Literary Devices for Writers
As novelists, our job is to create a story that captivates readers from the get-go.
Literary devices such as metaphor, irony, backstory, et al, can help readers better understand, feel, or see a greater meaning to a piece of writing.
But with many literary devices to choose from, how do you best use them?
Overused, they distract readers.
And if clichéd, they defeat their own purposes.
But without them, our writing can fall flat.
Confusing? Let’s start with the basics…
What is a Literary Device?
It’s any technique used to elevate writing beyond its literal meaning to better tell a story.
Literary devices transform writing from its straightforward, literal meaning to delicately nudge readers toward how to read the story.
Literary devices help trigger the theaters of the readers’ mind, keeping them turning the pages.
My team and I have compiled a list of common Literary Devices you can use with care.
26 Literary Devices
This narrative device uses characters, plot, and setting to communicate a deeper meaning.
An allegory describes abstract concepts, ideas, or themes in an approachable, more easily understood manner.
The Tortoise and the Hare
This is a series of words in succession that start with the same letter or sound.
Many nursery rhymes and children’s books use alliteration, but it can also be used to create memorable prose — and character names.
She sells seashells by the seashore
Benjamin Button, Peter Parker, Lois Lane
Literally meaning “out of time” or sequence, this device places people, events, objects, customs, or languages outside their time periods.
An example would be Jane Austen using a cell phone.
Intentional errors in chronology are almost exclusively used for humor. Otherwise, anachronisms are the result of bad research.
This device compares a complex or abstract idea with a simple or concrete one to make it more easily understood.
Use analogy to break down complex ideas.
“Trying to find a needle in a haystack
“Life is like a box of chocolates”
This is when animals or inanimate objects display human traits. It allows writers to make characters more relatable, tell stories beyond a human perspective, and add symbolism.
In A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain, the protagonist canine expresses shame, happiness, and fear.
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman anthropomorphizes technology and media to comment on modern lifestyles and values.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the Caterpillar smokes, crosses his arms, and speaks.
A universally accepted truth or astute observation stated in a brief, clever way.
Alfred Lord Tennyson: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Yoda from Star Wars: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Backstory is what happens before the story begins. Authors use backstory to reveal history, provide context, or reveal a character’s personality or motivations.
Tip: Hint at backstory, layering it into the action.
“We’ll likely run into a shootout,” John said, fingering the scar on his side.
Notice how the author subtly avoids explicitly explaining the scar.
The use of informal or casual language, particularly in dialogue.
Colloquialisms help writers base dialogue on how people actually talk. This literary device makes the writing more authentic as it distinguishes ages, ethnic or geographical backgrounds, and dialects.
“I didn’t want to go back no more. I had stopped cussing, because the widow didn’t like it; but now I took to it again because pap hadn’t no objections… But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it.” — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
An indirect way to express something considered inappropriate.
Euphemisms occur primarily in dialogue.
“Put to sleep” or “put down” rather than “kill”
“Downsizing” rather than “moving to smaller quarters”
“In a better place” or “passed away” for “died”
“Economically disadvantaged” for “poor”
“Lady of the evening” for “prostitute”
“Negative cash flow” for “broke”
When the narrator jumps back in time ostensibly to provide context to a character or the plot.
Flashbacks have generally fallen out of favor and are replaced with more subtle backstory. Too often, flashbacks are accompanied by the cliché of a character dozing off or daydreaming and having to be jarred back to the present after a recitation of past events
The movie Forrest Gump consists of a series of flashbacks.
In the novel Gone Girl, every other chapter is a flashback.
The children’s movie Up features the main character reliving memories of his wife. These help the viewer understand actions not explained through dialogue.
Foreshadowing is hinting at something that comes later in your story (without giving it away).
This technique creates suspense and tension. It captures the reader’s attention through their curiosity — keeping them interested as they continue to find new pieces to the puzzle.
In chapter one of Left Behind, protagonist Rayford Steele reminisces about his wife’s new obsession with the end of the world and the Rapture prophecies from the Bible. Before the end of the chapter, this occurs.
Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect.
You can use hyperbole to:
- Emphasize the significance of a statement
- Create a humorous or dramatic effect
- Exaggerate a point
- Show contrast
- Heighten a reader’s attention
I almost died when I heard that.
I was climbing the walls.
