17 Literary Devices For Every Genre
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Few people haven’t heard of this quote penned by the legendary William Shakespeare! The bearded bard is no exception to the growing community of writers who swear by the magical element that helps them bring their words to life – the literary device. Literary devices are artistic effects that writers use to add depth to their work and draw parallels between seemingly unconnected things. They are also a much broader category than most people are aware of and encompass close to 50 concepts, including irony, archetypes, point-of-view and portmanteaus such as brunch, tossed around casually by Millenials in their conversations!
If you’re wondering how something like a point-of-view – which is a mode of narration – and an oxymoron could fall under the same umbrella, here’s how: literary devices are linguistic instruments made up of both elements(setting, plot) and techniques(figurative language such as similes, metaphors, etc.) Since their purpose is to produce a specific effect which enhances a particular aspect of the writing is considered a literary device. So a figure of speech is a literary device that improves style and language, whereas in media res is a literary device that improves narration itself.
Through the blog, we’ll focus primarily on literary techniques and help you discover how they enhance the aesthetic quality of the text, along with a few examples of authors who wrote it best. If you’d like to understand a little more about literary elements like narrative styles, then give this a read, or look this up to learn about the constituents of a story. That being clarified, let’s deep dive into the most popular and effective literary devices in each genre, i.e. fiction, non-fiction and poetry, starting with some common ones that occur in just about any text.
1. Metaphors draw vivid comparisons between two things that aren’t otherwise connected but have something in common. Something is metaphorical when you use it to stand for another object or person. For example, a dark sky in a poem might be a metaphorical representation of sadness. Even the commonly used “She’s an early bird” is a metaphor. Shakespeare was a master of using metaphors with lines like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “It is the east and Juliet is the sun!”.
2. Irony’s often not viewed as a literary device but is possibly one of the strongest ones a writer can wield. It is a technique in which contradictory statements or situations reveal a different reality from what appears to be true. For example, telling a quiet group, “Don’t everybody speak all at once.” is ironic! It can be further categorised into different types, including verbal irony, dramatic irony, situational irony and comic irony. Here are some famous examples from literature:
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum: the characters already have what they ask for from the wizard.
- The Gift of the Magi by O Henry: A newly married couple independently decide to sell off their prized possessions to get each other gifts that were meant to complement the very objects they sold.
- A master of irony, Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with a famous line implying that men are the ones who hunt for a wife and goes on to contradict it through the narrative.
3. Personification is often employed in poetry, as well as more lyrical fiction and non-fiction. By applying this tool, inanimate objects, intangible ideas and even animals get human attributes. It’s used to make written descriptions more vivid and relatable. We’re personifying a quality when we say a human is the embodiment of it and personifying an animal by making it perform an action purely associated with humans. For example:
“She is the absolute personification of creativity and innovation.”
“The goat waltzed through the meadow”.
“The car complained as the key was roughly turned in its ignition.”
Emily Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death views death as a carriage-driving person in the following stanza:
“Because I could not stop for death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
4. Alliteration repeats a consonant sound to give words a rhythmic, almost musical quality. Professor McGonagall’s tongue-twisting delivery of “Babbling, bumbling band of baboons” has been recalled many times by fans of the Harry Potter series! Now you know why it produced a lyrical quality even on paper. But the alliteration doesn’t necessarily need to be delivered through consecutive words; the effect is pronounced even when separated by a few non-alliterative words like in this line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Non-fiction writers can use alliteration to craft catchy titles or even chapter titles for their books. For example, “Four Best Bets for Better Business”.
5. Euphemism refers to figurative language designed to replace phrasing that would otherwise be considered harsh, impolite, or unpleasant. Euphemisms are commonly used in everyday conversation to describe concepts that make others uncomfortable, like death, ageing, getting fired and some bodily functions. Saying passed away instead of died or economically challenged rather than poor are known instances of people using euphemisms to soften the blow. The instances of this literary device are also seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm:
“For the time being,” he explains, “it had been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.”
Here, instead of reduction, readjustment is used to suppress rudeness.
Now let’s explore some devices that are well-suited for a particular genre:
- Oxymoron is a figure of speech pairing two words together that are opposing and or contradictory. It helps create an impression, enhance a concept, and even entertain the reader. ‘Unbiased opinion’, ‘whole piece’ and ‘terribly good’ are some common examples of this popular component of figurative language. Here’s an example from literature: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” from Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.
- A Paradox is commonly used to engage a reader to discover an underlying logic in a seemingly self-contradictory statement or phrase. For example, playwright George Bernard Shaw famously stated the paradox that “youth is wasted on the young.” At first, it is contradictory because the young are the ones who embody youth, so it cannot be “wasted” on them. However, this paradox makes sense upon reflection.
- A Simile is quite similar to a metaphor, except that it doesn’t suggest that the two things in question are the same but are merely alike. “Life is like a box of chocolates” is a simile, whereas if we were to remove the word like, the above sentence would become a metaphor.
- Anthropomorphism is a literal version of personification. It doesn’t just assign human traits to objects or animals through figurative description but transforms a part of their looks or behaviour into that of a person. The evergreen children’s book Beauty and the Beast with a talking teapot, candlestick and clock is a memorable example of anthropomorphised objects.
- Analogies are not usually considered a literary device but effectively enlighten the reader through a relatable, often witty, comparison of two different things and an explanation of the context at large. Take a look at this quotable quote by P.G. Wodehouse:
It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo.
- Symbolism represents something beyond the literal meaning. A symbol can be a word, object, action, character, or concept that embodies and evokes a range of additional meaning and significance in literature. A shopping cart icon symbolises online purchases or a red rose symbolises love and romance.
- Imagery engages the senses to deepen the reader’s comprehension of what is happening and guides their perception of the things or places portrayed in a novel. If you’re writing an expository nonfiction piece or even a memoir or autobiography set in a different time or an unknown land, using vivid imagery to describe the setting can help the reader visualise the world you’re exposing them to.
- Allusion is a brief reference to a person, place, thing, event, or other literary work with which the reader is presumably familiar. An example from everyday usage would be: Is there an Einstein in your physics class? (alluding to Albert Einstein). Many of the words we use today are allusions to historical figures, Greek Gods and mythology. Even the word boycott is an allusion to Charles C Boycott, who refused to charge lower rents, resulting in his staff “boycotting” him!
- Anaphora is often employed in poetry and speeches to evoke an emotional response from the audience by repeating words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence. For example: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
- Anastrophe plays with syntax to change the traditional sentence structure for effect. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven changes the order of the adjective-noun pairing for greater impact.
- Hyperbole is an exaggerated claim or a deliberately overstated line that uses exaggeration to emphasise how the writer felt about something he saw or a particular thing, person or experience. The device appears in more than one place in William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
- Onomatopoeia is defined as a word that imitates the natural sounds of a thing. It creates a sound effect that mimics the item described, making the description more expressive and exciting. Hee-haw, click-clack, tick-tock are all common examples of this rather fun literary device.
If you’re a writer looking to create and publish a novel of your own, you can add another layer of meaning to your dialogues, narration or exposition using one or more literary devices. Elevate your novel with these secret ingredients and get your book to connect much more deeply with your audience!