Literary technique

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A literary technique (also known as literary device) refers to methods authors use to convey what they want.[1] This distinguishes them from literary elements, which exist inherently in literature.

Literary techniques pertaining to setting[edit]

Name Definition Example
Backstory Story that precedes events in the story being told—past events or background that add meaning to current circumstances. Though The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes place towards the end of the Third Age, the narration in the beginning of the movie trilogy gives glimpses of the mythological/historical events which took place in the First and Second Age.

Literary techniques pertaining to plots[edit]

Name Definition Example
Backstory Story that precedes events in the story being told—past events or background that add meaning to current circumstances Though The Lord of the Rings trilogy takes place towards the end of the Third Age, the narration gives glimpses of the mythological/historical events which took place in the First and Second Age.
Cliffhanger The narrative ends unresolved, to draw the audience back to a future episode for the resolution. Almost every episode of the TV shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad ends with one of the characters in a predicament (about to be caught by thugs, about to be exposed by the authority, or a family member or a friend finds out the main character's dirty secret).
Deus ex machina (a machination, or act of god; lit. “god out of the machine”) Resolving the primary conflict by a means unrelated to the story (e.g., a god appears and solves everything). This device dates back to ancient Greek theater, but can be a clumsy method that frustrates the audience. An example occurs in Mighty Aphrodite.
Eucatastrophe Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, a climactic event through which the protagonist appears to be facing a catastrophic change. However, this change does not materialize and the protagonist finds himself as the benefactor of such a climactic event; contrast peripety/peripateia. At the end of The Lord of the Rings, Gollum forcibly takes away the Ring from Frodo, suggesting that Sauron would eventually take over Middle Earth. However, Gollum celebrates too eagerly and clumsily and falls into the lava, whereby the ring is destroyed and with it Sauron's power. In a way, Gollum does what Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring intended to do through the whole plot of the trilogy, which was to throw the ring into the lake of fire in the heart of Mount Doom.
Flashback (or analeptic reference) General term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale, for instance The story of "The Three Apples" in Arabian Nights tale begins with the discovery of a young woman's dead body. After the murderer later reveals himself, he narrates his reasons for the murder as a flashback of events leading up to the discovery of her dead body at the beginning of the story.
Flashforward Also called prolepsis, a scene that temporarily jumps the narrative forward in time. Flashforwards often represent events expected, projected, or imagined to occur in the future. They may also reveal significant parts of the story that have not yet occurred, but soon will in greater detail. Occurs in A Christmas Carol when Mr. Scrooge visits the ghost of the future. It is also frequent in the later seasons of the television series Lost.
Foreshadowing Implicit yet intentional efforts of an author to suggest events which have yet to take place in the process of narration. See also repetitive designation and Chekhov's gun A narration might begin with a male character who has to break up a schoolyard fight among some boys who are vying for the attention of a girl, which was introduced to foreshadow the events leading to a dinner time squabble between the character and his twin brother over a woman, whom both are courting at the same time.
Frame story, or a story within a story A main story that organizes a series of shorter stories. Early examples include Panchatantra, Arabian Nights, and The Decameron. A more modern example is Brian Jacques' The Legend of Luke.
Framing device A single action, scene, event, setting, or any element of significance at the beginning and end of a work. The use of framing devices allow for frame stories to exist. In Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, the newly wed wife to the King, is the framing device. As a character, she is telling the "1,001 stories" to the King, in order to delay her execution night by night. However, as a framing device her purpose for existing is to tell the same 1,001 stories to the reader.
MacGuffin A plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important.
In medias res Beginning the story in the middle of a sequence of events. A specific form of narrative hook. The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer are prime examples. The latter work begins with the return of Odysseus to his home of Ithaka and then in flashbacks tells of his ten years of wandering following the Trojan War.
Narrative hook Story opening that "hooks" readers' attention so they will keep reading Any non-fiction book is often introduced with an interesting factoid.
Plot twist Unexpected change ("twist") in the direction or expected outcome of the plot. See also twist ending. An example occurs in The Crying Game.
Poetic justice Virtue ultimately rewarded, or vice punished, by an ironic twist of fate related to the character's own conduct Wile E. Coyote coming up with a contraption to catch the Road Runner, only to be foiled and caught by his own devices. Each sin's punishment in Dante's Inferno is a symbolic instance of poetic justice.
Predestination paradox Time travel paradox where a time traveler is caught in a loop of events that "predestines" them to travel back in time In Doctor Who, the main character repeatedly finds himself under the obligation of having to travel back in time because of something his future character has done.
Quibble Plot device based on an argument that an agreement's intended meaning holds no legal value, and that only the exact, literal words agreed on apply. For example, William Shakespeare used a quibble in The Merchant of Venice: Portia saves Antonio in a court of law by pointing out that the agreement called for a pound of flesh, but no blood, so Shylock can collect only if he sheds no blood.
Red herring Diverting attention away from an item of significance. For example, in mystery fiction, an innocent party may be purposefully cast as highly suspicious through emphasis or descriptive techniques to divert attention from the true guilty party.
Self-fulfilling prophecy Prediction that, by being made, makes itself come true. Early examples include the legend of Oedipus, and the story of Krishna in the Mahabharata. There is also an example of this in Harry Potter when Lord Voldemort heard a prophecy (made by Sybill Trelawney to Dumbledore) that a boy born at the end of July, whose parents had defied Voldemort thrice and survived, would be made marked as his equal. Because of this prophecy, Lord Voldemort sought out Harry Potter (believing him to be the boy spoken of) and tried to kill him. His parents died protecting him, and when Voldemort tried to cast a killing curse on Harry, it rebounded and took away most of his strength, and gave Harry Potter a unique ability and connection with the Dark Lord thus marking him as his equal
Story within a story (Hypodiegesis) A story told within another story. See also frame story. In Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole, of the Dark Tower series, the protagonist tells a story from his past to his companions, and in this story he tells another relatively unrelated story.
Ticking clock scenario Threat of impending disaster—often used in thrillers where salvation and escape are essential elements In the TV show "24", the main character, Jack Bauer often finds himself interrogating a terrorist who is caught in order to disarm a bomb.
Unreliable narrator The narrator of the story is not sincere, or introduces a bias in his narration and possibly misleads the reader, hiding or minimizing events, characters, or motivations. An example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Literary techniques pertaining to narrative perspective[edit]

