Use These 10 Literary Devices to Tell an Awesome Story
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to captivate your audience with your characters and settings, build suspense, and deliver strong emotional payoffs. Literary devices are tools that can help. Though plenty of literary devices exist, these 10 are particularly useful in fiction and narrative non-fiction. Check out these examples and tips for using them to tell an awesome story.
What is a literary device?
A literary device is a technique writers can use to make stories more engaging. These tactics can create suspense, evoke emotion, set up a plot twist, and more. Alliteration, symbolism, and foreshadowing are examples of literary devices.
10 literary devices for your story
Below are definitions of 10 powerful literary devices for your book, screenplay, or short story. Click the "Learn More" links to see examples of each literary device and tips for applying it to your story.
#1 - Symbolism
Symbolism is when an element of your story - like a character, setting, or object - represents an idea. The represented idea tends to play a significant role in the story's character development, plot, or theme. For instance, in a prison story, grass might be a symbol for freedom.
#2 - Tone
Tone is the attitude a writer takes toward the events in a story. Though characters may have distinct attitudes, the literary device tone just refers to the attitude of the writer. Some examples of tone are optimistic, comedic, and regretful.
#3 - Mood
Mood is the overall feeling of a scene. Chaotic, warm, and sad are examples of moods. One story can have many moods, since different scenes can create different emotional responses from an audience.
#4 - Imagery
Imagery is a literary device writers use to connect with any of the audience's five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Imagery is often used in the descriptions of characters, settings, and plot events.
#5 - Metaphor
A metaphor falsely asserts that one thing is another while creating a true, symbolic comparison. "The office is an igloo" is an example of a metaphor.
#6 - Personification
Personification is the granting of human qualities to non-human elements in a story, like vehicles, houses, and even concepts, such as hope or doubt.
#7 - Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device writers use to allude to future events in a story. Two kinds exist: (1) Direct foreshadowing states a story event is to come (2) Indirect foreshadowing gives evidence of an event the audience does not anticipate.
#8 - Dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is a literary device in which a writer gives information to the audience that a character, or multiple characters, is unaware of. The tactic can build suspense.
#9 - Motif
A motif is a repeating element in a story that plays a strong role in the story's theme. Motifs can be abstract ideas, like triumph or deceit. They can also be parts of your story's physical world, such as buildings, objects, colors, and noises.
#10 - Alliteration
Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the start of two or more close-together words, as in "warm weather," with "w" the repeating sound.
Why use literary devices?
Here are just some storytelling components literary devices can help you with:
What genres use literary devices?
Literary devices are used across fiction and narrative non-fiction. Some examples of genres that use literary devices:
How to use literary devices
Literary devices should serve the story you're telling. Once you have an idea of your characters and your plot, and you begin writing your first draft, you'll need to accomplish various tasks to make any scene work.
For instance, let's say your main character in a thriller is running from three gunmen in a scene. For this scene to work, a task of yours could be making the audience fear for your protagonist's life. A combination of literary devices can be applied to accomplish that task.
You can use dramatic irony to make your protagonist unaware of the danger lurking around the corner. Once the protagonist sees the gunmen, you can leverage mood to create a feeling of desperation. You can also apply imagery to show the physical effects of panic, like sweat and an accelerating heartbeat.
Think of literary devices like specialized tools. Let your story tasks dictate when and how you apply these tools.
What to avoid when using literary devices
As stated, the writing tasks you need to accomplish to make a scene work should determine what literary devices you use - avoid the opposite approach, ie, deciding you want to use a certain literary device and then bending the purpose of a scene just so the device can fit.
You also want to avoid literary devices drawing attention to themselves. They should help your scenes flow, not cause the audience to focus on the device.
Certain devices, like alliteration, can draw attention to themselves if used too often. Other devices, like tone, can draw attention to themselves if shifted through a story.
Once you gain a deeper understanding of the 10 literary devices outlined above (with the "Learn More" links), you should have a good idea of how to apply them to your story in a natural way.
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Creating an Immersive Mood in Your Story: Examples and Tips
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to create an immersive experience for your reader. You want to pull the audience into your scenes and deliver strong emotional payoffs. Mood is a powerful literary device than can help you do that. In this article, I tell you what a mood in storytelling is, provide examples, and offer tips.
What is mood in writing?
Mood in writing is the overall feeling of a scene. Exciting, lighthearted, and somber are examples of moods. A story can have multiple moods, as different scenes can evoke different emotional responses from the audience.
The importance of mood in storytelling
The four key elements of a story are character, plot, theme, and emotional impact. Since mood is based on feeling, it's a great tool for enhancing the emotional impact of your story.
Each scene should have a distinct mood that's tied into its central conflict. Is your main character running from a serial killer? Fear would be a natural mood for that scene. If you can play up the feeling of fear, you can evoke a strong emotional reaction from your audience. Pulses will go up as they turn the pages.
On the other hand, if the mood you're creating doesn't fit with the central conflict of your scene, you can ruin what might be an otherwise great scene.
For example, let's say you're writing a scene where the main character just finds out his sister is missing. A mood of anxiety would be a natural fit. However, if you instead gave the scene a detached feel, where the main character doesn't care much, the audience wouldn't care much either. It would feel flat.
How mood relates to tone and genre in writing
Tone is another literary tactic. It refers to the attitude a writer takes toward the events in a story. Unlike mood, which can show up in a different form in various scenes, a story should have just one tone. Examples of tone would be sarcastic, serious, or nostalgic.
