Where were you when your fourth-grade teacher first introduced you to literary devices?
(Did you learn about the mighty metaphor? Or maybe its simpering cousin, the simile?)
Years later, you’re starting to realize that maybe you should’ve taken better notes back then.
Because you’re a writer now, or trying to be, and it’s kind of embarrassing when your friends (or worse, your kids) come to you and ask: “What’s an onomatopoeia?”
And all you have to say is: “An onomatopoeia? Uh, well, you know it’s a species of a… a… achoo! Darn my dratted allergies!”
Not with this handy-dandy list of 57 (count ‘em) literary techniques that will help your writing soar above the clouds… pull ahead of the teeming hordes… shine beyond the most brilliant — uh, you get the idea.
But let’s back up. You probably need a quick refresher first, right? Let’s do a quick Q&A.
What are Literary Devices?
Literary devices are strategies writers use to strengthen ideas, add personality to prose, and ultimately communicate more effectively. Just as chefs use unique ingredients or techniques to create culinary masterpieces (flambéed crêpes, anyone?), skilled writers use literary devices to create life-changing works of art.
So who should care about literary devices?
You, of course. If you want to be a charismatic, powerful writer that readers want to follow (or clients want to hire), that is.
The right literary devices can make your ideas more memorable, your thoughts more clear, and your writing more powerful.
Your knowledge and skillful use of literary techniques will catapult you above the hordes of wannabe writers, increasing your self-confidence, and endowing you with the kind of influence that will keep your audience salivating to consume your work.
How are Literary Devices Different From Rhetorical Devices?
Literary devices and rhetorical devices have a good bit of overlap. They’re very similar — so similar, you’ll find a lot of confusing, conflicting information online.
Google “alliteration” and you’ll see it on lists for both rhetorical and literary devices. The same is true with “personification”, “tmesis”, “litotes”, and numerous others.
So what’s the difference?
Here’s an oversimplified TL;DR:
A literary device is a narrative technique. A rhetorical device, also known as a persuasive device or stylistic device, is a persuasion technique.
The Rule of Three is a common rhetorical device you’ll often see working hand-in-hand with many of these literary devices.
What are the 10 Most Common Literary Devices?
- Dramatic Irony
- Point of View
(Yes, we were surprised “anthropomorphism” made the list too.)
Alright, enough questions. It’s time for the main event.
Our Huge List of Literary Techniques
You will find some recognizable names in this list. You will also find a few party crashers that (unless you were an English major) you’ve probably never heard of (I’m looking at you, verisimilitude).
But whether it’s a familiar friend or an idiosyncratic interloper, each and every device comes with a lovingly hand-crafted definition and an enlightening example, carefully curated by yours truly.
(Don’t say you haven’t been warned.)
Here’s our list of the 57 must-know literary devices to get you started on the road to writerly stardom:
Some super sentences supply stunning samples of alliteration, such as this one. In other words, an alliteration is a literary device that features a series of words in swift succession, all starting with the same letter.
Graceful and clever use of alliteration (not, ahem, like the example above) can create a pleasant musicality to writing. Even a simple use of alliteration like “great gifts for writers” or “words that pack a punch” can add heft to your writing.
Example of Alliteration
Most people think of tongue twisters with a stressed syllable like “Peter Piper picked a pot of pickled peppers” when they think of alliteration. But did you know many famous writers throughout the ages have used alliteration in their titles?
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Romance Readers and Ridiculous Rascals… wait. That last one is not actually a thing. But it is alliterative!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this alliterative-filled introduction from V for Vendetta:
Anthropomorphism is when a writer gives a non-human animal or object human-like qualities.
Example of Anthropomorphism
In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Lumiere the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock, and the other enchanted residents of the Prince/Beast’s castle talk, walk, sing, and feel emotions just like people do. (Because they technically ARE people… fictional enchanted people, that is.)
3. Dramatic Irony
Audiences love dramatic irony, because they get to be “in the know.” That is, they know something that the characters IN the story do not. Hey, if you buy the book, you get privileges!
Example of Dramatic Irony
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, two men attempt to escape their responsibilities using the same fake name: Ernest. Only the audience knows the two tricksters’ real names are Jack and Algie. (A far cry from Ernest, for sure!)
The prefix “eu-” means “good” or “well,” so it makes sense that a “euphemism” is a “good way to talk about a bad thing.” Or, a “word or expression substituted for something else that is too harsh…”
Like when you say your nephew “just needs a bit of practice” when he plays the violin like a tortured cat.
