The Use of Literary Terms

The phrase ‘literary term’ is used to reference style, technique or formatting used by speakers and writers alike. Literary terms might reference things like humor used by comedians to entice their audience to laugh or brainy tricks used by wordsmiths to coin new phrases or buzzwords. Literary terms might also include persuasive writing tools employed by writers to convince audiences to adopt a certain viewpoint and to drive a specific call to action.

Literary terms can also include figurative ways of speaking that writers might use to summon certain emotional responses from their audience – emotions like guilt, empathy, fear or sadness. Writers often uses these techniques to encourage those reading their work to see the world in a new or unconventional way. Words can be carefully arranged (or rearranged) to create poems, music, etc. They can also be used to animate a story, to develop characters, to draw readers into the action, and to make the audience feel like they are a part of the story.

Literary Terms and Figurative Language

There is value in the use of literary terms. In fact, they are important in a number of different ways. Literary terms permit writers and speakers to comment on trends, politics and even society as a whole. Rhetoric might also be used to bolster arguments and convince audiences to adopt new ways of thinking. Figurative language might be used to elicit emotions and create a broader look of the world. Literary terms have the potential to create different tones (like comedic, serious or even whimsy) through the use of words or tools of persuasion.

When should you use literary terms?

The answer to the question of when to use literary terms isn’t as black and white as one might expect. Proper usage of literary terms will depend quite largely on the specific goals and needs of the writer.

Outlined below are a few examples:

Persuasion: One of the most difficult tasks faced by any writer is the feat of trying to make someone thing differently or see things from a different perspective. People, for the most part, are somewhat stuck in their ways and trepidatious when it comes to changing their views on things like morality, politics or their own personal perspectives.

Persuasion is an extremely valuable tool for a writer, it enables them to alter the perspective of their audience and compel them to act in a specific way. Persuasive tools are typically utilized by those in politics, professional speakers, journalists, and writers of poetry or prose.

You should always use persuasion when your objective is to convince others to see things from a different perspective. Persuasion has no place in journalistic reporting or during times when objective or unbiased opinions are needed.

Common Terms

Satire: Satire refers to novels, plays, poems or films that use irony, comedy, exaggeration or mockery to criticize the weakness of a certain institution, person or situation.

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question refers to a question that the asker does not really seek the answer for. Rhetorical questions are used in daily conversations and in speeches. For example:

  • Why would anyone do something like that?
  • How much longer will this continue?
  • You are kidding me, right?

Figurative Language: Over centuries, poets and regular people have used language to create imagery, celebrate the beauty of nature, compliment people who are important to them, and more. Figurative language is used in writing to appeal to the senses of the audience. Instead of following the principles of logic or literalness, figurative language makes connections based on sound, connotation, and the construction of phrases and words.

Figurative language develops links between things that might not otherwise have a connection. It encourages creative, complicated thought processes that develop into strange, uncommon or beautiful concepts. Figurative language enables writers to move past logical realms of thinking in order to see things in a new way.

Figurative language is most often used in poetry, speeches and songs. Figurative language should never be taken literally, meaning that it has no place in scientific or technical writing.

Common Terms

Metaphor: A metaphor is a vivid and direct comparison of two things that would otherwise be unrelated. Metaphors find the link between two dissimilar things and place emphasis on their similarity without being taken at face value. Here are a few examples:

  • Her eyes were diamonds.
  • He is the black sheep of the family
  • His attitude was fire

Hyperbole: Hyperbole is an overly exaggerated statement or concept that is meant to be taken figuratively and not literally. Hyperbole takes certain elements and exaggerates them for dramatic or comedic effect. Here are a few examples:

  • I am so hungry I could eat a horse!
  • That was the best pizza I have ever eaten in my entire life.
  • I’d kill for a Snickers bar.

Plot and Character Devices

A story cannot exist without a plot or characters. Events need to unfold, and there must be interesting and memorable people who are not only flawed, but also capable of changing and remaining active in their world. Plots do not always need to be linear or simple, they can be just as complex and unpredictable as the characters the stories are built around.

Plot and character devices are important because they reveal just how complicated compositions can be when you add in a variety of different elements that piece the puzzles of the story together. Stories of all types require a variety of plot and character devices in order to shape their development and convey meaning.

Plot and character devices are the elements of the story that could be told in multiple forms like prose, poetry, song, television, and more.

Common Terms

Flashback: Flashback refers to the moment where a linear story ceases and reveals an event that happens in the past. Flashbacks are often used to deliver additional information about the present and to further develop the character and the plot in a manner that is more interesting and compelling than a chronological plot might.

