The most skilled writers know how to transport their readers into another world through their writing, often without them even realizing how it’s been done.
Much of this is achieved through literary devices, which writers use to develop the overall meaning of the work and make its purpose clearer in a way that’s artistic and often entertaining.
In order to successfully interpret and analyze literary texts, readers and writers first need to have a solid foundation in literary terms and their definitions.
What Are Literary Devices?
Literary devices are techniques used by writers to create a pointed effect in their writing and to help readers understand a text on a deeper level. They might do so by appealing to the senses, drawing comparisons, or highlighting patterns.
By learning how to master literary devices, writers can take their work from good to extraordinary. But they’re not the only ones who benefit—literary devices and techniques can also make the reading experience more fun and fulfilling.
Many literary devices, such as allusion and metaphor, can help readers to connect to larger, universal themes, or make connections to other works they’ve read.They can also help readers to understand the motivation behind the author’s choices.
Reading a text without a basic understanding of literary devices makes for a superficial experience: you will probably be able to follow the basic plot line, but you’ll miss out on all the underlying messages about the story, the author, and about life.
The Most Common Literary Devices
Below are 17 of the most common literary devices that writers use to enrich a story and that readers should be familiar with in order to truly appreciate a text.
You can download our literary devices cheat sheet for quick referencing.
Definition: An allusion is a brief, indirect reference to a person, place, thing, or idea from the real world, perhaps from history, culture. literature, or politics.
- This forest is so beautiful—it’s like a Garden of Eden.
- He thinks of himself as quite a Casanova with the ladies.
Definition: Alliteration is when a series of words start with the same consonant sound to create a rhythmic repetition. It’s commonly found in poetry, tongue twisters, and limericks.
- Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
- The boy was as busy as a bee.
Definition: Allegories are used to convey abstract ideas using characters and (seemingly) simpler storylines.
- On the surface, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is about a group of farm animals who rise up to defeat their human masters, but this is actually an allegory for the Russian revolution.
Definition: Anaphora refers to the repetition of certain words at the beginning of multiple sentences throughout a work for emphasis.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech starts a series of sentences with “let freedom ring.”
- Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech repeats the phrase “we shall fight” multiple times.
Definition: Colloquialisms are elements of speech commonly used and understood within a particular region or geographic area.
- Go bananas
- Soda/pop/coke/tonic (all refer to the same thing)
Definition: Diction Diction refers to a writer’s purposeful word choice, which can help develop the tone, mood, and characters in a story.
- “I regret to inform you that that is not the case.” vs. “You’re wrong!”
- “I’m a bit upset,” vs. “I’m so pissed off.”
Definition: A euphemism is a mild or indirect way to express something that might be considered too harsh, blunt, or embarrassing.
- “Passed away” (instead of “died”)
- “Correctional facility” (instead of “prison” or “jail”)
Definition: Flashbacks are when the narrator jumps back in time for a specific scene or chapter in order to give more context for the story.
- Wuthering Heights starts with a flashback of the death of Catherine.
- In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, flashback is used to recall Willy Loman’s memories of the past.
Definition: Foreshadowing provides subtle clues to readers about what is to come later in the plot, but without giving away major details.
- The soothsayer warns, “Beware the Ides of March” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
- Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms opens with the line, “The leaves fell early that year,” which foreshadows an early death.
Definition: Imagery uses figurative language to describe people, places, or things in a way that appeals to the physical senses and helps readers to picture the scene more vividly.
- The moonlight shone over the lake and reflected in her big, dark eyes.
- A gust of cold wind pierced her body.
Definition: Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning of words is different (usually the opposite) from their actual meaning. There are 3 types: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
- In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, three of the supporting characters, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, all wish for traits that they already possess.
- In the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, firefighters burn books rather than extinguishing fires.
Definition: Juxtaposition takes two or more ideas, places, characters, or actions and places them side by side to develop comparisons and contrasts.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
- In Amanda Brown’s Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’s bubbly demeanor is juxtaposed with how everyone else acts and behaves in her new environment, Harvard Law School.
Definition: In literature, mood is used to evoke certain feelings in readers, usually through the story’s setting, tone, theme, and diction.
- In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll uses fantastical imagery and curious settings to create a whimsical mood.
- Throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut maintains a mostly deadpan, unemotional tone.
Definition: Satire is technically a genre that uses irony and humor to criticize individuals, institutions, or even our own tendencies as humans.
- The Colbert Report was a political satire show in which the host portrays a a caricature of conservative political pundits.
Definition: Onomatopoeia is the formation of a word that phonetically imitates the sound it describes.
- Honk! (the sound a car horn makes)
- Beep (the sound a pager, phone, alarm clock, or any other number of items might make)
Definition: Symbolism refers to the use of symbols (objects that carry meanings or represent ideas) to convey deeper meanings behind a text.
- Traditionally, brides wear white because white symbolizes purity.
- In literature, rivers are typically symbols for life.
Definition: Tone refers to the attitude or overall character of a piece. It’s often reflective of the speaker’s attitude or feelings toward a subject.
- The tone of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place by Ernest Hemingway can be described as peaceful, as it reflects the solitude of the old man without feeling sad or lonely.
- Much of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five carries a deadpan, unemotional tone.
More Than Words
Certain literary devices and techniques can really change the way we see and experience a work of literature, transforming a text into more than just words.
Both readers and writers can benefit from at least a basic understanding of these devices in order to better appreciate a work.
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