Many people romanticize the life of a writer, but the truth is that writing is hard work.
An author must have a command of the language, but that’s not all.
Writing well involves crafting sentences, paragraphs, and entire books that challenge, interest, or engage the reader.
The ability to do that goes beyond the skill of putting words in order. Writers need tools.
The importance of literary devices is hard to overstate, especially in forms of literature like poetry.
As writers seek to write words and convey ideas in novel ways, they need these devices.
- What Are Literary Devices?
- Common Literary Devices Every Writer Should Know
- 1. Figure of Speech
- 2. Metaphor
- 3. Simile
- 4. Personification
- 5. Anthropomorphism
- 6. Zoomorphism
- 7. Synecdoche
- 8. Metonymy
- 9. Hyperbole
- 10. Alliteration
- 11. Assonance
- 12. Consonance
- 13. Onomatopoeia
- 14. Diction
- 15. Denotation
- 16. Connotation
- 17. Analogy
- 18. Juxtaposition
- 19. Oxymoron
- 20. Paradox
- 21. Imagery
- 22. Archetype
- 23. Symbol
- 24. Allusion
- 25. Allegory
- 26. Foreshadowing
- 27. Satire
- 28. Irony
- 29. Verbal Irony
- 30. Euphemism
- 31. Colloquialism
- 32. Idiom
- 33. Aphorism
- 34. Soliloquy
- 35. Apostrophe
- 36. Repetition
- 37. Stanza
- 38. Rhyme
- 39. Free Verse
- 40. Meter
- 41. Chiasmus
- 42. Cliffhanger
- 43. Suspense
- 44. Asyndeton
- 45. Personal Narrative
- 46. Theme
- 47. Fiction
- 48. Mood
- 49. Prose
- 50. Logos
- 51. Ethos
- 52. Pathos
- 53. Antithesis
- 55. Ad hominem
- 56. Rhetorical Question
- 57. Pun
- 58. Parallelism
- 59. Characterization
- 60. Point of View
- 61. Rising Action
- 62. Climax
- 62. Denouement
- 63. Coincidence
- 64. Implication
- 65. Portmanteau
- 66. Anaphora
- 67. Adage
- 68. Foil
- 69. Anachronism
- 70. Deus Ex Machina
- 71. Fable
- 72. Genre
- 73. Subtext
- 74. Tragic Flaw
- 75. Palindrome
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Wrapping Up
What Are Literary Devices?
Literary devices are words or phrases writers use to convey ideas, impart meaning (often a deeper meaning), emphasize themes, or otherwise use language in interesting ways.
Whether an author is composing a poem, writing blog posts, or crafting a novel, literary devices can engage readers and help convey their meaning.
Why Are Literary Devices Used?
Depending on the device, they can make words more memorable, alter meanings, and help drive a point home.
Most writers want their work to impact the reader, and while you can avoid typographical errors and poor syntax when you use a grammar checker, that’s a low bar for a writer.
Literary devices can quickly raise the level of his poetry or prose.
How Many Types of Literary Devices Are There?
Hundreds of literary devices are out there, and many have different iterations.
For example, imagery is a literary device, but we have at least seven types of imagery.
Because of so many of these subgroups, it’s difficult to say how many literary devices are out there.
How Do You Identify a Literary Device?
The easiest way to find a literary device is to know what many of those devices are.
If a reader encounters an unusual work or phrasing, even if he doesn’t know what literary device is in use, he knows there is a good chance that the unusual wording indicates a literary device in use.
Common Literary Devices Every Writer Should Know
Since it’s hard to say precisely how many literary devices exist.
Since some are somewhat obscure, we’ve compiled a list of 75 literary devices and related terms that writers should know.
1. Figure of Speech
A figure of speech is the use of a word or phrase in a manner that differs from its regular use in daily speech.
Why Is a Figure of Speech Used?
A figure of speech is used to create an effect in a non-literal manner.
Figures of speech include literary devices such as metaphors, similes, and many others that appear on this list.
English literature scholars can name more than 100 figures of speech, and we’ll employ many examples in the remaining entries on this voluminous list of literary devices.
Example of a Figure of Speech
In the form of a simile, a figure of speech may read as “he is as slow as molasses.”
A figure of speech can read through hyperbole as, “I’m so angry I could eat nails.”
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two items by saying that one of them is something else.
We do this to bring specific imagery or contextual clues to literature or speech, making the words more impactful.
Why Is a Metaphor Used?
A metaphor compares two items.
However, a metaphor does not use “like” or “as,” and one is not present in the two items being compared.
This differs from a symbol, where an item and something else stands for itself.
Example of a Metaphor
We might say, “He’s a dog,” or “She is staring daggers.”
In the former, we compare a man with a dog, though we do not believe the man is literally a dog.
Rather, we imply that his behavior is dog-like, and the listener brings associations with how dogs behave to the conversation.
In the latter, daggers are not coming out of her eyes, but we compare her stare to a series of thrown daggers.
While no actual knives are involved, the idea is that her stare is intense enough to make one think it could cause physical harm.
A simile compares two things in which we say one thing is like another.
A simile employs the word “like” or “as” rather than saying one thing is another.
With “like” or “as,” you have a simile. With “is,” you have a metaphor.
Why Is a Simile Used?
Similar to metaphors, similes compare two items.
They bring fresh meaning and different connotations to our speech and writing.
Some similes don’t bring anything new because they’ve suffered from overuse.
Example of a Simile
An example of a simile could be, “It’s hot as an oven in here,” or “He’s got a mind like a steel trap.”
A good simile can also bring humor to a speech, as in, “He’s about as sharp as a basketball.”
Personification is a figure of speech that applies human characteristics to non-human things, either animals or objects.
This does not mean treating animals in fiction as if they are people, as George Orwell does in Animal Farm.
Why Is Personification Used?
Personification is typically used to make inert objects more engaging to the reader.
An author or writer will use personification to characterize, perhaps, a sound something makes as human in nature.
Example of Personification
“The chair creaked, protesting the weight of the man sitting on it.”
The chair, not being sentient, is incapable of complaining, but the sound of the materials creaking can be construed as a complaint.
Anthropomorphism differs from personification in treating a non-human object as if it were a human or has human characteristics.
We might say that a plant basks in the sun when it is just sitting where it’s planted and has no control over whether it’s basking.
But we anthropomorphize that plant when we talk about how it loves sunlight.
Why Is Anthropomorphism Used?
Anthropomorphism is rampant in our lives, whether we talk about the cat knowing he’s not supposed to go outside or when we say that Siri wants us to take a different route than we planned when we started driving.
Cat owners may protest, but cats don’t have the power to reason, and Siri is just an AI executing a program.
Still, we give these and other items in our lives human characteristics, and then we’re often surprised when those things turn out not to be humans.
Example of Anthropomorphism
There are many examples of anthropomorphism throughout the world’s literary works.
