Literary Devices: 33 Must-Know Definitions and Examples
If “literary devices” sounds like a throwback to something you slept through in your English Lit 101 class, you’re not alone. Maybe breaking down the finer points of metaphor, perspective, and juxtaposition sounds like a fast track to sucking all the fun out of actually enjoying writing. On the other hand, it might surprise you to learn that these literary devices are present in all stories, from epic poetry to Saturday morning cartoons to those guilty-pleasure paperbacks you pick up at the airport and then “accidentally” leave behind on the plane.
If you’re reading, watching, or listening to a story and find yourself engaged for even a moment… that’s literary devices at work. They’re tools that the writer uses to engage with the reader on a visceral level, to make them look at the story—and the world around them through the story—in a completely different way. Here we’ll show you the sorts of storytelling tools you have available to you and how to use literary devices to create powerful stories.
Literary devices are techniques that make readers engage with stories
Literary devices are tools and techniques that a writer uses when crafting their story that make the writing go beyond the literal meaning of the words on the page. These techniques take the story beyond the basics of beginning, middle, and end, to the more complex and satisfying levels of mood, flavor, narrative, and meaning.
There are many kinds of literary devices that writers can use to impart different effects to their writing. The skilled writer uses them to create a powerful, lasting work of art; and without them, a story would be much more basic, less enjoyable, and less memorable.
In other words, literary devices are the techniques that turn a literal, step-by-step retelling of events into a rich, engaging, and memorable piece of literature.
Are literary devices the same as literary elements?
You’ll sometimes hear these terms being used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. We’ve looked at how literary elements are the structural skeleton of our story; you can think of them as the blank canvas, the first washes of colour, the rough outlines that help us understand the shapes we’re seeing and what they have the potential to become.
Literary devices are everything that gives these outlines life and form. In a painting, literary devices would be the play of light, shadow, and perspective; the use of contrasting and complimentary colour theory; the cool stuff you do with your sparkly gel pens at the very end that makes the finished piece really jump out. They’re tools that the writer uses—sometimes bold, masterful turns and sometimes nothing more than small nudges—to guide and engage the reader.
Or, consider a house. Literary elements are the house’s structure: They’re the foundation, the beams, the drywall, the roof. Without these elements there’s no physical house. Literary devices are what you do to a a building to turn it from a house into a home: they’re the wallpaper you select, the style of furniture, the books on the shelf, the comfy couch, the good smells in the kitchen.
You probably won’t use all of the literary devices we’re going to show you here in your own work. Most writers will come back to the same ones again and again, mastering them as they keep using them. This is what becomes their distinctive storytelling style, or voice. Having a basic understanding of the ideas on this literary devices list, however, will help you see why other storytellers make the choices they do so that you can begin developing a storytelling voice of your own.
33 literary devices you can use to strengthen your writing
Once you’ve formed the bones of your story, you can use these literary devices to add shape and style to your work. It’s worth it to explore all of these literary devices in your own writing, though you’ll likely find a handful of them that become your writer’s toolkit—devices that you come back to again and again. As you grow in your skill, these literary devices will become a part of your storytelling voice.
Allegory is kind of like a cross between metaphor (which we’ll talk about a little further on) and theme. It’s the practice of telling a real, true, relevant story through the filter of fiction.
Often these stories stand in place for something the author can’t say, due to political or cultural barriers; other times it’s simply a way to get the reader or viewer to consider an issue in a different light.
This doesn’t mean that the story is being told to draw attention to a central idea; it means the story on the surface is composed of a complex web of metaphors that tell a second, deeper story underneath.
A famous example of allegory is Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Dante uses his fictional journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as an allegory for the journey of a person’s soul to God.
Allusion is a literary device that indirectly references a real life person, place, or event.
It invites the reader to meet you, the author, in the middle, piecing together a cultural clue that you’ve left for them. Sometimes this is done because the idea is too sensitive to lay out overtly. Other times allusions can be used for light, comedic effect.
For example, in Eoin Colfer’s The Wish List several repeated references are made to “the rockstar with the hair.” For a while the author lets the reader hypothesize as to whom he might be referring to, before dropping in a detail where a character begins humming “Blue Suede Shoes.” We talk about the value of repetition a little farther on.
