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Literary Devices: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:30 Allusion & Diction
  • 2:48 Epigraph & Euphemism
  • 4:40 Foreshadowing & Imagery
  • 6:28 Metaphor & Personification
  • 8:09 Point-of-View & Structure
  • 11:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ben Nickol
This lesson studies some of the more common literary devices found in literature. Devices studied include allusion, diction, epigraph, euphemism, foreshadowing, imagery, metaphor/simile, personification, point-of-view and structure.

Definition

When an author sits to write a story, she doesn't simply write what happened. Instead, she uses what are called literary devices which are narrative techniques that add texture, energy, and excitement to the narrative, grip the reader's imagination, and convey information.

While there are literally hundreds of literary devices at an author's disposal, what follows are a handful of the most common.

Allusion

An allusion is when an author refers to the events or characters from another story in her own story with the hopes that those events will add context or depth to the story she's trying to tell.

While allusions are common, they are also risky because the author has no certain way of knowing her readers are familiar with the other story. To limit that risk, allusions are often to very famous works such as the Bible or Shakespearean plays.

So, for example, one of the most alluded to texts in literature is the Bible, and specifically the New Testament. Here is an allusion that a writer might make to the Biblical story of Lazarus, who famously rose from the dead. Notice how using the allusion helps intensify the character's recovery:

Night after night our hero lay in bed with the flu, hacking mucus and blood and seeing behind his eyelids the angels or devils come to collect him. But one morning, like Lazarus, he was whole again…

It should also be noted that an allusion doesn't have to specifically name the character or event it's referring to.

Diction

Diction refers to an author's choice of words. When describing the events of her story, an author never has just one word at her disposal.

Rather, she must choose from many words that have similar denotative meanings (the definition you'd find in a dictionary), but different connotative meanings (the associations, positive or negative with a given word).

The decisions she makes with those words are what we call her diction.

For example, imagine that a child in a story comes home from school and tells his parents about his day.

Here are four separate ways he could describe his behavior at recess. Notice how selecting one italicized word over another, shifting the diction, totally changes the meaning of the sentence:

  • 'Tommy made fun of me, so I nicked his eye with a stick.'
  • 'Tommy made fun of me, so I poked his eye with a stick.'
  • 'Tommy made fun of me, so I stabbed his eye with a stick.'
  • 'Tommy made fun of me, so I gouged his eye with a stick.'

The words nicked, poked, stabbed and gouged all have similar denotative meanings, but notice how an author's choosing one or the other would drastically affect how we understand how well Tommy fared.

Epigraph

Reading literature, you may have come across a work where the author under the title has included a quotation from some other work; often the quotation is in italics.

When an author does this, she is using what's called an epigraph. Like an allusion, an epigraph is a reference to another work that an author hopes will help readers understand her own work. Unlike an allusion, an epigraph stands apart from the text itself rather than being included in it.

Let's take a look at an epigraph from T.S. Eliot's famous poem 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' The epigraph is from Dante's Inferno, and is meant to help Eliot's reader understand that the poem that follows is a kind of confession.

If I but thought that my response were made

to one perhaps returning to the world,

this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.

But since, up from these depths, no one has yet

returned alive, if what I hear is true,

I answer without fear of being shamed.

Euphemism

Often in literature, whether for humor or just for taste, a writer wishes to describe some graphic or offensive event using milder imagery or phrasing. When an author does this, it's called a euphemism.

While this example isn't from literature, it underscores the meaning of euphemism.

Imagine that a sports broadcaster calling the action in a baseball game has to say into the microphone that a player has just been struck in the genitalia with a line drive. Obviously in the interests of taste, he doesn't wish to say 'genitalia' on the air, and so instead he says:

'…it's a line drive up the middle and, oh my goodness, ladies and gentlemen, he seems to have taken one below the belt…'

Notice how below the belt communicates where the ball hit the player but avoids using the more explicit term.

Foreshadowing

In order to create suspense for her readers, an author often wishes to hint where the story is going. At the same time, she doesn't wish to give away the ending.

When an author hints at the ending of or at an upcoming event in her story without fully divulging it, she is using what's called foreshadowing.

At the end of Ernest Hemingway's famous novel A Farewell to Arms, a key character dies while it's raining.

To hint at that death, Hemingway earlier in the book includes a scene where the character admits that she is afraid of the rain because sometimes she sees herself dead in it.

While this is just an irrational vision, it also gives the reader an ominous detail and hints at an event that might be to come.

Imagery

Just as when an author chooses words for their connotative associations (see the above discussion of 'diction'), she chooses sensory details for the associations or tones they evoke. This is the author's selection of imagery.

In Theodore Roethke's famous poem, 'My Papa's Waltz,' we see a young boy dance with his drunken father. It's a happy memory for the boy, but also the poem hints at the father's dangerous condition. One of the ways Roethke achieves this is through his selection of imagery.

Consider the first stanza:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

While there are several examples of imagery here, think specifically about Roethke's choice of 'whiskey' as the alcohol the father is drinking.

Just as choosing one word over another offers different connotations so does choosing one image over another affect the work's tone.

What if the father had been drinking a wine cooler or a gin fizzy, for instance? How would that change how we understand the father's character?

Metaphor

When attempting to describe an image or event, an author often will find it useful to compare what she's describing to another image or event. This is called metaphor, and it gives the reader a fresh, sometimes startling way of imagining what's going on.

In Andrew Marvell's famous poem, 'To His Coy Mistress,' the speaker uses the following metaphor to describe his fear of pending death.

But at my back I always hear

time's winged chariot hurrying near...

By comparing death to a 'winged chariot,' the speaker is able to communicate the strength and horror with which he imagines his own demise instead of just trying to describe directly how thinking about death feels.

Note that when an author uses a metaphor, but softens the comparison by saying that the image or event in her work is 'like' or 'as' something else, this is no longer called metaphor. Instead, it is called a simile.

Personification

To add liveliness to a story, an author will sometimes assign lifelike traits to inanimate objects. This strategy is called personification.

Imagine a story in which a jogger trips on a fire hydrant and skins his knee. To use personification, an author might describe the event this way:

Running home from the park, our hero was ambushed suddenly by a psychotic fire hydrant and then was counterattacked when the sidewalk leapt up and bit his leg.

Notice how by assigning lifelike traits to a fire hydrant and to a sidewalk, respectively (obviously a fire hydrant can't be 'psychotic' and a sidewalk can't 'leap up and bite'), the author creates a more lively story than she would have with a direct description of her jogger running into an object and falling down.

Point-of-view

When telling a story, an author must choose what perspective she will tell the story from. The perspective the story is told from is called the point-of-view. There are three main kinds of point-of-view:

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