A literary device is a writing tool that writers use to create a special effect. It can also be an idea or concept used repeatedly throughout a text to produce an artistic effect. When utilized properly, these tools can enhance the reader’s understanding of the work in question. This is because they make the author’s intended meaning clearer and easier to understand. In some cases, these devices are even used to manipulate readers into forming specific opinions about characters, themes, or events through suggestive language.
This article will discuss 25 different types of literary devices and offer examples from literature across genres to help you better understand how each one works.
What Are Literary Devices In English?
Literary devices are techniques used in writing that produce a specific effect. Writers use them and deepen the story. Examples of literary devices include metaphors, similes, personification, and irony.
To put it simply: Literary devices are techniques that authors use to add a deeper meaning to their work—or to help readers understand it better. They help you connect with the author’s message in a more meaningful way or make your writing stronger.
The 25 Most Common Literary Devices List
This article will go over the list of literary devices in detail while also examining some literary devices with examples of each. That way, you’ll have a clear idea of what literary devices are and how to spot them in your writing.
The 25 most common types of literary devices include:
You’re already familiar with allegory if you’ve ever read The Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm. Figurative work is a narrative in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract ideas or principles. This literary device is commonly used to convey meanings that are otherwise too complex to explain. The author can effectively communicate more complex themes and messages by presenting readers with a concrete storyline and setting.
For example, George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters Old Major (Karl Marx), Mr. Jones (Tsar Nicholas II), Snowball (Leon Trotsky), Napoleon (Joseph Stalin), Squealer (Vyacheslav Molotov), and Benjamin (Bolshevik Party member Mikhail Kalinin) all symbolize important figures from this historical event.
When we talk about diction, we’re talking about how a writer chooses to use words.
Diction is closely related to word choice. However, while word choice refers to the actual words a writer uses, diction is more concerned with how those words are used in context.
Diction is indeed influenced by many factors, including education and the sophistication of one’s vocabulary. However, what’s often more important than one’s level of education or literacy is one’s natural ability to choose the right word to convey meaning. Expert writers tend to be experts at making these choices because they can internalize an audience to understand what people will understand from their writing and what will not be clear (or even confusing).
Alliteration is derived from Latin’s Latira. It refers to the repetition of a particular sound in the first syllables of a series of words or phrases. Here’s an example: “She sells sea shells by the seashore.” This technique is usually used in poetry to enhance its rhythmic qualities and help listeners comprehend each line more easily. It can also be used in prose, as this simple definition has shown you!
Here are some other examples of alliteration:
- “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
- “Shelly sells seashells down by the seashore.”
- “You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York.” (Frank Sinatra)
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A simile is a common type of metaphor that interestingly compares two different things. The object of a simile is to spark an interesting connection in a reader’s or listener’s mind. Similes are generally easier to identify than metaphors, but not always. Both compare two things by stating one thing is another thing. It uses the words like or as to compare two things.
- He ran like the wind.
- Her voice was as sweet as honey.
This is a metaphor: ‘Love is a hurricane.’
Since we said love is a hurricane, we don’t need to use ‘like’ or ‘as.’ It’s just one thing being another. And when we say that something else is another thing, that creates some sort of comparison in your head. Metaphors are comparisons, but they are not similes like ‘love is like a red rose’ or ‘love is as deep as an ocean’ (both are similes). But as soon as we make the comparison between two things and say that one thing IS the other…that’s when you know it’s a metaphor.
They can be short expressions like ‘my dad likes to watch football.’ That’s just saying one thing about someone who does a specific action or activity. Or they can be much longer expressions where it takes up entire sentences or paragraphs to express their meaning:
- People who don’t have time for leisure reading will find an audio version gives the story new legs.–Anne Tyler (audio version=new legs)
- Her lips were red wine; her skin was porcelain.–The White Stripes (lips=red wine; skin=porcelain)
- A smile was her only answer.–Robert Frost (smile=answer)
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used to make a point. It’s when the writer or speaker goes way over the top in their description. The author uses hyperbole to emphasize how they feel and to show how different things can be on such a large scale that they’re not meant to be taken literally.
The most frequently used type of hyperbole is “over-the-top” exaggeration, in which the writer describes something or someone using language that exaggerates the reality of what they’re describing. For example, instead of saying “I’m hungry,” you might say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
Some common examples of hyperbole are:
- He was so nervous he had butterflies in his stomach.
