sense of realism to their characters and dialogue.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
– The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Consonance is where consonant sounds are repeated within a sentence or phrase. Repeated sounds draw the reader’s attention. Consonance is the opposite of assonance, which is the repetition of vowel sounds. This literary device can be used to reinforce a motif or theme, give a poem structure, or to underscore emotions behind the words.
Robert Frost’s “Out-Out”poem contains several ready examples of this literary device. In this poem, the consistent “d” sounds create rhythm and unity in this poem, while the “L” sounds in the first line add to a sense of atmosphere.
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
– Out-Out, Robert Frost
16. Cumulative sentence
A cumulative sentence is one that starts with an independent clause, but then adds other additional or modifying clauses. This literary device can be used to extend the action of a scene or complicate a character’s motivations.
It was a large bottle of gin Albert Cousins had brought to the party, yes, but it was in no way large enough to fill all the cups, and in certain cases to fill them many times over, for the more than one hundred guests, some of whom were dancing not four feet in front of him.
– Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Diction merely means the author’s word choices. How words are chosen makes a difference. Whether the chosen words are long complex words or short blunt words can do many things to your book. Carefully chosen words communicate a different diction.
A change in diction can modify a scene’s import, give added depth to characters and change a reader’s perception of your story. This literary device is often one of the first choices a writer makes in creating a book.
Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.
— Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
An epigraph is when an author inserts a famous quotation, poem, song, or other short passage or text at the beginning of book or chapter.
An epigraph is typically a quote or citation from another writer, used as a way to introduce overarching themes or messages in the work. Some pieces of literature, such as Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, or Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down, incorporate multiple epigraphs throughout.
Ernest Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises includes a dual epigraph that consists of a quotation from poet Gertrude Stein, which reads, “You are all a lost generation,” and a passage from the Bible. This literary device often sets the tone for the rest of the book.
Epistrophe is similar to anaphora, but in this case, the repeated word or phrase appears at the end of successive statements. Like anaphora, this literary device is used to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.
– President Barrack Obama
A euphemism is an indirect, “polite” way of describing something too inappropriate or awkward to address directly. However, using this literary device, most people will still understand the truth about what’s happening.
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.
Exposition is the provision of background information in order to help the reader. When used in conjunction with description and dialogue, this literary device provides a deeper understanding of the characters, setting, and events.
The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.
– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
A flashback is an interruption in a narrative that depicts events that have already occurred, either before the present time or before the time at which the narration takes place. This literary device is often used to give the reader more background information and details about specific characters, events, plot points, and so on.
Most of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a flashback from the point of view of the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, as she engages in a conversation with a visitor named Lockwood. In this story, Nelly narrates Catherine Earnshaw’s and Heathcliff’s childhoods, the pair’s budding romance, and their tragic demise. In fact, the love story between Heathcliff and Catherine is developed entirely through flashback as Nelly Dean tells their love story.
Related term: foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is when the author hints at events yet to come in a story. Similar to flashbacks (and often used in conjunction), this device is also used to create tension. One popular method of foreshadowing is through partial reveals — the narrator leaves out key facts to prompt readers’ curiosity. This literary device is a way of revealing information gradually in order to build suspense and interest.
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.
– The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
Related term: flashback
24. Frame story
A frame story is any part of the story that “frames” another part of it, such as one character telling another about their past, or someone uncovering secrets that then inform the reader about past events. Since the frame story supports the rest of the plot, this literary device is mainly used at the beginning and the end of the narrative, or in small interludes between chapters or short stories.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a frame story. In this classic medieval text, a group of characters travel together on pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. During their journey, each of the travelers tell a different story. The overarching scene of the pilgrim’s journey is a frame for the individual narratives told within the story.
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that’s not meant to be taken literally by the reader. This literary device is often used for comedic effect and/or emphasis.
“At that time Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.”
— Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez
Hypophora is similar to a rhetorical question. In hypophora, the character raises a question and answers it immediately themselves (hence the prefix hypo, meaning ‘under’ or ‘before’).
