Literary technique

Literary technique

A literary technique (also, literary device, procedure or method) is any element or the entirety of elements a writer intentionally uses in the structure of their work.[1] It can be for example an identifiable rule of thumb, a convention, a literary motif, an organization that is employed in literature and storytelling, or the absence of them.

"Literary techniques" is a catch-all term that may be distinguished from the term "devices".[citation needed]



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The Formalists, and particularly the so-called Russian formalists, focused on literary technique or devices (in Russian priem). In particular, Viktor Shklovsky, in 1917, wrote the essay art as a technique, which marks a significant shift towards this perspective.[1][2]

In general, the term "artistic technique," means "everything that the artist uses with particular artistic intentions."[1] The term "literary techniques" refers to specific aspects of literature, in the sense of its universal function as an art form that expresses ideas through language, which we can recognize, identify, interpret and analyze.[citation needed] Literary techniques collectively comprise the art form's components - the means authors use to create meaning through language, and that readers use to understand and appreciate their works. They also provide a conceptual framework for comparing individual literary works to others, within and across genres.

do not use wikipedia it is a bad thing "Literary techniques" is a catch-all term that may be distinguished from the term "devices". Literary techniques are literary moves a writer might make that are defined not so much by functional or descriptive actions as by imitation and repeated use by many authors at times. Instances of literary techniques tend to be harder to identify than instances of devices, and identification of techniques tends to be more dependent upon citing literary precedent; nevertheless, there is considerable overlap between the territory of devices and techniques. Irony, for example, challenges the distinction between a device and a technique because it refers to a handful of more-or-less easily identifiable literary actions, but also describes a recognizable but elusively complex attitude toward the subject of a whole or a part of a work of literature. It is debatable whether literary techniques or literary devices is the larger category.

Using a specific literary device or technique in a type of work where, historically, it has been uncommon.

