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Feel like your writing is a little dull? Incorporating literary devices is an effective way to not only better express your ideas, but also add a little punch to your prose. Literary devices are writing techniques that serve a variety of different purposes—from setting the mood of a story to revealing a character’s thoughts and motivations.
Below, we explore a list of literary devices (and literary devices examples) to show you how they can enhance your creative writing.
Literary devices are writing techniques that authors (and playwrights, screenwriters, poets, and other types of writers) use to express their ideas and enhance their storytelling.
Literary devices are generally applied to small portions of text, like a word, phrase, or paragraph. This is different from a literary element, which is an aspect or characteristic of an entire piece of work. Literary element examples include plot, setting, point of view, and theme.
Some literary devices are also considered poetic devices, which are used in poetry.
Writers are like artists—there are no set rules for how to express your creativity. You can use literary devices in any way you see fit. And in fact, you already may use them naturally without realizing it.
However, one of the best ways to learn how to use literary devices is to read the work of others. Once you are familiar with this list of literary devices, study other pieces of literature and pay attention to authors’ use of these techniques. You’ll quickly see how the different types of literary devices can enhance a story or create a certain effect within the writing. Then, practice using the same type of device in your own storytelling.
Alliteration definition: a series of words that start with the same letter or sound. Keep in mind that different letters can produce the same sound. So, for example, a phrase can be alliterative if it includes words beginning with both c and k.
(If you’re curious about rhetorical devices examples—which are specifically used to convey a point or convince an audience—alliteration is a common one.)
Example: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
What are metaphors? The metaphor definition, literature experts say, is a comparison of two things by saying one object is the other. The analogy isn’t true in a literal sense—instead, it’s meant to give writers a way to express a comparison in an interesting, memorable way.
Example: Her tears were a river flowing down her cheeks.
A simile compares two objects by saying one is like the other (unlike a metaphor, which purports that the two things are the same). Similes usually incorporate words such as “like” or “as.”
Example: “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” — East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Tone literary definition: the mood created by the author’s text. Tone can be established through word choice, style of writing (e.g., terse vs. rambling), and cadence. A writer uses tone to make the reader feel a certain way—from dark and serious to lighthearted and happy. In the example below, Harper Lee conveys a tone of wistful nostalgia.
Example: “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” — To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
What is an allusion? An allusion is a brief (and sometimes subtle or indirect) reference to something—a person, place, thing, event, etc.—that that audience is presumably familiar with. In literature, allusion is often used to make a connection to a cultural work, like a Bible story or Greek myth. However, because the reference isn’t explicitly stated, it’s up to the audience to make the connection.
Example: “He was eating a light supper at nine in the evening when the front door cried out in the hall and Mildred ran from the parlor like a native fleeing an eruption of Vesuvius.” — Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (alluding to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii in AD 79)
What is imagery in literature? Imagery is visually descriptive language—the writer paints a picture in the reader’s mind. The author might describe how something looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds, as well as any emotions and feelings associated with it. Through imagery, a reader feels like he or she is in the scene, experiencing it through every sense.
Example: “Complete darkness, not a hint of the silver world outside, the windows tightly shut, the chamber a tomb-world where no sound from the great city could penetrate” — Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
As a literary device, a paradox is a statement that seems contradictory. However, once you reflect on it, it reveals a deeper meaning or truth about a character or the story. “Less is more,” for example, doesn’t make sense at first—but with some consideration, you realize the writer is saying there is value in simplicity.
Example: “I must be cruel to be kind.” — Hamlet by William Shakespeare
A euphemism is an agreeable word or phrase used in place of another term that might be found offensive or unpleasant.
Example: In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “readjustment” is used as a euphemism for “reduction:” “For the time being, certainly, it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.”
Hyperbole is extreme exaggeration, usually not meant to be taken literally. As a literary device, hyperbole is used to make a point or add emphasis.
Example: “…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” — Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
While the speaker, Elizabeth Bennet, dislikes the man she’s speaking to in this passage, it’s an exaggeration to say he’s the last person in the world she would marry—but it effectively displays her disdain for him.
A cliché is a commonplace, overused phrase. And because of that, it’s best to avoid incorporating them into your writing unless you have a specific purpose. You could, for instance, use them within a particular character’s dialogue to show that he is trite and unimaginative.
