Knowledge and understanding of literary techniques are essential to every English essay and/or creative writing piece. Students need to know how to analyse, interpret, and recreate literary techniques, adding emphasis and strength to their writing. Below is a comprehensive and alphabetised list of literary techniques. If you struggle to understand any of these or require further information, book a TutorTime tutor today!
|Explanation and Examples
|A text that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
For example, a movie about zombies may use these supernatural creatures as an allegory for the toxicity of consumerism and capitalism.
|A subtle reference to something else, i.e. another text, literary trope, or pop-culture phenomena.
For example, a book may allude to Greek mythology if the descriptors of houses include colosseums, mosaics, statues, vineyards, etc.
|The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.
For example, “begone bewildered boys! Best you burn your boils elsewhere”.
|A comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
For example, if the description of a character reads “she was on her phone as if she was Kim Kardashian”, it assumes the audience understands the celebrity reference as analogous to phone obsession and social media influencers.
|The attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a non-human entity.
For example, a cat may cock their head knowingly, indicating that they understand the dialogue spoken by the humans. (See Professor McGonagall’s Animagus in Harry Potter for further clarification).
|An exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person (typically one who is dead or absent) or thing (typically one that is personified). An apostrophe is used rhetorically.
For example, a Shakespearean character may declare in soliloquy, “where are you, wicked heathen?” despite the “heathen” in question being offstage.
|An Archetype can be a character, symbol, theme, or action. It acts as universal symbols that are referenced across texts.
For example, a superhero is an archetype who is noble, self-sacrificing, and has a strong sense of justice.
|Similar to Alliteration, Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in words that are close to each other. It is often used to enhance imagery or emphasise an idea.
For example, ” Who knows why the cold wind blowsOr where it goes, or what it knows.” – Kelly Roper
|Characterisation is any time an author uses specific details or anecdotes to teach the readers about a character. Often we are told important characteristics of our main character when other characters speak about them.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, before we even meet Voldemort, we are told that people fear his name. He is described as dark, which creates an image of evil from the beginning.
|Often mistaken for simply being a genre used to entertain people; Comedy has the power to present facts to the audience through a joke. Satire is a prime example of this.
For example, the Simpsons is notorious for being a parody of the modern American family. The show, while being quite entertaining, also effectively presents important issues such as grief, politics, and education all the time, masked behind a cleverly worded joke.
|Contrast is used to show clear differences between two key ideas, characters, or concepts. People often think of opposites such as good and evil when they think about contrast. While contrasts certainly include opposites, they are not limited to them.
For example, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George and Lenny manage a strong and vital friendship despite their many differences.
|A contradiction occurs when two statements disagree with one another. Paradox and Oxymoron are examples of contradiction.
For example, “I must be cruel only to be kind” (Hamlet – William Shakespeare)
|Dialogue refers to a conversation between two or more characters. The dialogue form, however, is often used to express an argument.
For example, Plato’s Symposium is one of the most famous texts that uses the dialogue form for philosophy.
|Irony is when something happens that is the opposite of what you expect in a comedic way. Dramatic irony on the other hand, is when the audience is aware of something that the characters of the text do not know. It is most commonly used to build tension.
For example, in a horror film the audience knows that scary things are going to happen and hence every sound they hear or every time the camera focuses on an object, the audience moves to the edge of their seat, wondering what tragic thing is about to happen.
|This is when words are chosen specifically to evoke specific emotions in the audience. It is used to persuade the audience towards the author’s point of view.
For example, a villain may be described using words such as ‘vicious’ and ‘monster’ while a victim would be described as ‘frail’ or ‘innocent’ to make the audience side with the victim and fear the villain.
|This is when a sentence is unfinished and runs onto the next line. Reading the line alone would not make sense and hence this device guides the reader to read the poem differently than they would expect. You can usually spot this by the absence of punctuation at the end of a line.
For example: “We were dancing—it must havebeen a foxtrot or a waltz,something romantic butrequiring restraint,” – Rita Dove
|A euphemism is a gentle substitute phrase for something uncomfortable. They help sugar-coat things to avoid awkward moments or unpleasant conversations. They are used in everyday conversation just as much as in literature.
For example, the phrase ‘letting someone go’ in the professional world is a more polite way of saying that someone has been fired.
|Evocative language engages the senses. This goes beyond simple description and aims to make the audience experience something with the characters.
For example, “The rich gooey texture of the chocolate melting in her mouth made her crave another delicious bite.” describing the texture of the chocolate in such detail allows the reader to connect on a deeper level by imagining the chocolate in their mouths.
|Foreshadowing gives the audience clues about what is to come. It is usually achieved through imagery, symbolism, and motifs. It is often used to create more of a connection between the audience and the text. The audience feels invited into the text more if they get clues about what may happen next. They are compelled to ‘solve the mystery’.
For example, in StarWars episode II, Obi-Wan Kenobi says to Anakin Skywalker, “Why do I get the feeling, you will be the death of me?” This is thrown in casually at the time, however later in the series, Anakin becomes Darth Vader and does indeed murder Obi-Wan. A clue like this would propel the audience to watch the series once again, to look for other such clues.
|A flashback is when we are shown a snippet from the past to expose an important event in a character’s life before the beginning of the text. They are often used to give us context or reveal secrets to move the plot forward.
For example, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we are shown snippets from Voldemort’s past to give us further insight into his character as well as key information about how he will be defeated.
|This is an extreme exaggeration used to create emphasis or comedy. This is not meant to be taken literally. It is expected that the audience knows this is an exaggeration. They are used to convey emotions.