This literary device is often used when characters are reasoning something aloud.
“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.
Imagery is a literary element that creates a visual representation of an action, idea, or thing to appeal to the reader’s senses. Imagery is when an author describes a scene, thing, or idea so that it appeals to our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing). This literary device is often used to help the reader clearly visualize parts of the story by creating a strong mental picture.
Here’s an example of imagery taken from William Wordsworth’s famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
– “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth
Irony creates a contrast between how things seem and how they really are. There are three types of literary irony: dramatic (when readers know what will happen before characters do), situational (when readers expect a certain outcome, only to be surprised by a turn of events), and verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said).
Here’s a long explanation of the three types of irony, with examples.
- Dramatic irony: The audience is aware of the true intentions or outcomes, but the characters are not. As a result, events take on different meanings for the audience than they do for the characters involved.
- Situational irony: Something happens that’s the opposite of what was expected or intended to happen.
- Verbal irony: Someone says something meaningful but means the opposite
- Dramatic irony: In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo commits suicide in order to be with Juliet; however, readers or audience member know that Juliet is only asleep and is not actually dead.
- Situational irony: A boy wakes up late for school and quickly rushes to get there. As soon as he arrives, though, he realizes that it’s a holiday and that there is no school.
- Verbal irony: In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor plans to get revenge on another man, 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 this point that Montresor plans to kill Fortunato.
Isocolon is when two or more phrases or clauses have similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up perfectly. To use this literary device, 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 literary device in poems, and you’ll also spot the literary device in advertising, particularly brand slogans.
“Veni vidi vici” — Julius Caesar
“When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.”
— Celia, Celia, Adrian Mitchell.
Juxtaposition is the comparing and contrasting of two or more different (usually opposite) ideas, characters, objects, etc. This literary device is often used to help create a clearer picture of the characteristics of one object or idea by comparing it with those of another.
One of the most famous literary examples of juxtaposition is the opening passage from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …”
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Related terms: oxymoron, paradox
Litotes is the literary device of the double negative.
Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case. Everyday examples include the phrases: “He’s not the sharpest knife in the box.” (i.e., he’s dumb) or “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (i.e., the child is similar to the parent)
Once he’s led you to Achilles’ hut,
that man will not kill you—he’ll restrain
all other men. For he’s not stupid,
blind, or disrespectful of the gods.
He’ll spare a suppliant, treat him kindly.
– The Iliad by Homer (translated by Ian Johnston)
Malapropism occurs when similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts. Malapropisms are often employed in dialogue when a character flubs up their speech. A very silly example is this phrase: “I am not to be truffled with.”
Malapropism typically occurs when an incorrect word is used in place of a word that has a similar sound. This misuse of the word typically results in a statement that is both nonsensical and humorous; as a result, this literary device is commonly used in comedic writing.
Here are the key differences between malapropisms, Spoonerisms, eggcorns, Freudian slips, and mondegreens:
- Malapropism: Substitution of an incorrect word for one that sounds very similar. For example, substituting the word “tender” for “tenor” in the following sentence: “I didn’t like the tender of that conversation.”
- Spoonerism: Switching the vowels or consonants in two words in close proximity, either unintentionally as an error or intentionally for humorous purposes. For example: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
- Eggcorn: An intentional substitution of a similar sounding word that still makes sense. For example, “old-timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease” or “mating name” for “maiden name.”
- Freudian Slip: An unintentional utterance that may reveal something in the speaker’s unconscious. For example, if someone wanted to say, “I really love chocolate,” but instead said “I really love Charlie,” this might hint at an unconscious desire.
- Mondegreen: A misheard word or words in song lyrics. For example, some might mishear Elton John’s classic lyric “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”
DOGBERRY: Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to . . . and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!
– Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
A metaphor compares two dissimilar things by equating one thing as the other thing. By this comparison, our minds can bring one idea into the conceptual space of another idea. When you compare two objects, one of them is seen in a different light, illuminated and re-configured through that comparison.
