Want to inject some razzle and dazzle and a little anaphora into your writing?
If your writing seems dull and lifeless, maybe all it needs is a lovely little literary device cleverly placed to keep your reader interested and excited.
What’s a literary device?
Well, it’s not a new tech gadget or a cool app. A literary device is one of many specific techniques used to make your writing lively, easy to understand, and entertaining. A literary device can also help to hold your reader’s interest.
Literary devices—also called rhetorical devices and literary techniques—have different purposes. Many, such as foreshadowing, flash-forward, and flashback, are often used to fabulous effect in fiction writing. But others are stylistic tricks that can be used in almost any genre including non-fiction and blogging.
You’ve heard of similes and metaphors, right?
A simile is a comparison that uses like or as to show similarities between a person or thing and someone or something else.
At breakfast, George was like a bear.
She was just as sweet as a peach.
A metaphor, on the other hand, states outright that someone or something is the object of comparison even though the reader knows this isn’t exactly true.
At breakfast, George was a bear.
She’s just a sweet peach.
Simile and metaphor are two of the most commonly known literary devices.
Many others add depth, meaning, and color to your writing and make it come alive. You might already use a few and not realize it or not recognize the official names.
I use hypophora and procatalepsis quite often; in fact, I sometimes overdo it with the hypophora. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t suddenly think, “Oh, some assonance or asyndeton would work great right here.” In fact, I had to look up most of these to make sure I had the spellings and details right.
The point isn’t to memorize literary devices; the point is to become familiar with them, learn how to use them, practice using them, and weave them into your writing to make it brighter, more imaginative, and filled with a richness you won’t get otherwise.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words in close proximity. Note that this is about sounds—phonetic utterances—not letters. (Even while reading we hear sounds in our minds.)
The funny phone rang in the front foyer.
The crazy cat killed the critter who dared to come into my kitchen.
Alliteration isn’t just for silly sample sentences or poetry. You can use it in almost any kind of writing, especially to emphasize a point:
Statistics show that a high percentage of traffic fatalities involve alcohol. Make sure your kids get the message: don’t drive drunk.
Assonance is similar to alliteration, but it’s about similar vowel sounds in closely placed words, not consonants.
The two terms are often mixed up, but you can keep them straight by remembering that alliteration has a strong consonant sound—the /t/. Plus it has four different, softer-sounding consonant sounds: the /l/, the /r/, the /sh/, and the /n/.
Assonance has only soft consonant sounds: two /s/ sounds and two occurrences of a barely pronounced /n/. It just sounds more like vowels.
Arrive alive—drive fifty-five.
It’s during these fleeting moments of greed in which we commit our most egregious errors and misdeeds that can neither be retracted nor undone.
Metonymy is similar to metaphor except the comparison is made to something related to or closely associated with the concept the writer wishes to illustrate.
He supported his family with hard work.
He supported his family with his own sweat and blood.
In this case, sweat and blood is closely related to hard work. Since hard work could mean almost anything, sweat and blood makes it clear that the type of work is manual labor of the most demanding kind—construction, farming, and mining are possibilities.
The president approved the plan.
The White House approved the plan.
Here, the White House represents the US president.
Company senior executives refused to approve raises for my work group.
The C-suite refused to approve raises for my work group.
And in this example, the C-suite represents upper-level executives who often have a “C” in their shortened titles: CEO, CFO, COO, and CIO.
Sometimes wrongly pronounced ah-nuh-mah-nuh-PEE-ah (/n/ instead of /t/), you might remember this one from school if only because it’s fun.
Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like the person, animal, action, or event that the word describes.
A bike went by.
A bike whizzed by.
The glass broke as it hit the floor.
The glass shattered as it smashed to the floor.
The rain fell on the driveway.
The rain plip-plopped and splattered on the driveway.
The pesky fly flew around his head.
The pesky fly buzzed around his head.
An oxymoron is a contradiction of terms—a two-word paradox—often used to add humor, dramatic effect, or meaning according to context.
After a long illness, his death brought a heavy lightness to her shoulders.
She didn’t love often, but when she loved, she loved ferociously.
An oxymoron can also be contained in a sentence with a broader meaning.
You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap. ~Dolly Parton
If you’ve ever watched or read a weather report—who hasn’t?—you’re familiar with personification of meteorological events and natural disasters.
Mother Nature holds the cards.
Spring has no intention of arriving any time soon.
Personification ascribes human (person-like) qualities to non-human things or events. This also applies to animals in certain cases although animal lovers might argue they aren’t very different from humans, so that’s a bit tricky.
Good examples of personification:
My computer refuses to cooperate.
The vicious tornado screamed in fury as it blew our roof off.
The cockroach refuses to cooperate with my efforts to squish him.
Not such a good example of personification:
My dog refuses to cooperate.
Dogs are known to have many human-like qualities (and to be uncooperative at times!), so this isn’t really personification.
Take a look at this one:
The flowers swayed happily, petals outstretched to the sun, as the warm summer breeze gave its blessing.
Happy flowers that stretch their petals and a breeze that bestows a blessing are good examples of personification.
The term comes from Greek and means not bonded or not connected. Simply put, asyndeton omits conjunctions (words that connect like and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but) between words, phrases, or clauses.
Cookies, cupcakes, ice cream, candy, cannoli—oh my. It was beyond tempting.
He was exhausted, spent, drained, sick. His loss was more than he could bear, but bear it he did.
Write, revise, edit, proofread, repeat; that’s your job as a writer.
Be careful when you use asyndeton. It’s best saved for clear-cut tragic, dramatic, sarcastic, funny, or other situations with strong emotion or action. You don’t want the omission of a conjunction to be seen as a careless mistake.
If you know the /a/ before syndeton in #7 means without, then you might recognize poly– as a prefix that means many or multiple.