Annotated list of literary techniques

Name Type Notes
Alliteration Poetic Repeating the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.
Allusion A figure of speech that makes a reference to, or representation of, people, places, events, literary work, myths, or works of art, either directly or by implication.
Anthropomorphism Personification Form of personification that applies human-like characteristics to animals or objects
Aphorism Concise statement that contains a cleverly stated subjective truth or observation—aphorisms typically use alliteration, anaphora, and rhyme. The aphorism is considered a compressed poetic genre in itself.
Asyndeton Stylistic Scheme 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."
Author surrogate Character Character who speaks for the author—sometimes an intentionally or unintentionally idealized version of the author. A well known variation is the Mary Sue or Gary Stu (self-insertion).
Back-story Background exposure Story that precedes events in the story being told—past events or background that add meaning to current circumstances
Bathos Mood that overstates its own pathos or drama.
Bildungsroman A type of novel concerned with education, development, and maturation of a young protagonist. Essentially, a bildungsroman traces the formation of a protagonist's maturity (the passage from childhood to adulthood) by following the development of his/her mind and character.
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.
Caesura Prosody A break, especially a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse, and marked in scansion by a double vertical line, as in "know then thyself ‖ presume not God to scan."
Chekhov's gun Plot Insertion of an apparently irrelevant object early in a narrative for a purpose only revealed later. See foreshadowing and repetitive designation.
Cliffhanger Plot The narrative ends unresolved, to draw the audience back to a future episode for the resolution.
Conceit An extended metaphor associated with metaphysical poetry that pushes the imagination's limits to portray something indescribable.
Cut-up technique The cut-up technique is an aleatory literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linear alternative to traditional reading and writing.
Defamiliarization Forcing the reader to recognize common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, to enhance perception of the familiar
Deleted affair A romantic relationship not referred to in the current story.
Deus ex machina (a machination, or act of god) Plot 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.
Dionysian imitatio The literary method of copying and improving other writers. In Ancient Greece was first formulated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the subsequent Latin rhetoricians adopted this literary method instead of Aristotle's mere imitation of nature.
Dramatic visualization Descriptive 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.[3]
Epiphany A sudden revelation or insight—usually with a symbolic role in the narrative—in a literary work.
Epistolary novel Literary genre Novel in the form of a series of documents (letters, e-mails, etc.) exchanged between characters. Classic examples include Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740), The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771), Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782) and Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).
Eucatastrophe Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien, it refers to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which result in the protagonist's well-being.
Euphuism Named from Euphues (1579) the prose romance by John Lyly. A deliberately excessive use of balanced antitheses emphasised by alliteration.
False documents Literary genre Fiction in the form of, or about, apparently real, but actually fake documents. Examples include Robert Graves's I, Claudius, a fictional autobiography of the Roman emperor, H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon, and the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser. The short stories of Jorge Luis Borges are often written as summaries or criticisms of imaginary books.
First Person Narration A text presented from the point of view of a character (esp. the protagonist) and written in the first person.
Flashback (or analeptic reference) General term for altering time sequences, taking characters back to the beginning of the tale, for instance
Flashforward Also called prolepsis, an interjected 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. This has been highly popularized by the television series Lost.
Foreshadowing Plot Hinting at events to occur later. See also formal patterning, repetitive designation, and Chekhov's gun.
Formal patterning Rigorously organizing events, actions, and gestures that constitute a narrative and shape a story. When done well, formal patterning helps the audience discern and anticipate the plot structure as it unfolds. This technique dates back at least to Arabian Nights,[3] and is also used in Romeo and Juliet. See also foreshadowing.
Frame story, or a story within a story Framing 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 Framing A single action, scene, event, setting, or any element of significance at the beginning and end of a work.
Hamartia The character flaw or error of a tragic hero that leads to his downfall.
Hyperbole Exaggeration used to evoke strong feelings or create an impression which is not meant to be taken literally.
Imagery Forming mental images of a scene using descriptive words, especially making use of the human senses.
Incluing Setting::Background exposure Gradually exposing the reader to background information about the story's world—to subtly clue the readers into the world the author is building—such in as Brave New World. It is the opposite of Infodumping.
Infodumping (also, plot dump) Setting::Background exposure The author puts a concentrated amount of background material, all at once, into the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called "As you know, Bob" conversation) This is the opposite of Incluing.
In medias res Narrative hook Beginning the story in the middle of a sequence of events. 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.
Irony Contextual 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.
Juxtaposition Contextual Using two themes, characters, phrases, words, or situations together for comparison, contrast, or rhetoric
Leitwortstil Poetic Purposefully repeating words that usually express a motif or theme important to the story. This dates back at least to the Arabian Nights.[3]
Magical realism Literary genre Describing events realistically, but in a magical haze of strange local customs and beliefs—particularly popular with Latin American authors like Gabriel García Márquez. Elsewhere, Salman Rushdie's work provides good examples.
Metonymy Word or phrase in a figure of speech in which an attribute of something stands for the thing 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.)
Mooreeffoc (also written Moor Eeffoc) Coined by Charles Dickens and, as used by G. K. Chesterton, meaning "the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle."
Narrative hook Narrative hook Story opening that "hooks" readers' attention so they will keep reading
Overstatement Exaggerating something, often for emphasis (also known as hyperbole)
Onomatopoeia Poetic Word that sounds the same as, or similar to what the word means, e.g., "boom" or "squish"
Oxymoron Contextual A term made of two words that deliberately or coincidentally imply each other's opposite, e.g. "terrible beauty"
Paradox Contextual A phrase that describes an idea composed of concepts that conflict, e.g., "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (A Tale of Two Cities)
Parody Genre, Contextual Ridicule by overstated imitation, usually humorous, as in MAD Magazine
Pastiche Genre 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.
Pathetic fallacy Reflecting a character's (usually the protagonist) mood in the atmosphere or inanimate objects—for example, the storm in William Shakespeare's King Lear, which mirrors Lear's mental deterioration.
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.
Personification Personification Using comparative metaphors and similes to give living characteristics to non-living objects.
Plot device Plot Object or character whose sole purpose is to advance the plot
Plot twist Plot Unexpected change ("twist") in the direction or expected outcome of the plot. See also twist ending.
Poetic justice Plot Virtue ultimately rewarded, or vice punished, by an ironic twist of fate related to the character's own conduct
Predestination paradox Plot Time travel paradox where a time traveler is caught in a loop of events that "predestines" them to travel back in time
Polysyndeton Stylistic Scheme 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".
Quibble Plot device 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 Plot device A rhetorical tactic of 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.
Repetitive designation Plot device Repeated references to a character or object that appears insignificant at first, but later suddenly intrudes in the narrative, a technique that dates back, at least, to Arabian Nights.[4] See also foreshadowing and Chekhov's gun.
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.
Satire The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices.
Sensory detail Descriptive Imagery, sight, sound, taste, touch, smell
Side story Background narrative that explains the world of the main story. Examples include Mahabharata, Ramayana, Gundam, Doctor Who and The Matrix
Story within a story (Hypodiegesis) Framing A story told within another story. See also frame story.
Stream of consciousness Literary genre Technique where the author writes down their thoughts as fast as they come, typically to create an interior monologue, characterized by leaps in syntax and punctuation that trace a character's fragmentary thoughts and sensory feelings.
Symbolism Applied use of symbols: iconic representations that carry particular conventional meanings.
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.
Ticking clock scenario Threat of impending disaster—often used in thrillers where salvation and escape are essential elements
Tone Overall attitude an author appears to hold toward key elements of the work—the novel Candide makes fun of its characters' suffering, while The Sorrows of Young Werther takes its protagonist's suffering very seriously. Strictly speaking, tone is generally an effect of literary techniques, on the level of a work's overall meaning or effect. The tone of a whole work is not itself a literary technique. However, the tone of a work, especially in a discrete section, may help create the overall tone, effect, or meaning of the work.
Understatement Contextual A diminishing or softening of a theme or effect. Examples include The Informers and Norwegian Wood.
Unreliable narrator Plot device 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.
Verfremdungseffekt Literary technique Alienating or distancing the audience from a play's emotional content—popularized by 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht.
Word play Sounds of words used as an aspect of the work.
Writer's voice Combination of the various structural aspects of an author's writing style.

Note: In the context of a play, literary devices are referred to as dramatic devices.

See also

See also figure of speech (such as alliteration, simile, metaphor, metonymy), that is a use of words or phrases that departs from straightforward, literal language. Figures of speech are often used and crafted for emphasis, freshness of expression, or clarity. However, clarity may also suffer from their use. Many poems, short stories, and novels use figures of speech.


  1. ^ a b c Carla Benedetti (1999) The empty cage: inquiry into the mysterious disappearance of the author pp.117-8
  2. ^ Viktor Shklovsky (1917) Art as Technique
  3. ^ a b c Heath (1994) p.360
  4. ^ Heath (1994) p.359


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