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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Unlock the Power of Motifs for a Compelling Story
A motif is a powerful literary technique you can use to captivate your audience through your story and make a strong thematic statement by the end. In this post, I give you the definition of a motif and examples, plus show you how to create effective motifs in your book, screenplay, or short story.
What is a motif in writing?
A motif is a recurring element in a story that plays a significant role in the story's overall message, or theme. Motifs can be abstract ideas, such as freedom or violence or guilt. However, they can also be physical parts of your story world, such as places, objects, colors, and sounds.
What's the relationship between a story's theme and motifs?
A story should have just one theme. The theme is the message the audience is left with after the story ends. For instance, "Hard work leads to success" may be the theme of a story.
Though a story's theme can be explicitly stated in it, often it is not. Instead, the audience infers the theme from the resolution of the story events. For example, if a story is about a protagonist who works very hard and is successful at the end, "Hard work leads to success" is a natural takeaway the audience would have.
On the other hand, let's say a protagonist works very hard, then is beaten out by a rival who cheats. "Hard work leads to success" would not be a message the audience would walk away with. Instead, the theme may be something like "Wiliness leads to success."
A motif expresses a concept that's related to the theme, though is not the theme. A story can have multiple motifs - each would cover a facet of the larger theme. In the story with the "wiliness leads to success" theme, the following could be motifs:
This story may feature a protagonist who engages in "hard work," squaring off against a villain who employs "deception." Story events occur in "skyscrapers," corporate arenas of battle. Various characters drive "cars" of different price points, signifiers of their level of financial success.
These four elements would surface multiple times through the story, in different ways, adding depth to the characters and plot while fortifying the impact of the theme.
What a motif is not
To understand what a motif is, you should also know what it's not. Just because a certain element may show up multiple times in a story does not mean it's a motif.
For instance, let's say you're telling a crime story with the theme "The legal system doesn't always deliver justice." The protagonist is a prosecutor. His sidekick is a junior lawyer who wears chintzy clothing and consistently tells funny stories about his disastrous dating life.
Dating would not be a motif of this story, neither would the chintzy clothing. Though the sidekick's funny comments and outfits may provide consistent comic relief in an otherwise serious story, they're not tied into the broader message, "The legal system doesn't always deliver justice."
On the other hand, here are some motifs a story like this could have:
Tips to create motifs in your story - with examples
I suggest you start by looking at the battle between your hero and villain. What's the main conflict in your story? What abstract idea does your protagonist embody? What about your antagonist?
For example, if you're telling a sci-fi thriller, you may feature "the rebellious citizen" (the hero) versus "the oppressive ruler" (the villain). The abstract ideas rebellion and oppression would be natural motifs for a story like this.
Next, ingrain the concept of rebellion into the parts of your story world your protagonist inhabits, and oppression into the areas where your villain operates.
Are there places you can associate with rebellion? Possibly the protagonist and his allies meet in an underground bunker to strategize. Are there places you can associate with oppression? For example, maybe the villain's government spies on the population from a high-tech surveillance facility.
Even further, are there objects, actions, images, or sounds you can tie to the ideas of rebellion and oppression?
For example, to avert the omnipresent spy microphones around the city, the rebels develop a way to communicate with sophisticated codes. Whenever the oppressive government catches a citizen acting out of order, blinding lights shine down on him.
This technique of associating an idea with a character, then extending that idea into the character's sphere in the physical story world, is not just reserved for your hero and villain. You can use it with other characters too.
However, your hero and villain's conflict should closely tie into your theme, which makes motifs built around these two characters very straightforward. If you're going to create a motif around another character, be sure that character represents a concept linked to the theme.
Symbols vs. motifs
A symbol is another of the devices writers use. It's a specific element in your story that represents a specific idea. Often they are physical-item motifs themselves (or represent an abstract-idea motif).
However, not all symbols have a direct connection to a story's theme, and not all symbols recur (requirements for motifs). Thus, a symbol can exist in a story completely outside the story's set of motifs.
Tips for writing symbolic motifs
If a symbol does happen to be a motif, you can convey a lot of strong thematic information by showing the symbol change through the story.
For instance, in the legal story we've been discussing, a mansion on a hill can represent the power of the wealthy. A young man who grew up there committed murder and now his family is wielding their clout to win the court case.
Early in the story, after the alleged murderer's charges are announced, a swarm of reporters closes in on the mansion to interview the defendant. However, the press can't get past the imposing gate.
Here, you'd be symbolically conveying, "Wealthy families are protected."
Later in the story, after the verdict is announced - not guilty - people in town turn on the killer's family. Locals who were close with the victim jump over the mansion's gate and set the house on fire.
In this story, even though the legal system does not deliver justice (the theme), those close to the victim are able to get a form of justice outside the courts by burning down the mansion.
Here, you'd be symbolically conveying, "Wealthy families are not protected from everyone."
Connecting story threads with motifs
Certain elements in your story may not be directly linked, yet, if they both contribute to the same motif, they become connected in the audience's mind. This association can be very impactful.
For example, let's say you're telling a story that takes place in various countries and time periods. "Courage in the face of danger" is a motif.
You show a young boy in America, risking himself to protect his family during the Civil War. Later, you show a young girl in Europe risking herself to protect her family during World War II.
