10 Useful Literary Devices for Your Book
Are you ready to start working on that book of yours? Have you been pushing off your to-do list for as long as you can remember? Is it because you think you need to understand the craft of writing? You are in luck. In this article, we will equip you with ten techniques that can be easily incorporated in your book. Also called literary devices, these techniques can be used in almost any other kind of book or genre.
What Are Literary Devices?
Literary devices are techniques that writers use to create a specific effect in their writing, to convey information, or to help readers understand the writing on a deeper level.
Apart from students of literature, quite a few people need to know about these devices such as literary critics, publishers, editors, literary agents and writers. You’d be surprised to know how many of these literary devices are used in real-life. So it’s not a question of genre but style that will dictate which literary devices and how many you need in your book.
Why Use Literary Devices?
There are innumerable literary devices, and entire dictionaries are devoted to them. J.A. Cuddon’s ‘Dictionary of Literary Terms’ is a reliable dictionary that defines and illustrates literary devices. If you are an author who wants to know his/her craft, it’s a good idea to invest in one.
Literary devices can:
- make the goal of the writing clear
- make the writing more fun and interesting
- add layers of meaning
In this article, we will look at ten common literary devices that can easily be incorporated into your book, which will elevate it to the next level.
The simile is a literary device in which two things are compared using the word ‘as’ or ‘like’. To use this literary device, you need to take two things and try to find one point of comparison and then use the word ‘as’ or ‘like’ to connect them.
In the poem ‘Harlem’by Langston Hughes, the poet compares a dream deferred (delayed) to a raisin, a sore, rotten meat, syrupy sweet and a heavy load using the word ‘like’.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
In these lines from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the author Harper Lee compares the way the Radley Place attracted Dill, like the moon draws water, using the word ‘as’.
The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations, it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate.
From Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the narrator Offred compares herself to a prize pig using the word ‘like’.
I wait, washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig.
Examples of everyday usage include idioms like:
- bright as the sun
- white as a sheet
- as cold as ice
- as fast as lightning
- dance like no one is watching
- strong as an ox
- fit as a fiddle
- sweating like a pig
- sleep like a log
If you have got the hang of the simile, then understanding the metaphor is very easy. A metaphor also compares two things but without using the words ‘like’ and ‘as’. Where a simile says one thing is like another, a metaphor says one thing is another. So the verb ‘is’ is mostly used in metaphors.
Let’s look at some examples: Here in ‘As You Like It’, Shakespeare says all the world is a stage.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
John Updike in ‘Rabbit, Run’compares the entwined hands of lovers to a starfish without using ‘as’ or ‘like’.
But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.
Kate Chopin in ‘The Storm’ compares a woman’s mouth to a fountain of delight.
Her mouth was a fountain of delight.
In everyday life, many idioms make use of the metaphor, such as:
- People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
- A watched pot never boils.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
- Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
- It was raining cats and dogs.
Metonymy is the literary device in which a related word or phrase is substituted for the actual thing to which it’s referring. This device is usually used for poetic effect. Used as far back as in ancient Greece, metonymy is used in prose, poetry and everyday speech.
Common uses of metonyms have usually used the name of a place for the industry, organisation or person. For example: ‘Hollywood’ stands for the United States film industry; ‘Wall Street’ for the US stock market; Silicon Valley for the US IT Industry; Vegas for the US gambling industry; Detroit for the motor vehicles industry; and Fleet Street for the British national press.
An often-quoted example of metonymy is ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ from Edward Bulwer Lytton’s play ‘Richelieu’. This sentence has two metonyms: the ‘pen’ stands for ‘the written word’, and ‘sword’ stands for ‘military aggression.’
In Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, Mark Anthony says, ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears’. Here’ ears’ is the metonym which means ‘paying attention’.
In ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain, ‘He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man with a shotgun.’ Here, ‘body’ stands for a ‘person’.
Common everyday examples of metonymy are:
- Crown – in place of a royal person (Example: The soldiers swore allegiance to the crown.)
- Suits – in place of businesspeople (Example: The suits will be angry if we don’t finish this by today.)
- Heart – to refer to love or emotion (Example: The heart wants what it wants.)
