All writing is made up of literary devices.
Literary devices, like the good ‘ole flashback, intentionally uplevel your writing, make it better, more impactful, and craft your writing to hook readers from the introduction.
Literary devices are used to:
- Guide your readers in a specific direction to interpret your words the way you want them to
- Add color to your words to get more readers hooked from the first line
- Help you sell more of your self-published books (if you want to get serious about it).
Although the term “literary devices” can be a wee bit intimidating, they’re actually pretty simple.
In fact, you’re likely using a ton of these elements while writing your book and you don’t even realize it…(hint: your favorite TV shows use these all the time).
23 Literary devices to make your writing stronger:
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are various techniques used in writing to help you express yourself and your ideas in a slightly more creative way, making your writing and world stand out on-page.
Literary devices can be used to help you tell a story, keep your readers curious (so that they keep reading), and amp up the tension in your story or book. Ultimately, when used well, they can make your writing much stronger.
Authors use literary devices, like imagery, to help convey their intended perception of the writing for the reader.
You probably remember learning about literary devices like personification, foreshadowing, and metaphors in school.
While these are very common types of literary elements, there are many more you can use to make your writing stand out in comparison to others.
Using these devices will help your writing become stronger and better.
Our list of useful literary devices for writers
When it comes to writing, you always want to be learning more.
Why? Because the more you know, the better your writing will be.
There’s no need to use every single literary term in your book, but by knowing what’s available for you to use and how to use it strategically, your writing will become stronger and therefore, more captivating to readers.
1 – Allusion
No, this is not an illusion, though the two can be confused with one another.
An allusion is a literary device that references a person, place, thing, or event in the real world. You can use this to paint a clear picture or to even connect with your readers.
Allusions are often used as literary elements that help connect the reader to the works. By referencing something the reader may be familiar with within the real world, this invests them more than if you didn’t have any connections.
“Careful, now. You don’t want to go opening Pandora’s Box.”
In this example, the allusion is Pandora’s Box. Because this is a reference to a real-life element, it’s considered an allusion.
“He was a real goodguy ball-buster, the Deadpool of his time.”
In this example, the narrator is using Deadpool as the allusion by referencing the person they’re describing as being like the super-hero (if you can call him that) Deadpool.
2 – Diction
Diction is a literary device that’s the choice of words or style used by the writer in order to convey their message.
Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that diction is the way in which the author wants to write to a specific audience.
Here are the different types of diction and what they mean:
- Formal diction – This is when the word choice is more formal or high class. Oftentimes, writers use formal diction as a literary device when more educated individuals are speaking or the content is for those with higher education.
- Informal diction – When your characters (or you writing a nonfiction) are speaking directly to everyday people, this type of diction would be use as it’s more conversational.
- Slang diction – Slang is commonly used for a younger audience and includes newly coined words or phrases. An example of this would be use of the word, “fleek” or other new slang phrases.
- Colloquial diction – This is when words that are used in everyday life are written. These may be different depending on the culture or religions present in the writing.
“I bid you adieu.”
The diction present here is formal diction, as most people don’t use “bid” and “adieu” regularly in everyday speach.
“I remember her hair in particular, because it was on fleek!“
Here, “fleek” is a slang term used to describe a woman’s hair, which means it’s slang diction.
3 – Alliteration
Alliteration is a literary device that uses the same letters or sounds at the beginning of words in a sentence or title.
There are many nursery rhymes that use alliteration but this is also useful for creating something memorable within your writing.
You can also use alliteration when choosing the title of your book, as it makes it easier to remember, as you can see in the example of alliterative titles below.
4 – Allegory
An allegory is a figure of speech where abstract ideas are described using characters, events, or other elements.
That’s more of a fancy way of saying that instead of being literal with an idea, you use characters, events, or other elements in order to describe it in a way the reader can better understand.
Think of it as a story within a story. You use characters, events, or other means to represent the literal meaning.
This one is a little better understood with examples than a definition.
One of the most famous works using allegory is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The perceived story is about a group of farm animals who rise up and defeat humans, but the underlying story is about the Russian Revoluation.
Using an allegory is often telling a darker story in a way that’s easier to understand and for readers to receive.
5 – Colloquialism
One way to increase the world-building in your book is to use colloquialisms.
Colloquialisms are expressions, words, and phrases that are used in informal, everyday speech, including slang.
