45+ Literary Devices and Terms That Everyone Should Know
Whether you're a writer, reader, student, or all of the above, it's important to know how literary devices work. For writers, strong device usage can elevate prose from meager to magnificent. For readers, they can provide a greater understanding of the text. And for students, knowing a few literary devices might just be the key to an A+ English paper!
But first, some of you may be wondering: what is a literary device, anyway? So for those of you who are new to the concept, let's go over the definition of literary devices and how they're typically used in writing.
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are techniques that writers use to express their ideas and enhance their writing. Literary devices highlight important concepts in a text, strengthen the narrative, and help readers connect to the characters and themes.
These devices serve a wide range of purposes in literature. Some might work on an intellectual level, while others have a more emotional effect. They may also work subtly to improve 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.
Of course, for readers, literary devices can be difficult to identify. But here's a good rule of thumb: if you're reading a book and you find the author using language or narrative structure in an unusual way, there's probably a literary device at work. Indeed, some devices show up so frequently, you may not even register them as you're reading!
Here are 10 of the most common literary devices:
You've probably heard of most (if not all) of the devices above. Again, they vary in terms of what they do: some of them relate to word usage and description, while others relate to how scenes play out. Some may be characteristic of specific genres — for example, you'll often see flashbacks and foreshadowing in psychological thrillers — while others, like similes and metaphors, can be found in just about any text.
We'll also note that some literary devices double as rhetorical devices, which are used to convey meaning and/or persuade readers on a certain point. The difference is that literary devices can be used to enhance writing in many different ways, not all of which involve trying to convince readers of something.
Basically, literary devices are artistic; rhetorical devices are informative and persuasive. That said, there can still be quite a bit of overlap between the two. Click here to learn more about rhetorical devices.
Now for the pièce de résistance: our full list of literary devices everyone should know.
List of literary devices
An allegory is a type of narrative that uses characters and plot to depict abstract ideas and themes. In an allegorical story, things represent more than they appear to on the surface. Many children's fables, such as The Tortoise and the Hare, are simple allegories about morality — but allegories can also be dark, complex, and controversial.
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 represent figures such as Stalin, Trotsky, and Molotov.
Alliteration describes a series of words in quick succession that all start with the same letter or sound. It lends a pleasing cadence to prose and poetry both. And if you have any doubts about the impact of alliteration, consider the following unforgettable titles: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Sense and Sensibility, and The Haunting of Hill House.
Example: “Peter Piper picked a pot of pickled peppers.”
An allusion is a passing or indirect descriptive reference to something. You probably allude to things all the time in everyday speech, without even noticing.
Example: “This list of literary devices will turn me into a bona fide Mark Twain.”
Anachronism is when something happens or is attributed to a different era than when it actually existed. This is usually a mistake, such as an author writing a period piece and accidentally using language that’s too modern. 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: Cassius in Julius Caesar says that “the clock has stricken three," even though 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 famous anachronisms in Shakespeare, such as the University of Halle-Wittenberg in Hamlet and 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
Anastrophe is a figure of speech wherein the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a typical 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 mountain” becomes “mountain tall.”
Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
To anthropomorphize is to apply human traits or qualities to a non-human thing such as objects, animals, or the weather. But unlike personification, in which this is done through figurative description, anthropomorphism is literal: a sun with a smiling face, for example, or talking dogs in a cartoon.
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
An aphorism is a universally accepted truth stated in a concise, to-the-point way. Aphorisms are typically witty and memorable, often becoming adages or proverbs as people repeat them over and over.
Example: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” — Alexander Pope
An archetype is a “universal symbol” that brings familiarity and context to a story. It can be a character, a setting, a theme, or an action. Archetypes represent feelings and situations that are shared across cultures and time periods, and are therefore instantly recognizable to any audience — for instance, the innocent child character, or the theme of the inevitability of death.
Example: Superman is a heroic archetype: noble, self-sacrificing, and drawn to righting injustice whenever he sees it.
Chiasmus is when two or more parallel clauses are inverted. “Why would I do that?” you may be wondering. Well, a chiasmus might sound confusing and unnecessary in theory, but it's much more convincing in practice — and in fact, you've likely already come across it before.
Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy
Colloquialism is the use of casual and informal language in writing, which can also include slang. Writers use colloquialisms to provide context to settings and characters, and to make their writing sound more authentic. 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. Colloquialisms help create believable dialogue:
“Hey Sue, what’d you get up to last night? This science test is gonna suck.”
Example: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh takes place in Scotland, a fact made undeniably obvious by the 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 cumulative sentence (or “loose sentence”) is one that starts with an independent clause, but then has additional or modifying clauses. They’re often used for contextual or clarifying details. This may sound complex, but even, “I ran to the store to buy milk, bread, and toilet paper” is a cumulative sentence, because the first clause, “I ran to the store,” is a complete sentence, while the rest tells us extra information about your run to the store.
Example: “It was a large bottle of gin Albert Cousins had brought to the party, yes, but it was in no way large enough to fill all the cups, and in certain cases to fill them many times over, for the more than one hundred guests, some of whom were dancing not four feet in front of him.” – Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Dramatic irony is when the readers know more about the situation going on than at least one of the characters involved. This creates a difference between the ways the audience and the characters perceive unfolding events. For instance, if we know that one character is having an affair, when that character speaks to their spouse, we will pick up on the lies and double-meanings of their words, while the spouse may take them at face value.
Example: In Titanic, the audience knows from the beginning of the movie that the boat will sink. This creates wry humor when characters remark on the safety of the ship.
A euphemism is an indirect, “polite” way of describing something too inappropriate or awkward to address directly. However, most people will still understand the truth about what's happening.
Example: When an elderly person is forced to retire, some might say they’re being “put out to pasture.”
Exposition is when the narrative provides background information in order to help the reader understand what’s going on. When used in conjunction with description and dialogue, this literary device provides a richer understanding of the characters, setting, and events. Be careful, though — too much exposition will quickly become boring, thus undercutting the emotional impact of your work.
Example: “The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
Flashbacks to previous events split up present-day scenes in a story, usually to build suspense toward a big reveal. Flashbacks are also an interesting way to present exposition for your story, gradually revealing 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 describing her relationship with her husband before she disappeared.
Similar term: foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is when the author hints at events yet to come in a story. Similar to flashbacks (and often used in conjunction with them), this technique is also used to create tension or suspense — giving readers just enough breadcrumbs to keep them hungry for more.
Example: One popular method of foreshadowing is through partial reveals — the narrator 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
A frame story is any part of the story that "frames" another part of it, such as one character telling another about their past, or someone uncovering a diary or a series of news articles that then tell the readers what happened. Since the frame story supports the rest of the plot, it is mainly used at the beginning and the end of the narrative, or in small interludes between chapters or short stories.
Example: In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe is telling Chronicler the story of his life over the span of three days. Most of the novel is the story he is telling, while the frame is any part that takes place in the inn.
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 Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” — Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez
Hypophora is much like a rhetorical question, wherein someone asks a question that doesn't require an answer. However, in hypophora, 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.” — Daisy in The Great Gatsby
Imagery appeals to readers’ senses through highly descriptive language. It’s crucial for any writer hoping to follow the rule of "show, don’t tell," as strong imagery truly paints a picture of the scene at hand.
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.” — Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Irony creates a contrast between how things seem and how they really are. 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 similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up perfectly. Isocolon often crops up in brand slogans and famous sayings; the quick, balanced rhythm makes the phrase catchier and more memorable.
Example: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
Juxtaposition places two or more dissimilar characters, themes, concepts, etc. side by side, and the profound contrast highlights their differences. Why is juxtaposition such an effective literary device? Well, because sometimes the best way for us to understand something is by understanding what it’s not.
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…”
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. 😉
Examples: “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. A malapropism 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 often employed in dialogue when a character flubs up their speech.
Example: “I am not to be truffled with.”
A metaphor compares two similar things by saying that one of them is the other. As you'd likely expect, when it comes to literary devices, this one is a heavy hitter. And if a standard metaphor doesn't do the trick, a writer can always try an extended metaphor: a metaphor that expands on the initial comparison through more elaborate parallels.
Example: Metaphors are literature’s bread and butter (metaphor intended) — good luck finding a novel that is free of them. 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.”
Similar term: simile
One metaphor example not enough? Check out this post, which has 97 of ‘em!
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
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.
