Literary Devices Literary Techniques for Analysing a Written Text

 Literary Techniques

Literary Techniques

Literary Devices Literary Techniques

Literary devices refers to any specific aspect of literature, or a particular work, which we can recognize, identify, interpret and/or analyze. Both literary elements and literary techniques can rightly be called literary devices.

Literary elements refers to aspects or characteristics of a whole text. They are not “used,” per se, by authors; we derive what they are from reading the text. Most literary elements can be derived from any and all texts; for example, every story has a theme, every story has a setting, every story has a conflict, every story is written from a particular point-of-view, etc. In order to be discussed legitimately, literary elements must be specifically identified for that text.

Literary techniques refers to any specific, deliberate constructions of language which an author uses to convey meaning. An author’s use of a literary technique usually occurs with a single word or phrase, or a particular group of words or phrases, at one single point in a text. Unlike literary elements, literary techniques are not necessarily present in every text.

Literary terms refers to the words themselves with which we identify and describe literary elements and techniques. They are not found in literature and they are not “used” by authors.

The purpose of an article or any piece of text is often clearly conveyed to us through the chosen language. From the language, we are able to understand how serious a person is about the issue, how much they want to influence our opinion or persuade us, to what extent they want to entertain us or the degree to which they want to educate us.

The following is a list of all the literary devices and literary techniques you must be familiar with in order to progress through your senior years in English

  • identify the technique used
  • illustrate the technique
  • discuss its effectiveness
  • Allegory

    Where every aspect of a story is representative, usually symbolic, of something else, usually a larger abstract concept or important historical/geopolitical event.

    Lord of the Flies provides a compelling allegory of human nature, illustrating the three sides of the psyche through its sharply-defined main characters.

  • Alliteration

    Repetition of sound e.g. Big Blue Bike.

  • Antagonist

    Counterpart to the main character and source of a story’s main conflict. The person may not be “bad” or “evil” by any conventional moral standard, but he/she opposes the protagonist in a significant way.

  • Anthropomorphism

    Where animals or inanimate objects are portrayed in a story as people, such as by walking, talking, or being given arms, legs and/or facial features. This technique is often incorrectly called personification. Similar to personification but is the term used to describe animals or gods when given human traits and qualities.

    The King and Queen of Hearts and their playing-card courtiers comprise only one example of Carroll’s extensive use of anthropomorphism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

  • Assonance

    Repetition of vowel sounds e.g. Slow road to no where

  • Black verse

    Non-rhyming poetry, usually written in iambic pentameter.

    Most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is written in blank verse, though it does occasionally rhyme.

  • Characterisation

    The author’s means of conveying to the reader a character’s personality, life history, values, physical attributes, etc. Also refers directly to a description thereof.

    Atticus is characterized as an almost impossibly virtuous man, always doing what is right and imparting impeccable moral values to his children.

  • Climax

    The turning point in a story, at which the end result becomes inevitable, usually where something suddenly goes terribly wrong; the “dramatic high point” of a story.

    The story reaches its climax in Act III, when Mercutio and Tybalt are killed and Romeo is banished from Verona.

  • Colloquial language (Colloquialism)

    Relating to conversation (Conversational/informal/friendly)

  • Conflict

    A struggle between opposing forces which is the driving force of a story. The outcome of any story provides a resolution of the conflict(s); this is what keeps the reader reading. Conflicts can exist between individual characters, between groups of characters, between a character and society, etc., and can also be purely abstract (conflicting ideas).

    The conflict between the Montagues and Capulets causes Romeo and Juliet to behave irrationally once they fall in love.

    Jack’s priorities are in conflict with those of Ralph and Piggy, which causes him to break away from the group.

    Man-versus-nature is an important conflict in The Old Man and the Sea.

  • Context

    Facts and conditions surrounding a given situation.

    Madame Defarge’s actions seem almost reasonable in the context of the Revolution.

  • Contrast

    To show difference when comparing.

  • Creative license

    Exaggeration or alteration of objective facts or reality, for the purpose of enhancing meaning in a fictional context.

    Orwell took some creative license with the historical events of the Russian Revolution, in order to clarify the ideological conflicts.

  • Denouement

    Resolution Of plot, play etc.

  • Descriptive language


  • Dialogue

    Where characters speak to one another; may often be used to substitute for exposition.

    Since there is so little stage direction in Shakespeare, many of the characters’ thoughts and actions are revealed through dialogue.

  • Discourse

    A way of communication usually in a group, institute

  • Dramatic irony

    Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the story are not aware.

    Macbeth responds with disbelief when the weird sisters call him Thane of Cawdor; ironically, unbeknownst to him, he had been granted that title by king Duncan in the previous scene.

  • Ellipsis

    Omission of words e.g. “I have not been… picked out… simply to be… abandoned…”

  • Emotive Language

    Creates emotion. e.g. “Crippled and elderly grandfather bashed” rather than “elderly man is attacked”.

