Common Literary Devices

common literary devicesWhen you were in college, high school, or junior high (or maybe you’re in one of those places right now), you often heard your English teacher talk about “literary devices.” Unless you were one of those for whom English and literature were easy, you probably began imagining some sort of odd little machine that spits out poems when you hear that term. This may or may not be you, but even if you were good at English in school, you could probably do with a refresher on literary devices.

You think you don’t need to review some of these? OK, smart guy, what’s the difference between dramatic irony and situational irony? Had enough? What’s the only kind of characterization you will find in a book or story with a 1st-person point of view?

Do you see now why you might need to review some of these things? Hope so. If you’re here today because you have to write about literature in any way, you might want to take a look at an online course on that very topic, called “How to Write a Killer Literature Review.” It will get into more detail than we possibly can here, as we give you a broad overview of the basic literary elements you need to know if you read, write, or even think about doing one or both of those things.

The Four Basic Literary Elements

Let’s jump in with both feet, shall we? OK, you’re in literary boot camp. We’ll take nothing for granted, so that we can enable you to know what you’re reading (or writing) and, perhaps more importantly, to sound like you know what you’re talking about if you talk or write about it.

The simplest way to think about basic literary elements is to use the model of the questions that reporters are supposed to ask: the famous “five Ws.” But wait, you’re probably thinking, he said there were four basic literary elements didn’t he? Yes, I did. We’ll combine two of the “five Ws” into one for our purposes. Don’t worry.

Let’s begin with “Who.” That’s the characters, the people who do things and have things done to them in the story. You need to know who the characters are and to keep track of them throughout a narrative. But this is the easy stuff…

Next is the “What.” That’s the plot. Plot is, simply put, what happens in a story. Plot is the sequence of events that make up a narrative. In other words, plot is what most people talk about when asked, “Oh, you saw that movie? What was it about?” The response is usually a plot summary: the main events of the film, in order. And the “in order” part is very important, don’t forget. Plot is key. If you don’t know what happened, you don’t know much, do you?

Next is the “Where,” combined with the “When.” These merge to form the setting. Setting is what you know about where and when the story is supposed to take place. Sometimes, these can be very important, but at other times, not so much. For example, if a story takes place between two lovers, one a US Navy Ensign and the other a Hawaiian girl with strict parents, and the story starts in Pearl Harbor on December 6th, 1941, then the setting is going to be extremely important in that story. If you have a story about a boy and his troubles with another boy on his little league team during the championship game, the setting may not be as important. It could be 1995 or 2005, Milwaukee or San Francisco, and little about the story might change.

Last of the basic four is the “Why,” or theme. This is the most misunderstood of the basic literary elements, and one worth talking about in some depth. Theme is not just a word, or the subject of the story. Theme is far, far more. It is why the story was written in the first place, the message the author is trying to convey. If this seems hazy, let me clarify a bit.

Here is a simple way to understand theme. Let’s think about Romeo and Juliet. We all read it in high school, and rightly so. It’s a great play and one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies. What is the subject of Romeo and Juliet? Most would say something like “love,” or perhaps “loyalty.” Those are fine answers. Now, take the subject of whatever narrative you’re talking about and ask yourself this: What is this author trying to say about this subject? How does he or she seem to feel about this subject, based on what happens in this story? So, by that system, we must simply ask ourselves, “What is Shakespeare trying to tell us about love in Romeo and Juliet?” The answer may come back, “Love is impossible.” Great! That’s a theme for the play. Another answer could be, “Love can drive you crazy.” That’s another great theme. Or maybe you lean more towards “Love is more important than family loyalty.” Hah! Now you’ve got it!

You may be worried now, since there seems to be no one “correct” theme for Romeo and Juliet. You’d be right to think that, but wrong to worry. Every work of literature has multiple themes, which can be stated in multiple ways. As long as the theme you come up with is stated in a full sentence and is a statement about one or more of the clear subjects of the story, you can’t go wrong. In other words, while “Love can make you crazy” is a viable theme for Romeo and Juliet, “Cheeseburgers make me happy” is not.

