Literary devices are the tools writers use to bring literature to life. Literature is like art with words; in the same way an artist might use paintbrushes, textures, colors, and different mediums, so might a writer use literary devices to render their real or imagined worlds and characters.
The following vocabulary list represents just a few of the most common literary devices.
Allegory usually didactic (meant to impart a lesson), an allegory is a kind of story in which abstract concepts (such as love, war, or death) became objects, characters, or places in the story. For example, consider Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” where light symbolizes knowledge and darkness symbolizes ignorance.
Alliteration multiple words in a row which start with the same sound (vowel or consonant). Example: silly snakes slither silently.
Allusion an indirect reference, usually to another work, outside of the text, without explicitly naming the reference point. For example, in Hamlet, the scene of Old Hamlet being poisoned in the castle garden by his brother -- who is referred to as a “serpent” -- would likely be a familiar allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden for highly religious Elizabethan readers (1.5.36).
Anagnorisis the scene of recognition in a Tragedy, as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. In this scene, the tragic hero realizes their true identity or tragic flaw (hamartia). Example: when in Antigone by Sophocles Creon finally admits he made the wrong decision about sentencing Antigone to death for burying her brother in accordance with the will of the Gods.
Anaphora a repeated grammatical structure for rhetorical effect. For example, Frederick Douglass often uses anaphora for emphasis: "O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me!" In this instance, the repeated use of "O" adds rhythmic and dramatic emphasis to his feelings of disappointment of seeing ships move freely while he is enslaved.
Antagonist an opposing force to the protagonist. The antagonist may be a villain, but not necessarily: it could be an animal, an abstract concept, or the environment. Example: the antagonist in Hamlet might be Claudius; in Antigone, Creon.
Anthropomorphism imbuing a nonhuman entity with human behaviors or attributes. Example: the daffodils in Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” are described as “dancing,” which is a distinctly human behavior (6). Similar to personification, but slightly different.
Anti-Hero a type of protagonist who may not have the moral uprightness required of a hero. This character usually elicits the sympathy of their audience, but may be morally unscrupulous in their methods (such as an assassin who murders child abusers). A popular culture example of this would be Deadpool, because he is the main character and generally audiences cheer him on, but he speaks using inappropriate language, is sexually promiscuous and tends to be chaotic and over-the-top in his violence.
Antithesis the opposite of a thesis. Example: if one’s main argument, or thesis, is that
Assonance multiple vowel sounds in close proximity within a text. For example, “my mouth wound itself around the soulful sounds of the poem’s words.”
Autobiography a work of creative nonfiction written about the author’s life, as written by the author (as opposed to being written by someone other than the author). An example of this would be the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Compare to biography
Bildungsroman a coming of age story, usually involving a young person becoming an adult (and changing fundamentally by surviving a challenging moment). A pop culture example would be the Harry Potter series, which chronicles Harry Potter’s difficult teenage years.
Biography a nonfiction story about a person’s life, written by someone other than the person who lived the life. Compare to autobiography
Caesura a pause or break within the line of a poem. Often defined in comparison to a line break or an enjambment. For example,
Catharsis the purgation of emotion, usually pity and fear, at the end of a play. According to Aristotle in Poetics, this is one of the defining characteristics of a Tragedy.
Chiasmus leverage of reverse grammatical structure for rhetorical effect: think of it like a boomerang of words. For example, consider this excerpt from Paradise Lost by John Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (1. 254-55). In this case, heaven of hell hell of heaven reverses the words and ideas, bringing them back unto themselves with new meaning.
Chremamorphism imbuing a human being with the qualities of a nonhuman inanimate object or machine. For example, in “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth, the speaker describes themselves as a cloud.
Cliche a phrase or trope which has been used so many times that it has, some would argue, outrun its extended warranty so that it becomes boring and uncreative. For example, Robert Burns' image of love as a "red rose" has been so used that it has become cliche.
Colloquialism an informal word used in common, everyday speech. A word you likely would be ill advised to use in a formal job interview. For example, Californians often say “hella” (though this phrase was already dated by the time this textbook goes into publication)
Comedy a type of play which usually deals with less serious themes, centers on entertainment, may feature more bawdy or common characters, and often ends with a literal or metaphorical wedding. Often juxtaposed with Tragedy. An example of this would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Conflict is the tension in a literary work created by opposition between one or more of the following characters: (1) protagonist vs. antagonist (2) protagonist vs. self (3) protagonist vs. environment (4) protagonist vs. society, or some other oppositional relationship. Without conflict there can be no plot. For example, the conflict in Hamlet is between Hamlet (protagonist) and Claudius(antagonist), but also could be interpreted as between Hamlet and his own self-doubt.
