The Writer’s Toolbox: Some Literary Devices to Enhance Your Work

22 Mar

Sometimes, authors approach me with perfectly “fine” writing. Grammatically, it’s all good, words are correctly spelled, and there’s nothing overtly wrong with the writer’s voice, but it lacks a certain vigor and vim. Usually that is because the writer has failed to employ all of the tools available to make their writing sparkle, leaving their writing bland and perfunctory. Below are some useful literary devices that can add another layer to your work and create subtext, foreshadowing, allusion, and depth.

Allegory: A device whereby a story or example is used to represent wider human themes, truths, or behavior. Fables are allegorical, so are parables. Sometimes your subplot may have allegorical elements that reflect the wider theme or outcome of your plot.

Analogy: A kind of extended metaphor whereby one thing is compared to a similar object, often several times in different ways. For instance, you might compare a relationship to a sinking ship in a series of interwoven metaphors.

Alliteration: Similar sounds at the start of word (like the repeated S sounds that begin this sentence) create alliteration. It can be used to poetic effect, but be careful not to overuse it. Unintentional alliteration can make writing sound childish because children’s books often make good use of this device. E.g. The westerly wind whistled through the willows as Walter walked toward the wily wombat.

Assonance: A pattern of repeated sounds (especially similar vowel sounds) that enhances euphony. E.g. “The woodland owls hooted ominously” or “A will-o-the-wisp slips listlessly through the glade” (actually, the last example demonstrates both assonance—in the repetition of the “i “sound—and consonance—in the recurring “w” and “l” sounds).

Conceit: When metaphor or figurative language compares one object or event to another that is very different or far more grandiose. A good example comes from Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.” Be careful using conceit in your writing; sometimes it can just make readers go “huh?”

Connotation: When choosing words, be mindful of whether they have positive or negative connotation (connotation is a hidden or underlying meaning or bias). For instance, scent, smell, odor, fragrance, perfume, and stench all refer to the olfactory senses, but some (odor, smell, stench) are negative while others (fragrance, perfume, scent) are positive. Word choice and connotation can determine mood.

Consonance: Repeated similar sounds of consonants. Consonance is often used to add poesy to the end of sentences with “eye rhymes”, e.g. The time was past; the life was lost.” This could be considered an example of assonance and consonance, with the repetition of the “i” vowel sound and the “st” consonant pairing, and also of parallelism.

Echoes: Words (often unusual ones) that are used several times at key intervals to refer to an earlier situation or to create an “echo” in the reader’s mind. Often used in foreshadowing. G.R.R Martin echoes “Winter is coming” throughout A Game of Thrones to foreshadow and also to portend encroaching danger, as well as to infer the cynical realism of the Stark family, which has this as their motto.

Euphony: A harmonious arrangement of words to make them pleasing to the ear. When you read your work aloud, you will notice either euphony (it reads well and sounds good with good meter/rhythm) or discordance, where it sounds awkward or jarring.

Foreshadowing: Language, analogy, or events that hint at, or speculate about, later events. For instance, some danger may befall a character and, although tragedy is avoided in that instance, hint at a greater danger yet to come. Foreshadowing is best used sparingly and with subtlety, rather than being too overt. Motif is also often used in foreshadowing. The sight of a crow, for instance, may portend danger to come.

Inference: When a word or object is used to infer a deeper meaning. Character names often infer more about the character themselves. For instance, the surname Stark in G.R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels infers much about the family’s mindset, lifestyle and beliefs.

Literary Allusion: When a text makes reference to another literary text or suggests that a character is akin to another fictional character. A book I’m editing at the moment, written by a best-selling author, describes one character as “Iago with a buzzcut”—a clever reference to the scheming character from Shakespeare’s Othello, but with a modern twist.

Metaphor: Substituting one object for another (but, unlike conceit, usually one with similar properties). E.g. “She was always crying—a leaky vase filled with dead flowers.” Metaphor figuratively implies that an object IS something else. Its sister is simile, in which something is said to be “like” something else. E.g. “I’m like a dog with a bone. I never can let go of anything.”

