While they may seem confusing, literary devices are simply different techniques that writers employ to make their writing come to life They can be used to help writers make a point, to bring attention to what the writer is saying, or to bring characters to life. They actually serve multiple different purposes in writing, and how or why a writer chose to use a particular literary device is often asked about when students are asked to interpret a passage from a reading. While those answers may be subjective, what constitutes a literary device is not. Therefore, it is important to familiarize yourself with the full range of literary devices.
Read on to learn more about some of the most commonly used literary devices. In this guide, we provide you with definitions of literary devices, let you know where they are likely to appear, and provide you with examples.
It is not really necessary for students to understand or be able to recognize literary devices in order for them to comprehend the reading or to interpret a simple passage on a superficial level. However, tackling a reading with a firm knowledge of literary devices can help students who are doing a deeper level interpretation. It can also help students interpret more complex readings. For example similes and metaphors are two commonly used literary devices, but, while understanding the comparisons made in similes may be simple, interpreting metaphors might be more complex.
In this overview, we cover all of the literary devices that students are likely to encounter in high school and in college or university level English courses. While we will define and provide examples for all of them, there are ten literary devices that all students should be able to recognize. They include: foreshadowing, symbolism, simile, metaphor, imagery, point of view allegory, flashbacks, juxtaposition, and motif. Keep an eye out for them when looking over the rest of the literary devices. As you go through the list, you will notice that there are some similarities between the devices. For example, allegory and symbolism are related concepts; in fact, the presence of symbols may be a hint to the reader that the story is an allegory. Likewise, many students are confused about the concepts of simile and metaphor. That is because similes are really just a sub-type of metaphor, but they have their own specific requirements that differentiates them from other metaphors. Therefore, if you think the author of a passage that you encounter is using multiple literary devices, you are probably right.
An allegory uses the different elements of a story to represent more abstract ideas or themes. Therefore, it is fair to say that allegories exist on multiple levels. There is the surface level, where the events of the story are actually occurring, but there is also a deeper level, where the events are representative of a meaning.
Example: George Orwell’s Animal Farm is probably the best known allegory in modern literature. On its surface, it is the story of farm animals taking over the farm, but the animals are representative of the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union.
One of our favorite literary devices, alliteration refers to a series of words that all begin with the same starting sound. Alliteration can often be found in poetry or in works that are meant to be spoken or performed, not merely read. While the phrase usually refers to more than two words, you can find hints of alliteration in all types of literature. Many students are surprised when they realize how much alliteration is found in the comic book genre: Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Clark Kent, etc.
Example: Bouncing baby boy is a popular example of a phrase with alliteration.
An allusion refers to an indirect reference to something else. They are very common in literature, but they may not always be noticeable because the of the reader’s own background or experience.
Example: Betrayed with a kiss refers to Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss and sums up someone who is betrayed by a trusted friend or confidant. Cinderella story refers to someone who has gone from rags to riches, like Cinderella in fairy tales.
This is when something occurs in a story that happened or should have happened at a different point in time. Usually, this is an error, like when an author references an event that happened after the other events described in a work of fiction. However, it can also be an intentional device, used to highlight something in the story.
Example: The anachronism most people might know about actually occurs in the TV series Game of Thrones, when there is a Starbucks cup visible in one of the scenes. Even though GOT did not occur at an actual point in human history, there are no Starbucks in that universe.
This refers to the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each sentence or clause in a series. This is both a literary device and a rhetorical device. The goal is to bring attention to what is being said.
Example: Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech is probably the best known example of anaphora in modern speech.
This refers to anytime the typical sentence structure is reversed. If this concept is difficult to understand, encourage yourself to remember Yoda in Star Wars. Some of his most famous quotes are examples of anastrophe.
Example: “When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not.” “Wars not make one great.” “Luminous beings are we.”
This refers to applying human traits to any non-human thing. This is not done figuratively, but literally. The non-human thing can be something that is living, like an animal, or a non-living object.
Example: Mickey Mouse is an anthropomorphized mouse.
An aphorism is a concise way to state an accepted truth. They are often repeated in later works, but may be found for the first time in a specific work.
Example: The early bird gets the worm.
When a writer omits conjunctions and just connects the phrases with commas, instead. This can be done for several reasons, such as improving rhyme or rhythm, but may also be done to create emphasis.
Example: I came, I saw, I conquered.
This one is difficult to understand without referring to the examples. It is when two or more parallel clauses are inverted. The parallel clauses can use synonyms, but they can also use contrasting concepts. The important thing to keep in mind is that the word order will be inverted in the second clause. It is also important to note that chiasmus is an example of another literary device, antimetabole, which involves the inverted repetition of words or phrases.
