Literary elements might sound like a scary technical term, but many people are surprised to learn how commonly these devices are found in everyday life. As an author, literary elements are especially beneficial, and it's helpful to have a list of literary elements next to you as you write to maximize the power of your words.
If you’ve read a book or two, or even listened carefully to some song lyrics, it’s highly likely that you've encountered several literary elements without realizing it. But what is a literary element, and how do you use one successfully in your writing?
To improve your writing and make it more powerful, you’ll need to become closely acquainted with these techniques no matter what book genres you are writing, so you can feel comfortable using them in your stories.
Today we will break down what literary elements are, and give you a list of literary elements examples so you know precisely how to use them.
This blog on literary elements will cover:
What is a literary element?
Literary elements, also known as literary devices, are writing techniques used to create artistic special effects that immerse the reader. They are considered the main tools in a writer's toolbox. Popular literary elements examples include allusion, diction, foreshadowing, imagery, metaphors, similes, and personification, which we'll cover more in our list of literary elements below.
What is a literary element used for? You can think of is like adding spice to your writing. Literary elements prevent your book or story from tasting dull and bland to the reader.
What are some literary elements examples?
Some common examples of literary elements that most people are familiar with are metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, and symbolism. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more elements to consider, with more advanced or less-known devices such as aphorism, archetype, red herring, mood, and more.
The more literary elements you have to use in your arsenal, the more powerful your writing will be.
This will also prevent you from overusing the same literary elements in your writing. While it's natural that as you practice and develop your writing skills, you'll likely stick to a handful of devices that become part of your style, variety is always beneficial – especially for strengthening your writing craft.
Why use literary elements?
It's important to use literary elements in your storytelling to improve your narrating technique. As you become a strong writer and work to continuously improve your writing development, the use of literary elements and other techniques will make you a prolific writer and storyteller.
Maybe you have a love-hate relationship with writing. Maybe you’re of the mind that the more simplistic writing is, the better it is. Maybe you just don’t want to overcomplicate things. We get it!
But if you take a look at most successful writers, both modern authors and classic authors, you’ll find that remarkable writers use literary elements in their work.
Here are the main reasons to use literary devices in your writing:
- They add special effects to your writing. Part of showing, and not telling, through your story involves the use of literary elements and other techniques in your storytelling.
- They help you connect with the reader. You can draw the reader into your story and encourage them to engage with the text. Literary elements can also stimulate the reader's mind, giving them a deeper reading experience.
- They make your writing more interesting to read. No one likes to read a boring story. By incorporating literary techniques in your writing, you add life to your words.
- They convey abstract information. More common in fiction stories, literary elements can help the author convey abstract concepts or information to the reader. They can help communicate specific themes in books without the writer having to directly state the purpose.
- They paint a vivid picture with your words. Literary techniques can help paint a visual picture or image in the reader's imagination. Again, it all comes back to showing the reader what's happening, rather than simply telling.
Authors use literary elements to enhance their creative expression, and to add artistic flair to their writing, which provides an unforgettable reader experience.
Learn how to become an author by studying the greats – the more literature you read, the more you’ll see just how often famous writers rely on literary elements to strengthen their writing.
Common literary elements
The most common literary devices used in literature, art, and everyday language are similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.
However, many people don't know the actual names of literary elements, so they don't realize when they encounter them in everyday situations.
While these literary elements are most commonly used, there are numerous other devices that are alive and used by writers often, which we'll cover in the literary elements list.
Tips to use literary elements
As you become familiar with this literary elements list, you’ll find that using these elements in your own writing will come more natural. With practice, you'll soon be able to identify literary devices in your own work-in-progress, as well as the work of other authors and storytellers.
Even if you’re learning how to become a non-fiction author, you’ll want to use literary elements because they are an effective way to captivate readers on any topic.
Here are some tips to use literary elements in your own writing:
- Read the work of other writers. Make it a point to study the craft of other authors whose writing you admire. The more you encounter the natural use of literary elements in others' work, the more familiar you will be with identifying them and learning how to use them in your own writing.
