Want to become a wizard with words? Study how the pros do it.

A literary device is a tool used by writers to give their prose more punch or meaning. Literary devices – and their spoken counterpart, rhetorical devices – help you create tension, convey complex ideas, and create vivid imagery. Sometimes, tweaking a single word or phrase is all it takes to take your writing from drab to fab.

Key Takeaways

  • Literary devices appeal to human nature using a variety of techniques.
  • A literary device uses literary elements for other genres of writing.
  • Devices sometimes use figurative language or verbal irony, but these aren’t hard-and-fast rules.
  • The goal of a literary device is to elicit a deeper emotional response from readers.

Below, you’ll find an alphabetical list of literary techniques, with both explanations and examples, to help you identify literary devices when you see them in the wild.

The Big Fat List of Literary Devices



Definition: Coy. A form of irony in which someone feigns indifference about an outcome they actually desire.


  • “You bought me a trip to Hawaii? Oh, you shouldn’t have!”
  • “Ah, I wish I wasn’t a politician. Wouldn’t it be nice to just relax on the beach all day?”


Definition: Using multiple words in phrasing that have the same root, creating an echo effect.


  • “Somebody, anybody, listen to me!”
  • “Call me whenever you need me – daytime, nighttime, anytime.”
  • “The passport photo was passable.”


Definition: Using exaggeration or hyperbole to the point of ridiculousness.

Adynation uses impossible comparisons to land a point – with a kiss of sarcasm, too. It’s perfect for sassy side comments, and whipping up an impossible comparison gives you space to be creative.


  • “I’d rather be buried alive than drive on the 101 during rush hour.”
  • “They’ll sign the contract when hell freezes over.”


Definition: An allegory is a literary device in which that uses symbolism or other hidden messages to reveal a deeper meaning.

If your entire story was a metaphor for an idea about what’s going on in the world, we call that an allegory. Allegories are used to make an abstract concept easier to grasp, and they can make either direct or indirect reference to certain moral or political lessons.


Definition: The repetition of initial consonant sounds in nearby words.


  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
  • “The twisted trees tangled talons.”


Definition: An indirect reference to something, typically another work of literature or art.


  • "The maze was almost as difficult to navigate as the Labyrinth of Crete."
  • "Upon meeting her soulmate, she felt like Juliet finally meeting her Romeo."

The work of William Shakespeare often operates as allegory, and uses a recurring element or other different literary devices to get the point across.


Definition: Repetition of the last word of one clause or phrase at the beginning of the next.


  • "She was a great leader who led by example."
  • "This is my home, my refuge, my sanctuary."


Definition: Drawing a comparison between two things to show similarities.


  • "Trying to make him understand is like talking to a brick wall."
  • "My love for you burns brighter than a thousand suns."


Definition: The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.


  • "Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we will."
  • "If freedom shall fall, if justice shall perish, if truth shall be slain..."


Definition: A short account of an interesting or humorous event, often personal or biographical.


  • “I’ll never forget the time my sister got her head stuck between two railings on the staircase."
  • “When Einstein was young his parents thought he was mentally handicapped because he was so slow in learning how to talk."


Definition: Repeating a single word, but shifting its meaning.


  • "If you can't stop criticizing, at least criticize constructively."
  • "She left me roses by the stairs, surprises let me know she cares."


Definition: Answering a question with a seemingly unrelated remark.


  • “How should I confront my friend?” “An ostrich never sees its own back.”
  • “Do you think I should quit my job?” “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”


Definition: Using one part of speech as another part of speech, such as using a noun as a verb.


  • “Let’s dictionary that word to understand the definition.”
  • “She scissored the paper in half.”


Definition: Repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed order.


  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand ‘cause Band-Aid's stuck on me.”


Definition: Attributing human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities like animals, objects, or forces of nature.


  • “The trees waved their arms wildly in the storm.”
  • “The car engine coughed and sputtered before finally dying.


Definition: Expressing doubt or puzzlement about something.


  • “I’m confused—is this concept clear to anyone?”
  • “How to resolve this paradox eludes me. I just don’t know.”


Definition: Breaking off suddenly in the middle of a sentence, leaving an unsaid thought ambiguous or unspoken.


  • "I've had it with you! I'm leaving and I'm..."
  • "If you think you can talk to me like that then you've got another thing..."


Definition: The repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words that do not end the same.


  • “Fleet feet sweep by sleeping geeks.”
  • “The main brain drain remains.”


Definition: Indicating emphasis by placing stars or other marks around a word or phrase.


  • “Julia Roberts is an iconic actress.”
  • “McDonald’s fries are just perfect.


Definition: Omission of conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses.


  • “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • “We must love one another or die.”


Definition: The use of derogatory, undesirable, or offensive words to achieve an effect.