The concrete becomes abstract, the ephemeral grounded momentarily, the unknown related to the known in a way that helps us understand. This literary device exploits the human tendency to compare two unlike things and find a commonality.
Difference between Simile and Metaphor
Metaphor is the big idea behind the comparison between two different objects. However, in English, we use two different words to describe different instances of the rhetorical device known as a metaphor.
There are two types of this literary device. A metaphor proper compares two things by simply stating that this thing is that thing. A = B. A simile is a metaphor that uses the words like or as to make the same sort of metaphorical comparison.
Here are examples of metaphors from several of our greatest literary thinkers.
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.Albert Camus
Books are mirrors of the soul.Virginia Woolf
She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
Three metaphor samples not enough?
Check out this list of 125 metaphor examples!
Related term: simile
A metonym is when a related word or phrase is substituted for the actual thing to which it’s referring. This device is usually used for poetic or rhetorical effect. Metonymy is like symbolism exaggerated. An object might not just symbolize something else; it could be used as a synonym for that thing or idea. When using this literary device, sometimes a writer will use a single object to stand in for a whole institution.
When you hear the phrase “The White House declined to comment” then the words “The White House” are being used to represent the President and his staff.
This classic example from Bulwer Lytton contains two examples of metonymy: “the pen” refers to “the written word,” and “the sword” refers to “military force.”
The pen is mightier than the sword
– Richelieu, Edward Bulwer Lytton
Related term: synecdoche
Mood is the general feeling the writer wants the audience to have. The writer can achieve this literary deivce through description, setting, dialogue, and word choice.
Here’s a mood-inducing passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In this passage, Tolkien uses detailed description to set create a cozy, comforting mood. From the writing, you can see that the hobbit’s home is designed to provide comfort.
“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats — the hobbit was fond of visitors.”
– The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Whatever form a motif takes, it recurs throughout the novel and helps develop the theme of the narrative. This literary device might be a symbol, concept, or image.
A 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.
In the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, trains are an omnipresent motif that symbolize transition, derailment, and ultimately violent death and destruction.
Related term: symbol
Onomatopoeia is a literary device where a word is written the same as it sounds when spoken aloud. Well-known instances of onomatopoeia include whiz, buzz, snap, grunt, etc. Writers use this describe a sound more realistically or for dramatic or comic effect.
The onomatopoeia in this poem by Poe includes words like, clang, clash, roar, jangling, clamor and clangor. In these words, we hear the discordant noise of the bells. It reminds us of a fire alarm – something that jars the senses. This is the exact effect that Poe is hoping to produce. Also, even though the word ‘bells,’ itself, is not usually considered onomatopoeia, by repeating it as he does, we hear a constant bell ringing.
‘How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells, –
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
Of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!’
– Edgar Allen Poe
An oxymoron is a literary device that combines two contradictory words to describe one thing. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
— Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.
Related terms: juxtaposition, paradox
Paradox derives from the Greek word paradoxon, which means “beyond belief.” This literary device is a statement that asks people to think outside the box by providing seemingly illogical — and yet actually true — premises.
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, whereas an oxymoron is a combination of just two words.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the slogan of the totalitarian government is built on paradoxes: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” While we might read these statements as obviously contradictory, in the context of Orwell’s novel, these blatantly corrupt sentiments have become an accepted truth.
Related terms: oxymoron, juxtaposition
Personification is a literary device that uses human traits to describe non-human things. Again, while the aforementioned anthropomorphism actually applies these traits to non-human things, personification means the behavior of the thing does not actually change. This is personhood in a figurative language only.
The literary device of personification 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.
“Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin.” — The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Related term: anthropomorphism
41. Point of view
Point of view is, of course, the mode of narration in a story. There are many POVs an author can choose, and each one will have a different impact on the reading experience. This is considered a literary device because it is a choice that the writer makes, and the choice changes the story in remarkable ways.
