Writer’s Literary Toolbox
A painter learns to manipulate shapes and colors, just like a writer needs to shape the language and style to create their art.
Literary devices give the writers an opportunity to take their writing from acceptable to captivating by adding depth and layers for the reader to unfold. It’s not a one-size-fits-all rule–instead it’s a style guide for how your story can take shape in the most vivid way possible.
Hold on to this valuable WRITER’S LITERARY TOOLBOX and learn what tools your favorite authors used to elevate their writing. Keep it next to you while you write and especially during the revision process and rewrites.
A story, poem, or picture with a deeper meaning than what is explicit at surface level. The deeper meaning is typically a moral or political commentary. This is a popular device for writing short stories with a purpose, like in fables.
Example: in Aesop’s fable the Tortoise and the Hare, we learn that “slow and steady wins the race,” which is viewed as an allegory for many things in life.
The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. This is a common device in children’s stories, poetry, and tongue twisters.
Example: Sally sells seashells by the seashore; Jack jumped for joy
An indirect or passing reference. You’ll often hear this in plain speech as well, often as a metaphor. This device signals the reader to recall another person or event, often intending to draw similarities.
Example: If you call someone a Grinch, you’re alluding to the Dr. Seuss character with a disagreeable character who hates Christmas.
A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists; a juxtaposition of elements from different time periods. Sometimes this is used for comic effect, often though it is a mistake that reveals inconsistencies.
Example: Though stories of humans living alongside dinosaurs is fairly commonplace, it’s actually an anachronism. The two lived in vastly different time periods.
Repetition of a word or expression within successive phrases, clauses, sentences, or verses especially for poetic effect. It also helps to retain focus, putting emphasis on the heart of the idea. This device is often used in political speeches, like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, but it can be used in shorter succession as well.
Example: What we do together, we do with strength. What we do together, we achieve.
Inversion of the usual syntactical order of words.
Example: Yoda does this frequently, in saying things like “A disturbance in the force, I feel” as opposed to “I feel a disturbance in the force.”
The attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. This is exceedingly common in writing and literature for a variety of reasons. While many times it can be in the context of children’s stories, we might also see this occur in allegorical writing, like Animal Farm, where the animals learn to talk and behave like humans.
Example: The Cat in the Hat is, well, a cat, but speaks and acts with very human-like qualities.
A short, clever saying to express a general truth. Oscar Wilde is well known for his snappy aphorisms: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
Example: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
A very typical example of a certain person or thing; something which follows the pattern or model that was set before it. In literature, this can be especially glaring as characters fit into the molds of heros with redeeming qualities or villains with devious intentions, but there are also many other archetypes.
Example: Heroes in literature often share traits of bravery, heroism, and a general drive to “do good” by any means necessary. (Harry Potter, Jon Snow, etc.
A rhetorical or literary figure in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order to create a stylized effect.
Example: “Do I love you because you’re beautiful or are you beautiful because I love you?”
Words and expressions that become commonplace within a specific language, geographic region, or historical era.
See also: slang
Example: “Is it cool if I crash at your place for a while?” In their literal sense, “cool” and “crash” would seem very out of place in this context, but we know what the sentence really means.
A cumulative sentence is an independent clause followed by one or more modifiers. This device helps bring together information about your story, including its characters, places, ideas, and events. This can be an especially useful tool when you’re “showing, not telling” your story.
See also: loose sentence
Example: She set out on the journey of a lifetime, alone in the world but warmed by the anticipation of discovery that awaited her in the vast Brazilian rainforest.
When the audience knows more than the characters do.
Example: The classic trope of watching horror movies and urging the character “Don’t go in there!” The audience may know they are walking into a trap while the character is frightfully oblivious.
A term chosen to be more polite, more pleasant, or soften the blow of a more blunt expression. This is often used when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.
Example: “went our separate ways” instead of “broke up”; “passed away” instead of “died”; “knocking boots” instead of having sex.
The background information that sets the scene and explains ideas or theories of a story ahead.
Example: The iconic scrolling introduction that opens up each episode of Star Wars is an exposition, setting the stage for the story you are about to experience.
A scene which recalls an event that took place before the present timeline of your story. This device helps to recount important memories to your character or a defining moment that helped shape the events before your story begins.
Resist the temptation to overuse flashbacks. They’re most effective when they recall a story that is impactful to the current events or reveal a secret about a character.
Example: When Dumbledore shows Harry Potter the “pensive,” he’s sucked into memories and, as a reader, we’re given flashbacks pertinent to current events.
An indication, warning, or subtle hint regarding a future event. Great literature will be designed to drop the idea early or in passing and allow it to resurface with great importance later on. It helps develop expectations or it can be effective as an omen.
Example: A broken mirror is widely accepted as an omen of bad luck. Introducing one early in your story can help foreshadow a string of unlucky events to come.
A story told within a frame or a story constituting a frame for another story or a series of other stories. This is a sort of “tale within a tale”
Example: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the story of the Frankenstein’s monster from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator.
Exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
Example: There are a million things to do before the party begins.
Hypophora is a figure of speech in which a writer raises a question, and then immediately provides an answer to that question. This can also be rhetorical.
