13 Literary Devices Professional Writers Love to Use
Some literary devices double as rhetorical devices, which are used to convey meaning and/or persuade readers on a certain point. The difference is that we use literary devices, elements and techniques to enhance writing in many different ways, not all of which involve trying to convince readers of something.
1. Cumulative sentence
A cumulative sentence (or “loose sentence”) is one that starts with an independent clause, but then has additional or modifying clauses. They’re often used for contextual or clarifying details. This may sound complex, but even, “I ran to the store to buy milk, bread, and toilet paper” is a cumulative sentence, because the first clause, “I ran to the store,” is a complete sentence, while the rest tells us extra information about your run to the store.
Examples of Cumulative sentence in Literature
From “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee: “He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch’s industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.”
In this quote, Harper Lee uses a cumulative sentence to describe Atticus Finch’s connection to Maycomb. The sentence starts with the main clause “He liked Maycomb,” and then adds several modifying phrases that provide more information about his ties to the town and its people.
From “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen: “She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it.”
In this example, Jane Austen employs a cumulative sentence to convey Elizabeth Bennet’s conflicting emotions and thoughts. The sentence begins with “She was humbled, she was grieved,” and continues with additional modifying phrases that depict her changing feelings.
Cumulative sentences are often used by authors to create descriptive and flowing prose, allowing them to add multiple details and nuances to their writing, which can enhance the reader’s understanding and emotional connection to the story.
2. In Medias Res
In medias res is a Latin term that means “in the midst of things” and is a way of starting a narrative without exposition or contextual information. It launches straight into a scene or action that is already unfolding.
Example: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” — The opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
If you’re a neat freak who likes things just so, isocolon is the literary device for you. This is when two or more phrases or clauses have similar structure, rhythm, and even length — such that, when stacked up on top of each other, they would line up perfectly. Isocolon often crops up in brand slogans and famous sayings; the quick, balanced rhythm makes the phrase catchier and more memorable. Isocolon is a rhetorical scheme in which parallel elements possess the same number of words or syllables. As in any form of parallelism, the pairs or series must enumerate like things to achieve symmetry.
Example: Veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)
An isocolon is a stylistic device that uses a series of clauses with the same grammatical structure and length. It is often used to emphasize a contrast between two ideas, but can also be used as a simple way to add emphasis to a single idea.
Litotes (pronounced lie-toe-teez) is the signature literary device of the double negative. Writers use litotes to express certain sentiments through their opposites, by saying that that opposite is not the case. Don’t worry, it makes more sense with the examples.
Examples: “You won’t be sorry” (meaning you’ll be happy); “you’re not wrong” (meaning you’re right); “I didn’t not like it” (meaning I did)
Instead of using a single conjunction in a lengthy statements, polysyndeton uses several in succession for a dramatic effect. This one is definitely for authors looking to add a bit of artistic flair to their writing, or who are hoping to portray a particular (usually naïve) sort of voice.
Example: “Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.” — The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Soliloquy involves a character speaking their thoughts aloud, usually at length (and often in a Shakespeare play). The character in question may be alone or in the company of others, but they’re not speaking for the benefit of other people; the purpose of a soliloquy is for a character to reflect independently.
Example: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech, in which he ruminates on the nature of life and death, is a classic dramatic soliloquy.
A tautology is when a sentence or short paragraph repeats a word or phrase, expressing the same idea twice. Often, this is a sign that you should trim your work to remove the redundancy (such as “frozen ice”) but can also be used for poetic emphasis.
Example: “But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
Tmesis is when a word or phrase is broken up by an interjecting word, such as abso-freaking-lutely. It’s used to draw out and emphasize the idea, often with a humorous or sarcastic slant.
Example: “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” – Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Paraprosdokian (pair-uh-prahz-DOHK-ee-in) is a figure of speech wherein a sentence or phrase takes an unexpected twist, leading to a surprising—and often humorous—ending. Paraprosdokians use the element of surprise to upend audience expectations and create a humorous or dramatic effect.
C. Fields: “Philadelphia, wonderful town. I spent a week there one night.”
Joan Rivers: “I was born in 1962. And the room next to me was 1963.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put paraprosdokians to good use, including in his assessment of Americans: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else.”
Churchill didn’t always use paraprosdokians for humorous effect. His famous remark “If you are going through hell, keep going” uses its surprising semantic twist to inspire his audience.
Examples of Paraprosdokians in Literature
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In Chapter Three of Adams’s comedic novel, he describes alien ships preparing to destroy Earth by saying:
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
This humorous use of paraprosdokian both entertains the reader and sets up the ships’ impending landing.
Anastrophe is a figure of speech wherein the traditional sentence structure is reversed. So a typical verb-subject-adjective sentence such as “Are you ready?” becomes a Yoda-esque adjective-verb-subject question: “Ready, are you?” Or a standard adjective-noun pairing like “tall mountain” becomes “mountain tall.”
Example: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.” — The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Exposition is when the narrative provides background information in order to help the reader understand what’s going on. When used in conjunction with description and dialogue, this literary device provides a richer understanding of the characters, setting, and events. Be careful, though — too much exposition will quickly become boring, thus undercutting the emotional impact of your work.
