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Literary Techniques


Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds within close proximity, usually in consecutive words within the same sentence or line.


Anthropomorphism: Where animals or inanimate objects are portrayed in a story as people, such as by walking, talking, or being given arms, legs, facial features, human locomotion or other anthropoid form. (This technique is often incorrectly called personification.)


The King and Queen of Hearts and their playing-card courtiers comprise only one example of Carroll’s extensive use of anthropomorphism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


Blank verse: Non-rhyming poetry, usually written in iambic pentameter.


Most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is written in blank verse, though it does occasionally rhyme.


Characterization: The author’s means of conveying to the reader a character’s personality, life history, values, physical attributes, etc. Also refers directly to a description thereof.


Atticus is characterized as an almost impossibly virtuous man, always doing what is right and imparting impeccable moral values to his children.


Creative license: Exaggeration or alteration of objective facts or reality, for the purpose of enhancing meaning in a fictional context.


Orwell took some creative license with the historical events of the Russian Revolution, in order to clarify the ideological conflicts.


Dialogue: Where characters speak to one another; may often be used to substitute for exposition.


Since there is so little stage direction in Shakespeare, many of the characters’ thoughts and actions are revealed through dialogue.


Dramatic irony: Where the audience or reader is aware of something important, of which the characters in the story are not aware.


Macbeth responds with disbelief when the weird sisters call him Thane of Cawdor; ironically, unbeknownst to him, he had been granted that title by king Duncan in the previous scene.


Exposition: Where an author interrupts a story in order to explain something, usually to provide important background information.


The first chapter consists mostly of exposition, running down the family’s history and describing their living conditions.


Figurative language: Any use of language where the intended meaning differs from the actual literal meaning of the words themselves. There are many techniques which can rightly be called figurative language, including metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, onomatopoeia, verbal irony, and oxymoron. (Related: figure of speech)


The poet makes extensive use of figurative language, presenting the speaker’s feelings as colors, sounds and flavors.



Foreshadowing: Where future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. Foreshadowing can take many forms and be accomplished in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety. However, if the outcome is deliberately and explicitly revealed early in a story (such as by the use of a narrator or flashback structure), such information does not constitute foreshadowing.


Willy’s concern for his car foreshadows his eventual means of suicide.


Hyperbole: A description which exaggerates, usually employing extremes and/or superlatives to convey a positive or negative attribute; “hype.”


The author uses hyperbole to describe Mr. Smith, calling him “the greatest human being ever to walk the earth.”


Iambic pentameter: A poetic meter wherein each line contains ten syllables, as five repetitions of a two-syllable pattern in which the pronunciation emphasis is on the second syllable.


Shakespeare wrote most of his dialogue in iambic pentameter, often having to adjust the order and nature of words to fit the syllable pattern, thus endowing the language with even greater meaning.


Idiom: an expression that does not mean what it literally says, as to have the                     upper hand has nothing to do with hands.


          Metaphors, similes, clichés, and personifications are types of idioms.



Imagery: Language which describes something in detail, using words to substitute for and create sensory stimulation, including visual imagery and sound imagery. Also refers to specific and recurring types of images, such as food imagery and nature imagery. (Not all descriptions can rightly be called imagery; the key is the appeal to and stimulation of specific senses, usually visual. It is often advisable to specify the type of imagery being used, and consider the significance of the images themselves, to distinguish imagery from mere description.)


The author’s use of visual imagery is impressive; the reader is able to see the island in all its lush, colorful splendor by reading Golding’s detailed descriptions.


Irony (a.k.a. Situational irony): Where an event occurs which is unexpected, in the sense that it is somehow in absurd or mocking opposition to what would be expected or appropriate. Mere coincidence is generally not ironic; neither is mere surprise, nor are any random or arbitrary occurrences. (Note: Most of the situations in the Alanis Morissette song are not ironic at all, which may actually make the song ironic in itself.) See alsoDramatic irony; Verbal irony.


Jem and Scout are saved by Boo Radley, who had ironically been an object of fear and suspicion to them at the beginning of the novel.


Metaphor: A direct relationship where one thing or idea substitutes for another.


Shakespeare often uses light as a metaphor for Juliet; Romeo refers to her as the sun, as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” and as a solitary dove among crows.


Meiosis: a figure of speech that consists of saying less than someone means. The                 opposite of hyperbole.



Onomatopoeia: Where sounds are spelled out as words; or, when words describing sounds actually sound like the sounds they describe.


Remarque uses onomatopoeia to suggest the dying soldier’s agony, his last gasp described as a “gurgling rattle.”


Oxymoron: A contradiction in terms.


Romeo describes love using several oxymorons, such as “cold fire,” “feather of lead” and “sick health,” to suggest its contradictory nature.


Paradox: Where a situation is created which cannot possibly exist, because different elements of it cancel each other out.


In 1984, “doublethink” refers to the paradox where history is changed, and then claimed to have never been changed.


A Tale of Two Cities opens with the famous paradox, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”


Parallelism: Use of similar or identical language, structures, events or ideas in different parts of a text.


Hobbs’ final strikeout parallels the Whammer’s striking out against him at the beginning of the novel.


Personification (I) Where inanimate objects or abstract concepts are seemingly endowed with human self-awareness; where human thoughts, actions, perceptions and emotions are directly attributed to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. (Not to be confused with anthropomorphism.)


Malamud personifies Hobbs’ bat, giving it a name, Wonderboy, and .during Hobbs’ batting slump.


 Personification (II) Where an abstract concept, such as a particular human behavior or a force of nature, is represented as a person.


The Greeks personified natural forces as gods; for example, the god Poseidon was the personification of the sea and its power over man.



Pun: A play on words, either on different senses of the same word or on the similar sense or sound of different words.

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.

A horse is a very stable animal.



Repetition: Where a specific word, phrase, or structure is repeated several times, usually in close proximity, to emphasize a particular idea.


The repetition of the words “What if…” at the beginning of each line reinforces the speaker’s confusion and fear.



 Simile: An indirect relationship where one thing or idea is described as being similar to another. Similes usually contain the words “like” or “as,” but not always.


The simile in line 10 describes the lunar eclipse: “The moon appeared crimson, like a drop of blood hanging in the sky.”


The character’s gait is described in the simile: “She hunched and struggled her way down the path, the way an old beggar woman might wander about.”



Symbolism: The use of specific objects or images to represent abstract ideas. This term is commonly misused, describing any and all representational relationships, which in fact are more often metaphorical than symbolic. A symbol must be something tangible or visible, while the idea it symbolizes must be something abstract or universal. (In other words, a symbol must be something you can hold in your hand or draw a picture of, while the idea it symbolizes must be something you can’t hold in your hand or draw a picture of.)


Golding uses symbols to represent the various aspects of human nature and civilization as they are revealed in the novel. The conch symbolizes order and authority, while its gradual deterioration and ultimate destruction metaphorically represent the boys’ collective downfall.


Verbal irony: Where the meaning of a specific expression is, or is intended to be, the exact opposite of what the words literally mean. (Sarcasm is a tone of voice that often accompanies verbal irony, but they are not the same thing.)


Orwell gives this torture and brainwashing facility the ironic title, “Ministry of Love.”