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ServiceScape Incorporated
2021

The Ultimate Literary Device List

ChipperEditor

A literary device is a technique employed by writers to create a more compelling narrative. In order to be a good writer, you need to have a full set of these writing tools at your disposal. Here's a list of more than fifty literary devices that you might use to improve your writing.

Adage

Adage
An adage is a short story or phrase that expresses a general truth or belief, such as "better safe than sorry" or "birds of a feather flock together."

Adages can be a powerful way to establish setting or character. Many fantasy authors create their own adages to suit their settings. An example of this would be the wheel weaves as the wheel wills from Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series. Some adages are tied to certain locales or languages. When a character uses an adage, they are often calling attention to traits defined by that adage. For example, a character who frequently says "the early bird gets the worm" is calling attention to either punctuality or laziness.

Allegory

Allegory
An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that has a hidden meaning – commonly a moral one.

Allegories can often be used in writing to foreshadow events without giving away the substance of the plot. An entire literary work might even be an allegory. George Orwell's Animal Farm, for instance, is an allegorical depiction of different types of political systems – namely, capitalism and communism.

Alliteration

Alliteration
Alliteration is a repetition of the same sound at the start of words, such as "ten terrible teens took the table-tennis table."

Alliteration draws attention to a phrase, and alliterative lines tend to stick in a reader's mind. One of the most recent popular uses of this device is V's introductory speech in V for Vendetta. This literary device is also often associated with children and can be used to add a sing-song or childish quality to a character's pattern of speech.

Allusion

Allusion
Allusion calls something to mind without mentioning it explicitly. For instance, someone may tell you that your nose will grow if you tell a lie, which is an allusion to Pinocchio.

There are a few relevant types of literary allusion. The allusion may be extratextual, meaning it draws the reader's mind to a popular text they may have already read. This type of allusion is best used in reference to very popular books, such as the Bible, and is often called intertextuality. The other type of allusion is more straightforward; it is a barely visible connection between one element of the text and another.

Ambiguity

Ambiguity
Ambiguity means open to more than one interpretation.

Ambiguity can be a difficult tool to use, but some of the best works of literature benefit from presenting the possibility of multiple interpretations. The Giver by Lois Lowry famously provides an ambiguous ending for her child protagonist, and ambiguity can help create a bittersweet tone that walks the boundary between tragedy and comedy. Ambiguity can also be used to shock or surprise the reader. Many three-dimensional characters are ambiguous – neither good nor bad.

Anachronism

Anachronism
An anachronism is a thing that belongs to a time different than the setting of the story.

Anachronism is another difficult-to-use tool in the writer's toolbox as it can be used to impact style, substance, or both. The anachronistic inclusion of a technology, such as Ash's Boomstick in Army of Darkness, can lend special power to a character or cause the character to stand out. That being said, anachronisms are also often the source of nitpicking or destroy the reader's suspension of disbelief. A common example is the use of "fire" meaning "to shoot" before the invention of firearms in historical fiction.

Anagram

Anagram
An anagram is a word or phrase that, when the letters are rearranged, produces another word or phrase. For example, the letters in "listen" can be rearranged to spell "silent."

Anagrams are mostly a simple trick, but they have had significant impact in certain narratives. The villain of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, for instance, rearranges the letters in Tom Marvolo Riddle to read I am Lord Voldemort.

Analogy

Analogy
An analogy is a comparison between two things used to explain or to make a point.

An analogy is a metaphor or simile that is used to make a point or change someone's mind about a topic. For example, the phrase "you're comparing apples to oranges" is a common analogy that points out flaws in an argument where someone is comparing two incomparable objects.

Anaphora

Anaphora
Anaphora is the repetition of a word or short phrase at the start of a sentence, for emphasis. "The heat was like a blanket. The heat dripped from the walls and soaked into the floorboards. The heat and haze settled down on the world. The heat would not be moved."

Anaphora is an excellent device for driving home the severity of a condition or emphasizing the importance of a scene. It can also be used as a form of allusion, drawing the reader's thoughts back to the last time the word or phrase was used within the same work or even within another popular work.

Anecdote

Anecdote
An anecdote is a short story used as proof.

