What I find most beautiful about high-quality writing is that great authors don’t necessarily need to say it as it is in order to make themselves understood.
Oftentimes, it is precisely indirect characterization, comparison, and imagery that help the reader truly connect with the work.
“His eyes were grey.”
“His eyes were a storm engulfing me whole.”
While the first phrase is perfectly fine, the latter goes the extra mile to enrich the reader’s imagination and touch upon the emotional side within all of us, making the story all the more immersive.
And that’s exactly what literary devices are for. Apart from setting the theme and mood of the story, they also serve to bring out the meaning and beauty in everyday language, forcing us to think critically and creatively during the reading experience.
But how can you identify a literary device? And what different literary techniques are there?
What is a literary device?
A literary device is a technique or an element in prose and poetry whose importance lies in the power of connections.
For example, “His eyes were a storm engulfing me whole” is a metaphor that draws parallels between the color grey and the color of a stormy sky, as well as the feelings we associate with storms – chaos, power, intensity – and the feeling of falling in love.
Since both the author and the reader inherently understand this connection, the reader better understands the author’s motivations, not to mention that it makes for a more enriching and immersive read.
There are many different literary devices you can use in your own writing, starting off with…
A metaphor is probably the most popular literary device in literature. And no wonder – thanks to our great pattern recognition skills, we humans love to compare one thing to another.
Metaphors aren’t only found in literature, though; they’re also used in everyday language.
Just consider this: “Lucy is an early bird.”
Of course, Lucy isn’t actually a bird. But when we describe her thus, we don’t only mean that she gets up early – we’re also comparing her high levels of energy early in the morning to the enthusiasm with which birds sing at 4 AM.
The deeper meaning of these comparisons allows for a richer sense of understanding between people, enhancing our collective imagination.
Examples of a metaphor:
- “Thomas was a walking textbook.”
- “The sky is a vast sea.”
- “Her freckles were his favorite constellation.”
Similes can be easily mistaken for metaphors because they carry a very similar meaning.
The major difference is that a simile relies on the words “like” and “as” – instead of saying that someone’s eyes were a storm, you would tweak the phrasing to, “His eyes were like a storm.”
The point is to create a higher degree of separation between the two comparisons.
Examples of a simile:
- “He walks past me without a single glance in my direction, as if I were nothing but air.”
- “The sky looks like a vast sea.”
- “After she’d left, I felt as if I’d been hollowed out.”
Allegory belongs to one of my favorite literary devices because it’s what allows literature to engage the reader on a critical level and comment on issues in the real world without being too blatantly obvious.
Take Animal Farm by George Orwell. While the story does not mention any real political events, it is a pointed critique of the Russian Revolution.
Many dystopian and fantasy books work on the same basis – they discuss political or societal problems very much present in our real lives while shrouding them in magic or placing them into future imagined states and made-up countries.
Popular books that could be viewed as allegories:
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
RELATED READ: Metaphor vs. Personification
An allusion is an indirect mention of another novel, event, or person that extends beyond the confines of the story in question.
It can be used for many purposes, including comedic relief, intertextuality, or an enhanced meaning of the novel at hand.
For example, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter contains plenty of allusions to historical figures, places, and folktale motives in order to highlight the ubiquitous nature of patriarchy and to drive the feminist message home.
Examples of an allusion:
- “You’re my Romeo.”
- “You too, Brutus?”
- “They built a home so peaceful that she felt it was their own Garden of Eden.”
When you exaggerate something to the point of absurdity, you’re essentially using a hyperbole.
We all employ hyperboles from time to time – “It took me ages to finally get it done!” – but apart from expressing frustration, hyperboles also serve to give stories a deeper meaning.
The Nose by Nikolai Gogol, for instance, is about a man losing his nose. The whole story basically revolves around him trying to get his nose back, but underneath all this absurdity, there is a deeper message about alienation and the importance we place on social status.
Examples of a hyperbole:
- “I thought he’d never stop talking!”
- “This Math homework is killing me.”
- “Where are you? I’ve been waiting for an eternity!”
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines two contradictory terms into a specific meaning.
If you write, “The silence was deafening,” you’re using an oxymoron because silence is the complete opposite of loud deafening noises, and yet it makes sense within the context of the phrase – the silence is so oppressing that the character can’t stand it.
Examples of an oxymoron:
- “Their goodbye was bittersweet.”
- “That would be a definite maybe.”
- “This is an awfully good book!”
Please note: An oxymoron is different from a paradox. While they are both of a contradictory nature, an oxymoron is a play with words while a paradox is a self-contradicting statement:
“I must be cruel to be kind.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare
RELATED READ: Logical Fallacies: Definition and Examples
Another common literary device is that which attributes human characteristics to non-living objects – personification.
Through personification, we can express feelings, describe situations in more depth, and give our story an enhanced meaning.
Examples of personification:
- “Her heart leaped.”
- “The door creaked in protest.”
- “The sun kissed my cheek.”
“Oh, so when all the silverware comes alive in Beauty and the Beast, that’s personification, right?”
Actually, no. While personification is a figure of speech that serves metaphoric purposes, anthropomorphism is when objects or animals gain real human traits throughout the story.
Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm relies on anthropomorphism to create a distance between real-world events and the fictional world of the story itself.
Other examples of anthropomorphism include:
- Animals exhibiting human traits in The Lion King
- Cars having personalities and aspirations in the movie Cars
- Magical creatures having human features and goals and being able to communicate with humans in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Symbolism is an incredibly useful literary tool if you want to make your story gain meaning while keeping things a little cryptic.
The basic principle is that you take an object and turn it into a representation of something abstract. You can create your own symbolism or use objects that already exist in the public imagination, such as a rose.
Examples of symbolism:
- A red rose symbolizes love
- A white dove symbolizes peace
- A rainbow symbolizes hope
- A flame symbolizes passion
Our final common literary device is foreshadowing, which hints at future events to keep the reader hooked.
Foreshadowing can play with small details, as well as big premonitions or dreams.
When Dumbledore offers McGonagall a lemon drop in the first Harry Potter book, it’s a foreshadowing of the password to his office, which is always some sort of a sweet. Harry’s dreams, on the other hand, sometimes foreshadow big events and plot twists to come.
Examples of foreshadowing:
- Using the weather to set the tone and foreshadow potential events (a storm foreshadows danger while a clear summer day foreshadows a happy romantic scene)
- Mentioning something offhandedly and then making it into a bigger plot point later on
- A dream or a vision one of the characters has, only for that vision to come true in an unexpected way
How to Incorporate Literary Devices in Your Own Writing: 3 Tips
- Pay attention to the literary devices that pop up during your own reading. The better you get at spotting and recognizing them, the better your chances of using them well in your own work.
- Don’t overdo it. Sometimes, literal writing is a better choice than indirect hints that leave the reader way too confused. What’s more, many literary devices at once – such as putting ten different metaphors and allusions on one page – can feel inauthentic and clumsy.
- Use literary devices where they truly serve a purpose. It’s better to use a few devices that really work instead of many ineffective ones.
Literary devices are an incredible tool to enhance your writing and truly engage the reader. However, keep in mind that not always does a literary device fit the context and not always is it the best choice.
If used well, though, metaphors, allusions, symbols, and other literary techniques can give your work much more depth.