Master The Art Of Writing With These Top Literary Devices And Examples

Have you ever been so wrapped up in a story, book, song, or poem, that you just couldn’t walk away from it? If so, there’s a good chance the writer has mastered the art of using literary devices. Literary device is a fancy name for those elements, like metaphors, imagery, and others, that draw us into a story. Many of us use them without even trying, but understanding how and when to incorporate them can make your writing even better. Here’s a guide to some of the most common and interesting literary devices to keep in your writing tool kit.

What are literary devices?

Some consider literary devices to be the building blocks of literature. When used correctly and effectively, literary devices give writers a way to infuse their work with detail and hint at larger themes, ideas, and meaning.

Typically, writers use more than one literary device at a time. A single work of fiction may include dozens of metaphors, motifs, uses of imagery, and instances of foreshadowing. The literary devices writers choose can also vary by the type of writing. Poetry and songs, books, screenplays, and even nonfiction writing can all make use of literary devices.

Literary devices vs. rhetorical devices

While literary devices broadly serve to add interest, depth, and perspective to a piece, there are devices—often referred to as rhetorical devices—that are incorporated intentionally to invoke responses in the reader, as well as influence the tone of a work.

Often, rhetorical devices emphasize a specific language pattern, word, sentence structure, or rhyming pattern. They include formative techniques, like repetition or hyperbole, that accentuate certain elements of a work for the purpose of getting the reader’s attention, persuading them, or drawing out an emotional response. It is often said rhetorical devices are used to elicit a certain emotion via persuasion, whereas literary devices may be primarily used to enhance storytelling.

Literary and rhetorical devices are sometimes discussed separately, but it’s important to note the relationship and occasional overlap between the two. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular, effective, and interesting literary devices used by writers of all styles.

List of literary devices

1. foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is “an indication of something that will happen in the future.” As a literary device, it’s typically incorporated to hint at future plot developments. The term foreshadow has been in use in English since the late 1500s, and you can find foreshadowing itself exemplified in some early great works of literature.

Example: “My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” —Romeo, Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

2. allegory

In literature, allegory is used to communicate “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms.” It’s a story within a story, such as a fable or parable that uses characters as symbols for illustrating important lessons or values. Allegory comes from the Greek allēgoría, meaning “to speak so as to imply something else.” Often, an entire work is considered an allegory, rather than just a single quote or character.

Example: C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, which is a symbolic retelling of the story of Jesus Christ.

3. irony

Writers use irony to indicate “as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.” This may appear as dramatic irony, or irony that’s grasped by the audience but not the characters themselves. Or, it might be situational irony, in which the effect of an action is the opposite of what characters expect.

Example: “You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it yourself.” —Glenda the Good Witch, The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. As seen from this quote, Dorothy journeyed to the Emerald City to find a way home but had the power within her to get home all along.

4. motif

Sometimes, to really drive a symbol or point home, writers make it a motif. A motif is “a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.” The word motif can be traced to the Medieval Latin mōtīvus, meaning “serving to move.” The repetition makes the item, symbol, or character a driving force that connects the reader to the work.

Example: “My power flurries through the air into the ground / My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around / And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast.” —Elsa, Disney’s Frozen

5. metaphor

Metaphor is an extremely popular literary device “in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.” When using metaphor, writers say one thing is literally another thing. This imbues the object or character with symbolic meaning that can deepen understanding for the reader.

Example: “The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.” —The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

6. simile

When not using metaphor to make comparisons in writing, writers often turn to simile. A simile is “a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared.” Typically, similes make comparisons using the word like or as, whereas metaphors perform a similar function without these added words.

Example: “She tried to get rid of the kitten which had scrambled up her back and stuck like a burr just out of reach.” —Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

💡Learn more about literary and rhetorical devices

This article is just the start to your journey learning literary and rhetorical devices. Review the content here to learn the key differences between them.

The Top 41 Rhetorical Devices That Will Make Your Words Memorable
13 Essential Literary Terms

If you’re interested in learning more about specific devices mentioned here and others, you’ll find more information in these articles:

  1. MLK’s “I Have A Dream” Speech: An Example Of Anaphora
  2. What Is A Literary Apostrophe?
  3. What Do Double Entendres Mean?
  4. Understand The Difference Between Ethos, Pathos, And Logos To Make Your Point
  5. Simile vs. Metaphor: Understand The Difference
  6. Paradox vs. Oxymoron: What’s The Difference?
  7. Portmanteau And Other Cool Words About How We Use Words

7. imagery

When you feel like you’re experiencing the world created by a book or song, the writer is likely using effective imagery. Imagery refers to “the formation of mental images, figures, or likenesses of things, or of such images collectively.” Using this literary device means choosing specific words and descriptions that evoke feelings and sensations in the reader.

Example: “I see trees of green / Red roses too / I see them bloom / For me and you” —“What A Wonderful World” sung by Louis Armstrong

8. personification

The “attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions” is called personification. After reading this description, you might be thinking about talking animals in Disney movies, but that’s not quite it. Rather, personification occurs when non-human things are described in human terms, such as stars winking or thunder screaming.

Example: “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me.” —“Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” by Emily Dickinson

9. verisimilitude

In order for readers to buy into a story, it needs verisimilitude. This means “the appearance or semblance of truth; genuineness; authenticity.” In other words, this term applies to how real a story and its characters feel to the reader. This can be achieved by sticking to common literary conventions, doing research and even adding detail to make people and locations more real.

Example: Both Michael Chrichton’s Jurassic Park and the movie adaptation provide enough scientific detail to make the story believable, even though the events aren’t possible in reality.

10. cliffhanger

A cliffhanger can be an engaging literary device when used effectively at the end of a story, chapter, or other work. The cliffhanger creates “suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.” The term is thought to have originated from serialized magazine stories and radio programs in the 1930s.

Example: “When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold…” —A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin, which ends on a cliffhanger

11. paradox

Have you ever heard the saying: “You have to be cruel to be kind”? This statement is a paradox. A paradox is “a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” In literature, paradox can also refer to situations and ideas that seem contradictory, but are actually possible, like a flower that blooms in the desert.

Example: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” —Animal Farm, by George Orwell

12. archetype

If you love superhero comics and stories, you’re familiar with an archetype. An archetype is “the original pattern from which all things of the same kind are copied or based on.” Archetypes in literature may be characters modeled on a well-known character type or even story tropes that repeat throughout genres.

Example: Marlin in Finding Nemo is an archetypal caregiver (searching for his son), while Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games is one example of an archetypical hero.

13. satire

Satire is “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, to expose, denounce, or deride the folly or corruption of institutions, people, or social structures.” Satire is often used to mock powerful people and structures, like politicians, the upper class, or the government. You can find it in everything from books and poems to plays, movies, and sketch comedy shows, like Saturday Night Live.

Example: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is a famous satire of 18th-century British society.

14. anastrophe

Few things can grab a reader’s or listener’s attention like anastrophe. Anastrophe is “inversion of the usual order of words.” The term comes from the Greek anastrephein, meaning “to invert.” It’s the device used by the Star Wars character Yoda to create his iconic speech patterns. In literature, it’s often used in dialogue and poetry to maintain a sense of rhythm.

Example: “Deep into that darkness, peering / Long I stood there, wondering, fearing.” —”The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe

Take the quiz

Ready to test your knowledge of these literary devices? Challenge yourself with our quiz—but first, review these terms with the help of our literary devices word list.

Curious about the haiku? Learn the history of this Japanese form and how to write based on the masters.

Previous How's That Work-Laugh Balance? Try These Funny Work Quotes Next Beyond The Basics: 40+ Distinctive Adjectives To Describe A Person