Writing

22 Essential Literary Devices and How to Use Them In Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Jul 31, 2019 • 8 min read

Literary devices are specific techniques that allow a writer to convey a deeper meaning that goes beyond what’s on the page. Literary devices work alongside plot and characters to elevate a story and prompt reflection on life, society, and what it means to be human.

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What Is a Literary Device?

A literary device is a tool used by writers to hint at larger themes, ideas, and meaning in a story or piece of writing. There are many styles of literary devices, each serving a different purpose. Some operate at the sentence level, while others serve the piece of writing as a whole. Writers often use multiple literary devices in tandem.

22 Different Types of Literary Devices and How to Use Them

Writers use a wide variety of literary devices across different genres. Each literary device serves a specific purpose. Understanding how to correctly wield these devices can significantly improve your own writing.

  1. Allegory. Allegory is a literary device used to express large, complex ideas in an approachable manner. Allegory allows writers to create some distance between themselves and the issues they are discussing, especially when those issues are strong critiques of political or societal realities. Learn more about allegory here.
  2. Allusion. An allusion is a popular literary device used to develop characters, frame storylines, and help create associations to well-known works. Allusions can reference anything from Victorian fairy tales and popular culture to the Bible and the Bard. Take the popular expression “Bah humbug”—an allusion that references Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol. The phrase, which is often used to express dissatisfaction, is associated with the tale’s curmudgeonly character, Ebenezer Scrooge. Learn more about allusion here.
  3. Anachronism. Imagine reading a story about a caveman who microwaves his dinner, or watching a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel in which the characters text each other instead of writing letters. These circumstances are examples of anachronisms, or an error in chronology—the kind that makes audiences raise their eyebrows or do a double-take. Sometimes anachronisms are true blunders; other times, they’re used intentionally to add humor or to comment on a specific time period in history. Learn more about anachronism here.
  4. Cliffhanger. It’s a familiar feeling: You’re on minute 59 of an hour-long television episode, and the protagonist is about to face the villain—and then episode cuts to black. Known as a cliffhanger, this plot device marks the end of a section of a narrative with the express purpose of keeping audiences engaged in the story. Learn more about cliffhangers here.
  5. Dramatic Irony. Remember the first time you read or watched Romeo and Juliet? The tragic ending of this iconic story exemplifies dramatic irony: The audience knows that the lovers are each alive, but neither of the lovers knows that the other is still alive. Each drinks their poison without knowing what the audience knows. Dramatic irony is used to great effect in literature, film, and television. Learn more about dramatic irony here.
  6. Extended Metaphor. Extended metaphors build evocative images into a piece of writing and make prose more emotionally resonant. Examples of extended metaphor can be found across all forms of poetry and prose. Learning to use extended metaphors in your own work will help you engage your readers and improve your writing. Learn more about extended metaphors here.
  7. Foreshadowing. At its core, storytelling has one ambition: to capture and sustain your reader’s attention and keep them reading your story. Foreshadowing, or slyly indicating a future event, is one technique a writer can use to create and build suspense. Learn more about foreshadowing here.
  8. Humor. Humor brings people together and has the power to transform how we think about the world. Of course, not everyone is adept at being funny—particularly in their writing. Making people laugh takes some skill and finesse, and, because so much relies on instinct, is harder to teach than other techniques. However, all writers can benefit from learning more about how humor functions in writing. Learn more about humor here.
  9. Imagery. If you’ve practiced or studied creative writing, chances are you’ve encountered the expression “paint a picture with words.” In poetry and literature, this is known as imagery: the use of figurative language to evoke a sensory experience in the reader. When a poet uses descriptive language well, they play to the reader’s senses, providing them with sights, tastes, smells, sounds, internal and external feelings, and even deep emotion. The sensory details in imagery bring works to life. Learn more about imagery here.
  10. Irony. Irony is an oft-misunderstood literary device that hinges on opposites: what things are on the surface, and what they end up actually being. Many learn about dramatic irony through works of theater like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. When deployed with skill, irony is a powerful tool that adds depth and substance to a piece of writing. Learn more about irony here.
