An Overview of the Most Common Literary Devices

Literary Devices

Welcome to this video lesson about literary devices.

As you read literature, (or LITCHRATURE) you should notice the devices used by authors to tell their story better. These devices increase the quality and beauty of the writing, much like the quality and variety of instruments used in a band or orchestra.

The most common literary devices are as follows: symbolism, foreshadowing, and flashback.

Symbolism is when the author uses one object to stand for something else. For example, the author may include a flag flying high throughout a story to show pride in the characters’ country and togetherness.

Foreshadowing gives the reader hints that an event will occur. For example, author John Steinbeck uses foreshadowing by naming two of his characters Caleb and Aaron, which supposed to sound like Cain and Abel, foreshadowing the future events of the story.

Flashback occurs when the author of a story tells the reader events or thoughts that occurred in the past, helping the reader to make sense out of events that are currently happening in the story.


Read the following sentence from The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. State the character traits that the reader learns from the sentence.

“He remembered how he had stood, a small, thrillful boy, prepared to follow the dingy lady upon the white horse, or the band in its faded chariot.”
The sentence is part of a flashback within the story, which gives the reader information about how the character used to be. The information in the sentence indicates that the character was a small boy. The word ‘thrillful’ indicates that he was eager and amazed by a parade at the time. The flashback is not unpleasant, it just indicates a different time period and perception. A flashback is often used to show contrast to current feelings or how a character may be led to feel a certain way about a current situation. The author’s inclusion of the sentence indicates that the boy has changed over time, most likely physically grown as well as in his perception of events over time.


Read the following sentence from Call of the Wild by Jack London and state what type of literary device is used in the sentence.

“Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.”

This sentence includes the literary device called foreshadowing, which is used to indicate that something will happen in the future. In the sentence, foreshadowing is used to show that something will happen to the dog in the story. The author indicates that trouble was brewing and that the dog, along with ‘every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego’ will be susceptible to the same event that is about to occur. None of the dogs know about the event that will occur, of course, but the author places this information into the sentence to let the reader know that something will happen.

Read the following sentence from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and explain what literary device is used in the sentence.

“The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions; stars shoot and meteors glare more often across the valley than in any other part of the country.”

The literary device of symbolism is used in the sentence. The phrase ‘stars shoot and meteors glare more often across the valley than in any other part of the country’ is used to symbolize the strange atmosphere of the location. The presence of more shooting stars and meteors is meant to indicate that something out of the ordinary is going on in the setting of the story. An author will often use symbolism to take ordinary objects and give them additional meaning. In this sentence, symbolism gives a questioning, ethereal tone to the setting that may not otherwise be achieved.


Now, try one by yourself and see if you can figure out what literary devices is being used.

Read the following sentence from Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and state the type of literary device used in the sentence.

“The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.”

The sentence contains the literary device ‘flashback.’ The character in the story is remembering back, which gives the reader some background information about the character. The character remembers a field with clear water and describes the field as a large pleasant meadow. This indicates that the character enjoyed the field and did not have bad memories of the location. By looking at the wording used in each sentence, the reader can figure out how the character feels about the information revealed in a flashback.



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: August 14, 2019