30 Literary Devices High School Students Should Know

May 22, 2023

literary devices examples

High school courses that involve narrative, such as AP Lang, Creative Writing, and Film require an understanding of literary devices. Analytical papers ask students to interpret a work. To do so, students must collect and analyze evidence, which often includes literary devices. With creative assignments, such as writing a story or screenplay, students must use literary devices themselves, to thoughtfully achieve desired effects. But exactly what are literary devices and what are some literary devices examples?

“Literary devices” refer to language structures, patterns, components, and techniques in literature that create an aesthetic effect, convey a message, or evoke emotion. Naturally, these devices don’t only operate in poetry and prose, but extend to films, TV shows, music, theatre, opera—any art form that uses language to tell a story.

If you’ve read up on the 20 Rhetorical Devices High School Students Should Know, you’ll remember that rhetorical devices often work to grab the reader’s attention. So do literary devices, through artistic means. In fact, literary devices work best when they combine form and function. In other words, they achieve an aesthetic effect that grabs the reader’s attention while reinforcing the meaning. This might sound complicated, but it will make more sense once we examine some literary device examples.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the following literary devices list.

30 Literary Devices High School Students Should Know

Literary Devices Examples 1-5

1) Allegory

Allegory expresses something by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence. For one of the oldest examples in the book, let’s consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, from the Republic.

In this allegory, prisoners in a cave can see nothing but shadows projected onto the cave wall. The prisoners use their senses to understand what they see, and conclude that the shadows are real. However, if the prisoners escape the cave, they’ll discover that real objects were casting the shadows, and better understand reality. While the allegorical prisoners represent human ignorance, the escaped prisoners represent the philosopher’s attempt to discern higher truths of reality.

2) Alliteration

Alliteration means the repetition of consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words or syllables. Poets and prose writers with an ear for musicality love alliteration. They use it to create not only a melodious line, but to capture something of the nature of the thing being described (as with onomatopoeia). Take the first two lines from the story “Sounds” by Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest stylists of the 21st century:

“Rain was striking the sill and splashing the parquet and armchairs. With a fresh, slippery sound, enormous silver specters sped through the garden, through the foliage, along the orange sand.”

The “s” sounds replicate the smothering noise that heavy rain makes. Through alliteration, Nabokov makes the reader a participant in the rainstorm.

 3) Anachronism

Anachronisms are errors in chronology. When used intentionally, they provide humor. For example, in the film Shakespeare in Love, young William Shakespeare goes to see his psychoanalyst about why he has writer’s block… long before psychoanalysis existed. Sometimes writers use anachronisms unintentionally, simply because they don’t have enough historical facts to go on. Homer’s descriptions of armor and chariots in the Iliad are anachronistic to the Late Bronze Age period he wrote about.

4) Anacoluthon

Anacoluthon means syntactical inconsistency or incoherence within a sentence. One famous example arises in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?

This sentence abruptly changes tack midway through. Rather than learn what happened after Dorothea arrived, we witness the narrator question Dorothea’s role in the narrative. This use of anacoluthon grabs the reader’s attention while pivoting the focus and widening the scope. Anacoluthon can also express the speaker’s mental or emotional state by showing how their thoughts jump around.

5) Anaphora

Anaphora involves a repeated word or expression at the beginning of each successive phrase, clause, sentence, or verse to produce an aesthetic effect. This effect can have various purposes depending on context, such as emphasizing a profusion of something, creating lyricism, or even capturing relentlessness. Angela Carter uses anaphora for another reason, in her short story “Puss-in-Boots”:

Figaro here; Figaro, there, I tell you! Figaro upstairs, Figaro downstairs…”

The name of the cat in question is Figaro. The repetition of Figaro’s name shows that Figaro has been slinking all over the place. Moreover, most readers will think of the famous lyrics from the opera The Barber of Seville: “Figaro, Figaro Figaro, Figaro Figaro…” Through anaphora, Carter alludes to 17th century Spain without describing the setting.