  • Enjambment

    A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

  • Euphemism

    Acceptable/mild expression for something not very nice e.g. Instead of died- Moved

  • Exposition

    Where an author interrupts a story in order to explain something, usually to provide important background information.

    The first chapter consists mostly of exposition, running down the family’s history and describing their living conditions.

  • Figurative language

    Any use of language where the intended meaning differs from the actual literal meaning of the words themselves. There are many techniques which can rightly be called figurative language, including metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia, verbal irony, and oxymoron. (Related: figure of speech)

    The poet makes extensive use of figurative language, presenting the speaker’s feelings as colors, sounds and flavors.

  • Foil

    A character who is meant to represent characteristics, values, ideas, etc. which are directly and diametrically opposed to those of another character, usually the protagonist.

    The noble, virtuous father Macduff provides an ideal foil for the villainous, childless Macbeth.

  • Foreshadowing

    Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. Foreshadowing can take many forms and be accomplished in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety. However, if the outcome is deliberately and explicitly revealed early in a story (such as by the use of a narrator or flashback structure), such information does not constitute foreshadowing.

    Willy’s concern for his car foreshadows his eventual means of suicide.

  • Formal language (formality)


  • Generalisation

    Doesn’t allow for individual difference.

  • Hyperbole

    A description which exaggerates. Deliberate exaggeration for effect. e.g. Endless cry of death and pain.

    The author uses hyperbole to describe Mr. Smith, calling him “the greatest human being ever to walk the earth.”

  • Iambic pentameter

    Poetry written with each line containing ten syllables, in five repetitions of a two-syllable pattern wherein the pronunciation emphasis is on the second syllable.

    Shakespeare wrote most of his dialogue in iambic pentameter, often having to adjust the order and nature of words to fit the syllable pattern, thus endowing the language with even greater meaning.

  • Imaginery

    Language which describes something in detail, using words to substitute for and create sensory stimulation, including visual imagery and sound imagery. Also refers to specific and recurring types of images, such as food imagery and nature imagery.

    The author’s use of visual imagery is impressive; the reader is able to see the island in all its lush, colorful splendor by reading Golding’s detailed descriptions.

  • Imperatives

    Words that are deliberately chosen to make us act or respond. e.g. “We must all attend your father’s birthday party”.

  • Informal

    More appropriate in spoken language.

  • Instructive language


  • Irony (a.k.a. Situational irony)

    Where an event occurs which is unexpected, and which is in absurd or mocking opposition to what is expected or appropriate. (Note: Most of the situations in the Alanis Morissette song are not ironic at all.) See also Dramatic irony; Verbal irony. Use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its actual meaning.

    Jenny and Scout are saved by Boo Radley, who had ironically been an object of fear and suspicion to them at the beginning of the novel.

  • Jargon

    Technical terms specific to a particular subject

  • Juxtaposition

    Occurs when the author deliberately lines up two different ideas or images next to each other to make a particular point.

  • Metaphor

    A direct relationship where one thing or idea substitutes for another.

    Shakespeare often uses light as a metaphor for Juliet; Romeo refers to her as the sun, as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” and as a solitary dove among crows.

  • Mood

    The atmosphere or emotional condition created by the piece, within the setting.

    The mood of Macbeth is dark, murky and mysterious, creating a sense of fear and uncertainty.

  • Motif

    A recurring important idea or image. A motif differs from a theme in that it can be expressed as a single word or fragmentary phrase, while a theme usually must be expressed as a complete sentence.

    Blood is an important motif in A Tale of Two Cities, appearing numerous times throughout the novel.

  • Onomatopoeia

    Where sounds are spelled out as words; or, when words describing sounds actually sound like the sounds they describe.

    Sounds like what it refers to e.g. Pop, Bang etc.

    Remarque uses onomatopoeia to suggest the dying soldier’s agony, his last gasp described as a “gurgling rattle.”

  • Oxymoron

    A contradiction in terms. Two words placed next to each other to show contrast e.g. Parting is such a sweet sorrow.

    Romeo describes love using several oxymorons, such as “cold fire,” “feather of lead” and “sick health,” to suggest its contradictory nature.

  • Paradox

    Where a situation is created which cannot possibly exist, because different elements of it cancel each other out.

    Contradiction seemingly false at first but is found latter to be a truth.

    In 1984, “doublethink” refers to the paradox where history is changed, and then claimed to have never been changed. 

    A Tale of Two Cities opens with the famous paradox, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

  • Parallelism

    Use of similar or identical language, structures, events or ideas in different parts of a text.

    Hobbs’ final strikeout parallels the Whammer’s striking out against him at the beginning of the novel.

