Literary Devices in a Story

How to enhance meaning and captivate the reader.

Why use literary devices?

Narrative elements are the parts of a story that shape the entire work. Setting, foreshadowing and characterization all contribute to a storyline in important ways. These elements of storytelling are traditionally associated with fiction, but they can also appear in nonfiction works.


What is it?

Setting can include specific information about time and place (e.g. Boston, Massachusetts, in 1809) or can simply be descriptive (eg. a lonely farmhouse on a dark night). Geographical location, historical era, social conditions, weather, immediate surroundings, and time of day can all be aspects of setting.

Why is it important?

Setting provides a backdrop for the action. Think about setting not just as factual information but as an essential part of a story's mood and emotional impact.

How do I create it?

To create setting, provide information about time and place and use descriptive language to evoke vivid sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. Pay close attention to the mood a setting conveys.

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What is it?

Personification is a figure of speech that gives human qualities to objects, animals, or ideas.

Why is it important?

Personification connects readers with the object that is personified. Personification can make descriptions of non-human entities more vivid, or can help readers understand, sympathize with, or react emotionally to non-human characters.

How do I do it?

Give human-like qualities or emotions to inanimate entities or non-human beings.


"When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath,"

—Emily Dickinson, "There's a certain slant of light"

Note: Dickinson gives the landscape and shadows human qualities (listening and holding their breath), in order to bring to life the effects of the sunlight on her surroundings.

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What is it?

Irony is a disagreement or incongruity between what is said and what is understood, or what is expected and what actually occurs. Irony can be used intentionally or can happen unintentionally.

Why is it important?

Authors can use irony to make their audience stop and think about what has just been said, or to emphasize a central idea. The audience's role in realizing the difference between what is said and what is normal or expected is essential to the successful use of irony.

How do I do it?

Create a discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens.


In the short story "The Gift of the Magi," a young couple is too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The man sells his pocket watch to buy his wife a set of combs for her long, beautiful hair. She, meanwhile, cuts off her beautiful hair and sells it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a watch-chain.

—O. Henry, "The Gift of the Magi"

Note: The author uses irony in this story to compel the reader to stop and think about love, sacrifice and what is truly valuable.


Forming mental images of a scene using descriptive words, especially making use of the human senses. Paint a picture! The more details, the better.


When the boots came off his feet with a leathery squeak, a smell of ferment and fish market immediately filled the small tent. The skin of his toes were red and raw and sensitive. The malodorous air was so toxic he thought he could almost taste his toes.

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Narrative Techniques

A Hook:

Story opening that "hooks" readers' attention so they will keep reading. This may be a vivid setting description, a character's personal thoughts or dialogue, a suspenseful lead into the story, etc.

Backstory is used when the author feels it is important for the reader to know something that has happened prior to the actual events described in the narrative.

For example, in the story of Cinderella, we learn that Cinderella's father has lost his wife and married another woman who has two other daughters. This is important for us to understand why Cinderella is treated so differently from the other daughters. We don't actually experience this event in the story. Instead, the narrator gives us this 'backstory' just before the actual first event that we do experience.


When does the story take place? Really there are only three answers to this question:

  1. Past - The story is told in the past tense. Since events are already over, the narrator can decide in which order to tell them and which events are most important.
  2. Present - In the present tense, event unfold before the reader's eyes. The narrator is just as surprised by the events as the reader and has no knowledge of where the story is going. Sometimes the story really took place in the past but is told in the present for dramatic effect. This is called the historical present tense.
  3. Future - Sometimes entire narratives are about events that will happen in the future. These take the form of predictions or instructions.