Example: “The Dursley’s had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.” – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
Flashbacks to previous events split up present-day scenes in a story, usually to build suspense toward a big reveal. Flashbacks are also an interesting way to present exposition for your story, gradually revealing to the reader what happened in the past.
Example: Every other chapter in the first part of Gone Girl is a flashback, with Amy’s old diary entries describing her relationship with her husband before she disappeared.
Similar term: foreshadowing
A pun, also rarely known as paronomasia, is a form of word play that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or figurative language.
Homophonic Pun Examples
Puns that play with sound use homophones to convey distorted meanings. Here are some common pun examples based on sound:
- Not using conditioner is a hair-brained idea. (Instead of hare-brained)
- Atheism is a non-prophet organization. —George Carlin (Instead of non-profit)
- The motorbike was two-tired to stand on its own. (Instead of too tired)
- The egotistical shrimp was a little shellfish. (Instead of selfish)
- “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” —Mark Twain (Instead of The Nile)
Literary Devices: Pun Examples in Literature
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Here’s an excerpt from Alice’s first encounter with the Mouse:
“‘Mine is a long and a sad tale!’ said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing. ‘It is a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’ And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking.”
The conversation goes unexpectedly because each character hears a different spelling of the word “tail / tale.” This kind of humorous misunderstanding is also known as a mondegreen.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations, is a small and misunderstood orphan boy, and his remaining family and fellow townsfolk tend to think they know what’s best for him. At one point, Pip remarks this to the reader:
“They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation to me, every now and then, and stick the point into me.”
The double usage of “point” is a pun meaning two different things: the point of the conversation points into Pip. In other words, every time the conversation turns on Pip, it seems to cut into him. This rather serious paronomasia evinces both Pip’s precocious mind and the unkind society he grows up under.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
In Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio—one of Romeo’s closest friends—is killed at the hands of Tybalt, turning the play from a comedy to a tragedy. As he dies, Mercutio says this:
“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”
Mercutio’s use of the word “grave” is a pun. To be a grave man means to be utterly serious, but Mercutio means this to say he will be dead—in the grave. Always the comic, Mercutio even uses his own death as joking material.
5 Tips for Writing Puns
The hare who wouldn’t stop playing with words was quite a punny rabbit. As you can see, I love puns. Sure, they’re not the highest of art forms (though Alfred Hitchcock disagrees), but language is fun and interesting and ripe for experimentation. Here’s a few ideas for writing puns in your own work:
1. Play with Rhymes
Try taking a common phrase, changing one of the consonants in that phrase, and then writing about that phrase under the new meaning you’ve given it. For example, instead of the phrase “snug as a bug in a rug,” you might write “smug as a thug in a tug.” Then, give context: make a joke about a murderer getting away on a tugboat, or even write a story around that single pun.
It might seem a little easy to base a story around a pun, but there’s literary history here. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, begins with a character named Jack Worthing, a dishonest gentleman. At the end of the play, he becomes trustworthy and also has changed his name to Earnest, so he has learned the importance of “being earnest,” both in the literal sense and the nominative sense.
(No, Oscar Wilde might not have written an entire play to make a single pun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t!)
2. Play with Homophones and Homographs
The English language is filled with homophones and homographs. Many of our words sound the same to each other, and one word can have hundreds of definitions. Experiment with this!
In one of the above pun examples in literature, we mentioned a pun that was also a mondegreen. Homographic and homophonic puns can also take the form of zeugmas, syllepses, paraprosdokians, or other literary devices. Choose a word, find a homophone or homograph, and go wild.
3. Use Free Association
Free association is a writing technique in which you let your mind wander freely about the page. By giving yourself a topic to write on and letting your pen loose, you can come up with connections, or “associations,” that you might not have found if you had written with tight control over your words.
So, pick a word, then let your mind loose. Maybe your mind is a hunter, rifling through a dictionary. Or it’s a pig going ham with language. Or it’s a beast going wild with wordplay.
4. Experiment with Grammar
English grammar, just like the English language in general, gets confusing. Use that to your advantage, and you might develop new and witty puns.
We saw this experimentation with grammar in Lolita. By playing with periods and commas, Nabokov played with the words “soda pop” by describing the town of “Soda, pop. 1001.” In your own writing, making use of grammar and punctuation can certainly produce novel, exciting possibilities in language.
5. Be Referential
Puns make for witty, interesting references, so long as you write them the right way. For example, most people are familiar with the novel War & Peace, which makes the monaker “Warren Peace” (for musician Geoffrey Alexander MacCormack) incredibly funny.
But, one of the trickiest aspects in writing puns is the use of references. For example, I might tell you that I “thoroughly enjoyed reading Civil Disobedience” but if you don’t know that that book was written by Thoreau (rhymes with thorough), you won’t see the joke. Or, if there’s a learning and confidence curve to writing puns, I might say it abides by the “Punning Krueger effect”—but you would need to know about the Dunning-Krueger effect first.
Punny references should be tactful and universal to your audience. But, when the pun lands right, it will thoroughly amuse and delight the reader.