- Don’t overdo it. Remember when we compared literary elements to being a spice? Think of it in terms of how you would use seasoning in an actual recipe. Sprinkle in literary elements – don’t just dump them!
- Make it seem natural. This is an art in itself. You should be strategic about where and how you use literary devices in your writing.
- When in doubt, don’t use literary devices. If you don’t understand exactly how a literary element works, don’t use it. Instead, familiarize yourself with each device first.
- Make it understandable for your readers. Readers shouldn’t have to interrupt their reading to pause and think about what you are trying to say.
- Look for real-life examples. Pay closer attention to the songs, poetry, screenplays, and books you encounter in everyday life.
Now that you understand what literary elements are, and some tips for using them effectively in your writing, let's dive into the actual list of literary elements.
A list of 21 literary elements to engage readers
From Shakespeare to Kristin Hannah, writers have been using literary elements to write powerful sentences and prose for ages. Here is a list of the 21 most commonly used literary elements:
An allusion is a literary device that indirectly refers to external people, events, or things.
An easy way to remember the definition of an allusion is to think of the verb “allude.” When you allude to something, you are referencing something else.
An example of allusion: With a deep frown on his face as he stormed through the Christmas market, Johnny looked like a real Scrooge.
Alliteration is when words with the same sound or letter appear in a sentence, often consecutively.
Popular uses for alliteration include book titles, business names, nursery rhymes, and tongue twisters. Alliteration is an easy literary element to use because it’s a simple way to enhance phrases.
These classic book titles are great examples of alliteration:
- Pride and Prejudice
- The Great Gatsby
- Of Mice and Men
- Sense and Sensibility
- Love’s Labor’s Lost
However, alliteration is also used in actual sentences, like the example below in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous Gothic poem, “The Raven.”
Anaphora is similar to alliteration in the sense that it relies on repetition. The difference is that an anaphora repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences.
Used widely in rhetoric, examples of anaphoras can be found in many famous speeches.
In the example of anaphora below, look at the repeated use of “it was” at the beginning of each new concept:
Diction is the literary element that’s all about word choice. The specific choice of words used helps determine the style in which the person is speaking or writing.
Diction comes in handy when you’re trying to show the reader a particular situation or encounter between characters. The word choice a certain character uses will indirectly show the reader what a character is like, and what type of social setting the character is in.
There are four different types of diction:
- Formal diction is when the word choice is considered formal. It’s typically used in situations to convey a sense of social class or education, or in formal situations.
- Informal diction is when the word choice is informal, more geared towards a casual conversation. It’s typically used to convey a sense of familiarity, such as in a letter to a friend.
- Colloquial diction is when words are used in everyday situations, and are often different depending on the region or community.
- Slang diction is when newly created, trendy words, or impolite words are used.
Here are examples of the different types of diction:
A euphemism is used to refer to something indirectly, or to describe something in a more pleasant or polite way.
Use euphemisms in your own writing when you want to add in some humor, or when you want to soften the blow or use less harsh imagery or phrasing.
For example, doctors use the euphemism “negative patient outcome.” This is a more polite or “pleasant” way of saying that a patient has died.
The opposite of anaphora, which we covered earlier in this literary elements list, is an epistrophe. It is defined as the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence.
Use an epistrophe in your own writing when you want to add rhythm to a paragraph, or to emphasize a point. Since the reader is drawn to the end of words in a sentence, euphemisms are a strategic way to subtly call attention to something.
Examples of epistrophes can be found in many famous speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” in the lines: “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Flashbacks are a popular literary element not only in stories and books, but in films and screenwriting, too. A flashback is exactly what it sounds like; in writing, it’s when a narrator is mentally transported to an event that happened in the past.
Common reasons to use flashbacks in your story are to:
- Provide the reader with more context about the character, situation, or event.
- Increase the suspense and tension
- Clue readers in to an important event that affected the present
Look to any popular movie for flashback examples. In Disney’s Tangled, Rapunzel has an important flashback when she looks up at the ceiling in the tower, and notices the sun symbol. Seeing the sun symbol triggers her to have a flashback in which she remembers who her real parents are.
