These sixteen literary devices are must know tips that every writer should learn early in their career. Feel your story could be better? Try engaging with this checklist to make sure you are using the techniques and devices the pros are.
Our favourite literary devices are foreshadowing, rising tension, strong protagonist, compelling antagonist, strong thematic exploration, rich sub plots, pathetic phallacy, point of view, in medias res, exposition, verisimilitude, tragedy and comedy, and symbolism.
‘Deus ex machina’ is a literary term which means ‘the God in or from the machine.’ At the end of some Ancient Greek plays and some morality plays a character is lowered onto the stage using a crane (machine), and this character brings the resolution to the plot.
Sometimes this is an angel who descends and sorts out the central conflict. This is seen as too convenient, and almost like cheating, by modern audiences.
To prevent the feeling of having been cheated by a last minute character / plot introduction, make sure to foreshadow the significant elements of the plot.
Foreshadowing means mentioning a thing before it happens, or introducing something in your plot before it comes to play it’s fullest role.
For instance, a character saying ‘You shouldn’t play with loaded guns like that’ foreshadows a tragedy in which someone is shot while playing with a gun.
Basically, just make sure to set everything up, before you knock it down!
Another way of thinking about this is that the gasps should get bigger!
Tension can be made bigger by introducing larger and more difficult obstacles for the protagonist to deal with, or by making things get worse for the protagonist e.g. they are getting weaker or the environment is getting more hostile.
Make sure to have a protagonist that is sympathetic and whose central journey the audience can relate to.
Give the protagonist an objective the audience wants them to achieve.
Have an inciting incident, that a central crisis arises from, that is resolved in the final climax or crisis of your story.
Introduce a personification of the forces of antagonism in your story. Antagonism refers to any force that works against the objectives of the protagonist, and this is often best embodied in a story through a central villain.
Have a final confrontation between your protagonist and the antagonistic forces in the story at the final climax.
Remember your antagonistic force doesn’t have to be a single person. It could be racism, or poverty, for instance.
To make your story as meaningful and rewarding for an audience as possible, consider what theme you are exploring.
Investigate what others have contributed to stories about your theme, and think about what kind of contribution or comment you could make, and perhaps how you could make an original comment, or make a comment in an original way.
Introduce subplots that flesh out the theme you are exploring. Give your smaller characters journeys of their own which are rewarding, and which perhaps also contribute to the tonal or emotional balance of your story.
Is your story about triumph? Consider introducing a subplot about a smaller character who does not triumph.
Use subplots to get alternative points of view into your story.
This is a slightly tricksy term which just means reading emotions into inanimate objects. Pathetic refers to pathos, or emotion in this sense. And fallacy is the lie at the heart of ascribing emotion to inanimate objects.
For instance you might say the sea was sad.
But a more complex dimension of this is to have the natural environment come into emotional alignment with your protagonist. For instance when they are sad it rains, when they are happy the sun is out. Think King Lear.
Point of View
This refers to the particular emotional and philosophical lens your character sees the world through. Try describing a natural setting from the POV of someone who has just won the lottery! And now describe it from the POV of someone who is depressed. That’s POV.
The quickest way to get on top of POV is to research James Woods theory of ‘Free Indirect Discourse.’ It’s actually quite complex and requires a lot of practice, but is a modern literary technique that almost every professional fiction writer uses, and is something you want to get on top of early.
Basically, it refers to when the narrator and the character’s points of view align momentarily, so that the lines between the two fictional consciousness blur.
Here’s a link to the wiki page – I hope you enjoy researching!
Exposition refers to the factual information you introduce to your audience during the story, to help them to understand what is going on. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Audiences don’t like to be ‘told’ things, they want to be shown, otherwise a story can feel didactic. Practice showing not telling. For instance, don’t tell us someone is angry, describe their white knuckled grip, or gritted teeth.
Find ways to introduce info into your story so that the audience isn’t even aware that they are being told something. The best exposition feels totally natural. It’s a subtle artform, and requires practice, but you’ll know when you’ve nailed it.
In Medias Res
This means ‘in the middle of things’ and refers to stories that don’t start at the earliest moment possible. Literary theorists have been debating for thousands of years what is meant by beginning, middle, and end.
Sometimes it’s more exciting just to get stuck in. For instance, starting in what you might initially call chapter two.
Or starting in the middle of a fight between two characters rather than introducing each of them slowly.
One way to make a comment in a story is to bring two characters, or two things into juxtaposition.
This means bringing them close so that the differences become apparent.
Think of the film Parasite, in which commentary is made about poverty, by bringing the rich and poor families together so the audience can see the different ways they live. This makes a powerful point about the horrible nature of poverty.
This means ‘making fun of things.’ There’s unlimited ways to satirise, but often the best stories are satirising something.
Satire is a powerful way to make a comment in your story. If you mock a liar or hypocrite by revealing their lying ways, you may be engaging in satire.
Remember that class clown in your high school class? Perhaps they were a class warrior, skilfully satirising the power inequality in the non democratic power structures of the education system. Perhaps they were just a funny fool.
Speaking of fools, in Shakespearean tragedies set in a Royal court, the Fool is often the only one who can speak the truth, and this character will often satirise or mock the monarch.
The monarch permits this because they really want to hear what other people are thinking, and satire provides an acceptable and amusing way of communicating certain truths.
What does the ring in Lord of the Rings represent? Power? Greed? Betrayal? The best symbols defy a single interpretation, and leave the scholars and audience guessing, and re-interpreting forever.
James Joyce said he refused to explain every symbol in his work, because then people would stop talking about his novels.
Symbols are a way of making your work address a theme. They are a visual language which alludes to other discourses.
By that I mean when we see a dead tree, such as in Waiting for Godot, we are immediately encouraged to consider depression, death, and the body of thought that exists around winter, but also perhaps regeneration!
Godot himself of course is the ultimate symbol that defies a single interpretation. Are we all waiting for someone to come and save us?
Tragedy and Comedy
We know roughly what these terms mean, and roughly is good enough. I’m not sure if adhering to a precise Aristotelian definition of tragedy is going to improve your story, but it might: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poetics_(Aristotle)
What is most important is to get the balance between happiness and sadness right. Comedy used to refer to stories that ended happily, and tragedies were stories that ended sadly.
Nowadays we like stories that end happily, or ambivalently, but that are very serious in tone and stray into territory previously reserved for sad tales.
Just make sure to introduce a joker into your tragic tale, and a bit of tragedy into your comedy!
This refers to the extent to which a work of art accurately mirrors or captures real life. How ‘true’ it is. Get good descriptions into your story, and characters that feel 3D, complex, and true to life.
A story can really benefit by being drawn closely from real life. An audience will feel that they are learning about the human condition.
One of the most surprising things is how important ‘learning’ is to an audience during a tale. If the story takes place in an alien world, like Star Wars, the audience still learns about the human condition, because the story is still exploring human experiences.