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3 Literary Devices You Should Be Using in Your Writing

Literary devices can be great tools in your writer’s arsenal to help you illustrate your stories and points in a way that invites engagement and reflection.

3 Literary Devices You Should Be Using in Your Writing

And yet what’s the difference between a simile and a metaphor? Metaphor and personification? How much of that English 101 class can you really remember?

These terms are all interrelated, and the lines between them can get pretty murky.

That’s why in this post, we’re going to refresh you on three literary devices you should be using in your writing (plus one bonus device at the end!).

Quick List of Literary Devices for Your Writing

As school goes back into session, it seems like a great time to brush up on some of the most commonly literary devices. Let’s take a look at our quick list of literary devices:

1. Metaphor

Definition:A figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.” (All definitions are from Dictionary.com.)

Metaphors are a way of exploring complicated ideas in creative writing by comparing one thing to something else that may seem totally different, but is thematically similar.

Metaphor Example:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
—As You Like It, William Shakespeare.

2. Simile

Definition: “A figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared.”

Similes are similar to metaphors but they specifically use the term “like” or “as” to make the comparison.

Simile Example:

Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed toward me like towers of Pisa.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov.

3. Personification

Definition: “The attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions,especially as a rhetorical figure.”

When inanimate things are treated as human beings… like when you named your car in college (that wasn’t just me, right?).

Personification Example:

Is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good—not mine, but ours.
—The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

Bonus: Extended Metaphor

Definition: “A metaphor introduced and then further developed throughout all or part of a literary work.”

An extended metaphor, but drawn out throughout your entire writing piece.

Extended Metaphor Example: The full content of Emily Dickenson’s poem “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” which compares hope to a little bird throughout the full poem.

Literary Devices Can Overlap

Can a comparison be a metaphor even if it’s not any of its subcategories? Yes!

Can a simile also be personification? You betcha!

How about an extended metaphor? I can’t think of an example of extended personification, but sure, it could be done.

Do You Really Need to Know These Literary Devices?

One last question:

But knowing literary devices and how to use them can broaden your writing and reading experience, making your stories that much more powerful.

What is your favorite literary device? Let me know in the comments section!

PRACTICE

Pick one of the literary devices above. Then, either write a quick story for fifteen minutes using the device or find an example from a book you know. Share both the device and example in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Here’s my attempt. Not entirely happy with it, but it’ll do.

    People like to compare small towns to cages and themselves to birds. All they want to do is grow up, spread their wings, fly. It’s been the popular theme of too many country songs and coming of age movies. My friends seemed to agree with the notion. All they could talk about Senior year was “getting out”. But I never saw it that way. That town was where I grew up, my home. It was a shield for me, from the rest of the world that seemed too often cruel and unforgiving. So, of course, it wasn’t my friends that got the opportunity of a life time to go to one of the biggest universities in the country, because they would have “spread their wings” immediately. But not me, I was the timid little bird, the one that liked the cage and the safety that it provided. So I stood there, holding that acceptance letter, my hands quivering, wondering what I should do. I thought about what I would be leaving verses what I would be gaining. The safety of the cage for the freedom of the world. But then, it occurred to me, I wasn’t a bird, not by any stretch of the imagination. I was much stronger, and more in control of my life. And small towns aren’t really cages at all, they can’t hold you back, only you can, and they can’t offer you any protection, no one can do that. They’re just places on a map. A place to move too and fro from. A place, I realized, that I could always return to.

    • Beautiful metaphor, Katherine!

    • Kenneth M. Harris

      Katherine, you have a wonderful voice. After reading your comments, I believe that I have a better understanding of simile and metaphor than I did before. This is much more than an attempt and you should be happy with this.
      KEn

    • Nice metaphor-ing 🙂

    • Susan W A

      Katherine … I agree with Kenneth! This piece is beautiful, and insightful.

      – Susan W A

    • Pedro Hernandez

      I like this! The metaphor is strong with you.

    • Paul Owen

      I loved this, Katherine. “The safety of the cage for the freedom of the world” – nice.

    • This is a beautifully explored metaphor, and it brings to mind one of my all time favorite pieces of poetry, highly highly metaphorical:

      ——–
      anyone lived in a pretty how town
      (with up so floating many bells down)
      spring summer autumn winter
      he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

      Women and men(both little and small)
      cared for anyone not at all
      they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
      sun moon stars rain

      children guessed(but only a few
      and down they forgot as up they grew
      autumn winter spring summer)
      that noone loved him more by more

      when by now and tree by leaf
      she laughed his joy she cried his grief
      bird by snow and stir by still
      anyone’s any was all to her

      someones married their everyones
      laughed their cryings and did their dance
      (sleep wake hope and then)they
      said their nevers they slept their dream

      stars rain sun moon
      (and only the snow can begin to explain
      how children are apt to forget to remember
      with up so floating many bells down)

      one day anyone died i guess
      (and noone stooped to kiss his face)
      busy folk buried them side by side
      little by little and was by was

      all by all and deep by deep
      and more by more they dream their sleep
      noone and anyone earth by april
      wish by spirit and if by yes.

