Share quotes from famous books or tips for budding writers.

A List of Commonly Used Literary Devices and Their Explanation

Literary Devices
Literary devices are the heart and soul of every expression. These devices breathe life in words which are common to all forms of a language whether it is a narrative, story-writing, drama, journalistic writing or poetry.
Prashant Magar
Last Updated: Apr 1, 2018
'Language is the dress of thought'. Imagine a person's feelings, emotions or views on a subject, stated plainly without the aid of a literary device. It would be a dull task. We all love to see our favorite movie stars delivering those wonderfully scripted dialogs with great passion and intensity. All these expressions are a manifestation of the beauty of words, which we refer to as literary devices.

The English language encompasses a host of literary devices that make it so rich and expressive. They provide a broad structure under which all the types of literature are classified, studied and understood. The importance of literature in the portrayal of human emotions is best understood by the application of these devices. Some of the common ones in use are described in brief as follows.

Allegory: In simple words, an allegory is the representation of a figurative concept with the help of materialistic means such as characters, figures or events. In an allegorical narrative, the author generally uses symbolic objects in order to vividly portray abstract ideas or events that are not directly mentioned in the text. Personification and metaphor are the two major tools of an allegorist whose intention it usually is to convey a message that may be spiritual, social, political or religious in nature. In allegorical texts, one often finds virtues and vices to have been personified in the form of characters, Biblical events to have been represented in the form of present day events, animals resembling human public figures and objects placed in the texts very conspicuously to be symbols of certain social phenomena. Everything stands for something which is not directly discussed in the text. Allegorical tales are generally layered and sometimes way too convoluted to be clearly and coherently decoded. For instance, Gerard J. Steen discusses one such instance in his book "Finding Metaphor in Grammar and Usage: A Methodological Analysis of Theory and Research":

One problem with allegories is in fact the difficulty of determining what counts as source and what as target. For instance, Animal Farm is a text about a farm, which may be taken as an explicit model for thinking about a more abstract, implicit target that has to do with totalitarian politics. Or is Animal Farm a text about a farm which, as an explicit target, is structured by our knowledge of a prior cultural text about totalitarian politics which acts as an implicit source? The fact that totalitarian politics is abstract and the farm is concrete favors the first analysis, but the fact that the global topic of the story of the text is the life at this farm favors the latter. It is precisely one of the distinguishing characteristics of allegory that the direction of the relation between the domains may be read in two ways.

Classics such as "Aesop's Fables" or John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" and films like "The Matrix" or "Casablanca" are examples of allegorical works.
Alliteration: When a series of words in a sentence or phrase begin with a similar-sounding consonantal sound it is known as alliteration. Careless cutting cars, wonderfully whistling woods or tongue twisters like she sells seashells by the seashore are examples of alliteration.
Allusion: It is a direct or indirect reference made to other pieces of art, events, literary work, places, people or myths to context with the content of the immediate text. The association is often made either to add greater layers of depth to the content presented or in order to draw a clearer picture in fewer words instead of spelling everything out. Brevity often adds a certain element of subtlety, making way for the reader to interpret the text in his own way. A brilliant example of this device stemmed from Joseph Heller's "Catch-22". According to the book, Catch-22 is an ordinance according to which an Air Force pilot would only be granted relief from his flight duties only if he was confirmed to be mentally unfit or challenged. But if someone sought the permission for being exempted from flying during life-threatening missions, he was obviously sane enough. So, it was basically a no-win situation for the flyers and the people in authority were shown to take gross and undue advantage of their positions. Thus, catch-22 went on to become a symbolic reference for absolute lose-lose situations which nobody could get out of.
Anastrophe: Also known as inversion, it is a sentence or a poetic expression which reverses or changes the order of words for greater emphasis. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown from Shakespeare's "Henry IV" or Ten thousand saw I at a glance from "The Daffodils" by William Wordsworth are anastrophic expressions.
Aposiopesis: It's the sudden breaking applied in prose or poem to increase the emotional aspect or dramatic feel. The following extract from Shakespeare's "King Lear" (Act 2, Scene 4) is a good example of aposiopesis.

I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall-I will do such things-
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I'll weep?
No, I'll not weep.
Apostrophe: It is a direct address to the dead, imaginary people or objects or inanimate things for creating an emotional surge. Caesar, only if you were alive or O stone, O might, O heart of man-made God, Thou art the emblem of our hope are examples of apostrophe.
Asyndeton: Sometimes for enhanced drama and a crisper coinage, authors choose to do away with conjunctions that usually conjoin coordinate clauses or words. This stylisation of text is usually opted for to add more punch to a particular thought or idea due to the rhythmic effect that gets infused in the sentence mainly due to the omission of conjunctions. This thus aids retention of such phrases. The implementation of this device also adds a feeling of speed, smoothness and grandiose - a sense of higher aspirations, established authority or an air of dynamism - to the ideas expressed. For instance, a sentence like Veni, vidi, vici or its English translation "I came, I saw, I conquered" effortlessly puts across the ease and smoothness with which Julius Caesar went about invading and expanding his empire. It may or may not have been an easy affair, but the use of asyndeton just injects his expression with an air of ultimate superiority and competency. Other examples include,

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . . - "We shall fight on the beaches" address of Winston Churchill.

