English Literary Techniques

Literary techniques are deliberate constructions and uses of language which speakers and authors use to convey meaning - to make us think and feel a certain way.

Why are literary techniques important 

(i) What is a literary technique and why do composers use them?

Literary techniques are deliberate constructions and uses of language which speakers and authors use to convey meaning - to make us think and feel a certain way.

Literary techniques are everywhere: in novels, poems, non-fiction texts, memoirs, newspaper articles, and even in our everyday speech.

There are many different types of literary techniques, including:

  • sound devices (e.g. alliteration, sibilance, repetition, onomatopoeia)
  • syntactical devices (e.g. enjambment, elipses, fragmentation,
  • figurative language (e.g. imagery, allusion)
  • form (e.g. allegory, flashbacks)
  • expression (e.g. exclamation, hyperbole)

Composers use literary techniques to convey some deeper meaning than what is conveyed by the literal meaning of a sentence. This meaning often evokes certain emotions or feelings in the reader that enhances the overall message the author is trying to convey.

(ii) Where in the course students will have to identify literary techniques

Literary techniques underpin every aspect of English:

  • essays and comprehension - the meaning of a text, its themes, and its central ideas cannot be analysed and understood without looking at the techniques used to convey those ideas
  • creative writing - sophisticated literary techniques must be employed to distinguish top band students
(iii) The importance of explaining the technique's effect

Techniques, by definition, convey some further meaning. It is this meaning being conveyed, rather than just the name of the technique conveying it, that markers are concerned with. A comprehensive list of literary techniques is futile without a comprehensive list of these technique's effects.

A lot of techniques do simply just emphasise. However, it is precisely what they are emphasising that matters. This could be a particular sound, theme, word, tone, motif or question.

That being said, even the same technique can convey a plethora of different meanings in different contexts. This article will offer a range of possible effects for each technique. Yet it is up to students to identify which effect is conveyed in their relevant examples.

(iv) How to integrate literary techniques into essays/creative writing

Integrating techniques is as easy as TEE: technique, example, effect.

Technique - identify the specific technique employed by the composer

Example - integrate a specific (and short) example of the technique, not necessarily the whole sentence it features in

Effect - explain precisely how the technique effects the way you read the sentence and what meaning you get from this

It is worth noting that techniques do not work in isolation from one another. In fact often, techniques work together to produce meaning. For example, two different types of alliteration may contrast in order to emphasis how different they are from each other.

There are also macro and micro techniques: that is big techniques that affect the whole text, such as form, and small techniques that change the meaning of individual sentences, phrases or words. You should aim to analyse a range of both macro and micro techniques and identify how they work together - this usually requires you to explain how the micro techniques enhance the macro techniques and the meaning of the text as a whole.

Sound Devices

Sound devices effect the way in which speech and words sound when it is read. They are often used in poetry because of this.

Most sound devices just emphasise a particular sound and this sound connotes a particular meaning. The trick to understanding the effect of a sound devices is to read the sentence aloud and think about what meaning is conveyed by the sounds you hear. For example, repeated short 'i' sounds might be mimicking a stabbing knife and repeated harsh 't' sounds might imitate a ticking clock.

Sound devices will include:

  • alliteration
  • assonance
  • consonance
  • fricative alliteration
  • onomatopoeia
  • plosive alliteration
  • repetition
  • rhyme
  • sibilance
Technique Description Effect Example
Alliteration The repetition of sounds at the beginning of two or more words in proximation.

There are many different types of alliteration (described later in the table): fricative - 'f' sounds
plosive - 'p' or 'b' sounds
sibilance - 's' sounds
Emphasises a particular sound which usually connotes a particular meaning. For example, repeated harsh sounds like 'k' can convey violence, repeated elongated sounds like 'o' and 'w' can slow the pace and convey emotion, repeated 't' sounds can mimic real life sounds like a ticking clock or machinery. "The tiger paces up and down/behind the black bars of the page".

The plosive alliteration here highlights the physicality of language and how Dobson feels captive to the words with which she writes.

From 'Tiger' by Rosemary Dobson.
Assonance The repetition of similar vowel sounds. Emphasises a particular sound which usually connotes a particular meaning. "little eddies of wind were whirling dust"

Orwell's use of assonance mimics the blowing wind to convey the cold, emptiness of life in Oceania.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Consonance The repetition of consonants (either the same or different). Emphasises a particular sound which usually connotes a particular meaning.
Fricative Alliteration The repetition of voiceless sounds such as 'f'. Conveys the passing of air; usually to reflect actions like breathlessness or the wind blowing.
Onomatopeia Words that sound like what they are describing. Really captures the sensory experience of hearing a sound.
Plosive Alliteration "Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!/I dare damnation".

Shakespeare's use of plosive alliteration reflects Laertes' bitter determination to kill Hamlet and reinforces Laertes' characterisation as the dogged revenger.

From Hamlet by Shakespeare.
Repetition The repetition of the same words, phrases or sounds. Draws attention to a particular word or theme or conveys a sound that reflects a further meaning. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

The repetition conveys a sense of monotony and uniformity that reflects the Party's control over past, present and future narratives.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Rhyme Words which have corresponding sounds with other words . Draws attention to the connection between two or more words. Can also be used to convey a sense of song or chanting.
Sibilance The repetition of 's' sounds. Mimics hissing. “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life”.