These two characters are not directly connected in the physical world of the story - they are not even alive at the same time. However, since they both exhibit "courage in the face of danger," the audience will make the connection.
This association has a "2 + 2 = 5" synergy effect. The little boy's story thread becomes strengthened because of the association to the little girl's and vice versa. A human bond is evoked even though they've never met.
What writing genres use motifs?
Motifs can be applied to any fiction or narrative non-fiction genre, such as:
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Unlock the Power of Theme in Your Story
Are you writing a book, screenplay, or short story? Unlock the power of theme to give your characters and plot events a sense of focus, and to deliver a powerful emotional message by the end of your story. In this article, I'll provide the definition of a story theme, plus give you tips for building a great theme for your writing project.
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What is the theme of a story?
The theme of a story is a commentary about the world that the story events make upon coming to a resolution. For example, in a crime story, if the criminal is captured at the end by a determined detective, the theme may be, "Perseverance leads to justice."
Even though the events of a story are often focused on just a few characters and places, those events speak to the world in general. A story where a vicious criminal gets away with murder at the end is making a very different commentary about society than a story where a vicious criminal is arrested at the end.
The story where the criminal gets away would be making a statement about the world being unjust, while the story where the criminal is captured would be making a statement about the world being just.
How do you write a great story theme?
How to choose a story theme
You should be mindful about the commentary on the world you'd like to make as a writer and choose a theme for your story early on. As you write, your theme can evolve, but having a solid starting point will help.
Is there something unique you'd like to say about the world? Maybe you have an interesting take on a modern social sentiment. Or, maybe you have a new take on a psychological or philosophical concept that's been around for over a hundred years. You can build themes around these views.
Something like "Perseverance leads to justice" is a viable theme, however, similar commentaries have been made by many crime stories. If you don't want to choose a theme that's totally unique, at least try to put a fresh twist on a common concept.
For instance, your crime story can express the idea of "perseverance" in distinct way. In a typical crime story, the idea of perseverance is usually associated with a diligent cop doing what's right. However, in your story, maybe the cop breaks a lot of rules.
He plants evidence. He coerces witnesses. He kills unarmed opponents. He definitely exhibits perseverance, but in a unique way.
The relationship between theme and genre
Certain genres often have stories with similar thematic elements. For example, crime stories often involve justice in their themes, while love stories often involve marriage. That being said, your genre should in no way limit your theme.
Though a detective story's plot may focus on bringing a killer to justice, the relationship between the protagonist and his estranged wife could be the main thematic source - this story could have a theme about love despite being in the crime genre.
That being said, even if your theme is unique to your genre, you still want your story to fit within the genre, as a whole. Your characters, plot events, and settings should stay true to your genre.
You're encouraged to put unique twists on characters, plot events, and settings, but not to such a degree that you lose touch with the genre you're writing in. Even if your story works, audiences may feel deceived.
If you choose a theme that forces you to drastically deviate from your genre, you should reevaluate. Either pick a new theme that's manageable within your genre, or choose a new genre that's a better fit for your theme.
Your protagonist's want and need play a key part in your story theme
Your main character should have a want - an external goal he pursues - and a need - an internal personal problem he should address to lead a better life. Your story's two most impactful threads are the ones that follow your main character's want and need. Thus, they carry a lot of weight with your theme.
By the end of your story, if your hero achieves the want and/or need vs. doesn't achieve the want and/or need, the commentary the story is making could be drastically different.
Let's say your main character has a want to win a big boxing match. Through the story, he trains really hard. If he wins the match at the end, your theme may be something like, "Hard work can lead to success." However, if your character loses the match at the end, your theme would instead be something like, "Despite hard work, success is never guaranteed."
All characters and plot should revolve around your theme
Though your protagonist plays a key role in the unfolding of your theme, all characters and plot events should be focused around this theme.
For example, if you wanted to make a commentary about corruption, you may want to develop a character in your story who takes a bribe. The plot could then get into the consequences the character suffers after taking the bribe.
If, instead, you wanted to make a commentary about family dynamics, your story may not call for a character who takes a bribe. In this case, you might want to include a character who's the protagonist's ex-convict uncle.
Your story should have just one theme
When creating your theme, focus is critical. As mentioned, all the character and plot development of your story should revolve around your theme. If you try to make multiple commentaries about the world in one story, its events may feel unconnected.
Your story would have more force if you kept the events concentrated, all working in conjunction to declare a singular message about the world.
Express your theme indirectly
Your audience should be able to infer your story theme by seeing how your plot concludes. You should avoid directly stating your theme to your audience, ex by having a character say it to another in dialogue.
Allowing the audience to understand the theme on their own makes for a more engaging experience.
A great way to draw attention to your theme without directly stating it is via the literary device motifs. These are recurring story elements associated with a component of your theme. Some examples are places, objects, and sounds.
When the audience sees motifs repeating, they should assign importance to them and the underlying thematic components they represent.
For example, let's say your theme is about regret, and a certain abandoned building in the story represents a bad business mistake your hero made.
By featuring this building in multiple scenes, and showing the different negative emotions it provokes in your protagonist, the idea of regret becomes pronounced in the minds of your audience.
At the end, possibly the building burns down, conveying the idea that the protagonist is finally able to move beyond his regrets.