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Literary Devices: "All Writers Should Know!" Paperback – September 3, 2015

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  • Print length 382 pages
  • Language English
  • Publication date September 3, 2015
  • Dimensions 8.5 x 0.87 x 11 inches
  • ISBN-10 1517185947
  • ISBN-13 978-1517185947
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Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First Edition (September 3, 2015)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 382 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1517185947
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1517185947
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.96 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 8.5 x 0.87 x 11 inches
  • #13,414 in Fiction Writing Reference (Books)

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About the authors

Paul f. kisak.

To put it simply, these are edited pages of some of the most technical cutting edge STEM books to be found. These books are mostly nonfiction, current and emphasize the most information for the price (i.e. 500 page books for $20 USD).

These are state of the art, superb academic reference works and provide an overview of the topic and give the reader a structured knowledge to familiarize themselves with the topic at the most affordable price possible.

The accuracy and knowledge is of an international viewpoint as the edited articles represent the inputs of many knowledgeable individuals and some of the most current knowledge on the topic, based on the date of publication.

The editor has an MBA and degrees in Engineering Physics, Nuclear Engineering & Biomedical Engineering from the University of Michigan and is an Engineer & Former Intelligence Officer for the CIA & US Intelligence Community and was Founder & President of an Award-winning Defense Contracting Company.

He has authored several books, edited numerous other books and has written many Technical, Classified & Unclassified papers, Articles & Essays. He is also listed in Marquis "Who's Who in the World" & "Who's Who in Science & Engineering" and continues to develop software, edit and write.

He has also been a Contributing Author for The International Encyclopedia on Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence and has written several award-winning software manuals and books that have been sold in more than 20 countries and he has been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary and is a recipient of The Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award.

His publications emphasize the understanding of Cosmology and Theology. These books are designed to be textbook in nature but at a fraction off the price and edited with a global perspective and input from many experts.

The emphasis is on the fundamentals of both fields - The cosmology and science books cover the origin of space-time and our universe; from the initial "Big Bang," The Standard Model of Particle Physics to the present day topics of Dark Matter & Dark Energy.

The Books on Religion, Myth, Folklore and Legend address the religious mythical archetypes of the world and the development of legend & worship in various cultures.

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writing devices books

writing devices books

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Literary Devices: "All Writers Should Know!"

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Literary Devices: "All Writers Should Know!" Paperback – Sept. 3 2015

  • Paperback $25.95 5 New from $25.95

Purchase options and add-ons

  • ISBN-10 1517185947
  • ISBN-13 978-1517185947
  • Edition First Edition
  • Publication date Sept. 3 2015
  • Language English
  • Dimensions 21.59 x 2.21 x 27.94 cm
  • Print length 382 pages
  • See all details

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; First Edition (Sept. 3 2015)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 382 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1517185947
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1517185947
  • Item weight ‏ : ‎ 889 g
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 21.59 x 2.21 x 27.94 cm

About the authors

Paul f. kisak.

Discover more of the author’s books, see similar authors, read author blogs and more

To put it simply, these are edited pages of some of the most technical cutting edge STEM books to be found. These books are mostly nonfiction, current and emphasize the most information for the price (i.e. 500 page books for $20 USD).

These are state of the art, superb academic reference works and provide an overview of the topic and give the reader a structured knowledge to familiarize themselves with the topic at the most affordable price possible.

The accuracy and knowledge is of an international viewpoint as the edited articles represent the inputs of many knowledgeable individuals and some of the most current knowledge on the topic, based on the date of publication.

The editor has an MBA and degrees in Engineering Physics, Nuclear Engineering & Biomedical Engineering from the University of Michigan and is an Engineer & Former Intelligence Officer for the CIA & US Intelligence Community and was Founder & President of an Award-winning Defense Contracting Company.

He has authored several books, edited numerous other books and has written many Technical, Classified & Unclassified papers, Articles & Essays. He is also listed in Marquis "Who's Who in the World" & "Who's Who in Science & Engineering" and continues to develop software, edit and write.

He has also been a Contributing Author for The International Encyclopedia on Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence and has written several award-winning software manuals and books that have been sold in more than 20 countries and he has been the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary and is a recipient of The Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award.

His publications emphasize the understanding of Cosmology and Theology. These books are designed to be textbook in nature but at a fraction off the price and edited with a global perspective and input from many experts.

The emphasis is on the fundamentals of both fields - The cosmology and science books cover the origin of space-time and our universe; from the initial "Big Bang," The Standard Model of Particle Physics to the present day topics of Dark Matter & Dark Energy.

The Books on Religion, Myth, Folklore and Legend address the religious mythical archetypes of the world and the development of legend & worship in various cultures.

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Literary Devices: 30 Elements & Techniques for Writers (With Examples)

writing devices books

Every Author wants to write a good book . That’s a given.

But you don’t need to know the names and definitions of 30 or 40 literary devices to accomplish that goal.

Knowing the difference between alliteration, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole won’t make or break your book.

Literary devices are especially common in novels, where writers need to use flashbacks, foreshadowing, or figurative language to keep the reader enthralled.

But most nonfiction doesn’t need literary devices to be effective.

As an Author, your goal is to explain how your knowledge can solve a reader’s problems in a clear, concise manner. If you can toss in some good storytelling, so much the better.

Remember, being a good writer isn’t about checking off every writing trick on the list. It’s about expressing your information in an authentic, clear way.

This literary device crash course is a helpful tool, but if you want to publish a great book, devices shouldn’t be your primary focus.

What Are Literary Devices?

Literary devices, also known as literary elements, are techniques that writers use to convey their message more powerfully or to enhance their writing.

Many Authors use literary devices without even realizing it. For example, if you exaggerate and say, “This method has the potential to revolutionize the world,” that’s hyperbole. Your method may be impactful, but it probably isn’t really going to upend the way every single country does things.

More complicated literary devices are a common feature in fiction, but most nonfiction books don’t need them. A nonfiction Author’s job is to deliver information in an engaging way. “Engaging” doesn’t necessarily mean “literary.”

Still, literary devices can add a lot to a text when they’re used correctly.

For example, in The Great Gatsby , Fitzgerald uses the following metaphor to describe human struggle: “So we beat on, boats against the current…”

The image of boats fighting against the current is a powerful way to express the simple idea that “life is hard.”

Literary devices are especially effective when they’re used sparingly. Don’t overdo it.

If your entire book is written in metaphors, it’s not only going to be an overkill of flowery language, but it’s probably going to be confusing too.

If you can incorporate literary devices in a way that makes sense and adds something to the readers’ experience, great. But don’t force it.

30 Common Literary Devices

1. alliteration.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds within a group of words. For example, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

Nonfiction Authors can use alliteration to create catchy chapter or subsection titles. For example, “4 Best Bets for Better Business.”

Alliteration is also particularly effective for highlighting concepts you want your readers to remember. For example, if the takeaway of your chapter is a pithy, one-line sentence, alliteration can really make it stand out. Think, “Clear communication is key.”

Be careful not to overuse alliteration, or your book will start to sound like a nursery rhyme.

2. Onomatopoeia

An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates, suggests, or resembles the sound it’s describing. Common onomatopoeias include “gurgle,” “hiss,” “boom,” “whir,” and “whizz.”

In storytelling, onomatopoeia is an effective way to draw your reader into the environment. For example, if you’re telling an anecdote about a meeting you had with a client, it’s more vivid to say, “He plopped a sugar cube into his coffee and slurped,” than to say, “He drank his coffee with sugar.”

3. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is an advance warning about something that’s going to happen in the future.

In fiction, foreshadowing can be subtle. For example, something that happens in the first chapter of a murder mystery can come into play at the end of the book.

But in nonfiction, foreshadowing tends to be more obvious. Authors often use it to tell readers what they can expect to learn. For example, an Author might say, “We’re going to talk more about this example later,” or “I’ll discuss this at length in Chapter Three.”

4. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggeration that’s not meant to be taken literally. For example, if my friend surprised me by eating a lot of pizza, I might say, “Hey man, remember that time you ate, like, fifteen pizzas in one night?”

Good nonfiction Authors often use hyperbole to emphasize the power of their statements. For example, “We all know how miserable it can be to work 24/7.” Do we really all know that? And it’s impossible to literally work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Nonfiction Authors have to be careful with hyperbole, though. If you’re using data, you want it to seem credible. In nonfiction, readers often want precision, not exaggeration.

5. Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech where seemingly contradictory terms appear together. For example, “the dumbest genius I know.”

Oxymorons are useful if you want to create an unexpected contrast. For example, “Your unhappiest customers are often your business’ happiest accident.”

6. Flashback

A flashback is a scene set in an earlier time than the main story. They’re often used to provide important context or backstory for an event you’re discussing.