  • "The smelly, festering wound stretched across his forearm."
  • “TheVIS kerosene lamp cast an eerie, jaundiced glow over the filthy abode.”


Definition: The use of dissonant, harsh sounds for a jarring effect.


  • “The chalk shrieking on the blackboard set everyone’s nerves on edge.”
  • “The banging gongs and screeching horns gave me a headache.”


Definition: Reversing the order of grammatically parallel words or clauses.


  • “Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you.”
  • “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy.”


Definition: An informal word, phrase, or expression not suitable for formal speech or writing.


  • “I’m just gonna kick back and chill this weekend.”
  • “She made bank in her new job.”


Definition: Repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words that do not rhyme.


  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
  • “The tilting titans tangled tantalizingly.”


Definition: Using unnecessarily wordy or complex phrasing to express a concept that could be stated more simply.


  • “The young juvenile delinquent proceeded to abscond with the personal possessions of the gentleman walking ahead of him.”
  • “She engaged in an intentional and permanent cessation of all vital bodily functions.”


Double Entendre

Definition: An ambiguous statement that has an innocent meaning but can also be taken to have a risqué or sexual meaning. There can be both a literal meaning and an intended meaning.


  • “Do you want to come back to my place and watch a movie?”
  • “The chef has a way with sausage.”

Dramatic Irony

Definition: When the audience knows something key about the plot or a character that the characters themselves do not know. This creates tension and anticipation.


  • Romeo thinks Juliet is dead so he takes poison, but viewers know she’s only sleeping from the sleeping potion.
  • In horror movies, viewers can see the killer waiting around the corner when the victim enters, not knowing their fate.


Definition: Substituting an offensive, unpleasant, or disparaging word or phrase for a more neutral one.


  • “The used car salesman conned me into buying a real lemon.”
  • “The bathroom at the ballpark was absolutely disgusting. It was rank!”


Definition: Vivid, detailed description of a work of art or visual scene.


  • “The ambient oranges and reds in the painting gave the impression of warmth despite the solemn faces.”
  • “The eroded limestone statues depicted ancient gods long forgotten by modern man.”


Definition: In poetry, the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line or stanza.


  • “The soldiers marched day and night without stop,/Barely even pausing to drink at the streams they crossed.”
  • “She imagines the wind rushing loud,/Whistling through the cracks...”


Definition: A logically condensed argument in which one assumption or conclusion is not explicitly stated.


  • "I think she likes me. She agreed to go on a date."
  • "His business will surely fail. Many new companies struggle in the first few years."


Definition: Repetition at the end of a clause of the word or phrase with which it began.


  • “The meal was just a meal, nothing special.”
  • “What matters most is the people, the people.”


Definition: A quotation at the beginning of a literary work, often used to indicate theme.


  • "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." - Hamlet
  • “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” - Oprah Winfrey


Definition: Emphatically repeating a word or phrase in a sentence.


  • “Angry, so deeply angry was he at the betrayal.”
  • “Run, run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me!”


Definition: Repetition of the same word, with no other words in between.


  • “Words, words, words.”
  • “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!”


Definition: Establishing credibility and authority through moral character and expertise.


  • Having a doctor endorse a health product lends it credibility.
  • Citing credentials and personal experience builds an ethical appeal.


Definition: A more mild or indirect word substituted for a harsh, blunt, or sensitive term.


  • “Aunt May has passed away.”
  • “I need to use the little boy's room.”


Definition: The use of pleasant, harmonious sounds for poetic effect.


  • “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”
  • “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.”


Definition: An interruption in the chronological sequence of events to depict an event that occurred in the past.


  • “As Grace walked through the front door of her childhood home, memories of joyful Christmas mornings with her family came flooding back.”
  • “When the soldiers smelled smoke from the distant village, they were reminded of burning villages they fled months earlier.”


Definition: A character who contrasts with another character, usually the protagonist, to highlight differing qualities and personalities.


  • In Harry Potter, Draco Malfoy serves as a foil to Harry Potter, contrasting Harry's bravery with his own cowardice.
  • In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy's stuffy and dignified manner foils Mr. Bingley's friendly, charming character.


Definition: Providing subtle hints about events that have yet to unfold in a story.


  • The scar on Harry Potter's forehead subtly foreshadows his connection with Voldemort and the unfolding events around this history.
  • The early, seemingly insignificant mention of a gun over the fireplace foreshadows its use later in the play.


Definition: A literary technique associating a quality or attribute with something other than the person, object, or concept that possesses that quality.


  • “Her sweet laughter filled the room.” (Laughter can’t literally be sweet, only the person laughing.)
  • “The sky frowned down at the proceedings below.” (The sky can't literally frown.)


Definition: Disturbing the usual syntax of a sentence, typically by changing the normal word order.


  • “Alone he walked on the cold winter beach.”
  • “Upside down the diver hung motionless.”


Definition: An exaggerated statement taken to extreme lengths for emphasis or effect.