The tone you choose for your story narrows the moods you can pull off in it. For example, if your story has a sarcastic tone, a somber scene may be difficult to make workable. If, instead, your story had a serious tone, a somber scene would be a natural fit.
The genre you write in shouldn't necessarily limit the mood of any scene, however, in totality, the moods of your scenes should align with audience expectations for your genre.
For example, if you're writing a horror story, you absolutely can have a scene with a funny mood. Possibly, toward the beginning of the story, before the killer is loose, you can characterize your protagonist by showing her joking around with her friends.
However, if your story goes to have 50 scenes total, and 40 of them wind up having a funny mood, your story won't feel like a horror one. Horror readers expect moods like fear, worry, and excitement in the majority of their scenes.
Thus, be mindful of mood expectations in your genre. Feel free to go in different directions, but only in small doses.
How to create a mood in storytelling
The characters in your scene are the conduits for creating a mood for your audience. What the characters feel directly impacts what your audience feels. Thus, to create a mood, you want to capture the emotional state of your characters. Here are three tips:
#1 Create mood with dialogue
Dialogue is what your characters say to each other. How the characters feel should be reflected in how they talk (even if they're lying, ie subtext).
For instance, let's say one character in a scene is training another for a boxing match. While the trainer yells at the boxer, the dialogue would create a mood of intensity.
Or maybe you have a scene where one character is warning others about a terrible storm blowing into town. As the characters worry about the storm, an overall mood of worry will emerge.
#2 Create mood with setting
With an effective setting, you can create a mood without your characters even speaking. Let's say you're writing a sci-fi story. Your protagonist, who's from Earth, winds up traveling to a different planet.
This planet is technologically about 10,000 years ahead of Earth. When your character first arrives and marvels at all the high-tech infrastructure, a mood of awe will be produced. Your character doesn't need to say she's in awe. The setting alone will get the point across.
#3 Create mood with plot events
Plot events should unfold in a cause-and-effect way, with scenes building off one another. Thus, if your main character appears in scene C, the audience may already have a good idea of what's at stake because of previous scenes A and B.
For instance, let's say your protagonist, from Nebraska, has been practicing for a singing competition in Los Angeles. If a scene opens with a plane landing in Los Angeles, a feeling of anticipation would be created. Based on past events, the audience knows the high stakes of the LA trip.
Though scenes should follow a cause-and-effect flow, they absolutely can be filled with surprises. A surprise is an abrupt plot event that characters did not see coming. Surprise has the ability to create a strong mood in an instant.
For instance, let's say you're writing a scene where two couples are enjoying a beach vacation. The scene has a lighthearted mood. Then, a woman discovers a dead body behind a bush.
The mood of the next scene immediately becomes panic. The simple reveal of a dead body is all that was needed to produce this strong mood.
Build on the mood you create
If you're able to create a distinct mood for a scene, you're off to a good start. Next, you want to build on this mood, ratcheting up its emotional force.
Let's go back to the example of a character running from a serial killer. We've established a mood of fear. How can we escalate the feeling of fear? Here's a possible sequence of events that could accomplish this:
What genres use mood?
Mood is used across fiction and narrative non-fiction. Some examples of genres that use mood:
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First Person vs Third Person POV - Your Unique Writer Voice
A unique writer voice can make your book or screenplay stand out. However, to create a compelling, consistent voice through your story, you need to understand the nuances of point of view (POV), particularly first person vs. third person. In this guide, I tell you what you need to know.
What is a writing voice?
A writing voice is the tone a writer uses to tell a story. Though characters can have their own voices, the writing voice refers to the overall voice telling a story. With first-person POV, the voice is that of a specific character. In many other cases, it belongs to no character.
Voice is important because it plays a key factor in the style of a story. Is a story told in a sarcastic way that pokes fun at the characters? Or, is that story told in a matter-of-fact fashion that gives the reader information without any direct opinion?
These are two drastically different examples that would drastically alter the story's style. If you're trying to capture a certain style, you need to be mindful of voice. And that means you need to be mindful of POV...
What is a writing POV?
A POV is the perspective a story is told from. The two main options are first person and third. In first, the story unfolds from the perspective of a character, who speaks with "I." In third, various characters can be the subjects of specific scenes, yet they are referred to by name, not "I."
POV is important because it helps define voice and style, but also because it plays a major role in how information is delivered to your reader. When writing from the perspective of a subject character, you can only discuss information that character would be aware of - in a given scene, the reader can only know as much as this character.
Because of the various nuances associated with POV - which we'll discuss later in this post - writers often make POV mistakes. Unfortunately, these can make you come off as an amateur.
As I went over in my post on dialogue writing, publishing-company employees, film producers, and consumers will often only read five or so pages of your story before making a decision to continue or not. If you have a POV error on those opening pages, you'd be giving someone a reason to stop reading.
What are the types of POV in writing?
As mentioned, the two major POV categories are first person and third. However, within third are various distinctions. The four key POVs:
If you're writing a book, you can choose any of these four POVs. Once you pick one, you need to stick with it through your story, though. Thus, be sure to select the one that'll let you tell your story in the most impactful way.
If you're writing a screenplay, you don't have any choice about POV. Scripts tend to be written in third-person omniscient.
Below, find a detailed breakdown of the four key POVs. If you want even more advice on developing a great writer voice, check out my Powerful Pages online writing class.
What is first-person POV?
What is third-person, limited, close POV?
What is third-person, limited, distant POV?
What is third-person, omniscient POV?