A College Student’s Guide to Literary Terms & Devices

A College Student’s Guide to Literary Terms & Devices

Literary terms help us understand the basic rules of writing. Literary devices can make our writing interesting. Find out how to create writing that people will actually want to read!

Key Takeaways

  • Reading comprehension, critical literary analysis, and English composition writing are important learning skills for students at every level of education.
  • This resource contains definitions for key literary terms such as allegory, diction, foreshadowing, oxymoron, and more.
  • Literary terms and concepts can improve your own writing and reading comprehension.

Literary terms give us a better understanding of the different ways writing is used to convey meaning. And literary devices are the strategies that writers use to make this language interesting.

Mastering a full complement of literary terms and literary devices can significantly improve your use of critical learning tools like compositional writing, literary analysis, and public speech. We take a look at some key literary definitions below, offering a resource with value to teachers and students alike.

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To learn more about the basic building blocks of English literature, read on for our student’s guide to literary terms and devices. And for students who need immediate help writing, check out our Students Guide to Writing Resources.

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Why Literary Terms Matter

Literary terms range from concepts that are familiar to students, like diction and alliteration, to far more obscure concepts like “anacolouthon,” which is a fancy way of describing the interruption of one sentence with the start of another. While students may not use anacolouthon in everyday conversation, the better you understand these key literary terms the better your grasp will be on the English language as a whole.

One reason teachers encourage students to master these literature terms early is because they can serve as the later building blocks on the way to competent and even excellent writing.

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Why Literary Devices Matter

Speaking of excellent writing, the ability to deploy figurative language is central. This is where literary devices come in, especially for students who are just learning how to experiment with the use of language.

Poetry, prose, novels, short stories, and even some types of nonfiction writing make use of literary devices. Learn how to recognize these literary devices in your reading. This will be a fundamental building block as you learn to do the kind of literary analysis required of college-level English students.

Moreover, seeing how other writers use these literary devices can help you learn how to use figurative language in your own writing. Mastering these figurative devices will do more than improve your writing. They can actually add depth, perspective and context, all of which can make your writing a whole lot more interesting for the reader! For students, there’s a good chance this reader is a teacher so it would serve you well to keep your audience engaged.

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Literary Terms

Literary Terms A-C

A literary term is a word or phrase used to describe a wide array of writing forms, parts of writing, storytelling and much more. Below, we define selected literary terms, sectioned alphabetically.

  • Allegory: Allegories are stories that convey abstract ideas indirectly using an event or characters. Allegories are popular in literary works of fiction such as fables, myths, and short stories. Allegories are also popular form in writing for children and young learners.
  • Alliteration: Repetition of the same letter or sound, either in a row or grouped closely together, whether for rhythmic or euphonic effect.
  • Anacolouthon (plural anacoloutha): Unexpected interruption in the ordinary sequence of words where a sentence is abruptly changed in mid course.
  • Anaphora: Repeating the same word or words at the start of successive clauses or sentences.
  • Anastrophe: Inverting or reversing the usual order of words.
  • Antithesis: Putting opposing words or ideas together to create a contrast. Compare “paradox.”
  • 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 in the reader, or convey a 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.

Literary Terms D-E

  • 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.

Literary Terms F-L

  • Foreshadowing: Authors leave clues early on in the narrative that hint at future developments with key characters. Foreshadowing is often used as a way of nudging the audience to spot hidden meaning in the narrative.
  • Free Verse: Poetry without a rhyming scheme or an accepted meter is known as free verse. Free verse poetry often leans on literary devices like metaphor and allusion to convey meaning.
  • Idiom: A phrase that has an understood meaning different from the literal meanings of the words that make up the expression. Meanings of certain phrases and ideas can vary widely from culture to culture. It is important that writers use caution when using idioms when they write for an international audience, including those that reference popular culture or history. When using figurative language, students should be encouraged to make references only based on widely shared knowledge.
  • Lyric: A short poem that is often created to be accompanied by music, a lyric may convey a narrative story, or it may contain larger figurative language.

Literary Terms M-O

  • Monologue: Monologues happen when one character makes a speech that is not interrupted with dialogue from another character. The monologue is often told from a first person perspective.
  • 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.

Literary Terms P-S

  • Paradox: Paradoxes are statements that sound contradictory but are true.
  • 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.

Literary Terms T-W

  • 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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Literary Devices

A literary device is a rhetorical strategy that writers use to convey ideas indirectly. Literary devices often require deeper understanding from readers and use figurative language, situational irony, and colorful prose to give deeper meaning to their ideas.

  • Allusion: Referring to a real or fictional event, person, or place without specifically naming the thing.
  • Hyperbole: Writers purposefully exaggerate for effect.
  • 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. Writers use verbal irony in a variety of different ways including dramatic irony, situational irony, and, especially in satire, humorous irony.
  • Juxtaposition: Writers use one character, idea, or plot point as a point of comparison or contrast to another character, idea, or plot point.
  • Metaphor: A metaphor involves comparing two things that are, on the surface, unlike each other but about which figurative language may reveal parallels.
  • 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.
  • Symbol: A writer uses an object or character as a representation of another idea they are expressing in their work.
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Fiction Writing Concepts


Characters are the entities that inhabit the world of literature. Characters are often people but may include animals and even places and things. For example, a common trope in horror films is a haunted house that takes on its own character, and which plays a lead role in driving plot action.

The narrator of a story–the figure which lends its voice to the process of storytelling–is also a character. Character-driven stories are those that are largely driven by what is sometimes called “the hero’s journey”–a narrative thrust which leads a primary character (sometimes called the protagonist) through a life-altering experience.

Point of View

Point of view refers to the perspective from which a story, narrative, or other work of literature is written.

  • First Person Perspective

    With a first person perspective, the author will write from their own point of view, using pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “we” to tell the story.

  • Second Person Perspective

    With the second person point of view, the author writes directly to the reader, using pronouns like “you” and “your.”

  • Third Person Perspective

    With the third person perspective, the writer will tell a narrative or report facts about other characters or individuals, using pronouns such as “they,” “he” and “she.”

Narrative Arc

In literature, the narrative arc is the general flow of the story, one which leads the reader through a beginning, middle and end with a central conflict that is ultimately resolved by the story’s conclusion. The narrative arc also implies a rational sequence of events which ultimately produces a cohesive story.

Central Conflict

In most works of fiction, action is driven by a central conflict, which may be a hardship faced by a character, a profound disagreement between two parties or groups, or even an inflection point in a broader history impacting many people. The goal of the narrative will typically be to explore this central conflict and advance this conflict toward resolution.


In literature, the climax is the point in a narrative arc where the central conflict advances into direct confrontation. Whether the climax takes the form of a massive battle between opposing armies or an emotionally heated exchange between two doomed lovers, the climax is the moment when the varying strands of a story are forced to engage, ultimately leading toward some form of resolution.


The denouement is the literary word for the story’s resolution. Often, this will be the writer’s opportunity to tie up any loose ends, offer a post-script on key characters, and even set readers up for subsequent installments of a story.

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The Writing Process

Need help with the writing process? We have a growing set of resources for students at every level of education. Whether you’re writing your college admission essay or crafting the perfect literary analysis of Canterbury Tales; whether you’re doing research for your next history essay or you just need some basic tips on creating your works cited page, check out the our student’s guide to writing.

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Writing Tips and Example Papers

Or check out these other helpful writing resources for students at every level...

Writing Tips from An Admissions Expert

Students with their sights set on college might also be interested in checking out our illuminating interview with MIT Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill, who offers expert level tips on How to Write Your College Essay.

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