For example, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.
The cat in the story is not human, although he walks, talks, and acts as if he is.
Similarly, all Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, exhibit the same anthropomorphic characteristics.
Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism.
It is the act of attributing animalistic qualities to humans.
Why Is Zoomorphism Used?
Authors use zoomorphism to attribute animal characteristics to non-animal entities in an effort to achieve the desired effect.
Example of Zoomorphism
When someone is in a very relaxed state when they speak, we might say that they purred instead of spoke.
A person running away joyfully might be described as galloping even though that person has no equine qualities.
Zoomorphism can also involve non-humans, as in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog,” in which he writes that the fog walks with cat feet.
As another figure of speech, synecdoche brings to literature a novel way of describing something by naming a part of that something that evokes it in its entirety.
Why Is a Synecdoche Used?
Authors or writers use synecdoches to take a portion of something and refer to the whole entity.
This literary device also allows the author to bring attention to referential or associative thinking, as readers innately realize that a portion of something can stand for the whole thing.
Example of a Synecdoche
Take these instances of synecdoche use, for example:
- Shakespeare wrote of “the married ear” to describe a married man.
- In sports, we often refer to a team by its city name: the city of Houston didn’t win the game, but rather the Houston Astros baseball team did.
- We sometimes say that a pianist “plays keys”— she presses keys on a piano, but she plays the entire instrument.
Metonymy works on the same principle as a synecdoche: it uses one thing to name another.
However, rather than use a component of that thing, metonymy names something related to the object in question to evoke it.
Why Is Metonymy Used?
Writers use metonymy to make individual phrases or words more authoritative or powerful.
Authors can use this technique to add more connotation or nuance to simple words by having them stand in for something different.
Example of Metonymy
We refer to The White House when we mean the US government or the current presidential administration.
A scholar might say he’s studying Faulkner, though he’s not perusing the author’s life or physical body but rather his work.
The television show The Crown uses metonymy in its title.
It is not a show about an actual crown but rather about the monarchy associated with that crown.
We use hyperbole to make a point through overstatement.
Hyperbole has become incredibly common in everyday speech— so much so that many people use it daily but have no idea what it is.
Why Is Hyperbole Used?
Hyperbole is the use of purposeful overstatement or exaggeration for effect.
Example of Hyperbole
For example: “I’m starving.”
The American teenage boy who says this has no idea what starvation is.
He’s hungry, perhaps, but that is not the same as genuine starvation.
He overstates the status of his hunger pangs to ensure that everyone knows about his need.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds.
Why is Alliteration Used?
We use alliteration in speech because it sounds nice.
It often gets used in poetry and rhetorical speech.
Poetry uses alliteration because poetry depends largely on how words sound— not just on their own, but how they sound concerning each other.
The rhetorical speech draws on any literary device that can help make the words more memorable.
Example of Alliteration
This device appears in advertisements, commercial slogans, and political slogans (“Fly the friendly skies” or “Build Back Better”), but an enduring piece of alliteration in pop culture comes from “V for Vendetta.”
In an introductory speech, V rattles off a paragraph shot through with “V” words: “The only verdict is vengeance, a vendetta held as a votive.”
Assonance is the vowel version of alliteration.
It is the repetition of initial vowel sounds in a series of words.
Why Is Assonance Used?
Like alliteration, assonance makes things sound nice.
Of late, more and more people have begun folding assonance and alliteration into the same term, applying it to the repetition of any initial letter sound, but technically, assonance actually always applies to vowel sounds.
Example of Assonance
A stunning example comes from Walter Abish’s 1974 experimental novel Alphabetical Africa.
The first chapter, Chapter A, uses only words that begin with “A.” Chapter B adds words that start with “B” and on and on.
The book’s first paragraph is masterful: “Africa again: Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture.…”
The entire chapter is wholly assonant, as every word begins with the letter A.
Alliteration and assonance are types of consonance, but consonance itself exists separately from them.
Why Is Consonance Used?
Writers use consonance for the same reason as the other two— it helps things sound good— but it goes about it differently.
Consonance is the repetition of a consonant sound in a series, no matter where that consonant appears in a word.
(Remember that alliteration requires that the first consonant of each word sound the same.)
Example of Consonance
“He stuck a stick on his back, kicked a can, and took a look at the back of his bike” is filled with consonance.
There are occasions of alliteration in the example.
Still, the repetition of “k” or “ck” sounds in various positions in the different words makes the sentence an example of consonance at work.
One of the more fun literary devices, onomatopoeia, is the use of words that sound like the sounds they describe.
Why Is Onomatopoeia Used?
Authors rely upon onomatopoeia in literature to help augment the aural palette of a novel or story.
This becomes more and more necessary as we as a society depend more and more on film and television for our entertainment.
These two art forms have soundtracks— music and sound effects that can help flesh out a world or elicit specific emotions.
Writers use onomatopoeia to help build a soundscape to go with their words.
Example of Onomatopoeia
Anyone watching the 1960s “Batman” television series has seen, during the fight scenes, words like “Whap,” “Pow,” and “Zonk” appear onscreen following a punch.
Edgar Allen Poe used onomatopoeia brilliantly in his poem The Bells, describing the sound of bells as “twanging” and “clanging,” which are words that sound somewhat like ringing bells.
He also uses the final “L” sound of “bells” to involve the tolling of bells by repeating the word “bells” throughout the poem.
In speech, “diction” refers to correct and decipherable pronunciation.
However, as a literary device, it refers to word and style choices made by an author to get his point across.
Why Is Diction Used?
We read different diction choices with various mindsets, so when an author uses very formal diction, we associate the words with a somber tone or perhaps an academic one.
On the other hand, an author might employ diction rife with slang and informal language to convey a lighter feel.
Example of Diction
We often decipher a literary work’s tone via its diction.
If an author uses technical terms and so-called five-dollar words, he’s probably writing in an academic or formal tone.
On the other hand, the use of slang or colloquialisms denotes a more informal work.
For example: In response to a request for you to run to the grocery store, formal diction could be written as, “I will go to the store right away.”
Conversely, informal diction may warrant a response like, “I’m headed there now.”
Both sentences convey the same outcome but offer varying distinctive tones.
When choosing diction and making other word choices, authors must decide on the best words for relating their message to their audiences.
A word’s denotation indicates its true meaning— the definition you’d find in a dictionary.
Why Is Denotation Used?
This literary device is used because many words have similar denotations.
Still, according to a dictionary, the best word choice for the author’s desire sometimes needs to go beyond what the word means.
Example of Denotation
These words have the same or similar denotation, which is the idea of using one’s feet to move from one location to another:
To understand why denotation (and the reason we chose those words) matters, we must also understand connotation.
British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said poetry was “the best words in the best order.”
For an author to find the best words, he must be cognizant of those words’ connotations.
Why Is Connotation Used?
