A Simple Guide to 55 Common Literary Devices

guide to literary devices


         Learning literary devices is crucial for any writer who wants to be great.

Professional writers use unique words.  This is a list of some of the more common terms and literary devices along with what they mean.

  It took us a while to learn the proper vocabulary used by professional writers. We hope this Guide will be useful to you.

You might want to print or bookmark this list for future reference

There is a bonus at the end: 6 Tips to finding LITERARY DEVICES  in the books you are reading.

Here are 55 Literary Devices and Terms. If you have questions please ask us in comments.

We tried to make the explanations short and simple.

Allegory: Is a story used to present a message about real life issues. Typically an entire novel or play.

Allusion: When the author makes an indirect reference to something outside the story.

Antagonist: A source of conflict. Someone or something which tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal. An adversary or villain.

Back-story/Flashback: A part of the story which happened previous to the current events in the story but has a bearing on the story. Back story is often used to explain why a character acts a certain way, or their motivation.

Blurb: A short summary of the essential elements of your story. Generally found on the back cover or inside the jacket’s flap of a novel. Also useful for query letters. Its purpose is to sell the story.

Cardboard or Flat Characters: People in your story with only one character trait displayed throughout your story.

Capture the moment: See freeze the moment.

Characters: The people in your story. Download our Character Profile Worksheets to help you create fabulous characters.

Colloquialism: Use of informal language in dialog (slang and dialect) to add realism to a character.

Download our article: How we Learned Literary Terms
only you czan write your story

Obviously, if your character is dimensional they are not Flat or Cardboard.

Dimensional Characters: Are characters that display several character traits, or motivations throughout the story.                                                                                                                          dialog is a literary devise

Dialog: When you use the words your characters are saying using quotation marks (” “).

E-book: is a novel or instructional manual sold only over the internet. Not generally available in print.

Pick up our E bookSix secretes to becomeing the author of your dreams

Six Steps to Becoming the Author of Your Dreams.

Editing: Preparing your work for publication. Involves correcting spelling, sentence structure, grammar and punctuation. See our post: Become a Self editing Expert

Epilogue: Concluding section added to a novel, poem, etc., which serves to round out the work. A short note after the end of the story.

Exposition: This happens when the writer gives needed information or explains an idea without including characters. Exposition includes lecturing the reader. It is a common problem when using a narrator. Exposition bogs the story down. Avoid it since it bores your reader.

Fiction: These are stories that come from the writer’s imagination. They may be based on real life events and people but are written as made up stories. Creative writing.

First Person: When a story is told using, “I, me, our and we.” See Point of view.

Literary Devices like Foreshadowing evoke curiosity. It makes the reader anxious to find out what will happen.


Foreshadowing: A hint at a possible outcome in the story. It does not mean that outcome will automatically materialize.

Flashback: See backstory

Freeze the Moment: To describe what a character experiences in a certain moment in the story. It usually includes what the character feels, sees, hears, smells, and/or tastes in that moment.

Hero/ Heroine Usually the main character. But could simply the character striving toward an important goal.

The Hook is one of the hardest but most essential literary devices to learn.                                      hook is a literary device

Hook: A gripping, thrilling or emotional event that grabs your reader’s attention. Used in the opening of your story or the beginning of a chapter.

Indie author/publisher: This is a newer term, with various meanings. Essentially it refers to an author who not only writes a book but publishes it also (e-book, Kindle book). Joanna Penn offers tips on becoming an Indie author at https://thecreativepenn.com

Inner Conflict (Inner Struggle): Is when a character must decide something, and they don’t know which way to go. That inner struggle creates conflict in the characters’s and the reader’s mind.

Imagery: Create strong mental pictures using the five senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing)

Irony: When something is used to express an opposite meaning than the one expressed. Verbal (sarcasm). Situational Irony is when something happens that is opposite of what was expected.  Dramatic Irony is when the audience is aware of the true intentions or outcome while the characters are not.

Kindle book: Amazon corporation offers a service for selling books over the internet. These books are known as e-books or Kindle books

Layers: Two or more stories that will eventually merge in your story-line. Generally, they are happening in the same time frame in a different place or with different characters.

Metaphor/Simile: These devices compare one thing to another.  In a Metaphor the thing is said to be the other. In a simile the thing is said to be “like” or “as” the other.

Your Theme Usually involves a Moral Premise

engage readers theme

Moral Premise The basic concept that  that good will overcome evil in the story. Most successful stories include a moral premise. See  The Moral Premise

Multi-dimensional Characters: Your characters need to display different attributes or traits to be believable. They should react differently to various situations or with other characters in your story.

Mystery: is a genre of stories where the outcome remains in question until the end.

Narrator: The person who tells the story in third person.( He She They)

Non-Fiction: True stories, Documentaries, Memoirs’ Biographies.

Oxymoron: Is a combination of two words which are contradictory. Used for emphasis or humor or to illustrate a paradox.

Paradox: An oxymoron is 2 words. A paradox is a phrase or sentence which is contradictory but upon investigation might actually be true or plausible.