Example: Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
This refers to the use of informal or casual language, including slang, in writing. It can be difficult to spot when the informal or casual language is from the same time and place as the reader.
Example: Y’all is a colloquialism for you all that signals the speaker is from the southern part of the United States, while youse guys means the same thing but signals that the speaker is from the northeastern part of the United States.
When the other puts another person’s quotation or work at the beginning of their text or the beginning of a chapter, this is known as an epigraph.
Example: Mary Shelley uses epigraphs in Frankenstein.
Repeated words or phrases at the end of phrases. It is similar to anaphora, but anaphora refers more to introductory words or phrases.
Example: 1 Corinthians 13 contains a well-known epistrophe: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
Euphemisms are used as ways to indirectly discuss topics that might be difficult, embarrassing, or unpleasant.
Example: Passed away is a euphemism for death. Slept together is a euphemism for sex.
This refers to when a story goes back-in-time to reveal earlier events. (It is not the present-day characters actually time traveling to an earlier time).
Example: The movie The Usual Suspects is told through a combination of present-day police interrogation and flashback scenes.
Foreshadowing is when the story contains hints at events that will happen later. This can create suspense in the story.
Example: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is full of foreshadowing that the lovers will die. In Of Mice and Men, George has to shoot an out-of-control dog, foreshadowing his eventual murder of Lennie.
This is an exaggerated statement, but not just a little exaggeration; for it to be hyperbole, the statement has to be almost outrageously exaggerated.
Example: I am so hungry; I could eat a horse.
When a person asks a question, then immediately answers the same question, this is hypophora. It is not usually seen in conversations with other people, but is prominent when characters are speaking to themselves. Look for hypophora in soliloquys and speeches.
Example: Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1 uses hypophora in his speech about honor: What is honor? A word. What is in that word ‘honor’? What is that ‘honor’? Air. A trim reckoning!
This refers to any use of very descriptive language. The goal is for the reader to be able to picture whatever is being described in vivid detail. However, just as there are multiple senses, there different types of imagery; it may involve sight, sound, smell, taste, or feeling. Imagery also often uses other literary devices to help be more descriptive.
Example: Alfred Tennyson’s poem Summer Night is a great example of imagery.
This literary device can be very tricky for people to identify, because the term irony is often used incorrectly in everyday speech. In fact, there is an entire song about things that the singer calls ironic, when really they are unfortunate. Irony refers to things being different than how they seem. There are three different types of irony: dramatic, situation, and verbal. Dramatic irony is when the readers know something that the characters do not yet know; situational irony is when something unexpected happens, and verbal is when someone says something but means the opposite.
Examples: Othello trusting Iago, when the audience knows Iago is scheming against him, is an example of dramatic irony. O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, in which the wife cuts off her hair to buy a chain for her husband’s watch, which he has sold in order to buy combs for her hair, is one of the best examples of situational irony. Someone saying, “That’s just great!” when something bad happens is using verbal irony.
Two or more phrases with the same structure, rhythm, and length. This literary device is often used in advertising. The term cola refers to the individual phrases, so that isocolons may also be referenced the number of colons: bicolon (2), tricolon (3), or tetracolon (4).
Example: Bicolon: Buy one, get one. Tricolon: Veni, vidi, vici.
Juxtaposition refers to putting two things together in order to highlight how different they are. It can occur in a single passage or the comparison can be a theme or motif that runs throughout an entire work of literature.
Example: Shakespeare’s use of light and dark imagery throughout Romeo and Juliet is a great example of juxtaposition.
Litotes refer to the use of double negatives to convey the opposite of the negated word.
Example: You’re not wrong to mean that you are right. Not bad to mean good.
This is when a similar-sounding word is used to incorrectly replace the right word in a sentence.
Example: That is a mute point. In this sentence, the correct word moot, which means debatable, has been replaced by the word mute, which means unable to speak.
A metaphor is a comparison between two things, not using like or as. A metaphor suggests that one thing is another thing. Metaphors can be simple, but they can also be extended.
Example: Her teeth were pearls.
A form of symbolism, but on a big level. It is where a single object might come to stand for an entire concept.
Example: Flags represent their respective countries.
A dominant idea or distinct feature in a work or literature or other work of art. Motifs often contain other forms of symbolism in them.
Example: In Hamlet, there is an incest motif that is evident in how Laertes speaks to Ophelia, in Gertrude and Claudius’s incestuous marriage, and possibly even in Hamlet’s sexual feelings for his mother.
This refers to how the author wants the audience to feel about a subject. Two authors may approach essentially similar storylines with very different moods. For example, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the idea of a vampire that uses his sexuality to prey on vulnerable young women is described as distasteful, abhorrent, and scary. In contrast, in the Twilight novels, a vampire who does the same is described in romantic and favorable terms.