If a work of literature is a house, then theme is the foundation, and the setting, plot, and characters combine to form the frame. Now we’ll look at the finishing work: the floors, the walls, the windows, and even some of the paint and carpeting. In other words, the literary devices that make up the sixth addition to the “Five Ws,” the “how.” If you’re knee-deep in literature at the college or high school level and want a good model for how to get the most out of a classic novel, you might want to check out this online course on understanding Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.”


Conflict is the basis of all literature. Characters must come into conflict in some way for there to be any tension in a story, to provide motivation for the characters to do what they do. Conflict comes in many forms. The most basic is “character vs. character.” You might remember it as “man vs. man” if you went to school a while back, before they made things politically correct. “Character vs. character” is the type of conflict that results when one character is opposed to another. In a movie like “Rocky,” for example, we can say that one of the conflicts Rocky has is with Apollo Creed, his opponent in the fight. This is a basic “character vs. character” conflict. Both have opposite aims: to defeat the other

Conflict also comes in other flavors. The most common is also present in “Rocky,” and is known as “character vs. self.” This type of conflict is also known as “internal conflict,” while all the others are “external.” In other words, if a character has a struggle within him or herself, an inability to make a decision (think of Hamlet), or doubts about whether he or she “can do it,” (as in “Rocky”), that is “character vs. self” conflict.

Conflicts can also arise of the following types: “character vs. society,” “character vs. nature,” and “character vs. machine.” Take some time and think about which applies to whatever you’re reading or writing.  If you are a writer, you might want to take a look at this online course, “Novel Writing,” to get you started using these elements and devices.


Characterization is the way in which we (the readers or viewers) find out about what type of person a character is. There are two types: Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization.

Direct Characterization happens only in 3rd-person point-of-view stories, and occurs when the narrator tells the reader directly about a character. If you’re reading a novel and the text reads something like, “Frank was a tall man, and was generally found to be quite intimidating by most people he met, although babies were fond of him,” that’s Direct Characterization. The narrator has told us what we need to know about Frank.

However, Indirect Characterization occurs when we find out about a character in an indirect way. A common example is when another character says something about the character in question. If in the imaginary novel about “Frank” we saw Frank’s brother say to his wife, “My brother Frank is the laziest man in the world,” that’s indirect characterization. Or if there is a 1st person narrator who is a character in the story tells us something about Frank (“Frank and I went to high school together, and when we sat next to each other in Mrs. Fishbein’s algebra class, I learned just how honest Frank really is.”), then that, too, is indirect characterization. Another way you may encounter indirect characterization is through things a character says, or his or her body language. If Frank is asked about whether he wants to go out to a club and says, “Umm, well, I don’t know—you see, I really have to get up early tomorrow, and my mother has been sick and wanted me to stop by later, and—“ then we know that he is the sort of man who doesn’t like to say “no” just from his response.


Another basic element in any narrative is the use of imagery. Imagery is the way that authors create mental pictures with words. In other words, it’s a way for authors to make you “see” what they want you to in your mind’s eye. When an author paints an elaborate picture with words of what something looks like, spending a lot of time on how people are standing or doing something, or how they look, it’s a good bet that they have imagery in mind. An “image” per se, is one of the mind pictures.

In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Romeo says “But soft! What light from yonder window breaks? / It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” Aside from the fact that this is a metaphor equating Juliet with the sun (metaphor is generally seen more in poetry and song lyrics than anywhere else), these words create an image in our minds’ eyes: Juliet’s beauty is so great that when she emerges from the window, she is as dazzling as the sunrise. We imagine her almost glowing, and may in fact actually picture her that way. That’s OK, because it was what Shakespeare wanted. How do I know what he wanted? Well, he wouldn’t have created that image if he didn’t, or any of the other images in the play that compare Juliet with bright, shining, or glowing things. When an author uses imagery in a consistent way like that, we call it an image pattern.

Summing Up

These are, of course, only the basics, and just the basics that you’ll encounter in most narrative forms of literature. There is, of course, more that you’ll encounter in poetry, but that’s for another day. If poetry is your thing, you might want to check out this online course on the Romantic poets, called “Providence Learning Romantics.” There’s also another good blog entry by Tom Farr that gives more examples of some literary devices, called “Examples of Literary Devices.”

Happy reading!