- Dish – for an entire plate of food (Example: That was a very spicy dish!)
- Silver fox – for an attractive older man (Example: My doctor is a silver fox.)
When a writer describes a scene, thing, or idea so that it appeals to our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing), it is called imagery. This device is often used to help the reader clearly imagine parts of the story by creating a strong mental picture.
In William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, these lines show the imagery that appeals to the sense of sight.
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Here is another example from a famous novel, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that shows imagery appealing to the sense of taste:
On rainy afternoons, embroidering with a group of friends on the begonia porch, she would lose the thread of the conversation, and a tear of nostalgia would salt her palate when she saw the strips of damp earth and the piles of mud that the earthworms had pushed up in the garden. Those secret tastes, defeated in the past by oranges and rhubarb, broke out into an irrepressible urge when she began to weep. She went back to eating earth. The first time she did it almost out of curiosity, sure that the bad taste would be the best cure for the temptation. And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food.
From George Orwell’s ‘1984′, these lines illustrate imagery appealing to the sense of sight.
Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachioed face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance, a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs hovered for an instant like a bluebottle and darted away again with a curving flight.
Personification is a literary device in which a nonhuman figure or abstract concept or element is described as having qualities or characteristics like humans. As the use of imagery, it also helps create a clearer picture in the mind of the scene or object being described and gives energy and movement to a scene that could otherwise be flat.
Our first example is Carl Sandburg’s ‘The Fog’. In this poem, the fog is given the human ability to sit and look.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.
Another example is from the American children’s author Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Giving Tree’. The tree in the book emotes like humans, talking giving things to the boy and experiences sadness and joy.
And then, one day, the boy came back, and the tree shook with joy.
Personification can be used in prose as well. In these lines from ‘John Knowles’ ‘A Separate Peace’, peace, an abstract idea, can desert a place. Also, the campus and village dream and the fall touches the trees.
Peace had deserted Devon. Although not in the look of the campus and village; they retained much of their dreaming summer calm. Fall had barely touched the full splendor of the trees, and during the height of the day, the sun briefly regained its summertime power. In the air, there was only an edge of coolness to imply the coming winter. But all had been caught up, like the first fallen leaves, by a new and energetic wind.
Some common examples of personification in everyday life are:
- The wind howled in the night.
- Lightning danced across the sky.
- The car complained as the key was roughly turned in its ignition.
- My alarm clock yells at me to get out of bed every morning.
- Mahira heard the last piece of sweet calling her name.
It’s a bit obvious what repetition is—a word, phrase, line or sentence repeated several times to achieve a certain effect. Used in poetry, prose, plays and speeches, repetition is one of the easiest literary devices that can be used in your book. It allows the writer or speaker to emphasise things they think are significant. It conveys to the reader or audience that the repeated words are important and so they should pay special attention to them.
Moreover, repetition has been used as an important technique in the oral tradition, since it helped storytellers remember details and lines.
Recently teenage climate change activist Greta Thungebergaddressed world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York on September 2019. She repeated the phrase: ‘How dare you’ Here is an extract:
My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
For more than 30 years, science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.
In Agha Shahid Ali’spoem ‘Tonight’, the word ‘tonight’ is repeated in almost every line.
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”—to gem—”Me to adorn—How tell”—tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates—
A refugee from belief seeks a cell tonight.
In Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, ‘happy’ is repeated four times, but each time it carries a different meaning.
I felt happy because I saw the others were happy and because I knew I should feel happy, but I wasn’t really happy.
In the first mention of ‘happy’, the narrator feels happy. The second mention is of others feeling happy. The third mention speaks about the narrator being forced into happiness. Finally, the truth is that he is actually not happy at all.
Almost everyone would have heard of irony and used it in their everyday lives. If your friend calls you ‘Einstein’ when you say something thoughtless, they are employing irony to get their point across. The irony is a statement that is used to express the opposite meaning than the one that is intended.
In literature, there are three types of irony:
(a) Verbal irony: this is when someone says something and means the complete opposite. This is quite close to sarcasm. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, Harry says, ‘Yeah, Quirrell was a great teacher. There was just that minor drawback of him having Lord Voldemort sticking out of the back of his head!’