- She’s as skinny as a toothpick.
Now, imagine an image of a forest. What do you see? Trees. What else? Grass and perhaps some rocks? Now, what if I asked you to imagine the same forest but think of it as a sad place. Doesn’t the scenery change a little bit? Perhaps there is more darkness and less light.
Imagery isn’t just about visual pictures, though. It can also be about sounds or sensory perceptions – like the taste! For example:
“The scent of pancakes filled my nostrils as I entered the kitchen” would be an example of imagery in literature because it makes you smell food without actually being able to smell it.
The irony is the contrast between what is expected and what occurs. There are three types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.
- Verbal irony occurs when a speaker’s intention contradicts what they are saying. For example, in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” by Edgar Allen Poe, the narrator says, “I was too much astounded to speak.” The reader understands that while the narrator was speechless with fear at one point, he can still speak because he’s telling his story after he escaped from the torture chamber.
- Situational irony happens when expected results become something else entirely. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks poison after believing Juliet has died by poisoning herself. When Juliet awakens and finds Romeo dead beside her — this time for real — she takes her own life as well.
- The dramatic irony arises when an audience watching a play or movie knows something that the characters do not know. In Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Oedipus vows to find Laius’s murderer. Because it’s a tragedy about fate, readers know from the beginning who killed Laius: Oedipus himself without knowing who Laius was (his father). The audience watches as Oedipus relentlessly searches for his murderer until all becomes clear at play’s end.
- *Two other forms of irony exist: cosmic irony and historical irony *Cosmic irony depends on an external force that creates incongruity between our expectations for humans or human creations and what happens in life. Historical irony depends on hindsight—that is, looking back in time at past events with more knowledge than people had at that moment in history to find out what they should have seen but didn’t
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This technique is when a word or group of words, when spoken aloud, imitate the sound they’re describing. For example, if I say “click, clack,” you might think that I’m describing the sounds made by high heels on concrete or by a typewriter. If I said “snap,” you might imagine the sound of dry branches breaking underfoot or the sound of your fingers as they close together.
While this is a fun literary device to use in your writing, and it often adds whimsy and humor to an otherwise mundane description, there are some drawbacks. The first drawback is that since not all languages have the same linguistic structure, these literary descriptions can get lost in translation and thus have no effect on readers reading them in another language (or dialect). Also—especially for longer words like ‘explosions’ and ‘explosions’—they can be annoying to read because they interrupt the flow of your narrative.
An allusion refers to something in literature, film, art, or history.
An allusion can be made to any text as long as your audience has the cultural knowledge to understand the reference.
You can use an allusion to make your writing more interesting and help you tie your work together with other texts.
Homer’s Odyssey is full of allusions that will only be understood by those who have read The Iliad. Here’s an example:
“So Odysseus spoke, and his dear wife wept in response, remembering how he had gone down in his hollow ship on the wine-dark sea to go beyond Troy and wage war against men (The Odyssey 1.159-160).”
Homer references the Trojan War—a war he describes in detail in The Iliad—and assumes that his audience knows about it without giving a full explanation.
Allusions are often made from one text to another text within the same genre or literary era (and sometimes even from one genre of literature to another). However, sometimes they are made across time and space so that readers must have a background understanding of things like mythology or religion (such as when allusions are made to the Bible).
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. It’s commonly used for emphasis (especially in political speeches).
Here’s an example from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: the Triwizard Tournament!” yelled Mr. Crouch, and as he rolled up his left sleeve, the crowd fell silent once more. “The champions will draw lots from this goblet,” said Mr. Crouch, holding it up so that everybody could see it. “The name of the champion who picked the longest straw will be called first out of this hat.” He pulled a large black wizard’s hat from nowhere and placed it on the goblet.
Juxtaposition is when two characters or objects have opposing characteristics, personalities, or behaviors. Although similar to a simile, the point of juxtaposition isn’t to make a comparison—instead, it’s simply to show that these things are different.
“The wind was so cold it turned his skin red and raw.” Here’s the thing: The wind can’t turn your skin red and raw because it’s not hot enough. But that doesn’t matter—the author didn’t use this phrase to compare the wind to something else; he just wanted us to know the wind was really cold.