      Women and men(both dong and ding)
      summer autumn winter spring
      reaped their sowing and went their came
      sun moon stars rain
      ———
      E.E. Cummings

      • Wow. What a truly beautiful, and sad, piece. I’m sure I’ll have to read it many times to capture it. I’m flattered that my simple paragraph reminded you of something so profound. Thanks for sharing.

        • I’ve read this poem so many times, and there is so much in it that I don’t understand precisely what he means. I wonder at times if he mean precisely anything. Just this time, the floating bells made be think of flowers shaped like bells.There is obvious reference to a flow that is against the natural course of things and that this is adopted by society at large.

          • I think that’s what makes it beautiful. It will mean something different for everyone because of it’s obscurity. It all depends on our own experiences and what we bring to the table.

            For me I saw church bells ringing, like they often do in small towns. They ring every day at noon, every Sunday for service, and then for weddings and for funerals. So they are mundane and ordinary but also mark significant parts of our lives. I suppose I correlated this with the vague descriptions of the people in this poem, going through life in both the mundane and significant. People get married. Children grow up. People die. The bell rings. Autumn Winter Spring Summer all pass. Life goes on just the same

            It all still very confusing and vague to me and I’m sure my view will change as I read it over more. But, like I said, that’s what’s beautiful about it.

          • Oh! I like the thoughts on the church bells. I can see how it reflects back on the passage of time and what I think the poem is about.

            One of the points most poignant to me, and central to my understanding, is that anyone and noone are personified. Anyone and noone share true love:
            “that noone loved him more by more”

            You can see that they are in tune with each other :”she laughed his joy she cried his grief”

            and everyone else is not: “laughed their cryings and did their dance”

            So to me, it almost suggests that society is corrupt, especially in regard with how they treat each other, but there are those who, whether they be frowned on or forgotten, they live by a much higher standard of how they treat one another. Or perhaps it distinguishes true love, and suggest that others are jealous of it.

            There is a definite hostility of society vs anyone and noone in the story.

            But then, if I look at how he substitutes anyone and noone, it seems to make everything a double entendre.

    • I like this a lot. I’d like to read to more about this character. She sounds interesting. Great use of all three devices! It reminds a bit of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

  • LilianGardner

    This is so handy, Emily, and well explained. We need to brush up on literary devices and appropiate use of the same, which we tend to muddle or forget as years go by and school is but a lovely memory.
    Could you please sort the following out for me? When do I use ‘practice’and ‘practise’? These two words confuse me.
    Thanks,
    Lilian.

    • EndlessExposition

      They’re the same word. Practice is the American spelling and practise is the British spelling. So just use whichever one fits best for you!

      • LilianGardner

        Thanks EndlessExposition. This is easy to remember.

    • Lillian, I found this on grammar-monster.com:

      In the US, you can use practice for noun and verb. In the UK, you must use practice for the noun, and practise for the verb. For example:

      Shall I practice my handwriting?(appropriate in the US, but not UK)

      Practice makes perfect. (appropriate in both the US and UK)

      Some in the US are now following the UK convention. So:

      Shall I practise my handwriting?

    • As part of an international writers group, we see a lot of British spellings. It has helped me tremendously with the spelling issues brought on by British and American English differences.

  • Kenneth M. Harris

    I was never that good with metaphors and similes. I Have paragraph that I had used in one of the prompts. In fact it’s one of my short stories. Unless, this is considered a simile – “God, I just felt like I was some of the keys on that typewriter. I pecked those keys day and day out. I came to work day in and day out” I got tired of those keys. So, When I got to work, I knew that I could no longer type.” Also, I’d like to mention that there was either a simile or metaphor in a couple of sentences from a novel by Toni Morrison that has stayed with me for years. The book was BELOVED. The sentence I speak about says. “They were holding hands as they walked down the street. They were so happy even their shadows were holding hands. Thanks, KEN

    • Sounds like an interesting simile, Kenneth (something to run with!)… except, I would drop the part “I was some of”… and just say “I just felt like keys on that typewriter, pecked day and and day out…”

      • Susan W A

        I like this suggestion, and the fact that you made the suggestion. Sometimes I think we forget that this community supports not only in its positive comments, but also in its creative feedback.
        – Susan W A

    • Yes, that’s a great simile!

    • Susan W A

      I like the connection between the typewriter and how “you” felt at work; nice simile.

