Want to know a secret? You are already an expert at literary devices!
Don’t let the fancy words or a stern-looking English teacher scare you away!
You are already using and noticing anaphora and chiasmus in the words around you, whether you recognize the terms or not.
Read on for a quick understanding of literary devices, a deeper look at a few fundamental terms, and a painless plan for applying this powerful tool in your writing. Through literary devices, authors offer the reader the gift of crafting their writing with layers of beauty and meaning.
Before you start, I should warn you, this may lead to a quiet (or not so quiet) obsession to hunt down even more devices in your reading and slip them into your writing.
You may become a word nerd…if you’re not already!
Feeling brave? Undeterred? We’ll need the field guide as we enter the wilds…
What are Literary Devices?
First, train your eyes on those tricky words.
We use technical terms as a shortcut to understanding within a field of study.
For example, photosynthesis is a single word that conveys an entire process. Writers and students of literature have technical terms too. Within the broad label of literary devices, authors find:
- Styles, and;
To enhance their writing.
The tracks narrow and branch. Literary elements are the big picture devices found in the full work, like:
- Mood, and;
Techniques tunnel into individual words or sentences, like alliteration or onomatopoeia.
Beginning the Hunt for Literary Devices
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, offers a prime hunting ground.
Nick describes his impression on entry into the Buchanan’s living room. Keep your eyes and senses ready as you read the following paragraph.
Trust your instincts!
Use your pencil as a snare to capture words or phrases that strike you as memorable.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Fitzgerald has used:
- Onomatopoeia, and;
To name just a few of the devices here.
Look at your haul:
- Did you catch any of the following examples?
- Did you capture something different?
- Did you find even more?
- Can you already see your talent in this hunt?
Delving Deeper into Literary Devices
The repetition of identical or similar consonant sounds, normally at the beginnings of words.
“Gnus never know pneumonia” is an example of alliteration since, despite the spellings, all four words begin with the “n” sound. Fitzgerald’s repetition of the “b” sound in “buoyed,” “balloon” and “blown back” draw attention to the wind and the sense of floating.
Alliteration causes a reader to focus on a specific section of the text which can create a certain rhythm in the words and mood in the text.
The use of words whose sound suggests their meaning.
With “whip and snap,” Fitzgerald helps the reader to feel as if they are situated in that scene and hearing the sound effects. It also adds extra emphasis as we notice in the use of “boom” as Tom shuts the windows and the wind dies.
Personification gives human characteristics to inanimate objects or to animals.
The “groan of a picture” emphasizes the pressure caused by the wind and enhances the sense of struggle or tension in the space.Personification helps the reader to relate to the object that is given human attributes.
The combination of these three devices in the final sentence intensify the shift in the scene for the reader.
Comparison of the couch with a balloon that the women are flying on begins an extended metaphor that is completed as they “ballooned slowly to the floor.” A metaphor is a figurative use of language in which a comparison is expressed without the use of a comparative term.
Instead of saying ‘like’ something, you say it ‘is’ something.
The comparison begins with a simile, “on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.” To simplify, the couch is like an anchored balloon.
An extended metaphor develops the comparison over several lines or paragraphs.
The extended metaphor builds on the comparison with figurative language and more complex, varied descriptions.
In this case, the extended metaphor offers an image of Daisy and Jordan free and captivating as well as the power of Tom to control them and the atmosphere of the room.
These images remain in the reader’s mind as the characters are developed through the story.
A “rule of three” emerges in the final line.
In this sentence, Fitzgerald uses a group of three words that parallel each other in form or length, a tricolon, to create a memorable and rhythmic phrase:
“…and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
The device hunter in you is already seeing repetition and noticing how it is creating emphasis and atmosphere. Didn’t we see “two young women” at the start of the paragraph?
There’s another balloon!
Before we leave the wilds, let’s take a quick look for devices only visible in the shadows.
Literary devices that hide in the shadows
The extended metaphor has opened the possibility of a motif throughout the story.
While it may not be the image of a balloon, the images of being free and captivating may surface in our impressions of the women.
As a reader, we notice the use of the color white in the paragraph. Will that appear again? Tom is in control, closing the window and killing the wind. What other images or ideas may appear throughout the story to focus on money as power and a theme?
A motif is a repeated element that illuminates the:
- Central idea,
- Themes, and;
- Deeper meaning of a story.
The repetition of something concrete or tangible leads to a greater understanding of more abstract themes and symbolic significance within a story.
In The Great Gatsby, the green light is both a symbol of what Gatsby desires but can never reach and a motif of the unfulfilled American Dream as it reappears at key moments in the story.
Honing Your Skills
You don’t need to recognize or name the techniques to enjoy encountering literary devices as you read. As a reader, becoming a device hunter gives you the chance to marvel at the artistry of the writer and helps you discover deeper meaning or messages in the writing.
Writing hunters know what devices are, how they work and why they create effects on readers. With this knowledge, they use devices to craft prose or bend the technique to challenge their readers’ expectations.
Hunt and Tame: Literary Devices
Learn about them
We have only begun the exploration! Seek out new devices and definitions.
Look for them
Notice the moment when you read something you love.
Take a step back. Are any of the literary devices you know being used? If yes, celebrate and add these examples to your collection. If not, notice what is being done. Is this a literary device you haven’t encountered before? Add it to your collection and to the options you have to craft your writing.
Try them out
As you are free writing or working on a scene, consider the effect you want to create and try different options.
Play with the devices!
Weed them out
After you experiment with many options, find the ones that work the best. Editing down to the most effective choices is part of crafting your prose.
Don’t force it
Just like using new vocabulary, look for how to allow these tools to add spice, depth and flow to your writing.
Use literary devices to amp reader enjoyment and engagement.
Remember anaphora and chiasmus?
Anaphora is repeating a word at the beginning of a phrase: Go big or go home.
Chiasmus takes two parallel clauses and inverts the word order of one to create a greater meaning:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”—John F. Kennedy.
Easier than you thought?
The wild is filled with literary devices to discover and tame. Enjoy the hunt!
Article Written by Lisa Taylor
Stories are powerful. Through my experience as an educator and librarian, I’ve explored how stories work and supported writers in finding their voices and honing their craft.
As a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach Editor, I offer a thorough, objective structural story edit that honours your voice, recognises and celebrates your skill, and offers clear, actionable ideas on ways to make your story shine even more. You can reach me through the Fictionary Online Community.
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