There are four different points of view:
First person point of view, where “I” am telling the story.
- First person feels very natural to writers, but it is limited to only what the narrator can see or interpret.
Second person point of view, where the story is told to “you.” …
- 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 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.
- 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 Eagle Tree, by Ned Hayes and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and many more are told in the first person.
- Second person point of view is less common. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
- 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.
Second person POV is uncommon because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative style to pull off.
Instead of using a single conjunction in lengthy statements, polysyndeton uses several in succession for a dramatic effect. This literary device is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flair to their writing, or who are hoping to portray a particular (usually naïve) sort of voice.
“Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.”
— The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Repetition is when a word or phrase is written multiple times, usually for the purpose of emphasis. This literary device is often used in poetry (for purposes of rhythm as well).
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.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda
Related term: anaphora
Satire is a genre of writing that criticizes something, such as a person, behavior, belief, government, or society. Satire often employs irony, humor, and hyperbole to make its point. Within a work of literature, 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. This literary device is often used in politics and on topical issues.
Don’t confuse satire with parody. Both use humor but serve different purposes. Parody mimics an original piece of work, where satire doesn’t need to.
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The World According to Garp by John Irving
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 literary device is differentiated from a metaphor, where the writer says a thing IS something else.
“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
Related term: metaphor
Soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length. The character in question may be alone or in the company of others, but they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people; the purpose of a soliloquy is for a character to reflect independently.
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech is a perfect example of this literary device. Hamlet ruminates on the nature of life and death, in a classic dramatic soliloquy.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to sufferThe slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,Or to take arms against a sea of troublesAnd by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,No more; and by a sleep to say we endThe heart-ache and the thousand natural shocksThat flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummationDevoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause– Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Symbolism refers to the use of an object, figure, event, situation, or other idea in a written work to represent something else—typically a broader message or deeper meaning that differs from its literal meaning.
When this literary device is analyzed, the things used for symbolism are called “symbols,” and they’ll often appear multiple times throughout a text, sometimes changing in meaning as the plot progresses.
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.
Related term: motif
Synecdoche is the usage of a part to represent the whole. This literary device allows a part of something is to represent the whole, or vice versa. It’s similar to a metonym (see above); however, a metonym doesn’t have to represent the whole—just something associated with the word used.
“Help me out, I need some hands!” In this case, “hands” is being used to refer to people (the whole human, essentially).
Related term: metonymy
A tautology is when a sentence or short paragraph repeats a word or phrase, expressing the same idea twice. Often, the presence of this literary device is a negative sign that you should trim your work to remove the redundancy (such as “frozen ice”) but this literary device can also be used for poetic emphasis.
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door
– The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
Tmesis is when a word or phrase is broken up by an interjecting word, such as abso-freaking-lutely. This literary device is used to draw out and emphasize the idea, often with a humorous or sarcastic slant.
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.
– Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Tone refers to the overall style and mood of your book. Tone is established through a variety of means, including diction, stylistic choices, voice of your narrator, characterization, symbolism, and themes.
In this passage from the famous Don Quixote, Cervantes establishes an ironic tone.
Having thus lost his understanding, he unluckily stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered into a madman’s brain; for now he thought it convenient and necessary, as well for the increase of his own honor, as the service of the public, to turn knight-errant.
– Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Tragicomedy is a blend of tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedy helps an audience process darker themes by allowing them to laugh at the situation even when circumstances are bleak.
Lemony Snicket’s middle-grade fantasy series A Series of Unfortunate Events uses wordplay, absurd situations, and over-the-top characters to provide humor in an otherwise tragic story.
Zoomorphism is when you take animal traits and assign them to anything that’s not an animal. This literary device is the opposite of anthropomorphism and personification, and can be either a physical manifestation, such as a god appearing as an animal, or a comparison, like calling someone a busy bee.
Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.
– The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
Related terms: anthropomorphism, personification