Example of Euphemism
Because of humanity’s understandable aversion to death, we have come up with quite a few creative ways to describe death and dying:
- Pushing up daisies
- Going the way of the dinosaur
- Kicking the bucket
Flashbacks are scenes that show an event that happened in a character’s past, providing clues to the present story.
Example of Flashback
In Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie Vertigo, one key flashback scene was almost cut out of the picture entirely. (SPOILER ALERT: It’s the scene where we find out that the suicidal wife is actually an actress hired to hide the wife’s murder. The actress starts to write a confession letter, then rips it up.)
The writing on the wall…
A glimpse of a tombstone with your name on it…
Fingernail marks scratched in blood…
Not all foreshadowing is creepy, but they all warn or indicate something is coming in the future. You could say that foreshadowing is like the opposite of a flashback.
Example of Foreshadowing
The classic Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is peppered with foreshadowing examples throughout the story. In fact, the last twist in this tale is the very first line of the book: “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
(Of course, by the time you get to the end of the book, you’ve probably forgotten all about the first line. But that’s why Lee is a genius and the rest of us can only wonder in awe.)
A hyperbole is an exaggeration that a hearer or reader is not supposed to take seriously.
Example of Hyperbole
The great satirist Mark Twain wrote in Old Times on the Mississippi:
“I…could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.”
An onomatopoeia is a word that comes from the sound it represents, such as “achoo!” or “arrgh.”
Example of Onomatopoeia
Young children’s books are the motherlode of onomatopoeia examples. Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type has onomatopoeia right in the title. Same with Ross MacDonald’s Achoo! Bang! Crash! And Barry Gott’s Honk! Splat! Vroom!
An oxymoron is a popular literary device where seemingly contradictory words are connected. Fun fact: the word “oxymoron” is itself oxymoronic — it comes from two ancient Greek words meaning “sharp and stupid.”
Example of Oxymoron
One of the best (and famous) oxymoron examples is Simon and Garfunkel’s famous song “The Sounds of Silence”.
10. Point of View
Point of view is the perspective a writer chooses when writing. In fiction, you can have a first, second, or third person point of view.
First person uses pronouns like “me” or “I,” second person uses “you,” and third person uses “he/she” and looks at the character and story from the perspective of an outsider.
Note: Third person can be limited. The narrator can either only see inside the head of one character, or they can be omniscient — a Godlike narrator that can see everything that is going on.
Example of Point of View
In The Help, a novel about black maids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, the story is told from the first-person point of view of three women, looking at similar events from their own perspectives.
Take a metaphor, put it on steroids, throw in a dash of realism, and you have yourself an allegory: a figure of speech used to represent a large, complex (and often moral) message about real-world (i.e. nonfiction) events or issues.
Example of Allegory
Nothing screams “hypocritical tyrant” quite like fictional pigs in human clothing, declaring: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others!”
At least, that’s the deeper meaning George Orwell hoped to convey in Animal Farm, a fictional mirror of communism. Orwell certainly had a way with (dystopian) allegories!
An allusion is a device that the writer uses to refer, indirectly, to someone or something outside of the situation, such as a person, event, or thing in another (real or imagined) world.
Example of Allusion
You’ll find allusion examples just about everywhere you look. For instance, in the Big Bang Theory, the names of main characters Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter allude to the real-life TV producer, Sheldon Leonard. (Let’s hope that he did not share his fictional counterparts’ personalities.)
Anachronism is the time machine of literary devices. Anachronisms pop up when a writer accidentally (or purposefully) makes an error in the chronology of the writing.
It’s most often seen when writing features slang or technology that should not appear in the timeline of the story.
Example of Anachronism
In the famous “He got me invested in some kind of fruit company” scene from Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump unfolds a thank-you letter sporting Steve Job’s Apple logo.
But the letter in the movie was sent in 1975, while Apple didn’t go public in the real world until 1980. So Forrest Gump couldn’t have invested in the computer company as the movie portrayed it. (We still love you, Forrest!)
The anaphora is a literary device that emphasizes a word, word group, or phrase by repeating it at the beginning of a series of clauses or sentences.
Example of Anaphora
One of the longest opening lines by Charles Dickens (which a high school English teacher once directed me to memorize) is an excellent example of anaphora in action:
“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…”
(Thanks a lot, Dickens!)