  • “I’ve told you a million times to clean your room!”
  • “She cried enough tears to fill a thousand oceans.”


Definition: Asking rhetorical questions and then proceeding to answer them.


  • “But why, you might ask, do I continue to put up with this nonsense? Because I’m committed to seeing this through to the end, no matter the cost.”
  • “What is our duty in this time of crisis? Our duty is to stand firm in our principles and refuse to bend to the winds of expediency.”


Definition: The subordination of one clause to another in complex sentences.


  • “When he finally returned home, dinner had gone cold.”
  • “I will clean my room after I finish my homework.”



Definition: An expression whose meaning cannot be deduced from the literal definitions of its component words.


  • “She let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party.”
  • “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

In Medias Res

Definition: Opening a narrative by plunging into the middle of the action rather than building up background.


  • The Iliad and Odyssey start by depicting ongoing conflicts and action rather than background exposition.
  • Many movies open directly with a dramatic chase scene before setting up the full context.


Definition: Specialized technical terminology associated with a particular field or industry.


  • “The doctor used a lot of medical jargon like glycosylation and thrombectomy.”
  • “I didn’t understand all the programming jargon the engineers were using.”


Definition: Saying the right thing at the right time, capturing the opportune moment to persuade.


  • Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address eloquently encapsulated the mood and needs of a grieving nation.
  • The candidate’s speech responded perfectly to the crisis gripping the nation that week.


Definition: A two-word metaphorical descriptive phrase or compound word used as a literary device instead of a simple noun in Anglo-Saxon poetry.


  • “whale-road” for sea
  • “battle-sweat” for blood


Definition: A literary device expressing an affirmative point by deliberately understating its opposite.


  • “This wasn't my best work” to say it was terrible work.
  • “She’s not a bad singer” to say she’s a good singer.


Definition: Literary elements appealing to logic and reason, using facts and objective evidence to build an argument.


  • Citing scientific evidence or expert opinions to back a claim.
  • Using statistics and verifiable data to support an advertising claim.


Definition: A literary device referring to a fictional story, tale, or situation as if it were real or fact within another fictional work.


  • In The Princess Bride, the grandfather makes up the story about Westley and Buttercup to tell his sick grandson. The characters also occasionally acknowledge that they know they’re in a fictional story.
  • Deadpool frequently breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses viewers of the Marvel movies that he exists within.


Definition: An implied comparison between two unlike things that have something in common. One of the most popular literary elements in modern culture.


  • “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players." (Shakespeare)
  • "My love is a red rose."


Definition: The rhythmic pattern of syllables in lines of poetry.


  • "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" follows an iambic pentameter pattern.
  • The ballad form uses common meter with four lines alternating between four and three iambic feet per line.


Definition: A literary device referring to something by the name of something associated with or nearby it.


  • “The White House stated today...” = the President’s administration
  • “Wall Street prefers lower taxes” = the financial industry


Definition: A recurring symbol, subject, or technique throughout a work used to develop theme.


  • Light and dark is a common motif representing good and evil.
  • The green light in The Great Gatsby that repetitively emerges symbolizes Gatsby's hopes and dreams.



Definition: A newly coined word or phrase, or an existing term used with a new meaning.


  • "Truthiness" meaning the semblance of truth without factual accuracy.
  • "Bromance" meaning a close, platonic male friendship.


Definition: The formation or usage of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.


  • “The bees were buzzing.”
  • "The fire crackled.”


Definition: A figure of speech combining two contradictory words.


  • “Jumbo shrimp”
  • “Bittersweet”
  • “Deafening silence”


Definition: A word, verse, or sentence that reads the same backwards as it does forwards.


  • “A nut for a jar of tuna”
  • “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama”

Parallel Plot

Definition: Intertwining plotlines that mirror or subtly echo each other thematically. The plots may or may not move forward in parallel structure.


  • In Romeo and Juliet, the feud between the Capulets and Montagues runs parallel to the romantic storyline.
  • In The Godfather, Michael Corleone's descent into crime parallels his father's path decades earlier.


Definition: The repetition of similar grammatical or syntactical patterns.


  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”
  • “I came, I saw, I conquered."


Definition: An unexpected or sudden shift at the end of a phrase or series that causes the reader to reinterpret the preceding words.


  • “War doesn’t determine who’s right, just who’s left.”
  • “I’m not asleep...but that doesn’t mean I’m awake.”


Definition: Syntax with short, simple sentences lacking conjunctions and other connective words and phrases.


  • “I came. I saw. I conquered.”
  • “Run. Trip. Fall. Ouch.”


Definition: Appealing to emotion using affecting, emotive language to build rapport and sympathy.


  • Heart-wrenching stories in advertisements generate an emotional response.
  • Speeches emphasize shared hopes, dreams, pride, or tragedy.


