How Literary Devices Impact Works of Nonfiction

Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

In this lesson, you will receive an overview of commonly used literary devices that aid the writers of nonfiction texts. By including techniques, literary nonfiction writing can come alive in the same way fictional literature does.

The Truth About Nonfiction

Often times when we think of nonfiction, our minds jump to the stereotypical dusty reference section of a library filled with all things informational: old newspapers, encyclopedias, books about historical events all over the world, etc. These works are known as informational nonfiction.

Is it true that some of these works of nonfiction can be considered more humdrum compared to the more stimulating fiction section? Sure. But, let's make sure we give nonfiction credit for not just being a recitation of factual details.

If you walk into a bookstore or a library today, you may be overwhelmed with how much space is dedicated to works of nonfiction. Expand your idea of nonfiction from a book that is simply factual to the idea of many different texts that involve real people, places, and events that will capture your attention by incorporating literary devices to create the specific genre known as literary nonfiction.

Informational vs. Literary

In a nutshell, nonfiction can be broken into two main categories: informational and literary. We have already mentioned a few examples of informational nonfiction, such as newspaper articles and history books. The main purpose of this genre is to provide information to the reader.

Literary nonfiction, on the other hand, is a genre that uses literary devices to imitate a narrative. This means it often reads like a story, except unlike fiction, the story is true. The characters are real people and the plot is based on real events.

So, while the term nonfiction may have an unpopular stigma, literary (or narrative) nonfiction can be just as engaging as a good novel. Some examples of works that fall into the category of literary nonfiction would include diaries, journals, personal essays, biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.

The Art of Literary Devices

Literary devices are narrative techniques used to spice up a piece of writing by giving it character and a little bit of pizzazz. In the same way they are used in fictional stories, these techniques help an author of literary nonfiction to liven up a piece of writing and transform it from presenting dull information to creating a rich world of detail and description.

When writers share their personal experiences through texts, such as journals, memoirs, or autobiographies, it is important to them as authors that they share the information with a captive audience. So, how do authors create that gripping voice that brings you into their world for a small piece of time? Below are a few ways they can incorporate these devices effectively.

Structure & Viewpoint

The structure of a text, or how it is shaped and organized, has a large impact on the reader's understanding of what is important, or the key information. Chronology, or the sequencing of events, is a popular format for a literary work that imitates a narrative structure. Author's can also choose from structures including:

  • Compare & contrast
  • Problem & solution
  • Cause & effect
  • Description

Choosing a structure goes hand in hand with recognizing the purpose for writing. Authors can rely on one technique, or they can mix and match as they choose. There is power in choosing how to present information, and it can give readers insight into what is most important or what to focus on when reading the text.

The narrative point of view can also be key when analyzing a piece of literary nonfiction. Most texts are either written from first or third person point of view. An autobiography, for example, would be written in the first person point of view and use the pronouns I and me. However, a biography would be written in third person point of view since it is a factual account of another person's life. With third person point of view, we would see the pronouns he, she, and they.

Once a point of view is chosen, a particular tone can begin to emerge. Tone refers to how an author feels about a specific topic. The author will want to develop their tone by using figurative language and a unique style.

Figuratively Speaking

While there are numerous techniques that fall into the category of figurative language, a few major techniques include:

  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Imagery

Techniques such as these turn writing into an art form by allowing a writer to use figurative language rather than just literally stating facts. By dabbling with literary techniques, an author's voice and tone can become stronger and more distinctive.

Here is a brief overview of these devices:

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