Foreshadowing is a literary element used by writers to hint at what will happen next, or at some point, in the story.
Use this device in your writing when you want to build suspense in the story, and when you want to hint about something that might happen, without being too obvious.
An example of foreshadowing is explained below:
Hyberbole is an extreme exaggeration of a real event or situation.
Use hyberbole in your writing to add a humorous effect or to emphasize a concept. It’s easy to use, and many examples of this literary element can be found in everyday conversation.
Some examples of hyperbole are:
- I’m so hungry, I can eat a whole cow.
- It had been forever since they saw each other.
- She was dying to attend one of the best writers conferences this year.
Have you ever read a sentence that allowed you to envision exactly what the author was describing? If so, chances are that the writer was using imagery, which appeals to the reader’s physical senses.
A common term for imagery is figurative language, which is how writers show the story, as opposed to telling it.
One of the best places to use imagery is in the setting of a story.
Just like the five senses, there are five types of imagery:
- Visual imagery is when vivid images are conveyed in the reader’s mind.
- Olfactory imagery is when smells are described to the reader.
- Gustatory imagery is when tastes are described to the reader.
- Tactile imagery is all about the reader’s sense of physical touch.
- Auditory imagery is when sounds are described to the reader.
These are examples of the five types of imagery:
Juxtaposition is when a writer places two contrasting concepts, people, or events directly side-by-side in a sentence or paragraph.
Use this literary element in your own writing when you want to help show the reader the differences or similarities between two things, or when you want to add an element of surprise.
An example of juxtaposition is in the classic movie The Godfather, when baptism scenes were juxtaposed with murder scenes.
A motif in any work of film or literature is when a recurrent element (such as an image, sound, or concept) is found throughout a story to help develop the theme or central message.
A common example of motif in fairy tales, such as Disney adaptations, is the presence of older female villains. For example, in Cinderella and Snow White, there is the presence of the wicked stepmother. In A Little Mermaid, the sea witch is an aging woman who desires youth and beauty.
This literary elements list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning metaphors! Not to be confused with simile, which we cover next, a metaphor is an implicit comparison between two or more things.
When incorporating metaphors in your own writing, be sure to imply a comparison. The key to using metaphors is to not include the words “like” or “as” in your comparison.
An example of a metaphor: “That woman is a devil in disguise.”
While a metaphor is an implicit comparison, a simile is an explicit comparison. A simile directly compares two or more things.
With a simile, it is clear that the author is showing the reader that one thing is similar or different to another. A simile almost always includes the words “like” and “as.”
An example of a simile: “His face was as red as a tomato.”
Personification is another fun device that's worth mentioning on this list of literary elements. As its name implies, personification is a technique used when a writer gives inanimate objects or inhuman beings (like animals) human characteristics or attributes.
You can easily use personification in your own writing draw your reader’s attention and convey a deeper meaning. One of the easier writing tips to implement, personification is a simple, but effective, literary technique.
Some examples of personification are:
- The trees whispered to one another in the night.
- Time waits for no one.
- The snow whirled and danced across the sky.
Difficult to say, but easy to understand, onomatopoeia is a word or phrase that conveys the sound of something.
Use this element when you want to show the reader what is happening by stimulating their auditory senses. It's also a great way to incorporate stronger vocabulary!
Common examples of words or phrases that are onomatopoeia:
- Ding dong
Oxymoron is a literary element that includes a combination of contrasting, or opposite, words. It’s important to note that an oxymoron is not the same as a paradox – we’ll explain why in the next section.
Use oxymorons in your writing when you want to create a dramatic effect for the reader, especially in poetry.
An example of an oxymoron is found in these sentences:
- Writers have a love-hate relationship with writing.
- Saying goodbye is bitter sweet.
- Well, aren’t you awfully good?
A paradox is different from an oxymoron because it is a sentence or a phrase that appears contradictory, but implies some truth.
