The earliest known fiction story is over 5000 years old. It is no wonder then, that over this time span various commonalities and consistencies have emerged in the literature that has been written.
One of the most important of these for both readers and writers to understand, is what is most commonly referred to as a literary device.
In today’s article we will be taking a look at exactly what a literary device is, exploring 10 of the most frequently used literary devices and finally rounding out this guide with some examples of each literary device from the most famous books of our time.
This article on famous literary devices examples contains:
- What is a literary device?
- 10 literary devices
- Pathetic Fallacy
What is a literary device?
A literary device is a technique or tool employed by writers to enhance their storytelling and communicate ideas more effectively. These devices create a variation in the author’s writing.
They can be structural, like the use of foreshadowing or flashback, shaping the overall plot. Alternatively, they can manifest as linguistic elements, such as metaphors, similes, or alliteration, adding depth and vividness to the language.
Literary devices often serve multiple purposes; bringing attention to specific aspects, conveying emotions, emphasizing themes or provoking thought.
These devices are valuable tools for a writer, allowing them to paint a more captivating and nuanced picture for the reader.
Understanding and employing literary devices not only enriches the reading experience but also is one of the distinguishing factors of great writing, making it a fundamental aspect of the literary world.
10 literary devices
1 – Metaphor
What is a metaphor?
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares or equates two distinct concepts by stating one is the other, often to enhance understanding or emphasize a particular trait or quality of the subject.
Notable examples of metaphor
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Shakespeare’s metaphor in “As You Like It” vividly compares life to a theatrical stage, suggesting that people play different roles at various stages of life.
“Hope is the thing with feathers.”
Emily Dickinson’s metaphor, featured in her poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” beautifully portrays hope as a fragile yet persistent entity, much like a bird that can endure adversity.
“Time is a thief.”
John Milton’s metaphor in “Paradise Lost” succinctly captures the idea that time can seem to steal moments from our lives, emphasizing its swift and inevitable nature.
2 – Personification
What is personification?
Personification is a literary device that attributes human like qualities and actions to non human entities, abstract concepts or inanimate objects. By doing so, it brings life and vividness to the description, aiding in a more relatable and engaging narrative.
Notable examples of personification
The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.
Personification is vividly employed as Death is described as stalking with a black shadow, enveloping the victim, attributing human-like actions to an abstract concept.
Blackberry Wine, Joanne Harris
Wine talks; ask anyone. The oracle at the street corner; the uninvited guest at the wedding feast; the holy fool.
Personification is evident as wine is portrayed as capable of speaking, alluding to its metaphorical role as an oracle, an uninvited guest, and a holy fool, adding a human-like dimension to this inanimate entity.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway’s novel uses personification to bring life to natural elements, including the ocean, to which he ascribes feminine qualities. The narrator says, “But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
3 – Foreshadowing
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device where subtle hints or clues are provided early in a story, giving readers a glimpse or suggestion of future events. It builds anticipation and prepares the audience for what is to come, adding depth and suspense to the narrative.
Notable examples of foreshadowing
“Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck
The mention of the dead puppy foreshadows the tragic ending of one of the main characters, Lennie, as it illustrates his inability to recognize the consequences of his actions and foreshadows the final act.
“Macbeth,” William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the appearance of the witches at the beginning of the play, predicting Macbeth’s rise and fall, is a classic example of foreshadowing, hinting at the tragic events that will unfold.
“The Lord of the Flies,” William Golding
The recurring references to the sow’s head, or the “Lord of the Flies,” foreshadows the descent into savagery and the loss of civilization and reason among the stranded boys.
4 – Flashbacks
What is a flashback?
A flashback is a device used in literature where the sequence of events is interrupted to provide a glimpse of an earlier moment or incident. This technique offers insights into characters’ past experiences or crucial events, enriching the storyline and enhancing the reader’s understanding of the present narrative.
Notable examples of flashback
“The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald uses flashbacks to provide insight into Jay Gatsby’s past, revealing the events that shaped his character and drove his relentless pursuit of wealth and love.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee
Harper Lee employs flashbacks to narrate Scout Finch’s recollections of her childhood and the events leading up to the trial of Tom Robinson, enriching the story with perspective and background.
“Slaughterhouse-Five,” Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut utilizes flashbacks in a non-linear structure to depict the fragmented experiences of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier, and prisoner of war, conveying the disorienting effects of trauma and war.
5 – Motif
What is a motif?
A motif is a recurring element, like a theme, idea or symbol, that holds symbolic significance within a literary work. It enhances the theme and adds depth by underscoring the narrative’s message. Motifs provide cohesion and contribute to a deeper understanding of the characters, plot and overall meaning.
Notable examples of motif
Water Motif in “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway employs the motif of water to symbolize life, struggle, and the subconscious. It represents both a source of livelihood and a metaphor for the human condition, illustrating the protagonist Santiago’s battle for survival.
“The Green Light” in “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
The green light across the bay serves as a motif, symbolizing Gatsby’s aspirations and unattainable dreams. It embodies his pursuit of success, wealth, and ultimately, Daisy Buchanan, driving the narrative’s themes of longing and the American Dream.