Because most nonfiction books aren’t chronological (unless it’s a memoir), you probably won’t have many opportunities to use flashbacks. But in anecdotes, a touch of flashback can be effective.

For example, “My boss congratulated me for landing the largest account our company had ever seen. It was hard to believe that only seven months earlier, I was struggling to keep the few clients I already had.”

7. Point of View

Point of view is the perspective you use to tell your story.

A lot of nonfiction is written with a first-person point of view, which means writing from an “I” perspective. For example, “I’ve developed the following ten-point system to improve your finances.”

It’s much rarer, although possible, to write nonfiction from the third-person perspective. For example, “They saw how powerful their methods could be.” Sometimes co-authors choose this method to avoid first-person confusion.

Nonfiction writers occasionally use second person (“you”) to directly address their readers. For example, “You know how hard it can be to fire someone.”

8. Euphemism

A euphemism is a polite way of describing something indirectly.

Many Authors use euphemisms to vary their language or soften the blow of a difficult concept. For example, “passed away” is a euphemism for “died.”

Some Authors use euphemisms to keep their texts more palatable for a general audience.

For example, if an Author is writing about sexual harassment in the workplace, they may not want to repeat lewd phrases and could use euphemisms instead. Or, an Author who wants to avoid the political controversy around the term “abortion” might opt for “pregnancy termination.”

9. Colloquialism

A colloquialism is a word or phrase that’s not formal or literary. It tends to be used in ordinary or familiar conversation instead. For example, it’s more colloquial to say, “How’s it going?” instead of “How are you doing?”

Slang is also a form of colloquialism. If you say something was “awesome,” unless you literally mean it inspired awe, you’re being colloquial.

No matter how professional your audience is, some colloquialism can make your book feel more relatable. Readers like to feel as if they’re talking with the Author. Colloquialism can help you create that personal, one-on-one feeling.

10. Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is when you give human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human creatures or things.

If you think of your dog as having a “funny personality,” you’re anthropomorphizing him. The same goes for your “stubborn” toaster or “cranky” computer.

In nonfiction, you generally won’t encounter a lot of opportunities for anthropomorphism, but some Authors may want to humanize their products or services. For example, your software may be “friendly” or “kind” to new users.

11. Anaphora

Anaphora is a rhetorical device where you repeat a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. This is a great way to draw emphasis to a certain portion of text.

For example, Charles Dickens uses anaphora in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities : “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief…”

12. Anachronism

An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency where you juxtapose people, things, or sayings from different time periods. If you were reading a book about colonial America where characters talk about cars, that would be anachronistic.

In nonfiction, you might want to use anachronism to make it easier for a current audience to relate to people in your stories.

For example, if you’re writing about the history of the banking industry, you might refer to certain individuals as “influencers” or talk about ideas that were “trending.”

13. Malapropism

A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one. This usually creates some kind of humorous effect. Imagine a person saying, “I know how to dance the flamingo,” instead of, “I know how to dance flamenco.”

There aren’t a lot of good reasons to use malapropism in nonfiction, but you could do this if you’re trying to amuse or delight your reader in an unexpected way. It’s a lot like using a pun.

For example, if you’re writing a book about sports, you might say, “The client and I saw things so eye-to-eye, it was almost like we had ESPN” (instead of “ESP”).

14. Figurative Language

Figurative language is language that dresses up your writing in an attempt to engage your readers. Figurative language is often more colorful, evocative, or dramatic.

For example, “She was chained to her desk for sixty hours a week.” Let’s hope not.

Still, it conjures a vivid image that’s more exciting for readers than, “She worked a lot.”

figure in tuxedo

Figurative language is like taking your everyday language and putting it in a tuxedo.

15. Dramatic Irony

Irony is a literary technique where what appears to be the case differs radically from what is actually the case.

Dramatic irony is a type of irony that occurs when an audience understands the context more than the character in a story.

Let’s say you’re telling a story about an interaction with a client that didn’t go the way you expected. You might write, “Things seemed to be going well, but little did I know, she had already hired someone else.”

At the moment you were meeting with the client, you didn’t have that information. But now, the reader does. So, they get to follow along with the rest of the story, knowing more than you did at the time.

16. Verbal Irony

Verbal irony occurs when a person says one thing but means another. Sarcasm is a good example of verbal irony. For example, you might say, “It was a wonderful dinner,” when, in fact, the food was terrible, and your partner showed up an hour late.

Depending on the tone of your book, verbal irony can help create humor or make you more relatable.

17. Figure of Speech

Think of “figure of speech” as a kind of catch-all term for any word or phrase that’s used in a non-literal sense to create a dramatic effect.

For example, it’s a figure of speech to say that it was “raining cats and dogs” or that something stands “an ice cube’s chance in Hell” of happening.

A lot of the devices we’ve already discussed (e.g., alliteration, oxymoron, and metaphors) also fall into the category of figures of speech.

18. Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things in an interesting way. It often highlights the similarities between two different ideas.

Take, for example, “The classroom was a zoo.” It wasn’t literally a zoo, but this metaphor expresses the wild energy of a room full of children.

Or, “the curtain of night fell.” Night doesn’t have a curtain, but we can all imagine darkness falling like one.

Metaphors form direct comparisons by saying something is something else. (Similes, explained below, form comparisons by saying something is like something else.)

Metaphors are a useful tool for “showing” your reader something instead of just “telling.” They help your reader see and feel the scene, and they paint a vivid picture.

If you use a metaphor, though, make sure it’s intelligible. There are a lot of bad ones out there. The point of a metaphor is to make a scene clearer, not to confuse your reader.

A simile is also a figure of speech that compares two different things in an interesting way. But unlike a metaphor, a simile uses comparison words like “like” or “as.”

“She was as bright as a lightbulb.”

“He was stubborn like a mule.”

Using similes can make your writing more interesting. The comparisons can spark your readers’ imagination while still getting your information across clearly.

20. Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept.

For example, a businessman is sometimes known as “a suit.”

Or, in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar , “lend me your ears,” is a metonymy for “give me your full attention.”

People use metonymy all the time without being conscious of it. For example, if you get in a car wreck, you’re likely to say, “That car hit me,” instead of, “That car hit my car.”

If you’re writing in relatable, colloquial language, your book will probably have metonymy in it.

21. Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole or vice versa. It’s a subset of metonymy.

For example, if you have “hungry mouths to feed,” you actually need to feed people. Their mouths are just a stand-in for the whole person.

Or, you might say, “All of society was at the gala,” when you really mean, “All of high society was there.”

Typically, synecdoche will come out in your writing naturally. When you force synecdoche, it can sound strange.

For example, what do you think I mean when I say, “I sat on the legs?” I’m guessing a chair didn’t come to mind, even though “legs” is a part of the whole “chair.”

22. Aphorism

An aphorism is a concise statement of a general truth or principle. For example, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Most aphorisms are handed down over time, so chances are, you won’t coin your own. Think of these as the tried-and-true statements people already know.

For example, if you’re describing toxic leadership, you could quickly say, “After all, power corrupts,” and your audience would immediately know what you mean.

Aphorisms are great for emphasis because they’re quick, clear, and to the point. They aren’t flowery, and their simplicity makes them memorable.

23. Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is a question asked for effect, not because you want an answer.

“Do you want to make money? Do you want to sleep better at night? Do you want to run a successful company?”

Who wouldn’t say yes? (See what I did there?)

Be careful not to overuse rhetorical questions because too many can get tedious. But used sparingly, they’re a great way to invite your reader into the conversation and highlight the benefits of your knowledge.

24. Polysyndeton

Polysyndeton comes from the Ancient Greek for “many” and “bound together.” As its name implies, it’s a literary technique in which conjunctions (e.g., and, but, or) are used repeatedly in quick succession.

Here it is in action: “I wanted an employee who was self-motivated and enterprising and skilled. I needed someone who could write and talk and network like a pro.”

In most cases, you’ll use a regular list instead of polysyndeton (e.g., “I like cats, dogs, and ferrets.”). But when it’s used correctly, polysyndeton is useful for drawing emphasis to different aspects of a sentence.

One common way to use polysyndeton is, “You’ll find everything in this book, from billing and buying to marketing and sales.”

25. Consonance

Consonance occurs when you repeat consonant sounds throughout a particular word or phrase. Unlike alliteration, the repeated consonant doesn’t have to come at the beginning of the word.

“Do you like blue?” and “I wish I had a cushion to squash” are examples of consonance.

Consonance can help you build sentences and passages that have a nice rhythm. When a text flows smoothly, it can subconsciously propel readers forward and keep them reading.

26. Assonance

Assonance is similar to consonance, except it involves repeating vowel sounds. This is usually a subtler kind of echo. For example, the words “penitence” and “reticence” are assonant.