While denotation is a word’s “dictionary” meaning, the connotation is what the word “really” means.
Different words carry different associations, even if they mean roughly the same thing.
Authors can convey ideas and emotions through the words they choose based on those words’ connotations.
Choosing a word for its connotation relieves a writer of the obligation of spelling out specifically what a character is thinking or feeling.
Example of Connotation
Using the examples from the previous definition, we can see the words’ connotations at work:
- “He walked down the street” conveys information and only information. We don’t know anything about the person’s state of mind or intentions.
- “He ran down the street,” tells us that he moved quickly and that his movement has some sense of urgency.
- “He sprinted down the street” means the man runs as fast as possible and implies even more urgency.
- “He sashayed down the street” depicts a man dripping with style who wants everyone to notice him.
- “He sauntered down the street” shows us someone in no hurry who might also have a bad attitude.
- “He stomped down the street” evokes anger since few happy people stomp anywhere.
Like a metaphor or a simile, an analogy compares two items.
It points out the similarities, whereas a simile makes comparisons to evoke certain ideas or feelings.
Why Is an Analogy Used?
Analogies take situations that may not be intimately familiar to the listener but about which he can draw conclusions and compare them to common occurrences.
Example of an Analogy
Many of us had grandparents with great sayings, and many of them were analogies: “I was as nervous as a cat in a rocking chair factory,” “She cried like a Baptist teenager on the last night of church camp,” or “When I scared him, he jumped like he’d been shot.”
While few of us have ever seen a rocking chair factory, much less seen a cat in one, between the cat’s tail and the moving chairs, we can deduce why a cat would be uncomfortable in such a space.
As a literary device, juxtaposition takes two separate and often conflicting ideas and places them side by side.
Why Is Juxtaposition Used?
The point of juxtaposition is to heighten the differences between the two conflicting ideas.
It’s quite common in film, literature, and poetry— so much so that we often overlook it.
That doesn’t deter from its effectiveness, though.
Examples of Juxtaposition
Take these well-known franchises to better understand the meaning and use of juxtaposition.
- Star Wars: The good in Luke Skywalker is juxtaposed against the evil of Darth Vader and The Empire. As a result, Luke seems even more wholesome (even though, when he destroys the Death Star, he murdered hundreds of thousands of people), and Vader even more dastardly (admittedly, he’s pretty bad even without the comparison).
- Batman: Bruce Wayne / Batman is a dark figure with legitimate mental health issues. Compared to the Joker’s chaotic, anarchic lunacy, we see Batman as the good guy and a symbol of justice, even though most of Batman’s actions are extra-judicial, illegal, and unconstitutional. Juxtaposed against the Joker’s insanity, though, we choose Batman every time.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that uses two or more words with opposing meanings.
Why Is an Oxymoron Used?
The paradox of the oxymoron is that the word or phrase this action creates should be meaningless, but it’s anything but.
When done well, an oxymoron can really hit home.
Examples of an Oxymoron
Oxymorons often occur for humor, but they are not solely comedic literary devices.
- In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare says, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
- Paul Simon: a song called “The Sound of Silence.”
- Barry Manilow: “Wouldn’t it be fine being lonely together?”
- Daily use oxymorons: jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, and minor miracle.
A paradox, like an oxymoron, takes two seemingly contradictory things and combines them.
Whereas an oxymoron uses words that mean different things, a paradox applies to phrases and ideas.
Why Is a Paradox Used?
We often find genuinely interesting ideas couched in paradoxes, and those ideas become more memorable because they’re so framed.
A paradox is also the sort of phrase you hear, think it makes no sense, think on it some more, and eventually decide it was pretty profound.
Example of a Paradox
At one point, Hamlet says he must be cruel to be kind.
He’s planning to murder his mother’s husband, which will be cruel because it will make Gertrude sad, but it’s kind because it will allow Hamlet to avenge his father’s death.
On the surface, the two terms, when used together, are meaningless.
But the statement makes wonderful sense.
The fact that Hamlet dies doesn’t detract from the paradox’s effectiveness.
Imagery uses language based on the senses to invoke physical sensations.
While we have five senses, there are more than five types of imagery.
Why Is Imagery Used?
Visual imagery is perhaps the most common, as authors use words to paint pictures for the reader’s mind.
The idea is to make the reader forget he is staring at marks on a page and instead create vivid images.
- Auditory imagery: Aims to recreate sounds for the reader, and onomatopoeia is a vital tool here.
- Gustatory imagery: Touches on the sense of taste and describes things as sweet or spicy, for example.
- Kinesthetic imagery: Connotes movement or the sensations associated with moving.
- Olfactory imagery evokes aromas and can be very effective since smell is tied so closely to memory.
- Organic imagery: Brings out feelings like thirst or fear or emotions like love or hate.
- Tactile imagery: Describes how things physically feel.
- Visual imagery: Describes sizes, patterns, and colors.
Example of Imagery
Take these examples to understand better how writers use imagery in literature.
- Taste: The intimate sweetness of his mother’s applesauce reminded him of his childhood.
- Sound: The movie theater was so loud that her ears rang for weeks after seeing the movie.
- Sight: The sunrise was the most beautiful he had ever seen; the beams cast a hue of purple and pink across the atmosphere.
An archetype is an unlearned pattern we all know and recognize instinctively.
Carl Jung, a 20th-century Swiss psychologist, wrote extensively about archetypes, and Joseph Campbell spent a literary career cataloging archetypes and their roles in literature.
Why Is Archetype Used?
We are instinctively afraid of the dark.
We have learned to fear darkness because, up until the last couple of centuries, we had no power over the dark.
We tended to get eaten, injured, or killed in the dark more than in broad daylight. A billion years of memory have taught us to fear the dark.
In literature, these same patterns inform every story that has ever been told or will ever get concocted.
While very few stories contain every archetype, every story has some.
Examples of Archetype
The original “Star Wars” trilogy is chockablock with archetypes. Here are just a couple of them.
- Good vs. Evil: The evil Empire battles the good people in the Rebel Alliance. Good vs. Evil is an archetype in nearly all but the most simplistic stories.
- The Father-Son Conflict: SPOILER ALERT. Darth Vader is Luke’s father. This fact sets up a conflict as old as time. Luke wants to bring Vader back to the Light Side of the Force, but in their final battle, he draws on the Dark Side to defeat the Sith lord. In the process, he cuts off his father’s hand. At that point, Luke looks to his own mechanical hand and realizes that the same darkness that lives in his father is in him, too, so he must always fight against it.
In literature, a symbol is a thing that is what it is but also represents something else.
Why Is a Symbol Used?
It conveys a deeper meaning than the symbol itself or what it stands for and is best seen through examples.
Examples of Symbols
Take these two notable pieces of literary works to understand the use of symbols.
