The Ultimate List Of Literary Devices

You know what a metaphor is. But when someone asks you, “What literary devices do you use the most in your writing?” you’re not sure how to answer. 

What exactly is a literary device, anyway? And what if you’re using one and don’t even realize it? 

Because it happens. You pick things up when reading other people’s stories, and before you know it, you’re using them in your own. 

But which of those are literary devices, and which are just stylistic preferences? 

Welcome to our literary devices list, which can help you identify each one by name and understand how to use it.

Literary Devices List 

  1. Allegory
  2. Alliteration
  3. Allusion
  4. Anachronism
  5. Analogy
  6. Anecdote
  7. Archetype
  8. Bildungsroman
  9. Conflict
  10. Deux ex Machina
  11. Diction
  12. Epilogue 
  13. Euphemism
  14. Flashbacks
  15. Foil
  16. Foreshadowing
  17. Hyperbole 
  18. Imagery
  19. Irony
  20. Juxtaposition
  21. Metaphor & Simile
  22. Motif
  23. Onomatopoeia
  24. Oxymoron
  25. Paradox
  26. Personification
  27. Prologue
  28. Satire
  29. Symbolism
  30. Tone

Allegory

An allegory is a symbolic story where each character or group of characters represent something else — a vice or virtue, an idea, a political movement, etc. — to convey a message or moral. 

Example:

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell

Alliteration

Alliteration involves repeating the same initial sound (and often the first letter) in a string of words. Using this device in your book’s title can make it easier to remember. 

person flipping through pages of a book literary devices

Related to this are assonance and consonance, which involve the repetition of vowel sounds or consonant sounds, respectively.

Examples: 

  • Book Titles: Angela’s Ashes, Gone Girl, Peter Pan, Nicholas Nickelby
  • Nursery Rhymes: “Peter Piper” “Ring around the Rosy,” “

Allusion

When you allude to a real person, place, or event in your creative writing, you invite the reader to see a connection between something in the story and something in real life – something familiar to them – to draw them deeper into your narrative

Example:

  • “She’s our neighborhood’s Mother Teresa.” 

Anachronism

This is when the writer intentionally messes with the chronology or timeline for comedic effect.

For example, in a story where the protagonist visits characters from history, one of those could speak using modern slang. 

Example:

  • William Shakespeare visits the 21st century, starts speaking in rap, and develops a nacho addiction. And that accordion collar? He trades that in for a pearl necklace.

Analogy

Writers use these to establish a relationship between two things or ideas based on similarities. They then use that relationship to make a point or to make a situation clearer to the reader. 

Example:

  • No rainbows without rain; no success without purposeful action. 

Anecdote

This is a story within a story or a short story used to illustrate a point in a work of nonfiction. It’s also possible to write an entire book with a collection of anecdotes with a unifying goal or theme.

Example: 

  • “His grandfather sat down with him on the porch swing and began with, ‘I remember when your dad was your age…’ “

Archetype

This device uses a famous idea, person, or object to convey meaning. Immediately recognizable, it connects to what the reader already knows to build a story that is both familiar and new.

Examples: 

  • The hero’s journey in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (among many others)

Bildungsroman

Writers using this device allow their story’s plot to depend on the overall growth of the central character. The storyline essentially follows that character’s arc, whether it’s positive or negative. 

Examples: 

  • The storyline in Gone with the Wind follows the lead character, Scarlett O’Hara’s, arc of personal growth as she learns the meaning of true friendship, loyalty, and love.

Conflict 

Use this device to express the resistance your central character encounters — externally or internally — in their pursuit of something they want. 

Example:

  • “For three years, Tess tried to convince herself that freelancing was the best possible way for her to earn a good living, but her finances and one crisis after another seemed determined to steer her in a different direction .”

Deux ex Machina

This is when the writer brings an implausible concept or character into the story to ‘miraculously’ solve a problem and save the day. 

Example: 

  • Just when it seems all is lost, a dragon (who existed at no other point in the story) appears out of nowhere and BBQs the villain.

Diction

With diction, you use language to express formality or familiarity. Diction in dialogue can help the writer distinguish one character from another. 

young girl reading dictionary literary devices

Also, depending on their reader, nonfiction writers will use of the four different types of diction:

  • Formal — serious content for highly-educated readers
  • Informal — informal content with a conversational tone to express familiarity
  • Slang — informal content for a younger audience, using newer words and phrases
  • Colloquial — informal content with words and expressions used in everyday life

Examples:

  • “Cordially yours…’ (formal)
  • “‘Ya basic!” (slang)
  • “Well, dang!” (colloquial)

Epilogue

Like the prologue, this device is for narrative outside the time period covered in your book’s chapters

The epilogue tells the reader what happens to the characters after the story’s end and can either tease the next book in the series or wrap things up for the reader.

Example:

  • The epilogue for the final story in the Harry Potter series. 

Euphemism

While these usually take the place of words specifically related to intimacy, they could include any word or expression used in place of something considered impolite, indecent, or insensitive.

Examples:

  • “Passed” or “gone to heaven” for “died”
  • “Tipsy” for “drunk”
  • “Downsizing” for “layoffs”

Foil

This is another character in the story who contrasts with a central character, usually to highlight one of that character’s attributes.

Example: 

  • In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore, with his kindness and his belief in the power of love, acts as a foil to Lord Voldemort, who mocks love and uses people.