Consonance two or more words in close proximity which share a consonant sound. For example, “the slithering snake shakes its little rattle.”
Couplet two lines of poetry which share an end rhyme. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets end with a couplet.
Creative Nonfiction as Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine defines it, “true stories, well told.” That is, Creative Nonfiction boasts all of the literary adornments that ficiton does (literary devices, skilled writing) but rather than stemming from the imagination, the stories relayed in Creative Nonfiction are true.
Deus ex machina literally translating to “God in the machine,” in Greek drama the deus ex machina was a literal machine that dropped down an actor playing a God on the stage for dramatic effect, usually to save a hero at the last minute from a sticky situation. In literature nowadays, this literary device refers to a somewhat non-believable plot device which saves the hero from an otherwise intractable situation.
Double entendre a word or phrase which has multiple meanings, often to snarky, bawdy, or humorous effect. For example, when Claudius asks Hamlet why the clouds hang on him, Hamlet responses that he is “too much in the sun.” The word sun means the sun, as in the big star which heats our planet, but also son, as in he is not only Old Hamlet’s son, but now also the stepson of Claudius. Hamlet is expressing petulance towards his uncle for this reason.
Drama a work of literature which is meant to be performed by actors rather than simply read.
Ekphrasis the description of a work of art within a work of literature. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde famously describes the picture of Dorian Gray, which is an example of ekphrasis.
Elegy a poem expressing grief over the dead. For example, “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg” was written by William Wordsworth in memory of poet James Hogg.
Elision is the dropping of a syllable in a word, usually to make the word fit in a poetic meter. For example, in William Wordsworth’s poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” one of the lines reads “that floats on high o’er vale and hill.” In this line, the word “over” is shortened to “o’er” in order to reduce its syllabus from two to one, so that it fits in with the iambic tetrameter of the rest of the poem.
Epistolary a type of story written in letter or journal entry form. “Bajadas” by Francisco Cantu is a journal of Cantu’s experiences while working as a border patrol agent, as indicated by the dates written at the top of each vignette. This is a classic epistolary story.
Fiction a story invented from the imagination of a writer. Distinct from Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction, which is based in reality.
Flashforward a plot device where the narrative jumps forward in time. For example, when
Flashback a plot device where the narrative goes back in time. For example, in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, the present moment of the story takes place while Farquhar is on the bridge waiting to be hanged by the Union soldiers, but the plot jumps back in time to tell the story of how Farquhar arrived at this current predicament.
Foil a character which, through juxtaposition, reveals something about another character; a kind of shadow character. For example, while Hamlet dilly dallies over whether or not to avenge his father’s death, hot-spirited Laertes wastes no time in demanding vengeance for his father’s death.
Foreshadowing is when the author gives hints about the plot developments to come before they happen. For example, in Antigone, Tiriesias warns Creon something awful will happen to his family unless he apologizes to the Gods and frees Antigone.
Genre the style of writing. The most common genres of literature are creative nonfiction, fiction, drama and poetry. Within these genres, there are subgenres, like short stories, flash fiction, lyric poetry, and so forth. Genre is a means of categorization for works of literature.
Hamartia according to Aristotle, hamartia is the “fatal flaw” which brings about the downfall of the tragedy’s hero.
Hero a protagonist of a story who is morally upright and generally meant to be looked upon favorably by readers. For example, Superman would be a characteristic hero.
Hubris one of the most common examples of hamartia, at least in Ancient Greek stories, hubris is the tragic flaw of excessive pride
Hyperbole an exaggeration for rhetorical effect; for example when Wordsworth describes the field of daffodils in “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as “ten thousand saw I at a glance,” he likely did not literally count ten thousand daffodils, but the number is meant to demonstrate the immense quantity
Iambic Pentameter a style of poetic meter in which five sets of iambs (or ten syllables) appear per line of poem. Each iamb contains an unstressed and stressed syllable. For example, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" in Shakespeare's Sonnet 118 is a solid example of Iambic Pentameter.
Imagery descriptive, immersive details meant to paint a picture in the reader’s mind: the five kinds of description follow the five senses: auditory (sound), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell), and the most common, visual (sight)
Line an organization tool in a poem, a line is usually a sentence or part of a sentence running horizontally across the page
Line Break an organizational tool in a poem, a line break is when one line ends and another begins
Linear Narrative a story where the plot unfolds chronologically, without flashbacks or forwards (see fabula, nonlinear narrative)
Magical Realism a style of writing in which fantastical elements are described in realistic detail, as popularized by Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges & Isabel Allende. “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is a popular example of magical realism, in that the angel in the story is described in gritty detail.