Anastrophe is a literary device that alters the normal order of English speech. In other words, instead of subject-verb-object (“I like cats”), the sentence order becomes subject-object-verb (“I cats like”).
Poets use anastrophe to make rhyming easier, and prose writers use it to sound… wiser?
Example of Anastrophe
Who can talk about anastrophe without mentioning our favorite intergalactic mentor? That’s right, Yoda’s iconic speeches are fantastic examples of anastrophe:
- “Powerful you have become”
- “Named must be your fear before banish it you can.”
- “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
An aphorism is a short, witty saying that delivers wisdom with a punch. But in order for it to be an aphorism, it has to contain a universal truth, packed into a nutshell-sized statement.
Example of Aphorism
Benjamin Franklin was a master of aphorisms. Here is a prime selection from his treasure trove:
- Little strokes fell great oaks
- Strike while the iron is hot
- Fish and visitors smell in three days
An archetype is the original pattern, the prototype, the ideal model for a certain character or situation.
Example of Archetype
Classic literature is a fantastic domain for finding archetypes examples. For instance, in the epic poem, Beowulf, Grendel is the archetypal monster, a “descendant of Cain,” “creature of darkness,” and “devourer of our human kind.” (Yikes. Would not want to meet him in a dark alley!)
Sometimes, a writer leaves out conjunctions like and, but, or, for, and nor. This is not because s/he is forgetful. It’s because that’s what an asyndeton is: a group of phrases with the conjunctions left out, for rhythmic emphasis.
Example of Asyndeton
Here’s Abraham Lincoln beautifully demonstrating the power of the asyndeton:
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
(Notice the glaring omission of the word “and.”)
Example of Chiasmus
Apparently, early Greeks were quite fond of the chiasmus, or at least Socrates was:
“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”
Cliffhangers get their name from the effect they have on readers: making them feel as if a cruel, cruel writer has left them dangling off the edge of a lonely ledge.
We all know that feeling of reading WAY past our bedtime, because every chapter’s ending has us frantically flipping to find out what happens next. That’s a cliffhanger.
Example of Cliffhanger
Here’s a cliffhanger from Harry Potter:
“Harry crossed to his bedroom on tiptoe, slipped inside… and turned to collapse on his bed. The trouble was, there was already someone sitting on it.”
Want to know what happens next? You’ll have to read the book.
The word “colloquialism” would probably never be a colloquialism itself. That’s because colloquialism is a word, phrase, or expression that is used in daily, informal conversations by common people. Colloquialisms vary, depending on where you live.
Example of Colloquialism
The briefly popular 2012 meme series, “Sh*t X say,” are packed with examples of colloquialisms, such as these, er, jewels (?) from Episode 1 of “Sh*t Girls Say”:
- “Shut UP!”
- “Like, I’m not even joking right now.”
22. Cumulative Sentence
A cumulative sentence builds on a core idea (an independent clause, if you must know the literary term) by layering on chopped-up partial sentences (dependent clauses) and phrases, like a layer cake!
Example of Cumulative Sentence
“She finished the Game of Thrones marathon, exhausted yet exhilarated, full of grief that it was all over, itching to call her bestie to discuss her impressions, shocked that it was already nearly dawn.”
Diction is a fancy way of saying: “the words a writer chooses when talking to a specific audience.” Diction can be formal or informal, use jargon or regional slang, etc.
Example of Diction
An epigraph is a brief quote or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter that is put there to suggest the theme of said book or chapter.
Example of Epigraph
“For Beatrice — My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.”
“For Beatrice — When we first met, you were pretty, and I was lonely. Now I am pretty lonely.”
“For Beatrice — I cherished, you perished. The world’s been nightmarished.”
Technically, the poetic homage to the dead Beatrice in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is a dedication, not an epigraph. But since Beatrice is fictional (as is, in a sense, the author himself), and these darkly funny quotes set the tone for the Unfortunate Events quite well, one could make the case that these are, in fact, epigraphs.
Not to be confused with alliteration, the epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a series of clauses or sentences to add rhythm and/or emphasis.
Example of Epistrophe
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Don’t be mad once you see that he want it
If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
Beyonce, Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)
(My apologies for the earworm.)
26. Extended Metaphor
An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is extended. Just like I’m about to extend this definition: a metaphor developed in high detail and spread over a large passage of writing, from several lines, to a paragraph, to an entire work. (Done! Whew.)