For example, “I died of embarrassment!” We all know that the character must still be alive if he or she is telling us this story. This hyperbole expresses to us the extreme amount of embarrassment the character faced.
|Imagery encompasses figurative, metaphorical, and descriptive language used to paint a mental picture for the audience. It allows the audience to feel directly connected to the characters as they can imagine what the characters see, do, and feel.
For example, “his brown skin hung in stripslike ancient wallpaper,” – Elizabeth Bishop
|Imperative language gives you instructions or direction.
For example, “put on your shoes.”
|An incantation is a spell or enchantment that is believed to have a magical effect.
For example in Macbeth, “Double double toil and trouble,
fire burn and cauldron bubble.” This is used to create the image of sorcery and darkness brewing.
|This is less a technique than a fact. Intertextuality is the link between all texts. Every new text borrows ideas, phrases, or inspiration from previous texts.
For example, modern films such as The Lion King drew inspiration from Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
|Irony refers to the contradiction between expectation and reality. It is used to create humour, even in tragic circumstances.
For example, “water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink.” – Samuel Coleridge. This describes the tragic irony of a sailor dying of thirst while lost at sea.
|This refers to the placement of two opposing ideas or images, side by side. It is used to highlight the contrast between the two ideas. It is also often used to create comedy.
For example, “All is fair in love and war” – John Lyly
|This refers to when a text is begun in the middle of the action.
For example, if a book begins in the middle of a conversation between two characters, this would be called in media res. Similarly, an action movie that opens on a car chase scene is likewise begun in media res.
|Metaphors make a direct comparison between two unrelated ideas. Unlike similes, which use like or as to make comparisons, metaphors are figurative expressions that carry meaning across.
For example, “Seek thee out the diamond in the rough.” – Aladdin. We know this does not refer to an actual diamond but a good person who is masked behind ‘rough’ circumstances.
|Modality is the way a writer or speaker asserts their claim.
For example, “you must be right” has a higher modality than “you could be right”.
|This is a symbol or idea that appears frequently throughout a text. It is used to create a theme and emphasise important ideas ina text.
For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the motif of light is used to emphasise the power and goodness of love. “it is the east and Juliet the sun”
|This refers to words that represent sounds. It is usually used to add excitement, fear, or drama. It is also very memorable for readers.
For example: “It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped, and whirr when it stood still.” -Chad Michael Trio
|This is a statement that contradicts itself or is both true and false at the same time. They are not nonsense though. they make sense. In literature, they are used to mimic the uncertain nature of life.
For example, I close my eyes so I can see (Fugazi, Shut the Door). This comments on the idea of looking inward.
|A parody is a text that is created to comment on or mimic an existing text, idea, or person. It allows an author to criticise without creating malice.
For example, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail parodies the stories about King Arthur.
|This is when an element of the natural world is given human emotions or behaviours. It is a form of personification that focusses specifically on nature. It adds depth to description and hence more connection to the audience.
For example, “And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp; is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,” – William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
|This is when human behaviours or tendencies are given to non-human things. It is used to add life and personality to a text.
For example, in Beauty and the Beast, Lumiere the candlestick, and all the other inanimate objects have been given human emotions, behaviours, and even faces.
|A pun is a joke that involves using words that sound similar or words that have similar meanings. They are used to create comedy.
For example, “The tallest building in town is the library — it has thousands of stories!”
|Quite self-explanatory, this refers to repeated words or phrases in a text. It is usually used to create emphasis.
For example: “How the danger sinks and swells,By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,Of the bells,Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,Bells, bells, bells—In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!”
– Edgar Allan Poe
|This refers to the repetition of the last sound of two or more words, usually at the end of lines. This is usually used to create rhythm and make the poem more memorable.
For example: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?Thou art more lovely and more temperate:Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:” -William Shakespeare
|This is usually the use of humour to ridicule or expose vices. it is not just used to entertain as it also comments on flaws or vices. It is a form of social commentary.
For example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a satire of Soviet communism and the Russian Revolution.
|This refers to the time and place a story happens in. It creates context that the audience can relate to. It can also create mood and set the tone of the text.
For example, in Marvel’s Captain America, we first begin in the present but we are soon transported to 1942. Quickly the audience understands that they are seeing characters through World War 2. Without this understanding, much of the film would not make sense.
|A soliloquy is an extended speech or monologue that happens in the absence of other characters. The character is usually speaking to themselves, to an object, or the audience and expressing their views. It gives the audience a deeper insight into that character.
For example, William Shakespeare is famous for writing soliloquies, one of his most popular is ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ from Hamlet.
|This is when words are chosen to create a vibration when they are read aloud, usually uses a repetition of the ‘s’ ‘v’ or ‘z’ sounds.
For example, “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the World, and all our woe,” – John Milton
|Similies offer a comparison between two ideas using ‘like’ or ‘as’.
For example, “her skin was as fair as snow” or “he ran like the wind”.
|Symbols are any image or idea that stands for something else. They can often take the shape of a character or setting. They add layers of meaning to texts.
For example, in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, the bird is a symbol for Poe’s grief and loneliness.
|This refers to the arrangement and choice of words in a sentence.
For example, poetry does not follow the same sentence structure as other text types as it does not usually follow subject, object verb. This is to create rhythm and emphasis.
|This refers to the feel of a piece of writing. Usually, a text either has a formal or an informal tone to it. It affects how the reader will respond to the text.
For example, one would respond very differently to “Can’t wait to catch up at 4 pm” than they would to “I am looking forward to meeting with you at 4 pm.”
|This is when a writer gives animal qualities to anything that is not an animal, such as humans or objects.
For example, “that I ate like an animal, that this noisy, frantic unchewing wolfing-down of mine was exactly the way Richard Parker ate.” – Yann Martel, Life of Pi