Like consonance, assonance can help you build compelling, rhythmic language.

27. Chiasmus

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where grammatical constructions or concepts are repeated in reverse order.

For example, “Never let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you.” Or, “The happiest and best moments go to the best and happiest employees.”

In nonfiction, chiasmus can be an effective way to make a significant point. It often works because it’s unexpected and punchy.

28. Litotes

Litotes is a figure of speech closely related to verbal irony. With litotes, you use understatement to emphasize your point. They often incorporate double negatives for effect.

For example, “You won’t be sorry” is the litotes way of saying, “You will be glad.”

If I say, “He wasn’t a bad singer,” you can probably assume that he was actually a good singer. But the negative construction conveys a different tone.

If hyperbole lends more force to your claims, litotes diminishes your statement. In nonfiction, there are situations where you might want to downplay your judgment.

Take this statement, for example: “He wasn’t the worst lawyer I had ever seen, but he could have been more organized.” You aren’t completely bashing the lawyer, but you’re still showing there’s room for improvement.

Still, I recommend using litotes sparingly if you don’t want people to think you’re constantly damning with faint praise.

29. Epigraph

An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme.

For example, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with a quotation from the French writer Balzac: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.”

An epigraph is a great way to honor a writer or thinker you admire. It also immediately puts your work in conversation with theirs. In nonfiction, an epigraph can be a great way to signal to readers, “Hey, Tim Ferriss’ book has informed mine!”

But don’t rely too heavily on epigraphs. The point of writing a book is to show that you are an expert. You don’t want to constantly defer to other Authors to contextualize your ideas.

Also, epigraphs are only effective when they are truly relevant to your book. Don’t just pick a person that you think readers will recognize. Pick a quotation that really adds something to your book.

30. Epistrophe

Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. It’s sometimes called epiphora or antistrophe.

Epistrophe is the cousin of anaphora, where the repetition happens at the beginning of successive phrases.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a great example of a text that uses epistrophe: “… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

His repetition of “the people” really drives home the importance of “the people” to American government. They are central, no matter how you slice it.

Epistrophe can be very dramatic, and it’s a great way to draw attention to crucial concepts or words in your book. But because it’s so impactful, it should be used in moderation.

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Last updated on Aug 18, 2023

60 Literary Devices and Techniques Every Writer Must Know

A literary device is a writing technique that writers use to express ideas, convey meaning, and highlight important themes in a piece of text. A metaphor, for instance, is a famous example of a literary device.

These devices serve a wide range of purposes in literature. Some might work on an intellectual level, while others have a more emotional effect. They may also work subtly to improve the flow and pacing of your writing. No matter what, if you're looking to inject something special into your prose, literary devices are a great place to start.

eN0dwIdqYmo Video Thumb

Sentence-level devices

1. alliteration.

Alliteration describes a series of words in quick succession that all start with the same letter or sound. It lends a pleasing cadence to prose and Hamlet and the dollar as currency in Macbeth .

Example: “ One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” — “Death, Be Not Proud” by John Donne

Exercise: Pick a letter and write a sentence where every word starts with that letter or one that sounds similar. 

2. Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses or sentences. It’s often seen in poetry and speeches, intended to provoke an emotional response in its audience.

Example: Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.

"… and I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.

"… I have a dream that 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.”

Exercise: Pick a famous phrase and write a paragraph elaborating on an idea, beginning each sentence with that phrase. 

Similar term: repetition

3. Anastrophe

Anastrophe is a figure of speech wherein the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a typical verb-subject-adjective sentence such as “Are you ready?” becomes a Yoda-esque adjective-verb-subject question: “Ready, are you?” Or a standard adjective-noun pairing like “tall mountain” becomes “mountain tall.”

Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

Exercise: Write a standard verb-subject-adjective sentence or adjective-noun pairing then flip the order to create an anastrophe. How does it change the meaning or feeling of the sentence?

4. Chiasmus

Chiasmus is when two or more parallel clauses are inverted. “Why would I do that?” you may be wondering. Well, a chiasmus might sound confusing and unnecessary in theory, but it's much more convincing in practice — and in fact, you've likely already come across it before.

Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy

5. Congeries

Congeries is a fancy literary term for creating a list. The items in your list can be words, ideas, or phrases, and by displaying them this way helps prove or emphasize a point — or even create a sense of irony. Occasionally, it’s also called piling as the words are “piling up.”

Example: "Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what have the Romans done for us?" — Monty Python’s Life of Brian

6. Cumulative sentence

A cumulative sentence (or “loose sentence”) is one that starts with an independent clause, but then has additional or modifying clauses. They’re often used for contextual or clarifying details. This may sound complex, but even, “I ran to the store to buy milk, bread, and toilet paper” is a cumulative sentence, because the first clause, “I ran to the store,” is a complete sentence, while the rest tells us extra information about your run to the store.

Example: “It was a large bottle of gin Albert Cousins had brought to the party, yes, but it was in no way large enough to fill all the cups, and in certain cases to fill them many times over, for the more than one hundred guests, some of whom were dancing not four feet in front of him.” – Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Example: Write three sentences that are related to each other. Can you combine the information into a cumulative sentence? 

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7. Epistrophe

Epistrophe is the opposite of anaphora, with this time a word or phrase being repeated at the end of a sentence. Though its placement in a sentence is different it serves the same purpose—creating emphasis—as an anaphora does. 

Example: “I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there . If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there .” — The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Similar terms: repetition, anaphora

Exercise: Write a paragraph where a phrase or a word is repeated at the end of every sentence, emphasizing the point you’re trying to make. 

8. Erotesis

Erotesis is a close cousin of the rhetorical question. Rather than a question asked without expectation of an answer, this is when the question (and the asker) confidently expects a response that is either negative or affirmative. 

Example: “ Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them?” — Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Similar term: rhetorical question

9. Hyperbaton

Hyperbaton is the inversion of words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence that differs from how they would normally be arranged. It comes from the Greek hyperbatos, which means “transposed” or “inverted.” While it is similar to anastrophe, it doesn’t have the same specific structure and allows you to rearrange your sentences in whatever order you want. 

Example: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.” — “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

Similar terms: anastrophe, epistrophe

10. Isocolon

If you’re a neat freak who likes things just so , isocolon is the literary device for you. This is when two or more phrases or clauses have similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up perfectly. Isocolon often crops up in brand slogans and famous sayings; the quick, balanced rhythm makes the phrase catchier and more memorable.

Example: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)

11. Litotes

Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez ) is the signature literary device of the double negative. Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case. Don’t worry, it makes more sense with the examples. 😉

Examples: “You won’t be sorry” (meaning you’ll be happy); “you’re not wrong” (meaning you’re right); “I didn’t not like it” (meaning I did)

12. Malapropism

If Shakespeare is the king of metaphors, Michael Scott is the king of malapropisms . A malapropism is when similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts, typically to comic effect — one of the most commonly cited is “dance a flamingo,” rather than a “flamenco.” Malapropisms are often employed in dialogue when a character flubs up their speech.

Example: “I am not to be truffled with.”

Exercise: Choose a famous or common phrase and see if you can replace a word with a similar sounding one that changes the meaning. 

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13. Onomatopoeia

Amusingly, onomatopoeia (itself a difficult-to-pronounce word) refers to words that sound like the thing they’re referring to. Well-known instances of onomatopoeia include whiz, buzz, snap, grunt, etc.

Example: The excellent children's book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type . “Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears: Click, clack, moo. Click, clack, moo. Clickety, clack, moo. ”

Exercise: Take some time to listen to the sounds around you and write down what you hear. Now try to use those sounds in a short paragraph or story. 

14. Oxymoron 

An oxymoron comes from two contradictory words that describe one thing. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.

Example: "Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. (Find 100 more examples of oxymorons here .)

Similar terms: juxtaposition, paradox

Exercise: Choose two words with opposite meanings and see if you can use them in a sentence to create a coherent oxymoron. 

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15. Parallelism

Parallelism is all about your sentence structure. It’s when similar ideas, sounds, phrases, or words are arranged in a way that is harmonious or creates a parallel, hence the name. It can add rhythm and meter to any piece of writing and can often be found in poetry. 

Example: “ That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong

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16. Polysyndeton

Instead of using a single conjunction in lengthy statements, polysyndeton uses several in succession for a dramatic effect. This one is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flair to their writing, or who are hoping to portray a particular (usually naïve) sort of voice.

Example: “Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.” — The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Exercise: Write three or four independent sentences. Try combining them using conjunctions. What kind of effect does this have on the overall meaning and tone of the piece?

17. Portmanteau

A portmanteau is when two words are combined to form a new word which refers to a single concept that retains the meanings of both the original words. Modern language is full of portmanteaus. In fact, the portmanteau is itself a portmanteau. It’s a combination of the French porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak). 