You can use these in a couple of different ways. Firstly, you can use these as slang in the real world, and secondly, you can even create your book’s own colloquialisms for their world and culture, and even when writing dialogue.
- Bamboozle – to deceieve
- Gonna – going to
- Be blue – to be sad
- Bugger off – go away
- Over yonder – over there
- Da bomb – the best
You can create your own coloquialisms within your own world to increase the realism.
6 – Euphemism
We tend to think of euphemisms as sexual euphemisms, which is how they’re often used. However, euphemisms are actually any terms that refer to something impolite or unpleasant.
We create phrases or other words in order to avoid using the actual term because they’re impolite, rude, or indecent. Those alternatives are considered euphemisms.
This is often why we think of sexual euphemisms when we hear of this literary device. Most individuals would rather make a much lighter comment when referring to something as “indecent” as sex, but the same case is made for when someone dies.
- Before I go – before I die
- Do the dirty – have sex
- perspiration – sweating
- Thin on top – bald
- Tipsy – drunk
- Having a loose screw – being dumb
7 – Flashbacks
Flashbacks in literature are when the narrator goes back in time for a specific scene or chapter in order to give more context for the story.
Oftentimes, we see flashbacks in books where the past greatly impacts the present or as a way to start a story off on an interesting note. This is seen in Harry Potter whenever Harry gets to see a memory of the past from Dumbledore or even Snape.
For example, in Vicious by V.E. Schwab, she uses flashbacks as a recurring element in her book. Every other chapter goes back in time and then back to the present for the next chapter as a way to structure the story itself.
So in this instance, Schwab is using this literary device to shape the entire narrative of her story instead of simply using it as a single piece, which is a unique take on flashbacks.
8 – Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is when the author places elements within the writing that gives clues about what will happen in the future of the story.
These can often be small bits and pieces that some readers might not pick up on the first read-through. They might even look back and realize that certain elements were foreshadowing once they hit the climax or a big plot twist was revealed.
Foreshadowing can be both literal and thematic.
You can write a scene where there’s a conversation that the reader can’t fully understand the meaning of until more is revealed.
You can also write a scene that has symbolic elements that foreshadow events, like placing a black crow in a scene that foreshadows a death, as crows are symbolic of this.
If you really want to up your creative writing, you can even create themes to foreshadow within your own world.
As an example of this literary device, you can create a culture in which rabbits are a “known” sign of change and conspicuously place a rabbit in a later scene.
In Back to the Future, one of the clocks in the opening credits has actor Harold Lloyd from the silem film Safety First hanging from the minute hand. This foreshadows Doc Brown hanging from the Hill Valley clock tower later in the movie as he tried to send Marty McFly back to the 1980s.
In The Avengers Tony Stark makes a comment about one of the ship’s engineers playing a game called Galaga as they all get together for the first time. The objective of the game in real life is to defend Earth from alien invaders, which is what happens later in the movie.
We’ve also put together this really helpful video about using foreshadowing in your novels—specifically how to use it effectively without giving away the good stuff. If you like to learn from videos, I cover a ton of great info below:
9 – Imagery
This is one that we briefly touched on above and also one you likely learned in school, though it may have been a while since then so we’ll give you a refresher.
Imagery is when you use visually descriptive or figurative language in your writing. Think of it more like showing versus telling in writing where you use more sensory language versus blunt, plain words.
You would also use stronger verbs in order to present stronger imagery in your writing.
Here’s an example of imagery /p>
Notice how Kidder uses visuals to bring life to her words. You’re very easily able to picture where this scene takes place and exactly what those rocks look like.
10 – Personification
Personification is a literary device where you give human-like qualities to non-human elements.
This is one of the most well-known literary devices and it’s useful for a number of reasons:
- Creates a stronger visual
- Pulls readers further into your world
- Helps the readers relate to and understand what’s going on
- It can allow readers to have a new perspective
- You can give readers a new view on a typical visual/occurrence
- The wind whistled past my ears like a familiar tune I’d long forgotten.
- The moon yanked a blanket of silver light over the forest.
- Squatting in the corner was a felt chair covered in the dust and damp of abandonment.
11 – Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition means placing contrasting elements next to one another in order to emphasize one or both, including words, scenes, or themes.
This literary device can sound overly fancy but it’s quite simple.