Meter: Usually relating to poetry but also relevant to prose, meter is the rhythm created by the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in a passage of writing.

Metonymy: When one word is used to represent another word or concept it is closely related to. The word is derived from the Greek meta (after) and onymia (name) and translates as “a change of name.” For example: The Crown is used to represent the British Monarchy and the Queen; Broadway is sometimes used to refer to the theater industry as a whole; and the White House is sometimes used synonymously to mean US government.

Mood: Mood helps define genre and can also help emphasize theme. Word choice is the biggest contributor to mood. Compare  “The girl ambled through the shady forest” with “The girl hurried through the dim woods.” The second sounds ominous; the first as if she is almost skipping along oblivious—even though both say almost the same thing.

Motif: A recurring idea or event woven into a story. Although separate to theme, a motif can infer aspects of theme. If the theme is freedom, a recurring motif throughout might be flying birds. If the theme is revenge, the color green might operate as a motif.

Oxymoron: When two contrasting words or concepts are fused into one, e.g. A false truth, or a loud silence.

Paradox: A statement that contradicts itself but is often nevertheless true. E.g. “Everything changes; everything stays the same,” or “The child is father to the man.”

Parallelism: When syntax, phrases, clauses or even sentences take a similar sequence or format in order to express similarity. E.g. All wisdom comes from lovers, leaders, and learners. All dissent comes from cowards, critics, and cynics.

Personification: When inanimate objects are bestowed with human traits or qualities, e.g. “Spring wears her many-flowered gown” or “The house smiled, its broken railings like gappy teeth (there’s both personification and simile in the last). A point to note is that spring would not normally be capitalized if you’re talking about the season, but when you use personification, you would capitalize it. Similarly, Mother Nature groaned.

Synecdoche: Closely related to Metonymy, Synecdoche is when one element of an object is used to refer to the entire associated object and concept. Substituting a heart for an entire person, for instance. Sonnets often use synecdoche (John Donne was particularly fond of synecdoche). Another example would be where a character becomes defined by a single action, such as the Smoking Man from X-files. The saying, “All hands on deck!” whereby “hands” are substituting for the actual workers themselves is another example of synecdoche. Using “steel” for sword, “wheels” for car, or “threads” for clothes are other examples.


Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


8 responses to “The Writer’s Toolbox: Some Literary Devices to Enhance Your Work

  1. cwc6161

    March 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Karin, this is a great compilation of devices (although it felt as though I were back in college and I kept waiting on you to tell us that there’ll be a pop quiz tomorrow! lol). Thank you for reminding us of techniques that sometimes can make the difference between “good” and “great.” Candice

    • karincox

      March 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm

      Glad you found it helpful, Candice. Now that you mention it, there will be a pop quiz tomorrow. 🙂

  2. penelopecrowe

    March 22, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    I love this post.
    Thanks so much–I love words…now I actually know what I am doing with them 🙂

  3. Mark Iles (@welcometoearth)

    March 23, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Hi Karin,

    This is excellent and just goes to show how much there is to learn about the art of writing. I’ve put a link to this from my own blog, as I know many of my friends and fellow scribblers will love it too.

    Best wishes


  4. Barbra-Lee Ricketts

    March 23, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Thank you so much for this little gem Kaqrin. I’m photocopying it for each member of my new writing group. As the CIA would say it’s ‘valuable intel.” Talk with you soon, Barbra-Lee

    • karincox

      March 23, 2012 at 9:18 am

      You’re very welcome. It helps to remind ourselves of all of the many tools available to us. Keeps writers creative.

  5. Belinda Pollard

    March 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks Karin. What great inspiration. And I absolutely love the way you know the technical word for everything, because somebody should. 😉 I’m currently in Brutal Final Edit mode on my novel, which must be submitted for review end of March *screams in terror*, and will keep these in mind. (So why am I reading blogs when I’m on a deadline??? See Procrastination (noun).)
    Tweeting this. Belinda


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s