Example: Brunch (breakfast and lunch); cosplay (costume and roleplay); listicle (list and article); romcom (romance and comedy)

Exercise: Pick two words that are often used together to describe a single concept. See if there’s a way to combine them and create a single word that encompasses the meaning of both.

18. Repetition

Repetition , repetition, repetition… where would we be without it? Though too much repetition is rarely a good thing, occasional repetition can be used quite effectively to drill home a point, or to create a certain atmosphere. For example, horror writers often use repetition to make the reader feel trapped and scared.

Example: In The Shining , Jack Torrance types over and over again on his pages,  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In this case, obsessive repetition demonstrates the character’s unraveling mind.

Similar term: anaphora

Exercise: Repetition can be used to call attention to an idea or phrase. Pick an idea you want to emphasize and write a few sentences about it. Are there any places where you can add repetition to make it more impactful? 

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19. Tautology

A tautology is when a sentence or short paragraph repeats a word or phrase, expressing the same idea twice. Often, this is a sign that you should trim your work to remove the redundancy (such as “frozen ice”) but can also be used for poetic emphasis.

Example: "But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door" – “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

20. Tmesis 

Tmesis is when a word or phrase is broken up by an interjecting word, such as abso-freaking-lutely. It’s used to draw out and emphasize the idea, often with a humorous or sarcastic slant.

Example: "This is not Romeo, he's some-other-where." – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Narrative devices

21. allegory.

An allegory is a type of narrative that uses characters and plot to depict abstract ideas and themes . In an allegorical story, things represent more than they appear to on the surface. Many children's fables, such as The Tortoise and the Hare , are simple allegories about morality — but allegories can also be dark, complex, and controversial. 

Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell. This dystopian novella is one of modern literature’s best-known allegories. A commentary on the events leading up to Stalin's rise and the formation of the Soviet Union, the pigs at the heart of the novel represent figures such as Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov.

Exercise: Pick a major trend or problem in the world and consider what defines it. Try and create a story where that trend plays out on a smaller scale. 

22. Anecdote

An anecdote is like a short story within a story. Sometimes, they are incredibly short—only a line or two—and their purpose is to add a character’s perspective, knowledge, or experience to a situation. They can be inspirational, humorous, or be used to inspire actions in others. Since anecdotes are so short, don’t expect them to be part of a main story. They’re usually told by a character and part of the dialogue. 

Example: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way , part of his series of novels, In Search of Lost Time, deals with the themes of remembrance and memory. In one section of this book, to illustrate these ideas, the main character recalls an important memory of eating a madeleine cookie. “Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell.”

23. Deus Ex Machina

Literally meaning “god in the machine” in Greek, deus ex machina is a plot device where an impossible situation is solved by the appearance of an unexpected or unheard of character, action, object, or event. This brings about a quick and usually happy resolution for a story and can be used to surprise an audience, provide comic relief, or provide a fix for a complicated plot. However, deus ex machinas aren’t always looked upon favorably and can sometimes be seen as lazy writing, so they should be used sparingly and with great thought. 

Example: William Golding’s famous novel of a group of British boys marooned on a desert island is resolved with a deus ex machina. At the climax of The Lord of the Flies, just as Ralph is about to be killed by Jack, a naval officer arrives to rescue the boys and bring them back to civilization. It’s an altogether unexpected and bloodless ending for a story about the boys’ descent into savagery. 

Exercise: Consider the ending of your favorite book or movie and then write an alternate ending that uses a deus ex machina to resolve the main conflict. How does this affect the overall story in terms of theme and tone?

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24. Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony is when the readers know more about the situation going on than at least one of the characters involved. This creates a difference between the ways the audience and the characters perceive unfolding events. For instance, if we know that one character is having an affair, when that character speaks to their spouse, we will pick up on the lies and double-meanings of their words, while the spouse may take them at face value.

Example: In Titanic , the audience knows from the beginning of the movie that the boat will sink. This creates wry humor when characters remark on the safety of the ship.

25. Exposition

Exposition is when the narrative provides background information in order to help the reader understand what’s going on. When used in conjunction with description and dialogue, this literary device provides a richer understanding of the characters, setting, and events. Be careful, though — too much exposition will quickly become boring, thus undercutting the emotional impact of your work.

Example: “The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Exercise: Pick your favorite story and write a short paragraph introducing it to someone who knows nothing about it. 

26. Flashback

Flashbacks to previous events split up present-day scenes in a story, usually to build suspense toward a big reveal. Flashbacks are also an interesting way to present exposition for your story, gradually revealing to the reader what happened in the past.

Example: Every other chapter in the first part of Gone Girl is a flashback, with Amy’s old diary entries describing her relationship with her husband before she disappeared.

Similar term: foreshadowing

27. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is when the author hints at events yet to come in a story. Similar to flashbacks (and often used in conjunction with them), this technique is also used to create tension or suspense — giving readers just enough breadcrumbs to keep them hungry for more.

Example: One popular method of foreshadowing is through partial reveals — the narrator leaves out key facts to prompt readers’ curiosity. Jeffrey Eugenides does this in The Virgin Suicides : “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

Similar term: flashback

Exercise: Go back to your favorite book or movie. Can you identify any instances of foreshadowing in the early portions of the story for events that happen in the future? 

28. Frame story

A frame story is any part of the story that "frames" another part of it, such as one character telling another about their past, or someone uncovering a diary or a series of news articles that then tell the readers what happened. Since the frame story supports the rest of the plot, it is mainly used at the beginning and the end of the narrative, or in small interludes between chapters or short stories.

Example: In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe is telling Chronicler the story of his life over the span of three days. Most of the novel is the story he is telling, while the frame is any part that takes place in the inn.

29. In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin term that means "in the midst of things" and is a way of starting a narrative without exposition or contextual information. It launches straight into a scene or action that is already unfolding. 

Example: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” — The opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Exercise: Pick a story you enjoy and rewrite the opening scene so that it starts in the middle of the story. 

30. Point of view

Point of view is, of course, the mode of narration in a story. There are many POVs an author can choose, and each one will have a different impact on the reading experience.

Example: Second person POV is uncommon because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative style to pull off. One popular novel that manages to employ this perspective successfully is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”

Exercise: Write a short passage in either first, second, or third person. Then rewrite that passage in the other two points of view, only changing the pronouns. How does the change in POV affect the tone and feel of the story? 

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31. Soliloquy 

Soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length (and often in a Shakespeare play). The character in question may be alone or in the company of others, but they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people; the purpose of a soliloquy is for a character to reflect independently.

Example: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, in which he ruminates on the nature of life and death, is a classic dramatic soliloquy.

Exercise: Pick a character from your favorite book or movie and write a soliloquy from their point of view where they consider their thoughts and feelings on an important part of their story or character arc. 

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Tone refers to the overall mood and message of your book. It’s established through a variety of means, including voice, characterization, symbolism, and themes. Tone sets the feelings you want your readers to take away from the story.

Example: No matter how serious things get in The Good Place , there is always a chance for a character to redeem themselves by improving their behavior. The tone remains hopeful for the future of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds.

Exercise: Write a short paragraph in an upbeat tone. Now using the same situation you came up with, rewrite that passage in a darker or sadder tone. 

33. Tragicomedy

Tragicomedy is just what it sounds like: a blend of tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedy helps an audience process darker themes by allowing them to laugh at the situation even when circumstances are bleak.

Example: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events uses wordplay, absurd situations, and over-the-top characters to provide humor in an otherwise tragic story.

Conceptual devices

34. allusion.

An allusion is a reference to a person, place, thing, concept, or other literary work that a reader is likely to recognize. A lot of meaning can be packed into an allusion and it’s often used to add depth to a story. Many works of classic Western literature will use allusions to the Bible to expand on or criticize the morals of their time. 

Example: “The two knitting women increase his anxiety by gazing at him and all the other sailors with knowing unconcern. Their eerie looks suggest that they know what will happen (the men dying), yet don’t care.” The two women knitting in this passage from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are a reference to the Fates from Greek mythology, who decide the fate of humanity by spinning and cutting the threads of life.

Exercise: In a relatively simple piece of writing, see how many times you can use allusions. Go completely crazy. Once you’re finished, try to cut it down to a more reasonable amount and watch for how it creates deeper meaning in your piece. 

35. Analogy

An analogy connects two seemingly unrelated concepts to show their similarities and expand on a thought or idea. They are similar to metaphors and similes, but usually take the comparison much further than either of these literary devices as they are used to support a claim rather than provide imagery. 

Example: “ It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo.” — P.G. Wodehouse

Exercise: Pick two seemingly unrelated nouns and try to connect them with a verb to create an analogy. 