Writers often use anecdotes to build character. Because anecdotes are a story that prove something, they are often used to prove a character's skills, characteristics, or motivation. Anecdotes can be provided in dialogue between two characters, worked into the narrative, or given via flashback.

Antagonist

Antagonist
An antagonist, contrary to popular belief, is not the villain. The antagonist is the character who acts as the "stick" to the protagonist's "carrot" of motivation.

If the protagonist has no reason to move forward, the actions of the antagonist should push them forward. If the protagonist wants a glass of water, the antagonist isn't necessarily opposed to the protagonist having water, but should take actions that interfere with the protagonist taking a sip.

Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism refers to giving human attributes to an animal, god, or object.

Anthropomorphism is an excellent tool for turning otherwise unrelatable elements of a story into three-dimensional characters. If an animal, god, or object is central to a text, giving that subject human emotions or traits such as anger, jealousy, or a human motivation can make the character more engaging.

Antimetabole

Antimetabole
Antimetabole is a phrase that repeats itself in reverse, such as "I said what I meant, and I meant what I said."

Antimetabole can be used to reinforce meaning as a sort of affirmation or mantra or to demonstrate the speaker's wisdom or ideology. It is most often used to show that a character is resolved in their thinking or consideration.

Antithesis

Antithesis
Antithesis is something (usually a character) that is the total opposite of something else.

It is most useful to think of antithesis as being related to a foil. Characters who are foils to one another share some special similarity (a good example is the shared intellect of Sherlock and Moriarty). If something is antithetical, no similarities exist. Antithesis can be a powerfully symbolic device when applied to characters who must work together or to explain why characters are opposed to one another.

Aphorism

Aphorism
An aphorism is a succinct analysis or comment, often using plain-spoken language, such as, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Aphorisms are a great way to characterize a single character or a populace. As with adages, aphorisms can be used to show what a character believes or to illustrate the common beliefs of a society or culture. The difference between an adage and an aphorism is that an aphorism is often a response to current events, meaning it is relevant to the moment.

Aposiopesis

Aposiopesis
Aposiopesis means to break off in the middle of speech: "Get out, or else I'll, I'll—!"

Including interruptions in speech in a written work can improve dialogue by making conversations sound more natural. Using aposiopesis can also add depth to a character; for example, pauses in dialogue can be used to suggest hesitation or fear.

Archetype

Archetype
An archetype is a character or situation defined by a specific set of easily identifiable traits.

Archetypes in literature have universal meaning for readers. Archetypal characters are categorized by the functions that they serve throughout the plot, such as the hero, the mentor, and the villain. Archetypal situations are categorized by how they typically play out during the course of a story, such as the journey, the initiation, and the fall.

Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman
Bildungsroman literally means "educational novel," and it is a particular novel form where a young protagonist reaches adulthood within the scope of the plot.

The Bildungsroman is an archetype for storytelling where a young protagonist is removed from a familiar environment, faces hardships, is changed by these, and emerges as a grown adult. This is similar to the monomyth or the hero's journey, only by the end our hero has come of age.

Caricature

Caricature
A caricature is an image or textual description in which the important traits of a subject are emphasized in an unrealistic manner.

Caricature helps highlight the characteristics of an individual. A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance, uses this strategy to highlight the evil qualities of Lemony Snicket's primary villain, Count Olaf. By describing this character in an over-the-top way, the author reveals the villain's evil nature to the reader without making it too scary for young audiences.

Catharsis

Catharsis
Catharsis refers to releasing, and thus feeling relief, from strong emotions.

Whenever a character is portrayed as overcoming their emotions by giving in and feeling them fully, that's catharsis. For writers, this is an almost impossible trope to pass up. Characters who keep their emotions bottled up must eventually let them out, and it makes for a good story.

Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov's Gun
Chekhov's gun is an emphasized detail that will have future significance within the story.

Well-known author and playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov once advised writers to remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If the first chapter indicates that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. Chekov's gun is the concept that a focus on objects, details, or locations should have future significance in the story. Alternatively, an emphasized detail can instead be used to surprise the reader in the form of a red herring.

