Literary Devices and Terms — 35+ Definitions With Examples
A clear list of literary devices is a good resource for any writer to have on hand. Strong device usage can help elevate a book from a story people forget, to a piece of literature that stays with them long after they've turned the final page.
After all, in As You Like It, Shakespeare could have simply written, "Everyone has a role in life." But instead, he used a literary device and penned one of the famous metaphors of all time:
All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
And the rest is history.
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are tools writers use to express their ideas with artistic depth. These devices can clarify and emphasize concepts, create resonance within a narrative, and invite readers to dig a little deeper into the story’s themes.
While all of the tools below fall under the umbrella of “literary devices,” the purpose and impact of them varies wildly. Some might underscore a narrative and work on an intellectual level, while others have more of a subtle, visceral, or emotional effect. Finally, they might also work to simply enhance the flow and pacing of your writing. No matter what, if you're looking to inject something special into your prose, literary devices are a great place to start.
List of literary devices
The Tortoise and the Hare is about more than just a turtle, a rabbit, and a race. It also aims to teach the lesson: slow and steady wins the race. That’s what an allegory does — it’s a type of narrative that uses characters and plot to exemplify abstract ideas and themes, such as patience. In an allegorical story, events and characters tend to represent more than they appear on the surface.
Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell. This dystopian novella is one of modern literature’s best-known allegories. A commentary on the events leading up to Stalin's rise and the formation of the Soviet Union, the pigs at the heart of the novel blatantly represent figures such as Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov.
Alliteration is a series of words used in quick succession that all start with the same letters or sound. It lends a pleasing cadence to prose or poetry. And if you doubt whether alliteration really has an impact on a reader’s experience, just think of the following unforgettable titles: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Sense and Sensibility, The Haunting of Hill House.
Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.
You probably allude to things all the time in everyday speech. An allusion is a passing or indirect descriptive reference to something.
Example: “This list of literary devices will turn me into a bona fide Hemingway.”
When something happens or is attributed to a different era than when it actually existed. Anachronism is usually a mistake, e.g. an author writing a period piece and accidentally using language that’s too modern, or including some object that had not been invented at the time of the story. However, it can also be intentionally used as a literary device, if the author wants to comment on a theme like time or society.
Example: When Cassius in Julius Caesar says that “the clock has stricken three” — mechanical clocks had not been invented in 44 A.D. Of course, it’s debatable whether Shakespeare did this on purpose, to signify something else. Indeed, there are many famously prominent anachronisms in Shakespeare, such as his inclusion of the University of Halle-Wittenberg in Hamlet and his mention of the dollar as currency in Macbeth.
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses or sentences. It’s often seen in poetry and speeches, intended to provoke a emotional response in its audience.
Example: Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … and I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Similar term: repetition (see below)
Anastrophe is a figure of speech in which the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a traditional verb-subject-adjective sentence such as “Are you ready?” becomes a Yoda-esque adjective-verb-subject question: “Ready, are you?” Or a standard adjective-noun pairing like “tall mountains” becomes “mountains tall.”
Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
When one applies human traits or qualities to a non-human thing — such as objects, animals, or weather — the thing becomes anthropomorphized.
Examples: In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mrs. Potts the teapot, Cogsworth the clock, and Lumière the candlestick are all household objects that act and behave like humans (which, of course, they were when they weren’t under a spell).
Similar term: personification (see below)
A universally accepted truth stated in a concise, to-the-point manner: that's an aphorism. They typically possess a sharp or witty style that gives them staying power, often taking the form of an adage or proverb.
Example: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” — Alexander Pope
When two or more parallel clauses are inverted. “What does that mean and why would I do that?” you might be wondering. Well, a chiasmus might sound confusing in definition, but you’ve more than likely come across it in execution.
Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy
The use of casual and informal language in writing; this can also include slang. Writers use colloquialisms to provide further context to settings and characters. Imagine reading a YA novel that takes place in modern America, and the characters speak to each other like this:
“Good morning, Sue. I hope that you slept well and are prepared for this morning’s science exam.”
It’s not realistic. Inject colloquialisms for more believable dialogue.
“Hey Sue, what’d you get up to last night? This science exam is gonna suck.”
Example: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh takes place in Scotland — a fact undeniably apparent by simply glancing at the use of dialect: “Thing is, as ye git aulder, this character-deficiency gig becomes mair sapping. Thir wis a time ah used tae say tae aw the teachers, bosses, dole punters, poll-tax guys, magistrates, when they telt me ah was deficient: ’Hi, cool it, gadge, ah’m jist me, jist intae a different sort ay gig fae youse but, ken?’”