36. Anthropomorphism

To anthropomorphize is to apply human traits or qualities to a non-human thing such as objects, animals, or the weather. But unlike personification, in which this is done through figurative description, anthropomorphism is literal: a sun with a smiling face, for example, or talking dogs in a cartoon.

Examples: In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast , Mrs. Potts the teapot, Cogsworth the clock, and Lumière the candlestick are all household objects that act and behave like humans (which, of course, they were when they weren’t under a spell).

Similar term: personification

Exercise: Pick a non-human object and describe it as if it was human, literally ascribing human thoughts, feelings, and senses to it. 

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37. Aphorism

An aphorism is a universally accepted truth stated in a concise, to-the-point way. Aphorisms are typically witty and memorable, often becoming adages or proverbs as people repeat them over and over.

Example: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” — Alexander Pope

38. Archetype

An archetype is a “universal symbol” that brings familiarity and context to a story. It can be a character, a setting, a theme, or an action. Archetypes represent feelings and situations that are shared across cultures and time periods, and are therefore instantly recognizable to any audience — for instance, the innocent child character, or the theme of the inevitability of death.

Example: Superman is a heroic archetype: noble, self-sacrificing, and drawn to righting injustice whenever he sees it.

Exercise: Pick an archetype — either a character or a theme — and use it to write a short piece centered around that idea. 

A cliché is a saying or idea that is used so often it becomes seen as unoriginal. These phrases might become so universal that, despite their once intriguing nature, they're now looked down upon as uninteresting and overused. 

Examples: Some common cliches you might have encountered are phrases like “easy as pie” and “light as a feather.” Some lines from famous books and movies have become so popular that they are now in and of themselves cliches such as Darth Vader’s stunning revelation from The Empire Strikes Back, “Luke, I am your father.” Also, many classic lines of Shakespeare are now considered cliches like, “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice. 

Exercise: Write a short passage using as many cliches as possible. Now try to cut them out and replace them with more original phrasing. See how the two passages compare. 

40. Colloquialism

Colloquialism is the use of casual and informal language in writing, which can also include slang. Writers use colloquialisms to provide context to settings and characters, and to make their writing sound more authentic. Imagine reading a YA novel that takes place in modern America, and the characters speak to each other like this:

“Good morning, Sue. I hope that you slept well and are prepared for this morning’s science exam.”

It’s not realistic. Colloquialisms help create believable dialogue :

“Hey Sue, what’d you get up to last night? This science test is gonna suck.”

Example: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh takes place in Scotland, a fact made undeniably obvious by the dialect: “Thing is, as ye git aulder, this character-deficiency gig becomes mair sapping. Thir wis a time ah used tae say tae aw the teachers, bosses, dole punters, poll-tax guys, magistrates, when they telt me ah was deficient: ’Hi, cool it, gadge, ah’m jist me, jist intae a different sort ay gig fae youse but, ken?’”

Exercise: Write a dialogue between two characters as formally as possible. Now take that conversation and make it more colloquial. Imagine that you’re having this conversation with a friend. Mimic your own speech patterns as you write. 

41. Euphemism

A euphemism is an indirect, “polite” way of describing something too inappropriate or awkward to address directly. However, most people will still understand the truth about what's happening.

Example: When an elderly person is forced to retire, some might say they’re being “put out to pasture.”

Exercise: Write a paragraph where you say things very directly. Now rewrite that paragraph using only euphemisms. 

42. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that emphasizes the significance of the statement’s actual meaning. When a friend says, "Oh my god, I haven't seen you in a million years," that's hyperbole.

Example: “At that time Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez

Exercise: Tall tales often make use of hyperbole to tell an exaggerated story. Use hyperbole to relate a completely mundane event or experience to turn it into a tall tale. 

43. Hypophora

Hypophora is much like a rhetorical question, wherein someone asks a question that doesn't require an answer. However, in hypophora, the person raises a question and answers it immediately themselves (hence the prefix hypo, meaning 'under' or 'before'). It’s often used when characters are reasoning something aloud.

Example: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” — Daisy in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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An idiom is a saying that uses figurative language whose meaning differs from what it literally says. These phrases originate from common cultural experiences, even if that experience has long ago been forgotten. Without cultural context, idioms don’t often make sense and can be the toughest part for non-native speakers to understand. 

Example: In everyday use, idioms are fairly common. We say things like, “It’s raining cats and dogs” to say that it’s downpouring. 

Exercise: Idioms are often used in dialogue. Write a conversation between two people where idioms are used to express their main points. 

45. Imagery

Imagery appeals to readers’ senses through highly descriptive language. It’s crucial for any writer hoping to follow the rule of "show, don’t tell," as strong imagery truly paints a picture of the scene at hand.

Example: “In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.” — Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

Exercise: Choose an object, image, or idea and use the five senses to describe it. 

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Irony creates a contrast between how things seem and how they really are. There are three types of literary irony : dramatic (when readers know what will happen before characters do), situational (when readers expect a certain outcome, only to be surprised by a turn of events), and verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said).

Example: This opening scene from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil is a great example of how dramatic irony can create tension.

47. Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition places two or more dissimilar characters, themes, concepts, etc. side by side, and the profound contrast highlights their differences. Why is juxtaposition such an effective literary device? Well, because sometimes the best way for us to understand something is by understanding what it’s not .

Example: In the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities , Charles Dickens uses juxtaposition to emphasize the societal disparity that led to the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”

Similar terms: oxymoron, paradox

Exercise: Pick two ideas, objects, places, or people that seem like complete opposites. Introduce them side by side in the beginning of your piece and highlight their similarities and differences throughout. 

48. Metaphor

A metaphor compares two similar things by saying that one of them is the other. As you'd likely expect, when it comes to literary devices, this one is a heavy hitter. And if a standard metaphor doesn't do the trick, a writer can always try an extended metaphor : a metaphor that expands on the initial comparison through more elaborate parallels.

Example: Metaphors are literature’s bread and butter (metaphor intended) — good luck finding a novel that is free of them. Here’s one from Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass : “Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.”

Similar term: simile

Exercise: Write two lists: one with tangible objects and the other concepts. Mixing and matching, try to create metaphors where you describe the concepts using physical objects.

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49. Metonymy

Metonymy is like symbolism, but even more so. A metonym doesn’t just symbolize something else, it comes to serve as a synonym for that thing or things — typically, a single object embodies an entire institution.

Examples: “The crown” representing the monarchy, “Washington” representing the U.S. government.

Similar term: synecdoche

Exercise: Create a list of ten common metonymies you might encounter in everyday life and speech.

Whatever form a motif takes, it recurs throughout the novel and helps develop the theme of the narrative. This might be a symbol, concept, or image.

Example: In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, trains are an omnipresent motif that symbolize transition, derailment, and ultimately violent death and destruction.

Similar term: symbol

Exercise: Pick a famous book or movie and see if you can identify any common motifs within it. 

51. Non sequitur

Non sequiturs are statements that don't logically follow what precedes them. They’ll often be quite absurd and can lend humor to a story. But they’re just not good for making jokes. They can highlight missing information or a miscommunication between characters and even be used for dramatic effect. 

Example: “It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.” — Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 

Exercise: Write a conversation that gets entirely derailed by seemingly unrelated non sequiturs. 

52. Paradox

Paradox derives from the Greek word paradoxon , which means “beyond belief.” It’s a statement that asks people to think outside the box by providing seemingly illogical — and yet actually true — premises.

Example: In George Orwell’s 1984 , the slogan of the totalitarian government is built on paradoxes: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” While we might read these statements as obviously contradictory, in the context of Orwell’s novel, these blatantly corrupt sentiments have become an accepted truth.

Similar terms: oxymoron, juxtaposition

Exercise: Try writing your own paradox. First, think of two opposing ideas that can be juxtaposed against each other. Then, create a situation where these contradictions coexist with each other. What can you gather from this unique perspective?

53. Personification

Personification uses human traits to describe non-human things. Again, while the aforementioned anthropomorphism actually applies these traits to non-human things, personification means the behavior of the thing does not actually change. It's personhood in figurative language only.

Example: “Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin.” — The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Similar term: anthropomorphism

Exercise: Pick a non-human object and describe it using human traits, this time using similes and metaphors rather than directly ascribing human traits to it. 

54. Rhetorical question

A rhetorical question is asked to create an effect rather than to solicit an answer from the listener or reader. Often it has an obvious answer and the point of asking is to create emphasis. It’s a great way to get an audience to consider the topic at hand and make a statement. 

Example: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” — The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Writers use satire to make fun of some aspect of human nature or society — usually through exaggeration, ridicule, or irony. There are countless ways to satirize something; most of the time, you know it when you read it.

Example: The famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic example of satire, poking fun at “travelers' tales,” the government, and indeed human nature itself.