Name Definition Example
Author surrogate Characters which are based on authors, usually to support their personal views. Sometimes an intentionally or unintentionally idealized version of them. A variation is the Mary Sue or Gary Stu, which primarily serves as an idealized self-insertion. Socrates in the writings of Plato.
Breaking the fourth wall An author or character addresses the audience directly (also known as direct address). This may acknowledge to the reader or audience that what is being presented is fiction, or may seek to extend the world of the story to provide the illusion that they are included in it. The characters in Sesame Street often break the fourth wall when they address their viewers as part of the ongoing storyline, which is possible because of the high level of suspension of belief afforded by its audience—children. The American political drama show House of Cards also uses this technique frequently to let the viewers know what the main character Frank Underwood is thinking and planning.
Defamiliarization Writing about something describing a characters awe and wonder[2] A character travels to an exotic land. He writes letters to someone home.
First-person Narration A text presented from the point of view of a character, especially the protagonist, as if the character is telling the story themselves. (Breaking the fourth wall is an option, but not a necessity, of this format.) Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the title character as the narrator, while Sherlock Holmes is primarily told from Watson's perspective.
Magical realism Describing events in a real-world setting but with magical trappings, often incorporating local customs and invented beliefs. Different from urban fantasy in that the magic itself is not the focus of the story. Particularly popular with Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez. Elsewhere, Salman Rushdie's work provides good examples.
Second-person Narration A text written in the style of a direct address, in the second-person. Rape: A Love Story.
Stream of consciousness The author uses narrative and stylistic devices to create the sense of an unedited interior monologue, characterized by leaps in syntax and punctuation that trace a character's fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings. The outcome is a highly lucid perspective with a plot. Not to be confused with free writing. An example is "Ulysses".
Third-person Narration A text written as if by an impersonal narrator who is not affected by the events in the story. Can be omniscient or limited, the latter usually being tied to a specific character, a group of characters, or a location. A Song of Ice and Fire is written in multiple limited third-person narrators that change with each chapter. The Master and Margarita uses an omniscient narrator.
Unreliable narrator The narrator of the story is not sincere, or introduces a bias in his narration and possibly misleads the reader, hiding or minimizing events, characters, or motivations. An example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Literary techniques pertaining to style[edit]