Denotation

Denotation
Denotation is the literal meaning of a word. This is almost the opposite of allusion.

Denotation means that a character, object, or symbol is intrinsically linked with a meaning of some kind. Often this link need not be established. An author can simply describe a character by denoting their attributes (e.g., "long hair, unbuttoned shirt"). However, some denotations need to be established, such as the Bat-Signal's link to Batman.

Deus Ex Machina

Deus Ex Machina
With deus ex machina, the unsolvable is suddenly resolved.

Deus ex machina, loosely translated from Latin as "god from the machine," is a phrase originally used to describe an ancient plot device used in Greek and Roman theater. During the performance of a play, a crane would be used to lower onto the stage an actor – frequently one portraying a god – who would then magically provide a resolution to whatever problem the characters were facing. In literature, deus ex machina refers to stories where the primary conflict is solved quickly, near the end of the work, and without full explanation. The problem is solved as if a god had intervened.

Eucatastrophe

A eucatastrophe is the same idea, but there must be a happy ending, and the solution – though sudden – should be foreseeable. The end of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings is a good example as the eagles provide a eucatastrophic ending.

Dyscatastrophe

Dyscatastrophic endings have the same requirements as eucatastrophes – namely, they must be sudden and at least mildly predictable – but they result in a tragic or negative ending.

Double Entendre

Double Entendre
Double entendre, which literally means "double meaning," refers to a phrase that can be read in two contexts. "Children make nutritious snacks" is an example of a double entendre.

Often thought of as bawdy, double entendres can also be perfectly innocuous. For example, the headline "Miners refuse to work after death" could mean that the miners refuse to work after the accidental death of one of their co-workers or, comically, that they refuse to work after their own deaths.

Dystopia

Dystopia
A dystopia is a nightmarish society in decline, which includes overwhelming poverty, anti-individualism, and government repression.

The opposite of a utopia, this dark vision of humanity's future explores the worst-case scenario for mankind. There is rampant oppression and suffering throughout society, and the plot revolves around liberating oneself from this world.

Ellipsis

Ellipsis
An ellipsis is an omission from speech denoted by three dots (…). If it takes place at the end of a sentence, it is three dots followed by a period.

Most folks have a sense of when to use an ellipsis, but writers need to be careful in their application of the device. Too many ellipses will cause a piece of dialogue to seem disjointed. Furthermore, it can be helpful for writers to consider the literal meaning of the dots. "An omission from speech" raises questions: Is it an intentional or unintentional omission? Why omit this information? Ellipses make readers ask questions.

Epiphany

Epiphany
An epiphany is a sudden realization.

Epiphanies are important because they often mark moments of character development, such as the moment the hero realizes he cannot save his parents and becomes a bit darker or the moment that a villain realizes he has been betrayed. Often an epiphany indicates something deeper than a surface-level realization. It is the moment at which a large problem is solved in a character's life or a deep discovery is made.

Exposition

Exposition
Exposition is text that serves the primary purpose of explaining necessary context to the reader.

Exposition can be detrimental to a story. Slowing down the narrative with worldbuilding may be interesting to the author, but entirely irrelevant to the reader. The best method of delivering exposition is to spread it out naturally within the story or to hide it within other narrative elements.

Epithet

Epithet
An epithet is a descriptive word or phrase that is used in the place of, or in addition to, the name of a person, place, or object in a literary work. Epithets are used to provide more vivid detail for the reader.

Authors often use epithets in the form of nicknames to add depth to their characters. These nicknames are frequently repeated throughout a story to reinforce certain character attributes for the reader. One of the more well-known uses of epithets is The Odyssey, where Homer replaced the names of many people and gods with descriptive language.

Fable

Fable
A fable is a short story, often with animals as characters, that usually has a clear moral.

Animals have hundreds of associated meanings, and a writer who uses these as characters in their story can draw on those meanings. Pigs are slothful, greedy, and glutinous; monkeys are intelligent tricksters; and carrion birds are bringers of death. Leaning into or running contrary to these initial assumptions can help a writer produce strong three-dimensional characters.