When you want to add a hidden meaning to a concept in your writing, use a paradox. It will engage the reader by subtly adding a sense of mystery to a larger context. Many readers love to read between the lines!
An example of a paradox is found in this quote: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
Symbolism is when something is used to represent something else, such an idea or concept.
Authors commonly use symbols as objects to represent a non-literal meaning. You can use symbols in your own story to make it more powerful.
An example of symbolism is in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Throughout the story, the letter “A” symbolizes adultery and its effects both on an individual basis, and within society.
Tone is defined as a speaker or narrator’s attitude about a subject. It is different from the mood a reader gets during a scene in the story.
Set the narrator’s tone in your writing through choosing words that fit the tone you're trying to convey, and by having the character take a certain stance or position on a topic.
Nostalgic writing serves as a powerful literary element by evoking deep emotions and fostering a sense of connection between the readers and the past. It can create an atmosphere of longing and wistfulness, drawing the audience into a world tinged with fond memories and bittersweet reflections.
By skillfully incorporating nostalgia, authors can enrich their narratives, add complexity to characters, and transport readers to different eras, making the storytelling experience more immersive and resonant.
Literary Devices: Quick Guide
|Allusion||A literary device that indirectly refers to external people, events, or things.||With a deep frown on his face as he stormed through the Christmas market, Johnny looked like a real Scrooge.|
|Alliteration||Alliteration is when words with the same sound or letter appear in a sentence, often consecutively.||An example of alliteration is the classic book title Pride and Prejudice.|
|Anaphora||Anaphora repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences.||It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.|
|Diction||The specific choice of words used helps determine the style in which the person is speaking or writing.||See ya later!|
|Euphemism||A euphemism is used to refer to something indirectly, or to describe something in a more pleasant or polite way.||Bite the big one.|
|Epistrophe||The repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence.||I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best.|
|Flashbacks||When a narrator is mentally transported to an event that happened in the past.||In the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," there are many flashbacks to illustrate happier times in the couple's relationship.|
|Foreshadowing||A hint at what will happen next, or at some point, in the story.||It was a cold stormy night that would introduce her to eternal darkness, forever changing the course of her life.|
|Hyperbole||Extreme exaggeration of a real event or situation.||I’m so hungry, I can eat a whole cow.|
|Imagery||A literary device that appeals to the reader’s physical senses.||The toasty smell of fresh tortillas filled his nostrils.|
|Juxtaposition||When a writer places two contrasting concepts, people, or events directly side-by-side in a sentence or paragraph.||In the classic movie The Godfather, when baptism scenes were juxtaposed with murder scenes.|
|Motif||when a recurrent element (such as an image, sound, or concept) is found throughout a story, to help develop the theme, or central message.||The presence of older female villains in Disney adaptations.|
|Metaphor||An implicit comparison between two or more things.||That woman is a devil in disguise.|
|Simile||An explicit comparison between two or more things using the words "like" or "as."||You shine like the sun.|
|Personification||When a writer gives inanimate objects or inhuman beings (like animals) human characteristics or attributes.||Time waits for no one.|
|Onomatopoeia||A word or phrase that conveys the sound of something.||Cock-a-doodle-doo|
|Oxymoron||A combination of contrasting, or opposite, words.||Well, aren’t you awfully good?|
|Paradox||A sentence or a phrase that appears contradictory, but implies some kind truth.||Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.|
|Symbolism||When something is used to represent something else, such an idea or concept.||The rose symbolizes eternal love in The Beauty and the Beast.|
|Tone||A speaker or narrator’s attitude about a subject.||Words like grave, grim, pensive, and austere signify a serious tone.|
Now that you have a thorough understanding of powerful literary elements to use in your own writing, it’s time to put your skills to the test!
Set a writing goal to use at least one different literary element in your work each day to help you practice.
Need some inspiration? Use our writing prompt generator to get started! The only way to improve your writing, and ultimately your reader’s experience, is to practice.
Start engaging your readers with literary elements today!
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