A College Student’s Guide to Literary Terms & Devices

A College Student’s Guide to Literary Terms & Devices

Learning these literary terms and devices can help you become a better reader and writer.

All writers make use of literary devices, though inexperienced writers often use them without really understanding what they are doing. Poetry, novels, short stories, and even some types of nonfiction writing make use of literary devices. Learning what these devices are makes it possible to spot them while reading, which is an important part of literary analysis, the basis of college-level English courses. Seeing how other writers use them also helps students understand how to use them in their own writing. Knowing when and how to use literary devices (and when to avoid them) can help students improve their writing.

  • Allegory: Allegories are stories that convey abstract ideas indirectly using an event or characters.
  • Alliteration: When multiple words start with the same constant sound either in a row or grouped closely together, the writer is using alliteration to build rhythm in their writing.
  • Allusion: Writers make reference to a real or fictional event, person, or place without specifically naming the thing.
  • Assonance: Used mostly in poetry, assonance describes the repetition of vowel sounds in a rhythm of the writer’s choosing.
  • Atmosphere: Typically, a writer uses multiple literary devices to evoke a certain mood or feeling in the overall work.
  • Ballad: A ballad is a specific type of narrative poem that is sung.
  • Blank Verse: Blank verse poems are written in iambic pentameter but do not have a rhyme scheme.
  • Consonance: Another way of setting up a rhythm in writing, consonance uses repeating patterns of consonant sounds.
  • Diction: As a literary device, diction refers to the specific word choices the writer makes.
  • Elegy: Usually, an elegy is a sad poem written to honor someone who has died.
  • Enjambment: A poetry device that describes a phrase that carries over a line break without any punctuation
  • Epitaph: Found on tombstones and monuments, these are phrases engraved on edifices in honor of someone who has died.
  • Epiphany: The moment when a character has a realization that becomes a turning point for the overall plot
  • Euphemism: When a writer uses inoffensive phrasing (often in dialogue or as part of a character’s internal monologue) to express an offensive thought
  • Foreshadowing: Authors leave clues early on in the story that hint at future developments.
  • Free Verse: Poetry without a rhyming scheme or an accepted meter is known as free verse.
  • Hyperbole: Writers purposefully exaggerate for effect.
  • Idiom: A phrase that has an understood meaning different from the literal meanings of the words that make up the expression. It is important that writers use caution when using idioms when they are writing for an international audience.
  • Imagery: Descriptions that are used to appeal to a readers five senses
  • Irony: Irony requires words to be used in a purposeful way so that they contradict their actual definitions.
  • Juxtaposition: Writers use one character, idea, or plot point as a point of comparison or contrast to another character, idea, or plot point.
  • Lyric: A short poem that is often created to be accompanied by music
  • Metaphor: Metaphors involve comparing two things that are actually quite unlike each other.
  • Monologue: Monologues happen when one character makes a speech that is not interrupted with dialogue from another character.
  • Ode: A poem that usually praises a subject, person, or theme the poet cares about deeply
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that sound like the thing they represent. “Splash” and “whoosh” are two examples.
  • Oxymoron: When writers join two contradictory-sounding words. For example, “jumbo shrimp” is an oxymoron.
  • Paradox: Paradoxes are statements that sound contradictory but are true.
  • Pun: Puns use words that sound like each other but have very different meanings. Usually, this is done to add humor or a flash of irony to a piece of writing.
  • Repetition: When the same word or phrase is used repeatedly for purposes of rhythm or emphasis
  • Rhetorical Question: Writers pose a question not to receive an answer but either for dramatic effect or to make a larger point related to the theme or plot of the overall piece.
  • Rhyme: Two words (or more) that have the same or similar ending sounds
  • Sarcasm: Sarcasm uses irony to mock or demean another person or character.
  • Satire: Irony, humor, and exaggeration are used to expose hypocrisy or stupidity. Satire is often used to address political and other contemporary issues.
  • Sonnet: A poem consisting of 14 lines that follows an established rhyme scheme and typically has ten syllables in every line
  • Stream of Consciousness: A character’s observations, feelings, and other thoughts are written in a narrative chronologically, without neatly organized topics. William Faulkner used this technique often in his novels.
  • Symbol: A writer uses an object or character as a representation of another idea they are expressing in their work.
  • Tone: The writer uses tone so readers can understand their attitude toward the characters, audience, or subject matter of their writing.
  • Understatement: Writers underplay the importance of an event or theme for dramatic effect when they use understatement.
  • Wit: Humor that is cynical in nature or insightful is described as witty.

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