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Literary Techniques

Updated on April 3, 2013

Whether you’re analysing a piece of writing, attempting to pen one yourself, or simply baffled by some of the words with which you were confronted at school, literary terms are numerous and often infrequently heard, rendering them intimidating to both new and proficient English-speakers alike. There can be no doubt that literary terminology, when correctly used, amplifies a piece of writing, highlighting the skill of the author and generating an air of professionalism that might not have otherwise existed. However, it is this necessity for correct usage, along with a firm understanding of the meaning of the word itself, that places literary terms in such a daunting light. For precisely this reason I have collected a group of my most frequently used literary terms, and have endeavoured to explain their purpose in the writing and studying of literature and rhetoric. Happy pursuing!

Blood is an important symbol in Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Blood is an important symbol in Shakespeare's Macbeth. | Source

  • Tone/Cadence: Tone refers to the overall feeling of a piece of writing (joyous, sombre enthusiastic, tragic etc.) as revealed through the presence of other literary techniques. Similarly, cadence denotes the rhythm, intonation, and inflection of a character’s voice, often revealing much about their emotions and therefore the tone of the scene in general.

  • Symbolism: Occurs when objects are represented by a symbol that contributes literary meaning to a work of writing. For example, the prolific use of blood throughout Macbeth symbolises the indelible mark of guilt felt by various characters.

  • Alliteration: Occurs when the same type of sounds, predominately consonantal, are repeated at the beginning of words, as in the sentence, ‘Sarah, slicked with sweat, slightly slipped on the slimy stones.’ This device typically aids memory, adds emphasis, and is often employed in a humourous context. In narrative it can also reveal points regarding characterisation through, for example, the repeated hissing sound of the ‘s’, suggesting a malevolent character.

  • Assonance: Slightly different from alliteration, assonance involves the repetition of vowel sounds. The words ‘penitent’ and ‘reticence’, when placed near each other in a sentence, are therefore assonant, contributing to the tone of the writing. Typically used in verse due to its connection with rhyme and stressed/unstressed syllables, assonance can also be used in prose, with the repetition of elongated vowel sounds emphasizing somber tones, or quick vowel sounds lending an energy to the writing.

Light and dark are two frequently juxtaposed ideas.
Light and dark are two frequently juxtaposed ideas. | Source

  • Hendiadys: When two words connected by a conjunction express a single notion that would usually be revealed through an adjective and a noun. This device is commonly referenced in the works of Shakespeare, and typically emphasizes an idea, slows down the pace of the writing, or creates a pattern of doubling through the use of two words in the place of one. In Hamlet, for instance, Laertes’ character employs hendiadys when he says, ‘Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,’ as opposed to merely a ‘fashionable toy’.

  • Juxtaposition: When two ideas are placed side by side to generate a contrasting effect, as might occur in a war setting where characters discuss the calm of life back home. Juxtaposition forces a comparison to occur, possibly changing notions of one or both ideas, but in any case eliciting great thought regarding, in this example, the ideas of chaos and peace.

  • Enjambment: Occurs in verse when a sentence continues over a clause or line-break. In other words, when the lines run on and aren’t interrupted by punctuation marks, including commas and full stops. Enjambment often changes the pace of the verse, which in turn reveals the mind-set of the character speaking it, or simply changes the flow of the writing to ensure that readers are kept interested and that their thoughts aren’t all strictly stopped after the same length of time. Shakespeare’s verse in the Winter’s Tale, ‘Commonly are; the want of which vain dew/Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have …’ for example, employs enjambment, where the line break between ‘dew’ and ‘[p]erchance’ flows on and is uninterrupted.

  • Buildingsroman: This term describes a novel genre in which a coming-of-age development occurs, typically applied to the growth of an individual character. The buildingsroman is evident is Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, where Pip’s physical and emotional development is tracked throughout the work.

If you'd describe these raindrops as bouncing off the tin roof with a gentle 'plink, plonk', you're using onomatopoeia.
If you'd describe these raindrops as bouncing off the tin roof with a gentle 'plink, plonk', you're using onomatopoeia. | Source

  • Oxymoron: Occurs when two words with completely opposite meanings are placed next to each other in order to create a description that can be humourous, but that usually causes the reader to stop and consider the situation, forcing them to dwell upon a particular idea. Terms such as ‘deafening silence’ and ‘burning chill’ create the engaging effect that the side-by-side placement of opposite ideas can have.

  • Onomatopoeia: This is the use of sounds in the formation of words, where the sound of the word imitates the sound that a certain object makes. When describing a second-hand as inching around a clock face ‘tick by tock’ or dwelling upon the drip, drip, drip of a raindrop against the concrete, onomatopoeia is at use. It is frequently employed in rhetoric and media as a mnemonic device, increasing the memorability of the speech or product.

