The term "literary device" refers to some common techniques that writers use to add meaning to their writing and get their message across more poignantly. When mastered, literary devices can help your reader interpret your scenes and understand your ideas with greater depth.
There are hundreds of literary devices to choose from, but let’s talk about some of the ones that will add layers to your writing.
The foil is a character in your novel who shows the opposite characteristics of another character, usually portrayed to show the difference between two things. Most often, a foil is used to contrast the main character to heighten their importance.
The most popular foil is perhaps in the novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Hyde is the evil portion of Dr. Jekyl brought to life through a scientific experiment. The premise to this literary device is to show that there are two sides to every person.
To master a foil, think about the development of your characters. Then devise a subordinating character with the characteristics and personality traits that make your main character stand out, either as virtuous, smart, caring, or any other strong trait you want to emphasize.
Another great example is the Wizard of Oz. Think of the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy throws water on her. “What a world, what a world. Who would have thought that a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness.” Goodness juxtaposed with wickedness.
This is when you bring in characters or events from another story to amplify or add context to your own work. An allusion can be risky because your reader may not have read what you’re referring to. Probably the most common allusions are those made to the Bible:
Leslie was the Good Samaritan, helping me pick up my books the bullies had scattered around the school yard.
After suffering for days through mucus, fever, and nausea, she arose like Lazarus one morning to greet the sunshine.
But there are some other allusions that are just as powerful:
She turned to her best friend. “Et tu, Brute?”
“Don’t be such a Scrooge,” Daphne said as she opened her wallet.
The key to mastering allusion is not to refer to the person, place, or thing in detail. It’s a mere mention, a passing comment, that you expect your reader to spot and grasp its importance.
Similar to a foil character, mirroring characters share several qualities meant to complement each other and to highlight those traits. You can have mirroring characters on parallel plot lines working towards a single goal, but test them in different ways.
Think of the ways Harry, Hermione, and Ron complement each other as they strive to reach their various goals in the Harry Potter series. The interactions between them help readers explore themes and thoughts and reactions.
You can use multiple mirrors characters to help your main character learn and grow, strengthening his or her evolution. You can also use mirrors to compare and contrast inner conflicts through their thoughts or dialogue.
A great example of the use of mirroring characters that show the depth of change for the main character is in A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley is the perfect mirror of Ebenezer Scrooge at the outset of the story. But by the end of the story, Tiny Tim is the mirror to show the change that Scrooge underwent.
Think of how one character who initially may lack some important character trait can learn and grow through a mirror character who exudes that trait.
Verbal, Situational and Dramatic Irony
There are several kinds of irony that can be employed in your writing.
Verbal irony is a figure of speech that shows your meaning is opposite to the actual meaning of the words you choose.
- After a long day of clearing brush and planting seeds, Jenny dragged her tired body home. "Can you fix dinner now?" asked her father. Jenny closed her eyes for a moment. "I’d love nothing more."
Situational irony is when something happens to your main character that’s quite different from what’s anticipated.
Imagine your main character dates the love of her life in college, but he breaks up with her and starts dating someone else. Your character eventually recovers from her heartbreak, focuses on her career and is offered her dream job…which just happens to be in the same small town that her ex and his girlfriend now live.
Dramatic irony is when your readers know a more about a situation than your characters do. It’s the feeling you get when Romeo drinks the poison, but you, the reader, know that Juliet is not really dead. "NO! DON'T DO IT! SHE'S JUST IN A TEMPORARY COMA!"
Hitchcock said it best:
"Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!'" - Alfred Hitchcock
Readers love having insider knowledge. Take advantage of that to keep them hooked.
Throw your readers or your characters off track by introducing a red herring. This is something dropped in that diverts attention or forces them to come to false conclusions.
A red herring can be powerful in today’s literature. Think of the novel Gone Girl. The red herring is Amy Elliot Dunne’s diary. It leads the reader off in a completely different direction from the truth and then there is an amazing moment of shock for the reader when the truth is revealed.
Commonly used in mystery and thriller novels, a perfectly explored red herring can lead your reader or your main character along paths that keep them guessing throughout. Think of Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Clues are dropped throughout the book that seem to lead to his role at the center of the conspiracy so the reader is shocked when it turns out that he too was just a pawn played by the true mastermind. What you may not have realized is that the character’s name is an Italian translation of the term (aringa means “herring” and rosa means “red”).
A red herring can be a powerful plot twist that will keep your reader glued to the page and evoke an emotional response.
You are probably familiar with this common literary device. This is when you reveal small bits of information early in your story that suggest to your reader what may happen in the end.
- Susan left for work, never guessing that this would be the last time she set foot in her house.
In this case, almost no details are revealed, but you know that something dramatic will happen to Susan and you keep turning pages to find out what.
In Game of Thrones, several characters have dreams or visions that reveal cryptic information about a future event, creating a sense of dramatic irony. But…to complicate things further, some of those prophesies turn out to be red herrings!
You don’t have to use a literary device on every page. But a few sprinkled here and there in your story give it greater depth and meaning for your readers.
As in anything in life, a balance of literary devices can move your reader along and affect your narrative in positive ways that will have them turning the pages until the very end.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)