A list of literary devices is a good resource for any writer to have on hand. This is because careful use of literary devices can help elevate a book from a story people forget, to a piece of literature that stays with them long after the last page.
Just think — Shakespeare could have written: “Everyone has a role in life.”
Instead, he used a literary device and quilled what is likely the most famous metaphor:
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
And the rest is history.
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are tools used by writers to construct text that expresses their ideas with artistic depth. They can clarify and emphasize concepts, create resonance within a narrative, and invite readers to dig a little deeper into the story’s themes. While all of these tools fall under the umbrella of “literary devices” — the purpose and impact of each one ranges. Some might underscore a narrative and work on an intellectual level, while others have more of a subtle, visceral, or emotional effect. Finally, they might also work to simply enhance the flow and pacing of your writing.
Common literary devices
If you’re looking to inject a little more flare and depth to your prose, this list of literary devices is a good place to start.
The Tortoise and the Hare is about more than just a turtle, a rabbit, and a race. It’s also a story that aims to teach the lesson: slow and steady wins the race. That’s what an allegory does: it’s a type of narrative that uses characters and plot to exemplify abstract ideas and themes — such as patience. In an allegorical story, events and characters tend to represent more than they appear to on the surface.
Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell. This dystopian novella is one of modern literature’s best-known allegories. A commentary on the events leading up to Stalin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Union, the pigs at the heart of the novel’s rural uprising are blatantly representative of figures such as Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov.
A series of words used in quick succession that all start with the same letters or sound. Used to lend a pleasing cadence to prose or poetry. And if you doubt whether they really have an impact on a reader’s experience, just think of the following unforgettable titles: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Sense and Sensibility, The Haunting of Hill House.
Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.
You probably allude to things all the time in everyday speech. An allusion is a passing or indirect descriptive reference to something.
Example: “This list of literary devices will turn me into a bonafide Hemingway.”
A figure of speech in which the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a traditional verb-subject-adjective sentence such as as “Are you ready?” becomes a Yoda-esque adjective-verb-subject question: “Ready, are you?” Or a standard adjective-noun pairing like “tall mountains” becomes “mountains tall.”
Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
When human traits or qualities are applied to non-human things — such as objects, animals, or weather — the thing becomes anthropomorphized.
Examples: In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mrs. Potts the teapot, Cogsworth the clock, and Lumière the candlestick are all household objects that act and behave like humans (which, of course, they were when they weren’t under a spell).
Similar term: personification (see below)
The household items in “Beauty and the Beast” have been anthropomorphized (image: Disney)
A universally accepted truth stated in a concise, to-the-point manner. They’re typically said in a witty or humorous style that gives them sticking power — and can take the form of an adage or proverb.
Example: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” — Alexander Pope
When two or more parallel clauses are inverted. “What does that mean and why would I do that?” you might be wondering. Well, a chiasmus might sound confusing in definition, but you’ve more than likely come across it in execution….
Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy
The use of casual and informal language in writing — this can also include slang. Colloquialisms are used to provide further context to settings and characters. Imagine reading a YA novel that takes place in modern America, and the characters speak to each other like this:
“Good morning, Sue. I hope that you slept well and are prepared for this morning’s science exam.”
It’s not realistic. Inject colloquialisms for more believable dialogue.
“Hey Sue, what’d you get up to last night? This science exam is gonna suck.”
Example: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh takes place in Scotland — a fact undeniably apparent by simply glancing at the use of dialect: “Thing is, as ye git aulder, this character-deficiency gig becomes mair sapping. Thir wis a time ah used tae say tae aw the teachers, bosses, dole punters, poll-tax guys, magistrates, when they telt me ah was deficient: ’Hi, cool it, gadge, ah’m jist me, jist intae a different sort ay gig fae youse but, ken?’”
An indirect or “politer” way of describing something deemed inappropriate or awkward to address directly.
Example: When an elderly person is forced to retire, it’s often said that they’re being “put out to pasture.”
When authors hint at events yet to come. Foreshadowing is often used to create tension or suspense — leaving readers just enough breadcrumbs to keep them hungry for more.
