Teachers introduce many literary terms for high school students early in their English classes. Many of these terms are repeated through each successive year. Students benefit by learning these terms when they see the different types of figurative language repeated on television, in movies, and in their favorite books.
Examples of Literary Elements
The rule of thumb when it comes to identifying a literary element is, "Does the work have to have this?" Literary elements are aspects shared by all written works, from scientific reports to slam poetry.
- Genre refers to the type of literary work being written. It can refer to high-level distinctions like fiction and nonfiction, or to much more specific categories. As a rule, the word "genre" only refers to the overall type of a story. If further distinctions are made, they are usually distinctions of subgenre. For instance, horror is a genre, of which cosmic horror, psychological horror and survival horror are all subgenres.
- Structure refers to the distinct components of the literary work. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, all literature has some structure by which it conveys meaning to the reader.
- Tone is the overall sense the author seeks to induce in the reader. This can be a simple concept, as in, "This is a nonfiction scientific report and the tone is authoritative and backed with evidence." It can also be subtle and shifting throughout the work, as in, "This novel incorporates elements of both horror and satire, both unsettling and amusing the reader."
- Voice can overlap with tone, but represents a fundamentally different concept. While tone comes down to what is conveyed to the reader, voice is a question of how the writer "sounds" throughout the work. The most basic and important question of voice is number. That is, is it first person singular ("I walked into work that day") or third-person omniscient ("Sarah walked into work that day with no idea what was in store for her")?
Examples of Literary Devices
As literary devices comprise every technique an author might employ in their work, there are naturally far more of them than there are literary elements. We have gathered several examples of literary devices that affect each of our four listed literary elements.
Genres are the categories that literature fits into. Many people quite correctly say that genre is always imperfect, because literature is constantly evolving and works often fit into none of the preexisting genres. At the same time, having categories for literature makes it easier and more instructive to analyze literary works.
- Free verse is a genre of poetry that follows no set meter or rhyme structure. Classic works of free verse include W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" and Allen Ginsburg's "Howl."
- An ode is a short lyric poem written about, and often in praise of, a specific object. Odes originated in ancient Greece. They can be grand and elevated, as with "Ode on Melancholy" by John Keats, or pleasant and homely, as with Pablo Neruda's "Ode to My Socks."
- Satire is a genre of fiction in which the author mocks aspects of their own society. One classic work of satire is "A Modest Proposal" by the Irish author Jonathan Swift. In this essay, Swift satirizes British oppression of Ireland by recommending they literally eat Irish children, as they have already taken everything else from Ireland. For more examples, see our article on the subject.
- A sonnet is a genre of poem made famous by authors like Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare in 16th and 17th century England. Sonnets are traditionally written in iambic pentameter and are always 14 lines. A traditional Shakespearian sonnet follows the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. A Petrarchan or Italian sonnet will have the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE. Alternatively, the sestet may follow CDCDCD.
- Speculative fiction presents events that could not occur in reality, but could occur according to the rules set forth in the written work. The genre of speculative fiction is intended to encompass fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror, allowing the similarities of these genres to be explored. The great names of speculative fiction are the great names of science fiction, fantasy and horror - like Asimov, Tolkien, and Lovecraft - but the great writers and scholars of speculative fiction as a whole include Ellen Datlow, James Nicoll, and Jeff and Ann Vandermeer.
Check out our article with more genre examples to explore this topic further.
Structure is truly universal in literature. The following are examples of literary devices that affect a work's structure.
- Denouement, literally "the untying," is the resolution or revelation that follows the climax of a story. This is not necessarily the end of a story, but it does represent the conclusion of the story's primary narrative.
- Flashbacks show the audience or reader events that occurred in the past that have important bearing on the story. Often, flashbacks give important insights into the characters or events happening in the later timeline. Flashbacks can be achieved through dream sequences, recollection of memories, or stories told by other characters.
- Plot is a structural element unique to fiction, representing the primary story the fictional work wishes to tell. A plot is fundamental to most forms of prose fiction and often follows a narrative arc.
- Subplot is the story within the story. When a given work has an overarching narrative, it will often also tell smaller stories that prove to have large significance. Shakespeare's works often have subplots running parallel to the main story. For example, Ophelia's descent into madness throughout Hamlet is a subplot to the main story of Hamlet trying to expose his uncle as his father's murderer.
