Common Literary Devices

Common Literary Devices

A literary device is any standardized method an author uses to convey his or her message.


Form of personification that applies human-like characteristics to animals or objects

Author surrogate

Character who speaks for the author—sometimes an intentionally or unintentionally idealized version of the author. A well known variation is the Mary Sue or Gary Stu (self-insertion).


Story that precedes events in the story being told—past events or background that add meaning to current circumstances


Mood that overstates its own drama, bathos employs an an abrupt transition in style with a ludicrous effect. By way of an example, Jennifer Hart, writes, “The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”

Breaking the fourth wall

The author or a character addresses the audience (also known as direct address); used to set up the story as fiction or to extend the story world so that the audience is included in it.

Chekhov’s gun

Insertion of an apparently irrelevant object early in a narrative for a purpose only revealed later.


The narrative ends unresolved, to draw the audience back to a future episode for the resolution.


An extended metaphor associated with metaphysical poetry that pushes the imagination’s limits to portray something indescribable.

Cut-up technique

The cut-up technique is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing.


Forcing the reader to recognize common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, to enhance perception of the familiar

Deleted affair

A romantic relationship not referred to in the current story.

Deus ex machina (a machination, or act of god)

Resolving the primary conflict by a means unrelated to the story (e.g., a god appears and solves everything). This device dates back to ancient Greek theater, but can be a clumsy method that frustrates the audience. An example occurs in Mighty Aphrodite.


Refers to literature or other types of art that are instructional or informative. In this sense The Bible is didactic because it offers guidance in moral, religious, and ethical matters. It tells stories of the lives of people that followed Christian teachings, and stories of people that decided to go against God and the consequences that they faced. The term "didactic" also refers to texts that are overburdened with instructive and factual information, sometimes to the detriment of a reader’s enjoyment. The opposite of "didactic" is "nondidactic." If a writer is more concerned with artistic qualities and techniques than with conveying a message, then that piece of work is considered to be nondidactic, even if it is instructive.

Dionysian imitatio

The literary method of copying and improving other writers. In Ancient Greece was first formulated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the subsequent Latin rhetoricians adopted this literary method instead of Aristotle’s mere imitation of nature.

Distancing Effect

Alienating or distancing the audience from a play’s emotional content—popularized by 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht.

Dramatic visualization

Representing an object or character with abundant descriptive detail, or mimetically rendering gestures and dialogue to make a scene more visual or imaginatively present to an audience. This technique appears at least as far back as the Arabian Nights.


defined as the mimicking of dialogue by characters after a shifted context or place in time. Also known as "shadowing". First used by the American author Iimani David


A type of literature defined as a song or poem, written in elegiac couplets, that expresses sorrow or lamentation, usually for one who has died. This type of work stemmed out of a Greek work known as a "elegus," a song of mourning that is accompanied by the flute. Two famous elegies include Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and Walt Whitman’s "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d". In his elegy, Gray mourned for his country and mourned for its citizens. Whitman, inspired by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, wrote his elegy in its classic form, showing sorrow for the loss of an individual.


A sudden revelation or insight—usually with a symbolic role in the narrative—in a literary work.

Epistolary novel

Novel in the form of a series of documents (letters, e-mails, etc.) exchanged between characters. Classic examples include Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771), Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782) and Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).


Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, it refers to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which result in the protagonist’s well-being; contrast peripety/peripateia.


Named from Euphues (1579) the prose romance by John Lyly. A deliberately excessive use of balanced antitheses emphasized by alliteration.

First Person Narration

A text presented from the point of view of a character (esp. the protagonist) and written in the first person. An example is The Remains of the Day.


General term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale, for instance


Also called prolepsis, an interjected scene that temporarily jumps the narrative forward in time. Flashforwards often represent events expected, projected, or imagined to occur in the future. They may also reveal significant parts of the story that have not yet occurred, but soon will in greater detail. This has been highly popularized by the television series Lost.


Hinting at events to occur later. See also formal patterning, repetitive designation, and Chekhov’s gun.

Formal patterning

Rigorously organizing events, actions, and gestures that constitute a narrative and shape a story. When done well, formal patterning helps the audience to discern and anticipate the plot structure as it unfolds.

Frame story

A main story that organizes a series of shorter stories; a story within a story.

Framing device

A single action, scene, event, setting, or any element of significance at the beginning and end of a work.