Many times, authors will use juxtaposition in order to create a stronger emotional reaction from readers.
Think of when a happy moment in a movie or book is followed by a sad, heart-wrenching scene. That scene is made even worse by the fact that we just had our emotions on a high.
Juxtaposition can also be used on a smaller scale, with contrasting words or phrases next to each other in order to emphasize both, like in the first example below.
However, when it comes to giving your book that “rollercoaster” ride of emotion effect, juxtaposition used on a larger scale can make a huge difference.
- “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 Tales of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
- I hate loving you.
- You will soon be asked to do great violence in the cause of good. – The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
12 – Metaphor/Simile
This is the most popular literary device that has to be used with caution because if used too much, metaphors and similes can reek of cliches and amateur writing.
Metaphors and similes are comparisons used to create better clarification and understanding for readers.
While these are similar, they’re quite different.
A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are NOT alike and replaces the word with another word.
Similes are comparisons between two things that are NOT like and replace the word with another word but uses “like” or “as” within it.
- She was drowning in a sea of her own despair.
- His heart was lead, weighed down by the memory of what he’d done.
- It was like she was drowning in a sea of her own despair.
- His heart was as heavy as lead, weighed down by the memory of what he’d done.
13 – Onomatopoeia
While its name may be confusing, this literary device is actually easy to understand once you get past its difficult spelling.
An onomatopoeia is a word or phrase that shows you the sound something makes. Since we can’t hear books, this literary device is best used to paint a clear picture and include the sense of hearing in your writing.
When using this literary element in writing, the correct formatting is almost always to have the word italicized to show emphasis of the sound.
14 – Symbolism
Every story uses symbolism in some way. This literary device is the use of a situation or element to represent a larger message, idea, or concept.
Many times, authors use symbolism as a way to convey a broader message that speaks to more readers. You can also use symbolism to foreshadow what will happen later in the story.
- Crows are used to symbolize a bad omen, like death
- The color purple symbolizes royalty
- The color red can symbolize death, struggle, power, passion
- Spiders can symbolize spying, sneaky, or untrustworthiness
15 – Tone
The tone of a book is something that conveys the narrator’s opinion, attitude, or feelings about what is written.
This literary device has the power to shape the entire narrative.
For example, if you want to catch a reader off-guard when something traumatic or intense happens, keeping the tone light and humorous before the event can increase the sensation of shock and tension.
Tone can guide your readers right into the emotion you want them to feel in a particular scene.
16 – Synecdoche
This big and nearly unpronounceable word refers to a part of “something” being used to represent the whole of that “something.” Let’s replace the word “something” with a few examples to help make things clearer than mud.
A foreman asks, “How many hired hands do we need for that upcoming project?” The synecdoche is “hands,” with hands representing the term “workers.”
A General tells his fellow strategists, “We need more boots on the ground.” The synecdoche here is boots, a part of a soldier’s uniform. The boots refer to the soldier as a whole, or in this case, many soldiers.
17 – Polysyndeton
Polysyndetons emphasize the constant continuation of a character’s long-winded dialogue, and thoughts, and feelings, and clothing choices, and schedules, and the dishes need to get done, and the laundry needs switching to the dryer, and the plumber needs calling–
Oh, right, polysyndetons. You may have noted the repetitive use of “and” to connect a series of words, clauses, or statements in the abovementioned paragraph. This repetitive use of the same conjunction is how you utilize the literary device known as a polysyndeton.
Writers use polysyndetons to engage the reader by creating a sense of never-ending. It can project an adult’s sense of anxiety over their To Do list; and then it can express the naivety of a child who is excited to tell you every teeny tiny minuscule aspect of their day; and then you have feature films like Dude Where’s My Car where the polysyndetons are used to great comedic effect in the Chinese Drive Through scene; and then– Well the possibilities are endless.
“You had me worried sick, Peter! I couldn’t get a hold of you! For all I know, you could have been in a car accident, or stranded on the highway, or abducted by some serial killer!” said Sandy.
“Mom, I’m fine. I’m still in one piece. Nice use of polysyndeton by the way. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
18 – Metonymy
This literary device is not as hard as saying anemone but still might appear to equate to Greek, probably because it is, in a sense. The word metonymy stems from the Greek word metōnumíā where metō means “other,” and ónoma means “name.” With this said, a metonymy is when a writer substitutes the name of something with something else that is also familiar.
