The world’s best writers use dozens of literary devices and techniques to add impact and intrigue to their work. You likely use a bunch of these devices already. Many are natural parts of language and essential to how we communicate every day. Others have taught themselves to us through beloved literature that has stood the test of time.
Understanding literary device terminology and how each device works will help you identify them in your favorite books and dramatically improve your writing (that’s not hyperbole). Literally, every sentence (or line of poetry) presents an opportunity to use these and take your reader exactly where you want them to go.
What is a literary device?
A literary device is any technique used in writing that creates a specific effect. You can find these devices in poetry, prose, and even song lyrics. By understanding these techniques, you can analyze, interpret, and even create your own works of literary greatness (or at least pass that English test).
You’ll find a comprehensive list of common literary devices below, along with examples to help you understand how each one works. Some can help you establish a theme, convey an abstract emotion, or explain a tricky concept to your reader. Others can make a straightforward passage more interesting, insightful, or entertaining. And some just add extra impact or flavor to your writing.
The literary device list
We’ll start big with literary devices that shape and permeate an entire composition and work our way down to little bits of wordplay you can sprinkle in just about anywhere. Some you’ll recognize (if not by name) because good writing inevitably uses a few of these tried-and-true tricks. (That was a triple alliteration there.) And heads up: You’ll find there’s plenty of overlap. Writers frequently use these literary devices in conjunction with others to great effect.
Point of view
Point of view is the perspective from which you tell your story. This has many permutations, but in general, it falls into three categories:
The story is told from the point of view of someone experiencing and narrating it. The reader will know what the narrator (usually the protagonist) knows, and only that.
Example: “I opened the refrigerator and was disappointed to find the leftover birthday cake had disappeared.”
You are the person experiencing and describing the action. This point of view is less common in classic literature and more often found in immersive poetry or interactive media like video games.
Example: “You open the refrigerator. The cake is gone.”
The most common point of view for fiction and non-fiction, the third person is delivered in the voice of an observer—typically understood to be the author. This presents a lot of flexibility for the information the reader will access. In our example below, we have an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator—but third-person narrators can also be limited in what they know or untrustworthy—providing their own interpretation of events. Often, the third-person narrator is only privy to the knowledge and emotions of the protagonist, while this protagonist filters other characters through their lens.
Example: “The lawyer opened the refrigerator. She saw that there was no birthday cake left, and this filled her with despair.” Here we have an initial observation from a third party. The second sentence shows that the observer can see what the lawyer sees, thinks, and feels.
The words an author chooses can convey their attitude toward a subject. Regardless of the point of view, the words used are essential for creating a mood for the reader and an understanding of the emotions at play. Writing can be verbose, academic, and dispassionate, presenting just the facts as they are. Or it can be whimsical, punchy, and rich with its own personality. And anything in between. Tone can be consistent throughout a work, or it can shift following the action or a change in the narrator’s psyche.
Example: “The lack of cake in the refrigerator displeased the lawyer” is direct and clear in its narrative (if a bit dry and aloof). “She saw—horror of horrors—that someone, or something, had absconded with her beloved cake” is playful and infuses the same scene with far more character.
Some of the oldest writing in human history uses this literary device. Authors use fictional narratives to represent a seemingly unrelated real-world situation while concealing a hidden meaning. For example, on its surface, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is simply a tale of dissatisfied livestock—but it’s really a scathing criticism of the abuses and hypocrisy Orwell perceived during and after the Russian Revolution.
Personification is another form of allegory, in which human (or human-like) characters represent a broader concept. One example is Uncle Sam, a common personification of the United States government.
Anthropomorphism is a literary device that assigns human characteristics to non-human things, like animals and inanimate objects. This goes beyond the talking animals in fairy tales and cartoons. Since we all experience the world through a human lens, anthropomorphism can give a better understanding or more profound emotion where it might otherwise be hard to convey.
Example: “The neglected houseplant hung its head, gazing upon the empty watering can at its feet.”
Satire is a powerful literary device and tool to expose truths about the world around us using humor—particularly irony and hyperbole. By casting new light (and often heaping ridicule) on established attitudes and assumptions, satirists aim to provide commentary and reshape opinions about their subject. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, arguably the world’s first novel, skewered the misguided traditions of medieval Spain, as personified (there’s an overlap!) by the overconfident, oblivious titular character. (And there’s some more alliteration, too.)
Parody is a bit like satire in that it’s a sendup that reimagines and injects humor into more serious existing work. Think Mad Magazine or The Harvard Lampoon, whose writers savagely (but lovingly!) mocked Tolkien’s beloved fantasy epic in Bored of the Rings.