Definition: The use of redundant words that don't add meaning.


  • “My fellow brethren”
  • "A consensus of opinion”


Definition: Repetition of words derived from the same root word.


  • “Unassuming, she assumed the mantle of leadership.”
  • “Arbitrarily, the arbitrators argued...”


Definition: Deliberate overuse of conjunctions for a dramatic effect.


  • “...government of the people, by the people, for the people...”
  • “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets...”


Definition: Blending two or more words or parts of words to create a new term.


  • “Podcast” = iPod + broadcast
  • “Brexit” = Britain + exit


Definition: A rhetorical strategy where the speaker raises an objection to their own argument and immediately responds to it.


  • “I know you think this idea won’t work, but if you just hear me out...”
  • “Now, I know what you might be thinking - how could I support this candidate? Let me respond...”


Definition: A short pithy saying stating a general truth about life.


  • “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
  • “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”


Definition: A joke or play on words based on words with multiple meanings or words that sound similar.


  • “I'm reading a book about anti-gravity. It's impossible to put down.”
  • “Did you hear about the mathematician who's afraid of negative numbers? He'll stop at nothing to avoid them.”


Reductio ad Absurdum

Definition: Disproving an argument by showing it inevitably leads to an absurd conclusion if taken logically to its end.


  • “If we allow people to eat whatever they want, soon everyone will be eating only ice cream and lollipops, which would lead to poor health.”
  • “If all criminal laws are abolished, society would descend into anarchy with people stealing and attacking each other freely.”


Definition: Correspondence of terminal sounds of words or lines.


  • “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
  • “I bring drink for the thirst-stricken Multitude.” (Coleridge)


Definition: Using humor, irony, or exaggeration to criticize flaws, vices, or stupidity in people, organizations, or society.


  • “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” (Twain)
  • “We should give up idealism, stop saving orphans, and bomb countries that produce oil.”

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is another famous example of satire.


Definition: An explicit comparison using “like” or “as” to describe something by comparing it to something else.


  • “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June.” (Burns)
  • “O my luve is like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June.” (Burns)


Definition: Very informal vocabulary used in casual speech and writing but avoided in formal usage.


  • “Deuces!” = goodbye
  • “I’m just gonna chill this weekend.”


Definition: A speech or passage in a drama in which a character speaks one’s thoughts aloud.


  • “To be, or not to be: that is the question...” (Hamlet)


Definition: Transposing the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often with humorous effect.


  • “Blushing crow” instead of “crushing blow”


Definition: A form of logical argument where two statements (premises) reach a logical conclusion.


  • “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.”
  • “All birds have wings. Penguins are birds. Therefore, penguins have wings.”


Definition: Using objects, images, colors, or shapes to represent abstract concepts.


  • “The green light at the end of Daisy's dock symbolized Gatsby's hopes and dreams.” (The Great Gatsby)
  • “The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg symbolically gaze down in judgment.” (The Great Gatsby)


Definition: Repetition of words or phrases at the beginning and end of successive phrases or clauses.


  • “To defend, defending we must stand. Stand we must, to rejection not succumb.”
  • “It captures your attention, the speech, with rhetorical flair it captures.”


Definition: Referring to a part of something as representative of the whole or vice versa.


  • “All hands on deck” = all sailors/workers
  • “New York” referring to New York City specifically


Definition: The insertion of a word between the syllables of another word, typically for emphasis.


  • "Abso-freaking-lutely"
  • "Fan-freaking-tastic!"


Definition: The attitude, perspective, or mood the author adopts toward their subject matter and audience.


  • “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” (MLK adopting a solemn, yet hopeful tone)
  • “Well, Clarice - have the lambs stopped screaming?” (Hannibal Lecter using an amused, mocking tone)


Definition: Everyday language of ordinary people in a region or country.


  • “I’m fixing to head down to the piggly wiggly.” (Southern American vernacular)
  • “Where’s the lift? I knackered my knee.” (British vernacular)


Definition: A short, vivid portrayal or evocation of a person, scene, impression, etc.


  • “The cadaverous old man sat alone on the park bench feeding pigeons.”
  • “The delicate aroma of jasmine filled the sultry night air.”


Definition: The linking of two subjects and a predicate that fits more logically with just one.


  • “He carried a bag in one hand and resentment in the other.”
  • “She left in a hurry and his heart.”

Frequent Questions About Literary Elements

What’s the Difference Between a Literary Device and a Rhetorical Device?

Literary devices are for written text and rhetorical devices apply to oral speech. However, many literary devices also work as a rhetorical device.

What Is an Example of a Common Literary Device?

Symbolism, metaphor and personification are examples of common literary devices.

Give Your Writing Deeper Meaning Today

A literary device can help you land a particular point and activate your reader’s senses more deeply. Consider incorporating literary techniques into your own writing to surprise and delight your readers.

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