A simile draws resemblance between two things by saying “Thing A is like Thing B,” or “Thing A is as [adjective] as Thing B.” Unlike a metaphor, a similar does not posit that these things are the same, only that they are alike. As a result, it is probably the most common literary device in writing — you can almost always recognize a simile through the use of “like” or “as.”

Example: There are two similes in this description from Circe by Madeline Miller: “The ships were golden and huge as leviathans, their rails carved from ivory and horn. They were towed by grinning dolphins or else crewed by fifty black-haired nereids, faces silver as moonlight.”

Similar term: metaphor

57. Symbolism

Authors turn to tangible symbols to represent abstract concepts and ideas in their stories  Symbols typically derive from objects or non-humans — for instance, a dove might represent peace, or a raven might represent death.

Example: In The Great Gatsby , Fitzgerald uses the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg (actually a faded optometrist's billboard) to represent God and his judgment of the Jazz Age.

Similar term: motif

Exercise: Choose an object that you want to represent something — like an idea or concept. Now, write a poem or short story centered around that symbol. 

58. Synecdoche

Synecdoche is the usage of a part to represent the whole. That is, rather than an object or title that’s merely associated with the larger concept (as in metonymy), synecdoche must actually be attached in some way: either to the name, or to the larger whole itself.

Examples: “Stanford won the game” ( Stanford referring to the full title of the Stanford football team) or “Nice wheels you got there” ( wheels referring to the entire car)

Similar term: metonymy

Zeugma is when one word is used to ascribe two separate meanings to two other words. This literary device is great for adding humor and figurative flair as it tends to surprise the reader. And it’s just a fun type of wordplay. 

Example: “ Yet time and her aunt moved slowly — and her patience and her ideas were nearly worn out before the tete-a-tete was over.” — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

60. Zoomorphism 

Zoomorphism is when you take animal traits and assign them to anything that’s not an animal. It’s the opposite of anthropomorphism and personification, and can be either a physical manifestation, such as a god appearing as an animal, or a comparison, like calling someone a busy bee .

Example: When vampires turn into bats, their bat form is an instance of zoomorphism.

Exercise: Describe a human or object by using traits that are usually associated with animals. 

Similar terms: anthropomorphism, personification

Readers and writers alike can get a lot out of understanding literary devices and how they're used. Readers can use them to gain insight into the author’s intended meaning behind their work, while writers can use literary devices to better connect with readers. But whatever your motivation for learning them, you certainly won't be sorry you did! (Not least because you'll recognize the device I just used in that sentence. 😏)

6 responses

Ron B. Saunders says:

16/01/2019 – 19:26

Paraprosdokians are also delightful literary devices for creating surprise or intrigue. They cause a reader to rethink a concept or traditional expectation. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraprosdokian)

ManhattanMinx says:

17/01/2019 – 02:07

That's pore, not pour. Shame.....

↪️ Coline Harmon replied:

14/06/2019 – 19:06

It was a Malapropism

↪️ JC JC replied:

23/10/2019 – 00:02

Yeah ManhattanMinx. It's a Malepropism!

↪️ jesus replied:

07/11/2019 – 13:24

Susan McGrath says:

10/03/2020 – 10:56

"But whatever your motivation for learning them, you certainly won't be sorry you did! (Not least because you'll recognize the device I just used in that sentence. 😏)" Litote

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35+ Literary Devices Writers Should Use in their Next Book

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They’re a beating, thumping heart of the fiction writer’s toolbox.

If you don’t know these literary devices below, you’re probably using some of them already. But if you learn by reading the examples, you’ll be better prepared to entertain the reader with some stylistic devices. 

I started putting together a list of literary techniques including their definition and function, looking for new ways to use old favorites. Not just examples from the canon, but examples from contemporary writers and popular fiction, too. I looked for inventive techniques — the obscure, the scholarly, the mind boggling.

Then I organized the devices according to problems writers face.

 So, when a monotonous passage emerges, diagnose and treat it with the help of this list!

4 Literary Devices about Comparison

writing devices books

When descriptions get too lengthy and create a lull, when you’ve described the same character with the same words again and again, try comparisons. Comparisons invite readers to think about elements of the story in new ways and add layers of meaning.

Simile uses the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make a direct comparison between two unlike things. Similes can establish moods and make imagery more complex.

Example: “I used to think my place of employment, Glam, looked like the view from inside a casket.” – Carmen Maria Machado, “Real Women Have Bodies”

Danger : Don’t use similes too often . This is the easiest comparison to write, and it’s often used most often by beginning writers.

2. Metaphor

Metaphor equates one thing to another: Something is something else. This type of comparison inspires readers to think of similarities between two (mostly) unlike entities.

A metaphor is a more sophisticated simile. It’s saying X is Y, rather than X is like Y. 

I’m a genie in a bottle You gotta rub me the right way – Christina Aguilera, “Genie in a Bottle”

3. Metonymy

Metonymy substitutes one word for another. It’s a sneaky way to compare two things — much more advanced than a metaphor, because the reader has to figure out what the missing word is.

Example: Winston Churchill’s famous “Sinews of Peace” speech popularized the metonymy of iron curtain: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an ‘Iron Curtain’ has descended across the continent.”

By “iron curtain,” Churchill meant communism. But he never mentions the word “communism.” You have to figure it out.

Danger : Readers can become confused if they can’t figure out what word your metonym is referring to.

4. Synecdoche: A part that stands in for the whole. Synecdoche is like the weird cousin of metonymy. You don’t see it very often, but you remember it when you do.

Examples: Tupac Shakur uses metonymy and synecdoche to illustrate his capacity for resistance:

Did you hear about the rose that grew From a crack in the concrete? Proving nature’s law is wrong?” – “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” Tupac Shakur

The “Rose” is Tupac . That’s an example of metonymy. 

The “concrete” is the inner city . That’s an example of synecdoche, because concrete is part of the inner city. 

3 Literary Devices about Contrast:

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5. Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is when two opposing ideas, settings, or characters are described in close proximity.

To highlight her protagonist’s misery, Donna Tartt juxtaposes two very different settings, outside her hotel room and then inside it.

Example: “Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles. In the afternoons, an amateur band played Christmas carols that hung tinny and fragile in the winter air. [Inside, it was] chaotic room-service trays; too many cigarettes; lukewarm vodka from duty free. During those restless, shut-up days, I got to know every inch of the room as a prisoner comes to know his cell.”   — The Goldfinch

6. Antithesis

Antithesis pairs opposite words (usually with a conjunction) and a shared grammatical structure.

Example: “ What if I am rich, and another is poor — strong, and he is weak — intelligent, and he is benighted — elevated, and he is depraved? Have we not one Father? Hath not one God created us?”

—William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with the Evil of Slavery

With Paradox, the writer puts together seemingly contradictory statements that may not make sense on the first read. Upon further investigation, these statements contain a universal truth.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” provides the following paradoxical statement:

Example : “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

Losing seems like the direct opposite of art — it requires no thought or creativity, just a certain level of mindlessness. Expertise and losing also seem at odds.  But after continuing through the poem, the reader learns that, to carry on with our human existence, we must endure a great deal of loss. We lose car keys, memories, homes, loved ones, and at times, even ourselves, and so, the act of living is a testament to our ability to master loss.

4 Literary Devices of Repetition

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Need an image to stand out? Repeat it. Repeat it again! Repeat it loud. The following examples show how authors use repetition to emphasize a point, an image, or an idea.

8. Anaphora

An anaphora a word or phrase is repeated at the start of a group of sentences.

Example: In “Crazy They Call Me ,” Zadie Smith uses anaphora to underscore Billie Holiday’s difficulties in connecting with people: “A dog don’t cheat. A dog don’t lie.”  

You can even do this for an entire paragraph, repeating the same word or words at the beginning of each sentence.

A refrain is repeated multiple times throughout a body of work to add emphasis or coin a rallying cry.

Example: “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it— and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman ?”

— Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman”

10. Leitmotif

Leitmotif originated as a term to describe a melody repeated throughout an opera, usually when a villain entered the stage. Although not an opera, we see an example of leitmotif in Jaws. When the signature dun-dun…  melody plays, we know the great white shark will soon make an appearance.

Through this repetition of sound, leitmotif creates suspense and foreshadows a coming problem. In literature, leitmotif includes repeated ideas, images, actions, or poetic structures rather than melody.

Cormac McCarthy uses leitmotif to characterize Judge Holden. Each time Holden appears, McCarthy’s prose turns to polysyndeton: the words bend to a chaotic and lawless sound foreshadowing the coming bloodshed or other moral depravity executed by the judge.