One of the more common uses of metonymy arises when we address political institutions.
“The White House” is used to symbolize the Executive Branch of the US government.
“The Kremlin” is associated with the Russian Government.
“The Crown” represents the UK’s Monarchy as a whole.
19 – Malapropism
When your spouse gives an odd look because you told them the terminator stopped by when you meant to say exterminator, you have experienced the joys of a literary device known as a malapropism.
Malapropisms replace appropriate words with similar-sounding words. However, a malapropism is not a pun—the difference between the two lies in the intent. A malapropism occurs by accident or through a misunderstanding of a word’s meaning. In contrast, a pun occurs intentionally to bring forth laughs.
A writer can and often does incorporate a malapropism into a well-meaning character’s dialogue; this can appear as an off-handed slip-up or an intentional statement with a mispronounced word.
“I’m a very modest person,” said Cynthia.
“I think you mean a moderate person,” said Kevin as they walked stark naked, hand in hand, along the nudist beach.
20 – Litotes
Litotes are verbal irony that expresses the opposite of what is meant by presenting the subject in a dimmer light, i.e., “He isn’t the brightest bulb.” However, it must be noted litotes only occur when we express an understatement through negation. Without negation, there is irony but no litote. Let’s look at a few more examples to understand better that litotes are not rocket science.
Litotes are often seen in the biting remarks presented with pretty bows to soften the blow.
“How is Hannah handling being in the hospital?” asked Ann.
“Well, she isn’t thrilled about it,” said Carl.
We use them to state the contrary without telling someone they are flat-out wrong.
“I can never get you to agree to anything,” said Wendy.
“I wouldn’t say no to a drink,” said Sarah.
We use them to confront reality when life gets a little sticky.
Jim watched his son run headlong into the goalpost and collapse in a heap. A moment later, though, the boy returned to his feet. Jim sighed in relief. His son wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but at least the boy knew how to bounce back from adversity.
21 – Isocolon
Isocolons, a Greek term meaning “of equal members or clauses,” are phrases that often become common sayings or occur as slogans in advertisements because of their poetic, catchy, and pithy nature. They also arise as calls to action in great speeches and demonstrate a sense of deliberation and forethought on the narrator’s part.
There are three noted variations of an isocolon: bicolon, tricolon, and tetracolon. A bicolon is split into two phrases; a tricolon is split into three phrases, and a tetracolon is split into four phrases. Let’s look at an example of each below.
Example of bicolon:
“American by birth. Rebel by choice.” – Harley Davidson
Example of tricolon:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” – Dwight Eisenhower
Example of a tetracolon:
“I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads, My gorgeous palace for a hermitage, My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown, My figured goblets for a dish of wood…” – Richard II by William Shakespeare.
Isocolons beyond four clauses:
“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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
22 – Tautology
A tautology occurs when a writer uses the same words or synonyms through repetition to emphasize a point. This literary device can be tricky because although some writers use repetition to emphasize a point poetically, others use repetition to emphasize a point in a way that may appear redundant. For example, this paragraph uses repetition to emphasize a point 在某种程度上,有些人可能会称之为冗余, others would consider clever, but all would agree is a tautology.
Let’s look at a few shorter examples of tautology that use synonyms and occur in our everyday language.
With the groceries in the car, we could return back home.
Enjoy your free gift!
Do you know what your VIN number is?
What can I say, redundant or not, for better or worse, it is what it is, a tautology. In fact, I’m sure you’ll find more and more tautologies than you bargained for now that you know what they are. Happy repeating!
23 – Tmesis
The tmesis takes wordplay to a-whole-nother level and is one of the most a-dork-able literary devices you can use. Not sure what a tmesis is? What a co-wink-a-dink; neither are most people, but nearly everyone has heard of or used them at some point.
Tmesis, another Greek word, means “to cut”. If you think a tmesis is a literary device that allows writers to cut into multi-syllable words with clever one-word quips, you’d be exact-attack-ly right!
The lengths some writers may go to to butcher words may appear un-freaking-believable, but the tmesis doesn’t mean you can carve into letters just anywhere. In fact, to make a tmesis, you need to insert your stitches into your Frankenstein after a stressed syllable, preferably the most stressed syllable or just before the last stressed syllable in the word, franken-under-stein? Good!
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