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Elevate writing using literary devices

A literary device is a technique or tool used by writers to enhance the effectiveness, beauty, and depth of their writing. Knowing all about them, and sprinkling them into your writing, can enhance your writing

Recognize any of these literary device?

‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ – Charles Dickens
‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.’

The Dickens quote, from the novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is an example of anaphora, while the Peter piper tongue twister might have been something you had to recite in school, or perhaps you had to get your tongue around this one instead: ‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore. The shells she sells are surely sea shells. So if she sells shells on the sea shore, I’m sure she sells seashore shells.’

All of these are examples of literary devices, and are used by writers, both consciously and unconsciously, all the time. Sometimes writing exercises consist of adding as many as possible to a piece of writing, to see how they are used, and to enliven a piece of writing.

Simply put, a literary device is a technique or tool used by writers to enhance the effectiveness, beauty, and depth of their writing. From the examples above to metaphors, symbolism, irony and satire, there are tons. They enhance descriptive writing, convey meaning, and make writing ‘interesting’ – a somewhat elusive, even abstract concept. But knowing all about them, and sprinkling them into your writing, with deliberate intent, can enhance and elevate your writing.

We explore 25 common literary devices in this post.

Before we do, a brief word on literary elements, which are separate from devices, but can easily be confused with them. A literary element includes such details as plot, point of view, theme, setting and so on.

So, here they are with examples from literature.


This is a narrative with a symbolic meaning, often used to convey moral or political messages. This can be done skillfully to comment on a political situation, for instance. Allegories convey complex ideas or concepts through symbolic figures, actions or events.

Example: One of the best-known allegories is the George Orwell novella, Animal Farm, which allegorizes Russia’s revolution and the leadership of Stalin, and the betrayal of Communist ideals. In Animal Farm the animals establish a more just society, but this soon devolves into a hierarchy no different from the one it has replaced. The pigs stand for political figures of the then USSR.


The repetition of initial consonant sounds in neighboring words, used for emphasis or to create rhythm. We have the tongue twisters noted above. Alliteration is often used in poety, but is also naturally found in fiction.

Example: ‘One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,/ And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’ — ‘Death, Be Not Proud’ by John Donne.


An indirect reference to a well-known person, place, or event from history, literature, or mythology. It is left to the reader to make the direct connection.

Example: We refer to Christian Biblical allusions all the time, for example. To take an obvious example, saying, ‘This place is like a Garden of Eden’ means we immediately know a writer is referring to an innocent, yet paradisiacal place.

Charles Dickens quote an example of anaphora 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.


The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences, used for emphasis or rhetorical effect.

Example: We quoted Dickens above with ‘It was the best of times …’ and here’s another: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds …’ from a speech by Winston Churchill.


The repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words or stressed syllables within a phrase or sentence. Unlike rhyming, which involves the repetition of both consonant and vowel sounds, assonance focuses solely on the vowel sounds. This is used to create internal rhyme or musicality.

One of the best-known allegories is the George Orwell novella, Animal Farm, which allegorizes Russia’s revolution and the leadership of Stalin, and the betrayal of Communist ideals.

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Example: ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Or: for drivers from countries where people drive on the left suddenly driving in the US and other ‘right’ driving countries, this little saying does the trick when remembering which way to turn: ‘Tight right, loose left’.


A scene that interrupts the chronological flow of a narrative to depict events that occurred earlier. This is an excellent way of present what happened in the story previously, it can also rachet up the tension in a story.

Example: The flashbacks in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that gradually reveal Jay Gatsby’s past: we’re kept in suspense until that point.

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Similar to flashbacks, but this hints at future events in the narrative, this also creates anticipation or suspense in your story. Give your reader just enough hints and clues that they carry on reading. They sometimes appearing at the beginning of a narrative.

Example: In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, narrator Richard shares partial information about a murder in the opening paragraphs. Even though the events he describes are in his past, to us they’re foreshadowing as we have not yet read an explanation for these events. For more examples and a detailed look at this device read our posts here and here.


This is the exaggeration for emphasis or effect. We use it all the time in our everyday speech: ‘Never in a million years would I do that!’ It’s not literally true, but it gets the point across.

Example: In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist emerges from his shelter to find total destruction, and makes the hyperbolic statement that: ‘Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals.’


This is visual symbolism, figurative, descriptive language that appeals to the senses, creating vivid mental sense images for the reader. Imagery can also evoke tone, such as describing a chilly dark night full of suspicious shadows. The best imagery uses the five senses.

Example: Of course writing of all sorts is full of imagery, but here’s a vivid description from The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf: ‘The embankment juts out in angles here and there, like pulpits; instead of preachers, however, small boys occupy them, dangling string, dropping pebbles, or launching wads of paper for a cruise.’


This can be divided into three types. Irony is the difference what is expected or intended and what actually occurs. It often involves a discrepancy between appearance and reality, or between what is said and what is meant This a contrast between expectation and reality.

Verbal irony: when a character says something that is the opposite of what they mean. It can be used for sarcasm, humor, or to convey a character’s true feelings. For example, if someone says, ‘What a beautiful day’ during a rainstorm.

Dramatic irony: When the audience knows something that the characters do not, creating tension or humor.