Example: “Watching him across the layered smoke in the yellow light was the judge. He was sitting at one of the tables. He wore a round hat with a narrow brim and he was among every kind of man, herder and bullwhacker and drover and freighter and miner and hunter and soldier and pedlar and gambler and drifter and drunkard and thief and he was among the dregs of the earth in beggary a thousand years and he was among the scapegrace scions of eastern dynasties and in all that motley assemblage he sat by them and yet alone as if he were some other sort of man entire and he seemed little changed or none in all these years.” — Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

11. Tautology

Tautology is defining something by repeating the thing defined. It’s meaningless. For instance, tautology may repeat the same words or use words with the same meaning.

Example: “‘Isn’t the water wet today, Mary,’ the older girl asked.”

  • Alice McDermott, Charming Billy

“ Either it will rain tomorrow, or it won’t rain.”

“If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.” – Dan Quayle.

Danger. Don’t try to use tautology from your 3rd person narrator. The perfect place for a tautological statement in fiction is by a character who is a fool or a comedian. 

4 Narrative Literary Devices

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When things get too linear or predictable, try one of these narrative literary devices.

12. Flashforward

An omniscient narrator zooms ahead in time, allowing the reader to experience a character’s future. As a character grapples with their (often unfortunate) destiny, the writer creates suspense. Readers wonder, “What circumstances lead to this future scene?”

In The Known World, Edward P. Jones builds suspense as he flashes forward in time:

Example: “Tessie would soon be six years old, and being the child of her parents that she was, she listened and stopped skipping. Tessie would live to be ninety-seven years old and the doll her father was making her would be with her until her last hour. She and the doll, long missing the corn-silk hair, Elias, her father, had put on it, would outlive two of her children and it would outlive her.”

After reading this passage, readers are left to guess what happened between now and then: Why did Tessie outlive her children? Why did she clutch the corn husk doll in her last hours?

13. Foreshadowing

An author foreshadows by hinting at future events. Foreshadowing engages readers as they wonder what will happen next – will the clues add up to the inferred fate? Or not? Dialogue, atmosphere, and character actions can be used to foreshadow.

Example: “Through the window, hung with Dutch curtains, a butterfly flew in and landed on the table. It stood motionless, its wings together waiting with the fatalistic calm of a creature that lives for only a short time.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Boarder”

Who does the butterfly represent? Someone’s about to die — this butterfly just foreshadowed it.

14. Flashbacks

The story transports the reader back in time to experience a moment in the character’s memory.

Example: In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood makes frequent use of flashback to show Offred’s life prior to The Republic of Gilead:

“I lie, then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling, behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they are, and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it. But the night is my time out. Where should I go? Somewhere good. Moira, sitting on the edge of my bed, legs crossed, ankle on knee, in her purple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail she wore to be eccentric, a cigarette between her stubby yellow-ended fingers. Let’s go for a beer.”

15. Cliffhanger

Readers are left with a sense of suspense at the end of a chapter or series installment, causing them to ask, “What’s next?” Cliffhangers encourage readers to continue reading or even binge material.

Example: Almost every chapter in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games ends in a cliffhanger. For instance, the opening chapter describes the reaping, where two adolescents from each district are chosen to fight to the death. Near the end of the chapter, the reader learns that Primrose Everdeen — Katniss’s beloved but decidedly un-gladiator-like sister —  is chosen to participate in the games. This causes readers to wonder, will Prim die in the games? Will Katniss take her place? And inevitably, this uncertainty inspires readers to keep turning pages.

3 Substitutionary Devices

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In the age of cancel culture and incendiary politics, it can be tough to articulate certain ideas without offending. Sometimes the best way to say what you want to say is by saying something different entirely.

16. Allegory

At first the narrative may seem  novel. But after a closer look, the reader sees a story within the story and identifies parallels to existing societal structures, political events, or cultural beliefs.

Example: In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible a group of girls dances in the woods of 17 th century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on this behavior, townspeople accuse the girls of witchcraft, despite a lack of evidence. Ultimately, the townspeople’s unfounded suspicions lead to disastrous fates for the girls on trial. Superficially, this story seems like a re-telling of the Salem Witch Trials, but, on closer inspection, readers realize it is an allegory for the McCarthy Era: a period during the 1950s where many Americans were wrongfully accused of co-conspiracy with Soviet Union Communists. Artists, intellectuals and government workers were tried and blacklisted, not because of evidence of treason, but because of the subversive nature of their art or participation in political protests.

17. Allusion

A quick, indirect reference to another literary work, person, place or thing. Allusions are ready-made images, allowing a writer to make commentary through comparisons without lengthy descriptions.

Example:  A character in “Stanville” slyly criticizes the protagonist’s living quarters by comparing them to that of the Unabomber:

“Gordon found a place to rent sight unseen, a cabin up the mountains from Stanville proper, in the western Sierra foothills. The cabin was a single room with a woodstove. It would be his Thoreau year, he wrote to his friend Alex, sending him the realty link.

“Your Kaczynski year,” Alex wrote back, after looking at the photos of the cabin.” – Rachel Kushner

18. Euphemism

Through the use of euphemism, writers can describe information society considers too taboo or too harsh. Euphemism offers a way to open a dialogue typically off limits.

Example : In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the euphemism “letting the air in” is used to describe the act of terminating a pregnancy:

“The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything.’

‘It’s just to let the air in.’

The girl did not say anything.

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’”

3 Literary Devices of Sentences

writing devices books

If the flow seems off, narrow focus and look at passages granularly. The shape of a sentence can provoke thought and move a narrative. Here’s what happens when authors focus sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, or even syllable-by-syllable:

19. Polysyndeton

Instead of using the oxford comma in a serial list, (tomatoes, plums, and radishes) try using coordinating conjunctions (tomatoes and plums and radishes).

Example: By using polysyndeton, Cormac McCarthy emphasizes the distance his characters travel: “ They passed under flowering apple trees and passed a log crib chinked with orange mud and forded a branch and came in sight of an aged clapboard house that stood in blue shade under the wall of the mountain.” – Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

20. Parallelism

Parallelism is the repetition of structure. This technique creates symmetry in sound, and allows authors to showcase similarities.

Example: “her hungry pretty face turning to me, / her pitiful beautiful untouched body, / his arrogant handsome face turning to me, / his pitiful beautiful untouched body” – Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937”

21. Amplification

Zero-in on a specific detail, and describe it fully. Usually a short sentence or phrase gets amplified by multiple lines of text. By writing about a detail in this way, authors give power and emphasis to seemingly small features of the story.

Example: “What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell. Almost as soon as he walked off the plane he caught it: an acrid odor of wood ash. The smell seemed to go through his nostrils and take up residence in his head. In Sweden, his own country, he associated this smell with autumn, and the first family fires of winter, the smoke chuffing out of chimneys and settling familiarly over the neighborhood. But here it was midsummer, and he couldn’t see anything burning.” — Charles Baxter, “The Disappeared”

Use negative words, like “no” or “not” before a positive phrase. Depending on the context, this technique can downplay significance or infuse modesty, irony or trickery.

Example: “That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you.” – Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

3 Advanced Narration Techniques

writing devices books

Has your story already been told a thousand times?  Try adding new perspective through an unusual mode of narration.

23. Delayed Decoding

Joseph Conrad narrates a character’s sensory experience before making clear what the experience means. Ian Watt calls this technique delayed decoding because Conrad’s description mimics the brain’s delay as it struggles to process difficult external surroundings.  Delayed decoding works as a suspense-building tool because it causes readers to question, “What is really going on here?”

Example: “Sticks, little sticks, were flying about—thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilot-house. All this time the river, the shore, the woods, were very quiet—perfectly quiet. I could only hear the heavy splashing thump of the stern-wheel and the patter of these things. We cleared the snag clumsily. Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

24. “Absent” third-person narrator

Alain Robbe-Grillet created the concept of the absent third-person narrator in his novel, Jealousy. In the novel, an envy-riddled husband observes his wife’s interactions with a neighbor. Only, it’s never explicitly stated that the husband is the narrator. The husband’s existence is inferred through subtle clues. And with the husband’s relative absence, it becomes difficult for the reader to distinguish which passages are unbiased observations of the world and which are invented scenarios based on the narrator’s jealousy. The narrator describes his world in painstaking, mind-bending detail leading readers to believe they are watching the exact world the narrator experiences. In the excerpt below, the absent narrator describes the verandah he continually watches:

Example: “Now the shadow of the column — the column which supports the southwest corner of the roof — divides the corresponding corner of the verandah into two equal parts. This verandah is a wide, covered gallery surrounding the house on three sides. Since its width is the same for the central portion as for the sides, the line of shadow cast by the column extends precisely to the corner of the house; but it stops there, for only the verandah flagstones are reached by the sun, which is still too high in the sky.” — Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy

25. Inanimate Narration

An object tells the story, giving the reader a unique point of view, free from pesky, human musings.