This is a big one, and ironically, it might not mean exactly what you think. (It’s not “rain on your wedding day.”) Irony is presenting something that, on its surface, is the opposite of the intended meaning or sentiment. When employing irony, it’s essential to understand your audience. If they don’t pick up on your intention, they’ll come away thinking precisely what you didn’t mean. And that would be ironic.
Irony takes a few different forms:
- Dramatic irony is when characters feel or act in a way that the more-informed reader knows is contrary to how they should. If the protagonist spends his lunch break shopping for an expensive tie in preparation for his impending promotion, unaware that there’s already a pink slip waiting at his desk, that’s dramatic irony.
- Verbal irony involves a speaker intentionally saying something opposed to their true feelings—such as when Marc Antony repeatedly refers to Brutus as “an honorable man,” although Brutus has just murdered Caesar. This can differ from sarcasm, which typically benefits from a spoken inflection of contempt.
- Situational irony is when the outcome of something stands in sharp contrast to expectations. If you place a heavy bookend on your shelf to keep your books from falling over, but the added weight causes the entire stack to collapse, that’s some situational irony.
Exposition is a literary device referring to the inclusion of passages strictly to provide background, history, context, and other narrative details in your writing. This can be very useful to quickly get a reader up to speed on a story in progress. However, in the time-honored writing advice of “show, don’t tell,” exposition is the tell. So if you find yourself writing long paragraphs of backstory that don’t advance the plot you’re telling, you might want to try some other literary devices to communicate the same details.
A vignette is something like a painting in literary form. These are short passages (usually less than 1,000 words) that go into great detail about a single subject or moment. They’re meant not to advance the plot but rather to impart deeper meaning through vivid imagery. Vignettes are sometimes intended as standalone compositions but are more often employed during a novel, or grouped as collections, as in Hemingway’s vignetted masterwork, In Our Time.
Soliloquy is a speech delivered by a character and addressed solely to themselves (and, by extension, the reader). Shakespeare was big on this literary device; in drama, turning an inner monologue outward can be essential for communicating private thoughts and feelings to an audience. The same method can be used in literature, though with an omniscient or first-person point of view, there’s less of a need for characters to think out loud.
Example: “To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” —Hamlet
Suspense occurs when the reader is uncertain about—and anxiously anticipating—the plot’s outcome. Suspense, as a literary device, leverages primal human emotions (fear, doubt, hope), and it’s the primary device for maintaining reader interest in many literary genres. But bear in mind: for suspense to be effective, you must make the reader care about your characters and the plot.
Example: “Thrilled by the definition of suspense, the reader scrolled further, unaware that the next literary device in store would be…”
You may have seen this one coming. Foreshadowing gives the reader a hint of what’s next in a story. We’ll avoid any spoilers, but an example would be: pointing out that a character left her raincoat on the subway. It’s a seemingly innocuous detail until the storm of the century descends on the city. Objects, actions, and even characters themselves can be employed in foreshadowing, as can chapter titles. Foreshadowing that misleads a reader is called a red herring—useful for misdirecting and concealing a plot twist better.
Stepping back in time to provide missing context or backstory is the role of the flashback (also “analepsis”). The narrator may recall an incident before the start of a story to add emotional impact or clear motivation to the actions already underway. When using flashbacks as a writer, you’ll (probably) want to clarify to the reader that time is shifting around—sometimes, this is done with formatting, adding a date to a passage, or a lead that prepares the reader.
In most ways, this is the opposite of a flashback. Temporarily jumping ahead in a story can give the reader knowledge that a character lacks. This technique can add a sense of inevitability, futility, or predetermination. It’s also handy if you want readers to be able to focus less on where the story is going and more on how things got there. Flashforward can be considered a very direct, explicit form of foreshadowing.
In media res
In media res comes from the Latin for “in the middle of things,” and it’s the term for joining a plot already underway. For example, a murder mystery may begin in the middle of the trial, while the author uses flashbacks, witness testimony, and exposition to back-fill the story up to that point. If you want to kick things off with a bang, or cut to the chase, jump right in with in media res.
Symbolism, not surprisingly, uses symbols in the form of words or ideas to represent something beyond its literal meaning. You can use this literary device on a small scale, like describing a character’s impeccably pressed and starched shirt to connote their rigid attention to detail. Or symbolism can encompass an entire novel; the white whale at the center of Moby Dick symbolizes everything from nature, to fate, to evil throughout the tale. Like the whale, symbolism takes many forms:
- Simile is a description that uses a direct comparison to something else, using words such as “like,” “as,” and “than.” This can be great for concise descriptions (“moves like Jagger”) or to provide emphasis (“sharp as a tack”).