Memoir a creative nonfiction work about a person’s life
Metaphor the use of figurative language to describe one object using another for rhetorical effect, without using the words "like" or "as." For example, when Hamlet describes Claudius as a "snake" or Polonius as a "rat" and "fishmonger."
Meter related to the rhythm of the story, meter is determined by stressed and unstressed syllables. Different poems use different types of meter for effect. See iambic pentameter
Metonym is a use of figurative language where a part or aspect of an object or idea stands in for the whole. For example, in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass describes a scene on the "Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe" where the sails represent ships.
Myth a fictional story of epic proportions, usually told to explain the world, promote a religion, or imbue a society with values. An example of a myth would be the myth of narcissus written in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which explained the origins of daffodils and echoes & also showed that Greeks saw excessive pride as an undesirable trait.
Nonfiction an umbrella term which encompasses creative nonfiction, nonfiction is simply the antithesis of fiction: written work depicting reality. The difference between creative nonfiction and nonfiction is that creative nonfiction strives to be literary while nonfiction is often more informational in nature (see: a science textbook, for example).
Narrator the speaker of the story, who may be a character within the story or an objective, unnamed narrator; the perspective of the story
Novel a work of prose fiction, usually 50,000 words or longer
Objective Correlative a phrase coined by poet T.S. Eliot, the objective correlative is the idea that a particular object, setting or symbol can evoke emotion; for example, a desert can prompt feelings of emptiness or loneliness
Ode a poem written in praise of its subject; for example, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "To Autumn" by John Keats are both written in praise of the Grecian Urn and the season of fall, respectively.
Onomatopoeia words that sound like the object they are intending to describe. For example, the word “shush” phonetically sounds like the action it is intended to represent. Other examples include bang, thud, hiss.
Peripeteia the reversal of fortune which occurs to a tragic hero, as defined by Aristotle in Poetics. An example of peripeteia is when Creon, who has all the power and control in Antigone, suddenly finds out his son and wife have died, and his entire world is flipped upside down.
Personification giving human qualities to animals or objects for the sake of imagery. For example, “the trees’ branches reached towards the sun like arms.” Similar to anthropomorphism
Perspective the lens through which the story is told. For example, the story might be told in first person (I, me), second person (you) or third person (it, they, she, he, nouns).
Play see drama
Plot is the events or action of the story, and the order in which the events are told.
Poetry is difficult to define, as it is amorphous: often, one can recognize poetry by its use of line, meter, and stanzas (i.e. it is not written in prose), but poetry can also (though less commonly) be written in prose. A poem may rhyme (or not), but usually the emphasis of poetry is to evoke a feeling in the reader in surprising ways.
Point of View the perspective through which the story is told. For example, the story might be told in first person (I, me), second person (you) or third person (it, they, she, he, nouns). Point of View can even shift throughout the story, moving from one character’s perspective to another, or from characters to a narrator.
Prose written work without line breaks AKA anything that is not a poem, such as fiction and creative nonfiction.
Protagonist the main character of a story, who is often but not always the hero of the story. For example, the protagonist of Paradise Lost by John Milton is Satan, even though most would not consider him a hero.
Pun a play on words, usually for comedic or rhetorical effect. Often it relies upon a word having two meanings or sounding like another word. For example, if someone says a joke/pun and I respond with “very punny!”, I am responding to a pun with a pun, since “punny” sounds like “funny” but also indicates awareness of the original statement’s status as a pun. Similar to the double entendre.
Quatrain a cluster of four lines in a poem
Realism a style of literature in which, whether fiction or nonfiction, events are described as realistically as possible; that is, true to life. For example, Ambrose Bierce,who fought for the Union during the Civil War, described war in brutal, gritty detail in his stories, whereas many previous authors described war as heroic and glorious. See verisimilitude.
Rhyme two words paired together with similar sounds, for example "boon" and "moon"
Rhythm the "heartbeat" of language in which words fall into patterns for euphonistic or discordant effect. Often this is achieved through syllabic emphasis such as meter.
Romance a work of literature whose principal subject is love between two characters
Romanticism a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries largely viewed as a reaction against Enlightenment and Industrialization which emphasized the value of nature over industry, feelings over logic, and a sense of nostalgia for the past
Setting the place where the literature takes place. For example, “Bajadas” by Francisco Cantú takes place on the U.S. Mexico border, and Hamlet takes place in Denmark.