To use an example from literature, consider this passage from Animal Farm by George Orwell:
“Fierce quarrels broke out between Snowball and Napoleon. In late February, the animals wer late Februarye astonished to hear that Snowball had arranged to overthrow Mr Jones… [and] had been secretly cooperating with him all along.”
We’re first told that Snowball and Napoleon are completely opposed—they get into fierce fights—but then we find out they’ve been working together in secret! This is juxtaposition in action.
What Is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which a writer gives an advance hint of what is to come later in the story. Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story, or a chapter, and it helps the reader develop expectations about the upcoming events.
The storm clouds in “The Scarlet Letter” foreshadow trouble for Hester Prynne when she is forced to wear her mark of shame on her chest for committing adultery.
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the most famous American novels and explores legalism, sin, and guilt themes.
Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas, to represent something beyond the literal meaning. In simple terms, symbolism in literature uses an object to represent an idea greater than the object itself.
Below are some examples of symbolism in literature:
- Jesus and Cross
- White and Black (or Light and Dark)
- A snake represents something evil.
- Crows represent that death is short.
- An empty room represents loneliness.
- Purple colors represent royalty.
- Black colors represent evil, sin, or death.
- A light bulb to represent an idea.
- Roses represent love.
- A lion represents courage.
So, what is personification? A personification is a literary tool where human characteristics are given to an inanimate object or idea. We love personification because it allows us to better relate to a character or story. In this example from Nicholas Sparks’ _The Notebook_, the writer uses personification in the description of rain hitting the window:
_”Raindrops fell upon my steel roof like little feet running.”_
That sounds so poetic and beautiful, doesn’t it? It’s also kind of creepy if you think about it. What gives? We can imagine ourselves running across a metal roof with muddy shoes! The more we can relate to a book, poem, or movie, the more we can enjoy it—even if that means relating to some mud-covered sneakers!
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits and characteristics to nonhuman entities. you can break it down into two parts:
- Anima, or the giving of a soul to an object.
- Morphos, which means “form” or “shape.”The term was first used in 1589 by Sir Thomas Browne in his work Pseudodoxia Epidemica I.vii: “For we may not unskilfully anthropomorphize God (ascribing to him human qualities), if we attribute to him any operations like ours…”
Most commonly, anthropomorphism is used as a literary device. Here are some examples from the literature:
God uses anthropomorphism when it speaks in Genesis 3:8-9:
“The voice of the Lord God walking in Eden at the cool of the day.”
While this isn’t an example of anima (God does not have a soul), it does use human attributes for something that is not human. In this case, it’s using “walking” as a descriptor — something only humans do.
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Orlando ponders why he loves Rosalind so much by referencing aliens:
“What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?/I cannot speak to her yet she urged conference/O poor Orlando! Thou art overthrown;/ Or Charles or something weaker masters thee.”
This is one of many examples where Shakespeare uses words such as “passion,” “weights,” and “tongue” when speaking about love, all devices that would later become heavily used in romance novels (which didn’t exist until around 200 years after his death).
Satire is a genre of literature that makes fun of its subject. It means to poke fun at or make its subject seem ridiculous. The writer may use humor, exaggeration, irony or ridicule to criticize the shortcomings they see in society.
Although satire intends to bring attention to the flawed nature of its subject through ridicule, it is not meant to be cruel. Satire aims at improving humanity by criticizing its follies and foibles. A satirical work exposes the weakness of an individual or society by using humor, exaggeration, or irony. It intends to improve humanity by pointing out the folly and shortcomings it finds in society–it does not intend to inflict harm on any particular person(s).
Examples of Satire:
- you can find satirical novels as far back as Roman times with authors such as Petronius (Rome) and Apuleius (The Golden Ass).
- Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical novel about a shipwrecked sailor who ends up in several different fantasy lands… all of which are used as metaphors for aspects of his own life and culture he dislikes.
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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. They’re not the same as themes, but they contribute to a work’s overall meaning. For example, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the motif of language represents how language can be used as a control tool.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there is a distinct motif of light vs. dark, which builds throughout the story until Harry is forced to confront Voldemort. Outside of literature, we often see this literary device in movies and TV shows (think: Walter White uses his chemistry skills for good vs. evil).
An analogy is defined as a comparison between two things to show how they are alike. Using analogies can help explain something unfamiliar or complex by comparing it with something your audience already knows and understands.
