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An A to Z Guide to Literary Devices and Tools

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One of my favorite magazines is the creativity-based Uppercase. This quarterly publication offers a look at various artists, art forms, and design across the world, and it’s packed with colors and shapes that make it not just fabulous to read, but inspiring to simply page through.

Each issue contains an A–Z feature on a topic and no matter what the focus is, I find myself revisiting this particular piece again and again. It’s a highly designed double spread, and always leads me to leaning new things about arts and crafts I never knew before.

I wanted to take that idea and see it applied to the book world, running a periodic A–Z feature. Last time, I highlighted the parts of a book. This time, let’s take a look at various literary devices and tools used by authors to write. Many of these tools are valuable for readers to think about because they offer insight into what it is that makes a book memorable or effective.

Some of these you likely learned in high school or college English classes, but some might be new to you. In any case, pocket some little nuggets of wisdom for your next game of Jeopardy and prepare to dominate in any literary category.

An A to Z of Literary Devices and Tools

A

Allusion: An object or phrase used in writing to draw a connection to another object, idea, or circumstance without stating it overtly. This could be a turn of phrase meant to bring to mind a Shakespeare play to the reader’s mind or a popular song or movie at the time of the book’s publication. These are typically included without context to the original work and readers draw the connections themselves.

B

Bildungsroman: Any coming-of-age story. Though typically realistic or historic in setting, a bildungsroman can be a work of genre fiction as well. This German phrase refers to a story where an adolescent main character — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s an adult, young adult, or middle grade novel — loses their sense of innocence and comes to maturation through the shedding of those illusions.

C

Canon: What’s often seen as the essential and most important works within literature. Over the years, though, it’s become clear that the canon is biased toward white male authors whose works were most widely distributed and studied and not necessarily representative of the best of literature nor the depth of literature. Titles included within a canon can be deconstructed through philosophical and political lenses, which can be far more interesting than what the canon itself may be.

D

Deus Ex Machina: From the Greek for “The God Out Of The Machine,” deus ex machina is when something completely unexpected or unrealistic for the story appears to save the main character and/or the story’s conclusion. Though often seen as a disappointment or easy way to resolve a story, in certain genres, the deus ex machina is a hallmark.

E

Euphemism: The use of a word or phrase in place of another, meant to soften the impact of said word or phrase and be read as more neutral. A common example is “passed away” or “left for a better place” instead of “died” or “dead.”

F

Fourth Wall: This term comes from theater but has been used throughout books as well. It’s an imaginary wall separating the characters from the audience, and when a character or story “breaks the fourth wall,” it means they’re directly addressing the audience. An excellent example of breaking that wall is the children’s title The Monster At The End of This Book by Jon Stone.

G

Genre: Books, films, and other media within a category with shared tropes and conventions. Genres may include poetry and fiction, as well as become more specific, including romance, mystery, or science fiction. Genre is not the same as category — e.g. adult books, young adult books — nor is it the same as mood.

H

Homage: Far from being plagiarism, an homage is a work that honors, elevates, and/or plays with the conventions used in a previous work. There are dozens upon dozens of retellings or remixes of classic literature that could be considered an homage to the original. The key is that an homage pays honor and respect, as opposed to making fun of it (and indeed, a good parody can also be an homage, such as with the film Spaceballs).

I

Imagery: A broad, umbrella term for the mental pictures, sounds, smells, and other sensations a reader experiences with a work. A writer evokes imagery for the reader through direct descriptions of images or through any number of literary tools, including simile, metaphor, allusion, and more.

J

Jargon: If you’ve ever written a book and wondered how you are to understand it, given all of the technical and specific terms used throughout, chances are you’ve read a book loaded with jargon. Jargon is a language specific to an industry or setting. Think: a textbook for database designers or even a cookbook for a specific type or cooking or tool for cooking. Sports, medicine, and other industries each have their own jargon.

K

Kenning: When a single word is replaced by a compound phrase. This tool of figurative writing was popular in Norse and Old English, but there are a number of kennings used commonly today, including gum-shoe, brown-noser, bookworm, head-hunter, and more.