- Harry Potter’s scar is a symbol of survival. The scar is real, but so is the fact that he survived Voldemort’s attempt on his life.
- The mockingbird in To Kill A Mockingbird is a real creature intrinsic to rural life and represents innocence. Several times, Calpurnia tells Scout it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because the creatures exist only to improve our lives.
A symbol is not the same as a metaphor.
When we say that a quarterback threw a bomb, we compare the ball to a bomb.
But it’s just a comparison. There is no actual bomb.
For the bomb to be a symbol, there would have to be both a bomb and a football physically present on the field. Yikes.
An allusion is a figure of speech in which an author refers to another work of literature.
It is usually well-known work, and in most cases, it references a biblical tale.
Why Is Allusion Used?
We use allusions to convey more information than we could with our own words, or at least do so in fewer words.
Example of Allusion
In S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders, Johnny and Ponyboy bring up Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”
The poem is about how youth, innocence, and beauty are fleeting.
As Johnny dies near the book’s end, he urges Ponyboy to “stay gold.”
This allusion to Frost’s work lends power to the boy’s dying words since we already know what the poem is about.
An allegory is a narrative work (it could also be a painting or poem) that tells a story (often a simple one) and contains a hidden meaning.
Why Is an Allegory Used?
Writers or authors use allegories to convey big and intricate ideas simplistically.
Example of an Allegory
George Orwell’s fable Animal Farm is a terrific example of an allegory. On its surface, it’s about animals that live on a farm and can talk. They organize and rebel against the farmer who takes care of them, but the book is not about farm animals. Rather, it’s about the Bolsheviks and is a scathing indictment of the Russian system of government at the time.
Among literary devices, foreshadowing can be very effective in setting the mood. Foreshadowing is the use of hints of other indications in literature to telegraph something that will happen later in the work without giving it away.
Why Is Foreshadowing Used?
Writers typically use foreshadowing to develop a sense of tension or intrigue. Foreshadowing is typically more obvious in hindsight. However, even if the reader doesn’t pick up on what the author telegraphs, he will often take clues from that foreshadowing regarding the author’s intended mood.
Example of Foreshadowing
In Barbara Kingsolver’s spectacular novel The Poisonwood Bible, a missionary family of five arrives in the Belgian Congo to find only four place settings of silverware available to them. This foreshadows something terrible that befalls the Price family later in the book.
Satire is a literary form that employs humor, exaggeration, and humor to point out the flaws of society or, sometimes, individuals. We see satire daily in political cartoons.
Why Is Satire Used?
Writers use satire to glimpse the irrationality or absurdity in organizations, governments, or human beings. It bears mentioning that satire is not simply making fun of something or being mean-spirited. The point of this technique is to point out human foibles that the writer feels need addressing.
Example of Satire
Some satirists have learned firsthand that not everyone understands satire. A famous case was that of Jonathan Swift, who wrote “A Modest Proposal” in 1729. The streets of Ireland were overrun with children— some poor and some homeless.
He proposed that parents sell these children to the rich as food. The parents would make some money, the rich would have another food source, and fewer children would be running around Dublin streets. People who didn’t understand were understandably horrified at the suggestion.
The satire skewered the rich, pointing out that they could do something to help the less fortunate without coming out and expressly saying so.
Irony occurs when something happens that is the opposite of what you expect. It’s when a situation goes in the opposite direction than it seems that it should.
Why Is Irony Used?
In fiction, authors employ irony to show a character’s mistaken conceptions, but it can also build tension in a story.
Example of Irony
An ironic situation would be where the fire station burns down, or the police station gets burglarized. Since firemen put an end to fires, the seemingly last place that should ever burn down is the place they work, so such a fire would be ironic.
Incidentally, as nice a song as it is, and as well as it did on the charts, Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 hit “Ironic” has nothing remotely ironic in it. Rain on your wedding day is disappointing, but it’s not ironic. Same for winning the lottery and then dying the next day. Poor guy, sure, but that’s not irony.
29. Verbal Irony
Verbal irony includes understatement, overstatement, and sarcasm and is a figure of speech in which the speaker says the opposite of what he means.
Why Is Verbal Irony Used?
Writers and authors use verbal irony to introduce humor in any situation or even to build tension or suspense between characters.
Examples of Verbal Irony
Someone might sit down to a painstakingly prepared multi-course meal and employ verbal irony when they say, “Jeez, you knew I was coming by— you could have at least made an effort.”
Another example might be someone talking about Elton John’s skills on the piano. They’d use verbal irony when they said, “Yeah, I guess he’s okay at it.”
A euphemism is a word or phrase used as a substitute for another. What makes it a euphemism is that the word or phrase used is purposely inoffensive, while the word or phrase for which it stands is unpleasant, obscene, or otherwise discomfiting.
Why Are Euphemisms Used?
We regularly use euphemisms about death when we say someone has “passed away” or “gone to a better place.” These are more pleasant ways of framing the frightening concept of death and seem more humane than saying, “Hey, kids— dad’s dead.”
Example of Euphemism
Euphemisms abounds in our talk of sexual activity, organs, and practices. A famous example comes from the 2015 season of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Television censors decided that the show had used the (clinical and not at all offensive) word “vagina” too much in one episode, forcing showrunner Shonda Rhimes to coin the euphemistic substitute “vajayjay,” which then took on a cultural life of its own.
Colloquialism in literature strives to take common or regional speech patterns and incorporate them into dialogue.
Why Is Colloquialism Used?
The aim of colloquialism is to recreate a more realistic speech. It incorporates dialect and other idiosyncrasies of common speech. This device can be as simple as writing “wanna” instead of “want to” or as complex as the dialect that Mark Twain sometimes wrote. Tom Sawyer uses words like “afeared,” and Jim says, “I’s powerful ‘fraid.”
Example of Colloquialism
How many times have you watched, for instance, a teen drama and thought, “Teenagers don’t talk like that” (looking at you, “The Fault In Our Stars”)?
Colloquialism can get dated rather quickly, and some don’t age well. A certain word that starts with “N” often appears in Twain’s work. It’s more of an issue in the 21st century than when he wrote it in the late-1800s.
An idiom is saying, but not just any saying. What makes it an idiom is that it’s a collection of words that, if a listener doesn’t understand the overall gist of the idiom, that listener might be unable to determine based on the meanings of the individual words.
Why Is Idiom Used?
Authors often employ idioms in their literary works to invoke realistic voices for characters.
Examples of Idiom
Take these examples to understand idioms in literature better.
- “Crying wolf” means asking for help when you don’t mean it. Someone unfamiliar with the idiom might wonder what the problem was with someone standing around shouting the word “wolf.”
- “Losing your marbles” means something along the lines of losing one’s mind. A non-native English speaker would be hard-pressed to understand why the loss of some literal marbles could imply something bad.