Anachronism is a conflict of time within a single work—for example, describing a character as “zipping up her dress” if the story is set at a time before the invention of zippers, or causing national outrage by leaving a plastic water bottle on a 1920s film set.
Generally, anachronism is a negative thing that will cause your readers and viewers to delight in calling you out for it. This is why it’s so important, when writing historical pieces, to thoroughly research all the minute details of your story. However, anachronism as a literary device can sometimes be used quite effectively for comedic effect or to create a sense of displacement.
In literature, a character archetype is a more or less standardized pattern that we instantly recognize from generations upon generations of storytelling.
Contrary to stereotypes, which are oversimplifications of an archetype’s most extreme personality traits, archetypes work because they speak to a universal truth. All character archetypes exist and, on some level, exist in us.
Examples of archetypes are the warrior, the mentor, the damsel, the lost child, and, of course, the villain. These archetypes can take on many different faces and sometimes a character can embody more than one archetype at the same time.
In Robert Munsch’s groundbreaking feminist page turner The Paper Bag Princess, the typical damsel-and-dragon story is turned on its head as none of the three central characters fit into the roles they’re expected to. This is an example of using archetypes in an unexpected way, turning them on their head to to delight the reader.
A cliffhanger is a literary device in which the author ends a segment of the story on a dramatic question. This segment might be smaller, like a chapter, or larger, like the first novel in a continuing series. It forces the reader to wonder what happens next and keeps them in the world of the story.
You may recognize cliffhangers from your favourite TV series—they’re essential literary devices in TV storytelling because they’re what gets the show pilot picked up by the network and then, once the show is running, they’re what keeps the viewers engaged and coming back again and again.
An example of a cliffhanger in literature is where the literary device got it’s name: In Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, a chapter ends with the main character hanging from a cliff by his fingers, staring at a fossil in the rocks below him. The reader has to start the next chapter to discover the protagonist’s fate.
Dialect is a fantastic literary device to use when crafting strong, distinctive, believable characters. It’s essentially the sound of someone’s voice—not an easy feat to achieve when all you have to work with is paper and ink. It’s their regional accent, but also their upbringing, their level of education, their mood, the sort of people they’ve been exposed to. When done well, and done sparingly, individual dialects can give your characters more life and lend a wonderful richness to their world.
D. H. Lawrence was famous for his use of dialect in his novels, which preserve the unique vocabulary and pronunciation of Victorian-era coal miners in the north of England.
Diction is related to dialect in that it’s a reflection of the sound of the story’s voice—which, again, you as the writer need to accomplish with nothing more than twenty-six letters. The difference between dialect and diction is that while dialect is a part of characterization, diction is the voice of the narrator.
The author makes choices about how to convey their voice in a story based on the mood and the world they’re trying to create. Very formal language creates distance between the author and the story; more colloquial word choices and regional slang make the story more intimate and immediate.
Euphemism is a literary device used to gently reference something that would otherwise be indelicate. “Passed away” is a common euphemism for dying; being “let go” or “made redundant” is a nicer way of saying you’ve been fired. “Cognitively challenged” refers to a stupid person, and “in the family way” is a sensitive way of saying that a woman is pregnant.
Although euphemisms were more commonly used in the eras of banned books, church censorship, and general societal timidity than they are today, they’re still a great way to show characterization (as an important aspect of dialect, as we discussed above) and the time and place in which your story is happening.
Exposition is the act of working relevant information into the events of your story—whether that’s through dialogue, observation, narrative detail, or flashbacks.
Exposition can be a tricky literary device to master, but it’s important in helping your readers understand your world, your characters, and what drives your characters to make the choices they do. Too much of this can bog down the reader and take them away from the present action, but just enough will give them a fuller understanding of the world you’re trying to create.
Flashbacks are interruptions in the narrative that bring the reader to a past point in time, in order to arm them with important information.
You may recognize flashbacks in TV series like crime shows or sitcoms, accompanied by subtitles like “earlier that day,” “three days ago,” etc. This is a way to communicate with the viewer that they’re being taken out of the present moment and redirected to another time. Sometimes flashbacks are used as dramatic devices, like when the opening shows something horrible or unexpected, and the flashback shows us what brought our characters to that moment.
Foreshadowing is a wonderful literary device that gives the reader hints of what is to come later in the story, either through subtle clues based on narrative events or simply using thematic elements like symbolism or mood. It can help build suspense and keep the reader engaged by making them guess what’s going to happen.
