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Literary Devices

by Tiffany

Literary devices are common structures used in writing. These devices can be either literary elements or literary techniques. Literary elements are found in almost every story and can be used to analyze and interpret (e.g. protagonist, setting, plot, theme). Literary techniques, on the other hand, constructions in the text, usually to express artistic meaning through the use of language (e.g. metaphor, hyperbole).

Please note that sometimes certain terms can be defined interchangeably as either an element or technique, depending on your interpretation. When analyzing works of literature or poetry it is extremely helpful to know these terms and identify them in the text. This allows for greater understanding and appreciation of the work!

Common literary elements:

Protagonist

The main character in a story, the one with whom the reader is meant to identify. The person is not necessarily "good", but is the person whom the reader is most invested in.

e.g. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

Antagonist

Counterpart to the main character/protagonist and source of a story's main conflict. It may not even be a person (see Conflict below).

Plot

Sequence of events in the story.

Setting

Time and place in which the story occurs.

Conflict

A struggle between opposing forces which drive the story. This is what keeps the reader reading! The outcome of the story is usually a resolution of the conflict. The opposing force does not have to be a person. The basic types of conflict are: Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society or Man vs. Machine.

Climax

The dramatic high of the story. Right before the climax is the turning point, usually where something goes wrong. The climax then ensues and comes to a resolution. A resolution does not necessarily mean the problem has been solved; only that the high point has ended.

Motifs, Themes and Symbols

A motif is a recurring important idea, structure or image; it differs from a theme in that it can be expressed as a single word or fragmented phrase. e.g. comparing a person's stages of life to seasons of the year.

A theme usually must be expressed as a complete sentence. A theme is a main universal idea or message conveyed by the piece. e.g. Little Red Riding Hood's theme may be "Don't talk to strangers".

A symbol is an object, colour, person, character or figure used to represent abstract ideas. A symbol, unlike a motif, must be tangible or visible.

Mood

The atmosphere or emotional condition created by within the setting. Mood refers to the general sense or feeling which the reader is supposed to get from the text and is not necessarily referring to the characters' state of mind.

Point of view

The identity of the narrator's voice, the point of view from which the reader sees the story. It may be first person (there is no narrator) or third person (the story is told by a character or direct observer in the story).

Common literary techniques:

Allegory

Where an entire story is representative/symbolic of something else, usually a larger abstract concept or important historical/geopolitical event (e.g. Animal Farm is an allegory of Soviet totalitarianism).

Alliteration

The repetition of consonant sounds, usually used consecutively in the same sentence (e.g. Silly Sally saw sixty slithering snakes).

Anthropomorphism

Where animals or inanimate objects are portrayed as people. (e.g. in Animal Farm the animals can talk, walk, and interact like humans).

Deus ex machina

Latin for "God out of the machine", this term describes the primary conflict being solved out of nowhere, as if God or a miracle could only solve the complex conflict.

Dramatic irony

Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the story are not aware. Situational irony is different in that the readers are not aware; the results are unexpected and mocking in relation to what was expected (the usual use of the term irony). Verbal irony is an expression that is opposite of what it is intended to mean (e.g. the Ministry of Love is actually a place of torture and brainwashing in the novel 1984).

Exposition

When an author interrupts a story in order to explain something - usually to provide important background information. An exposition can also be essential information which is given at the beginning of a play or short story, about the plot and the events which are to follow.

Foil

A character who is meant to represent characteristics, values or ideas which are opposite to another character (usually the protagonist).

Foreshadowing

Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. This suggestion can be made in various ways such as a flashback, an object, or a previous minor situation which reflects a more significant situation later on. This sort of warning sign can also be called a red herring.

Hyperbole

A description which uses exaggeration or extremes to convey emphasize a characteristic; e.g. "I told you a thousand times!" does not mean the person has been one thousand times.

Metaphor vs. Simile

A metaphor is direct relationship where one thing IS another (e.g. "Juliet is the sun"). A simile, on the other hand, is indirect and usually only likened to be similar to something else. Similes usually use "like" or "as" (e.g. "Your eyes are like the ocean").

Parallelism

The use of similar or identical language, structures, events or ideas in different parts of a text.

Pathetic fallacy

When the mood of the character is reflected in the atmosphere (weather) or inanimate objects.

Personification

Where inanimate objects or abstract concepts are given human thoughts, actions, perceptions and emotions. E.g. "The moon danced mournfully over the water" - you see that a moon cannot actually dance or with mourning, therefore it is being personified in order to create artistic meaning.

Repetition

When a specific word, phrase, or structure is repeated several times, usually in close proximity, to emphasize a particular idea.

Let's use an excerpt from The Great Gatsby for literary analysis:

I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

While this paragraph has devices of personification in making an island seem like a "fresh, green beast" and trees that can "pander in whispers", we can also use literary analysis to interpret that the author's description of the pilgrims' discovery of America is a parallelism of the protagonist's view of the beginning of the American dream and the eternal optimism to reach this dream in his own life. Of course, simply reading this one paragraph, you would not be able to conclude this. That's why it's important to examine the intention of the story as a whole, as well as the writing within the story.

References: http://mrbraiman.home.att.net/lit.htm, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_device

Image from: english@kkc

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    M_McLemoreSun, 25 May 2014 02:38:05 -0000

    Oh, and another error, and I'm not trying to nitpick, just lending some writing wisdom. you mentioned under the Foreshadowing Technique that it is also sometimes called a red herring. This is false. A red herring is a false clue given to readers, mostly in the mystery genre, to throw them off in their personal quest to solve a mystery.
    I think this is a great article, I would recommend it to many of my writing friends. I can see this as a general outline for a larger piece. For instance, under your CLE of Protagonist one could explore a multitude of different classes and sub classes of protagonists; the anti-hero sub class.
    This is a great vehicle for writers novice and expert.
    Write on, friend.

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    M_McLemoreSun, 25 May 2014 02:06:51 -0000

    Useful read, but I see a few errors. For the most part what you call "COMMON LITERARY TECHNIQUES" a majority of the items you list can be put under Figures of Speech. To me, a LITERARY TECHNIQUE is like Chekhov's Gun, which is a dramatic principle requiring every element in the narrative be implemented and irreplaceable and all else be removed (e.g. a loaded gun or a sword above the mantle, must be used by the end of the story if it is mentioned).

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    jlkdfsThu, 01 Aug 2013 07:15:47 -0000

    One of these techniques, literary devices, involves playing with language, juxtaposing unusual ideas and creating unexpected situations. The key to understanding literary devices is recognizing that they are tools a writer uses to convey ideas in unusual ways. Thanks.
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