An aphorism aims to convey a general truth with a short, pithy saying. The saying usually has some catchy aspect, whether it uses alliteration, rhyme, or clever wording. The key to an aphorism is brevity, though, so long-winded sayings tend to be called proverbs.
Why Is Aphorism Used?
Writers use aphorisms to help readers remember ideas easily; their concise nature is key to accomplishing this.
Examples of Aphorism
The succinct nature of aphorisms makes them memorable:
- “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
- “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
- “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
- “Do or do not. There is no try.”
A soliloquy occurs in literature— most often in a play— when a character speaks to himself. Before the days of audiotapes, microphones, and voiceovers, when a character needed to convey complex thoughts to an audience while simultaneously alone onstage, playwrights wrote soliloquies for them.
Why Is Soliloquy Used?
A soliloquy gives insight into a character’s thought processes and can advance the plot without the character having to discuss things with someone else.
Example of Soliloquy
Shakespeare was a master of writing soliloquies. Some of his most famous ones include Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, and Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” Incidentally, in that one, “Wherefore” means “why,” not “where.”
Another literary device similar to soliloquy is the apostrophe.
Why Is Apostrophe Used?
Rather than bring the speaker’s inner thoughts out of his head and to the audience, an apostrophe occurs when a character addresses a person who isn’t present. It can also be addressed to a thing or idea the speaker personifies.
Example of Apostrophe
Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” speech is an apostrophe. The Danish prince unearths Yorick’s skull and engages in a reverie, recalling the good times he had with Yorick, who had been the court jester. The apostrophe allows Hamlet to reflect on all that has happened— his father was murdered by his uncle, Ophelia has committed suicide, Hamlet has survived an assassination attempt, and his life, in general, is in upheaval.
The speech is a nod to death’s inevitability and the futile nature of life.
More often employed as a rhetorical than a literary device, repetition is the repeated use of a word or a phrase for effect. Repetition occurs in speeches, poetry, literature, and visual narrative works like film, television, and theatre.
Why Is Repetition Used?
Repetition can help an author or speaker emphasize a word or idea, which can help set the mood or further thematic ideas in a work of literature.
Examples of Repetition
Well-known examples of repetition in action include:
- Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech repeats the titular phrase throughout and helps to create one of the most iconic orations in American history.
- Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow contains a famous sentence that uses repetition with the word “paranoid.” Pynchon, in this case, is being funny, but since paranoia is one of the novel’s principal themes, repetition helps drive that.
A stanza is a group of lines in a work of poetry, be it an ode, a limerick, a hymn, or an epic. There is no standard number of lines in a stanza. However, some poetic forms contain various rules governing stanza length, rhyme scheme, specific line repetitions, and even the number of syllables, as is the case with a sonnet, which requires the use of iambic pentameter.
Why Is Stanza Used?
Poets typically use stanzas to impress upon a poem’s rhythm, structure, organization, and shape.
Example of Stanza
Ciarán Carson’s “The Fetch” uses stanza in the couplet form.
“I woke. You were lying beside me in the double bed,
prone, your long dark hair fanned out over the downy pillow.
I’d been dreaming we stood on a beach an ocean away”
A rhyme occurs when the last word or few syllables of a line of writing sounds similar to another.
Why Is Rhyme Used?
Writers typically use rhyme to implement an echo into their works, leading a more lasting effect on the reader.
- Masculine rhymes occur when the final syllable of both rhyming words is stressed. “Repay” and “decay” make a masculine rhyme.
- Feminine rhymes end with unstressed syllables. “Romantic” and pedantic” are feminine rhymes.
- A slant rhyme has words with similar vowel sounds or different numbers of syllables. “Sad” and “sod” constitute a slant rhyme, as do “pad” and “Illiad.”
- Eye rhymes appear to rhyme or perhaps look like they should rhyme. “Stove” and “love” are eye rhymes.
Example of Rhyme
“Back” rhymes with “black,” and in a line of text, this rhyme might sound like this:
John slipped and fell
And landed on his back.
His knocked his clumsy head
And then the world went black.
“Back” and “black” constitute a perfect rhyme in which both words have the same vowel sounds and number of syllables. However, other rhyme types go beyond two words having identical vowel and final consonant sounds.
39. Free Verse
While many poetic forms require strict structure, free verse describes poetry without a defined meter or rhyme scheme. While other poetic forms require discipline to execute well, free verse is by no means the easy way out when it comes to writing poetry.
Why Is Free Verse Used?
Writers generally use free verse because it gives them more flexibility in word choice and meaning.
Example of Free Verse
Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, 1 [I Celebrate myself] is a renowned example of free verse poetry. Here is an excerpt from the piece to get a better understanding of how it appears.
“My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.”
Meter describes the rhythm of a line or work of poetry or literature. Song lyrics rely heavily on meter since, in a strophic song, each verse needs to follow the same rhythm as the others so it can fit with the music.
Why Is Meter Used?
Writers use meter to develop musicality or structure in their work. Many poetic forms specify the meter, without which the poem in question can’t be classified as that particular form.
Limericks follow a strict metrical structure. The first, second, and fifth lines contain three metrical feet (a foot is a group of syllables; limericks often use anapestic feet, which are structured: unstressed, unstressed, STRESSED). The third and fourth lines contain two feet.
Haiku are stricter: The first and third lines have seven syllables, and the second has five.
Example of Meter
Here are some notable examples of meter in literature:
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? [iambic pentameter]
- Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, [trochaic octameter]
- Out, damned spot! Out, I say! [spondaic trimeter]
Chiasmus is a sentence construction that takes words from the first part of the sentence and inverts them to create the second half. It is a rhetorical and poetic device that helps writers create memorable turns of phrases.
Why Is Chiasmus Used?
Writers and authors typically use chiasmus to establish a stylized sense of writing.
Example of Chiasmus
- “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
- “You can take the boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy.”
- “Don’t pull my leg.”
- “Don’t give up your day job.”
Cliffhangers bring stories or episodes to an abrupt, unexpected, and unresolved end.
Why Is a Cliffhanger Used?
Writers use this literary device to create tension and to draw the reader or audience back for more.
Example of a Cliffhanger
Author James Patterson makes liberal use of cliffhangers in many of his chapters, bringing them to shocking conclusions that, the hope is, compel the reader to keep going to the next chapter.
Suspense is the manipulation of readers or other audiences by instilling a feeling of uncertainty, danger, or foreboding.
Why Is Suspense Used?
Mystery and thriller novels and films rely on suspense to make audiences uncomfortable or uneasy so that the situation’s resolution can be much more satisfying.
Suspense as a literary device is enhanced in films by their musical soundtracks. Think of when something scary feels like it’s about to happen, and the violins, playing dissonant chords, build and build along with the action. This takes the audience further down the road of discomfort at what’s about to happen.
Example of Suspense
To better understand suspense, think about Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. In her work, everybody aboard the train is a suspect. To further the suspense, each character has something to hide.