You might foreshadow a turn of events in your story by placing symbolic images and colours through your story. For example, in her fairytale retelling The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter uses a ruby choker to suggest a cut throat and give hints of what might come later on.
Don’t confuse foreshadowing with the rule of Chekhov’s Gun; the two are very different concepts!
Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration for emphatic effect. It’s different than simply overstating something (this is exaggeration), where the context teeters on the edge of being a lie. Hyperbole isn’t meant to be taken literally.
For example, a child waiting for a parent too long after school might say, “I was waiting for fifty years!” Obviously, no one in this context actually believes they were waiting for fifty years—the child hasn’t even been alive that long. It’s a way for them to emphatically say, “I was waiting for too long and I am less than pleased about it.”
Imagery is the art of making a moment come alive for the reader. We see this literary device in both fiction and poetry. To create an image that’s vivid and engaging, use a range of senses to create your world such as sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. In addition to making the world more real for the reader, the details that you focus on can influence the mood of the story. Well-placed images can also support foreshadowing in the story, as we saw previously.
14. In Medias Res
This is a Latin term you might hear in literary analysis that literally means “in the midst of things.” This means placing the reader in the middle of an exciting event, without any previous backstory or buildup. In other words, this can mean showing the middle of your story first, and then later showing the events leading up to that moment.
For example, Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants opens with an action-packed scene towards the end of the novel; then she doubles back to the beginning and shows the reader the events that took place to arrive there.
Other times it simply means dropping your reader in the middle of things that happening, rather than starting with a lot of flowery description and exposition. Any information the reader needs can be slowly released throughout the scene, and the following scenes.
This immerses your reader in your story’s world right from the beginning. It makes them ask questions about who the people are in the scene and what’s causing the events to unfold—things they’ll learn as they read on through the end.
There are different types of irony in literature, but all of them basically come down to an inversion of belief. The three types of irony you see most often in stories are dramatic, where the audience knows some essential piece of information that the characters don’t; situational, where the events of the story contradict what we would normally expect; and verbal irony, the contrast of speech and intention, like sarcasm.
Juxtaposition is a useful literary device that deals in contrast; in other words, putting two characters, images, or ideas side by side to draw attention to their differences.
You see this often in central and supporting characters, such as Batman and Robin—Batman’s dark, silent moodiness contrasts Robin’s bright, youthful energy. You can see this in their personalities as well as their costumes, with Batman all in black and Robin in positive primary colours. It’s this juxtaposition between the two that makes them such an engaging team.
Juxtaposition can also be used in sensory imagery, such as placing a happy event underneath a dark and stormy sky or using a tactile sensation that seems out of place in its environment.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably intending to write your stories in English. But using language as a literary device by adding in glimmers of other languages can add depth to your characters and your world.
J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance, creates richness in the world of his English language work by inventing entirely new languages and referencing them just enough to make them seem real.
Cara Black, in her Parisian mystery series, writes in English, but peppers in French here and there to more fully immerse the reader in her Francophone world.
Language can also be useful literary device for characterization; for example, an elderly family member who struggles with English might have dialogue almost entirely in another language, or a bilingual character might revert to their native language in times of overwhelming stress.
In the terms of literary devices, a metaphor is quite close to the simile. Both are devices used to draw comparisons between two seemingly unrelated ideas. But unlike a simile, which draws a comparison between two things, a metaphor goes a step further and uses one image to literally serve in place of another.
One of the most famous metaphors of all time is Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” which uses a literal theatrical performance as a comparison to illustrate the tragedies and comedies of everyday life.
Also called the “red herring,” misdirection is one of the most satisfying literary devices in storytelling of all kinds. It involves laying out clues as the story progresses, and nudging the reader towards the wrong deductions instead of the right ones.
The very important key to making this literary device work is to ensure the reader doesn’t feel cheated at the end—they should be able to look back at the path you’ve laid out and see that the true answer does make sense after all. This might mean working backwards after your first draft and sneaking in hints of what’s to come amidst other worldbuilding details. Understanding the principle of Chekhov’s Gun can help avoid unwanted red herrings in your story. The danger of creating an unsatisfying red herring makes misdirection one of the trickiest literary devices to use.
