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Common Literary Devices: A Definitive Guide

August 15, 2022 (Last Updated October 24, 2022)

Marcy G.

Whether you’re a writer, an aspiring writer, or an avid reader, it’s important to understand common literary devices and how they function in a story. Utilizing these devices in your writing will lead to a more effective story for your readers.

If you plan to enter one of our upcoming writing contests (hint hint), this literary device refresher will come in handy when preparing your story arc.

We’re going to go over 13 common literary devices to elevate your writing or enhance your reader experience:

A simile is a figure of speech, used in a sentence to compare things using “like” or “as”:

·      Ex: Your love is like a red rose.

A metaphor is also used to compare things, but in a direct way:

·      Ex: Love is a battlefield.

Using similes and metaphors in your writing will lead to more interesting comparisons while showcasing your writing style.

Alliteration is the repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive (or nearly successive) syllables in a sentence or poem. Alliteration is commonly used in poetry, short stories, and titles.

·      Ex: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

Hyperbole is defined as the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech.

·      Ex: If he doesn’t ask me to the dance, I’ll die.

Imagery is used to evoke a sensory experience in writing. Writers appeal to the readers’ senses or emotions using descriptive language.

·      Ex: The grass was newly wet from the morning dew and cast a sea of sparkles in the sunlight.

Symbolism refers to the use of symbols in writing. A symbol usually stands for something beyond literal meaning. In literature, symbolism can be found in words, objects, characters, or as an overall concept.

·      Ex: The conch shell in Lord of the Flies symbolizes power. Whichever character holds the conch has permission to speak.

A flashback interrupts the chronological sequence of a narrative or story to give background and context. Flashbacks are often presented as dream sequences or memories.

·      Ex: In the Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling uses a magical instrument called a “pensieve” to show view memories of Professor Snape’s relationship with Harry’s mother. This flashback allows Harry to understand their relationship better.

Foreshadowing is used in literature as a warning or sign of what is to come in the future. Foreshadowing can be communicated in a myriad of ways in writing, ranging from dialogue and character thoughts to the weather and symbols.  

·      Ex: A character coughing early in a story is used as foreshadowing of their illness or death later in the story.

A motif is a repeated element in a story that has symbolic significance. A motif can be a recurring image, word, phrase, topic, situation, or action. Motifs usually contribute to a story’s overall theme. A literary work can have several motifs.

·      Ex: In The Catcher in the Rye, ducks are used as a motif to represent change. The protagonist sees ducks several times throughout the book while pondering life.

An allegory is a narrative story that conveys a complex or abstract idea in an approachable way through characters, places, and events. Allegories are commonly used to represent a hidden meaning, morally or politically.

·      Ex: George Orwell’s Animal Farm uses the story of farm animals rebelling against their farmer to represent Orwell’s critique of Russian government.

Personification is a literary device that uses human characteristics, like emotions and behaviors, to describe non-human things, such as animals, objects, or ideas.

·      Ex: the alarm clocked screamed, signaling everyone to wake up.

·      In this instance, the use of “screamed” was a human noise used to describe the action of an inanimate object (the alarm clock).

Point of view is used to indicate the angle or perspective from which a story is told. There are several points of a view a writer can choose to tell their story through:

·      First person storytelling uses the pronoun “I”

·      Second person storytelling uses the pronoun “you”

·      Third person storytelling uses the pronouns, “he, she or they”

·      Omniscient – An omniscient narrator knows everything about the story and its characters

Irony is a situation where there’s a contrast between expectation and reality, often associated with tragedy and humor. Irony is used to let the reader know something that the character doesn’t. This leads to anticipation or dread from the reader. Irony can be dramatic, comic, situational, or verbal.

·      Ex: In Romeo and Juliet, the audience knows Juliet isn’t really dead when Romeo drinks the poison.

We hope this crash course on literary devices has helped to refresh your writing or reading experience. For our writing contests, our judging panel looks for how literary devices are used to enhance a story or narrative. Stay tuned for the announcement or our next writing contest in an upcoming newsletter.  For more writing tips and advice, subscribe to our blog!

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