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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2022

Learning How To Use Literary Devices

We're sure you've heard of literary devices before. A literary device is a technique employed by a writer to make their narrative more compelling. This is often through the use of strategic images and written comparison. There's a ton of literary devices out there, but we're going to explore how to accurately and effectively use 15 commonly used literary devices that will help elevate your writing from good to great.

Allegory

two red figures stand before a clock
Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death is an allegorical short story. Photo by matiasdelcarmine.
  • What? Allegory is a literary device used to communicate a deeper, often hidden meaning in a clever and compelling way, often through the use of images. Allegories can be stories, short stories, poems, and even pictures.
  • When? You can (and should) use allegories when you want to use images to comment on complex ideas. For example, many allegories comment on morals, politics, and ethics. Using an allegory to do this allows the writer to step back from the issue they are focusing on and allow the reader to interpret the message for themselves.
  • How? You can use allegories in a variety of ways, depending on your mission and topic. For example, Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death is often read as an allegorical short story commenting on economic inequality and the inevitability of death.

Alliteration

  • What? Alliteration is the use of the same sound or letter at the beginning of consecutive or adjacent terms. This draws attention to certain words or phrases, making them stand out to readers.
  • When? Alliteration is most commonly used in poems because it helps create rhythm, rhyme, and meter. It also places special emphasis on important words or topics being expressed throughout the poem. However, alliteration can also be employed in academic writing. Titles are a great place to use alliteration. This can make your paper stand out by immediately attracting a professor's attention.
  • How? Using alliteration is rather easy. Choose a letter, such as V, and practice writing a sentence full of words that begin with V. For example: The vicious virus violated the vagrants. It's important not to overuse alliteration, as this can be a bit much. Your use of alliteration should be purposeful, not random.

Allusion

green jewels
When a writer references kryptonite in their writing, they are alluding to Superman®. Photo by redrex.
  • What? An allusion is a literary device employed to indirectly reference another work, author, or topic within a piece of writing. Since this is done subtly, the writer must trust that the reader will be able to draw the connection on their own.
  • When? You should use an allusion when you want to make a connection between two things without explicitly outlining that connection. If you explicitly state the connection, then that is a reference, not an allusion.
  • How? How you employ allusion will depend on what your intentions are. For example, you can use a phrase like, "Her puppy dog eyes were like kryptonite to him." What is this alluding to? Superman, of course! The word "kryptonite" is a direct allusion to Superman's weakness. This is just one subtle way to reference another work within your own writing.

Anecdote

  • What? Anecdotes are brief stories about past events or characters' pasts. They can be funny, interesting, or informative.
  • When? Anecdotes can be incorporated at any point in a story, but they are most commonly introduced into the narrative when the character wants to discuss something from the past. Anecdotes can also build character, demonstrating how a character has changed over time or giving the readers information on why characters behave certain ways.
  • How? Anecdotes can be introduced through dialogue between characters. They are also commonly written as flashbacks, since the incident is from the past.

Foil

red pixelated head contrasted with a blue pixelated head
Foil characters are each other's polar opposites, emphasizing their differences. Photo by lidiia.
  • What? Foreshadowing is the use of images, language, and scenarios to allude to what is going to happen in the future of a story.
  • When? Foreshadowing can be used at any point in time of a story, but it is better to do it sooner rather than later. Foreshadowing's main purpose is to build tension and suspense, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. This device can be used in any genre of writing.
  • How? As we mentioned, we recommend using foreshadowing at the beginning of a story. One popular use of foreshadowing is to predict a character's death. Have you ever watched a war movie? There always seems to be that one side character who has a photo of his girlfriend who is waiting for him back home. However, that moment where he pulls out the picture of his girlfriend at the beginning of the movie usually means one thing: he dies. Discussing life at home in a war narrative usually foreshadows a soldier's eventual death on the battlefield.

Imagery

a beautiful lake surrounded by foliage
Imagery requires you to be descriptive, so use all of your senses when imagining a scene. Photo by pilat666.
  • What? Imagery is the use of figurative language to describe people, places, and things within your story. This adds great description to your writing and appeals to your readers' senses.
  • When? Since you want your story to be more show than tell, you will want to use imagery as much and as often throughout your story. If there is ever an opportunity to expand upon an item, event, or person, use imagery to describe these things. This will greatly improve your writing and make it easier for your readers to visualize the narrative.
  • How? You can include imagery in your story by adding similes, metaphors, and personification in your writing. These are only a few of devices you can use to improve imagery. You also want to appeal to the readers' senses by using the five senses. If you think about how a fresh baked croissant smells at a bakery, you can use the sense of smell to describe this in a detailed manner. It will be like your readers are right there at the bakery, too!

Irony

  • What? Irony is a literary device that relies on the surface versus reality to communicate something. What we mean by this is that not everything is as it seems on the surface. In actuality, the direct opposite of what is said, heard, or done typically happens. Dramatic, situational, and verbal irony are the three most common forms of irony.
  • When? You can use irony when you want to add humor, dramatics, or even tension to a story. This will keep the audience on their toes and add lots of entertainment to your writing.
  • How? The "how" of using irony will depend on what kind of irony you want to employ. For example, let's create an example of situational irony: You want to avoid your teacher because you are skipping class, so you dash into a random room in the school hallways only to come face to face with your teacher. You accidentally and unknowingly entered the teacher's lounge. This is situational irony because the opposite of what you wanted to happen, avoiding your teacher, actually happened.