 Literary Devices Examples 6-10

6) Anadiplosis

Anadiplosis means the repetition of a prominent (and usually final) word in one phrase at the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis creates lyricism, while grabbing the reader’s attention and bringing details into focus. Take these lines from T.S. Eliot’s La Figlia Che Piange:

She turned away, but with the autumn weather

Compelled my imagination for many days,

Many days and many hours:

Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.

Here, the narrator’s act of obsessing over a woman comes across through his repeated patterning of “many days” and “her arms.”

Anadiplosis means the repetition of a prominent (and usually final) word in one phrase at the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis creates lyricism, while grabbing the reader’s attention and bringing details into focus. Take these lines from T.S. Eliot’s La Figlia Che Piange:

She turned away, but with the autumn weather

Compelled my imagination for many days,

Many days and many hours:

Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.

Here, the narrator’s act of obsessing over a woman comes across through his repeated patterning of “many days” and “her arms.”

7) Aphorism

Aphorisms tell a supposed truth through short, memorable statements. The 19th-century gourmand Anthelme Brillat-Savarin invented many aphorisms. “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are,” he wrote. In other words, you are what you eat. Now, not everyone would call this a truth. But in the case of Brillat-Savarin, who loved dairy, you can’t dispute the fact. Ask for a “Brillat-Savarin” at any French cheese shop today, and you’ll be handed a round of strong, creamy cow cheese.

 8) Assonance

Assonance involves the relatively close juxtaposition of similar vowels. Assonance can sound a bit like rhyme, though the consonants of the similar sounding words do not need to match. Poets and musicians use assonance regularly to create rhythm and lyricism. Just look at this line from Kendrick Lamar’s song “Swimming Pools”:

“I was in a dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon.”

Read this aloud, and you’ll notice that “loud” and “vow” also have similar vowel sounds, giving the lyrics a double dose of assonance.

9) Character

Characters refer to the people (and sometimes animals, and other figures) in a story. Some famous characters from books include Jay Gatsby, Emma Bovary, Sherlock Holmes, Scout Finch, Don Quixote, Rodion Raskolnikov, Frankenstein’s Monster, Mr Fox, Huckleberry Finn, and even Death, who acts as narrator in Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief.

10) Dialogue

Dialogue occurs in literature, film, and plays when characters speak to each other. When Princess Leia told Han Solo “I love you,” the Star Wars character replied with this famous line of dialogue: “I know.”

Literary Device Examples 11-15

11) Epigraph

An epigraph appears as a quotation at the beginning of a literary work to suggest its theme. The epigraph might be short and cryptic, the length of a paragraph, or a stanza from a poem.

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homefire begins with this epigraph: “The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.”

The novel focuses on slavery and its aftereffects. It follows two half-sisters born in Ghana in the 18th century, and the lives of their descendants. This epigraph, which compares families to forests, aptly speaks to the branching effect of family trees. It also promises to shed light on the individual stories of the characters to depict how a system can determine freedom or captivity.

12) Epilogue

Epilogue refers to a concluding section that rounds out the design of a literary work. Epilogues often show readers where the characters ended up months or years beyond the tighter timeframe of the plot. A strong epilogue may tie off loose ends, or even reverse a tidy ending.

The epilogue in Sally Rooney’s third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You? brings her four main characters into the Covid-19 pandemic. This controversial ending dated the narrative to a specific year. Some readers found it insensitive that her characters seemed unfazed by the global tragedy. On the other hand, rather than choose a happy ending, Rooney brought her characters deeper inside a troubled world, reinforcing the question her novel’s title asks.

13) Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing means indicating what will happen in a plot. In fact, any well-constructed plot will use foreshadowing, whether or not the literary device is apparent to the reader.

In James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin plants clues about the fate of Giovanni long before the book ends. After the narrator breaks up with Giovanni, the two men run into each other in a bookstore. Giovanni tells David, “I thought you were dead!” The next and final time they speak, Giovanni tells David, “If you cannot love me I will die.” While this language appears hyperbolic in the moment, it carries more truth than the reader realizes.

