Page 3 - Literary Terms Study Guide for the English Basics

Literary Devices

Literary devices are the structures and strategies used by authors to convey a particular message to the audience. Literary devices help readers connect with, appreciate, interpret, and analyze a text. The following are some of the most commonly used literary devices, but it is certainly not a complete list of all literary devices available to authors.


We live in a world that sometimes feels very ironic. Irony is the difference between what is expected and what actually happens; it is the opposite of what is intended or appropriate or expected in a particular situation. There are three types of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational.

Verbal Irony

You’ve just been assigned a five-page research paper for history on top of the English assignment due tomorrow and the math test for which you’ve been putting off studying. Your best friend meets you at your locker, takes a look at your dejected face, and asks you how you’re doing. You tell him about your woes and he says, “Lucky you!” That was probably not the response you were looking for, but it is an ironic response. In this situation, you were probably looking for some compassion and empathy, but that’s not what he supplied. This unexpected verbal response is verbal irony—when someone says something inappropriate or unexpected in a particular situation. Verbal irony often comes across as sarcastic and the comment may come across differently than intended.

Dramatic Irony

Have you ever watched a scary movie where the characters on the screen were about to do something really dumb, like walk through the dark and stormy night to the haunted-looking house at the top of the hill because their car broke down and they think maybe they can use the phone? Or they walk down the long dark hallway but you know the ax murderer is waiting for them just behind the door? You want to shout out to them “Don’t do it!” but they invariably do and it doesn’t usually turn out well for them. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something or has insight about a situation that the characters don’t and this builds a sense of suspense.

In such a case, the audience roots for the characters to do or say one thing, but they likely do or say something else because the characters don’t have the same understanding or insight. Dramatic irony doesn’t always have to be suspenseful and it isn’t always found in scary examples like the ones at the beginning of this section. Dramatic irony can also be used to create humor. For example, the audience knows these two characters are long-lost twins, separated at birth and never knowing of the other’s existence, but the characters don’t know they are related and are frustrated and annoyed by each other. It’s funny because we know that when they do find out, their attitudes will likely change.

Situational Irony

If you’ve ever sat and watched a sitcom on TV, you saw examples of situational irony. Situational irony occurs when the outcome of a situation is different than expected. The character on TV doesn’t want to get his new cell phone wet in the water balloon fight that suddenly breaks out in the backyard, so he turns to go into the house and falls right into the pool, still clutching his beloved cell phone. Situational irony can be funny or tragic, depending on what happens to the characters and what the audience was expecting in the situation.

All Three Ironies in One Text Example

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as are many of his plays, is full of irony. In fact, there are multiple examples of all three types of irony in this play. Here is one example of each type of irony from this same source:

Verbal: When Juliet is told that she will be marrying Paris, whom she does not love, she acts like a petulant child and says she is not interested in marrying Paris and would rather marry her sworn enemy, Romeo Montague. The irony is, she would rather marry Romeo, but her mother does not know this and interprets the comment to illustrate how disinterested in marriage Juliet actually is, that she would rather marry an enemy of the family.

Dramatic: The two young lovers have worked out a deceptive plan to be together despite their families’ feud. However, when Juliet fakes her death, Romeo doesn’t get the message that it’s all part of the plan and he returns to town believing she is actually dead. The audience knows it’s not true, but poor Romeo has no clue. This is dramatic irony.

Situational: Discovering Juliet’s “death,” Romeo kills himself and when Juliet awakes and finds that Romeo is dead, she really kills herself and the whole thing is very tragic. This is not the outcome the audience was expecting—the plan should have gone as anticipated and the two should have lived happily ever after, especially because they loved each other so much. The irony is also in the fact that the loss of their children does, actually, bring the Montagues and Capulets together in a shared grief and bring at least a short truce to the feud.


Alliteration is the intentional repetition of initial consonant sounds in words that are close together. This repetition gives a text a sort of melodic quality and a “beat.” We say it is the repetition of consonant sounds because there are several consonants in the English language that have the same or similar sounds in some words (for example, c/k/qu, c/s, ph/f). Think back to the tongue twisters you may have learned as a young child—those are examples of alliteration.

“Sally sells seashells down by the seashore.”
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
“Katie cooked collards in Coca-Cola in her kitchen.”
“The fishes never use the phone but the four jellyfish do.”