Foil

Foil
A foil is typically a character drawn in contrast with another character. Dr. Frankenstein and his "creature" are a classic example of a foil.

A foil is a character that is significantly different from another closely related character. Foils are frequently used in "buddy cop" stories, where one police officer is old and the other is young, one is more relaxed about the rules while the other is uptight. Using foils in a literary work can help readers gain insight into the characters.

Frame Narrative

Frame Narrative
A frame narrative is the "story outside the story." It provides context in terms of who is telling the story, why they are telling it, and why the story we are reading is important.

The Name of the Wind has an excellent framing story that adds context to the telling of the story as a whole, making the entire narrative within that frame unreliable. We don't know whether we can trust the narrator, and this is always true of a framing narrative. When a narrator is introduced, there is always the possibility that they are unreliable. In contrast, omniscient narrators are usually considered trustworthy.

Genre

Genre
A genre is a category into which a work (text, image, etc.) fits.

Knowing which genres sell and which do not – and knowing which genre your works falls into – can help an author greatly. For example, say you want to write a romance novel. During the 1970s, a romance in a gothic setting – especially a pulpy paperback – would likely be a good seller. These days, gothic romance novels are not as popular as other romance subjects, such as the classic romantic comedy or the new billionaires subgenre. Understanding your potential readership and crafting your writing to match their interests will ultimately lead to a more engaging piece of literature that resonates with today's readers.

Hubris

Hubris
Hubris is excessive pride that exposes a character to danger. Hubris is often considered a character's tragic flaw.

Hubris may refer to a general sense of pride, but it is most often tied to a certain experience, skillset, or possession. Hubris is frequently used in classical Greek literature. Icarus, while escaping imprisonment on Crete using wings of feathers and wax that had been constructed by his father Daedalus, ignored his father's warnings against flying too close to the sun. The headstrong Icarus fell into the ocean and drowned after the sun's warmth melted the wax that held his wings together.

Hyperbaton

Hyperbaton
Hyperbaton is an inversion of the normal order of words, often used for emphasis. An example is "This I must see!"

Hyperbaton changes the typical subject–verb–object order of a sentence in English (e.g., "I kicked the ball") in order to draw attention to the object of the sentence (e.g., "The ball I kicked"). In both cases, the words used are the same, but the second version feels "out of place" in English because it does not follow the common format. This can be an excellent tool for writers who want to show that a character speaks differently from other characters or draw attention to a certain element of their text. However, the overuse of hyperbaton will make a text unreadable or slow.

In Media Res

In Media Res
In media res means "in the middle," and it refers to starting a text without giving a lot of explanation – starting with an action scene or starting deep within political intrigue without revealing all the factions at play.

It is always worth considering where a story starts. Starting in the middle can be a great way to engage a reader, and in our current publishing environment, it's important to engage readers immediately as they have so many stories vying for their attention. That being said, it is not always best to start a story in the middle of the action because, without meaningful context, readers may feel lost.

Irony

Irony
With irony, expectation and reality are fundamentally divergent.

Irony occurs when a literary element has a certain appearance, but the actual meaning is radically different. Irony is often derived from the unanticipated and can be categorized into three different types: verbal, situational, and dramatic.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when something is said in a manner such that the literal meaning and the intended meaning are opposite, such as: "Wow, you're sooooo smart!"

Situational Irony

Situational irony is when a subject is in a situation that seems not to match their characteristics. For example, an Olympic swimmer drowning is situational irony.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when the readers or viewers know something that the characters of a story do not. This irony is used extensively in horror movies and leads to the thought "Don't go in there! The killer is in there!" Dramatic irony can help ratchet up the tension in a scene, but it can also have a negative impact on verisimilitude (the suspension of disbelief) if the payoff on the dramatic irony is delayed.

Jargon

Jargon
Jargon refers to the words and phrases that make sense to a certain niche group of people and aren't often used outside that group of people.

Jargon is a great way to characterize as writing a character who uses jargon in their dialogue will immediately set them apart and identify them as belonging to the culture from which the jargon is derived.

