Top 10 Literary Devices Every Student Should Know

Studying English literature can be an adventure, diving into stories that transport you to different worlds, times, and lives. To effectively tell these stories, you need the right tools. Those are called literary devices! 

Think of these as the secret ingredients that make a story magical, compelling, and memorable. Some people find English a little boring, but when you know what to look for it becomes a scavenger hunt for clues that help you unravel the mystery of the author’s thoughts and intentions.

Here’s a list of the top 10 literary devices you should know, along with tips on how to spot them and use them in your essays.

1. Metaphor

A metaphor is a direct comparison between two unlike things, saying one thing is another to highlight a particular quality or aspect. For example, in Shakespeare’s "As You Like It", he writes, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Here, life is compared to a stage play, emphasizing its theatrical and transient nature.

Tip: Look for statements that equate two different things directly. Discuss how this comparison deepens the meaning of the text.

2. Simile

Similar to a metaphor, a simile compares two things using "like" or "as." For instance, in Robert Burns’ poem, "A Red, Red Rose", he writes, "O my Luve is like a red, red rose." This highlights the beauty and freshness of his love.

Tip: Spot the "like" or "as" and explain what qualities are being compared and why.

3. Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in nearby words. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven", the phrase "Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before" uses alliteration to create a musical effect.

Tip: Point out the repeated sounds and discuss how they contribute to the mood or tone of the passage.

4. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used for emphasis or effect. In Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", Tom says, "I have got to stay here and die." Obviously, he’s exaggerating his distress to make a point.

Tip: Identify exaggerations and explore how they emphasize a character's feelings or the situation's intensity.

5. Personification

Personification gives human characteristics to non-human objects or abstract ideas. For example, in Emily Dickinson's poem, "Because I could not stop for Death", death is personified as a gentleman who takes the speaker on a carriage ride.

Tip: Look for descriptions that attribute human traits to things and discuss how this shapes our understanding of them.

6. Irony

Irony is when there’s a contrast between expectation and reality. In Jane Austen’s "Pride and Prejudice", Mr. Darcy’s initial proposal to Elizabeth Bennet is an example of irony. He expects her to accept, but she rejects him, which is unexpected.

Tip: Identify situations where outcomes are contrary to what was expected and discuss their significance to the story.

7. Symbolism

Symbolism is when an object, character, or event represents a larger idea or theme. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby", the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes Gatsby’s hopes and dreams.

Tip: Pinpoint symbols and analyze what they represent in the context of the narrative.

8. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing gives hints or clues about what will happen later in the story. In "Romeo and Juliet", Shakespeare uses foreshadowing when Romeo says he prefers death to living without Juliet, hinting at their tragic fate.

Tip: Look for subtle hints or statements that suggest future events and explain their importance.

9. Allusion

Allusion is a reference to another work of literature, person, or event. In T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land", he alludes to the Bible, Shakespeare, and other literary works, enriching the text with deeper meanings.

Tip: Identify references and explain how they add depth or context to the story.

10. Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. In Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet", Juliet uses oxymorons like "loving hate" and "heavy lightness" to express her conflicted feelings about Romeo.

Tip: Find these contradictions and discuss how they reveal complex emotions or themes.

Tips for Essays

  • Identify and Define: Clearly state the literary device and define it briefly.
  • Provide Examples: Use quotes from the text to illustrate the device.
  • Analyze: Explain how the device enhances the meaning, theme, or emotion of the work.
  • Connect: Relate the device to the larger narrative or thematic elements of the text.

Understanding and recognising these literary devices will not only help you appreciate the intricacies of literature but also give you a powerful toolkit for your own essays. Happy reading and writing!

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Rahila A


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