L

Literal: It’s likely you know what it means to be literal: you’re giving an account that isn’t metaphorical or exaggerated. In many cases, a literal account is seen as factual, but literal and factual aren’t exclusively synonyms. A literal account and a factual account may or may not be true, either. The term allegory can help differentiate the terms.

M

Meme: Though the term may be modern, the concept certainly isn’t. A meme is an idea, phrase, or thought that is passed from one person to another. In the internet and social media age, we’ve seen memes on a visual level, as well as on numerous literary levels.

N

Non sequitur: Latin for “it does not follow.” When something said or mentioned has nothing to do with the conversation or what was previously said. Sometimes these are used as a tool of confusion and other times, they’re for comedic effect. Non sequiturs happen in everyday conversation — scroll your Twitter feed for how that works — and they’re seen in literature.

O

Oeuvre: The life work of an artist. You can describe all of Shakespeare’s work as his oeuvre, for example.

P

Purple Prose: Writing that is over-the-top in terms of its use of similes, metaphors, and other imagery such that it becomes silly and potentially nonsense.

Q

Quest: A motif — a recurring element or in this case, style — in which a hero undergoes a challenging journey to benefit their people. These quests can be about seeking knowledge, tools, treasures, or someone who may be in danger. Gilgamesh undergoes a quest, as does Odysseus, among so many others in classic and contemporary storytelling.

R

Red Herring: Especially popular in thrillers or mysteries, a red herring is an element used to throw readers off about their conclusions in a story. The red herring in a mystery is the character or situation readers are lead to believe is the culprit, but in reality, the writer has used the red herring to distract from the true conclusion.

S

Satire: Scathing humor or criticism used as a critique. It’s frequently used toward politics or moralities that the satirist disagrees with or finds dangerous. Modern satire is most common in the visual form — The Simpsons and many Saturday Night Live sketches utilize this tool — but it’s also used in classical and modern literature. Satire typically punches up, rather than punches down, meaning that it’s aimed toward those in charge, as opposed to those oppressed or hurt by whatever is the subject at hand.

T

Trope: Trope has two definitions. The first refers to a literary device used throughout a work of literature or a word used in a figurative sense. A trope within a novel might be the recurring bird imagery or allusions. The second definition for trope is a theme that emerges over and over within a genre. For some, a trope gets tired or cliche, but for other readers, tropes are what make that genre what it is. Dig into a host of tropes, both good and bad.

U

Understatement: Words or phrases used to minimize the significance of what’s actually happening. A euphemism is an example of an understatement. Understatements are common in speech and can be used with great effect in literature.

V

Vignette: A short but effective piece of writing. Often a vignette doesn’t have a plot or narrative arc, but it gets a point across on its own or, as has been seen in literature, can be linked with other vignettes to tell a bigger story. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros or Buried Beneath The Baobab Tree by  Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza utilize the vignette in the telling of the story. Vignette is French for “little vine.”

W

Wanderjahr: This German term for “wander year” has emerged in memoir and similar nonfiction more frequently than in fiction in contemporary times. It simply means a period of time in a character’s life when they travel or do something out of their ordinary routine. Think Eat Pray Love or any experimental memoir of trying out a lifestyle or talent for a year.

X

Xanaduism: Inspired by the 1927 book The Road to Xanadu by John Livingstone Knowles, Xanaduism is academic research about the sources behind fantasy and other imaginative literature — the word is in reference to Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” This word has a less-than-positive connotation, as well, referring to scholarship without credible sources (which makes sense, when you consider the purpose of Xanaduism is to look at fictitious sources).

Y

Yarn: A long, rambling story. The tone of a yarn, which is often an adventure, is colloquial. Some of the characters within Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales may be experts at spinning a yarn.

Z

Zeitgeist: Everything related to a certain time period, but with a particular emphasis on popular culture and trends. The German word for “time ghost” is worthwhile when thinking about popular authors of a particular era, as well as for understanding allusions and descriptions made in books.


If literary devices and tools are something you nerd out over, you might want to pick up a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms or similar tool to expand your knowledge.

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