Example of Extended Metaphor
In 2003, Will Ferrell told graduating Harvard-ians about his alma mater, the “University of Life” where he studied in the “School of Hard Knocks” the school colors were “black and blue,” he had office hours with the “Dean of Bloody Noses” and had to borrow his class notes from “Professor Knuckle Sandwich.”
An exposition is a literary device used to introduce background information about the story in a matter-of-fact way.
Example of Exposition
Because of the famous fiction writing rule, “show don’t tell,” many authors use dialogue and other tricks to convey need-to-know information. But some very successful writers continue to use plain old straightforward exposition like:
28. Frame Story
A frame story is exactly what it sounds like: A story that frames another story. In other words, it’s a story that introduces another smaller story inside, or the story outside the story within the story… oh, never mind. Just see the example below.
Example of a Frame Story
The best example of a frame story is The Princess Bride, which author William Goldman claims to have “translated” from an old “Florinese” story his father told him.
The movie version also uses a frame story: A grandfather reads his grandson a bedtime story (The Princess Bride, of course!).
If I have to explain what humor is to you, I’m afraid you might need something a bit stronger than 57 literary devices to… Oh, what’s that? (My editor says I still have to give you a definition. Contractual obligations, and all that.)
Fine, fine. Here it is: humor is a literary technique that amuses readers and makes them laugh. (There, happy?)
Example of Humor
I mean, technically this whole entire article is just one big ball of fun, but… what’s that? Okay, alright. Official humor examples, here we go:
- “It’s just a flesh wound!” — The Black Knight, after getting both arms chopped off by the protagonist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- “‘Greater good?’ I am your wife! I’m the greatest good you’re ever gonna get!” — Frozone’s wife’s in response to Frozone’s desire to bail on dinner to save the world in The Incredibles
- “A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” — Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless
No, it’s not a fancy name for a Greek hippo. Rather, a hypophora is a literary device where a writer asks a question and then immediately answers it.
Example of Hypophora
Here’s a philosophical example from the timeless children’s novel Charlotte’s Web:
“After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”
Imagery is descriptive or figurative language used to evoke near-physical sensations in a reader’s mind. Well-written imagery helps readers almost see, hear, taste, touch, and feel what is going on in the story.
Example of Imagery
This evocative imagery example is an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Preludes, which uses lots of figurative language:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet.
Irony is one of the trickiest literary devices to define, best grasped through absorbing examples. But a workable definition goes something like this:
Irony is using a word or phrase that usually signifies the opposite of what the speaker intends to say, for comedic or emphatic purposes. Irony can also be an event that works out contrary to the expected, and can often be funny.
So enough with dry definitions, let’s see if these irony examples can explain better:
Example of Irony
There are three kinds of irony, one of which (dramatic irony) we discussed earlier:
- Dramatic irony: In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows that Juliet isn’t dead, but asleep. Romeo, who doesn’t know, kills himself.
- Situational irony: In the animated film Ratatouille, it’s ironic that a rat (which most people don’t like to see in kitchens) ends up being the master chef in a kitchen.
- Verbal irony: When Beauty and the Beast’s Belle is trying to get away from an odious suitor’s proposal, she says, “I just don’t deserve you!”
Isocolon refers to a piece of writing that uses a series of clauses, phrases, or sentences that are grammatically equal in length, creating a parallel structure that gives it a sort of pleasant rhythm.
Examples of Isocolon
- “Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered).” — Julius Caesar
- “You’ve got a lot to live. Pepsi’s got a lot to give.” — Pepsi, circa 1969
- “You win some, you lose some.” — Unknown
Juxtaposition is a literary device writers use to place two highly contrasting things together to emphasize the difference.
Example of Juxtaposition
A fun example of juxtaposition is in Pixar’s Up: Carl Fredricksen is an old, curmudgeonly widower, while his unwanted sidekick Russell is a young, naively energetic schoolboy. That’s what makes the movie so much fun: the contrast (read: juxtaposition) between old, jaded Carl and young, innocent Russell.
Litotes, from a Greek word meaning “simple,” refers to an affirmation where you say something by negating the contrary.
Example of Litotes
In A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift prefaces his proposal to cure poverty by eating poor people’s children with a litotes:
“I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
Having been assured by a very knowing American…that a young healthy child well nursed is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food…I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust.”
A malapropism is when a character (unintentionally and hilariously) mistakes a word in place of a similar-sounding word. The concept comes from a character (Mrs. Malaprop) who liked to use big words incorrectly in a comedic play by English playwright Richard Sheridan.