(b) Situational irony: this is when something happens, which is the opposite of what is expected. In, O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’, the husband sells his watch to buy his wife combs for her hair and the wife sells her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch.
(c) Dramatic irony: this is when the audience knows something that a character does not. Therefore, some actions or events have a different meaning for the audience than for the character. In William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Romeo commits suicide in order to be with Juliet. However, the audience (unlike poor Romeo) knows that Juliet is not actually dead—just asleep.
Everyday examples of irony include:
- Verbal irony: Speaking about a particularly hard mattress, if you say, ‘This bed’s about as soft as a brick.’
- Situational irony: A fire station burns down. This is unexpected because one would assume the fire chief would keep his own building safe.
- Dramatic irony: In a horror film, the character goes into a house they think is empty, but the audience knows the killer is in the house.
Like irony, hyperbole is often used in everyday speech. If you meet a friend after a long time, you might say, ‘I haven’t seen you in ages!’ Both you and your friend know that this is not literally so. Here, hyperbole is used to emphasise how long it feels since you last saw your friend.
Hyperbole is a literary device that is an exaggerated statement which is not meant to be taken literally by the reader. It is often used for comic effect and/or emphasis.
Hyperbole is used liberally in literature. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Harper Lee uses hyperbole to emphasise the slow, dull pace of life in the town:
A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.
One of the most famous authors of the 20th century, Gabriel García Márquez, used hyperbole to inject humour into a memorable description in his biography’ Living to Tell the Tale’:
At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.
English-American poet W.H. Auden wrote in ‘As I Walked Out One Evening,’
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.
All the events listed here are not literally possible. Here hyperbole is used to emphasise the way the lover feels their love won’t end.
Everyday examples of the usage of hyperbole include:
- I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
- She’s as thin as a toothpick.
- He was skinny enough to jump through a keyhole.
- Her smile was a mile wide.
- His stomach is a bottomless pit.
The literary device juxtaposition is the comparing and contrasting of two or more different (usually opposite) ideas, characters, objects or ideas. It is often used to help create a clearer picture of the characteristics of one object or idea by comparing and contrasting it with those of another.
Charles Dickens famous opening lines in the novel, ‘Tale of Two Cities’ uses the juxtaposition to great effect, which leaves a strong and lasting effect on the reader.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
In T.S. Eliot’smost illustrious poem ‘The Wasteland’, he juxtaposes the month of April with winter. April (springtime) is a sign of warm and cheerful times. Winter brings in thoughts of cold and death. He later juxtaposes lilacs in bloom, a symbol of life, with a ‘dead land’.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
William Shakespeare, in his play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ juxtaposes light and darkness repeatedly. From Act I, Scene V:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Juliet’s radiant face is juxtaposed with a black African’s dark skin. Romeo admires Juliet by saying that her face appears brighter than brightly lit torches in the hall. He says that, at night, her face glows like a bright jewel as if a light was shining against the dark skin of an African.
Everyday examples of juxtaposition include idioms like:
- Old wine in a new bottle
- Out with the old, in with the new
- For better or for worse
- All shapes and sizes
- The good, the bad and the ugly
The literary device of symbolism refers to the use of an object, figure, event, situation, or an idea in a written work to represent something else—usually a broader message or deeper meaning that differs from its literal meaning.
The things used for symbolism are called ‘symbols’, which often appear many times throughout a text, shifting in meaning and adding layers as the story progresses.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’, the green light that sits across from Gatsby’s mansion symbolises Gatsby’s hopes, dreams and desires.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’, the letter ‘A’ symbolises adultery.
In Dr Seuss’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ the Grinch steals the symbols of Christmas, like trees, presents and food, but finds out in the end that Christmas was more than those material things.
Everyday examples of symbolism include:
- The dove is a symbol of peace.
- A red rose, or the colour red, stands for love or romance.
- The colour black is a symbol of evil or death.
- A white flag symbolises peace during wartime, and purity and life during peacetime.
- An owl symbolises wisdom.
These ten literary devices are but the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more. Now that you have got a handle on how to use these ten literary devices, you can go ahead and employ them in your book instantly making it richer by adding layers of meaning to it. Go on, create your masterpiece!