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Foreshadowing

Writers use foreshadowing to give their readers a hint of what’s to come. These can be bits and pieces of information that the reader doesn’t initially recognize as clues but that they later remember. And what they remember helps them understand what’s going on. 

Example:

  • In the Avengers movie, Tony Stark calls someone out for playing Galaga — a game where the goal is to protect the earth from an alien invasion — which is what Tony/Ironman and the other Avengers end up doing. 

Flashbacks

You can use these to provide important information from a character’s past and draw your reader more deeply into the story. 

Some writers use flashbacks to show how something in the past has contributed to the present situation — or to provide clues on how to handle the present crisis. 

Examples:

  • Harry Potter’s glimpses into Dumbledore’s and Snape’s memories.

Hyperbole

Hyperbole is exaggeration used to emphasize something or to make a point more dramatically. 

Examples:

  • “I’m so tired, I could sleep forever.”

Imagery

With imagery, you use visually descriptive or figurative language to paint a picture for the reader. This is showing versus telling — creative writing 101. 

quill with feather on the table literary devices

The caveat, here, is to use as few adverbs as possible, choosing instead stronger, more descriptive verbs to give the reader a clearer picture of the action in the story. Words describing the scene are also important, but every word should earn its place. 

Example:

  • The imagery of the mountains, the fields, and the river in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

Irony

With irony, you use language to convey a meaning opposite to what is literally expressed by your choice of words. There are three types of irony:

  • Verbal irony — someone says something but means the opposite (sarcasm)
  • Situational irony — something happens that is the opposite of what was intended.
  • Dramatic irony — the reader is aware of the contradictory reality, while the characters are not. 

Example:

  • Verbal irony — when one character, who plans to murder another, proposes a toast with the words, “To your long life.” 
  • Situational irony — your character makes arrangements to propose to his fiancée
  • Dramatic irony — In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo commits suicide to be with Juliet, even though the audience knows Juliet isn’t really dead (yet). 

Juxtaposition

With juxtaposition, the writer places two directly or indirectly related entities — people, concepts, places, ideas, or objects — close together to highlight the contrast between them.

It’s similar to an oxymoron, but instead of two contrary words, you have two contradictory phrases or bits of dialogue. 

Example:

  • The beginning to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

Metaphor & Simile

This is one of the most popular literary devices and one you probably learned about in school. With a metaphor, you essentially call one thing something else even if, literally speaking, the two are not equivalent. 

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses the word “like” or “as” to soften the connection between the two objects compared. 

Examples:

  • Metaphor: He’s so much happier, now. His former boss was a snake. 
  • Simile: Her eyes were as cold as the hand gripping her margarita glass.

Motif

A motif is an idea or element that dominates a story and gives the reader clues as to what will happen. Like archetypes, motifs are often easy to recognize, even if they haven’t been around for centuries or are tied to a specific culture or belief system. Archetypes are more universal.

Certain motifs show up repeatedly in fairy tales and folklore. And readers of certain genres expect some motifs as part of the storyline.

Examples: 

  • A poor but good-hearted hero is rewarded with magic for his kindness.

Onomatopoeia

This device has to do with words that resemble the sounds they refer to. They’re used to evoke that sound in the reader’s mind to make the story come to life. 

Examples:

  • Crash, creak, boom, crackle, tinkle, sizzle, zoom, chirp, etc.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron puts two contrary words together to create a contradictory meaning. Writers use this device to create tension, to illustrate a paradox, or just to make their readers laugh. 

Examples:

  • Organized chaos
  • Deafening silence

Paradox

This is a statement that sounds illogical or nonsensical but, on closer inspection, could actually be true or plausible. Unlike an oxymoron, a paradox is a complete sentence, not just a combination of two words. 

Famous example: 

  • “This statement is false.”

Personification

Writers use personification when they give human characteristics to nonhuman characters and objects. Unlike anthropomorphism, though, the nonhuman objects remain as they are; they only seem to act human in a particular context. 

Examples:

  • “The wind whistled through the crack in my window frame, taunting me while I worked.”

Prologue

This is an introduction to a story and can provide some interesting information about the main character’s past or provide a sneak peek or some clues as to what’s about to happen in the present (i.e., foreshadowing). 

person reading book greyscale literary devices

The prologue is often (though not always) told from the main character’s point of view. 

Example: 

  • “This all started when…”
  • “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” (Star Wars prologue)

Satire

The goal of satire is to make fun of human weakness, a character flaw, or a morally questionable policy. 

Writers sometimes use this device to make more people aware of the objects of their satire — not so much to amuse or entertain us as to motivate us to take corrective action. 

Examples:

  • The series SouthPark is a satire on the flaws in modern American society

Symbolism

This device uses an object or action to mean more than its literal meaning. Think of what simple objects in your home mean to you: the dinner table, your work desk, a favorite painting on the wall, a collection of stones gathered from your travels, etc.

Example:

  • “New dawn” means something more than a new 24-hour day; it signifies a meaningful new beginning, as well as hope, renewal, and a chance at redemption.

How will you use these literary devices?

Now that you’re better acquainted with these 30 literary devices, which stood out for you as the ones you use the most? 

Or which are you seriously thinking of adding to your latest work in progress?

Were there any that made you think, “Huh. That’s not what I thought it was.” I had the same thought when I found out the real meaning of “Deus ex Machina.” 

As long as we keep learning, right? And being a writer means learning something new every day. I hope we can be a part of that for you. 

And I hope you’re having as much fun with this as we are. 

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