A euphemism is an indirect or “politer” way of describing something deemed inappropriate or awkward to address directly. However, most people will still understand the truth about what's actually happening.
Example: When an elderly person is forced to retire, it’s often said that they’re being “put out to pasture.”
Though you probably already know what a flashback is — they’re only used in just about every psychological thriller ever — you may not know how they should be employed. As a literary device, flashbacks typically split up other scenes of present-day events, building suspense toward a big reveal. Flashbacks are also an interesting, dramatic way to present exposition for your story, unveiling to the reader what happened in the past.
Example: Every other chapter in the first part of Gone Girl is a flashback, with Amy’s old diary entries painting a picture of her relationship with her husband before she disappeared.
Similar term: foreshadowing (see below)
When authors hint at events yet to come. Foreshadowing is often used to create tension or suspense — leaving readers just enough breadcrumbs to keep them hungry for more.
Want to become a foreshadowing expert? Check out our post on the subject, which is full of examples.
Example: While there are many ways to foreshadow, a popular method is through partial reveals: the narrator says something, but leaves out key facts to prompt readers’ curiosity. Jeffrey Eugenides does this in The Virgin Suicides: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese, the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
Similar term: flashback
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that emphasizes the significance of the statement’s actual meaning. When a friend says, "Oh my god, I haven't seen you in a million years" — that's hyperbole.
Example: “At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale
Much like a rhetorical question, wherein someone asks a question that doesn't require an answer. Hypophora is where the person raises a question and answers it immediately themselves (hence the prefix hypo, meaning "under" or "before"). It’s often used when characters are reasoning something aloud.
Example: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Imagery is a way of appealing to readers’ sense through descriptive language. It’s also crucial for any writer looking to follow the commonly cited rule “show, don’t tell."
Example: “In the hard-packed dirt of the midway, after the glaring lights are out and the people have gone to bed, you will find a veritable treasure of popcorn fragments, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples abandoned by tired children, sugar fluff crystals, salted almonds, popsicles, partially gnawed ice cream cones and wooden sticks of lollipops.” — E.B. White, Charlotte's Web
Creates contrast between how things seem and how they really are beneath the surface. There are three types of literary irony: dramatic (when readers know what will happen before characters do), situational (when readers expect a certain outcome, only to be surprised by a turn of events), and verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what was said).
Example: This opening scene from Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil is a great example of how dramatic irony can create tension.
If you’re a neat freak who likes things just so, isocolon is the literary device for you. This is when two or more phrases or clauses have a similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up. Isocolon often crops up in brand slogans and famous sayings; the quick, balanced rhythm makes the phrase more memorable and catchy.
Examples: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
Sometimes the best way for us to understand something is by understanding what it’s not. This is the point of juxtaposition: by placing two or more characters, themes, concepts, places, etc. side by side, the profound contrast highlights their differences.
Example: In the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses juxtaposition to emphasize the societal disparity that led to the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Similar terms: oxymoron, paradox
Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez) is the signature literary device of the double negative. Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case. Don’t worry, it makes more sense with the examples. 😉
Example: “You won’t be sorry” (meaning you’ll be happy); “you’re not wrong” (meaning you’re right); “I didn’t not like it” (meaning I did)
If Shakespeare is the king of metaphors, Michael Scott is the king of malapropisms. This is when similar-sounding words replace their appropriate counterparts, typically to comic effect — one of the most commonly cited is “dance a flamingo,” rather than a “flamenco.” Malapropisms are usually employed in dialogue when a character flubs up their speech.
Example: “I am not to be truffled with.”
When it comes to literary devices, this one is a heavy hitter. Unlike juxtaposition, metaphors help us make sense of things by comparing the common characteristics of two unlike things.
Example: Metaphors are literature’s bread and butter (metaphor intended) — good luck finding a novel that is free from a single one. Here’s one from Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass: “Wishes are thorns, he told himself sharply. They do us no good, just stick into our skin and hurt us.”
(One metaphor example not enough? Check out this post, which has 97 of ‘em!)
Similar term: simile
Metonymy is like symbolism, but even more so. A metonym doesn’t just symbolize something else, it comes to serve as a synonym for that thing or things — typically, a single object embodies an entire institution.