“Darkness” in “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad
The motif of darkness embodies various meanings, including the unknown, moral decay, and the depths of the human psyche. Conrad uses darkness to critique imperialism and explore the struggle between civilization and savagery within the characters and society.
6 – Pathetic fallacy
What is pathetic fallacy?
Pathetic fallacy is a literary device where nature or elements mirror or reflect human emotions or events, attributing human feelings to non human entities. This technique adds emotional depth and atmosphere to the narrative, enhancing the reader’s understanding and creating a powerful, often symbolic, connection between nature and human experience.
Notable examples of pathetic fallacy
“Wuthering Heights,” Emily Brontë
The tumultuous and wild weather at Wuthering Heights often mirrors the intense emotional states of the characters, reflecting their inner turmoil and the tempestuous relationships within the story.
“King Lear,” William Shakespeare
Shakespeare uses a raging storm to symbolize King Lear’s mental and emotional upheaval. The tumultuous weather externalizes the king’s internal struggles, highlighting the chaos in both the natural and human worlds.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe
Poe uses the decaying and eerie atmosphere of the House of Usher, mirroring the decay and madness of the Usher family. The dark, oppressive setting foreshadows the tragic events and reflects the characters’ psychological deterioration.
7 – Satire
What is satire?
Satire is a literary technique where humor, irony or ridicule is used to criticize and mock people’s vices, foolishness or societal issues. It aims to provoke change or highlight shortcomings by presenting a humorous or exaggerated portrayal, prompting reflection and social critique.
Notable examples of satire
“Animal Farm,” George Orwell
Orwell employs allegorical satire to criticize the corruption of power and the totalitarian regime, using farm animals to symbolize political figures and societal issues, providing a scathing commentary on the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.
“Gulliver’s Travels,” Jonathan Swift
Swift uses a satirical travel narrative to lampoon the political and social issues of his time. Through Gulliver’s encounters with absurd societies, he criticizes human nature, governance, and society, offering a humorous but biting critique.
Voltaire uses “Candide” to satirize various philosophical and religious ideas prevalent during the Enlightenment. Through the misadventures of the protagonist, Candide, Voltaire critiques optimism, religious dogma, and societal norms, showcasing the flaws and absurdities of the world.
8 – Verisimilitude
What is verisimilitude?
Verisimilitude is the quality of a literary work or narrative that gives the appearance of being true, real, or lifelike. It involves crafting a believable and plausible scenario, characters, or setting, allowing readers to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story, contributing to a sense of authenticity and credibility.
Notable examples of verisimilitude
“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen
Austen’s meticulous depiction of Regency-era England, its society, manners, and conversations, provides a remarkable verisimilitude, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the world and culture of the time.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee
Lee’s accurate portrayal of the racially charged American South during the 1930s provides verisimilitude, offering a genuine glimpse into the social, legal, and cultural complexities of the era.
“The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s vivid and realistic depiction of the Great Depression and the plight of migrant workers in the U.S. showcases verisimilitude, giving readers a deep understanding of the challenging circumstances and social realities of the time.
9 – Juxtaposition
What is juxtaposition?
Juxtaposition is a literary device that involves placing two contrasting or opposing ideas, words, phrases, or characters side by side to highlight their differences. This technique allows for a more impactful comparison, often shedding light on deeper meanings, creating tension, or emphasizing thematic elements within a work.
Notable examples of juxtaposition
“A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens
Dickens uses the famous opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as a prime example of juxtaposition, immediately presenting the extreme contrasts and setting the tone for the novel’s exploration of duality and revolution.
“Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare
The juxtaposition of love and violence in the play underscores the tragic nature of the story, portraying the intensity of emotions in both the love between the protagonists and the feuding between their families.
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson employs the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a striking juxtaposition, illustrating the duality of human nature and the struggle between good and evil within a single individual.
10 – Symbolism
What is symbolism?
Symbolism is a literary device where symbols, objects, actions or elements, represent abstract ideas, ensuring that the story has a deeper meaning.
These symbols often carry cultural, emotional or thematic significance, enhancing the narrative by providing layers of interpretation and allowing for the exploration of complex themes in a more nuanced and evocative manner.
Notable examples of symbolism
The Green Light in “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald
The green light across the bay symbolizes Gatsby’s unattainable dreams and hopes, representing the American Dream’s allure and its ultimate elusiveness.
The Conch Shell in “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding
The conch shell symbolizes order, civilization, and authority, as it is used to establish rules and maintain order among the boys stranded on the island.
The Raven in “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe
The raven symbolizes the protagonist’s torment and serves as a harbinger of despair, reinforcing the theme of melancholy and sorrow throughout the poem.
Literary Devices – What have we learnt?
In short, as we can see from the above, literary devices are varied techniques writers use to enhance their storytelling and communicate ideas or themes more effectively.
Aspiring writers should strive to fully understand both the above list as well as many others in order to achieve full comprehension.
By doing so, they will be equipped with the tools necessary to maximise the impact of their writing and by studying some of the greatest authors of all time, will find the necessary inspiration to take forward into their own work.