Examples: It’s an uphill battle. Better safe than sorry. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Juxtaposition places two elements next to each other to showcase their differences—or, sometimes, to reveal that they have surprising similarities.
Example: “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….” — A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A motif is an object or idea that’s repeated throughout a literary work. This idea that you see over and over again can build toward the work’s overall theme.
Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, you see the recurring motif of money and wealth, representing the corruption of the American dream.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that contains two terms that seemingly contradict each other. Because oxymorons can often be humorous or puzzling, they generally aren’t meant to be taken literally.
Examples: Jumbo shrimp, mud bath, sweet sorrow
Personification gives human characteristics to something nonhuman. This can help readers relate to those objects—otherwise, they probably wouldn’t think to put themselves in the shoes of that object or animal.
Example: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.” — The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
Through symbolism, writers use an object or idea to represent something more abstract. Symbolism gives deeper meaning to objects, events, people, and ideas, and that meaning contributes to the overall theme of a piece of literature.
Example: In William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the characters use a conch shell to summon their group together, and it becomes a symbol for civilization and order.
Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to describe the whole. This is commonly seen in slang terms and idioms. For example, “nice wheels” refers to an entire car, although only the wheels are referenced.
Example: All hands on deck.
Satire is the use of exaggeration, irony, and humor to ridicule or expose ideas or people. Satire is often humorous on the surface but typically carries deeper meaning—for example, to deliver social criticism or draw awareness to political issues.
Example: George Orwell’s Animal Farm was written as a satirical view of Soviet Communism and the Russian Revolution.
With foreshadowing, an author suggests future events or the outcome of the story before they actually happen. This can build suspense and help the reader develop expectations about how the story will unfold. Foreshadowing can be conveyed through a variety of literary elements, including dialogue, setting, character traits, or even the title of the work.
Example: In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo foreshadows his death through dialogue: “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.”
An anachronism is when a character or object associated with one time period is placed in the wrong historical period, creating an error in chronology. Sometimes this is done by accident, if a writer hasn’t done adequate research about a certain time period. Other times, the device is used intentionally to create an element of humor.
Example: In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius says, “The clock has stricken three” — although mechanical clocks had not yet been invented.
An onomatopoeia is a word that mimics or resembles the sound of the thing it describes. The word can be real (like “boom” or “pop”), made up (like “tattarrattat” for the sound of someone knocking on a door), or even simply a series of letters that represent a sound (like “zzzzz” for the sound of someone sleeping).
Example: Boom! Snap! Ding dong!
This literary device involves repeating a word or phrase multiple times to add emphasis or a sense of rhythm or musicality. While you may see this in any type of literature, it is particularly powerful in written or spoken word poetry.
Example: “O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day! Most lamentable day, most woeful day…” — Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Allegory uses simple, symbolic characters and events to convey a deeper meaning. Often, the story teaches a lesson or explains a moral concept.
Example: The story of the tortoise and the hare from Aesop’s Fables communicates the lesson that you are more likely to be successful if you move slowly and steadily rather than quickly and carelessly.
Diction is the linguistic elements (for example, a character’s vocabulary or accent) a writer uses to tell a story in a certain way. Diction could be formal, with proper grammar and complex sentences, to informal and conversational, incorporating the use of slang.
Example: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The opposite of foreshadowing, flashbacks provide insight into previous events. These may be interspersed with present-day scenes, building context and revealing what led the characters to the current point in time.
Example: In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, every other chapter is a flashback in the form of diary entries. This provides context around the characters’ relationships leading up to the core event of the novel: the disappearance of Amy Dunne.
During a soliloquy, a character speaks to him- or herself, revealing his or her innermost thoughts and feelings. (In fact, the term soliloquy comes from a Latin word that means “talking to oneself.”) It is often used in plays, although it can be effective in other works of literature.
Example: Tennessee Williams ends The Glass Menagerie with a soliloquy: “I didn’t go to the moon that night. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two points. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis.”
Armed with these literary devices, you can tell better stories that both entertain and incorporate deeper meanings and ideas. You’ll be able to more effectively interpret others’ literary works, and your own prose will be more exciting to read and write.
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