Words that sound like what they are.
Examples: Click, clack, whiz, snap, buzz, splash, splat, gurgle, and wham are all examples of onomatopoeia.
This is when two opposite words describe a single thing.
Example: Bittersweet, giant shrimp, alone together, passive aggressive
A paradox is an absurd or illogical statement that ends up being true. A paradox can also refer to a situation that seems absurd, but is true.
Example: Be cruel to be kind.
Personification is often confused with anthropomorphism because they have similar concepts. However, the two things are not the same. In personification, the writer uses human traits to describe non-human things. However, the thing being described does not become more human.
Example: A person who treats their dog like a human being is personifying it, but the dog does not become more human in the process.
This is the perspective from which the story is being told. To figure out point of view, it is important to know who is telling a story and whose story is being told. There are three main points of view: first person, second person, and third person. In a first person point of view, the narrator is telling their own story. In a second person point of view, the narrator is describing the reader’s actions. In a third person point of view, the narrator is telling the stories of other characters. Point of view is not always clear; sometimes narrators may tell stories from multiple perspectives.
Example: Most detective fiction is told from a first person point of view. The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais is a good example of first person point of view. There are not a ton of examples of books written in second person, though the author Pam Houston has several great short stories that are written in a second person perspective. The Night Circus is an example of a book written from the second person perspective. Most books are written from a third person perspective, with the narrator being either an omniscient or semi-omniscient person who may or may not also be a character in the book. The Harry Potter books are written in third person.
This is the use of several conjunctions as part of a lengthy statement. Not grammatically correct, this is done to emphasize whatever the author is saying in the sentence and probably relay some information about whoever is doing the speaking.
Example: All I want for Christmas is new boots and a purse and a necklace and a new TV and a PS4 and Airpods. See how the repeated use of the word and highlights the speaker’s greediness? For dinner we could order Chinese or pizza or barbecue or Italian or burgers or Thai or Greek. See how the repeated use of the word or highlights the speaker’s indecision?
Repeating the same words or phrases to highlight an idea. Repetition can be a tricky concept. Accidental repetition that does not serve a purpose actually detracts from the quality of writing. However, intentional repetition can be used to build atmosphere and suspense in a story.
Example: In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, the raven repeatedly says, “Nevermore.” It is the only thing the raven says, and the repetition of it helps build up the atmosphere of the story.
Satire uses humor, irony, ridicule, and exaggeration to make fun of an aspect of society or human nature.
Example: Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein the writer suggests that the solution to poverty is to eat the poor, is probably the most oft-cited example of satire.
A simile is a comparison between two things, but it does not say that two things are the same, just that they are alike. While it is possible to have a simile that makes this comparison in other ways, most similes will contain the words like or as.
Example: Not talking about his ex-wife is like ignoring an elephant in the room. A metaphor would remove the comparison language and simply say: his ex-wife is the elephant in the room.
A soliloquy is when a character speaks their thoughts aloud, to themselves. It is an opportunity for self-reflection. This is a tool used in plays, because it gives characters on stage an opportunity to explain their inner thoughts to an audience. It is not necessary in most other types of writing because the narrator can explain a character’s feelings. Students should expect to encounter soliloquys in Shakespeare’s plays.
Example: Hamlet’s to be or not to be passage is probably the most famous soliloquy in all of English literature.
This involves using objects or symbols to represent something else. The symbols can occur a single time or run through the play.
Example: In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan symbolizes Jesus, Edmund symbolizes Judas, and the White Witch symbolizes either Satan or evil.
This involves the use of the part to represent a whole. This can be a difficult one to understand, but the examples should explain it.
Example: Ask for her hand in marriage. Obviously, they want to marry the whole person, not just her hand. Wheels may refer to an entire vehicle.
This refers to the author’s perspective about a topic, which might be different than the mood of the piece. Tone can be difficult to discern if the audience and the author are not on the same page.
Example: Most of Tim Burton’s work is a combination of whimsy and horror, but could be considered overtly frightening by some people.
Understanding literary devices is important because it helps students go beyond a surface reading and really begin to analyze the contents of the story. Many works of fiction, especially works that have become classic, have several layers of meaning. Being unable to recognize literary devices and understand how they shape the interpretation of the story can leave students with only the most superficial understanding of the story.
While it is unlikely that an author would choose a particular literary device because they want that literary device in their works, they do choose particular literary devices to help achieve the feeling and meaning that they want from their works. Without literary devices like metaphor or simile, descriptions in writing would be very dull. Without symbolism, much of writing would come across as cumbersome and pedantic. By using these tools, writers can make their ideas more vivid, easier to understand, and more memorable. By recognizing these devices, you can unlock the full potential of a piece of literature.