A motif is a literary device in which a recurring symbol or idea supports the overall theme of your story. This could be something small and concrete, like apples popping up here and there throughout the story to symbolize a theme of battling temptation, or it could be something broader, like showing characters eating grander or sparser meals depending on the stage of their character arc. You can use motifs to connect with readers on a subconscious, cultural level and help them immerse themselves even deeper in the story world.
A myth is a story that explains why things are how they are in the world—for instance, the creation myth of the Bible, or the story of how Raven stole the moon and stars in aboriginal mythology. Myths and legends are a fantastic archive of character archetypes and big, thematic ideas.
Unlike myths, legends are stories of something that may or may not have happened at some point in history, like the legends of Robin Hood or King Arthur’s knights. More importantly, both myths and legends are stories that stay with us for the long game because they represent values, needs, and desires that transcend generational divides.
Many stories—if not all stories—have their roots somewhere in this collective library of imagination. When composing your own work, try using old myths and legends as literary devices to ground your story as you retell them from a new perspective. You could retell of a familiar story, or you could simply use myths and legends as inspiration for the sort of values, strengths, and weaknesses you want to explore in your own characters.
Onomatopoeia is a way of communicating sounds in a way that relates to what they actually sound like. “Buzz” for the sound of a bee, “ruff” for the bark of a dog, and “plop” for the sound of a drop of water are all words that sound like the actual action. “Slam,” “pop,” and “pow” are other common words you see in superhero comics.
Onomatopoeia is a literary device used most often in children’s literature and in the comic book medium, though we find it in just about everything including our everyday dialect. It’s best approached sparingly in literature, but the right word choices can add a lot of depth to your sensory environment: describing a stream as “burbling” or a wind as “shrieking” (notice the harsh “ee” vowel followed by the hard “k”) makes the scene clearer and more vibrant to the reader.
An oxymoron is a literary device closely related to a paradox, in that they both present two seemingly contradictory ideas. Unlike a paradox, an oxymoron is a figure of speech that having to do with two words one after the other: a “deafening silence” is an oxymoron, because it combines two words that contradict each otherd. A “friendly argument,” “act natural,” and “openly deceptive” are some oxymorons. Although they would appear to be impossible contradictions, many of us have experienced these ideas in our own lives and know that there is a real truth lying behind them.
Oxymorons can be used in humour and to convey an aspect of a character’s personality—sometimes at the same time.
A paradox is quite similar to an oxymoron, but it presents two contrasting ideas instead of two contrasting words.
Oscar Wilde’s famous on-brand quote, “I can resist anything except temptation,” is an example of a paradox. By its very nature it can’t be true, and yet one feels that there is some resonant truth hidden somewhere within it.
Others examples are the sayings “the only constant is change” and “the louder you shout, the less they hear.” Both of these examples are composed of ideas that appear to be in conflict with each other, and yet both can be true statements. The first tells us the only thing that never truly changes is the fact that things are always changing, and the second shows us that causing a scene isn’t always the way to get your voice across.
Paradoxes are useful literary devices that help readers see ideas from a new perspective.
Personification is a literary device that gives recognizable human attributes to inanimate or non-human entities.
The most extreme example of this is anthropomorphism, which is giving human traits to an animal character. This is a very popular literary device in children’s literature, as it tends to make the ideas and lessons in these stories feel more accessible (loosely speaking, this is the same device used to give life to a French candelabra in Beauty and the Beast).
However, personification can be done on a smaller scale in order to make sensory images more vivid and easier for the reader to understand. A “weeping willow” is an example of attaching a human action to a non-human thing, and to say the weeping willow’s boughs were “lazily sweeping the dust from the road” is another.
Perspective is the view from which the story is being told.
For instance, if you were to set your story in an old country manor house, you could tell a story following the same events in several different ways. The matriarch of the house would be one perspective; a small, privileged child another. What would the housemaid see that no one else would? What about the cook or the gardener? What secrets, prejudices, or knowledge would they give to the story? Not only would all of these people contribute different worldviews, cultural upbringings, and dialects, but they might genuinely believe in different series of events.
In fiction writing and story structure, repetition is a literary device used to emphasize central themes and to create a subtle kind of rhythm.