Technobabble

A subset of jargon is technobabble, which employs scientific-ish buzzword terminology that is mostly nonsensical in nature. The downside to technobabble is that it can be confusing for the reader. Just because the character knows what a "sap-leveled three-turner" is doesn't mean the reader does.

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is highlighting through differences. Juxtaposing characters, settings, themes, or anything else means placing two things in close proximity so that their differences become more obvious.

This literary term plays really nicely with the villain, who at the end of the novel says "we're not so different, you and I." This is a moment of juxtaposition as it highlights to the viewer how different our hero is from the villain. As the villain starts monologuing, our interior thoughts are: "Not my hero! My hero is nothing like you!" This can help establish distance or create closeness between two narrative elements. Juxtaposition will either show a difference clearly or reveal just how similar two compared elements are.

Malapropism

Malapropism
Malapropism is the misuse or misphrasing of a common idiom, such as "it's all water under the fridge" or "happy however after."

These misuses of common phrases can add levity and can even be the calling card of a character. The television show The Trailer Park Boys has a character named Ricky who is so defined by his malapropisms that there is a website detailing these "rickyisms." Malapropisms are probably better avoided in serious stories, but for tertiary characters malapropisms can help define their identity. Furthermore, malapropisms can be used to show a lack of familiarity with a culture or language, although this needs to be done with a critical eye to avoid giving offense to either of the two cultures involved.

Motif

Motif
A motif is a recurring pattern that establishes a theme within a story.

A theme can be reinforced throughout a story by the inclusion of recurring elements or ideas. Weaving these elements or ideas into the story and connecting them back to a theme will further illustrate the theme to the reader and ensure it resonates with the overall story. Most motifs are not explicitly expressed. Rather, motifs are usually conveyed indirectly through the use of objects, sounds, settings, or sentiments.

Nemesis

Nemesis
A nemesis is an inescapable agent of downfall – not simply a rival, but a force for the undoing of a character.

Often a character is construed as the protagonist's nemesis, but nemesis as a concept need not be tied to characters. A character's nemesis is the outside force that will result in their downfall. Although the antagonist is often the protagonist's nemesis, this is not always the case, especially if the antagonist has no reason to work actively against the protagonist and it just so happens that their goals bring them into conflict.

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia
Onomatopoeia refers to words that depict sounds, meaning the words sound like the noises being made.

These words are usually best avoided in works for adults, but they have a long history of effective use in novels for children and in comic books. "Snikt," for instance, is so synonymous with the sound of Marvel's Wolverine extending his claws that it would be difficult to imagine any other sound. Sound words like "squelch," "snip," and "buzz" can be powerful indicators for the tone of a scene and should be quite at home in most tween fiction.

Palindrome

Palindrome
A palindrome is a word or phrase that can be read the same forwards and backwards.

Palindromes are perhaps best used for their entertainment value in books for tweens or children. Examples include "madam" and "racecar" as well as names like "Ava" or "Anna." They may be best used to show familiarity with a subject. For instance, a character infatuated with a girl named Anna may know that her name is a palindrome and may remark on that fact.

Plot

Plot
A plot is the sequence of events that establishes a story.

In the simplest of terms, a plot consists of events that are chained together one-by-one until there is a foundation for storytelling. The plot structure usually starts with a protagonist; a challenge is then introduced, followed by the protagonist attempting to overcome the challenge and achieve a goal, and concluding with a resolution.

Protagonist

Protagonist
The protagonist is the character who moves the plot forward by pursuing an objective.

Perhaps the protagonist is reluctant, or perhaps the protagonist isn't really a protagonist after all; however, all protagonists move the story further by attempting to achieve a goal. There is no guarantee that the protagonist will be successful in this pursuit, but it is the pursuit that defines a character as a protagonist. The protagonist may also grow as a character during the course of the plot.

Hero

A hero is a relatable "good" character who possesses noble and admirable qualities. The reader will root for the hero to overcome challenges in order to achieve the goals of the plot and have a satisfactory resolution. For example, if you were forced to choose a hero from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you would probably select the "Man With No Name" (i.e., "The Good").