Name Definition Example
Allegory A symbolic story. The Pigrim's Progress by John Bunyan is a narrative that serves completely as an allegory, with the main character Christian representing a follower of Christianity on his journey through life, encountering daily struggles as he aims towards the Celestial City (Heaven).
Alliteration Repeating the same letter or consonant sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. In the film V for Vendetta the main character performs a couple of soliloquies with a heavy use of alliteration. e.g.. "Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished, as the once vital voice of the verisimilitude now venerates what they once vilified. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose vis-à-vis an introduction, and so it is my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V."
Amplification (rhetoric) Amplification refers to a literary practice wherein the writer embellishes the sentence by adding more information to it in order to increase its worth and understanding. e.g. Original sentence- The thesis paper was difficult. After amplification- The thesis paper was difficult: it required extensive research, data collection, sample surveys, interviews and a lot of fieldwork.
Anagram Rearranging the letters of a word or a phrase to form a new phrase or word. e.g. An anagram for "debit card" is "bad credit". As you can see, both phrases use the same letters. By mixing the letters a bit of humor is created.
Asyndeton When sentences do not use conjunctions (e.g.: and, or, nor) to separate clauses, but run clauses into one another, usually marking the separation of clauses with punctuation. An example is when John F. Kennedy said on January the 20th 1961 "...that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Bathos An abrupt transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect. While often unintended, bathos may be used deliberately to produce a humorous effect.[3][4] :The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.
(Jennifer Hart, Arlington)[5]
Caesura A break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse, and marked in scansion by a double vertical line. This technique frequently occurs within a poetic line grammatically connected to the end of the previous line by enjambment. e.g. in "Know then thyself. ‖ Presume not God to scan."
Distancing Effect Deliberately making the audience not identifying with characters in order to letting them become scrutinized.[6] Popularized by 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht.
Dramatic visualization Representing an object or character with abundant descriptive detail, or mimetically rendering gestures and dialogue to make a scene more visual or imaginatively present to an audience. This technique appears at least as far back as the Arabian Nights.[7]
Euphuism An artificial, highly elaborate way of writing or speaking. Named from Euphues (1579) the prose romance by John Lyly. "Is it not far better to abhor sins by the remembrance of others' faults, than by repentance of thine own follies?" (Euphues, 1, lecture by the wise Neapolitan)
Hyperbole Exaggeration used to evoke strong feelings or create an impression which is not meant to be taken literally. Sally could no longer hide her secret. Her pregnant belly was bigger than the planet on which she stood.
Imagery Forming mental images of a scene using descriptive words, especially making use of the human senses. The same as sensory detail. When the boots came off his feet with a leathery squeak, a smell of ferment and fish market immediately filled the small tent. The skin of his toes were red and raw and sensitive. The malodorous air was so toxic he thought he could almost taste his toes.
Leitwortstil Purposefully repeating words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story. This dates back at least to the Arabian Nights.[8]
Metonymy Word or phrase in a figure of speech in which a noun is referenced by something closely associated with it, rather than explicitly by the noun itself. This is not to be confused with synecdoche, in which a part of the whole stands for the thing itself. Metonomy: The boxer threw in the towel. Synecdoche: She gave her hand in marriage.
Overstatement Exaggerating something, often for emphasis (also known as hyperbole) Sally's pregnant belly most likely weighed as much as the scooter she used to ride before she got pregnant.
Onomatopoeia Word that sounds the same as, or similar to what the word means. "Boom goes the dynamite."
Oxymoron A term made of two words that deliberately or coincidentally imply each other's opposite. "terrible beauty"
Paradox A phrase that describes an idea composed of concepts that conflict. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (A Tale of Two Cities)
Parody Ridicule by overstated imitation, usually humorous. MAD Magazine
Pastiche Using forms and styles from another author, generally as an affectionate tribute. Such as the many stories featuring Sherlock Holmes not written by Arthur Conan Doyle, or much of the Cthulhu Mythos.
Pathos Emotional appeal, one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric that the author uses to inspire pity or sorrow towards a character—typically does not counterbalance the target character's suffering with a positive outcome, as in Tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the two main characters each commit suicide at the sight of the supposedly dead lover, however the audience knows these actions to be rash and unnecessary. Therefore, Shakespeare makes for the emotional appeal for the unnecessary tragedy behind the young characters' rash interpretations about love and life.
Polyptoton Words derived from the same root in a sentence. "Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are." John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.
Polysyndeton Polysyndeton is the use of several conjunctions in close succession, this provides a sense of exaggeration designed to wear down the audience. An example of this is in the first chapter of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: "A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin"
Satire The use of humor, irony or exaggeration to criticize. An example is Network. One of the earliest examples is Gullivers Travels, written by Jonathan Swift. Also the TV show South Park is an example of satire.
Sensory detail sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. The same as imagery The boot was tough and sinewy between his hard-biting teeth. There was no flavor to speak of except for the blandness of all the dirt that the boot had soaked up over the years. The only thing the boot reminded him of was the smell of a wet-dog.
Understatement A diminishing or softening of a theme or effect. The broken ends of the long bone was sticking through the bleeding skin, but it wasn't something that always killed a man.

