Literary Devices: What They Are & a List of the Most Common Examples
Here at The Writers’ Academy we’re always working with the writers on our courses to help them improve their technique, and knowing how to use literary devices is a huge part of that.
But what do we actually mean we talk about a ‘literary device’? And how many of them are you actually familiar with?
In this post, we’ll quickly go over what the term means, and look at some of the most common examples of literary devices that authors use time and time again.
What is a Literary Device?
To put it as simply as possible, a literary device is any technique used by a writer to produce some kind of specific effect in their writing.
Rather than just writing a ‘matter-of-fact’ account of events in the style of a news report, authors make use of literary devices to provoke various reactions from their readers, and get them to look at a piece of fiction through a certain lens.
How this works will be clearer as we look at some of the most common examples, but here’s a really basic one first to demonstrate the idea:
- “It was very windy that day.”
- “There was a screaming wind that day.”
The first example is simply a statement about the weather at a particular time – it’s matter-of-fact and doesn’t influence the readers perception of the thing it’s describing in any real way.
The second sentence means the exact same thing, but employs a very common literary device – ‘personification’ – to make the wind sound alive, and create a more vivid image in the mind of the readers.
That’s how literary devices work at their most simple: conveying a message or feeling to the readers by presenting the story in a particular, deliberate manner.
List of Literary Devices
If you came here looking for any specific terms, here’s our short list of examples so you can jump ahead to the explanation you want:
- Deus ex machina
- Framing device
- In media res
- Poetic justice
- Red herring
- Tragic flaw
- Unreliable narrator
Allusion refers to any reference made by an author that relies on the reader having prior knowledge.
When alluding to something, a writer mentions an object or event without explaining the connection to the story, with the expectation that the reader will know what it means.
Example: Think of any time a pair of lovers in fiction are referred to as ‘Romeo & Juliet’ without further explanation. This relies on the reader being familiar with Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but writers know that the majority of people are familiar, and so they don’t need to stop and explain the connection.
Deus ex machina [Pronounced day-uss eks mak-inn-ah] is a Latin term, meaning ‘god from the machine’ – which provides a clue to its meaning.
It refers to any instance where a plot is suddenly resolved by the appearance of some new object or character, seemingly out of nowhere.
Example: At the end of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ the protagonist, Ralph, is saved from death at the last second by the unexpected arrival of a ship to the deserted island on which he’s stranded.
Foreshadowing is the term used for when a writer gives clues or hints about future plot points.
These hints may be very subtle or incredibly overt – the defining feature is that they suggest to the reader what might happen later on in the story.
Examples: In Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Victor Frankenstein often makes vague remarks on the fate of the characters (‘the poor man’ etc.) as he’s telling the story, piquing the readers’ curiosity about what happens to them later in the story.
A framing device is a technique where the central story is ‘framed’ in the context of another, secondary story – making it a ‘story within a story’.
The most common way this is used is by having a character within the book ‘tell’ the story to the reader – and in many cases, this is used to make the reader question the reliability of the narration (more on that later in the list).
Examples: Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is framed in the context of a group of pilgrims sharing stories with one another throughout a journey.
In medias res is another term derived from Latin, meaning ‘into the middle of things’. As the name suggests, it refers to a story that begins with the action already unfolding.
Often used to grab the reader’s attention from the outset of a tale, texts using this technique often fill in their backstory as the novel progresses – trusting the reader to figure out from context what is going on in the opening pages.
Examples: Several of Ian Fleming’s ‘James Bond’ novels start with the secret agent in the middle of a mission, before he returns to be briefed (a technique that the movies have also used many times).
A MacGuffin is an object or other used as motivation for driving a story forward.
This is usually something said to be of great value, but whose nature is irrelevant to the plot – it exists purely to drive the actions of the protagonist and could therefore arguably be swapped with any other valuable object to the same effect.
Example: The Harry Potter series makes frequent use of MacGuffin’s across the span of its 7 novels – for example, with the first book’s titular ‘Philosopher’s Stone’.
Poetic justice is a device which works in much the same way as the concept of ‘karma’ – where characters are rewarded for good deeds, and punished for acts of evil or villainy.
Poetic justice is one of the most common tropes in literature (and fiction in general), likely because it tends to set up a neat, ‘happy ending’ to a story.
Example: Although this device is popular in all kinds of literature, it’s especially common in fairy-tales and children’s fiction. (i.e. the fates of the greedy or misbehaved children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, compared to the protagonist).
In fiction, a red herring refers to any clue or plot hint that later turns out to be misleading.
Red herrings are used chiefly to distract the reader from a plot twist in a story’s final act – heightening the surprise when the real reveal is eventually delivered.
Example: Unsurprisingly, red herrings are used in mystery or detective fiction, to keep the reader guessing. In Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the character of Cardinal Aringarosa is set up as a false villain this way – his name literally means ‘red herring’ in Latin.
A ‘tragic flaw’ refers to the device where a main character (often the hero of the tale) has one problematic trait which brings about their downfall.
This ‘flaw’ could be pride, greed, a hunger for revenge or any other defining attribute, but the end result is always the same – the character’s failure, demise or some other equally unhappy ending.
Examples: Tragic flaws are a recurring theme of George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ books, most famously when [spoilers for any fans] Eddard Stark’s unwavering commitment to ‘honor’ above reasoning results in his own demise.
As the name suggests, this is a device used to make the reader question whether they can trust the account of the person telling them the story.
As mentioned earlier, this is often achieved through the use of a framing device – the narrator may be a character in the story itself, and so their version of events is likely to be influenced by their own motivations and perspectives.
Example: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a famous example where the narrator, Dr Sheppard, turns out to be the murderer, and has omitted vital information from the reader over the course of the story.
More Writing Resources
Of course, there are hundreds of different literary devices, so this list is just the tip of the iceberg – but we hope you’ll find it a useful introduction to the concept.
If you’re interested in more helpful articles, visit our Writing 101 page, where we’ve compiled a whole host of handy posts and resources to help you become a better writer.
We want to hear from you too. Which literary devices do you use regularly in your own writing? Are there any that you struggle with or don’t quite understand? Let us know below.
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