  • Parody

    Conscious imitation of another word

  • Personification

    Where inanimate objects or abstract concepts are seemingly endowed with human self-awareness; where human thoughts, actions and perceptions are directly attributed to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. (Not to be confused with anthropomorphism.)

    Giving human qualities to something lifeless e.g. The door squeaked.

    Malamud personifies Hobbs’ bat, giving it a name, Wonderboy, referring to it using personal pronouns, and stating that “he went hungry” during Hobbs’ batting slump.

    Where an abstract concept, such as a particular human behavior or a force of nature, is represented as a person.

    The Greeks personified natural forces as gods; for example, the god Poseidon was the personification of the sea and its power over man.

  • Plot

    Sequence of events in a story. Most literary essay tasks will instruct the writer to “avoid plot summary;” the term is therefore rarely useful for response or critical analysis. When discussing plot, it is generally more useful to consider its structure, rather than simply “what happens.”

  • Point-of-view

    The identity of the narrative voice; the person or entity through whom the reader experiences the story. May be third-person (no narrator; omniscient or limited) or first-person (narrated by a character in the story). Point-of-view is a commonly misused term; it does not refer to the author’s (or characters’) feelings, opinions, perspectives, biases, etc.

    Though it is written in third-person, Animal Farm is told from the point-of-view of the common animals, unaware of what is really happening as the pigs gradually and secretively take over the farm.

    Writing the story in first-person point-of-view enables the reader to experience the soldier’s fear and uncertainty, limiting the narrative to what only he saw, thought and felt during the battle.

  • Powerful verbs

    Vivid verbs. e.g. “She aggressively analysed the situation” rather than “she thought through the situation and made a decision based on her analysis”

  • Protagonist

    The main character in a story, the one with whom the reader is meant to identify. The person is not necessarily “good” by any conventional moral standard, but he/she is the person in whose plight the reader is most invested.

  • Pun

    Often occurs as a headline to a newspaper story. Simply defined as ‘a play on words’, it is designed to gain the reader’s attention. e.g. “Smile Wiped from Luna Park”. This refers to

  • Repetition

    Where a specific word, phrase, or structure is repeated several times, to emphasize a particular idea.

    The repetition of the words “What if…” at the beginning of each line reinforces the speaker’s confusion and fear.

  • Rhetorical question

    A question which does not require a response for it is implied

  • Satire

    The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule. A literary genre comprising such compositions.

  • Setting

    The time and place where a story occurs. The setting can be specific (e.g., New York City in 1930) or ambiguous (e.g., a large urban city during economic hard times). Also refers directly to a description thereof.

    The novel is set in the South during the racially turbulent 1930’s, when blacks were treated unfairly by the courts.

    With the island, Golding creates a pristine, isolated and uncorrupted setting, in order to show that the boys’ actions result from their own essential nature rather than their environment.

  • Similes

    Show how something is similar e.g. Like/as

    An indirect relationship where one thing or idea is expressed as being similar to another. Similes usually contain the words “like” or “as,” but not always.

    The simile in line 10 describes the lunar eclipse: “The moon appeared as a large drop of blood.”

  • Speaker

    The “voice” of a poem; not to be confused with the poet him/herself. Analogous to the narrator in prose fiction.

  • Structure

    The manner in which the various elements of a story are assembled.

    The individual tales are told within the structure of the larger framing story, where the 29 travelers gather at the Inn at Southwark on their journey to Canterbury, telling stories to pass the time.

    The play follows the traditional Shakespearean five-act plot structure, with exposition in Act I, development in Act II, the climax or turning point in Act III, falling action in Act IV, and resolution in Act V.

  • Symbolism

    The use of specific objects or images to represent abstract ideas. This term is commonly misused, describing any and all representational relationships, which in fact are more often metaphorical than symbolic

    A symbol must be something tangible or visible, while the idea it symbolizes must be something abstract or universal.

    Golding uses symbols to represent the various aspects of human nature and civilization as they are revealed in the novel. The conch symbolizes order and authority, while its gradual deterioration and ultimate destruction metaphorically represent the boys’ collective downfall.

  • Theme

    The main idea or message conveyed by the piece. A theme is generally stated as a complete sentence; an idea expressed as a single word or fragmentary phrase is a motif.

    Orwell’s theme is that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    The idea that human beings are essentially brutal, savage creatures provides the central theme of the novel.

  • Tone

    How something sounds to create a certain mood/atmosphere e.g. Mysterious/serious etc

  • Tragedy

    Where a story ends with a negative or unfortunate outcome which was essentially avoidable, usually caused by a flaw in the central character’s personality. Tragedy is really more of a dramatic genre than a literary element; a play can be referred to as a tragedy, but tragic events in a story are essentially part of the plot, rather than a literary device in themselves.

  • Tragic flaw

    The single characteristic (usually negative) or personality disorder which causes the downfall of the protagonist.

    Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy, which consumes him so thoroughly that he is driven to murder his wife rather than accept, let alone confirm, her infidelity.

  • Tragic hero/tragic figure

    A protagonist who comes to a bad end as a result of his own behavior, usually cased by a specific personality disorder or character flaw.

    Willy Loman is one of the best-known tragic figures in American literature, oblivious to and unable to face the reality of his life.

  • Use of light and dark

    Used to establish atmosphere and give meaning to the ideas raised in their texts. Sunlight can create a sense of happiness, growth, fulfillment and acceptance whilst darkness connotes evil, fear, foreboding or death

  • Verbal irony

    Where the meaning is intended to be the exact opposite of what the words actually mean. (Sarcasm is a tone of voice that often accompanies verbal irony, but they are not the same thing.)

    Orwell gives this torture and brainwashing facility the ironic title, “Ministry of Love.”

  • Imaginery

    The following passages focus on the literary technique, imagery. The passages have been chosen specifically as exemplars of imagery. Remember that when an author chooses to use imagery, it is to assist the reader to respond to the text at a deeper level and to experience the ideas and feelings inherent in the meaning of the text.

    Great Expectations 

    The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. On the edge of the river I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright; one of these was the beacon by which the sailors steered — like an un-hooped cask upon a pole — an ugly thing when you were near it; the other a gibbet with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate. The man was limping on towards this latter, as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back to hook himself up again. It gave me a terrible turn when I thought so; and as I saw the cattle lifting their heads to gaze after him, I wondered whether they thought so too. I looked all round for the horrible young man, and could see no signs of him. But, now I was frightened again, and ran home without stopping (Dickens 1996, p. 97).

  • Empty Satisfaction

    Excruciatingly full,

    A pond glazed with reflection.

    Welling to completeness,

    Droplet escapes.

    Dancing its newfound freedom,

    Boundless avenues of egress to choose,

    Decisions abound.

    Forging forth – finding newness, uniqueness, independence, solitude.

    Running down,

    A trail of remembrance will not be lost,

    Simply diminished.

    The beauty of lacking restraint, glorious movement.

    A path glistens, twinkles, sparkles, gleams.

    Whilst the heavy round body remains strident

    Thinking ‘it can’.

    A revolutionary philosophy

    Liquidity without context …

    Forgetting form.

    The droplet was once a tear for the dead.

  • Repetition

    Identification of repetition is probably the easiest literary technique, yet many students fail to acknowledge its importance. In your own writing you may have found that your teacher has crossed words out that you have previously used and has asked you to choose other words. Where words are deliberately repeated they have a powerful effect. Not only do they emphasise the point being made but also they assist the reader to internalise the point. Repetition is thus a powerful tool in persuasion. Most advertisements use repetition, many speeches do and sometimes when novelists or poets want to make a particular point they will also repeat key words. What is important to recognise is that in good writing the repetition is deliberate.

  • The Essay

    The essay has been the subject of numerous texts and you should have the basic form well in hand. As teachers, the point we would emphasise would be to link the paragraphs both to each other and back to your argument (which should directly respond to the question). Of course ensure your argument is logical and sustained. Make sure you use specific examples and that your quotes are accurate. To ensure that you respond to the question make sure you plan carefully and are sure what relevant point each paragraph is making. It is solid technique to actually ‘tie up’ each point by explicitly coming back to the question.

    When composing an essay the basic conventions of the form are:

    • State your argument, outline the points to be addressed and perhaps have a brief definition.

    A solid structure for each paragraph is:

    • Topic sentence (the main idea and its link to the previous paragraph / argument)
    • Explanation / discussion of the point including links between texts if applicable
    • Detailed evidence (Close textual reference-quote, incidents and technique discussion)
    • Tie up by restating the point’s relevance to argument
    • Summary of points
    • Final sentence that restates your argument

    As well as this basic structure you will need to focus on: Audience – for the essay the audience must be considered formal unless specifically stated otherwise. Therefore your language must reflect the audience. This gives you the opportunity to use the jargon and vocabulary that you have learnt in English. For the audience ensure your introduction is clear and has impact. Avoid slang or colloquial language including contractions (like doesn’t, e.g., etc.).

    Purpose – the purpose of the essay is to answer the question given. The examiner evaluates how well you can make an argument and understand the module’s issues and its text(s). An essay is solidly structured so its composer can analyse ideas. This is where you earn marks. It does not retell the story or state the obvious.

    Communication – Take a few minutes to plan the essay. If you rush into your answer it is almost certain you will not make the most of the brief 40 minutes to show all you know about the question. More likely you will include irrelevant details that do not gain you marks but waste your precious time. Remember an essay is formal so do not do the following: story-tell, list and number points, misquote, use slang or colloquial language, be vague, use non sentences or fail to address the question.


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