Words and phrases that appeal to the senses — sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste.
Imagery helps paint pictures in readers’ minds. But beware: Too much imagery or flowery language can distract readers.
Imagery, done well, follows the rule of show, don’t tell, and uses stronger verbs to avoid choppy writing.
The stench of refuse rose as a cloud over the dump.
Leaves crackled under the legionnaires’ boots.
A literary device that highlights the difference between what is and how things appear.
Types of literary irony:
- Dramatic (when readers know what will happen before characters do)
- Situational (readers expect a certain outcome, then are surprised)
- Verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said)
A religious leader caught embezzling
An umpire cheating
A marriage counselor divorcing
Places two or more contrasting elements (characters, scenes, words, themes, concepts, etc.) next to one another to highlight their differences.
Authors use juxtaposition to compare the protagonist to the antagonist or create suspense by inserting a character into an incongruous setting that induces fear.
A group of children prepared to sing for their parents take a wrong turn backstage and wind up locked in a scary room.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the creature in the story learns English from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
When similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts.
These are most often used for comedic effect or in science fiction when an alien might be learning English or human euphemisms.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a character uses comprehended for apprehended and auspicious for suspicious.
In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno refers to Auschwitz as “Out-with” and the Führer as “the fury.”
A comparison of two unrelated things without the use of like or as.
Though they sometimes appear exaggerated, metaphors help explain ideas and can create powerful imagery.
“Conscience is a man’s compass.” — Vincent Van Gogh
“The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world.” — Lord of the Flies
A recurring image that bears symbolic significance to the story — repeated words, numbers, phrases, topics, situations, symbols, concepts, sounds, smells, colors, or objects.
In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, imprisonment serves as one of the motifs. Every character faces it in some way.
In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, old-fashioned small-town values serve as a motif.
A word that sounds like the noise it describes. Use onomatopoeia to create rhythm, appeal to the reader’s senses, add texture, and inject emphasis.
Buzz, Zap, Splat, Boom, Splash, Zing, Crank, Whoosh, Bang, Creak, Murmur, Gargle, Rumble, Click, Vroom, Whiz, Snap, Grunt.
Words that appear intrinsically contradictory, used to highlight the dual nature of a concept. It can serve as a tool for humor, irony, and sarcasm.
This is not to be confused with paradox or juxtaposition, as an oxymoron is simply a play on words.
A true statement that appears contradictory.
Paradox derives from the Greek paradoxon, which means “beyond belief.”
In literature, paradoxes can elicit humor, illustrate themes, and provoke readers to think critically.
Remember, while these statements are contradictory, they remain true.
Less is more
The beginning of the end
You have to spend money to make money
The assigning of human characteristics to inanimate objects.
Unlike anthropomorphism, personification means the behavior of the thing does not actually change. Its personhood resides in figurative language only.
The teapot sputtered and groaned.
The wind whistled past the window.
Reiterating a word or phrase to make it more memorable. Use repetition sparingly and strategically to add rhythm to your writing.
Repetition can emphasize a point or create a distinct atmosphere, something horror writers often use to make readers feel trapped alongside the main character.
“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” — Oscar Wilde
“If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired, with enthusiasm.” — Vince Lombardi
The literary device used to make fun of human society or nature, usually through exaggeration, ridicule, or irony.
Writers use satire to drive, change, or call out a wrong by making fun of the powers that be.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a model of modern satire used to expose the abuse of power in a totalitarian society.
Unlike a metaphor, a simile does not assert that two things are the same, but that they are alike by use of "like" or "as."
“Cool as a cucumber”
“Cold as ice”
“Sly like a fox”
Gives words, people, locations, or abstract ideas figurative meanings different from their literal sense.
Authors use symbolism to convey a broader message. Symbolism can be a motif or be used to foreshadow.
Some say that in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the green light to symbolize Gatsby’s materialism and unrealistic dreams.
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s main character, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear the letter A, for adulteress, symbolizing sin and the loss of innocence.
How to Best Use Literary Devices
Resist the urge to employ a literary technique to make your writing look more sophisticated.
Forced use of literary devices:
- Muddles your story
- Complicates your creative process
- Frustrates your reader
Literary devices, like what you learn through research, are like seasoning. They’re not the main course, but they can enhance the reading experience.
Click here for my proven step-by-step process on How to Write a Book.