Planting clues about what’s to come encourages readers to form their own hypotheses. It makes them more invested in the story. Clues also work to create an ending that is both surprising yet inevitable. Too much foreshadowing and an ending becomes predictable; not enough, and an ending will seem random rather than clever.

14) Imagery

Imagery involves sensory details that enable the reader to visualize what’s taking place. The details should involve sight, touch, smell, hearing, or taste. Food writers use imagery often. They often employ a variety of senses to evoke flavor, since readers can’t eat words. Take Tamar Adler’s descriptions of the textures and colors of various ice desserts:

“I did my own sampling and found each already thick, slightly chewy and stretchy, and potently satisfying… Here is kakigori, a featherlight pile of Japanese shaved ice doused in emerald-green matcha syrup…”

15) Malapropism

Malapropisms involve the humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase. Writers use it to show that their character doesn’t know as much as they think they know. Take the Sicilian criminal Vizzini from The Princess Bride, who mutters “inconceivable!” whenever his plan goes awry. Malapropism can also operate on wordplay. In a paragraph we’ll soon revisit, Vladimir Nabokov calls a merry-go-round a “sorry-go-round. ” This distortion transforms the carousel from a fun ride into a creaky antique.

Literary Device Examples 16-20

16) Metaphor

With metaphor, a word or phrase denoting one kind of object/idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness between them. Emily Dickinson employed metaphor in her poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Emily likens hope to a bird to better describe an intangible sentiment.

17) Motif

Motifs are recurring elements that appear in a work of literature. Students often confuse them with themes and symbols, so let’s see how motifs relate to both.

In Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk, the protagonist Sofia gets stung by a jellyfish off the coast of Spain. This jellyfish is called a “medusa” in Spanish, referring to the Greek myth of the woman whose gaze turned people to stone. Medusa becomes a motif throughout the story, underlining the novel’s theme of coming into oneself and finding one’s strength in the world. While some of the elements that make up the Medusa motif are symbols, such as the jellyfish, the motif occurs in other forms as well, in dialogue, and in the figure of Sofia’s Greek father. In fact, the motif even appears in the book’s epigraph, which quotes a line from Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa.”

18) Narrative

Narrative refers to how a story gets told, rather than what happens (as opposed to plot). This literary device covers aspects such as perspective, verb tense, and voice. For example, The Catcher in the Rye uses first-person perspective to tell the story of Holden Caulfield. The narrative relies on this perspective and voice to tell a personal tale that no outside narrator could tell.

19) Neologism

Neologisms occur when an author invents their own word, usage, or expression. Neologisms abound in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada or Ardor. The novel’s setting takes place on an alternative planet to Earth called Antiterra, in which Russians have settled much of the Americas, forming an empire called Tartary. Thus, it makes perfect sense that his Tartarian characters would use neologisms like woggle, transmongrelize, and pudibund.

20) Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia means naming a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it. Think of the word creak, which imitates the sound an old floorboard makes. The meow of a cat and the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster also replicate the calls these animals make. Onomatopoeia enlivens language through its sensory associations.

Literary Device Examples 21-25

21) Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. Sometimes they make their way into our lexicon accidentally. Take plastic silverware, for example. Or seriously funny. Writers use oxymorons to draw attention to their words, and for humor.

22) Personification

Personification involves representing something through the borrowing of human characteristics. It imbues inanimate objects with human emotions, actions and ideas. Most children experience personification in bedtime stories, folk tales, and in their own games. But personification also operates in adult works. Take this excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s story “Spring in Fialta”:

“Far away, in a watery vista between the jagged edges of pale bluish houses, which have tottered up from their knees to climb the slope (a cypress indicating the way), the blurred Mount St. George is more than ever remote from its likeness on the picture postcards which since 1910, say (those straw hats, those youthful cabmen), have been courting the tourist from the sorry-go-round of their prop, among amethyst-toothed lumps of rock and the mantelpiece dreams of seashells.”

