Do you want your story to jump off the page and draw readers in? Using writing techniques such as literary devices can help. Also called narrative devices, these techniques can enhance your prose, add interesting layers to your characters, and improve your pacing and flow. The overuse of literary devices can feel forced, so avoid trying to insert all of the types listed below into your book. Instead, take note of some you think would make sense for your story, or ways you could easily adapt your current writing style. When used properly, these devices can create vivid imagery and scenes that stick with a reader long after the book is closed.
Alliteration: repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words that are close to each other. When read out loud, alliteration can create a rhythm that interests listeners and keeps their attention. It’s most commonly used in poetry. In storytelling, alliteration can bring attention to a certain line or paragraph, and help those words stand out. Example: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes; A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.” — Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Diction: the specific word choices and style decisions you make as a writer. Will you use a formal tone with long sentences and complex words, or a more casual approach with simple words and short sentences? This is just one example of how diction comes into play. The choices you make can affect who your audience will be, and how well they understand the point you’re trying to make. Learn more about diction and writing styles here.
Epigraph: a short quotation at the beginning of a book or book chapter. This may be a quote from a historical figure, celebrity, poem, or song, or a definition or phrase. The epigraph can clue the reader in to what the book or chapter’s mood or subject will be. Example: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” — Balzac, quoted in The Godfather by Mario Puzo.
Euphemism: a word or phrase used in place of what would be a more embarrassing or inappropriate word or phrase. If a character uses a euphemism, it may show how uncomfortable they are in a situation, or if he or she is overly formal in the wrong settings. Euphemisms can also be used humorously, as a way to downplay a situation. Examples: common euphemisms include saying someone has “passed on” instead of "died" or declaring someone has a face “only a mother could love” instead of saying he or she is "not very good looking".
Hyperbole: obvious exaggeration not meant to be taken literally. Hyperboles emphasize strong emotions or reactions a character may be feeling, or the extremities of a situation or place. Examples: two common hyperboles are "I’m so hungry I could eat a horse" and "You could hear a pin drop a mile away".
Imagery: highly descriptive language, created by utilizing all five senses. Describing a person, place, or thing using descriptions of taste, sound, sight, smell, and/or touch.
Juxtaposition: placing two characters, locations, or ideas near or next to each other so that the reader naturally compares and contrasts the two. Examples: the classic battles between good and evil, right and wrong, or even ones between funny and serious, happy and sad.
Metaphor: a comparison of two things, not using the word "like" or "as", unlike a simile. In this case, you are implying that the one thing is the other, instead of just comparing. Examples: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” — As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Common everyday metaphors are "blanket of snow" and "time is money".
Personification: applying human qualities and characteristics to something that is not human. By describing an animal, inanimate object, concept, or something else using human descriptors, the reader can create a more clear vision in his or her head of what the writer is trying to describe. Examples: "The old car groaned as we made our way up the hill" and "The wind howled in the night".
Simile: a comparison of two things using the word "like" or "as". Examples: common everyday similes are "as strong as an ox" and "as smooth as silk". A famous simile from literature is, “The very mystery of him excited her curiosity like a door that had neither lock nor key.” — Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
Symbolism: assign a meaning to an object that is different from its original meaning. This is a way to communicate a deeper message through a simple item. Example: in The Hunger Games trilogy, the pin Katniss receives from a friend and wears into the competition, which is in the shape of a mockingjay bird, reminds her of home and her family. Later on, after Katniss joins the rebels, the bird becomes the image the rebels use in their fight against the Capitol – representing her strength, and the collective power of the rebels.
Allusion: referring – or alluding – to something outside of the book, in history, pop culture, or general knowledge. An allusion can add further significance to a statement based off of the reader’s prior understanding of what is being alluded to. Example: Delia Owens writes in Where the Crawdads Sing, “But when the Depression deepened, the bank auctioned the land out from under the Clarks’ feet, and his father took Jake from school.” The Depression refers to The Great Depression – the average reader would understand how a “deepening” of it would result in loss of land for a family.
Cliffhanger: leaving particularly surprising or demanding unresolved business at the end of a chapter or book. When used at the end of a chapter, it keeps the reader turning the pages and engaged with the story. If you’re writing a series, a cliffhanger at the end of a book encourages readers to buy and read the next installment.
Colloquialism: an informal expression, word, or phrase used in everyday speech, such as slang. Colloquialisms can be based on real world cultural and regional speech to align with the time and place a story is set, or they can be created if you are building your own world. They are mainly used in dialogue to make characters sound more authentic.
Flashback: referring back to an event that either happened before the book’s story started or earlier on in the book. This can give context or clarity to a situation, or give an important reminder to the reader. Example: J.K. Rowling uses a series of flashbacks to show Harry’s unique abilities at the beginning of her first Harry Potter book, by recounting the strange things that happened to him before the story takes place.
Foreshadowing: when a writer plants clues as to what is to come later in a story. This can be quite clear-cut or more subtle. This technique can keep readers on their toes and looking forward to whatever lies ahead. Example: J.K. Rowling makes a point of describing Professor Quirrell’s turban and Harry’s curiosity about it in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. At the end of the story, readers discover that Quirrell’s turban conceals his possession by the evil Lord Voldemort.
Irony: something is ironic when there is a difference between the surface meaning of something that is said and the underlying meaning, or when there is a difference between what is expected to happen and what actually ends up happening. The three main types of irony are verbal, dramatic, and situational.-Verbal irony: a character says something that is in complete contrast to what he or she actually means.-Dramatic irony: the audience knows an important piece of information that a character or characters do not know, leading to funny, surprising, or dangerous results.-Situational irony: the outcome is extremely different from what was expected by the reader.
Plot twist: a plot twist surprises the reader just like a cliffhanger, but doesn’t leave an unresolved plot line. A radical change in direction or something completely unexpected can be exciting for readers and add another layer of appreciation for your book.
Red herring: designed to lead the reader to false conclusions. Unlike foreshadowing, which is designed to hint at something that will happen, red herrings are often used in mystery or thriller novels, when the character suspected of a crime turns out to be innocent. Example: Bishop Aringarosa seems to be a central part of the conspiracy at the core of the plot in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. The reader finds out later on in the book that the bishop had been fooled by the real villain.
Unreliable narrator: most often used with first-person point of view, the narrator is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question his or her version of the story. Example: author Paula Hawkins weaves three unreliable narrators into her psychological thriller The Girl on the Train. She uses substance abuse, mental illness, and immoral characteristics to damage the credibility of her narrators.
These are just 20 of the more commonly used literary devices. For a full, alphabetical listing visit www.LiteraryDevices.com. And, for more guidance on enhancing your overall writing style, check out these six steps to improving your writing skills.
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