Example: In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, trains are an omnipresent motif that symbolize transition, derailment, and ultimately violent death and destruction.
Similar term: symbol
Amusingly, onomatopoeia (itself a difficult-to-pronounce word) refers to words that sound like the thing they’re referring to. Well-known instances 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.”
An oxymoron comes from two contradictory words that describe one thing. While juxtaposition contrasts two story elements, oxymorons are about the actual words you are using.
Example: "Parting is such sweet sorrow.” — Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Find 100 more examples of oxymorons here.)
Similar terms: juxtaposition, paradox
Paradox derives 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 actually true — premises.
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
Personification uses human traits to describe non-human things. Again, while the aforementioned anthropomorphism actually applies these traits to non-human things, personification means the behavior of the thing does not actually change. It's personhood in figurative language only.
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.” — The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Similar term: anthropomorphism
Point of view
Point of view is, of course, the mode of narration in a story. There are many POVs an author can choose, and each one will have a different impact on the reading experience.
Example: Second person POV is uncommon because it directly addresses the reader — not an easy narrative style 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.”
Instead of using a single conjunction in a lengthy statements, polysyndeton uses several in succession for a dramatic effect. This one is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flair to their writing, or who are hoping to portray a particular (usually naïve) sort of voice.
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.” — The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
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 to make the reader feel trapped and scared.
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. There are countless ways to satirize something; most of the time, you know it when you read it.
Example: The famous adventure novel Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic example of satire, poking fun at “travelers' tales,” the government, and indeed human nature itself.
A simile draws resemblance between two things by saying “Thing A is like Thing B,” or “Thing A is as [adjective] as Thing B.” Unlike a metaphor, a similar does not posit that these things are the same, only that they are alike. As a result, it is probably the most common literary device in writing — you can almost always recognize a simile through the use of “like” or “as.”
Example: There are two similes in this description from Circe by Madeline Miller: “The ships were golden and huge as leviathans, their rails carved from ivory and horn. They were towed by grinning dolphins or else crewed by fifty black-haired nereids, faces silver as moonlight.”
Similar term: metaphor
Soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length (and often in a Shakespeare play). The character in question 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.
Authors turn to tangible symbols to represent abstract concepts and ideas in their stories Symbols typically derive from objects or non-human — for instance, a dove might represent peace, or raven might represent death.
Example: In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg (actually a faded optometrist's billboard) to represent God and his judgment of the Jazz Age.
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
A tautology is when a sentence or short paragraph repeats a word or phrase, expressing the same idea twice. Often, this is a sign that you should trim your work to remove the redundancy (such as “frozen ice”) but can also be used for poetic emphasis.
Example: "But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door" – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
Tmesis is when a word or phrase is broken up by an interjecting word, such as abso-freaking-lutely. It’s used to draw out and emphasize the idea, often with a humorous or sarcastic slant.
Example: "This is not Romeo, he's some other where." – Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Tone refers to the overall mood and message of your book. It’s established through a variety of means, including voice, characterization, symbolism, and themes. Tone sets the feelings you want your readers to take away from the story.
Example: No matter how serious things get in The Good Place, there is always a chance for a character to redeem themselves by improving their behavior. The tone remains hopeful for the future of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds.
Tragicomedy is just what it sounds like: a blend of tragedy and comedy. Tragicomedy helps an audience process darker themes by allowing them to laugh at the situation even when circumstances are bleak.
Example: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events uses wordplay, absurd situations, and over-the-top characters to provide humor in an otherwise tragic story.
Zoomorphism is when you take animal traits and assign them to anything that’s not an animal. It’s the opposite of anthropomorphism and personification, and can be either a physical manifestation, such as a god appearing as an animal, or a comparison, like calling someone a busy bee.
Example: When vampires turn into bats, their bat form is an instance of zoomorphism.
Similar terms: anthropomorphism, personification
Readers and writers alike can get a lot out of understanding literary devices and how they're used. Again, readers can use them to gain insight into the author’s intended meaning behind their work, while writers can use literary devices to better connect with readers. But whatever your motivation for learning them, you certainly won't be sorry you did! (Not least because you'll recognize the device I just used in that sentence. 😏)
Which literary devices are your favorites? Share any thoughts, questions, or soliloquies in the comments below!