Literary Devices: Examples & Uses
Last week’s post focused on literary elements, the large aspects of a story that come together to form a novel. This week, we look at the smaller aspects, the things that form sentences and paragraphs. Literary devices can help you develop your writing style. While events and characters make readers turn the page, the way you put words together makes the reader look at the next sentence. Using literary devices ensures readers don’t skim important parts of your book and using the right devices helps you get your point across most effectively.
The way you structure your sentences can make all the difference in the way the reader understands your story. Remember, punctuation of any form tells your reader to pause. It gives them a break. Paragraph and chapter breaks do this even more effectively. If you want to tell your readers something important, be it a plot twist, a bit of foreshadowing, or a joke, putting it at the end of a sentence or paragraph lets it settle in your reader’s mind. “He’s dead,” she whispered and she whispered, “He’s dead” both say the same thing. However, the latter keeps the readers in suspense just a moment longer. The first one doesn’t let the reader think about the consequences of the sentence until they finish reading the dialogue tag.
In addition, you want your reader to focus on the content of the story, not the way it is written. Avoid overly complicated sentence structures and super long sentences because those will only confuse your readers. Passive voice, for instance, should only be used in rare circumstances. The only reason you would say the car was being driven by my sister instead of my sister was driving the car is if the narrator does not expect their sister to be driving a car. If that’s not the case, stick with the second sentence structure (active voice) because it’s easier to read.
Similes & Metaphors
Similes and metaphors compare two unlike objects or ideas, but a simile uses like or as and a metaphor does not. As busy as a bee is a typical (and overused) simile. Eyes of ice is a common metaphor. A simile explains why two things are similar, and a metaphor just says they are the same thing. Generally, a metaphor is more impactful than a simile.
This is the intentional—the key word being intentional—usage of a word, phrase, or idea multiple times in a short time. Using ‘the’ five times in a sentence doesn’t usually help get your point across. If done well, the reader won’t be taken aback by the overuse of a single word, but rather the idea will stick in their head and make a bigger impact. Having a character tell themselves the same thing several times can instill the importance of it in the reader. Of course, you don’t want to repeat everything important, because then it loses the impact.
Pronounced aa-nuh-maa-tuh-pee-uh, onomatopoeia is a fancy way of saying sound effect. Buzz! Crash! Drip! These are all examples of onomatopoeia. More so than any of the other literary devices I mentioned, overusing this one will probably raise a few eyebrows. However, used sparingly, this can surprise the reader and make them pay better attention to what they are reading.
Foreshadowing is dropping hints about an upcoming event so when readers read a plot twist, everything clicks into place. This can be done with symbolism; a character who passes a clover may get a stroke of luck. Characters may be irrationally afraid. Even if the characters brush it off, readers will be on their toes for a plot twist. Chekhov’s gun is a subset of foreshadowing. This is when you mention a detail that is brought back up later, like a gun on the wall that is used to kill a character. The most effective foreshadowing is when readers are misled. For instance, they may believe one character will be killed, but another one dies. The outcome makes sense when readers think about it, but it wasn’t what they expected.
There are three types of irony. Situational irony is when the opposite of what was expected occurs. For instance, two characters may run in search of the other but miss each other by a few moments. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows more than the characters, something that usually happens in stories with multiple POVs. Is the protagonist walking into a trap? Is a character lying? Verbal irony is basically sarcasm, when a character says something that means the opposite of what they actually want to say. All types of irony can surprise readers and make them more invested in the outcome of the story.
A symbol is a tangible thing in a story that represents a larger idea, such as a feeling. Animals are common symbols; ravens are thought of as bringers of death and owls are symbols of wisdom. It seems natural for new things to begin in spring and for forests to be ominous. You can use common symbols like these, or change them up to surprise your readers. What if rain—heavy, dark rain—brings joy? What if seven is an unlucky number? On the other hand, using symbols as they typically are used can help with foreshadowing. A story taking place in winter puts readers on their guard and prepares them for whatever plot twist you may have up your sleeve.
There are many more literary devices, but these are the most common. What are your favorite literary devices? Let me know in the comments!