..and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. - The Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln.
Bathos: Bathos - a name coined by Alexander Pope - is basically 'pathos' gone wrong. It generally is never used intentionally but tends to creep in when an author tries too hard to induce pity, sympathy or sorrow in his readers through an overdose of sentimentality and entire intention just backfires, making the piece seem ridiculous and farcical. For instance,

Few months of life has he in store
As he to you will tell,
For still, the more he works, the more
Do his weak ankles swell.

In the lines above, it was the authors intention evoke some sympathy for the aged huntsman from the readers. However, Wordsworth just fell prey to bathos and made it seem silly and not remotely sad in these lines from the poem "Simon Lee the Old Huntsman". So, basically when exceptionally elevated language and imagery is used for a description quite banal, it results in exaggerated pathos or bathos. This device is sometimes deliberately used by authors for humourous effects. For example,

There was the Donna Julia, whom to call
Pretty were but to give a feeble notion
Of many charms in her as natural
As sweetness to the flower, or salt to Ocean,
Her zone to Venus, or his bow to Cupid,
(But this last simile is trite and stupid.)

In these lines from Lord Gordon Byron's mock-epic poem "Don Juan", the poet starts off with a flourish when he uses classical imagery to describe Donna Julia's beauty and then abruptly goes from the sublime to the ludicrous!
Bildungsroman: This German word basically translates to "a novel of formation" or coming-of-age novel. Also called apprenticeship novel and erziehungsroman, it tells the story of a protagonist's journey from juvenility to maturity - psychological, moral, physical, social, spiritual - either figuratively or metaphorically. So, the central character is portrayed in a manner that a reader can literally trace the transitional graph from the childhood to the adulthood of the protagonist. Common examples of bildungsroman are "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship", "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", "Gone With the Wind", "The Catcher in the Rye", "A Day No Pigs Would Die", "The Outsiders" and "The Kite Runner".
Cliffhanger: This device is most effectively used in serialised fiction where at the end of every installment, the protagonist(s) are left dangling in a precarious situation which is too overwhelming of dynamic to come out of or conquer. This is primarily a modus operandi to keep the readers hooked to the series so that they end up reading the episodes that follow. The suspense quotient is the utmost right at the end of the text. The reader has no choice but to either coin his own ending or read up the parts that are about to follow. This practice was largely popularised in the late 1800s when newspapers and magazines published stories in parts. When Thomas Hardy's third novel "A Pair of Blue Eyes" was published in "Tinsley's Magazine" on a monthly basis chapter-wise from September 1872 to July 1873, the author ended one of the chapters with the protagonist Henry Knight hanging from a cliff, forced to look directly into the eyes of a fossilised trilobite. Thus was the device created which literally took its name from this trick of the author to catch the attention of his readers hook, line and sinker.
Climax: It is the arrangement of ideas in an increasing order of their importance. It emphasizes the meaning in a clear and effective way. Examples include, He came, he saw, he conquered, Her village, her state, her nation were her pride,'Eat, drink and sleep or the line from William Shakespeare's "The Passionate Pilgrim, XIII" - ...Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour.
Ellipsis: It is the omission of a word or words from a sentence which may sound grammatically incorrect, but the meaning is easily conveyed. Example: John can play the guitar, and Mary the violin. The purpose is usually to make written text resemble spoken language very closely.
Epiphany: A sudden insightful realisation is called an epiphany. It is a philosophical "Eureka!" moment that enables a protagonist to untangle all the convolutions - physical or mental - that are plaguing him consciously or subconsciously. A moment of sudden epiphany enables him to view a situation from a profound perspective wherein he can view a situation or event - social or personal - in a more holistic manner. The bigger picture suddenly becomes clearer. James Joyce has employed this device in his short story collection "Dubliners" profusely, wherein the protagonists experienced these eye-opening moment that markedly altered their perception of the self or the society and resulted in change of hearts in some of them.
Euphemism: Cushioning the blow when an extremely unpleasant truth is about to be presented is the simplest way to define euphemism. For instance, instead of "You're fired!", the speaker sugarcoats the truth by using a milder form of expression when he says, "You're services shall no more be required as of today." The message remains the same, but the tone is altered for the sake of politeness, decency, political correctness and appropriateness. Another common replacement is 'he has passed away' instead of 'he is dead'. Euphemism is also a grand device to limit profanity and yet conveying what is required. Coinages such as 'chronologically advanced' instead of 'old', 'intellectually disabled' instead of 'retarded', 'between jobs' instead of 'unemployed' and 'put to sleep' instead of 'euthanize' are basically a result of the need to eliminate crudeness or bluntness.
Hyperbole: It is an exaggeration, used often to ridicule, create humour or any drastic emotional appeal. The waves rose as high as the mountains, I am so hungry that I can eat a whole cow or Tina wept and wept until there was a sea of tears are sentences which substantiate the use of hyperbole or overstatement. They are usually used to imply that the extent of something is more than usual.
Irony: It is the expression of ideas which are exactly opposite to the implied meaning. There is a discord or disagreement between the presented words and their use. A student of psychology going insane, or a quote such as, A bank lends you money provided you show that it's not needed or the warning found on every cigarette pack, Smoking is injurious to health exemplify irony!
Litotes: It is an understated expression when the actual idea to be expressed is quite significant. It is like downplaying an idea when it seems to be the best possible course of action or description. A statement such as Tom has a modest earning in billions of dollars is a litote.
Metaphor: The indirect or comparison of two otherwise unrelated entities where one entity is implied to be just like the other is a metaphor. Examples are, Harry was a lion in the fight, the birth of laughter, stealing eyes, noisy looms and broken heart.
Metonymy: It is an associative substitution technique. In a sentence like A press conference by the Pentagon, the Pentagon refers to the officials of the Pentagon who will be holding the press conference. The English grammar permits the use of a reference word in place of the actual subject as long as the meaning is clear.
Onomatopoeia: 'Splash', 'hiss', 'screech', 'boo-hoo' are examples of onomatopoeia. It is the use of certain words to describe sounds. For instance, water plopped into the pond.
Oxymoron: This figure of speech includes words or ideas opposite in meaning placed one after the other. True lies, open secret, pretty ugly face, feeling alone in a crowd are some forms of this literary device.
Parallel construction: In this literary device, the idea to be stated is repeated in some other form to emphasize the articulation, like She cried, she wept but he was unmoved or Show me your strength, your stamina, your energy only where it is needed.
Personification: It is a representation of abstract ideas or inanimate objects as having human attributes or qualities. Death laid its icy hands on kings, Love and friendship had crippled his sense of judgment and Tormenting idea exemplify the humanisation or characterisation of intangible and abstract concepts.
Polysyndeton: Polysyndeton is the opposite of asyndeton. It is a construction in which multiple conjunctions are used in very close succession in order to infuse a sense of exaggeration in the sentence. That is say that when handling a list of things, polysyndeton basically helps to emphasize on how one thing followed another in a given period of time or the simultaneous occurrence of events is not something one gets to see or experience under normal circumstances. For instance, in a statement like has eaten four litres of orange juice and three omelettes and nine slices of bread smeared with butter for breakfast, one understands the extent of Tom's unnatural eating proportions. The three uses of "and" make the already large quantities of food look even larger. Another example like the following

