Literary devices — specific creative writing techniques that have been in use for centuries by everyone from Charles Dickens to J. K. Rowling — have the power to take a piece of writing from mediocre to majestic. However, you need to know how to use literary devices if you want to avoid unintentional gaffes that drive your readers away.
If you’re a writer, you’re already using literary devices, even if you don’t realize it. Knowing how to use them well adds more impact to your story and makes for a more impactful narrative that your readers will appreciate.
There are dozens of different literary devices that you can manipulate in your writing — far too many to cover in-depth in this article. I will reveal my three favorite literary devices, with examples of how to use them.
You remember alliteration from school, right? The technical definition of alliteration (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary) is:
By far, alliteration is my favorite literary device. I have to be careful not to use it too much if I’m honest. When you use one particular literary device too often, it can lose its power, so it’s important to get the balance right.
You find a lot of alliteration in nursery rhymes and book titles. Let’s look at some examples:
Alliteration isn’t just for rhymes and book titles, however. It can add impact to your writing, drawing your readers’ attention to sentences you want to emphasize. Phrases that include alliteration are more memorable.
Statistics say that you’re more likely to accurately remember (and recite) sentences and phrases that use alliteration even years later (Brooke Lea, et al., 2008). It’s one reason you often see alliteration used in marketing materials and brand names — such as PayPal, Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts,and Best Buy.
Alliteration can create mood and convey things like danger by merit of association. For example, repetition of the initial ‘s’ sound is associated with the slithering of a snake, implying danger:
Simon’s shoes slipped on the wet slope, and he began to slide towards the edge of the cliff. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t regain his balance. An almost silent scream left his lips as he hurtled over the side.
Allusion is often confused with illusion — but they are very different things. Here’s how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines allusion:
Allusion allows you to paint a clear picture of a mood, character, setting and so on by referencing something your readers are likely to be familiar with (often a cultural or historical reference). By using allusion in your writing you can avoid lengthy and awkward descriptions.
However, allusion can backfire on you. That’s because not all cultural or historical references are ‘evergreen’. ‘Evergreen’ refers to things that are timeless. The problem is, you can’t guarantee that readers in ten years’ time will understand the same cultural references as your readers today.
Let’s look at some examples of how you might use allusion:
Kevin shrugged off the compliment. “I’m no Stephen King,” he chuckled. “I don’t think I will be topping the bestseller lists any time soon.”
I’ve seen other types of allusion where the reference is more of an inside joke, which risks alienating readers who don’t ‘get it’. Only use allusion when you’re certain that your audience will understand the references you’re making. Here are some examples of how allusion can go wrong.“I felt sure the Cold War was over,” Patrick muttered, hitting the power button on the TV remote and slumping back in his chair. He didn’t know why he still put himself through the torture of watching the evening news anymore.
How does the Merriam-Webster Dictionary define personification?
Personification, in fiction or poetry, is the act of describing objects, thoughts, and concepts as if they have human qualities. It’s a powerful technique that can give your readers a means of visualizing or understanding abstract things in a more concrete way. Effectively, it’s like you, as the author, are reaching out of the page and pulling your readers into the midst of your story world.
In addition, personification allows you to direct your readers to a specific interpretation, understanding or perspective on something. This is particularly true if you avoid popular (or overused) types of personification (such as “Mother Nature holds the cards” when describing the unpredictable nature of weather) and instead offer something fresher and unique:
Tony laughed as he watched the weather forecast. “Glad I’m not going on the camping trip this year,” he announced to the empty room. “Seems like Mother Nature’s giving out the punishment homo sapiens deserve for being so destructive. Not before time, either. If the human race was my kids, I’d have given them hell before they completely destroyed the world.
When it’s done well, personification is powerful. Let’s look at some examples, and why they work so well.
You have to be careful with personification, however. Sometimes it just doesn’t have the same impact:
If you want to take your writing to the next level, you need to use literary devices. I’ve only covered three in this article, but there are many more that you can explore. Literary devices enable you to control how your readers interpret scenes that could have multiple interpretations, add visual power to your paragraphs, and draw your readers deeper into your story world.
I’ll be doing a part two to this article, looking at less well-known literary devices like Anaphora, Epistrophe, Chiasmum, and Hypophora. Comment below if there are other literary devices you’d like me to cover in-depth. I’ll leave you with some practical exercises that will help you bring literary devices to life in your writing.
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