Saturday, 8 March 2014

Literary devices – Improve your narrative - Part 1

When we talk about literary devices, it is referring to the kind of elements that writers employ to enrich and improve the narrative in order to give greater depth and meaning to a story. In other words, they help the reader ‘read between the lines’.
Some literary devices are obvious - metaphor, symbolism or foreshadowing.  But there are plenty of other literary devices available that are less well known, and sometimes less commonly used, but they still emphasise and bring strength to the narrative; things like assonance, euphony, connotation and allusion etc.
Literary devices are numerous, and writers don’t have to use every one in existence or use them on every page. They only need use a few dotted throughout a novel to enhance the story and give it deeper meaning for the reader.
In effect, they are there to benefit the writing as much as the writer and reader, if writers are willing to use them.
Most writers rarely think about anything deeper than the basic structure and flow of the story. How many of us consciously think about metaphor or symbolism? How many of us ponder the assonance of sentences? How many of us muse about making analogies, or foreshadowing? 
The answer is not many.
But should we? The thing for writers to remember is that writing isn’t just about stringing a story together.  So much more is involved.  While we can’t always consciously remember everything there is to know about the craft, we can try to remember as much as possible when it comes to adding those flourishes at editing stage to give the story more substance.
They are there, after all, there to make the story so much more than just mere words on a white background. If the opportunity arises to create a metaphor, do so.  If you can create assonance, then do so.  If you have the chance to foreshadow, then go for it.
The literary devices that you will probably be familiar with are as follows:-
  • Metaphor
  • Analogy
  • Foreshadowing
  • Simile
  • Symbolism
  • Characterisation
  • Alliteration
Let’s look at them in more detail.
Almost all writers will have heard what metaphor is, even if they don’t always understand it.
Metaphors are a great way to add colourful brushstrokes to the narrative, ways to engage the reader beyond the words they read. They are used by writers to make a comparison between people, things, animals, or places and they range from the simple to complex, but some famous examples are ‘life is a box of chocolates’, ‘all the world's a stage…’ and ‘a light in the sea of darkness.’
Each one of these examples has a deeper meaning if you look beyond the surface.
Analogy is also a common device used by writers. They are used whenever they want to show comparisons between two different things to show a similarity. For instance, ‘like a fish out of water’ is a well-known analogy.  In other words, being in a situation that is alien or uncomfortable make you literally like a fish out of water.
Foreshadowing is a famous literary device, and one of my favourite ways to show the reader the things that might happen later in the story. It’s not just about telling the story outright; it’s about bringing every layer of the story to life for the reader. Foreshadowing as a literary device is a great way to allow the reader to dig beneath the different layers and discover stuff for themselves.
The simplest example is the use of dark clouds approaching. This could foreshadow bad things to happen later in the story.  The use of a raven is commonplace; death always follows. Or perhaps you can use it in dialogue between characters who may hint at something.
Simile is similar to metaphor, but works slightly differently, because it is a figure of speech that compares two things or people, but which are not similar. For instance, ‘bright as a button’ is a figure of speech, and we generally understand its meaning despite the two aspects ‘bright’ and ‘button’ being completely dissimilar.
You don’t have to use simile, but if the opportunity is there, then add it.
Another favourite of mine is symbolism. I use this a lot in my fiction. It allows the writer to hint at certain themes without being too obvious, by veiling deeper meanings in the narrative and making the reader delve deeper into the text.
Writers do this by using colour, sounds, objects, weather and so on.  For instance, I find the use of colour to be quite revealing, so I use this to symbolise different themes in a story, particularly the colours red and black, because of their associations with life, death or mortality.
Characterisation is something every writer will know all about. You probably think characterisation doesn’t count as a literary device, but it does, because it is vital to any story.
Good characters drive your story, so make them stand out, make them memorable, make them different. Make the reader care about them. The better your characterisation, the better the story you create.
Alliteration is a great literary device, and not always used to potential. Words that start with the same sound and are used close together in a phrase or sentence is alliteration. For example, ‘the sky seemed to sigh, soft against the breeze’. The ‘s’ sound makes the sentence come alive; it creates imagery for the reader.  Or what about ‘clean, cold and clinical’ or ‘beneath barbed bushes, he waited...’
The use of alliteration gives a poetic feel to sentences.
With the exception of characterisation, which is a constant throughout the story, you can use any of these devices, but don’t overload the narrative.
There are, of course, less known literary devices available to writers, and are not used as much, but they’re effective nonetheless:-
  • Euphony
  • Connotation
  • Allusion
  • Assonance
  • Motif
In part 2 we’ll take a closer look at these less known literary devices, and how they can affect the narrative in a positive way.
Next week: Literary devices – Improve your narrative - Part 2


  1. Looking forward to Part 2.

  2. I just discovered your blog. My word! This is as good as any college class I've ever taken in the art of creative writing. Excuse me now while I go read the last few years worth of your articles.

    1. Thanks! Hope you find some useful advice. And if you don't find something you're looking for, you can always ask.