Literary techniques pertaining to theme[edit]

Name Definition Example
Irony This discrepancy between expectation and reality occurs in three forms: situational irony, where a situation features a discrepancy between what is expected and what is actualized; dramatic irony, where a character is unaware of pivotal information already revealed to the audience (the discrepancy here lies in the two levels of awareness between the character and the audience); and verbal irony, where one states one thing while meaning another. The difference between verbal irony and sarcasm is exquisitely subtle and often contested. The concept of irony is too often misunderstood in popular usage. Unfortunate circumstances and coincidences do not constitute irony (nor do they qualify as being tragic). See the Usage controversy section under irony, and the term tragedy. A person hears a prophecy about himself. His endeavor to stop the prophecy from coming true, makes it come true.
Metaphor Evoking imagination by means of using figurative language.
Thematic patterning Distributing recurrent thematic concepts and moralistic motifs among various incidents and frames of a story. In a skillfully crafted tale, thematic patterning may emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea disparate events and disparate frames have in common. Each of the chapters of Ulysses by James Joyce.

Literary techniques pertaining to character[edit]

Name Type Notes
Anthropomorphism Form of personification that applies human-like characteristics to animals or objects
Hamartia The character flaw or of an initially rich and powerful hero that leads to his tragic downfall. Oedipus kills his own father because he doesn't understand his true parentage.
Pathetic fallacy Reflecting a character's (usually the protagonist) mood in the atmosphere or inanimate objects. Related to anthropomorphism and projection For example, the storm in William Shakespeare's King Lear, which mirrors Lear's mental deterioration.
Personification Using comparative metaphors and similes to give living characteristics to non-living objects. The same thing as anthropomorphism. A talking rock.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Orehovec, Barbara (2003). Revisiting the Reading Workshop: A Complete Guide to Organizing and Managing an Effective Reading Workshop That Builds Independent, Strategic Readers (illustrated ed.). Scholastic Inc. p. 89. ISBN 0439444047. 
  2. ^ http://beyondthemargins.com/2010/05/do-you-defamiliarize-2/
  3. ^ Fiske, Robert Hartwell (1 November 2011). Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with commentary on lexicographers and linguists. Scribner. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-4516-5134-8. 
  4. ^ Abrams, Meyer Howard; Harpham, Geoffrey Galt (2009). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Cengage Learning. p. 24. ISBN 978-1-4130-3390-8. 
  5. ^ High School Analogies
  6. ^ Graham Allen (2 June 2004). Roland Barthes. Routledge. p. 29. ISBN 1-134-50341-5. 
  7. ^ Heath, Peter (May 1994), "Reviewed work(s): Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights by David Pinault", International Journal of Middle East Studies (Cambridge University Press) 26 (2): 358–360, doi:10.1017/s0020743800060633 
  8. ^ Heath (1994) p.360