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.
Want more writing tips?
Check out my free online writing class.
Unlock the Power of Dramatic Irony for a Captivating Story
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or short story, you want to infuse it with as much suspense as possible. Dramatic irony is a powerful writing tool you can use to build suspense. In this article, I'll give you the definition of dramatic irony, provide examples, and offer tips for applying it to your story.
What is dramatic irony?
Dramatic irony is a literary device in which a writer reveals information to the audience that one or more characters in the story don't know. The technique is used to build suspense.
How to build suspense with dramatic irony
Suspense occurs when a writer holds off on revealing information the audience cares about. In general, the more the audience cares about the information, and the longer the audience waits for the answer, the greater the feeling of suspense.
The audience's level of interest in a piece of information relates to how emotionally invested they are to the character(s) the information affects.
For example, if you've developed a great lead character the audience connects with, and then put that character in a dangerous situation, the audience should worry about the outcome of that situation: Will the protagonist make it out alive?
As the audience waits to see how the situation plays out, a strong sense of suspense will develop.
To create suspense with the dramatic irony writing technique, follow these steps:
Since the character doesn't even know about the explosive situation he's in, he doesn't do anything to help himself. This idea of helplessness makes a negative outcome seem more likely, and drives up the tension.
How POV relates to dramatic irony
Dramatic irony is rooted in information imbalance - your audience knows something certain character(s) don't. The POV you tell your story from will limit the level of information your audience can know that specific characters don't.
For instance, if you're telling a story from a first-person POV, with your main character as the subject of every scene, your audience wouldn't be able to know anything your lead character doesn't. Since the protagonist is directly telling the story, whatever the audience learns would come from him.
Thus, with first-person POV, you wouldn't be able to apply dramatic irony to any predicaments your main character is in. However, if you went with a third-person POV, you would have the option to put your protagonist into a dynamic with dramatic irony.
With a third-person POV, your main character does not need to be in every scene. You can show a dangerous situation developing in a place your main character is not yet in, then have the lead character arrive a few scenes later.
If you plan to create suspense via dramatic irony, be mindful of selecting a POV for your story that permits the intended information imbalances.
Examples of dramatic irony
Let's look at examples of dramatic irony across three popular genres: thriller, romance, and comedy.
Dramatic irony in a thriller
Wesley, the villain, gets on a train. Its number, 208, is stamped on the front. He hides a bomb in a luggage compartment. No passengers or staff notice. The bomb is set to go off at 8 AM, in thirty-two minutes. Wesley gets off at the next stop.
Ryan, the protagonist, is waiting at a train station for his daily commute to the office. A train with "208" on the front stops at the station and Ryan gets on. He calmly reads emails on his phone. The time is 7:45 AM. He writes an email. The time is now 7:54 AM.
Dramatic irony in a romance
Lydia, the main character, is getting ready for a date with a man named Paul, at a restaurant called Avery Cafe. This date would be her first since her bad breakup with Charles, who cheated on her with her former best friend.
Charles and Lydia's former best friend pull up to a valet in his car. Holding hands, they walk inside a restaurant, an "Avery Cafe" sign out front.
Inside, they're seated at a table. Paul is seated at a nearby table for two. The seat across from his is still empty. He's never met Charles or Lydia's ex-best friend, so doesn't recognize them. Paul seems to notice his guest walk in. He stands and waves.
Dramatic irony in a comedy
Hal, the protagonist, receives a call from his boss to join him at a prospect's house to demo the new product Hal invented. Hal, excited, says he'll be right there.
As a child, Hal was attacked by a flock of birds and wet his pants. Now an adult, he has a psychological complex about the incident - if he's too close to a bird, he risks wetting his pants. Embarrassed, he has never told anyone about this except his therapist.
Hal's boss is inside a mansion with an eccentric businessman. The businessman has over a dozen exotic pets. One is a large bird, perched on his shoulder. Hal's boss tells the prospect that Hal should be here in five minutes.
Dramatic irony's inverse
To keep your scenes fresh, you shouldn't just rely on dramatic irony to create suspense. Its inverse is a very effective tool as well: A character knows something the audience doesn't.
Give a character the answer to a question the audience wants to know, however, don't reveal the answer right away, building suspense.
For example, Jen goes into her parents' attic. She screams. The scene ends. In the subsequent scene, she is shocked and nervous. She clearly saw something in the attic that petrified her, however, the audience has not been told what.
She keeps the sight a secret through most of the story, not telling her parents or anyone else about it.
Want more writing advice?
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: