Every Author wants to write a good book. That’s a given.
But you don’t need to know the names and definitions of 30 or 40 literary devices to accomplish that goal.
Knowing the difference between alliteration, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole won’t make or break your book.
Literary devices are especially common in novels, where writers need to use flashbacks, foreshadowing, or figurative language to keep the reader enthralled.
But most nonfiction doesn’t need literary devices to be effective.
As an Author, your goal is to explain how your knowledge can solve a reader’s problems in a clear, concise manner. If you can toss in some good storytelling, so much the better.
Remember, being a good writer isn’t about checking off every writing trick on the list. It’s about expressing your information in an authentic, clear way.
This literary device crash course is a helpful tool, but if you want to publish a great book, devices shouldn’t be your primary focus.
What Are Literary Devices?
Literary devices, also known as literary elements, are techniques that writers use to convey their message more powerfully or to enhance their writing.
Many Authors use literary devices without even realizing it. For example, if you exaggerate and say, “This method has the potential to revolutionize the world,” that’s hyperbole. Your method may be impactful, but it probably isn’t really going to upend the way every single country does things.
More complicated literary devices are a common feature in fiction, but most nonfiction books don’t need them. A nonfiction Author’s job is to deliver information in an engaging way. “Engaging” doesn’t necessarily mean “literary.”
Still, literary devices can add a lot to a text when they’re used correctly.
For example, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the following metaphor to describe human struggle: “So we beat on, boats against the current…”
The image of boats fighting against the current is a powerful way to express the simple idea that “life is hard.”
Literary devices are especially effective when they’re used sparingly. Don’t overdo it.
If your entire book is written in metaphors, it’s not only going to be an overkill of flowery language, but it’s probably going to be confusing too.
If you can incorporate literary devices in a way that makes sense and adds something to the readers’ experience, great. But don’t force it.
30 Common Literary Devices
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds within a group of words. For example, “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
Nonfiction Authors can use alliteration to create catchy chapter or subsection titles. For example, “4 Best Bets for Better Business.”
Alliteration is also particularly effective for highlighting concepts you want your readers to remember. For example, if the takeaway of your chapter is a pithy, one-line sentence, alliteration can really make it stand out. Think, “Clear communication is key.”
Be careful not to overuse alliteration, or your book will start to sound like a nursery rhyme.
An onomatopoeia is a word that imitates, suggests, or resembles the sound it’s describing. Common onomatopoeias include “gurgle,” “hiss,” “boom,” “whir,” and “whizz.”
In storytelling, onomatopoeia is an effective way to draw your reader into the environment. For example, if you’re telling an anecdote about a meeting you had with a client, it’s more vivid to say, “He plopped a sugar cube into his coffee and slurped,” than to say, “He drank his coffee with sugar.”
Foreshadowing is an advance warning about something that’s going to happen in the future.
In fiction, foreshadowing can be subtle. For example, something that happens in the first chapter of a murder mystery can come into play at the end of the book.
But in nonfiction, foreshadowing tends to be more obvious. Authors often use it to tell readers what they can expect to learn. For example, an Author might say, “We’re going to talk more about this example later,” or “I’ll discuss this at length in Chapter Three.”
Hyperbole is an exaggeration that’s not meant to be taken literally. For example, if my friend surprised me by eating a lot of pizza, I might say, “Hey man, remember that time you ate, like, fifteen pizzas in one night?”
Good nonfiction Authors often use hyperbole to emphasize the power of their statements. For example, “We all know how miserable it can be to work 24/7.” Do we really all know that? And it’s impossible to literally work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Nonfiction Authors have to be careful with hyperbole, though. If you’re using data, you want it to seem credible. In nonfiction, readers often want precision, not exaggeration.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech where seemingly contradictory terms appear together. For example, “the dumbest genius I know.”
Oxymorons are useful if you want to create an unexpected contrast. For example, “Your unhappiest customers are often your business’ happiest accident.”
A flashback is a scene set in an earlier time than the main story. They’re often used to provide important context or backstory for an event you’re discussing.
Because most nonfiction books aren’t chronological (unless it’s a memoir), you probably won’t have many opportunities to use flashbacks. But in anecdotes, a touch of flashback can be effective.
For example, “My boss congratulated me for landing the largest account our company had ever seen. It was hard to believe that only seven months earlier, I was struggling to keep the few clients I already had.”
7. Point of View
Point of view is the perspective you use to tell your story.
A lot of nonfiction is written with a first-person point of view, which means writing from an “I” perspective. For example, “I’ve developed the following ten-point system to improve your finances.”
It’s much rarer, although possible, to write nonfiction from the third-person perspective. For example, “They saw how powerful their methods could be.” Sometimes co-authors choose this method to avoid first-person confusion.
Nonfiction writers occasionally use second person (“you”) to directly address their readers. For example, “You know how hard it can be to fire someone.”
A euphemism is a polite way of describing something indirectly.
Many Authors use euphemisms to vary their language or soften the blow of a difficult concept. For example, “passed away” is a euphemism for “died.”
Some Authors use euphemisms to keep their texts more palatable for a general audience.
For example, if an Author is writing about sexual harassment in the workplace, they may not want to repeat lewd phrases and could use euphemisms instead. Or, an Author who wants to avoid the political controversy around the term “abortion” might opt for “pregnancy termination.”
A colloquialism is a word or phrase that’s not formal or literary. It tends to be used in ordinary or familiar conversation instead. For example, it’s more colloquial to say, “How’s it going?” instead of “How are you doing?”
Slang is also a form of colloquialism. If you say something was “awesome,” unless you literally mean it inspired awe, you’re being colloquial.
No matter how professional your audience is, some colloquialism can make your book feel more relatable. Readers like to feel as if they’re talking with the Author. Colloquialism can help you create that personal, one-on-one feeling.
Anthropomorphism is when you give human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human creatures or things.
If you think of your dog as having a “funny personality,” you’re anthropomorphizing him. The same goes for your “stubborn” toaster or “cranky” computer.
In nonfiction, you generally won’t encounter a lot of opportunities for anthropomorphism, but some Authors may want to humanize their products or services. For example, your software may be “friendly” or “kind” to new users.
Anaphora is a rhetorical device where you repeat a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. This is a great way to draw emphasis to a certain portion of text.
For example, Charles Dickens uses anaphora in the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief…”
PRO TIP: In grammar, anaphora has a different meaning. It occurs when you replace a word with another word to avoid repetition. For example, “I broke my phone, so I have to buy a new one,” instead of “I broke my phone, so I have to buy a new phone.” This kind of anaphora is helpful when you don’t want to sound redundant or repetitive.
An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency where you juxtapose people, things, or sayings from different time periods. If you were reading a book about colonial America where characters talk about cars, that would be anachronistic.
In nonfiction, you might want to use anachronism to make it easier for a current audience to relate to people in your stories.
For example, if you’re writing about the history of the banking industry, you might refer to certain individuals as “influencers” or talk about ideas that were “trending.”
A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one. This usually creates some kind of humorous effect. Imagine a person saying, “I know how to dance the flamingo,” instead of, “I know how to dance flamenco.”
There aren’t a lot of good reasons to use malapropism in nonfiction, but you could do this if you’re trying to amuse or delight your reader in an unexpected way. It’s a lot like using a pun.
For example, if you’re writing a book about sports, you might say, “The client and I saw things so eye-to-eye, it was almost like we had ESPN” (instead of “ESP”).
14. Figurative Language
Figurative language is language that dresses up your writing in an attempt to engage your readers. Figurative language is often more colorful, evocative, or dramatic.
For example, “She was chained to her desk for sixty hours a week.” Let’s hope not.
Still, it conjures a vivid image that’s more exciting for readers than, “She worked a lot.”
Figurative language is like taking your everyday language and putting it in a tuxedo.
15. Dramatic Irony
Irony is a literary technique where what appears to be the case differs radically from what is actually the case.
Dramatic irony is a type of irony that occurs when an audience understands the context more than the character in a story.
Let’s say you’re telling a story about an interaction with a client that didn’t go the way you expected. You might write, “Things seemed to be going well, but little did I know, she had already hired someone else.”
At the moment you were meeting with the client, you didn’t have that information. But now, the reader does. So, they get to follow along with the rest of the story, knowing more than you did at the time.
16. Verbal Irony
Verbal irony occurs when a person says one thing but means another. Sarcasm is a good example of verbal irony. For example, you might say, “It was a wonderful dinner,” when, in fact, the food was terrible, and your partner showed up an hour late.
Depending on the tone of your book, verbal irony can help create humor or make you more relatable.
17. Figure of Speech
Think of “figure of speech” as a kind of catch-all term for any word or phrase that’s used in a non-literal sense to create a dramatic effect.
For example, it’s a figure of speech to say that it was “raining cats and dogs” or that something stands “an ice cube’s chance in Hell” of happening.
A lot of the devices we’ve already discussed (e.g., alliteration, oxymoron, and metaphors) also fall into the category of figures of speech.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things in an interesting way. It often highlights the similarities between two different ideas.
Take, for example, “The classroom was a zoo.” It wasn’t literally a zoo, but this metaphor expresses the wild energy of a room full of children.
Or, “the curtain of night fell.” Night doesn’t have a curtain, but we can all imagine darkness falling like one.
Metaphors form direct comparisons by saying something is something else. (Similes, explained below, form comparisons by saying something is like something else.)
Metaphors are a useful tool for “showing” your reader something instead of just “telling.” They help your reader see and feel the scene, and they paint a vivid picture.
If you use a metaphor, though, make sure it’s intelligible. There are a lot of bad ones out there. The point of a metaphor is to make a scene clearer, not to confuse your reader.
A simile is also a figure of speech that compares two different things in an interesting way. But unlike a metaphor, a simile uses comparison words like “like” or “as.”
“She was as bright as a lightbulb.”
“He was stubborn like a mule.”
Using similes can make your writing more interesting. The comparisons can spark your readers’ imagination while still getting your information across clearly.
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept.
For example, a businessman is sometimes known as “a suit.”
Or, in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “lend me your ears,” is a metonymy for “give me your full attention.”
People use metonymy all the time without being conscious of it. For example, if you get in a car wreck, you’re likely to say, “That car hit me,” instead of, “That car hit my car.”
If you’re writing in relatable, colloquial language, your book will probably have metonymy in it.
Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something stands in for the whole or vice versa. It’s a subset of metonymy.
For example, if you have “hungry mouths to feed,” you actually need to feed people. Their mouths are just a stand-in for the whole person.
Or, you might say, “All of society was at the gala,” when you really mean, “All of high society was there.”
Typically, synecdoche will come out in your writing naturally. When you force synecdoche, it can sound strange.
For example, what do you think I mean when I say, “I sat on the legs?” I’m guessing a chair didn’t come to mind, even though “legs” is a part of the whole “chair.”
An aphorism is a concise statement of a general truth or principle. For example, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Most aphorisms are handed down over time, so chances are, you won’t coin your own. Think of these as the tried-and-true statements people already know.
For example, if you’re describing toxic leadership, you could quickly say, “After all, power corrupts,” and your audience would immediately know what you mean.
Aphorisms are great for emphasis because they’re quick, clear, and to the point. They aren’t flowery, and their simplicity makes them memorable.
23. Rhetorical Question
A rhetorical question is a question asked for effect, not because you want an answer.
“Do you want to make money? Do you want to sleep better at night? Do you want to run a successful company?”
Who wouldn’t say yes? (See what I did there?)
Be careful not to overuse rhetorical questions because too many can get tedious. But used sparingly, they’re a great way to invite your reader into the conversation and highlight the benefits of your knowledge.
Polysyndeton comes from the Ancient Greek for “many” and “bound together.” As its name implies, it’s a literary technique in which conjunctions (e.g., and, but, or) are used repeatedly in quick succession.
Here it is in action: “I wanted an employee who was self-motivated and enterprising and skilled. I needed someone who could write and talk and network like a pro.”
In most cases, you’ll use a regular list instead of polysyndeton (e.g., “I like cats, dogs, and ferrets.”). But when it’s used correctly, polysyndeton is useful for drawing emphasis to different aspects of a sentence.
One common way to use polysyndeton is, “You’ll find everything in this book, from billing and buying to marketing and sales.”
Consonance occurs when you repeat consonant sounds throughout a particular word or phrase. Unlike alliteration, the repeated consonant doesn’t have to come at the beginning of the word.
“Do you like blue?” and “I wish I had a cushion to squash” are examples of consonance.
Consonance can help you build sentences and passages that have a nice rhythm. When a text flows smoothly, it can subconsciously propel readers forward and keep them reading.
Assonance is similar to consonance, except it involves repeating vowel sounds. This is usually a subtler kind of echo. For example, the words “penitence” and “reticence” are assonant.
Like consonance, assonance can help you build compelling, rhythmic language.
Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where grammatical constructions or concepts are repeated in reverse order.
For example, “Never let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you.” Or, “The happiest and best moments go to the best and happiest employees.”
In nonfiction, chiasmus can be an effective way to make a significant point. It often works because it’s unexpected and punchy.
Litotes is a figure of speech closely related to verbal irony. With litotes, you use understatement to emphasize your point. They often incorporate double negatives for effect.
For example, “You won’t be sorry” is the litotes way of saying, “You will be glad.”
If I say, “He wasn’t a bad singer,” you can probably assume that he was actually a good singer. But the negative construction conveys a different tone.
If hyperbole lends more force to your claims, litotes diminishes your statement. In nonfiction, there are situations where you might want to downplay your judgment.
Take this statement, for example: “He wasn’t the worst lawyer I had ever seen, but he could have been more organized.” You aren’t completely bashing the lawyer, but you’re still showing there’s room for improvement.
Still, I recommend using litotes sparingly if you don’t want people to think you’re constantly damning with faint praise.
An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book or chapter, intended to suggest its theme.
For example, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather begins with a quotation from the French writer Balzac: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.”
An epigraph is a great way to honor a writer or thinker you admire. It also immediately puts your work in conversation with theirs. In nonfiction, an epigraph can be a great way to signal to readers, “Hey, Tim Ferriss’ book has informed mine!”
But don’t rely too heavily on epigraphs. The point of writing a book is to show that you are an expert. You don’t want to constantly defer to other Authors to contextualize your ideas.
Also, epigraphs are only effective when they are truly relevant to your book. Don’t just pick a person that you think readers will recognize. Pick a quotation that really adds something to your book.
Epistrophe is the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. It’s sometimes called epiphora or antistrophe.
Epistrophe is the cousin of anaphora, where the repetition happens at the beginning of successive phrases.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a great example of a text that uses epistrophe: “… that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
His repetition of “the people” really drives home the importance of “the people” to American government. They are central, no matter how you slice it.
Epistrophe can be very dramatic, and it’s a great way to draw attention to crucial concepts or words in your book. But because it’s so impactful, it should be used in moderation.