Examples: “The crown” representing the monarchy, “Washington” representing the U.S. government
Similar term: synecdoche (see below)
Whatever form a motif takes, it recurs throughout the novel and helps develop the theme of the narrative. This might be a symbol, concept, or image. Check out this post for an author’s guide to motifs!
Example: In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the yellow brick road is a motif that represents the journey of life and growing up.
Similar term: symbol
Amusingly, this difficult-to-pronounce word refers to words that sound like the thing they’re referring to. Examples of onomatopoeia include whiz, buzz, snap, grunt, etc.
Example: The excellent children's book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. "Farmer Brown has a problem. His cows like to type. All day long he hears: Click, clack, moo. Click, clack, moo. Clickety, clack, moo."
When you put two contradictory words together in a sentence to describe something, you create an oxymoron. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.
Example: "Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. Find 100 more examples of oxymorons here.
Similar terms: juxtaposition, paradox
From the Greek word paradoxon, which means “beyond belief.” It’s a statement that asks people to think outside the box by providing seemingly illogical — and yet latently true — premises. Often, authors uses paradoxes themselves as a novel’s theme.
Example: In George Orwell’s 1984, the slogan of the totalitarian government is built on paradoxes: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.” While we might read these statements as obviously contradictory, in the context of Orwell’s novel, these blatantly corrupt sentiments have become an accepted truth.
Similar terms: oxymoron, juxtaposition
While anthropomorphism applies human traits to non-human things (think of Donkey from Shrek — or any animal character from any cartoon), personification uses human traits to describe non-human things (such as animals, object, or natural phenomena). The behavior of the thing does not change.
Example: “Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin.” — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Similar term: anthropomorphism
29. Point of View
The mode of narration in a story. There are various types of point of view (POV) an author can choose, and each one will have a huge impact on the reading experience. To learn more about first, second, and third person POV, check out our comprehensive guide on the subject.
Example: Second person POV is the least common because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative to pull off. One popular novel that manages to employ this perspective successfully is Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”
This one is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flare to their writing. Instead of using a singular, technically-necessary conjunction or connecting word, polysyndeton involves several used in succession for a dramatic effect.
Example: “Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.” — William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Repetition, repetition, repetition… where would we be without it? Though too much repetition is rarely a good thing, occasional repetition can be used quite effectively to drill home a point, or to create a certain atmosphere. For example, horror writers often use repetition in one way or another to make the reader feel trapped and scared, especially since repeating things is seen as a sign of mental instability.
Example: In The Shining, Jack Torrance types over and over again on his pages, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” In this case, obsessive repetition demonstrates the character’s unraveling mind.
Similar term: anaphora
Writers use satire to make fun of some aspect of human nature or society — usually through exaggeration, ridicule, or irony.
Example: The famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic example of satire — criticizing English society: “As to the first, you are to understand, that for above seventy Moons past, there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.”
While both metaphors and similes draw resemblances between two things, the former says that “Thing A is Thing B,” whereas the latter says that “Thing A is like Thing B.” It might also use the words “such as” or “as.”
Example: “Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.” — Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Similar term: metaphor
Yet another device for which Shakespeare is famous, soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length. They may be alone or in the company of others, but they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people — the purpose of a soliloquy is for a character to reflect independently.
Example: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, in which he ruminates on the nature of life and death, is a classic dramatic soliloquy
To represent abstract concepts and ideas in their stories, authors turn to symbols and symbolism. Symbols typically derive from objects — for instance, a dove might represent peace, or raven might represent death.
Example: In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes — a barren wasteland between East and West Egg — as a symbol to represent the waste and moral decay of the elite.
Similar term: motif
Synecdoche is the usage of a part to represent the whole. That is, rather than an object or title that’s merely associated with the larger concept (as in metonymy), synecdoche must actually be attached in some way: either to the name, or to the larger whole itself.
Examples: “Stanford won the game” (Stanford referring to the full title of the Stanford football team) or “Nice wheels you got there” (wheels referring to the entire car)
Similar term: metonymy
Readers and writers alike can get a lot out of understanding literary devices and how they're commonly used. If you’re a reader, you can use this knowledge to your advantage, as you pore over fiction and gain insight into the author’s intended meaning and motivation behind their work. Meanwhile, writers can use literary devices to connect with readers, giving their words a boosted opportunity of providing audiences with lasting meaning.
Have you ever struggled to use a literary device in your writing? Let's get technical — share your questions or thoughts in the comments below!