An analogy is a comparison made between something that is familiar and something that is confusing or unfamiliar. The two may seem to be unconnected. Analogies are used by authors to link ideas for their readers in a way that will help the audience make connections to familiar things from their own lives or experiences. In the movie Forest Gump, Forest uses an analogy to describe life. It starts with the simile, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” and then he goes on to create the analogy by explaining, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Metaphors and similes are often used to create analogies, but analogies are more extensive and detailed than a metaphor or simile.


Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it means. From a combination of two Greek words literally translating into “the sound I make,” onomatopoeia cannot really be defined as anything other than what the noise is. Comic book exclamations (Pow! Bang! Crash! etc.) and animal noises (moo, woof, cluck, etc.) are the most common types of onomatopoeia.


An allusion is a reference to someone or something well known or famous designed to help a reader make a connection to something they know or are familiar with. Authors use allusions to help readers understand an idea by relating it to something with which they are familiar. For example, if an author is writing about two people who love each other but cannot be together in a lasting relationship, they may compare those people to Romeo and Juliet. In that famous story, Romeo and Juliet fell in love, but life’s circumstances and obstacles kept them from living happily ever after. If writing about someone on a long journey, far away from home, an author may make an allusion to Odysseus and the Odyssey where it took him 10 years to return home after the Trojan War and he faced many obstacles in doing so.

Allusions may also be made to things besides literary works or characters. Allusions may be made to historical events or people, or from religious stories. Allusions may be direct or indirect and are intended to broaden the audience’s understanding without having to provide a lengthy explanation that may get them off track to the message or point of the text.

Do not confuse allusion with illusion. Allusion is a literary term; illusion is something that appears to be there but really is not; it is deceptive.


Characterization is the term used to describe how an author develops his or her characters. As authors introduce their characters to the audience, they describe what a character looks like, how he or she behaves, and the thought process of the character. The character is shown interacting with other characters in the story so that the reader can understand who this person is and perhaps what to expect. Characterization is also achieved when an author describes how other characters in the text respond to a character.

Characterization can be done directly or indirectly. Direct characterization occurs when an author directly and specifically describes a character and that character’s personality traits so that the reader is told exactly how to view the character. Indirect characterization means that the author may provide hints or clues about a character’s personality by showing the character interacting with others and allowing the reader to develop their own mental picture based on what a character says or does and how other characters respond. In this way, a reader is indirectly exposed to a character’s personality instead of being directly told what he or she is like.


Do you ever read a text and have a sense that something is about to happen? That may be due to an author’s use of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a literary device whereby an author plants hints or clues in the text about what might happen later in the plot. Active, engaged readers will identify these hints and hold on to them in the back of their minds, using them to develop expectations about what to expect as the action unfolds.


Suspense is a feeling of anticipation that causes a reader to keep reading to find out what happens next. Authors use suspense to keep the reader engaged and feeling empathy with the characters and their conflict in a text. As suspense in a story builds, the reader will want to continue reading to find out the fate and outcome of characters with whom they can identify and empathize.


A paradox is a statement that seems to be contradictory, but, upon further examination, actually proves itself to be true. Paradoxes cause readers to consider an idea in a new way or view things from a different perspective. One famous example of a paradox from literature is from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In it, there is a quote developed on the farm that states, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” On the surface, this statement seems contradictory. Equality is…well…equal, right? So how could some animals be more equal? Upon further consideration, however, a thoughtful reader may come to realize the truth of this statement.

The novel is a political satire about the corruption of power and government. When one considers the promises of governments to create “equality for all,” one can understand that “that promise” is really an impossibility. Regardless of how good people’s intentions may be, true equality, equality that includes everybody, is an impossibility simply because of the nature of humanity. There will always be someone, or an elite group of someones, with slightly more equality. So this quote is a paradoxical statement.


Oxymorons often reveal a paradox. They are combinations of words that seem to be contradictory to one another, but when used together create an understandable effect for the reader and somehow make sense. Here are some examples of oxymorons:

“It was a dark day when news of his death was received by his widow.” In this sentence, dark day seems contradictory; by their very nature, days are light and nights are dark. But the effect that is created is one of haunting sorrow.

As dawn approaches and the young lovers must part, Juliet says, “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.” In this example, sweet sorrow is the oxymoron: if something is sweet or good, then how can it also be sad or sorrowful? The effect that is created is that sense that they know they must part but they cannot wait until they can reunite.

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