Nabokov animates a sleepy town by giving the buildings and trees and objects human actions and desires. This literary device sets a fairy tale-like tone for the story. It also enlivens the setting and imbues it with personality, as if the town were a character.

23) Perspective

Perspective, or point of view, refers to the angle from which a story is told. To understand which perspective a story uses, ask: who is telling the story? If the narrator uses “I” (such as Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye), its first-person perspective. If an omniscient narrator tells the story (such as the god-like narrator in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace), it’s third-person perspective. Sometimes third-person perspectives remain limited to one main character. We call this “close third-person.”

Perspective can also alternate between characters. While this change often happens at the end of a chapter, the novelist James Salter wrote radical prose that changed perspective in the middle of a sentence. (Don’t try this at home.) For an atypical perspective, consider The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka, which uses first-person plural perspective, or the “we” voice. Kelly Link’s story Travels with the Snow Queen uses the second-person perspective, or “you” voice, implicating the reader in the narrative.

24) Plot

Plot refers to what happens in a story. It’s the scaffolding on which a story gets told. Traditional plots have a beginning, middle, and end, as well as other plot points, such as the inciting incident, turning point, and climax. Other plots take less traditional routes. For example, the film The Last Duel retells the same story three different times from three different perspectives, and contains multiple beginnings, middles, and turning points, but only one final resolution.

25) Satire

Satire in art attempts to criticize people, events and society, often through irony and humor. The TV show Squid Game, known for its visceral brutality, satirizes contemporary South Korea. The narrative revolves around several characters who are selected to play a “game” in which the losers die and the winners move on to a more challenging round. Through the disturbing juxtaposition of death and money, horror and humor, the show underscores problems of socioeconomic disparity and the failure of meritocracy.

Literary Device Examples 26-30

26) Simile

Simile uses “like” or “as” to describe something by comparing it with something similar. In Robert Burns’ poem “A Red, Red Rose,” he uses simile to speak of love, and turn it from something abstract into something comprehensible:

O my Luve is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melody

That’s sweetly played in tune.

27) Soliloquy

Soliloquy refers to lines spoken by a character in a play that take the form of a long, monopolizing speech, or that appear as an unspoken reflection. Let’s look at the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them…”

Here Hamlet contemplates whether he prefers to live and suffer, or not live at all. The soliloquy allows the audience a deeper understanding of Hamlet’s mental and emotional state. Most soliloquies offer a psychological window into a character’s mind, revealing motives or contradictions that simple dialogue and action wouldn’t provide.

28) Symbolism

Symbolism occurs in literature when an object represents a larger idea. Symbols can operate within a broader system of elements that form a motif. They can also stand alone.

In Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem “To the Moon,” the lone shape of the moon in the sky symbolizes solitude:

“Art thou pale for weariness

Of climbing heaven, and gazing on the earth,

Wandering companionless

Among the stars that have a different birth,—”

29) Tragedy

Tragedies tell the story of a hero who must face outside forces, and, as you might expect, come to tragic ends. Tragedies often reveal something of the hero’s character, and make a broader statement about the human condition. In Anna Karenina, the titular character becomes a tragic figure with a terrible fate when she chooses love over traditional values in St. Petersburg society.

30) Voice

Voice in literature refers to the personalized style of the author’s writing as it appears in a particular work. Voice relates to tone and style, and must match the requirements of a work’s particular narrator (point of view, verb tense, etc.). Yet voice remains a nebulous, hard-to-define quality of an author’s work. George Saunders claims to have three types of voices he cycles through in his short stories. Zadie Smith meanwhile describes her voice as possibly non-existent, due to her ability to mimic a diverse array of voices that suit her various characters.

Literary Devices Examples – Final Thoughts:

We hope you have found our literary devices list to be helpful. Apart from reading the authors mentioned above, we recommend checking out the following related blogs and resources.