      Thanks,too, for sharing the Toni Morrison quote.

      – Susan W A

    • I really love the idea of a connection to typewriter. I think you should use an extended metaphor here. Really make yourself out to be that typewriter, constantly punching out more letters by an ever oppressive will. Never able to write your own words, always being a vessel for the words of others.

      Then maybe go into how freeing it feels to write your own words.

  • I enjoy working with personification in my poetry. I leave you an example, can you guess what is being personified?

    Lonely, My Brothers

    I stand
    the sole survivor
    of what once encompassed
    a grand mass
    We were brothers
    bound by root touching root
    breathing the same air
    drinking from the same streams
    What has become of you?
    My brothers, you have fallen
    fallen to decay and feasted
    upon by insects and maggots
    There is nothing left
    to the camaraderie we once shared
    all the seasons we saw together
    the nests we discovered in high branches
    the beauty of the sun
    delivering life to us
    the moonlight casting our shadows
    Why did you leave me, brothers?
    I would cut my own life short
    for but a moment to be with you again
    I would fall too, join you
    in your journey to another life
    spreading yourself out to give love
    to everything around you
    I stand here
    alone without you,
    lonely, my brothers

    Copyright ©2011 Lori Carlson

    • Wonderful, thanks for sharing!

    • Susan W A

      I like this; lots of images. Among others, I enjoyed :
      – I stand the sole survivor
      – drinking from the same streams
      – the moonlight casting our shadows.

      I could see and smell the environment of forest life cycle.

      – Susan W A

    • How atmospheric! It reads like an ancient tree, long abandoned by the companions that once comprised a forest.

      It’s Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, right!? 😀

    • Kenneth M. Harris

      Hi Lori, this piece really makes you feel. Terrific!

  • All four on the ground speeding through in such a flash
    Clarise seemed to be at the front of an Iditarod feet gliding at a speed you
    miss seeing them touch the ground. My
    foot pressed the pedal closer to the floor.
    Hearing the engine race. My hair tousling
    wildly. Eyes growing wider. Heart racing. Nearing the finish line.

    • Susan W A

      Huh… seems like my reply disappeared. I’ll repost this.
      I liked: the reference to the Iditarod (and its connection to gliding); “miss seeing them touch the ground” (I can sense how fast this is); “Heart racing” (because of the physiological effect it has on the reader).
      – Susan W A

  • Susan W A

    Thanks, Emily, for a fun post. I like these literary devices. If anyone wants more examples, simply open Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and drink them up.
    I have to mention a remarkable piece that was posted perhaps close to a year ago, but I can’t remember for certain whose “practice” it was (tried to find it through disqus or my files, but wasn’t successful). This person wrote about Death, describing how Death’s job description had changed, from wandering everywhere to being mostly confined to hospitals now, dressed in blue jeans, and slipping out the door after doing his job. The timing of that post was perfect for me because my mother had recently passed away (in the hospital), and the images portrayed in the piece were so vivid.
    – Susan W A

  • Susan W A

    Here’s my practice.

    It reigns in my mind, and reins in my mind
    Insisting on defending itself from other approaches
    Jealous of any attempt to deviate from the plan
    …the plan of staunch power
    …the plan of feigned progress
    …the plan of no plans

    Perfectly satisfied to float forward without a care
    Yet burdened with the fear of being discovered for the fraud it is

    Tempted to change; ever-confident in change
    Mocking change

    The reins are loosened just enough to allow capricious progress
    Only to be jolted back to reality
    …the reality that it creates and controls

    Laughing in delight … and sobbing for the life left unlived.

    [Procrastination]

    Copyright © [swa] 2015 / 8.31
    – Susan W A

    • Love the last line. I have found in my life that there are many different manifestations of procrastination. There are those that procrastinate in their line of work. They will never know what it is to rise to a challenge or to succeed.

      There are those that procrastinate in how they choose to spend their time. Always putting off what should be done today, always waiting for life to deliver them their meals and entertainment, never once seeking it out. The best things I’ve found in the world, I’ve looked for.

      Lastly, there is the poor soul who procrastinates his family. He always find more important things than the little ones at home and enjoying life while it still breathes. The sad realization his procrastination hides is that one day he’ll wake up, and they’ll all be gone.

      Tomorrow will not always be there.

      • Susan W A

        Thank you, James. I appreciate your comments.

  • I know how to use them thar littery devices. Them’s for recyclin’. Ya got yur big blue barrel for plastics. Tha’ means yur pop bottles, yur plastic bags, and other simile stuff and the like. The green barrel, those aluminuminum… inum.. that is what em-etaphor. Cans… Cans… and aruminin floil. That’d be good. Yep. I’m mighty proud of ya.