Polysyndeton is the use of a conjunction between each word, phrase, or clause in a list—many connections—instead of commas.
Cookies and cupcakes and ice cream and candy and cannoli—oh my. It was beyond tempting.
He was exhausted and spent and drained and sick. His loss was more than he could bear, but bear it he did.
Write and revise and edit and proofread and repeat; that’s your job as a writer.
Polysyndeton creates an effect similar to that of asyndeton, but it’s more relaxed or fluid, and it lends a different rhythm or energy to the sentence and situation. And that can suggest an entirely different meaning.
In the “write and revise” asyndeton example in #7, you have the stern voice of someone dispensing advice. But by using polysyndeton instead, you have a voice (depending on context, of course) that sounds a bit more cheerful or jokingly sarcastic.
Hyperbole, as you may know, is an exaggeration. To be effective, hyperbole should be used sparingly, and the exaggeration has to be obvious.
That guy must have had five cups of coffee.
This isn’t an effective hyperbole if you’re trying to describe a nervous, high-strung, talkative person. Five cups of coffee just isn’t that unusual for many people (even if it would turn you into a hi-speed train wreck), so it’s not much of an exaggeration.
That guy must have mainlined an entire Starbucks.
This is a more effective use of hyperbole since it suggests a consumption of coffee (that could make the guy nervous) in quantities that just aren’t possible. At least one hopes it’s not possible.
More examples of hyperbole:
A mountain of food threatened to crush the table.
I’m so tired I’ll sleep for weeks.
By the time you finish this project, global warming will be long gone and we’ll be in the next ice age.
An allusion is a brief reference to a well-known person or event that features qualities or characteristics of the subject matter. The tricky part is making sure your readers know the reference and what is meant.
The Cold War was back on when I told the kids we weren’t going to the movies.
If you’re sure your readers know that the “Cold War” didn’t involve actual fighting and that, among kids, it means silence, then go for it.
You’re a great writer, but you probably won’t be rubbing shoulders with Stephen King any time soon.
Most readers know Stephen King is a highly successful, prolific novelist. If they don’t, or if you’re sure they don’t like Stephen King for some reason, then replace with Shakespeare or some other writer they can identify with.
I enjoy helping people, but I’m no Mother Teresa.
Again, if you’re sure your readers know that Mother Teresa was a Catholic missionary famous for compassionate, selfless service to the poor, then use the allusion. If you’re not sure, choose some other way to get your point across.
Sounds like a medical diagnosis, doesn’t it? Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences.
Anaphora lends emphasis and dramatic effect because it appeals to a reader’s emotions. It can also drive in a point:
If you don’t dream, if you don’t make a plan, if you don’t act, if you don’t take a chance, you’ll never get anywhere.
A writer dreams, a writer thinks, a writer creates, a writer writes; simply put, a writer bleeds out his soul.
Poetry often employs anaphora; Allen Ginsberg’s The Howl is a well-known example.
Anacoluthon makes me think of death by anaconda. But it’s a nifty little trick whereby a sentence ends abruptly with a grammatical structure that’s syntactically or otherwise different—and unexpected—from the one it started with.
The initial sentence is often interrupted:
The enormous anaconda slithered out from the—she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
If you’re familiar with formal logic, it’s like a non sequitur, which means it doesn’t follow or doesn’t make sense. But in context and properly executed, anacoluthon makes perfect sense, especially if read as stream of consciousness or interior thought.
A writer must edit and proofread rigorously as well as—oh, I’ve warned you enough.
Now what could this be? It sounds like some alternate reality or something, doesn’t it? Well, hypophora is actually the technique of raising a question and then answering it. Which I just did, in case you didn’t notice.
Hypophora can be used as a transition that guides a reader from one section to another. Let’s say you’ve written several paragraphs on ways to improve physical fitness, and now you want to move smoothly into the benefits.
Try using hypophora:
And just how will all this exercise improve your health? For starters, it will strengthen your heart. On top of that, your …
Hypophora is especially effective when readers are likely to have a question anyway. Ask the question for them and answer it.
This is similar to hypophora, but procatalepsis doesn’t pose a direct question. Instead, it simply anticipates reader objection and addresses it.
You might think these literary devices are silly or not worth your time. If you ask any experienced writer, however, you’ll soon learn how valuable they truly are.
Procatalepsis is especially useful when the topic is controversial. It’s almost like waving a white flag and saying “Hey, I know this might sound off the wall to you, but give me a chance to explain.” It can mean the difference between a reader clicking the back button or closing the book and hanging around to consider your point or finish the story.
Even if you’re not sure your readers will object, it’s a handy way to introduce additional information.
Some people think recycling is a useless waste of time. But if they’d consider fact A, fact B, and the amazing fact C, they might agree that recycling isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Despite the fancy terminology, epizeuxis is just the repetition of a word for emphasis or to communicate strong emotion.
All he ever did was whine, whine, whine.
My garden is just ruined with weeds, weeds, everywhere weeds!
If you want to succeed as a writer, just write, write, and write some more.
As with most literary devices, use caution. In the Counting Crows song Round Here, “Round here we stay up very, very, very, very late” just works. In Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror” just works (and is often quoted). Using epizeuxis carelessly, however, might look like lazy writing and serve no purpose.
And there you have it: fifteen splendid literary devices to add to your writer’s toolbox.
If you want to try one you’ve never used before, be sure you’re comfortable with it and understand it first. You might even take it one divine device at a time until you’re thoroughly comfortable. Then move on to another one.
And be sure to look for them as you read. Examine the effect they have, consider what the writing might be like without them, and think about how you can use them in your own writing.
Your turn! Do you recognize some or all of these literary devices? Do you use any? Other readers will want to know and so do I, so go right ahead and share in the comments.