Climax: Climax is the single most important element of a plot, all of the drama that has been developing throughout the story must reach a breaking point and someone or something must change. The climax is regarded as the most meaningful, suspenseful and dramatic moment in the entire story.

Sound and Rhythm: The way things are worded can create poetry, rhythm and meaning for readers or listeners. As an example, poetry functions on syllable counts, line arrangement, sound usages, and pattern-making. Soft S’s create calmness, hard Ks create chaos. Sound and rhythm can help to develop speeches, songs, etc.

Common Terms

Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of specific sounds at the start of words or phrases. Alliteration is used to develop rhythm through repetition and to conjure emotion attached to specific sounds. For example:

  • Shelly swam swiftly and smoothly to the shore
  • Karen conjures crazy chants
  • Beth bowls badly

Onomatopoeia:  The word onomatopoeia refers to those words that sound like the things that they describe. Onomatopoeias develop a visual reading experience, and helps to create imagery through words. For example:

  • The car crashed with a BANG!
  • The leaves rustled in the whirring wind
  • The ocean waves crashed against the shore.


You’ve likely heard something be described as ‘punny’. Punny is a play on words –  or a portmanteau – in this example, it is a combination of the words pun and funny, used to describe a funny pun. Wordplay is simply the act of rearranging words in a manner that is creative in order to change, emphasise or mock its meaning. Plays on words are creative ways that allow writers and readers to think creatively. Wordplay has been used by famous writers and poets to create new words, shroud interesting messages and to express wittier ways of thinking.

Wordplay can be used to emphasize beauty, express wit and demonstrate intellect. Wordplay is most often used by poets, playwrights, novelists, short story writers and those writing children’s literature. It can be used to create new words and to create a more lighthearted experience.

Common Terms

Neologism: Neologisms are new words or words that were recently created to describe something that might not have ever been described before. For example, ‘spork’ meaning both a spoon and a fork.

Anagram: Anagrams are a form of wordplay in which the letters of a phrase or a word are rearranged to develop a new word or phrase that has the same letters as the original word.

Of Note:

Allusion: In literature, allusion is a figure of speech that references something that is well-known to the reader. This might be an event, a person or an object of some sort. The reason for this is to encourage the reader to make a comparison. For example, the writer might want to demonstrate the struggle of a main character against an opposing character.

To do so, the author might choose to refer to the choice meeting between the two characters as a meeting of “David and Goliath”. By using this comparison, the writer is alluding to a well-known story to instil in the minds of the audience that the confrontation will be one-sided and to place a vote of confidence in the underdog.

Allegory: An allegory is one of the more interesting literary devices. To say that a story is allegoric, means that it has two levels of meaning. In most cases, this means that there is the surface meaning (the characters, the plot and easily seen details) and that there is also another level – a symbolic level. On the symbolic level there is a deeper meaning.

This can be political, religious, historical or even philosophical. Think of allegories like larger metaphors – only ones that are told in a narrative form. Examples of famous allegories include: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; Animal Farm; and the Pilgrim’s Process.

Things You Should Avoid

It is important to remember that useful literary are available to you to use to improve your writing, however, there are also literary terms that you should avoid as well.

Common Terms

Malapropism: Malapropism is the word that is used to reference a word that is being used incorrectly. Oftentimes these incorrect words are used only because they sound similar to the correct word. Here are a few examples:

  • For all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes
  • Supposively instead of supposedly
  • Irregardless instead of regardless

Cliché: a Cliché is a saying or concept that is so overused that it has lost its intended meaning. Cliches are typically avoided because they are tired and shallow. Here are some of the most common:

  • Time heals all wounds
  • Every dog has its day
  • What goes around comes around

A literary device (or literary term) is a technique or tool that a writer uses to develop special effects within their writing. Not special effects as you would see in a feature film, or in a live concert, but special effects such as the ability to persuade a reader to see things from a different vantage point, or such as the ability to conjure specific emotions (like sadness, fear, or wonder) through the use of literary imagery or a specific placement of words.

The best examples of how literary devices are used in written prose can be seen in the way that politicians might use persuasion in their speeches, or the use of figurative language in poems and children’s literature or even in the way that an author might choose to develop a plot or specific character traits in a fictional novel.

Literary devices are everywhere. They are the tools that writers use to breathe life into their written work, to engage with their audience and to help their stories and speeches unfold.

Each literary style will have its own literary devices, including the terms like allusion, allegory, antagonist and parody, and many more.