  11. Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy. Metaphors, similes, and analogies are three techniques used in speech and writing to make comparisons. Each is used in a different way, and differentiating between the three can get a little tricky: For example, a simile is actually a subcategory of metaphor, which means all similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. Knowing the similarities and differences between metaphor, simile, and analogy can help you identify which is best to use in any scenario and help make your writing stronger. Learn more about the differences and similarities between metaphor, simile, and analogy here.
  12. Motif. A motif is a repeated element that has symbolic significance to a story. Sometimes a motif is a recurring image. Sometimes it’s a repeated word or phrase or topic. A motif can be a recurrent situation or action. It can be a sound or a smell or a temperature or a color. The defining aspect is that a motif repeats, and through this repetition, a motif helps to illuminate the central ideas, themes, and deeper meaning of the story in which it appears. Learn more about motif here.
  13. Motif vs. Symbol. Both motifs and symbols are used across artistic mediums: Painters, sculptors, playwrights, and musicians all use motifs and symbols in their respective art forms. And while they are similar literary terms, “motif” and “symbol” are not synonyms. Learn more about the differences between motif and symbols here.
  14. Oxymoron. An oxymoron is a figure of speech: a creative approach to language that plays with meaning and the use of words in a non-literal sense. This literary device combines words with contradictory definitions to coin a new word or phrase (think of the idiom “act naturally”—how can you be your natural self if you’re acting?). The incongruity of the resulting statement allows writers to play with language and meaning. Learn more about oxymorons here.
  15. Paradox. “This sentence is a lie.” This self-referential statement is an example of a paradox—a contradiction that questions logic. In literature, paradoxes can elicit humor, illustrate themes, and provoke readers to think critically. Learn more about paradoxes here.
  16. Personification. In writing, figurative language—using words to convey a different meaning outside the literal one—helps writers express themselves in more creative ways. One popular type of figurative language is personification: assigning human attributes to a non-human entity or inanimate object in an effort to express a point or idea in a more colorful, imaginative way. Learn more about personification here.
  17. Satire. Satire is so prevalent in pop culture that most of us are already very familiar with it, even if we don’t always realize it. Satire is an often-humorous way of poking fun at the powers that be. Sometimes, it is created with the goal to drive social change. Satire can be part of any work of culture, art, or entertainment—it has a long history, and it is as relevant today as it was in ancient Rome. Learn more about satire here.
  18. Situational Irony. Irony: it’s clear as mud. Theorists quibble about the margins of what constitutes irony, but situational irony is all around us—from humorous news headlines to the shock twists in a book or TV show. This type of irony is all about the gap between our expectations and reality, and it can make a memorable and powerful impression when we encounter it. Learn more about situational irony here.
  19. Suspense. No matter what type of story you’re telling, suspense is a valuable tool for keeping a reader’s attention and interest. Building suspense involves withholding information and raising key questions that pique readers’ curiosity. Character development plays a big role in generating suspense; for example, if a character’s desire is not fulfilled by the end of the book, the story will not feel complete for the reader. Learn more about suspense here.
  20. Symbolism. An object, concept, or word does not have to be limited to a single meaning. When you see red roses growing in a garden, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think literally about the rose—about its petals, stem, and thorns, or even about its stamen and pistil as a botanist might. But perhaps your mind goes elsewhere and starts thinking about topics like romance, courtship, and Valentine’s Day. Why would you do this? The reason, of course, is that over the course of many generations, a rose’s symbolic meaning has evolved to include amorous concepts. Learn more about symbolism here.
  21. Verisimilitude. Verisimilitude (pronounced ve-ri-si-mi-li-tude) is a theoretical concept that determines the semblance of truth in an assertion or hypothesis. It is also an essential tenet of fiction writing. Verisimilitude helps to encourage a reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. When using verisimilitude in writing, the goal is to be credible and convincing. Learn more about verisimilitude here.
  22. Vignette. A writer’s job is to engage readers through words. Vignettes—poetic slices-of-life—are a literary device that brings us deeper into a story. Vignettes step away from the action momentarily to zoom in for a closer examination of a particular character, concept, or place. Writers use vignettes to shed light on something that wouldn’t be visible in the story’s main plot. Learn more about vignettes here.

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