Example: By letting a bag of crack cocaine, affectionately named Scotty, tell the story (in a voice strangely reminiscent of Sam L. Jackson), James Hannaham illustrates a character’s loss of power over her addiction: “Maybe I attract a certain kinda person. Folks always saying that I do. Doctors talking ‘bout how people brain chemistry make some of ‘em fall in love harder with codependent types. But I feel a obligation to Darlene. Out of all my friends, and, baby, I got millions — she make me wonder the most if I done right by her.” — Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

5 Funny Literary Devices

writing devices books

26. Ambiguity  

Ambiguity relies on multiple possible readings of a single phrase. Ambiguity is created by using words with multiple meanings or vague pronouns. The humor happens when a mix-up occurs based on the unclear meaning.

Example: In the example below, Douglas Adams plays with the dual meaning of the word ‘drunk:’

“‘You should prepare yourself for the jump into hyperspace; it’s unpleasantly like being drunk.’

‘What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?’

‘Just ask a glass of water.’”

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Puns rely on double meaning of a word for humorous effect. Usually, the architect of a pun is aware of the double meaning. Puns can also be used to indirectly point out complexities of a situation, as is the case in this example below.

Example: In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “This case is as simple as black and white.”  The phrase ‘ black and white’ indicates the case should be simple – the moral and lawful solution being obvious. He also uses ‘black and white’ to describe the literal racial prejudice spurred by the book’s landmark trial.

28. Hyperbole

An exaggeration, a description that is —  as the kiddies would say — a bit “extra.”

Example: “Anna hailed from an industrial town outside of Warsaw and had front teeth the size of tombstones.” – David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

29. Oxymoron

Two words with opposing meanings are thrust together. By letting two opposites co-exist, writers invite humor and unforgettable images.

Example: “He had signal-flag ears, a chinless chin, a scrunched forehead…” – Denis Johnson, “Strangler Bob”

Irony is a concept all about opposites. Three types of irony are common in literature — dramatic, situational, and verbal.

31. Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony relies on the audience’s knowledge that an event will take place, however, the story’s characters are unaware of this event.  The humor comes when the characters say something in direct opposition to their fate.

Example:  In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Guildenstern says, “I think I’ll spend most of life on boats…One is free on a boat. For a time. Relatively…”  As the title implies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are captured and killed after this little boat ride. Thus, they will not spend most of life on boats.

32. Situational Irony

Situational Irony occurs when an outcome or event has the opposite result readers were expecting.

Example : “The only way I can make Selina want to go to bed with me is by not wanting to go to bed with her.” – Martin Amis, Money

33. Verbal Irony

Verbal irony occurs when the intended meaning opposes what is actually being said.

Example: “‘If your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley and under your orders’” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

3 Poetic Literary Devices

writing devices books

34. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of sounds at the start of a group of words.

Example: “The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron

35. Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words.

“In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is ‘bom,’ from the French ‘pomme,’ meaning ‘apple.’ Or was it American for ‘bomb?’” – Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

36. Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like its meaning. This technique gives readers a multi-sensory experience, allowing them to hear the scene through the author’s word choice.

Example: In Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, he uses onomatopoeia to illustrate the sounds of The Fourth: “The / ZANG! / Fourth / WHOOSH! / Of / BAROOM! / July / WHEW! ”

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Your Complete Guide to Popular Literary Devices in Great Writing

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Laura Marie

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She reads one or two audiobooks every week, loves falling into a good cooking memoir, and debates feasibility of tech from sci-fi books with her husband.

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We all know what it means to read “good writing,” right?   Well, no, we don’t. It’s true that we often recognize something as “great” when we see it. Our teachers may reference the “literary devices” that make it good. But if you have to talk about a book in a class, it can be hard to describe “greatness.” This is even more nerve-wracking on a test or quiz. I can’t just write “I liked it” and move on!

Curious what the popular literary devices used in great writing are and what they mean? We've got your complete guide to literary devices to take your reading game to an even higher and deeper level. literary devices | reading guides | reading knowledge

What are literary devices?

One of the best ways to connect deeply with texts when you are just learning about how to define good writing is through literary devices. Literary devices are like strategies or techniques that a writer can use. They showcase creative thought and connections between things that might otherwise not be connected. When we notice a great connection being made, we get the opportunity to share it with others in our classes or among our friends who also are reading such a book.

Below are just a few of the literary devices you may encounter as you delve into the great works of literature. You might also notice variations of them in your reading for pleasure, and thinking about literary devices may allow you to marvel even more at the genius of your favorite authors.

15 Common Literary Devices (and What They Mean)

An allusion is a reference to something outside of the present context. For example, if a character makes a quip that is actually a quote from a famous movie, but doesn’t stop to explain it, that is considered an allusion. You can attribute allusions (i.e. explain where they come from), but many books reference other books and other forms of media and just hope that the right readers will “get it.”

Archetypes are those “big-picture” comparisons that tend to show up in a lot of texts, not just the texts of one author. This means that if a book contains “a young person looking to figure out how to become an adult,” they are following an archetype. Characters that fully seem like heroes or villains are also archetypes. This is generally a way that a given character behaves.

Diction contains a lot of things. It includes the kinds of words a writer chooses, the tone or attitude of the words, and as a whole the way that this writer’s work reads differently from every other writer. Many people, for instance, could recognize a new Emily Dickinson poem because of the way she writes (uses a lot of dashes, interesting but simple rhymes, etc.) even if they’ve never seen one before. Her unique diction is partially to blame for this ability.

Epigraphs are the little quotations or snippets at the beginning of a book or the beginning of each chapter. They may seem unrelated, but one good way to analyze a book is to try to see a connection, after you read the book or after you read the chapter, between the text and the original snippet.

These terms are any that make something harsh less harsh. References to violence or crimes, for instance, are often softened by not telling a lot of detail or by using terms that don’t make it as difficult. Think about the difference between “murdered” and “passed away.”


Foreshadowing is when something that will be important in the future is emphasized in the present. If, for instance, the narration of a novel mentions how important it is that I took two cookies instead of one, and that dire consequences would result, they are foreshadowing that something important will happen because of the second cookie.

Characters who use hyperbole are using exaggeration that is technically a lie but communicates a truth. For instance, saying “we waited a million years at the office” is almost definitely a lie, but it communicates a deeper truth, that the wait was longer than expected and excruciating in its dullness.

Imagery is a fairly large category of items, but it basically means any words and phrases that help you to create a picture of the scene in a story. When the story stops, for instance, being just a back-and-forth dialogue between characters and gives you some background details or description of their faces, you can refer to that as imagery.

Irony tends to involve a situation that seems like it should never exist due to the nature of the situation itself. People consider someone who hurts themselves while working in a hospital, for instance, to be ironic. Also, irony can create a lot of humor in literature, for example, when a character obsessively plans for five potential outcomes but the sixth, the one that they said would never happen, is what actually takes place.

Metaphor and Simile

Metaphors and similes are comparisons. They help people see a new aspect of something by comparing it to something else. For instance, if a story claims that “night is like a visitor,” they are using a simile and probably trying to emphasize something about how night arrives. Metaphors are similar but they simply state the comparison without drawing attention to the fact that it is a comparison: “Night is a visitor.”

A motif is an item or another element of a story that appears multiple time. It is meaningful through a connection with a particular context. For instance, if the main character sees a black cat crossing the road only once, it might be a general symbol of some kind, but if the same cat shows up only right before a very mysterious event happens, the reader grows to connect those two things.


The giving of emotions or human attributes to non-human items. So, if the sky seems “somber,” it really is just saying that we associate the human emotion of somberness with the dark gray of a cloudy sky. It is a very poetic way to communicate. It very often shows how the actual human characters feel by making the natural world around them reflect those emotions subtly.


This is a bit of cleverness where you combine two words to make a new word. Sometimes these words become so popular they enter the common lexicon. Breakfast and lunch combined, for instance, form “brunch.” Many creative authors make up such words.

Whenever an item carries more significance than its literal value. When pursuing a white whale could just literally mean a whale hunt in Moby Dick , but ends up being a stand-in for all pursuits that we grow so obsessed with that we lose all focus on other things, the whale becomes a symbol for all far-off, out-of-reach desires.

When one part of something stands in for the whole. Synecdoche can be a clever way to distinguish a character through their unusual way of speaking. When people refer to their cars as “wheels,” for instance, they aren’t seriously referring to only the wheels. It’s a way to convey the whole car but to distinguish one’s way of speaking.

Want to know more about how to make sense of the works you are reading beyond the literary devices? We’ve got you covered at Book Riot! Read this post on short stories , a primer on poems , and a summary of understanding the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction .

Some sourcing assistance provided by  https://literaryterms.net/  and  https://www.literarydevices.com/

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