The most famous example of repitition is in the “three wishes” often found in faerie tales, as well as three quests, three trials, three paths to choose from. This is because three is the number in which our brains start to recognize patterns. In your own writing, you can use this kind of repetition to support your story’s theme and character arcs.
In prose writing, rhythm is all about the pacing of your story.
Slow, languid writing can feel like being wrapped up in a snuggly blanket. Too much of this, however, becomes suffocating.
Short sentences are more like quick footsteps against a sidewalk. Readers like them because they make us feel like we’re going somewhere, but too many of them for too long and it starts to get hard to keep up.
It’s your job as a writer to use sentences of varying lengths to keep the reader engaged. Longer sentences will slow down the pace, so they’re best used for quiet, reflective moments. Short sentences will kick up the pace, so lean into them for action scenes.
While all good writers use both longer and shorter sentences to some degree, you’ll find that some tend to rely more on one than the other. This is part of what forms their signature voice. Experimenting with sentences of all rhythms will help you find yours.
Satire has been around since its inception in ancient Greece and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s a literary device that uses irony and humour as a way to draw attention to prevalent cultural and societal flaws.
Sometimes this can be done in a lighthearted way: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was considered a gentle satire of the upper classes of that time period. But sometimes satires are darker and more biting, such as in dystopian fiction like George Orwell’s 1984.
Much like a metaphor, a simile is a literary device that compares two unrelated concepts to create vivid, sense-driven imagery. While a metaphor is used to stand in place for something else, a simile is used only in description: “he was as brave as a lion,” for instance, is a simile, while “he had a lion’s heart” is a metaphor.
Similes are great in descriptive passages because you have a whole world in which to draw inspiration from. Is the new girl at school like a “cascading waterfall?” A “fire hydrant?” A “broken chair?” She could be reminiscent of any one of those things, and you as the writer are going to tell us why. A well-placed simile can give the reader a better sense of a character or place than pages and pages of telling us what it looks like.
One of the most marvellous literary devices for engaging your readers is suspense—creating a darkly indulgent sort of tension between the reader and the story that keeps them turning page after page. The writer accomplishes this by posing one dramatic question after another. Cliffhangers are one great way to make this happen. Putting time constraints on your characters is another, as well as shifting perspectives to reveal more information to the reader.
Symbolism is the act of using a person, place, or object to convey a larger, more abstract idea (when used repeatedly in a story to emphasize this idea, it’s called a motif).
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the skull of Yorik is a symbol of death and fate—it serves as a tangible, physical representation of these things in the context of the story.
Symbolism can also be used in setting—for instance, a rising sun to symbolize a new beginning—or in character, like a young child symbolizing a parent’s lost innocence.
A writer can also use colours, animals, or icons that have made their way into our cultural consciousness in order to support the mood and theme of the story. Symbols that we see in our everyday lives include things like red roses for love, butterflies for transformation, or the the caduceus for medicine.
Tone, also called mood or atmosphere, is the way your story world feels to the reader. In film this would be a combination of lighting, cinematography, and soundtrack.
“It was a dark and stormy night” is an infamous opening line that immediately sets the tone for the story. In addition to giving us some context as to the setting of the scene, words like “dark,” “stormy,” and “night” naturally resonate with us in a particular way. When trying to create an atmospheric tone for your story, you can try brainstorming words that you naturally associate with the feeling you want to evoke, and then working them into your story.
In longer works, it’s a good idea to use different tones for different scenes or chapters. This helps each one stand out from the rest, and keeps them fresh and vibrant for the reader.
How to use literary devices to craft your own story
Now that you have an understanding of the literary devices available to you as a writer, you’re ready for the next part: putting it into practice.
Every writer is unique, and the literary devices you see other authors using to fantastic effect might not be the ones that bring out the best in your writing. The sort of imagery, dialect, and characterization we bring into our own work as storytellers is directly related to the way we view the world around us. Finding your own unique style and voice is an exciting journey that can only be travelled by trying things out, finding what feels right deep in your bones, and practicing them again and again.
To get an idea of what literary devices will work best for you, take a look at the stories that you’ve written so far. Most likely, many of the things on this literary devices list will already be present in some form or another—you’ll be naturally drawn to them because of the powerful stories you’ve absorbed over your life. Once you see where these literary devices are beginning to take shape, you can work on refining, enrichening, and mastering them to create powerful stories of your own.