Example: One of the saddest examples of dramatic irony is found in the Shakespeare tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The audience knows Juliet is alive, just in a deep sleep, while Romeo believes she is dead; but he drinks the poison, after which so does Juliet. This is also found in the film, The Truman Show. The audience knows that Truman Burbank is living in a constructed reality television show, but Truman himself remains unaware of this fact.

Situation Irony: This occurs when there is a contrast between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. It often involves unexpected twists or outcomes that challenge the reader’s expectations. A famous example is that found in O. Henry’s 1905 short story, ‘The Gift of the Magi’. In this ultimately really sad story, a poor young married couple give up prized possessions to buy each other Christmas presents. She sells her hair to a wigmaker to buy her husband a chain for his pocket watch. Meanwhile he sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair.


Juxtaposition in fiction is a literary device where two or more elements, such as characters, settings, or themes, are placed side by side or close together for the purpose of comparison or contrast.

There are several ways in which juxtaposition can be used in fiction:

Character juxtaposition: When two characters with contrasting traits, beliefs, or personalities are placed together, their differences are emphasized. This can lead to conflict, character development, or thematic exploration.

Example: In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, the juxtaposition of the morally upright Dr. Jekyll and the morally corrupt Mr. Hyde highlights their differences.

Setting juxtaposition: When contrasting settings are presented in close proximity, it can create a sense of tension or irony.

In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the wild and desolate moors surrounding Wuthering Heights are juxtaposed with the refined and orderly environment of Thrushcross Grange, highlighting the contrast between nature and civilization.

Theme juxtaposition: when contrasting themes or ideas are explored simultaneously.

For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the juxtaposition of wealth and morality is central to the novel’s exploration of the American Dream.

Narrative Juxtaposition: When different narrative perspectives or timelines are interwoven.

Example: In Paul Auster’s 4321, in which he writes four alternative lives of his protagonist, Archie, the different lives are set in juxtaposition to each other. Something very similar is achieved in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us in which three versions of the life of a couple are explored and, again, set in juxtaposition.

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A figure of speech that compares two unlike things to highlight their similarities without using ‘like’ or ‘as’. It is used for rhetorical effect, referring to one thing by mentioning another, to things that are unrelated and is usually a non-literal comparison.

Example: ‘All the world’s a stage’ from As You Like It by Shakespeare.


This is the emotional atmosphere or tone of a literary work. Writers use characters as well as settings to create mood.

Example: The eerie mood created by the foggy setting in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.


A recurring element or theme in a literary work that highlights a symbolic or conceptual idea. Read our comprehensive post on this device.

Example: One of the most famous comes from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Lady Macbeth’s constant washing of her hands signals her unconscious guilt.


Words that imitate the sound they describe.

Example: ‘Buzz’ or ‘hiss’


A figure of speech that combines contradictory terms.

Example: ‘Jumbo shrimp’


The repetition of grammatical structure or elements in neighboring phrases or clauses, creating rhythm and a harmonious effect, sometimes repeating the same words, sometimes using common phrases.

Example: ‘Like father, like son’.


Assigning human characteristics or the attribution of a personal nature to non-human entities, bringing them to ‘life’, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.

Example: From the poem, ‘My Book’, by Makosazana Xaba, ‘My book has never been too tired to go to bed with me./ It never has a headache or needs downtime to discuss the day.’


The use of humor, irony, or ridicule to criticize or mock societal issues or human folly. It uses parody and exaggeration to do so.

Example: Gulliver’s Tales by Jonathan Swift, in which Lemuel Gulliver travels to uncharted parts of the world where he finds new civilizations and meets fantastical creatures. Each location satirizes forms of government and human nature.

Sylvia Plath quote: 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch.'
Example of a simile


A comparison between two unlike things using ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Example: As innocent as a lamb, as mad as a hatter. Sylvia Plath’s poem, Morning Song, has these memorable lines when referring to her new born son: ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch.’


The use of symbols, words or images, to represent abstract ideas or concepts, to symbolize concepts, themes, objects and so on.

Examples: The River in Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse symbolizes life, time, and the journey towards enlightenment. As Siddhartha learns from the river, it represents the flow and unity of all existence.

The green light in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald symbolizing Gatsby’s hopes and dreams.


The quality of a narrative that keeps readers engaged and uncertain about what will happen next. Suspense in literary works refers to the intense anticipation or anxiety experienced by the reader regarding the outcome of events in the story. Suspense typically arises from uncertainty or tension surrounding key plot points, conflicts, or the fate of characters.

Example: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: Professor Robert Langdon’s quest to unravel a centuries-old mystery involving the Catholic Church, secret societies, and hidden codes is filled with suspense as he races against time to uncover the truth. The fast-paced action and unexpected plot twists keep readers gripped until the final revelation.

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The author’s attitude toward the subject matter or audience, referring to the language and word choice an author uses with their subject

Example: The humorous tone of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Using one word to modify two other words, in two different ways, in which a word applies to two others in different senses.

Example: ‘He stole both my car and my heart.’


Attributing animal characteristics to humans or inanimate objects using figurative language that characterizes people, objects, places, and ideas with animal attributes.

Example: ‘The raging storm howled through the night.’

If you want to delve even further have a look at this list of 112 literary devices.

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By Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca has published a collection of short stories, three collections of poetry and has edited anthologies of prose. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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