Writers omitting conjunctions employ asyndeton. It is yet another literary device employed to make phrases or entire works flow more rhythmically, sound nicer, and become memorable.
Why Is Asyndeton Used?
Asyndeton’s use is often a stylistic choice an author might use for the sake of emphasis.
Example of Asyndeton
Historians credit Julius Caesar with saying, “Veni, vidi, vici.” We translate this to mean “I came, I saw, I conquered.” This statement loses power without asyndeton: “I came, and I saw, and I conquered.”
45. Personal Narrative
The personal narrative is a story about a personal story the author tells from his own life experience.
Why Is a Personal Narrative Used?
Writers use personal narratives to tell the story of particular characters within the overall tale. Personal narratives can be autobiographies, but they more often occur in essays, memoirs, or stories.
Example of a Personal Narrative
The rise of storytelling shows such as The Moth has propelled the personal narrative to the forefront of pop culture of late, but the device is not new. Prospective college students have been writing personal narratives for their applications for decades.
In a piece of literature, the theme is the main idea conveyed by the entire work.
Why Is Theme Used?
Writers and authors use themes to describe what the story is “really” about. Some themes readily jump from the page, while others require closer reading to determine.
The theme appears in fiction, non-fiction, film, television, and theatre, as many works in these genres seek to get a message across in addition to telling a story.
Example of a Theme
James Cameron’s epic film “Avatar,” tells the story of humans visiting Pandora, the moon of another planet, where they go to mine a precious metal called unobtainium. The moon’s native inhabitants, the Na’vi, are unhappy about the intrusion.
The movie has several themes, which is not uncommon. Among them is humanity’s inherent conflict with nature and the evils of imperialism and greed.
While the movie is about going out to space to mine stuff and survive various conflicts, the movie is “really” about the importance of honoring all life and caring for the environment.
Fiction describes any narrative work that tells a story the author has imagined. There are many varieties, including speculative fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, and more.
Why Is Fiction Used?
Writers use fiction to help readers understand the perspective of others.
Historical fiction takes actual events and weaves a story around them. While some events in the tale happened, and even some main characters in historical fiction were real people, the story’s action is imagined.
Example of Fiction
Excellent recent examples include The Red Tent. Anita Diamont’s The Red Tent weaves an entire novel around Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. While his story appears in depth in the Old Testament book of Genesis, Dinah is mentioned only once in the entire Bible, and she only gets one sentence. Diamont imagines the woman’s entire life.
The mood of a work of literature encompasses the feelings or emotions the author hopes the reader will have while reading. In television and film, the mood is easily manipulated by lighting and camera lenses.
Why Is Mood Used?
Writers use mood to conjure an emotional response from their readers. Mood also aids in developing an emotional connection between an audience and the literary work.
Example of Mood
A breezy teen romance novel might describe the sun beaming or smiling down on a boy and girl spending time together. However, the same characters in a novel about a dystopian future would better convey the proper mood by depicting the sun glaring down on them instead. Choosing a more sinister word to describe the sun helps impart more of a sense of foreboding.
Prose is the unstructured use of words and language instead of a structured form like a sonnet, villanelle, or ode. It is closer to ordinary speech than poetry is and is almost always used in novels, short stories, and other narrative works.
Why Is Prose Used?
Writers use prose to transmit an idea, offer information, or tell a story. Prose appears in fiction and non-fiction works alike.
Example of Prose
Martin Luther King Jr. uses prose through oration when he says:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Part of the so-called rhetorical triangle, logos, along with ethos and pathos is a writing style that appeals to logic.
Why Is Logos Used?
When using words for persuasive purposes, writers and speakers need to appeal to various aspects of people’s psyches. Depending on the purpose of the rhetorical piece in question, different approaches can yield different results. Logos is the use of logic in an argument or persuasive piece. We use facts and data to present these logical points.
Example of Logos
In a commercial, an advertiser might use logos to sell toothpaste with the omnipresent toothpaste commercial statement: “four out of five dentists recommend.” This reference to what is presumably a scientific study lends credibility to the idea that this particular toothpaste is the best one.
Ethos, the second leg of the rhetorical triangle, appeals to its audience by relying on the ethical credibility of the speaker.
Why Is Ethos Used?
Writers or authors generally use ethos to help establish authority and credibility.
Example of Ethos
Since television commercials and the advertising industry as a whole relies on the rhetorical triangle as the backbone of its work, examples of ethos abound in TV ads— especially those for political candidates.
A candidate employs ethos when he says that he’s the best candidate because he served in the military, has been a senator for the past 12 years, or brought jobs home to his constituency.
The idea is to establish credibility to convince the voter to choose this candidate over his opponent.
Pathos is the process of appealing to people’s emotions.
Why Is Pathos Used?
Writers use pathos to prompt an emotional response from their audience and make them feel how they want them to feel.
Example of Pathos
Pathos is the strongest driving force in advertising. One of the most notorious commercial campaigns using pathos came from the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA).
The commercials featured 90s pop maven Sarah McLachlan’s hit “Angel” playing over photos and videos of animal suffering in situations of neglect and enduring the aftermath of abuse and cruelty. Interspersed are graphics listing shocking statistics about animal abuse in British Columbia.
The song itself is a tear-jerker. Paired with slow-motion images of suffering animals makes the commercial a heartbreaker designed to make the viewer think to himself, “Where is my credit card? I need to give these animals money right this instant. I don’t even care that they’re Canadian.“
When a writer or speaker takes two contrasting ideas and joins them into one thought to emphasize the contrast between them, he’s using antithesis.
Why Is Antithesis Used?
Antithesis is a rhetorical device that helps shine a new light on a subject or make the reader consider something from a new angle.
Example of Antithesis
One of the most famous examples came from Neil Armstrong, who, upon first setting foot on the moon, said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
He contrasted the idea of a single person with that of all humanity, and he also named the step he took as two very different achievements. Stepping from the bottom step of the lunar lander was just like any other step— no real big deal. However, that same step was also a huge deal because it was the first step ever taken on the surface of a place that wasn’t earth.
55. Ad hominem
This Latin phrase— shortened from the original argumentum ad hominem— translates to “argument to the person.” It is most commonly used as an adjective modifying the word “attack,” and it gets used in debates, arguments, and persuasive writing.
Why Is Ad hominem Used?
While ad hominem attacks are literary devices, they are not good ones, because most people recognize an ad hominem attack as the last resort of someone losing their argument.
Ad hominem attacks ignore the idea or issue at hand and instead address the person making the argument, pointing out personal flaws rather than holes in the person’s argument.
Example of Ad hominem
Politics are rife with these attacks. Politicians employ ad hominem attacks when they use so-called “what about” responses: a reporter asks an elected official a question about a controversy in which the politician finds himself embroiled, and rather than respond to the question directly, or even offer a defense of his actions, he responds by asking something like, “Well, what about when such-and-such politician did this-or-that last month?”