Example of a Malapropism
The beloved children’s series Amelia Bedelia describes a maid who takes her bosses’ instructions a bit too literally. For example: sketching her bosses’ drapes when asked to “draw the drapes.”
Ah, the metaphor! A favorite tool of writers everywhere. The metaphor is a literary device where something is compared to a dissimilar thing without using a comparison word such as “like” or “as.” It’s used in poetry, nonfiction books, blog posts, you name it.
Example of a Metaphor
In Pixar’s Inside Out, the emotions Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness live and work in Headquarters, an obvious metaphor comparing the brain to a technological control center.
Metonymy is the practice of using part of a thing to represent something related to it. In other words, it’s the use of one word as a stand in for another, bigger concept.
Example of Metonymy
Mark Twain provides us with a simple metonymy example in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man with a shotgun.”
Here, a “body” refers not to a corpse, but to a person. A corpse, after all, would probably have a hard time wielding a shotgun.
Mood is the feeling an audience gets from consuming a piece of writing. The words a writer chooses creates an atmosphere that evokes powerful emotions from the reader.
Example of Mood
Children’s writer Roald Dahl is a master of creating whimsical, funny, child-friendly moods in his books via extraordinary situations (a boy wins a golden ticket to a magical chocolate factory) and a silly invented vocabulary:
“Don’t gobblefunk around with words” — The BFG
A motif is a sound, action, figure, image, or other literary element or symbol that recurs throughout a literary work to help develop the theme.
Example of Motif
The book/movie Ready Player One is stuffed with pop motifs from the 1980s. The entire plot revolves around a virtual 1980s world, which contrasts with the main character’s bleak real-life.
A paradox seems to make two mutually contradictory things true at the same time.
Example of Paradox
In the tragic revenge story, Hamlet, the title character says something that sounds paradoxical:
“I must be cruel to be kind.”
Meaning, he must kill his stepfather (cruel) in order to avenge his father’s murder (kind).
Personification: giving humanlike characteristics to nonhuman animals or objects. Don’t confuse it with anthropomorphism, which goes farther, making the nonhuman character act and appear human.
Example of Personification
Here’s an example of personification from Kevin J. Duncan, Smart Blogger’s Editor-in-Chief:
“That giant plate of bacon is begging me to eat it.”
Polysyndeton is a literary device that uses conjunctions quickly, one right after the other, often without punctuation, in order to play with the rhythm of the writing.
Example of Polysyndeton
In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou uses polysyndeton when she writes:
“Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets…”
Repetition is the grandaddy of many other devices on this list, such as anaphora, epistrophe, and polysyndeton above.
In other words, repetition is the reiteration of something (word, phrase, sentence, etc.) that has already been said (for emphasis).
Example of Repetition
Repetition is frequently used in song lyrics, such as the iconic Beatles song, Let It Be:
“When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be…”
Satire uses humor, ridicule, irony, and exaggeration to expose and criticize something ridiculous, stupid, or bad. Satire can be light and funny, or dark and judgmental.
There are three types of satire: Juvenalian (viciously attacking a single target), Menippean (equally harsh, but more general), and Horatian (softer, more humorous).
Example of Satire
The funny-offensive show South Park is packed to the brim with biting satire examples that riff on loads of sensitive topics in a politically incorrect fashion, from politics to religion to Hollywood.
A simile is like a metaphor, except that it compares dissimilar objects using the words “like” or “as” (whereas metaphors compare directly, without any helping words).
A choice simile can be funny, memorable, surprising, or all three!
Example of Simile
Sometimes the most memorable similes are the strangest ones, like this collection of similes from Song of Solomon in the Bible:
“Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are a flock of sheep just shorn…your lips are like a scarlet ribbon…”
A soliloquy is a speech given by a character in the absence of hearers. Soliloquies are particularly popular in plays, which don’t usually have the luxury of omniscient narration to reveal characters’ inner thoughts.
Example of Soliloquy
Who can talk about soliloquy examples without mentioning the Bard’s epic romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet?
“Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo!” says Juliet, speaking (or so she thinks) to herself.
Alfred Hitchcock. Lee Child. Steven King. All are storytellers who create suspense, a feeling of heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and excitement.
Example of Suspense
One of the most intense, anxiety-inducing examples of suspense is the famous (or should I say infamous?) shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho kept watchers curling their toes for 45 seconds while the innocent-and-soon-to-be-dead Marion takes a shower with a killer lurking in the background.