Example: While there are many ways to foreshadow, a popular method is through partial reveals: the narrator says something, but leaves out key facts to prompt readers’ curiosity. This is done in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: “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.”
An exaggerated statement that emphasizes the significance of the statement’s actual meaning.
Example: “At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Gabriel García Márquez,Living to Tell the Tale
Much like a rhetorical question, wherein a question is asked and an answer is not required. However, hypophora is where the person raises a question and answers it immediately. It’s often used when characters are reasoning something aloud.
Example: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Musing Daisy Buchanan has a habit of hypophora — answering her own questions (image: Warner Bros)
Imagery is a way of appealing to readers’ sense through descriptive language. It’s also crucial for any writer looking to follow the commonly cited rule “show, don’t tell.”
Example: “In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.” — E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Example: This opening scene from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil is a great example of how dramatic irony can create tension.
Sometimes the best way for us to understand something is by understanding what it’s not. This is the point of juxtaposition: by placing two or more characters, themes, concepts, places, etc. side by side, their differences are highlighted through contrast.
Example: In the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses juxtaposition to emphasize the societal disparity that led to the French Revolution: “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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
When it comes to literary devices, this one is a heavy hitter. Unlike juxtaposition, metaphors help us make sense of things by comparing the common characteristics of two unlike things.
Example: Metaphors are literature’s bread and butter (metaphor intended) — good luck finding a novel that is free from a single one. Here’s one from Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass: “Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.”
Similar term: simile
Whatever form a motif takes, it is recurring throughout the novel and helps develop the theme of the narrative. This might be a symbol, concept, image, as well as many other things.
Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the yellow brick road is a motif that represents the journey of life and growing up.
Similar term: symbol
Amusingly, this difficult-to-pronounce word refers to words that sound like the thing they’re referring to. Examples include whiz, buzz, snap, grunt, etc.
The watch-dogs bark!
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest
When you put two contradictory words together in a sentence to describe something, you are using an oxymoron. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.
Example: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
Similar terms: juxtaposition, paradox
For Romeo and Juliet, parting is — oxymoronically — such sweet sorrow (image: 20th Century Fox)
From the Greek word
Example: 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.
Similar terms: oxymoron, juxtaposition
While anthropomorphism applies human traits to non-human things (think of Donkey from Shrek — or any animal character from any cartoon), personification uses human traits to describe non-human things (such as animals, object, or natural phenomena). The behavior of the thing does not change.
Example: “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.” — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Similar term: anthropomorphism
22. Point of View
The mode of narration that a story is told through. There are various types of point of view (POV) an author can choose, and each one will have a huge impact on the reading experience. To learn more about first, second, and third person POV, check out our comprehensive guide.
Example: Second person POV is the least common because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative to pull off. One popular novel that manages to employ this perspective successfully is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
This one is for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flare to their writing. Instead of using a singular, technically-necessary conjunction or connecting word, several are used in succession for a dramatic effect.
Example: “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.” — William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Used to make fun of some aspect of human nature or society — usually through exaggeration, ridicule, or irony.
Example: The famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic example of satire — criticizing English society: “As to the first, you are to understand, that for above seventy Moons past, there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.”
While both metaphors and similes draw resemblances between two things, the former says that “Thing A is Thing B,” whereas the latter says that “Thing A is likeThing B.” It might also use the words “such as” or “as.”
Example: “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Similar term: metaphor
To represent abstract concepts and ideas in their stories, authors turn to symbols, or symbolism. Symbols typically derive from objects — for instance, a dove might represent peace or raven might represent death.
Example: In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes — a barren wasteland between East and West Egg — as a symbol to represent the waste and moral decay of the elite.
Readers and writers alike can get a lot from understanding literary devices and how they’re commonly used. If you’re the former, you can use this knowledge to your advantage as you pour over fiction and gain a little additional insight into the author’s intended meaning and motivation behind the work. Meanwhile, writers can use literary devices to connect with readers, giving their words a boosted opportunity of providing audiences with lasting meaning.