- A thesis is most common in nonfiction work, particularly academic work, but can occur in some forms of fiction as well. A thesis is the overall argument of a written work, the assertion the rest of the text exists to support. Thesis statements are required in most academic papers, and also frequently occur in works of fiction with particular political, religious or social goals.
Fundamentally, using tone in literature is no different than using tone in speech. By changing emphasis, structure or context, a literary work can change not just what the reader is reading, but what impression the reader receives. We've collected several examples of tone and its effects as a literary device.
- Gothic literature is both a genre and a tone. As a genre, it stands specifically in the 18th and 19th centuries, linked to the gloomy work of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. As a tone, however, it has persisted into the modern day, whether taken seriously in the work of Anne Rice or Thomas Ligotti, or made playful in the books of Edward Gorey, the films of Tim Burton and the digital cartoons of Brian Coldrick.
- The formal definition of irony is when something directly contradicts what is expected. Irony can be categorized as verbal, situational, or dramatic. Verbal irony is saying one thing but meaning something different. Situational irony is when something happens that wasn't expected or the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows more than the characters. Review some examples of irony to gain a better understanding.
- Pastoral works use the imagery of agriculture and nature to convey a tone of peace and oneness with the land. The use of pastoral imagery to set a peaceful, relaxing tone goes back to ancient Greece, if not further, but is probably best known in English through British Romantics like William Wordsworth and American balladeers like Henry Longfellow.
- Setting is the physical or emotional place of a story. Settings can be physical places, such as buildings or locations, or they can be abstract, such as a time period or historical social setting. In "Araby," the short story by James Joyce, the social and religious constraints of the society are as much a part of the setting as the house where the main character lives and the carnival that he attends.
- Symbols are physical objects in a story intentionally repeated so that they come to represent abstract concepts. For example, a flag can represent freedom. Some symbols are universally known, like how a skull and crossbones symbolize danger. Some writers construct their own symbols in their writing. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville uses the color white to symbolize the cold and uncaring qualities of nature.
Voice is one of the most important literary devices in making a work unique. No two writers "sound" exactly alike, just as no two speakers sound exactly alike. Nurturing and understanding that voice is what makes writers great. Note that literary voice goes beyond grammatical voice. When we talk about the "voice" of a piece of literature, we mean the unique tonal and creative elements that make it what it is, not just verb tenses.
Dialect is often used to powerful effect in altering a work's voice. By forgoing "proper" English in favor of the language as spoken by a particular culture or in a particular place, authors can convey meaning in ways scrupulously correct grammar cannot. William Faulkner famously recreated the argot of the American South in the early 20th century. Speculative fiction writers have gone even further than Faulkner, creating entirely new dialects in works like A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker.
First-person singular is more than a grammatical term in literary analysis. It also refers to books written as if the author is also the character telling the story. Many classic works of American literature were written in the first person, including Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Using multiple narrators to tell a story is often considered a modern invention, but this unique literary device has its roots in classical tragedy and epic poems. Greek plays counterpointed their dialogue with observations from a masked chorus, and the tradition of using different narrators to comment on earlier parts of a work has persisted to the present day.
Parody is sometimes treated as a genre unto itself, but it is in fact an approach to the voice of a work. Parodic voice is when a work deliberately mimics the voice of something else in order to mock or criticize it. We've collected several examples of parody for your convenience.
Unreliable narrators are a comparatively modern literary device used both to complicate a work's voice and to make it more entertaining. An unreliable narrator is just what it sounds like: a story being told by someone who may not be telling the truth, or even know what the truth is. Twentieth century greats like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov made extensive use of unreliable narrators, and the device has persisted in 21st century classics like Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin.
The Endless Library
The study of literature can be daunting. In a category that contains literally everything ever written down, it can be hard to know where to start or what matters. These terms represent starting points for your exploration of the written word.
If you're a student or educator who wants to go even deeper into literature, take a look at our literary terms worksheet. Poetry and prose have many more literary terms to choose from and to add to a worksheet. In addition, different genres also make up part of the different literary terms. Students and teachers can use these terms as a starting point for further investigation.