Suppose you wanted to compare the relationship between a father and son to the relationship between an employee and his manager. In that case, you could explain it by saying that “the relationship between a father and son is similar to the relationship between an employee and his manager because one provides guidance and care while the other grows older and becomes more independent.”
In this example, we use an analogy by comparing a more familiar concept of a father-son relationship with an unfamiliar concept of employee-manager relationships to help illustrate both concepts for our readers.
Humour uses playful or amusing words to create a comic effect or simply make a boring situation light-hearted. you can find a good example of humor in action in JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“It was not long before he [Bilbo] was laughing deep down inside him, and quite forgetting that he ought to be first afraid and then angry; indeed he felt as if a heavy weight you had taken a heavyweight had escaped the goblins, and was through the wood, and it was now plain sailing.” —JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit.
A flashback is when the writer describes a scene from the past, usually to relate to current events or to evoke certain emotions in the reader. A flashback can explain a character’s history and is often used to add meaning and depth to a story.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway narrates his experiences over the summer of 1922 in New York City. When he first meets Jay Gatsby at one of his extravagant parties, Carraway explains that he had met Daisy Buchanan years earlier while living in Louisville. He goes on to describe how crazy Daisy was about him before she got married and moved away with her rich husband Tom.
This flashback adds meaning by helping readers understand why Gatsby is so obsessive about winning back Daisy’s love so many years later.
Anastrophe refers to the inversion of normal word order. It’s the opposite of what we find in standard sentence structure.
I’ll see you later → Later I’ll see you.
It is to be done now → Now it is to be done.
They’re going downtown → Downtown, they’re going.
Colloquialism is the use of informal words, expressions, or other grammar normally used in everyday speech.
Here’s a quick example:
“You’re in my spot!”
“Tell her to back off!”
In both examples, we’ve seen an informal choice of words and expressions that emphasize the immediate emotion behind the speaker’s intentions. That said, this is only achieved when spoken. In written form, these kinds of words aren’t nearly as effective. They can sound forced and artificial on the page if they aren’t delivered naturally. So whenever you decide to use colloquialisms in your writing, it’s important to make sure it comes across naturally as if someone were speaking with their friends at a local bar or cafe.
Euphemism is a figure of speech used to replace harsh words with softer or more pleasant-sounding ones. Euphemisms are often used to express something that might otherwise be offensive, unpleasant, or taboo.
For instance, someone who is not well-off might say they are “underprivileged” instead of saying they are poor. Saying that you were taking a nap when you were sleeping implies that your nap was longer than expected! The possibility of being fired becomes the chance for “a new opportunity.”
25. In Medias Res
In medias res is a Latin phrase that means “in the midst of things.” Instead of at the beginning, it’s used when a writer starts their story in the middle of a scene or event. The advantage to using this technique is that it immerses the reader right into the action and creates suspense since they don’t know what happened before or what will happen next.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien starts in media res with Bilbo Baggins having just celebrated his eleventy-first birthday:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
As one might expect, this quote inflames your curiosity about Mr Baggins. Who is he? Where does he live? Why is there so much excitement about his birthday? You just have to keep reading!
How Do You Identify A Literary Device?
- Use the context of the paragraph in which the term is used. If a character says, “I don’t want to be here another minute,” you can be sure that “minute” is used as a metaphor for a length of time.
- Use the definition of the term used. Alliteration refers to repeating sounds at the beginning of words; it has nothing to do with repeating whole words in sequence (that would be anaphora).
- Use the way the term is presented. If there is quotation marks around a phrase, it’s likely that that phrase is being used as an example of something else, such as personification (“The stars whispered above her head”).
- Use the way the term is introduced. If there are two commas around an expression, it’s most likely being used as an appositive (e.g., “Their house…was old-fashioned and inconvenient”).
- Use the purpose of the term. Foreshadowing refers to giving hints about events later in a story; if you’re reading about something that happens right now, then it probably isn’t foreshadowing unless it will happen again later on with greater significance (“The dog was panting heavily—just like he did before he died”).
- Use your best judgment! A writer might use literary devices or rhetorical devices in ways not listed above or not covered by this guide at all (they could have invented their unique device). Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these techniques and have some experience spotting them, you’ll naturally develop your intuitive abilities to recognize them in new contexts and situations.
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