Most motor-cars are conglomerations (this is a long word for bundles) of steel and wire and rubber and plastic, and electricity and oil and petrol and water, and the toffee papers you pushed down the crack in the back seat last Sunday. ~ Ian Fleming, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car"

basically shows us the immense number of elements that make up a concept or thing or person no matter how simple they may appear to be. So, polysyndeton is basically used for highlighting the "unusual" in everything.
Pun: It is an idea or expression which has two meanings implied at the same time. Quite often it is used to pass a witty remark or bring about a sarcastic effect. Example: I knead (need) the dough so that I can eat.
Satire: It is a mimicry, a mockery, a witty remark or a ridicule related to a person, place, animal or a thing, generally for leisure and is completely wrong or absurd. TV shows like "Saturday Night Live" or movies like "The Tailor of Panama" are examples of satire.
Simile: It is the direct comparison made between two different entities showing some common aspect or relation using the words "like", "as", "if", and "than". Examples include as cool as a cucumber, as white as snow, life is just like an ice-cream, enjoy it before it melts and as bald as a coot.
Synecdoche: The representation of a whole aspect by a part or a part by the whole is called synecdoche. Examples: He has several mouths to feed. Here "mouths" represent people. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Here "hand" refers to the mothers in general.
Zeugma: It expresses the control of one subject or a part of speech over the entire sentence composed of different objects or other parts of sentence. He succumbed to the public pressure and the wounds inflicted by his lady, She crossed the seas and all the obstacles holding her back or Beauty glows with sunshine, laughter and a sense of deep satisfaction are some examples of this literary device.

Long live the English language for such a diverse and intellectually stimulating vocabulary.