Point of view

Point-of-view: The choice of who is telling the story. The protagonist, the antagonist, a secondary character, or a narrator. The story is told from that person’s point-of-view.  See our Post: Choosing a Point of View

One of the first choices a writer must make is to choose a Point of view.

Plot: Is what happens to you characters. The events and how they effect the people who inhabit your story. The important happenings of your story. These should include unexpected events.

Personification: is when a nonhuman figure is given human-like qualities or characteristics. Like animals or robots which act like humans.

Plot Twist: An event in the story-line that changes the direction of your story or your characters. Things that surprise your reader in the middle of the story.

Private Stakes: The goal, prize or reward the protagonist is striving for. (Stakes as in a poker game) Private stakes are what motivates the hero or heroine. It is what is important to him or her personally.

Prologue: A short introduction or narration that sets up the story. It should also set-up the mood of your story.

Protagonist: The main character in a story or novel, usually the hero or heroine. Generally the one on the good side.

The literary device: Stakes, can be either Public or Private.

 Stakes are what motivates your character to accomplish their goal. It involves the risks they are willing to take.

Public Stakes: Whenever possible, your protagonist’s goals should be good for the other characters in the story. If the goal is important to the community, not just the heroine or hero, it becomes a public stake.

Publisher: A Company that actually prints and sells your book. There are also e-book publishers who will help you set your book up for internet publication,

Query Letter: Most agents require a written letter or e-mail with basic information about the author and the story. From the letter/e-mail, the agent decides if they want to read the manuscript.

Redundant: Unnecessary words or phrases. Ideas or words that are repeated.

Revision: When you make changes to the story-line, plot or structure of the story.

Look for places in your first draft to add literary devices.

Secondary Characters: Other characters in your story, not including the protagonist or the antagonist.                                                                              setting a term

Setting: It’s the writers physical and emotional description of the time and place of the story or scene. See our post: Use your Setting to Show your Characters

Soliloquy: A monologue when a character speaks aloud to himself (and the Audience) revealing his inner thoughts.

Stakes: Are the risks or rewards of different decisions a character makes. The STAKES can be PUBLIC ( affecting the community) or PRIVATE (Affecting only one person)

Sub-plot: This is a separate story outside the main story-line, which adds significance to the theme or the main character’s motivation.

Surprise ending: A unique twist towards the end of a story or subplot. Something the reader is not expecting.

The  secrete of any great story is to create Suspense.


Suspense: When the reader does not know the outcome.

Symbolism: is when an object, figure, or event represents something else with a broader message or deeper meaning, different from the literal meaning.

Tension: To keep your reader actively immersed in your story, a writer must create tension. A great story is filled with emotional trauma.

Theme: The overall message or big idea of your story. It is the struggle your characters experience trying to maintain their personal set of values. Your characters eventually create your theme with their dialog and actions. This is sometimes called ‘The moral premise. You might want to read our post: Choosing a Powerful Theme.

Third Person: When a story is told using, “they and them, he and she.” The story can be told with a narrator or from the point of view of one of the characters in the story.See: Choosing a point of view

Turning Point: This refers to a place where either the character or the story changes direction. This is sometimes called a plot point.                                                                                     story only as good as villain

Villain: The character who creates conflicts, obstacles or problems for your protagonist to overcome. A story may have more than one villain. See antagonist. For more about creating villains.

See: Unforgettable Villains The Formula

Voice: How the character telling the story speaks. This includes attitude, style, vocabulary, slang or accents.

Voice Can also indicates the point of view. The one who is telling the story. (First person, third person or narrator)

Writer’s Block:  A mental stumbling block preventing you from creating the scene you have in mind or the twist in the plot you are looking for. Anything that stops you from writing.

Writing Prompts Pictures or sentences used to jump start your imagination.  Try our Writing Prompts Game. 

Our game can be played by yourself, with a friend or ad a party

Can you think of some other literary devices that should be added to this list? Let us know so we can add them.


Six tips to Finding Literary Devices in books you are Reading

Tip #1 Memorize the literary devices you think you might like to use in your writing

Tip #2 Read Best Selling books. I don’t bother reading even books by “best selling authors”. If I am going to learn, I want to read the book that IS the BEST SELLER.

Tip #3 Read different genres. Romance books and mystery books use different literary devices.

Tip #4 Buy used books from Amazon.com/books I buy used books because I plan to highlight, underline and turn down the corners of the book.

Tip #5 Now the real trick. When you read, note when you feel strong emotion. Now, go back and reread that paragraph. How did the writer accomplish that connection with you? Very likely they used a literary device.

Tip #6 I mark that section. I use underlining or different color markers. When it is a really good page I turn down the corner so I can find the spot again.


If you are a new writer, you may be unsure about your skills. With practice you can discover many different ways to express yourself. You can integrate your new  skills into your writing.

Sooner or later your mind and imagination will take you on a wonderful journey. Start now! Marvel at the wonderful world and people around you.

It doesn’t happen all at once. Give yourself time to get there.

See our story: About us

Happy Writing

John & Patty                  @writingagreatbook.com 2018

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