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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Unlock the Power of Foreshadowing for a Captivating Story
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to keep your audience glued to your story and deliver satisfying surprises. Foreshadowing is a tool that can help with both. In this post, I go over the definition of foreshadowing and give you examples and tips. If you want to make your story more captivating, keep reading.
What is foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device writers use to allude to future story events. Two types exist: (1) Direct foreshadowing announce a story event to come (2) Indirect foreshadowing provides evidence of an event the audience does not see coming.
Each of the two types of has different applications and effects. You should consider them distinct writing tactics. Let's look at some examples and tips for both. And if you want even more writing advice, check out my online education platform.
Below are examples and tips for direct foreshadowing...
Examples of direct foreshadowing
In both of these examples, major plot events to come are announced to the audience. Later in Hank's story, he and the people in his town will have to contend with a hurricane. Later in Jenny's story, she'll be competing in the singing competition.
Tips for direct foreshadowing
Direct foreshadowing is a great way to build anticipation. Once you announce an event is going to occur in your story, your audience will start thinking about the implications of that event, most notably, how it will affect the lives of characters.
If you've done a good job creating a connection between your audience and characters, your readers will be emotionally invested in the impact these story events have on characters. A feeling of suspense is created while the audience waits to see how the events will shape the lives of the characters.
Keep the Stakes High
The higher the stakes of an event, the more emotionally invested the reader will become in the outcome, and the stronger the feeling of suspense.
For instance, in the example with Hank, a hurricane is a high-stakes event. A hurricane can devastate homes, even end lives. If the reader has a connection with Hank - and others in the town - the reader will start worrying about the hurricane the moment it's mentioned.
If, on the other hand, Hank heard about a mild rain that was nearing, the drama would be flat.
In the example with Jenny, if the audience has a connection with her, and knows her dream, readers will eagerly await the outcome of a singing competition that has the potential to make her dream a reality.
If, on the other hand, Jenny heard about a talent show at a local rec center, yes, the audience may root for her to win, however, the stakes - and drama - would not be nearly as high as her competing in a national contest on TV.
Make Them Wait
Once you've established a high-stakes story event is coming, the next tip is to wait a while before you take the reader to the event. The wait sustains the feeling of suspense. That's where the "edge of your seat" effect comes from.
After Hank hears about the hurricane, before it strikes, you might show him analyzing an in-depth weather report online. You can even have him convinced the warning is a false alarm, and he avoids taking precautions like boarding up his windows. The audience's worry will grow as it waits to see how bad the storm will be.
Though people don't like worrying about things in real life, they do in stories. Keep them in this worried state for as long as doable.
After Jenny hears about the singing competition, you might show her practicing. Possibly she practices so much, her sleeping suffers. As the contest approaches, she gets sick and loses her voice. The audience's worry will be heightened. Keep the audience worrying until the end of the competition.
Be Sure to Deliver
Direct foreshadowing is a sort of promise you make to your reader. You're suggesting that a very interesting plot event will happen. If you make the suggestion, and then do not eventually put the event in your story, your audience will feel ripped off.
This does not mean the event needs to play out exactly as it's initially suggested. This simply means the event needs to show up in the story in some form.
For example, in a horror story, Leah receives a note from the villain saying "I'm going to kill you." This does not mean the villain has to eventually kill her. However, the audience will be expecting the villain to at least try. Even if Leah gets away unscathed, the killer should attack her at some point in a dramatic scene.
Below are examples and tips for indirect foreshadowing...
Examples of indirect foreshadowing
In both of these examples, the major plot events that come later in the story cannot be directly known beforehand.
Greg simply carrying a saxophone in no way suggests he will eventually bash a criminal over the head with it. Though Sally coming home with stains on her shoes may suggest a rough day, it does not expose her as a murderer.
Tips for indirect foreshadowing
Plant and Payoff
Planting and payoff is a writing technique that involves "planting" story elements in the minds of your audience that eventually go on to have a "payoff."
In the example with Gary, the saxophone story element was planted in the minds of readers. The payoff from this element comes when he hits the criminal during a dramatic break-in scene.
As a general rule, if a major plot event features a certain story element, you should show that story element to the audience considerably earlier, even if briefly. These story elements may be physical objects, like a saxophone, however, can be any variety of things (ex, maybe a song or a dream).
Showing the audience the element establishes it as part of the story's world. When the element is later used in a dramatic plot event, that scene would feel more authentic than it would if the element first popped up during the dramatic moment.
For instance, if Gary was being attacked by the villain, and grabbed a big metal instrument the audience never saw before, the scene would feel inauthentic. The saxophone would seem like a too convenient, unrealistic fix to Gary's problem, versus an organic extension of his world.
Create Awesome Twists
Audiences love twists. However, if you don't follow certain steps, your twists may be guessable or non-believable.
An effective twist needs to strike a fine balance. For believability, you need to give the audience clues about the information eventually revealed in the twist. However, if these clues are too obvious, your audience will be able to guess the twist before it happens, wiping out the crucial shock factor.
In the example with Sally, the twist in her story is that she is a murderer. To make that twist shocking, Sally should not come off like a murderer beforehand. For instance, maybe she's a friendly mother of three who volunteers at a hospital.
Sally arriving home with dirty shoes is a clue that she was burying a body in the woods. However, it's not an obvious clue, whereas her showing up with blood on her shoes would be.
Sally is able to dismiss any suspicion by saying she stepped in a puddle. However, before she gives the answer, she should hesitate. Only for a second, but long enough to hint at a potential lie.
After the audience finds out she is the murderer, the conversation about the shoes will add credence to the revelation.
On the other hand, if Sally is shown to be a pleasant woman through the story, then is revealed as a killer without any clues the audience can reference, the twist will feel inorganic. The audience may be surprised, yet not satisfied.
Readers prefer when evidence of a twist is shown to them, yet in subtle ways they can't understand until after the reveal.