Writers use a lot of devices. (I’m not talking about electronics, I’m talking about words.) These devices include rhetorical devices, poetic devices, and literary devices. What are the differences among them? Well, rhetorical devices are used to convince the reader. Poetic devices are used in poetry, and literary devices are used in literature. But you know what? There is a lot of crossover; a creative writer can use the same device in all three situations. So let’s not quibble.
I first wrote about using rhetorical devices two years ago. I’m trying not to duplicate that article here, so if you want to go deeper, please click the above link.
Rhetorical devices are useful for making writing more colorful, more sensual, and more understandable. Here are some examples:
Imagery: description that appeals to the senses. The snow clung to the roof like a layer of vanilla icing. Her lips were as sweet as sugar. The waves roared.
Symbolism: using a word, object, or character to represent an important concept, as in the old Westerns where the good guy wears a white hat, and the bad guys wear black hats.
Motif: a recurring image, symbol, or object that has significance to the theme. In the movie Forrest Gump, a feather repeatedly appears, swirling in the breeze, separating the extraordinary experiences of the very simple protagonist.
Euphemism: substituting a word or phrase for one that might disturb or offend someone. Passed away instead of died. Rest room instead of toilet. Laid off instead of fired.
Foreshadowing: dropping a hint of what is to come, setting up a future event. It can create suspense or dramatic tension. For example, before a woman leaves her home, she slips a gun into her handbag.
Allusion: a brief reference to a song, work of literature, movie, or historical event that the reader would probably be familiar with. This allows the author to squeeze a great deal of meaning into few words. For example, a worker might refer to his superior as he who must not be named.
Colloquialism: informal language, local dialect, or slang of the time. This can aid in making the setting more vivid, as when an Arkansas matron says, “Y’all come in and set awhile.”
Hyperbole: exaggeration to make a point. For example, you are on fire or that cake is so good I want to eat the whole thing.
Onomatopoeia: a word that imitates a sound. For example, the wind whooshed through the trees; his armload of firewood thumped to the floor.
Anastrophe: a reversal of traditional sentence structure, like Yoda-speak. It can distinguish a character, or emphasize one part of the sentence over another. For example, Into the water dove he; or Excited the children were.
Chiasmus: a flipped set of parallel clauses. Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country (John F. Kennedy). When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Take care of your health, and your health will take care of you.
Aphorism: a concise, witty, or proverb-like statement of truth. Two halves make a whole. The pen is mightier than the sword. Autumn is the falling-leaf season.
Hypophora: a rhetorical question immediately answered by the same speaker. Do you like puppies? I looove puppies. Or Will this be on the test? Yes, this will be on the test.
Paradox: a contradictory statement that also, upon reflection, appears to be true. Youth is wasted on the young. Or, The louder you speak, the less they hear. Paradox can be wry, or funny, or profound.
Anthropomorphism: giving human characteristics to something non-human. Often used in children’s literature and animation, such as when animals talk, drive, and wear clothing.
Point of view: also an element of fiction. The perspective from which the story is told; the narrative voice filtered through the narrator’s eyes. This is a critical choice for the author to make, because it determines what can or cannot be revealed to the reader. Virtually everything that is written employs a point of view.
As you work on your writing, try incorporating some of these devices to make your words come alive on the page.
Now it’s your turn. What is a favorite literary device that you like to use, or that you appreciate when you’re reading? It can be one of the above, or one which was not mentioned. Share your thoughts in the comments below.