I. What is a Literary Device?
In literature, any technique used to help the author achieve his or her purpose is called a literary device. Typically, these devices are used for an aesthetic purpose – that is, they’re intended to make the piece more beautiful. However, it’s a very broad term and isn’t strictly limited to this meaning.
The term rhetorical device has almost exactly the same meaning, but it’s a little broader: whereas literary devices occur in literature, rhetorical devices can occur in any kind of speech or writing. So all literary devices are rhetorical devices, but not all rhetorical devices are literary devices. The specific devices used are almost all the same, though.
II. Examples of Literary Devices
The foil is a structural-level literary device in which a supporting character forms a striking contrast to the main character. If the main character is intelligent but physically frail, the foil can be a brawny dimwit. This makes the characters seem more vivid and helps their attributes stand out.
Able-bodied antelopes ambled along the alleyway.
Alliteration is a sentence-level literary device in which several (or all!) the words start with the same letter. It’s especially common in poetry, and can range from extremely obvious (as in the sentence above) to much more subtle.
Alexander marched to Persia with a thousand spears at his back.
This is a metonym – a word-level literary devices in which a part stands in for the whole. In this case, the spear is part of the armed soldier. So the sentence really means that there are a thousand soldiers carrying spears, but expressing it this way is more poetic and evocative.
III. Types of Literary Device
The varieties of literary devices are basically infinite – since the invention of storytelling, people have been honing the craft of literature and have come up with all sorts of tricks. For simplicity’s sake, we can separate the types of literary device based on scale:
- Word Level: many literary devices affect individual words or short phrases. For example, a metaphor is when one word stands in for another. So, for example, “The sun was a golden jewel” would be a metaphor, and a word-level literary device.
- Sentence Level: There are also many literary devices that apply to sentences or long phrases. Parallelism is a good example: “I enjoyed the play, but I preferred the intermission.” The two underlined phrases have identical grammatical structure, so the sentence as a whole demonstrates parallelism.
- Structural Level: These devices apply to the entire piece, whether it’s a poem, novel, or creative nonfiction. Character development is a good example of a structural literary device: the character begins as one sort of person, but learns and grows throughout the story so that by the end she’s someone quite different. This device applies to the story as a whole rather than to a single word or sentence.
IV. The Importance of Literary Devices
Literary devices are the author’s whole toolkit: whatever you want to do in your story, you do it with literary devices. That could mean setting an emotional tone, making a poem more relatable, or just stretching your own creative muscles. Literary devices can do it all. Without such devices, we could barely even talk to each other, let alone create great works of literature and philosophy! Because literary devices serve such a broad range of functions, there’s no single overarching “purpose” to literary devices as a whole, other than just to improve the quality of writing.
V. Examples of Literary Devices in Literature
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun! (William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”)
This famous line contains a metaphor – a literary device where a word is used in a non-literal sense to stand in for something else. In this case, Romeo is catching his first glimpse of Juliet as he stands below her balcony, and he’s so overcome by her beauty that he calls her “the sun.” Obviously he doesn’t mean this literally, or he’d be burned to a crisp.
He was a fourfold father, this fighting prince: (“Beowulf”)
The Anglo-Saxons used alliteration the way classic English poets used rhyme. It was one of the most basic literary techniques defining their craft. In this line, we find repeated F sounds, which give the line a soft, flowing quality – it would sound very different if it were full of hard, percussive consonants like K’s and B’s.
When Harry Potter gets his first letter from Hogwarts, it’s an exciting moment, but also full of mystery. This is an example of a literary device called the call to adventure. If you pay close attention, you can find this device in countless stories: the hero is going about his ordinary life, needing a change, when all of a sudden an unexpected message comes from a mysterious source. From that moment on, the hero’s life is never the same.
VI. Examples of Literary Devices in Pop Culture
The Joker is a perfect foil for Batman. Batman is dark and brooding; Joker smiles all the time. Batman fights for a purpose and lives by a strict code of honor; Joker is pure chaos and respects no rules or codes. Batman dresses all in black and grey; Joker has a colorful wardrobe of purple and green. The two characters make a great pair because of the sharp contrasts between them.
As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating! (Gaston, “Beauty and the Beast“)
Gaston’s Song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast contains an internal rhyme. Notice how “specimen” rhymes with “yes I’m in-” It’s a subtle rhyme buried in the middle of the line rather than at the end of the line, where rhymes are normally found. The can be considered a sentence-level literary device.
The original Star Wars movies demonstrate great character development. Luke Skywalker starts off as a bratty, self-centered child, but over the course of the trilogy he grows into a noble Jedi Knight. Similarly, Han Solo starts off as a mercenary who doesn’t care about anyone other than himself (and maybe Chewbacca), but by the end of the story he’s a respected general, deeply committed to the cause of the Rebel Alliance.
VII. Related Terms
Literature is anything written for artistic value. It typically refers to novels, but can also include short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction. But it doesn’t include formal essays, scientific research papers, etc., since these forms of writing are usually not written for artistic effect – they’re written to get a point across, to make an argument, or to inform the reader.
Rhetoric means the art of persuasion. It’s an ancient art form consisting of various techniques (“rhetorical devices”) for swaying the audience to the speaker’s point of view. Rhetoric was originally created for speeches, but with the invention of writing it came to cover written arguments as well. Sometimes this term is used more broadly to refer to the manner of presenting an idea (instead the idea itself), but it’s strict meaning has to do with persuading others.