Episode 125: Literary Devices

On December 12, Kasie and Rex broke down what the industry means by “literary device” and explained how you know you’re using one. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

How to use a Literary Device


  • What is a device?
  • Some classic uses
  • How to incorporate it
A “literary device” is a tool — it inflicts change upon a sentence, scene, or story.
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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So this week the SCWA hosted a Member Pro workshop with Michelle Buckman and she talked all about editing. Which was cool. We did an episode on it just a few weeks ago. It’s got a picture of hands arranging flowers in a bouquet because I thought it invoked the idea of taking something unfinished and “finishing” it by arrangement or re-organization.

So today we were going to do villains and antagonists except we just did that in September so at 7:45 this morning I had to pick something new.

And when I saw the editing picture — the metaphor, if you will — I thought “literary devices.”

So we’re going to do that. And Rex literally got the notes as we were walking into the studio. So this is going to be fun.

The internet is full of useless crap, we all know that, but none of it is deeper than the crap writers shovel at other writers under the guise of “advice.” To define “literary device” this scholar actually says, “literary devices are techniques writers use to express their ideas and enhance their writing.” So — pretty much everything is a literary device? Examples of techniques writers use to enhance their writing:

  • Action verbs
  • Character arcs
  • Unusual settings
  • Foils
  • Words
  • Editing.

Yeah, it’s sarcasm.

Let’s be better than that, shall we? Start with the word ‘literary.’ Literary is of or pertaining to literature and literature is written language. In context, ‘literary’ typically means having to do with storytelling and not just written storytelling, but high-quality, compelling storytelling. The kind of stuff other people want to read. And publish. And discuss.

Okay, so that rules out your high school english ‘What I did Last Summer’ essay and any other coerced or expressive writing like journaling. You don’t need a literary device in the work you write for yourself or your therapist. You know what you mean.

So that gets us to the second word which is ‘device’ and ‘device’ is a synonym for ‘instrument’ which might not be as helpful as I think it is, but hear me out. An instrument is a tool, it’s the mechanism through which we enact change. We fix something (screwdriver), or we break it (hammer). We collect something (basket) or distribute it (hose). A device – instrument – tool is the ‘how’ something gets changed.

Why does that matter? Well, in ‘literature’ the ‘device’ has rules. Of course it does. Because it’s not just the character arc or the inciting incident — which, by the way are instruments of change. The device is a repeatable, recognizable occurrence that makes abstract concepts easy to see.

Here’s the link for that silly blog referenced above which actually does have a great list of devices we’re going to work off of today:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Imagery
  • Symbolism
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadow
  • Juxtaposition

We did some shows on some of those and they’re linked.

Segment 2

You don’t have to have an MFA to incorporate a device in your work. As the above-mentioned devices demonstrate, we were all taught these things.

So to make it ‘literary’ or at least worth spending your time on it, let’s talk about how you step past third grade picture books and into advanced placement fiction.

  • Allusion – refer to other literature
  • Anachronism – put something out of place in the era
  • Anthromorphism (personification) – give an object or nature human characteristics
  • Archetype – we did a whole show on the female catalogue of these
  • Frame story – a play within the play
  • Hyperbole – exaggeration
  • Hypophora – the character asks a question and then immediately answers it himself
  • Irony – the difference between how things are perceived and how they really are: dramatic (readers knows before the character does), situational (characters and reader are surprised by events), verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the exact opposite of what is said)

So let’s play with those for a bit.

Segments 3 & 4

Let’s get even more specific. What are some specific devices we can learn from? Not categories, but examples of effective devices.

We’ll use this resource and start with one we mentioned last week:

The Foil — this is a person, another character, who demonstrates the opposite characteristics of the protagonist. In doing so, the foil provides the character and the reader with a comparable plot arc — things would have gone differently for Harry if he were as rule-following as Neville Longbottom, for example

You can create these devices at the word level — alliteration, malapropism (“I’m not to be truffled with!”), onomatopeia (whizz, buzz, snap, grunt)

Or the sentence level — hypophora, oxymoron (Parting is such sweet sorrow.), repetition

Or the structural level — metaphor, allegory, paradox (illogical yet true circumstances), juxtaposition

Be creative with your device. Consider a “frame” for the story. Imagine how a regular thing — like a restaurant menu or an email conversation can be used to deliver exposition, characterization, or tension.

Some rules around devices:

  • Don’t use too many — one per page is a good rule of thumb
  • Don’t be too obscure — if you have to work for it, it’s not a very good metaphor
  • Commit to the device — keep it around, repeat as necessary
  • Establish the device early and use carefully
  • Test them out — on multiple readers

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