Literary terms refer to the technique, style, and formatting used by writers and speakers to masterfully emphasize, embellish, or strengthen their compositions. Literary terms can refer to playful techniques employed by comedians to make us laugh or witty tricks wordsmiths use to coin new words or phrases. They can also include the tools of persuasion that writers use to convince and drive audiences to action. With their carefully crafted speeches geared towards both logical and emotional thinking, they challenge our everyday modes of thinking.
Literary terms also include powerful figurative language that writers use to summon emotion ranging from guilt to anger to bliss, and to allow us to see the world in new and magical ways. Words can be arranged to give poems, songs, and prose alike, rhythm and musicality. They can animate a story with such wealth of detail, character development, and action that as readers, we are taken by a story, and feel as if the people on the page are real. Literary terms have a wide range of application, from the poet’s beauty, to the speaker’s persuasion, to the novelist’s story development.
The importance of Literary Terms
Literary terms are important in a wide variety of ways. They allow writers and speakers to make comments on society, politics, and trends. Rhetorical devices can be used to strengthen arguments which persuade and convince audiences. Poetic figurative language can summon emotions and visions of nature and the world in unique and compelling ways. Literary terms have the power to create serious, comedic, or whimsical moods via tools of persuasion, poeticism, and wordplay.
When to use Literary Terms
This depends. The variety of uses for literary terms spans across genres and is remarkably wide-ranging based on the goals or needs of the writer. Below we have categorized this vast subject.
One of the most difficult tasks in the world is making people change their minds. Most of us are stubborn in our thinking and stick to our guns when it comes to views on morality, politics, and our own personal lives. For a rhetorician or speechwriter, writing and speaking in a convincing and persuasive manner is a profession, one which utilizes numerous tools of the trade to appeal to an audience. The power of persuasion can gain voters for a politician, convince people to take action for a cause, or get you a raise at your job. With appeals to both pure logic and powerful emotion, persuasion is an art that has been employed for centuries.
The importance of Persuasion
Persuasion is an extremely powerful tool, as gaining the hearts and minds of an audience means gaining their support and action. Persuasion empowers the writer to change the mind of the audience and to compel the audience to take action in a certain way.
When to use Persuasion
Persuasive tools are utilized by politicians, professional speakers, speechwriters, journalists, and poetry and prose writers. Persuasion should be used when convincing others is the goal in mind. In a piece which is supposed to be objective or unbiased such as a journalistic report, tools of persuasion should be avoided.
Satire refers to a play, novel, poem, film or other composition which uses comedy, irony, mockery, and exaggeration to criticize the absurdity or weaknesses of a certain person, institution, or situation. Often, satire utilizes comedy for more serious means, such as political and social commentary.
For an example of satire, see Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show which regularly satirizes news media:
A rhetorical question is a question asked in a form which does not in reality seek an answer but rather emphasizes a certain point. We often use rhetorical questions in everyday conversation as well as in speeches. Here are a few examples of rhetorical questions:
- Why would anyone do such a thing?
- How much longer will we allow such injustices to exist?
- Are you kidding me?
2. Figurative Language
For centuries, poets and laypeople alike have used beautiful language to celebrate nature, compliment lovers, and launch the mundane into the mystical. Figurative language is writing which appeals to the senses. Rather than operating on logic or literalness, figurative language makes unique connections based on connotation, sound, and construction of words and phrases.
The importance of Figurative Language
Figurative language creates connections between unlike things which have never been considered before. It encourages complicated, creative, and poetic thought processes which give rise to beautiful, strange, and unique conceptions. Figurative language allows writers to transcend logical and typical bounds of thinking in order to present things in a new and meaningful way.
When to use Figurative Language
Figurative language is a chief component of poetic language as used in prose, poetry, speeches, and songs. Because figurative language is not literal, it should not be used in compositions which are meant to be taken literally, such as scientific and mathematic manuals or textbooks.
A metaphor is a direct and vivid comparison between two things usually considered distinct or unrelated. Metaphors discover the connections between unique things and emphasize their similarities poetically without being taken literally. Here are a few examples of metaphor:
- Her smile is the sun.
- He’s a black sheep.
- All the world’s a stage.
Hyperbole is a remarkably exaggerated statement or idea meant to be taken figuratively rather than literally. Hyperbole exaggerates certain elements of ideas or things for comedic or dramatic effects. Here are a few examples of hyperbole:
- I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!
- That was the best performance I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
- I’d kill for a glass of Coca-Cola.
3. Plot and Character Devices
A story is not a story without a plot and characters. Things must happen, and they must happen to interesting people who are flawed, capable of change, and active in their world. Plots are not always simple or linear, though, and characters are elements of a story which may be built, developed, and complicated. Novelists, poets, journalists, filmmakers, and others use numerous elements in making a compelling, interesting, and believable story.
The importance of Plot and Character Devices
Plot and character devices reveal how complicated compositions can be with a variety of necessary elements that piece the story together. Stories in any form require a variety of plot and character devices to shape their development and supply their meaning.