Example: “What can we learn from this situation? Never bring a knife to a gunfight.”
A way of writing that appeals to our physical senses through descriptive or figurative language. This is an incredibly useful tool in writing, as it encapsulates the concept of “show, don’t tell.”
Example: The snow blanketed the ground, and as he listened to it crunching beneath his boots and the cold lashed his cheeks, the memories of his years in Siberia flooded back to him.
In Medias Res
Literally “in the midst of things”, this refers to dropping your reader into the middle of a narrative without any buildup.
Example: Stories that open up in the midst of a car chase, a brawl, or a wedding are considered “in medias res.”
The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect. In writing, it can take shape as verbal, situational, or dramatic irony.
Example: It would be ironic to name a hairless cat “Fluffy.”
From the Greek origin meaning “equal” and “member,” this is a set of statements that appear together of the same length; parallel elements possessing the same number of words or syllables.
Example: I came, I saw, I conquered which in Latin reads, “veni, vidi, vici”.
Placing two things being seen or placed close together with a contrasting effect. Essentially, juxtaposition works in explaining something by telling them what they are not.
See also: paradox, oxymoron
Example: In The Godfather, Michael Corleone stands godfather to his nephew in church while his men work to exterminate their enemies. This is especially impactful in his line stating “I do renounce Satan” and his enemies are simultaneously killed at his prior command.
Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez) is an ironic understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary–essentially, a double negative.
Examples: “You won’t be sorry” (meaning you’ll be pleased); “you’re not wrong” (meaning you’re right); “I didn’t not like it” (meaning I did).
The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect.
Example: I’m in a committed, monotonous relationship
A word or phrase applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. This is an incredibly common literary device; any strong story is bound to have them. Though they can be an effective way to give information or write compelling moments into a story, be careful not to overdo it.
Example: Love is a battlefield; all the world’s a stage, etc
The use of substitute words to refer to something larger.
Example: In England, to say “the crown” refers to the royal monarchy
A dominant or recurring idea in a story.
Example: in Stephen King’s The Stand, good vs. evil makes itself apparent in micro-plots which ties into the overarching theme of the story.
The formation of a word from an associated sound.
Example: The gun went off with a bang that woke up the entire block.
A figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.
Example: Jumbo shrimp
A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement which is actually well-founded or true. In writing this may also be used to create dynamic characters.
Example: “I must be cruel to be kind.”- Hamlet
The personal attribution or human characteristics to something non-human, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.
Example: The mountain slouched toward the north.
Point of View
The narrator’s position in relation to a story being told. This is often used in diary entry style writing.
Example: Carrie Bradshaw gives the details of Sex and the City from her own point of view.
Several coordinating conjunctions are used in succession in order to achieve an artistic effect.
Example: We danced and ate and were merry at the occasion.
The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.
Example: The Daily Show on SNL is a satire of broadcast news.
A figure of speech comparing two differing things that is often introduced by “like or as”. This is much like a metaphor, but exudes a sense of relation rather than sameness. This is a very common literary agent.
Example: Hair was black as coal.
An act of speaking ones thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any listeners. This frequently appears in plays, but can also be used to “break the fourth wall” in writing.
Example: Shakespeare does this frequently; more recently, Deadpool talks directly to the camera.
The use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities
Example: Your character might frequently see or be surrounded by eagles, as a symbol of freedom and strength.
A figure of speech which references a part of something to refer to a whole.
Example: By saying you have a “Set of wheels,” what you’re really saying is that you have a car.
Tautology is the use of different words to say the same thing twice in the same statement. This is often seen as needless repetition.
Example: The old octogenarian
The separation of a compound word with another word, often used in dialogue to create emphasis.
The overall mood and message of your story. A voice, characterization, symbolism, and themes to create the feelings you want your readers to take from the story.
Example: RomComs are designed to make you emotional and keep a hopeful air as you move through a romantic story–even when they need you to cry.
A story that combines both comic and tragic elements. This is often used in a sad story to provide levity.
Example: Edward Scissorhands is a tragic tale of a living creation whose master died before giving him real hands. As a result, he has scissor hands, and ends up using them to become an avant-garde barber for the housewives.
The representation of character in the form of an animal.
Example: Many Greek and Roman myths use zoomorphism to represent their gods on earth, such as Heracles transforming into a fawn.
Definitions sources from Merriem Webster, Cambridge, and Oxford dictionaries.
A.R. Garrett is writing her debut historical fiction series, Atalanta & The Amazons. As a writer of the ancient world, she excavates facts & dissects mythology to spotlight the most prolific warrior women lost in the shadows of our history books—adding a touch of fantasy for the daydreamer in all of us.
A.R. Garrett has a degree in Business and English with a concentration in fiction writing from SNHU, and is currently working on a double masters in Creative Writing and Ancient History. She’s been a freelance fiction editor since 2018 and created a platform to help other women writers on FB: www.facebook.com/groups/supportingwomenwriters
When she’s not wrangling her two boys in the mountains of Colorado and trying endlessly to understand the mystical world of algorithms, she loves handwritten letters sealed with a wax stamp, and appreciates a dang-good brownie.
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