    Then comes yer white barrel. Can ya guess what kind of stuff goes in thar? Let me give ya a hint. You can draws on it, like little animals or you can personify it up and put some people on thar. No, not wood, you numskul, paper, and I don’t mean the kind over in the rest rooms neither. That is not what em-etaphor! Just plain ol’ paper.

    Gollie, I’m dealin’ with geniuses. People ain’t got no sense, no wonders they make alliterations. Don’t know any better. and you can’t learn them nothing. Forget it, my nose’s a runnin, and I think I’ve got analogy.

    • Susan W A

      Are you sure your name’s not James Twain?

  • Billy

    A mother’s gaze is a harbor. A child rests in it protected from the storms of the world. The gaze offers retreat from hostility and threat; it draws the baby into the lap where they anchor down. Waves crash into the harbor, but the gaze circles around and breaks their ferocious crests. The harbor provides calm, but it is based in love, which causes the giver of the gaze to perform the pleasant and unpleasant duties of a parent. While in harbor, the child receives a scrub and maintenance work. A mother’s gaze offers what the child needs, not what it wants.

    • Susan W A

      Stunning

    • An interesting use of an extended metaphor, but sometimes the most profound things I have read were actually subtly suggested.

  • The teeming river carries a basket down its vigorous path. From within
    the basket comes a coo, and then the small hands of a child as he feels
    for the first time the dance of wind.

    The river carries him strongly and gently past the violence and bloodshed, into a silent meadow, placing him gently into the sands of the shore. The waves from
    the river whisper to him, and rock the cradle.

    In time, there comes a woman to fetch water from the river. She finds the babe and takes him home.

    Years pass and the child returns to the river often. The river offers up to
    him fish and comfort from the Summer’s heat. Faster and faster each day
    by the river does he grow, until one day, looking into the river, he
    sees the reflection of a man.

    Soon, all too soon, the man returns. He is clutching a basket, bleeding from a wound at his shoulder. Desperate, he shoves the basket with child into the river.

    She accepts the child, with open arms.

    • Pedro Hernandez

      This was a beautiful piece of writing! You really tied up this story at the end 😀

      • Actually I think i did that intentionally at the time, not realizing that would imply the basket was pregnant with a child.

        Thank you for your comment!

    • Kenneth M. Harris

      What a tremendous piece! Similes and Metaphors are awesome. Great work, James

    • Paul Owen

      I loved the tragic cycle in this, James. Thought provoking and beautifully written. Thank you.

      • Thanks Paul. It was probably a bit poetic, because I’m still trying to figure out what it means. 😛

  • Clyta Coder

    Knowledge is a candle to darkness—the darkness of ignorance in a polarized world. If we but take the time to know each other, to discover the unique gifts of individuals who are different than we are—-okay, who sometimes scare us to death—-we might find not only friends, but often soulmates unawares. Behind a tattoo or wearing a nose ring might be an illuminator, a candle to illuminate the ignorance of our denied prejudices.

    • It is better to be a good judge of character than a good judge of fashion.

  • Great post! I like the specific examples you chose to illustrate these literary devices.

  • Paul Owen

    Thank you for this article, Emily. Here’s a brief attempt, something that spilled out of my engineer brain:

    She waited for me in the garage, early on a Saturday. I felt her energy as I traced a finger along the hood. With a throaty rumble we backed out into the driveway, then idled down the street, excitement rising to match the sun peeking over the horizon.

    I turned onto Main and we motored toward the highway, I held her back, easy on the pedal, feeling the power build like a sprinter in the blocks.

    Once on the entrance ramp sloping to the west, I let her go. 4th gear, then 5th, the cool morning air whipping through my hair as the engine roared. We tried to outrun the orange ball now glowing in my mirror.

    I never saw her coming. Blue & red lights flashed and I pulled off to the left. The cop climbed off her bike and walked slowly to my window, head nodding as she looked the car over.

    “That’s a fine ride, sir, but do you have any idea how fast you were going?”

    “She wanted to run, officer. I couldn’t hold her back.”

    • LilianGardner

      Good examples. Wish I could write like you, Paul.

      • Paul Owen

        Thank you for the kind words, Lilian. My guess is you can do better!

    • Love the ending. Well, it FELT like I was going about 70 miles an hour. I was too elated to look at my speedometer.

      • Paul Owen

        Haha, thanks, James. We were going waaay over 70, though!

  • Emily, it seems almost heretical for you to offer up to us a good practice on the metaphorical, but not share your own practice of literary devices. I’m sure you have a beautiful rose to turn into sunshine.

  • Extended personification, hmm, Watershipdown. Or every Disney movie ever made, but I think that may drop over into anthropomorphize, but I think it’s the same thing.

  • Mike Sherer

    I’ve had over 20 cars parked in my garage, and have never named one. It is you. But this was very helpful.