- Metaphor is similar to simile, but you must treat the object of comparison as being the thing itself rather than like it—figuratively, of course. Shakespeare didn’t want us to think that “all the world’s a stage,” literally, but his extended metaphor gives real impact to the idea that we all play roles as we move through the acts of life, often against the nature of our true selves. Or, to give a simpler colloquial example, we’ve all known someone who’s “a real firecracker.” Luckily for us all, that’s just a metaphor.
Allusion in literature employs some unrelated work or circumstance to impart meaning without directly referring to that work. You’ve likely encountered and used allusion without giving it much thought, which is why it works; allusion relies on the readers’ shared cultural knowledge to derive the intent from something seemingly unrelated to the topic. Be advised: depending on allusions that are too niche, vague, or obscure can be any writer’s Waterloo.
Example: “The missing rookie card was the collector’s white whale” prompts anyone familiar with Moby Dick to apply their knowledge of that work to the collector’s situation.
Imagery, as a literary device, is the use of vivid descriptions to give the reader a more sensory (and, by extension, emotional) experience. Providing details about a scene’s visuals, smells, tastes, and feel can make any passage far more immersive. Using imagery isn’t just about deploying a bunch of adjectives—it’s about tapping into the reader’s imagination and creating a picture with words.
If you want to quickly establish a character that every reader will immediately have some understanding of, you might try employing an archetype. There are quite a few of them, but the Hero is an example that’s easy to understand (and was among the first to be established in classical literature). The Hero could be a Greek warrior, frontier pioneer, or teacher—but readers generally understand that the archetypical Hero is brave, driven, and will rise to the occasion. There’s some distinction between this and a stereotype, which is typically oversimplified and negative. Employing an archetype isn’t so much about creating cookie-cutter characters as it is leveraging readers’ shared cultural knowledge and expectations to help them grasp who’s who. And you can always subvert readers’ expectations.
You can use juxtaposition to present a contrast between two concepts by placing them side by side. Try this literary device in a single moment or carry it through an entire novel. Paradise Lost features God and Satan as main characters, and they are presented in total juxtaposition throughout. Juxtaposition can help define what something is by aligning it against something that it is not.
Example: “The nomad’s black robes created a void against the hot white sand.”
Motif is, essentially, a combination of symbolism and repetition. By repeating a symbolic element throughout a story, motif helps establish and reinforce the themes at the heart of your work and carries them throughout the narrative. Jane Eyre employs a fire motif; dazzling candles and warm fireplaces are prominent in scenes of comfort, while two destructive fires are crucial in driving the plot forward, much to Rochester’s chagrin.
Metonymy refers to something using the name of something closely related to it. We use “the press” for print newspapers and a metonym for the reporters who gather the news. Metonymy differs from metaphor in that the stand-in may share no actual characteristics with the subject it represents—the reporters are nothing like the giant plates and rollers of a rotary press machine.
Synecdoche is a form of metonymy in which a part of something refers to that thing as a whole. When the White House issues a statement, the building didn’t write anything, but it’s understood that the president or a member of the administration did. Synecdoche is a literary device that can serve as shorthand or add linguistic variety.
Example: “The gunslinger holstered his steel” sounds a little more dramatic, with some artistic allowance for the fact that the revolver also had parts made of wood and brass.
Repetition is repeating a word within a short space, which you’ve just experienced, and you can use it for any number of effects. For drama and emphasis (“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”), clarity (“This is the end. The end of everything.”), enumeration (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”), and many other artistic purposes.
Example: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club!”
Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of more than one sentence or clause. From Greek literally meaning “carrying back,” anaphora is often used in poetry and speeches to drive home multiple facets of a subject and carry momentum.
Example: Winston Churchill used this to inspiring effect: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Epistrophe is anaphora with the repetition moved to the end of sequential clauses, used for similar impact.
Example: “The big sycamore by the creek was gone. The willow tangle was gone. The little enclave of untrodden bluegrass was gone. The clump of dogwood on the little rise across the creek-now that, too, was gone.” —The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Tautology is a form of repetition that boils down to “saying the same thing twice.” Or, to use and demonstrate our new term, you’ve repeated an idea when you use a tautology. “The soloist played alone,” “they were seated in a round circle,” and “ATM machine” are all examples of rhetorical tautology. Statements like “it is what it is” are logical tautologies stating two identical truths.
We’re not saying hyperbole is the best literary device—but overstating or exaggerating can be a great way to emphasize the qualities of an object or character or the gravity or absurdity of a situation.
Example: “He looked across the ring and estimated that his opponent must be easily twelve feet tall.”
If hyperbole isn’t your favorite literary device, you may prefer litotes—a form of understatement. Litotes is an example of verbal irony that downplays the reality or impact, often to convey modesty in a character or impartiality in a narrator. When you taste the best cake of your life and evaluate it as “not too bad,” that’s litotes at work. Double negatives often provide an easy path to this sort of understatement.