Juxtaposition

sun and moon over mountain range
Juxtaposition requires you to contrast two images such as the sun and the moon, light and dark imagery. Photo by Pellinni.
  • What? Juxtaposition involves putting two things closely together, typically directly next to each other, to emphasize their differences and demonstrate contrast.
  • When? Juxtaposition should be used when you want to highlight the contrast between two things, whether that be characters, events, or objects. Juxtaposition will help emphasize their differences.
  • How? First, you should choose two (or more) ideas, characters, or objects you want to contrast. For example, you may want to discuss an evil character and good character and bring attention to their different morals. You may use light imagery, such as the sun, to describe the good character and contrast that image with dark imagery, such as the night sky and moon, to describe the evil character.

Metaphor

  • What? A metaphor is a comparison between two things without using the words "like" or "as." This helps with establishing good imagery and sometimes even symbolism.
  • When? You should use metaphors when you want to compare one thing to another in a more literal way. This will establish a clear connection between the two things while adding depth and meaning.
  • How? Choose two things you want to compare to achieve a particular affect, such as describing a character. For example, we might write: Her eyes were an open book. What does this mean? The character's eyes were so expressive that we could read her internal thoughts just by making eye contact. We know the character is vulnerable and open.

Motif

black background with white shadows
Light and dark imagery is one of the most popular motifs used in literature, as it pertains to good and evil, a popular theme. Photo by Angkana.
  • What? A motif is a recurring element carried throughout a story to help establish theme and symbolism. Motifs can range from a repeated image, phrase, or action. Motifs can even be as seemingly simple (but secretly complex) as a repeated color. The meaning behind motifs used in writing will not usually be explicitly stated by the writer, so it's up to the readers to catch on to these patterns and their significance.
  • When? Since motifs are repeated elements, you should establish them as early on in your writing as possible. To write successful motifs that are meaningful to the story, you must be sure to repeat them throughout the rest of your story. They cannot be a one-off.
  • How? To successfully implement motifs throughout your story, you must begin by choosing a motif. For example, light and dark imagery is an extremely popular motif because this allows writers to comment on ideas such as beauty, religion, and morality. Now that you have a motif, use light and dark imagery at the beginning of your story, maybe through the use of shadows and sun and moon imagery, and continue to do so throughout your writing.

Personification

  • What? Personification is another popular literary device because it is rather straightforward to use. Personification is a type of figurative language where writers give human qualities to non-human subjects such as animals, nature, or inanimate objects.
  • When? You can use personification when you want to humanize something to add depth to your story. If used a particular way, personification can also help to establish a certain tone.
  • How? Let's consider how we might use personification to establish tone. If you're writing a suspenseful story, then you might use nature to create a spooky, ominous tone. For example, let's use wing: The wind whistled softly as she walked along the sidewalk, but it began to shriek and howl as she haltingly approached the graveyard. Wind does not whistle, shriek, or howl. By adding human qualities to the wind, we created a spooky tone to match the setting of our story.

Satire

crowd of sheep stand before a man speaking at a podium
Satire uses humor to criticize social and political ideas. This image suggests the people are sheep being herded by a political figure. Photo by dovla982.
  • What? Satire is the use of humor, hyperbole, and even irony to criticize something and expose the issues associated with something. Satire is often used to ridicule politics and other social spheres.
  • When? You should use satire when you want to humorously poke fun or subtly (or maybe not so subtly) criticize something, usually something social, political, or moral.
  • How? You can use satire in pretty much any format, including written or visual, so it's really up to preference. Find a topic you want to address and discuss it in a unique or humorous way by including other visuals or figurative language like metaphors. A popular example of written satire is George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Simile

  • What? Similes are comparisons between two things using the words "like" or "as" to establish the connection.
  • When? You should use similes when you want to add vivid description to your story.
  • How? Choose two things you want to compare. The comparison should make sense and emphasize a point. For example, let's write: He was as hungry as a bear. We now know he was so hungry that he could be compared to a large animal that requires a lot of food. This scales the description.

Symbolism

red rose bush
Red can symbolize romance and love, but it can also symbolize war and violence. Photo by blackday.
  • What? Symbolism uses symbols to represent certain ideas, qualities, or topics. Some symbols may have multiple meanings. You may be asking yourself, what's the difference between a motif and a symbol? Remember, motifs have to be repeated throughout a story to be effective. Symbols can be used as much or as little as a writer wants because symbols are not reliant on repetition to convey a message.
  • When? Symbols can be used at any time and any place in your writing, but it should be intentional. You should use symbolism when you want your reader to see one thing, such as a particular object, and think of another, such as an event regularly associated with that object.
  • How? Let's take the color red, for example. Red can symbolize war and violence since it's associated with blood. It can also be associated with anger. Ever heard the phrase, "I'm seeing red"? However, red can also symbolize love. Think of roses and hearts, things associated with romance and passion. Depending on what you're going for, you can use the color red in your story to symbolize any of these topics.

Diving deep into literary devices

Can you guess which literary device we used in our title? If you said alliteration, then you're correct! Good job! Now that we've done a deep dive into literary devices, their definitions, and when and how to use them, we think you're ready to start implementing them into your own writing. Remember, literary devices are meant to enhance the meaning and images of your story. They make the story come to life (hello, personification!), so be creative with your devices.

Header photo from MiaStendal.

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