Symbolism. A favorite device of literature teachers everywhere. Symbolism is, of course, when writers use symbols (images, objects, etc.) to represent bigger, deeper ideas, qualities, and so on.
Example of Symbolism
Harry Potter’s lightning scar, the Ring of Doom from the eponymous Lord of the Rings, the mockingjay from Hunger Games… there are examples of symbolism everywhere you look!
A synecdoche is a literary device where a part stands in for the whole, or vice versa. It is not to be confused with metonymy, which is when something represents a related concept. (See the earlier example for metonymy.)
Example of Synecdoche
In Julius Caesar, Mark Antony asks his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” to “lend [him] their ears.” Thankfully, his audience recognized this metonymy and did not interpret the literal meaning of Antony’s words. Otherwise, we would have a very different play on our hands.
A tautology is a literary device often used by accident. It involves saying the same thing twice, but phrasing it differently the second time.
A tautology is something a child might say: “I want it because I want it!”
Example of Tautology
In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, “gently rapping” and “faintly tapping” are redundant:
“But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door”
From the Greek word meaning “to cut,” tmesis is a literary device that cuts a word or phrase into two parts by inserting a word in between them.
Example of Tmesis
Here are two silly samples from Pygmalion’s Eliza Doolittle:
Tone can be tricky to define. Officially, in writing, tone is the attitude a writer has toward the subject or the audience. It’s the writer’s viewpoint, conveyed through his or her word choice.
Example of Tone
Notice how the choice of emotional words, pacing, and use of other literary elements in this excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart create a guilty, anxious tone:
“I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not…I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro…O God! What COULD I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore!”
A tragicomedy is exactly what it sounds like: a story (play or novel) that is both tragic and comedic.
Example of Tragicomedy
Having mastered both tragedy and comedy, is it such a stretch for Shakespeare to have mastered tragicomedy as well? Think: The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, which all blend humor and suffering in a reflection of real life.
Verisimilitude is a fancy-schmancy word for saying something fake looks real. Example: writing about a fictitious person, thing, or event, that seems almost true, even if it’s far-fetched.
Example of Verisimilitude
Fantasy stories are the best fodder for finding verisimilitude. For example, prolific fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson often creates convoluted magic systems based on things like color, strict rules, constraints, and consequences that almost makes them seem possible.
A vignette is a short scene or episode — a moment-in-the-life description. Unlike a short story, it doesn’t have a narrative arc or all the elements of a plot.
Example of Vignette
In 2009, Pixar put out a series of video vignettes to promote their movie, Wall-E:
- “WALL-E meets a football”
- “Wall-E cup shuffle”
- “Wall-E meets a magnet”
Here, check them out:
Zoomorphism is when a writer gives animal-like characteristics to something (human, inanimate object, etc.) that is not an animal. It’s basically the animal form of personification.
Example of Zoomorphism
Want a terrific example of zoomorphism? Just check out Spider-Man, Catwoman, Black Panther, and dozens other comic book superheroes.
What to Do With Your Literary Device Knowledge
Whew! That was a doozy. Congratulations on making it through the entire list.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
“Do I need to memorize all of these literary terms?”
No, no you don’t.
“Do I even have to know them by name?”
But tell you what…
Go through this literary elements list again and just let everything soak in. Then next time you’re reading a book, blog post, poem, magazine article, an iambic pentameter, or even a tabloid, try to spot the different literary devices hiding inside.
I promise, they’re there.
And next time you write, see if you can weave in a common literary device or two, for emphasis, for art, or just for grins and giggles.
As you learn to notice and absorb literary text into your craft — the way a kung-fu master absorbs the basic foundations of his form — you will find yourself becoming a more versatile, expressive, skillful writer.
It’s a bit like having a variety of colors to choose from as a painter. Sure, you can draw a decent portrait with just a stick of charcoal, but imagine what you could do if you had an entire palette.
That’s what literary devices can do for you, if you take the time to pick them up.
So take another peek at this list now and then, and practice sneaking lit devices into your own work.
You’ll be amazed how much clearer, stronger, and addicting your creative writing will become.
Editors will grin and nod as they read through your work.
Bloggers will fight to snap up your guest posts.
Readers will mob you for your skills.
And you will smile like Mona Lisa, master of the secrets of the universe (or at least this list of literary devices).