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Literary Devices Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Literary Devices Practice Exercises

LESSON SUMMARY

Writers can use a variety of literary devices to tell a story. This lesson will show you how to recognize these devices and understand how they affect meaning.

What do a plumber, an architect, and a writer have in common? Each uses a special set of tools to do a job. A plumber's toolbox might contain wrenches and pipes, but what does a writer's toolbox contain?

Writers have many storytelling tools to help communicate their ideas. These tools, called literary devices, enhance the writing to make it more powerful, creative, or interesting. This lesson explains four literary devices that authors commonly use:

  • figurative language
  • personification
  • alliteration
  • irony

Figurative Language

One important literary device is figurative language. Figurative language includes similes and metaphors. A simile compares two things using the words like or as. A metaphor is stronger than a simile because it makes the comparison without the words like or as.

Here's an example.

      No figurative language   He is tall.
      Simile   He is as tall as a skyscraper.
      Metaphor   He is a skyscraper.

Figurative language is so effective because it helps readers picture what the writer is describing in an imaginative way. The writer could have said, "He is seven feet, two inches tall," and that would have been very specific—one way to give us a clear picture of how tall he is. By using a simile or metaphor, though, the writer creates a different picture. It may be less exact, but it certainly is more powerful.

NOTE

For similes and metaphors to work, the two things being compared must be sufficiently different. For example, it doesn't work to compare a moth to a butterfly. However, it does work to compare the way a butterfly's wings move and the way curtains flutter in the wind.

Finding an Implied Metaphor

Writers often suggest a metaphor rather than making an outright comparison. The implied metaphor might be a key to the whole meaning of the story, poem, or article, so you don't want to miss it. For example, notice the implied dog metaphor in this short paragraph.

Ezra tried to leave the classroom as quickly as possible, but there was no escaping Trey. The sixth grader was right on Ezra's heels as they waded into the crowded hall, practically wagging his tail in excitement.

The second sentence uses key phrases, "right on Ezra's heels" and "wagging his tail," to make the reader picture the puppylike actions of the character. If you didn't notice these phrases, you might misinterpret the relationship between Ezra and Trey.

To demonstrate how this works in literature, let's look at a poem: "A Poison Tree," from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. It has four stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines in a poem, much as a paragraph is a group of lines in an essay or story.

Read the poem carefully and read it out loud, too, because poetry is meant to be heard as well as read. Read it actively—underline, circle, and write in the margins. Several words have been defined for you to the right of the poem.

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