Simile a figurative use of language in which one thing is compared to another using the words, similar to a metaphor except it uses the words “like” or “as.” For example, Robert Burns’ famous poem “A Red, Red Rose” begins with the line “O my Luve is like a red, red rose” (1).
Speaker the narrator of a poem; the voice or perspective through which a poem is told. For example, the speaker in “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson is presumably a townsperson who watches Richard Cory from a distance.
Stanza is a poem paragraph: that is, a poem may be divided into clumps of lines for rhetorical effect. If there are no spaces, the poem is described as being only one stanza. Some poems, like Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” have multiple stanzas.
Stream of Consciousness is when the point of view dips in and out of third person into characters’ points of view seamlessly, as if the reader is dipping their toes in a stream of the thoughts and ideas of characters.
Symbolism is the use of a physical object to represent an abstract idea. For example, while physically a piece of colored cloth, to some the United States’ flag represents freedom, to others sacrifice, and to others oppression.
Synecdoche figurative language in which a part stands in for the hole. For example, one might say “he relinquished the crown” to insinuate someone giving up their role as king, where crown stands in for the king and is simultaneously symbolic of power.
Synesthesia the mixing of senses or descriptive imagery; using one sense to describe another. For example, the phrase “summer tastes yellow” mixes gustatory imagery (taste) with visual imagery (yellow).
Syntax the order of words in a sentence. For example, in Hamlet, when Polonius says “To thine own self be true,” he disorders the syntax used in contemporary spoken language (be true to yourself); writers often manipulate syntax for rhetorical effect
Syuzhet is a Russian formalist term used to describe the manner in which a story is told rather than the content of the story. See: nonlinear narrative. It is often paired with the term fabula, meaning the actual story events. While fabula might describe the story events, syuzhet describes the order in which they are related in the narrative. For example, in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce, the fabula is that a Confederate Soldier gets caught attempting to burn down a Union Bridge and is hanged by Union soldiers for his crime. The syuzhet of the story is much more fragmented and jumps around in time.
Theme the main idea(s) of a work of literature. For example, some of the themes of Hamlet might be grief, vengeance, or political corruption.
Thesis the main argument of an essay. A strong thesis in literary criticism is a debatable interpretation of a literary work, based on observations about that work.
Tone can be described as the attitude or mood of the work, and the style of narration. For example, the tone of Hamlet is dark and scathing, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream is dreamlike and, overall, happy
Tragedy, as defined by Aristotle in his work Poetics, is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” Classic examples of Tragedy might include the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles or Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Tragic Hero as defined by Aristotle’s Poetics, the tragic hero is the focal character of a tragedy, who is mostly good but due to some flaw (hamartia) is doomed to fall. The character must go through plot elements such as peripeteia (reversal of fortune), anagnorisis (recognition), and ultimately result in catharsis (purgation of pity and fear). Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone is often cited as a tragic hero archetype; Hamlet might also be described as a tragic hero.
Trope: any type of figurative language, or figurative phrase, used to describe a literal situation. For example, when poet Robert Burns refers to his love as a "red, red rose," this is a trope of the rose as a symbol of love. A trope has also come to have negative connotations as a use of figurative language which has become overused, such as the aforementioned rose as love metaphor.
Unreliable Narrator is a first-person narrator of a work of literature who is not to be trusted. They may be morally questionable or dishonest, or have a flaw which makes them difficult to understand for the reader. One example of an unreliable narrator might be Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita, because, though he is intelligent and articulate, he is a child molester whose morality readers would be apt to question. Similarly, Briony Tallis, the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, is an unreliable narrator because of her young age and her lies falsely accusing another character of rape.
Verisimilitude is how realistic a work of literature seems. It does not necessarily mean the work is true: for example, a work of fiction can have strong verisimilitude in that the reality of the text is so artfully rendered that it seems real to the reader. To put it colloquially, verisimilitude is what Stephen Colbert might call the “truthiness” of a work.
Vignette is a method of organizing a work of literature wherein rather than telling the story chronologically, the story is told through snapshots of brief scenes or moments. For example, “Bajadas” by Francisco Cantu told through a series of vignettes about the narrator’s time on the border.
Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism; that is, it is describing human characters with animal-like qualities, or reducing humans to animals. For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet describes Claudius as goatlike (satyr), as a serpent, and Polonius as a rat.
Zeugma is a grammatical construct where a single word or phrase yokes together two different ideas for rhetorical effect. For example, “the flowers withered and so did she.” Here “withered” yokes together “flowers” and “she,” using the verb in a traditional way as it is applied to flowers, but in a figurative way to imply sadness or defeat when applied to “she.”