When to use Plot and Character Devices
Plot and character devices are elements of the story which could be told in many forms including poetry, prose, playwriting, song, television, film, and others. Devices used in Greek tragedies and in Shakespeare’s classics are still in use by novelists, story writers, poets, and playwrights today.
A flashback is a moment in which the linear story is interrupted and launched to an event that occurred in the past. Flashbacks are used to provide more information about the present and to further develop plots and characters in a way that is more interesting and complicated than a simple chronological plot. Here is an example of flashback:
A man is shopping when he sees a woman at the end of the aisle. The story flashes back, showing that he previously had a relationship with her, a relationship that ended badly. He swiftly turns around and enters a different aisle, avoiding her sight.
This flashback shows us that the woman in the store is important to the man, as she was an important person in his past.
Climax is one of the most important and necessary elements of a story’s plot, as all drama that has been developing over the course of the story reaches a breaking point when something or someone must change. This is the most dramatic, meaningful, and suspenseful moment in the story. Here is an example of the climax in a story:
A boy has been shipwrecked and has struggled to survive on a desert island. When a plane flies over him, he is prepared with a large fire burning. The plane circles back and lands on the island, where he is at last rescued.
The climax of this story occurs when the boy’s suffering and struggling end with his rescue.
4. Sound and Rhythm
The way we word things can create rhythm, musicality, and poetry for the reader or listener. Poetry in particular operates on syllable counts, arrangement of lines, usage of certain hard or soft sounds, and pattern-making with rhyme and other devices. Soft s sounds can create calm and smoothness, whereas hard k sounds create chaos and harshness. A variety of sound and rhythm devices take advantage of connotative noises and the feelings they evoke in the audience. Sound and rhythm create powerful poetry, prose, speeches, and songs.
The importance of Sound and Rhythm
Sound and rhythm appeal to us just as naturally as heartbeats, rain on the roof, and the shuffle of feet on the sidewalk do. Rhythm provides soothing and meaningful repetition and emphasis in prose and poetry. Sound, on the other hand, is connotative of numerous feelings from anger to sadness based on arrangement of vowel and consonant sounds.
When to use Sound and Rhythm
Sound and rhythm can be used in all compositions from poetry and song to prose and speechmaking to film and television dialogue. Poetic emphasis on sound and rhythm is typically artistic, so it should not be emphasized in more serious and logical compositions such as formal essays or textbooks.
Alliteration is the repetition of a certain sound at the beginning of successive words or phrases. Alliteration is used to create rhythm through repetition and to evoke emotion through connotations attached to certain sounds. Here are a few examples of alliteration:
- Sarah swam smoothly and silently across the sound.
- Kathy creates crazy and chaotic chants.
- Bret brought bundles of bread to the bakery.
Onomatopoeia refers to words which sound like that which they describe. Onomatopoeia creates a vivid reading experience, as words are automatic forms of sound imagery. Here are a few examples of onomatopoeia:
- The explosion erupted with a boom!
- The horses clip-clopped across the street.
- Fall leaves rustled in the whistling
Have you ever heard someone describe a phrase as “punny”? Punny is a blend word, or portmanteau, which combines “pun” and “funny” to describe a funny pun. This is an act of wordplay: rearranging a word in a creative way to change, emphasize, or mock its meaning. Wordplay is a creative act which allows writers and readers to flex their thinking muscles. Wordplay has been employed by greats like Shakespeare to create entirely new words, modern poets to hide interesting messages, and quirky comedians to show off witty thinking.
The importance of Wordplay
Much of poetry and comedy makes use of wordplay to emphasize beauty, intelligence, and wit. It is also a way for wordsmiths to sharpen their creative-thinking in crafting words in new and unique ways. Wordplay serves as proof that literature is evolving, as new words are invented each year. Readers and writers alike value wit and comedy in poetry, prose, and other forms.
When to use Wordplay
Wordplay is primarily a playful and creative technique which is used by poets, playwrights, novels, short story writers, and children’s writers in lighthearted and imaginative compositions. Wordplay can also be used in creating new words serious and silly alike. Because wordplay is creative and new, it should not be used in formal essays or manuals with a pre-designated lexicon.
Neologisms are literally new words, or words recently created in order to describe something which has never been described.
For example, a recent neologism is “spork,” meaning a combined spoon and fork.
Anagrams are a type of wordplay in which the letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to create a new word or phrase containing the exact same letters.
For example, an anagram of the word “anagram” would be “nag a ram!”
6. Errors to Avoid
Although it is important to be aware of useful devices at your disposal, it is also important to be aware of potential mistakes you may be making. Just as there are terms for correct usage of literary devices, there are terms for incorrect usage as well. These are the errors you should work to avoid in your writing.
Malapropism is when a word is used incorrectly, often in place of one that sounds similar to the correct one. Here are a few common examples of malapropisms:
- “Supposively” instead of “supposedly”
- “For all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”
- “Fortuitously” instead of “fortunately”
A cliché is an overused saying or idea which has lost its original meaning or power. Clichés are to be avoided because they are trite and shallow. Here are a few common examples of clichés:
- Time heals all wounds
- What goes around comes around
- Every cloud has a silver lining