Exaggeration used to evoke strong feelings or create an impression which is not meant to be taken literally.


Gradually exposing the reader to background information about the story’s world—to clue readers into the world the author is building—such in as Brave New World. It is the opposite of Infodumping.

Infodumping (also, plot dump)

The author puts a concentrated amount of background material, all at once, into the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called "As you know, Bob" conversation) This is the opposite of Incluing.

In medias res

Beginning the story in the middle of a sequence of events. The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer are prime examples. The latter work begins with the return of Odysseus to his home of Ithaka and then in flashbacks tells of his ten years of wandering following the Trojan War.


This discrepancy between expectation and reality occurs in three forms: situational irony, where a situation features a discrepancy between what is expected and what is actualized; dramatic irony, where a character is unaware of pivotal information already revealed to the audience (the discrepancy here lies in the two levels of awareness between the character and the audience); and verbal irony, where one states one thing while meaning another. The difference between verbal irony and sarcasm is exquisitely subtle and often contested. The concept of irony is too often misunderstood in popular usage. Unfortunate circumstances and coincidences do not constitute irony (nor do they qualify as being tragic). See the Usage controversy section under irony, and the term tragedy.


Using two themes, characters, phrases, words, or situations together for comparison, contrast, or rhetoric


Purposefully repeating words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story.

Magical realism

Describing events realistically, but in a magical haze of strange local customs and beliefs—particularly popular with Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez. Elsewhere, Salman Rushdie’s work provides good examples.

Mooreeffoc (also written Moor Eeffoc)

Coined by Charles Dickens and, as used by G. K. Chesterton, meaning "the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle."


A term made of two words that deliberately or coincidentally imply each other’s opposite, e.g. "terrible beauty"


A phrase that describes an idea composed of concepts that conflict, e.g., "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (A Tale of Two Cities)


Ridicule by overstated imitation, usually humorous, as in MAD Magazine

Pathetic fallacy

Reflecting a character’s (usually the protagonist) mood in the atmosphere or inanimate objects—for example, the storm in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which mirrors Lear’s mental deterioration.


Emotional appeal, one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric that the author uses to inspire pity or sorrow towards a character—typically does not counterbalance the target character’s suffering with a positive outcome, as in Tragedy.


Using comparative metaphors and similes to give living characteristics to non-living objects.

Poetic justice

Virtue ultimately rewarded, or vice punished, by an ironic twist of fate related to the character’s own conduct

Predestination paradox

Time travel paradox where a time traveler is caught in a loop of events that "predestines" them to travel back in time


Plot device based on an argument that an agreement’s intended meaning holds no legal value, and that only the exact, literal words agreed on apply. For example, William Shakespeare used a quibble in The Merchant of Venice: Portia saves Antonio in a court of law by pointing out that the agreement called for a pound of flesh, but no blood, so Shylock can collect only if he sheds no blood.

Red herring

A rhetorical tactic of diverting attention away from an item of significance. For example, in mystery fiction, an innocent party may be purposefully cast as highly suspicious through emphasis or descriptive techniques to divert attention from the true guilty party.

Repetitive designation

Repeated references to a character or object that appears insignificant at first, but later suddenly intrudes in the narrative. See also foreshadowing and Chekhov’s gun.

Roman à clef

A fictitious novel in which representations of real people and real events are disguised. The "key" lists the relationship between the nonfiction characters and the fiction characters. Examples include Primary Colors.


The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Second-person Narration

A text written in the style of a direct address, in the second-person.

Stream of consciousness

Technique where the author writes down their thoughts as fast as they come, typically to create an interior monologue, characterized by leaps in syntax and punctuation that trace a character’s fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings.


Applied use of symbols: iconic representations that carry particular conventional meanings.

Ticking clock scenario

Threat of impending disaster—often used in thrillers where salvation and escape are essential elements


A diminishing or softening of a theme or effect.

Unreliable narrator

The narrator of the story is not sincere, or introduces a bias in his narration and possibly misleads the reader, hiding or minimizing events, characters, or motivations.

Vertical Storytelling

the italicizing of words at the end of select sentences to remind the reader of a consequential moment in the narrative without adjusting the mechanics of the story to allow lengthy and potentially distracting text.

Word play

Sounds of words used as an aspect of the work.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist