A Guide To Essential Literary Terms

Whether you are a journalist, a down-on-his-luck blogger, a novelist, or a manifesto-writing anarchist, there may come a time when you need a few literary devices to spruce up your prose. And I mean that both literally and literarily, unlike in the cartoon below where the boss meant his statement literarily even though he claimed to mean it literally.

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Perhaps I’ve overwhelmed you with my used of alliteration. No matter. You’ll understand why this can be an effective technique soon enough. So read on, even if literature is not your forte, for resumes, cover letters, press releases, brochures, corporate newsletters, even an inscription on your tombstone can be strengthened through the careful application of prudently employed literary tropes. In the very least studying these terms will enable to impress friends at cocktail parties. For, unlike the misguided dullard beside you, you’ll have the intelligence to realize that a literary device is not an actual machine built by Caterpillar.

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Below, then, is a list of key literary terms with examples from literary works explaining usage.

Alliteration — The employment of a repeated consonant or sound, often at the beginning of a series of words. “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe, is filled with alliteration. Consider, for example, the way the poem begins: “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary…”

Allusion — A reference to another person, entity, or phrase, usually literary. For example, Hemingway’s novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls, alludes to a sermon where John Donne stated: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” Similarly, the title of Fitzgerald’s excellent novel, Tender Is The Night, alludes to a phrase from “Keats’s Ode To A Nightingale.”

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To Be Adept At Catching Allusions Consider Reading All The Above

Anthropomorphism — Assigning human attributes to plants, animals, or other non-human entities. This differs from personification because it is an ongoing pattern that takes place throughout a literary work. Examples: Many of the characters in Lewis Caroll’s Alice In Wonderland, such as the rabbit, were anthropomorphic. All the characters in Orwell’s anti-communist novel Animal Farm are anthropomorphic. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck are other examples, which is to say nothing of this inebriated sea otter below who badly needs to become a friend of Bill W.

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Inebriated Sea Otter — Highly Anthropomorphic

Bildungsroman — A coming of age story. This German term technically means a “novel of education.” It often follows a young person from inexperience through struggles with the cruel realities and hypocrisies of the adult world. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, pictured here, is a great example, as are many of Herman Hesse’s works like Daemon and Narcissus and Goldmund.

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Doggerel: A censorious term used to characterize poetry of scant artistic or literary merit. Although it is used in a derogatory nature, doggerel can be interesting humorous or light verse. Example: Shakespeare used doggerel in “The Comedy of Errors” to add to the overall humor of the play.

Foreshadowing — When an author uses plot elements to subtly indicate later story developments. A classic example takes place in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice And Men.” Candy has a dog that is old and blind. He allows Carlson to shoot the dog. At the climax of the tale George takes Carlson’s gun and shoots Lennie, a necessary evil, for Lennie accidentally strangled Curley’s wife, and a search party, led by Curley, hoped to make him pay. The dog execution foreshadowed Lenny’s execution, and in so doing, heightened the overall impact of the climax of this novella. By the way, in case you haven’t read it, “Of Mice and Men” has nothing to do with Mickey Mouse protesting.

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Steinbeck Never Wrote About Mickey

Hyperbole- Intentional exaggeration often employed for dramatic effect. Examples: This excerpt, from Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” (1935), is filled with hyperbole:

I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you

Till China and Africa meet,

And the river jumps over the mountain

And the salmon sing in the street,

I’ll love you till the ocean

Is folded and hung up to dry

And the seven stars go squawking

Like geese about the sky.

Emerson’s remark about “the shot heard round the world” is another example of hyperbole.

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Imagine A Shot Really Could Be Heard Around The World?

Metaphor-A direct comparison. Metaphors share a great deal in common with allegory, hyperbole, metonymy, and simile. Below are examples from literature:

1) “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” This classic excerpt, from John Donne, contrasts a man and an island, showing how we all are more connected and reliant upon one another than islands, a logical claim, unless, of course, we’re talking about archipelagos.

“All the world’s a stage.” This famous comparison by Shakespeare suggests we are essentially all performers acting out our particular destinies. It also seems to highlight the self-referential nature of reality — i.e. that we seem to know our reality is little more than a drama, and that drama, in turn, is little more than another reality.

“The parks are the lungs of London.” Here William Pitt suggests the parks allow London to breath, something that, considering trees produce oxygen, is both metaphorical and factual.

“The hour glass whispers to the lion’s paw.” This line, by W.H. Auden, seems both metaphorical and metonymic. It is metaphorical because a direct comparison is being made. It is metonymic because time could be substituted for the hour glass, and bravery could be substituted for the lion’s paw. Essentially, it combines metaphorical and metonymic aspects, suggesting that the brevity of time compels us to be brave.

As a whole metaphor’s can be enormously powerful. Just remember not to confuse them with some random dinosaurs you might find in The Museum Of Natural History.

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Metonymy- a figure of speech whereby the name of one concept or object is substituted for another. An example of metonymy comes from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar,when Caesar states, “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Act III, scene II, lines 74–77). Clearly, Caesar does not literally want to borrow the ears of his people. Even Van Gogh, who cut off his own ear, wouldn’t be interested in such a zany proposition. Instead, he wants the Romans to listen.

Another example is the famous line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” This line suggests the written word is more powerful than acts of violent aggression and war.

Motif: a recurring object, concept, or structure. A strong example of a motif comes from Nella Larson’s book, “Quicksand,” where Helga Crane, the mixed-raced daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian black father, has to deal with issues of racial identity in an unforgiving world. It can also be surmised, from this opening segment alone, that the novel is deeply pessimistic:

Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down from their long shelves, on the white pages of the opened one selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk which covered the stool at her slim feet. It was a comfortable room, furnished with rare and intensely personal taste, flooded with Southern sun in the day, but shadowy just then with the drawn curtains and single shaded light. Large, too. So large that the spot where Helga sat was a small oasis in a desert of darkness.

There are twelve references to light and darkness in one paragraph alone (“soft gloom” “reading lamp,” “dimmed,” black and red shade” “pool of light” “bright covers” “white pages,” “shining brass bowl” flooded with Southern sun” “shadowy” “single shaded light” “desert of darkness.”) Clearly, the theme of light/darkness, particularly as it alludes to the issue of racial identity, is a strong motif in Quicksand.

Neoclassical Unities- Principles of dramatic structure that originated with Aristotle’s Poetics. The three unities are of time, place, and action. They are called neoclassical because of their popularity in the neoclassical movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were most commonly observed with regard to works of the theater, although some apply these concepts to the film industry. It was thought observing these unities, wherever possible, made a work stronger.

-To generate a unity of time a piece of literature should take place in one day.

-To generate unity of action, a work should have one dramatic plot, without subplots.

-To generate unity of place, all drama should take place within the confines of a single locale.

Two examples of movies that obey these structures are “Rope” and “Do The Right Thing.” Most plays by Molière and Racine also obey the Neoclassical Unities.

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Aristotle — Still Relevant In The Age of The Iphone

Picaresque- A satirical or humorous novel featuring a roguish protagonist who lives by his wits in a degenerate society. Examples include Candide, Moll Flanders, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and A Clockwork Orange.

Similes-A comparison using “like” or “as.” Rap music is surfeit with similes. When Carl Sandburg wrote “life is like an onion: you peel it off one layer at a time and sometimes you weep,” he created a simile, albeit one that is rather depressing. Another example comes from C. Rossetti’s line, “a sapphire shines as blue as heaven.” Rossetti, here, compares the glow off a stone, the sapphire, to the illumination one might experience upon meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates.

Synaesthesia- Describing one type of sensation in terms of another. This blending of the senses can be seen in such a simple phrase as “hot pink.” Technically, nothing makes a certain pink hot. But we grasp what the phrase means instantly, and not just because of its familiarity. In the First Canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante is driven “back to the region where the sun is silent.” This is an interesting way of describing a land of darkness.

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Perhaps The Divine Comedy Isn’t So Singular A Work: Here A Modern Day Virgil Giving A Dantesque Inferno Tour

These are just a few literary concepts that can be employed to great effect. Obviously, as with anything, it is the way they are used that will determine their overall impact.

Hopefully, this blog post will help you brandish your wit even more skillfully than in the past. If not, at least you took a stab at it. Too few of us are daring enough when it counts. Or, as Marianne Williamson put it, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

An excellent point, perhaps because it makes use of metonymy (let our light shine — substitutes light for our individual talent), allusion (let our light shine, again, seems to allude to Matt 5:16, [let your light so shine among men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven], and the motif of light and brilliance in connection to the idea of our own personal strength.

Written by

Matt Nagin is a writer, comedian, actor, and educator. His latest book, “Do Not Feed The Clown,” is available on Amazon. More at mattnagin.com.

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