  • Metaphor: A very common literary device whereby one subject is declared to be the same as another, unrelated object. When people talk about a ‘rollercoaster of emotion’ or insist that ‘it’s a sauna in here,' for example, they are employing metaphor, as certain subjects have been exactly likened to other, unrelated objects.

  • Simile: This is similar to metaphor, but varies in that it compares two unrelated objects as being similar rather than identical. To transform the above metaphors into similes, the phrases would have to describe emotion as being like a rollercoaster, and the room as being as hot as a sauna. Both simile and metaphor help to highlight certain ideas through comparisons to other objects, whilst simultaneously generating an air of symbolism that may enhance the overall concept of the piece of writing.

George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' is an example of an allegorical novel.
George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' is an example of an allegorical novel. | Source

  • Allegory: Occurs when events or characters in a piece of writing symbolise other ideas. George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for instance, is an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the characters symbolising people involved and the narrative mirroring that of the revolution in reality. Allegory is an extended form of metaphor, and in this sense brings particular themes and ideas into greater clarity.

  • Connotation: Certain words have certain connotative meanings that can greatly emphasise the nature of a particular character or description within written work. These meanings are understood to be commonly associated with the word used, and can carry negative or positive undertones, eliciting certain feelings when read. For example, a ‘house’ is essentially the same as a ‘shack’ or a ‘mansion’, but each carries a different connotation, with a house evoking a response of normality, a shack of dilapidation and poverty, and a mansion of wealth.

  • Detonation: This is simply the opposite of connotation, referring specifically to a word’s literal meaning.

  • Dénouement: In dramatic structure, the dénouement follows the climax (the main turning point) and the falling action (where the conflict from the climax unravels, possibly containing one final suspense), encompassing moments from the falling action to the conclusion. Conflict is generally resolved in this section of a dramatic work.

Told people that this bag weighs a ton? If so, you're being hyperbolic.
Told people that this bag weighs a ton? If so, you're being hyperbolic. | Source

  • Hyperbole: Refers to the use of exaggeration in a written work and is particularly prominent in spoken rhetoric. It is used to emphasise a point and to create a memorable phrase, with its often humourous employment refusing to allow it to be taken seriously. Hyperbolic emphasis is used on a regular basis in everyday phrases such as ‘the rain was as thick as a heavy curtain’ or ‘the bouncer was as solid as a brick wall.’

  • Metonymy: This is a figure of speech that associates one term with another, usually by attributing a whole to a part. Metonymy occurs when, instead of saying, ‘The American president released a statement,’ it is said that, ‘The White House released a statement,’ where the White House has been associated with and used to refer to the government as whole.

  • Synecdoche: This is a type of metonymy that is often difficult to distinguish. It occurs when a specific part is used to refer to a whole of something, and the first object must be an actual part of the second in order for the association to occur. Synecdoche is therefore employed when someone uses the term ‘wheels’ to describe their car.

  • Motif: A recurring element that is symbolically relevant to a written work. Its repetition helps to reinforce the symbolism, which in turn makes a point about theme, character, or plot. The green light in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an interesting motif that sheds symbolic light on the concept of desire and hope, consequently revealing Gatsby’s enduring optimism and unwillingness to relinquish the past.

The famous Greek myth of Oedipus employs irony throughout.
The famous Greek myth of Oedipus employs irony throughout. | Source

  • Irony: One of the most difficult literary techniques to accurately explain, irony refers to a dissonance between literal and implied meaning. Unlike sarcasm, which is understood by all, irony drives a wedge between characters and the audience or readers, dividing them into the categories of those who understand what’s actually happening, and those who have misunderstood. Irony is particularly prevalent in the play of Oedipus, as the audience is constantly and painfully aware of Oedipus’ past, but the characters remain woefully ignorant. Irony can make important points regarding characters and plot, whilst also forcing readers to contemplate the scene before them.

  • Personification: Occurs when animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts, are assigned human attributes, as in the sentence, ‘The trees waved lazily in the breeze.’ Personification emphasises the imagery of a scene, helping to embed ideas of setting and location in the minds of the readers, whilst also humanising the landscape.

  • Rhetorical Questions: These are questions that are used to make a point, where an answer is not necessary and is not even expected. It encourages readers or listeners to continue to engage with the material, whilst also forcing them to consider the matter at hand, preventing them from taking the opposing side. When we snap at someone, ‘Do I look stupid?’ or intend to put down another by saying, ‘What, do they think I’m stupid?’ we are using rhetorical questions to in fact make a point about our own intelligence and to indeed question another’s.

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