Antihero

Antiheroes are often more engaging because they break some of the rules that we associate with classic heroes. Perhaps they are willing to break the law or kill, or perhaps their motivations are unsavory, such as wanting money rather than saving someone in trouble. In any case, the character is still sustained as a hero through either their intentions (they are trying to do the right thing) or the outcomes of their action (they manage to do the right thing, despite not trying). Getting back to our example, Tuco Ramírez (i.e., "The Ugly") could be thought of as the antihero for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Villain

A villain is an unrelatable "bad" character who causes harm to others. The reader will root against this character in their efforts to achieve the goals of the plot. If a character has neither a positive outcome nor a positive intention, then they are likely a villain rather than a hero or an antihero. In our The Good, the Bad and the Ugly example, Angel Eyes (i.e., "The Bad") is the clear villain of the story.

Red Herring

Red Herring
A red herring is a detail meant to draw a reader's attention away from another element of the story – in other words, distract the reader.

Red herrings are particularly important in detective novels, where the reader is likely to attempt to solve the mystery before the novel has concluded. These details are meant to lead a reader away from the true solution or distract them from other elements of a plot. A red herring could be a character (e.g., a suspect), a setting (e.g., a village where a murder would never take place, but does), or even an object (e.g., a ball rolling down a hill away from the house where the murder took place).

Satire

Satire
Satire has a number of definitions, but the simplest is "saying the opposite of what is meant."

In satire, a character or text takes a stance that is, or seems to be, opposed to their true stance. Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report was satire; he pretended to be a right-wing pundit, but his comedy often mocked or addressed problems within right-wing politics.

Tautology

Tautology
A tautology is when the same thing is said twice in different ways.

Tautology can be a useful method of reinforcing an idea or adding detail to a character. Tautological arguments rely on passion, rather than logic. For this reason, their use likewise implies a presence of passion or a lack of logic – or both.

Theme

Theme
A theme is an exploration of a topic or idea throughout a story.

A theme can usually be boiled down to a single word, such as "redemption," "perseverance," "love," or "revenge." It is the writer's perspective on the human experience, interwoven into the plot and expressed through characters and situations. A theme is universally significant and makes a story meaningful for most readers.

Tragic Flaw

Tragic Flaw
A tragic flaw is an interior force responsible for a character's downfall. Hubris is a common tragic flaw, but such a flaw can be any trait that ultimately harms the character. For instance, Hamlet's tragic flaw was inaction.

Tragic flaws are one of the most useful literary devices. When a character is typified as representing a certain ideology or emotion, then using that emotion against them or showing the weaknesses in their ideology has obvious narrative benefits. A tragic flaw may destroy a character or may cause the character to change, either by eliminating the tragic flaw or overcoming it.

Trope

Trope
A trope is a repeated literary device or figure of speech. If employed too often in overall storytelling, a trope can reach the level of cliché, such as the color of a cowboy's hat defining whether he is a hero or a villain.

Tropes can be found throughout fiction. It can be a figure of speech, such as irony, allegory, antimetabole, or hyperbaton. It can also be genre-specific such as the "final girl" for horror or "balcony wooing" for romance. These days, defining something as a trope is usually a form of criticism for the overuse of conventional and predictable storytelling. In other words, if an element is recognizable throughout literature and is found within a certain story, that story can be dismissed as boilerplate.

Utopia

Utopia
A utopia is a perfect world. A dystopia, by contrast, is an imperfect world.

Utopia is complex to address, because traditionally utopic narratives are eventually revealed to be false. When a narrative seems utopic, it is often revealed to be dystopic. The common exception is the afterlife or the place to which a character goes at the end of the novel. Whether it be crossing the sea to live with the elves or rising up to a choir of singing angels, most true utopias are reserved for the end of a narrative.

Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude
Verisimilitude is the believability of a narrative or work of fiction.

Verisimilitude helps create the reader's suspension of disbelief. Suspending disbelief involves turning off the voice in your head that says "this isn't real!" long enough to enjoy a story about superheroes who fight aliens. When a reader can't believe what they are reading, they won't enjoy the fiction. For this reason, even in fantasy or science fiction narratives, verisimilitude is important. To increase verisimilitude, be sure to establish rules and stick to those rules in order to create a world with logical consequences and outcomes.

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