Paradox is a statement that seems to defy logic. The concept of a catch-22 is a paradox in that doing the opposite of what’s wrong is also wrong. In literary use, the paradox may contain a nugget of some other truth while being impossible on its surface.
Example: In the attributed words of non-literary icon Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Oxymoron functions as paradox on the smallest possible scale, with the conflict existing between the words themselves. “Parting is such sweet sorrow” contradicts itself—the sadness of Juliet’s separation from Romeo is contradicted by her loving longing for their next encounter. Or, less lyrically: “jumbo shrimp.”
Antithesis is much like juxtaposition but in a more narrow, linguistic sense. Antithesis provides comparison (and contrast) of concepts by grouping them in adjacent sentences or phrases.
Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” —President John F. Kennedy
Malapropism is the unintentional use of the wrong word in place of the similar-sounding correct word. If you’re the author, your misuse of a word will, hopefully, be intentional—but your characters won’t know it.
Example: Yogi Berra, when discussing a presidential election, pointed out that “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” Yogi presumably meant to refer to the electoral college, not the energy used at the polls.
Idiom is any expression with a widely-understood figurative (non-literal) meaning that an unfamiliar reader could not derive from the words themselves. If a character “kicks a bucket” or “buys a farm,” they are, most likely, dead. Once you know what an idiom is, you’ll see them everywhere—the English language is estimated to feature 25 million idiomatic expressions.
Idioms exclusively used in informal writing (or conversation) are usually considered colloquialisms. They may consist of simple expressions (“what’s up?”) or short forms (“ain’t”). A colloquialism is a bit different from slang (terms used more exclusively by a particular group) and jargon (terms used by members of a profession or field of expertise). But, as always, there’s lots of overlap.
Euphemism entails replacing an offensive or unpleasant term with a more innocuous alternative. Authors can use this to sanitize language for a delicate audience (“birds and the bees”), to soften the impact (“passed away”), or just for linguistic variety (“under the weather”). A character’s use of euphemism can also tell the reader something about their mindsets, upbringing, or general comportment. Many euphemisms are, essentially, just polite idioms.
Aphorisms are pithy statements or observations that contain a truth about the world. Every language has them, and you likely know hundreds of them. You can use familiar aphorisms in writing to quickly communicate the mindset of an author or a character or the nature of a situation—or you can invent a new one that may eventually become a part of culture.
Examples: “The early bird gets the worm.” “Easy come, easy go.” “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Ask dads everywhere, and they’ll tell you this form of wordplay is the height of humor. Ask anyone else, and they might roll their eyes, perhaps begrudgingly. Ask us, and that makes puns useful in more than one way. The pun (more academically: “paronomasia,” more continentally: “double entendre”) uses terms with more than one meaning to humorous or rhetorical effect.
An example of both from Shakespeare: When asked where the recently-but-still-secretly murdered Polonius is, Hamlet responds that he is at supper “not where he eats, but where he is eaten”—in other-but-the-same words, Polonius is worm food. That’s a supper-b pun (if a bit dark), dripping with irony, couched in metaphor, and, well, Shakespeare. So take note: Puns are a legitimate literary device.
Alliteration is the repetition of identical sounds within a group of words. You’ve already seen a few here. Generally used to refer to initial consonants (as with Peter Piper and his preserved produce), you can use the term to reference initial vowels too. Alliteration is often used in poetry but also has its place in prose. It can be engaging for readers who may find themselves unconsciously sounding out your well-written words.
Onomatopoeia is a very long word that applies primarily to very short words, which themselves sound like the noise they describe. A bottle rocket may start with a “sizzle,” launch with a “woosh,” and culminate in a “bang.” Interestingly, every language features unique examples of onomatopoeia for the same sounds. The same car horn that goes “beep” in English will go “pu-pu” in Japanese. Use whatever onomatopoeia best demonstrates the sound you’re describing; if you’ve invented a new sound, that’s an opportunity to invent a new onomatopoeia!
This plot device places a character in a tricky situation (or outright peril), then immediately breaks the narrative’s momentum to create suspense. The interruption may be a chapter break, a sudden shift to another plot line or moment in time, or even the end of a novel intended you will serialize. Often the conflict is a new one that’s introduced right before the cliffhanger, leaving the reader with questions about not just the outcome of the predicament but its true nature and meaning.
Example: “Would the list of literary devices continue? No one knew for sure….”
…and that’s it. You’ve reached the end. The end of our list of literary devices that every author should know. Now you know them, and next, they can help your writing in not-insignificant ways. So gather ye rosebuds while ye may, and go forth to compose compelling literature rich in imagery, rife with symbolism, and—