The politician he invokes may have done something bad, but it has nothing to do with the reporter’s question. His ad hominem attack provides no information at all.
56. Rhetorical Question
Rhetorical questions are inquiries made without the intent of eliciting an answer. We ask rhetorical questions to make a point— either the answer is obvious or the question itself is designed to make an audience reconsider something.
Why Are Rhetorical Questions Used?
Authors use rhetorical questions to influence or persuade their readers tactfully.
Example of a Rhetorical Question
One of the most jubilant rhetorical questions came in 1980 during the Winter Olympics. The US hockey team, almost entirely made up of amateurs (and the youngest team the States had ever fielded), faced off in the Gold Medal match against a Russian team composed of professionals and winners of five golds in the past six Olympics.
As the final seconds ticked away and the Americans won the game, broadcaster Al Michaels jubilantly shouted, “Do you believe in miracles?” He didn’t need anyone to answer.
Based on wordplay, a pun is a literary device that explores and tries to find humor in the similarity of words— their sounds and meanings. They are crucial elements of many dad jokes.
Why Are Puns Used?
Writers and authors use puns play around with the meaning and sounds of words.
Example of a Pun
DAD: “I’m reading a book about anti-gravity.”
SON: “Is it good?”
DAD: “I can’t put it down.”
The pun plays with the meaning of the phrase “can’t put it down,” which is usually an idiom indicating that the book is very good and more accurately means “I don’t want to put it down.” Gravity makes things fall down, so the pun is that a book about anti-gravity would be immune to gravitational forces.
We didn’t say it was funny. We said it was a pun.
Parallelism plays a role in speechmaking in that it is the practice of balancing two or more ideas so that they have equal or similar weight.
Why Is Parallelism Used?
Parallelism is an important grammatical concept. Writers use parallelism to develop parts of a sentence sharing the same grammatical construction, lest they sound and read awkwardly.
Example of Parallelism
Charles Dickens’s famous opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities exemplifies this: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
- Parallelism: “I like to spend my summers surfing, swimming, and fishing.”
- Faulty parallelism: “I like to spend my summers surfing, swimming, and I also like to fish.”
One of the first things any writer learns is the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Characterization is one of the main methods authors use to do that. Characterization is the use of details about a character to inform the audience about that character.
Why Is Characterization Used?
Writers use characterization to bring their characters to life.
Example of Characterization
Rather than describe a character as athletically inclined, an author might depict that character walking off a basketball court, sweaty and out-of-breath. Or, to characterize an antagonist as cruel, the writer might show him kicking his dog, which would be much more effective than simply writing, “He was a bad guy.”
60. Point of View
The point of view of a story describes the angle from which it is told.
Why Is Point of View Used?
Writers use point of view as whose eyes readers see the story through. There are three points of view:
- First person: Tells the story through some who is usually a part of the action. It uses first-person pronouns like “I,” “we,” and “our.”
- Second person: This point-of-view is rare in fiction, as it addresses the reader, involving them in the story. The main second-person pronoun used is “you.”
- Third person: Involves a narrator (often omnipotent) who is not part of the story at all. It allows the narrator to know what characters are thinking or why they do or say the things they do. Third-person pronouns are “he,” “they,” and “her.”
Example of Point of View
The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are all well-known examples of stories written in the first person point of view. In these stories, the first-person narrator offers readers an intimate look into their minds, although the overall perspective is less known because it is limited by the character’s knowledge.
61. Rising Action
Rising action is the part of a story (usually the largest part) in which the tale’s main conflicts are introduced and begin getting more complicated and urgent. Without rising action, there are few stakes in a tale. A low-stakes story is rarely engaging.
Why Is Rising Action Used?
Writers use rising action to develop all the twists and turns that happen in a plot as the main characters try to navigate the events of a story.
Example of Rising Action
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones travels the world chasing after the mythical Ark of the Covenant. The rising action involves Dr. Jones following clues, reading maps, and racing the Nazis to find it first.
When a story’s rising action has ratcheted the tension to its high point, that story has reached its climax.
Why Is Climax Used?
Writers use climax to announce the point in a narrative when the conflict must be resolved. It marks the end of the rising action and usually happens near the end of a narrative work.
Example of Climax
In Westerns, the climax occurs when the sheriff and the black-hat-wearing bad guy finally face off in the street. They draw on each other for the movie’s final shoot-out, and there is no more room for rising action. One has to win the battle, and the other has to die.
The film has built the conflict between the two characters and led them to this moment. Once it’s resolved, there’s not much story left to tell.
The “Raiders” climax comes when Indy and Marian find themselves tied to a post on a tiny island as the Nazis open the Ark, unleashing supernatural forces that kill all the bad guys.
From a French word, “denouement” means “untie the knot.” A story’s denouement happens after the climax and marks the point in the story when things are returning to normal. The denouement of many fairy tales includes the phrase, “And they live happily ever after.”
Why Is Denouement Used?
Authors and writers use denouement to mark the resolution of the plot of their story.
Example of Denouement
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the denouement sees Jones voicing frustration at the US government for sweeping the whole Ark-related story under the rug before Marian asks him out for a drink. The credits roll, and Indy is safe until the next film.
A coincidence in a work of literature differs from one in real life. Real-life coincidences are often amusing and sometimes surprising.
Why Is Coincidence Used?
In literature, a coincidence is a series of occurrences that seem to happen without an obvious reason. It can be a lazy writer’s shortcut to solving a character’s problems, but writers sometimes use coincidence to spark a story. A well-executed coincidence can set two characters off on a path they might not otherwise have discovered together.
Example of Coincidence
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the plot is kicked off by the coincidence of Roger Thornhill hailing down the page boy looking for a government agent.
Authors use implication when they don’t specifically spell something out, but rather present clues that lead the reader to conclude what has happened or is being said. Implication can sometimes spill over into euphemism.
Why Is Implication Used?
Authors typically use implication to make their writing more interesting or alive.
Example of Implication
A case in point is a scene in Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie. Carrie lives an unorthodox lifestyle that many around her consider to be immoral. Carrie begins seeing Drouet, a wealthy older man.
Rather than write a sex scene (which would have been unacceptable to Victorian readers), the author implies that Carrie has begun sleeping with Drouet by revealing a dream Carrie’s sister Minnie has.
In it, Minnie dreams that Carrie gets swept out to sea and then later falls from a rock. The implication is that Carrie is now a fallen woman.
Portmanteau words are built from two or more words, each shortened, then combined into a new word with more weight than the originals would on their own.
Why Is Portmanteau Used?
Authors and writers merely use portmanteau as a way to be linguistically creative.
Example of Portmanteau
- “Frenemy” combines “friend” and “enemy” into a new and wonderfully descriptive portmanteau.
- “Staycation” uses “stay” and “vacation” to describe the act of taking time off but not going anywhere, like a fancy trip.
