Literary devices and Narrative techniques

Literary devices are techniques that are used by writers to convey information or to create a specific effect in a story.

These are some of them:

  • Allegory: in an allegory, the characters, images or events depicted act as symbols, and the aim is to teach a moral lesson (George Orwell’s Animal Farm).
  • Alliteration: words are used consequently, beginning with the same letter or the same sound group (“She sells seashells by the sea-shore”).
  • Allusion: a reference to a person, event, place or idea of some significance, but which is not described (referring to a male character as a Romeo or to a female character as a Mother Theresa).
  • Cliché: an expression that is widely used (“Time heals all wounds”; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”; “Every cloud has a silver lining”).
  • Connotation: a word that conveys an associated cultural or emotional meaning (calling someone “steadfast” [positive] vs “stubborn” [negative]).
  • Denotation: the literal meaning of the word as it’s used, and not in its cultural association (referring to family [meaning people you are related to by blood or law, but not close friendships]).
  • Euphemism: words that are considered more polite to convey something that isn’t so nice (saying “passed away” or “departed” instead of “died”).
  • Hyperbole: an exaggeration (“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”).
  • Imagery: descriptive words that are used to offer the reader the possibility of easier access to the imagined narration (“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher” [The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald]).
  • Onomatopoeia: a word that recreates the sound of an object or situation (“She hissed”; “I bang the book on the table”).
  • Personification: projecting human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, nature… (“Lightning danced in the sky”).
  • Simile: a comparison of two things that uses “like” or “as” (unlike the metaphor; “They fought like cats and dogs”).
  • Symbolism: objects are given a meaning that differs from its original one (Harry Potter’s scar symbolizes his survival, the loss he suffered, and his connection to Voldemort).

Narrative techniques are ways through which writers include artistic or emotional effects on a story.

  • Chekhov’s gun: an object or plot element that may be presented as irrelevant but which affects the narrative (Katniss’s previous knowledge of Nightlock berries and how it affects the ending).
  • Cliffhangers: the end is sudden and there isn’t a resolution to certain conflicts. This can happen at the end of a chapter or a novel (especially if there’s a sequel; Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire, Tana French’s In the Woods).
  • Flashback: a timeline change that depicts an event in the past (the Pensieve in Harry Potter).
  • Flash-forward: a timeline change that depicts an event in the future (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol).
  • Foreshadowing: hints are given about what will happen (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men).
  • In Media Res: starting a story in the middle of the action (George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Brad Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Ian McEwan’s Atonement).
  • MacGuffin: an object or plot device that causes the plot to move forward but that doesn’t affect the plot itself (the briefcase in Pulp Fiction).
  • Plot twist: a change in the story that is unexpected and which alters the outcome from what readers were expecting (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Brad Palahniuk’s Fight Club).
  • Predestination paradox: especially in science fiction, someone who travels to the past to avoid a problem, ends up causing it or is involved in it (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
  • Quibble: a way of fulfilling exact verbal expressions of an agreement (William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).
  • Red herring: something that distracts the reader from a more important issue (in mysteries, there may be an object that appears to be evidence and derails the investigation, but which ends up being irrelevant).

Do you have any favorite narrative techniques? Can you think of any further examples? How do you think they affect the reading experience?

Moira Daly

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