Anaphora is a specific kind of repetition that uses a word or phrase over and over in a speech or work of literature.
Why Is Anaphora Used?
Authors use anaphora to create a rhythm in their words, emphasize ideas, and link them together.
Example of Anaphora
In President John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech, he uses anaphora when he repeats the question “why?”– why go to the moon, why climb a mountain, why fly across an ocean?
An adage is a saying or short proverb that expresses some kind of truth. They come from philosophers, the Bible, and literature. Even if an adage has become a cliche, it still rings true.
Why Is Adage Used?
Writers use adages in their works to bring audiences awareness of essential aspects of life.
Examples of Adage
- A leopard cannot change his spots.
- One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
- Slow and steady wins the race.
- The early bird catches the worm.
Benjamin Franklin wrote many of the adages most of us know well.
A foil is a character in literature that exists to draw a contrast to another character.
Why Is Foil Used?
Writers often use foil to highlight personality aspects of a character. The foil is often a supporting character and often plays a sidekick role. Foils can also help reveal why characters make some of their choices.
Example of Foil
Famous foils include Dr. Watson, who stands not against, but nevertheless in contrast to Sherlock Holmes. Robin is a young, naive foil to Batman’s dark brooding.
An anachronism is the occurrence of an object, event, or idea outside of a time in which it exists.
Why Are Anachronisms Used?
Authors use anachonisms to help contemporary audiences connect more with a historical time period.
Anachronisms are usually accidental, but authors sometimes use them with purpose.
Example of Anachronism
Accidental anachronisms include the chiming clock in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
No one would invent mechanical clocks that chimed out the hour until more than 1,000 years after Caesar’s death, but in Act II, a clock chimes.
Sharp-eyed moviegoers noticed a wristwatch on an actor in the chariot-racing scene in “Ben Hur” or an airplane flying overhead as Russell Crowe fights in “Gladiator,” even though the first human flight wouldn’t occur for nearly 2,000 years after the film’s events.
Intentional anachronisms attempt to make a work more relatable to audiences, such as in Apple TV’s show “Dickinson.”
About poet Emily Dickinson, the show takes place in the 19th century.
To make Emily more relatable to 21st-century audiences, the writers have her say things like, “No spoilers.” The concept of a spoiler wouldn’t appear in the vernacular until 1971 in an issue of National Lampoon.
70. Deus Ex Machina
Literally translated as “god from the machine,” deus ex machina is the use of some unexpected coincidence or supernatural intervention an author employs to rescue characters from impossible situations.
Why Is Deus Ex Machina Used?
Writers and authors sometimes believe deus ex machina to be nothing more than a cheap way to conclude a piece, while others find it useful or even comedic in nature.
Example of Deus Ex Machina
In ancient theatre, actors playing gods would get lowered to the stage via a machine, which is where the term comes from.
In modern literature, deus ex machina is often frowned-upon as a writer taking the easy way out.
Fables are short stories that teach lessons or contain a moral.
Why Are Fables Used?
Writers use fables to convey messages in a simple, easy-to-understand way.
Example of a Fable
Fables are sometimes peopled by animals that speak.
“The Pied Piper” is a short story that teaches a lesson (“honor your commitments, or else”), but it is not a fable.
The only animals in it are the rats which the piper runs out of town, and they don’t speak.
Genres are categories of literature, music, or art that share similar characteristics.
Why Is Genre Used?
Writers use genres to literally categorize their works. We can consider fiction and non-fiction different genres, but each has its own set of genres.
Music is the same way. You can call something “rock music” and not know much about what kind of rock music it is.
So we classify it into genres— punk, grunge, power pop, and on and on.
Example of Genre
Fiction is a genre, but has sub-genres within it.
Fiction genres include science fiction, mystery, so-called chick lit, fantasy, hard-boiled, historical fiction, and many others.
Subtext is the meaning behind a character’s words.
It is often what the character “really” means, instead of what he’s actually saying.
Why Is Subtext Used?
Writers use subtext to get their audience to read between the lines to understand a character’s intention.
Example of Subtext
In the “Star Trek” series, the subtext of many of Dr. McCoy’s lines is that of bewilderment and unpreparedness.
Rather than say, “Captain Kirk, I don’t have any experience using cement to heal the wounds of this particular alien life form,” he tells Kirk that he’s a doctor, not a bricklayer.
74. Tragic Flaw
A character’s tragic flaw is the thing within him that causes his downfall or at least causes terrible things to happen to him.
It’s rarely a physical defect but rather a mindset that leads to conflict and, often, tragedy.
Why Is Tragic Flaw Used?
Authors typically use tragic flaws to help their readers learn a lesson through the demise of a character.
Example of Tragic Flaw
Odysseus’ tragic flaw is his hubris, or pride. Upon defeating the Trojans in “The Illiad,” he proclaims how great and smart he is.
Odysseus is both of those things, but the gods helped him win that war. He didn’t do it single-handedly.
This proclamation angers Poseidon, who spends the entirety of “The Odyssey” trying to prevent Odysseus from returning home to Ithaca.
Poseidon fails to stop him, as Odysseus eventually returns to his home.
However, it took him 10 years and cost the lives of every single soldier traveling with him.
Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same from front to back or back to front.
Why Is Palindrome Used?
There is no authentic reason why writers or authors use palindromes other than to test their literary skillset and dazzle readers.
Example of Palindrome
“Mom,” “dad,” and “race car” are simple examples.
The longer a palindrome, the more challenging it is to have it make sense, rather than just being a gee-whiz exercise.
- “No devil lived on.”
- “A man, a plan a canal, Panama.”
- “Nurse, I spy gypsies. Run!”
- “Lisa Bonet ate no basil.”
- “Tulsa nightlife: filth, gin, a slut.”
Frequently Asked Questions
With so many terms, readers probably have questions since we’ve covered so much information.
Let’s address two that come up fairly often.
Is imagery a literary device?
Imagery, the use of sensory words to help a reader better experience an idea or image, is a literary device, and it’s one of the more effective ones.
Rather than tell a reader that “It was a nice day,” which doesn’t convey much information at all, a writer can use imagery to engage the reader’s senses.
Using imagery makes any writing more appealing to the reader.
Is irony a literary device?
While often misunderstood, irony is a literary device that helps an author make a point interestingly.
Irony is not the same as coincidence, and it’s not the same as simple bad news.
Rather, it’s the use of an unexpected outcome to help an author make a point or increase tension in a work of literature.
Whether an author feverishly works on his passion project every day or stares at the page (or screen) trying to think of things to write about, his poetry or prose can benefit from the use of literary devices.
They serve to make writing more engaging, more interesting, and more powerful.
Do you find anything in this article that’s unclear?
Let us know in the comments section.
We welcome your questions and comments.
Once you get them answered, your writing will improve.