Shakespeare's use of sibilance mimics a snake's hissing to amplify Claudius' slyness and the sense of duplicity that engulfs him.

Syntactical Devices

Syntactical devices will include:

  • deixis
  • disjunction
  • elipses
  • enjambment
  • epistrophe
  • fragmentation
  • juxtaposition/contrast
  • periphrasis
  • tricolon
Technique Description Effect Example
Anaphora
Antithesis Two things that are directly opposite to one another. Emphasises one thing by contrasting it to another, or simply emphasises the difference between the two things. “heaven and hell"

Shakespeare's use of antithesis reflects Hamlet's uncertainty as he tries to decide whether or not to commit revenge.

From Hamlet by Shakespeare.
Contrast/Juxtaposition The positioning of two different things close together.

This can include characters, words, sounds, settings, syntactical features, ideas.
Either emphasises one over the other. For example, when a composer uses a long sentence directly before a short one, which will emphasis the short sentence.

It can also emphasise the difference between the two to show a duplicity of perceptions.
"And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true."

The contrast between the long-winded and short sentence reflects the harsh difference between reality and what Winston is trying to convince himself; that he has not been psychologically corrupted.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Deixis The use of deictic words: words that depend on other words to have meaning. Usually the use of such words without context.

e.g. 'me' depends on you knowing who 'me' is, 'here' depends on you knowing where 'here' is.
Confuses/disrupts the meaning of a sentence, often to show that meaning is uncertain or complicated.
Disjunction A conjunction that interrupts the rhythm of a sentence. Emphasises the word that follows the interrupting conjunction or emphasises the interruption itself and the fact that syntactical norms have been subverted.
Ellipsis Three consecutive full stops (...) Creates tension or suspense.
Enjambment In poetry. A sentence or phrase that runs over more than one line, with a line break. Either emphasises the connection or disconnection between two passages - depending on whether the enjambment flows audibly when the poem is spoken aloud with a pause. Creates a certain rhythm.
Epistrophe Repetition of the same word or phrases at the end of a sentence, clause or phrase.

NB: epistrophe is the opposite of anaphora.
Draws emphasis to the repeated phrase and the idea it intends to convey. “from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again"

Orwell's use of epistrophe reflects the indistinguishability of the pigs and the farmers, and from his allegorical novel to the reader's reality.

From Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Fragmentation Fractured sentences or phrases that cannot stand alone as a sentence. Can convey many things; including a sense of decay, indecisiveness, rejection of linearity or societal norms. "Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think."

Syntactical fragmentation is used here to expand upon and explain the statement so that you don't have to think about it; in the same way the Party's use of Newspeak will eventually require you not to think.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Oxymoron Two opposite ideas placed in conjunction. Draws attention to both the connections and differences between the relevant words.
Periphrasis The use of a longer sentence when a shorter one would have sufficed. Particularly in dialogue, can represent a need to seem intelligent or dramatic. "Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well."

The ironic periphrasis here (the use of lots of words to describe the futility of using many words) justifies the Party's attempts to restrict the use of language and eventually, narrow thought.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Tricolon

Figurative Language

Figurative language will include:

  • allusion
  • analogy
  • anthropomorphism
  • emotive language
  • imagery
  • metaphor
  • metonymy
  • motif
  • paradox
  • pathetic fallacy
  • personification
  • simile
  • symbolism
  • sensory imagery
Technique Description Effect Example
Allusion An implicit reference to another thing or text. Reminds us of how the text relates to its contextual surroundings and how it fits into the broader world around it.
Analogy A comparison of two things in order to better explain the first thing. Better explains the current situation by drawing reference to a past situation the reader would likely already understand.
Anthropromorphism The attribution of non-human characteristics to a human . Emphasises a particularly non-human trait such as barbarism.
Emotive Language Constructions of language that stir the reader's emotions. Evokes a particular emotion in the reader and deepens their connection with the characters or ideas presented in the text.
Imagery Words that create a picture in the readers mind. More vividly conveys the relevant image so to better portray the meaning of that image.
Metaphor A word or phrase applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Gives the object an additional or deeper meaning than it literally has. “swim against the stream of communal ideas”

Weldon's use of metaphor vividly conveys the difficulty of challenging societal norms and values.

From Letters to Alice by Fay Weldon.
Metonymy A word/name used in the place of another word/name . Characterises the thing and indicates something about its charactersistics etc.
Motif A recurring image/sound/figure that conveys a certain theme or idea through symbolism. Easily identifies a theme throughout the story. "2 + 2 = 5"

This motif of an equation symbolises the devolution of psychological independence throughout Nineteen-Eighty-Four as the result of the Party's complete control over the mind.


From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Paradox A statement that seems to contradict itself but is actually true Often shows the complex, contradictory nature of life. Reminds people that life can be both black and white at the same time, and therefore, rather grey "War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength"

The use paradox in this Party slogan shows the extent of the Party's influence; they have such psychological control that they can even convince the people to believe completely contradictory statements that warp objective reality.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
Pathetic Fallacy The attribution of human emotions to nature. Emphasises the emotion being conveyed .
Personification The attribution of human characteristics to inanimate (or non-human) objects. Gives the object additional meaning that is tangible to the reader.
Simile The comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind. Better describes the first thing by giving it additional meaning. "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny."

Shakespeare uses similes here to convey that even the most pure symbols cannot escape corruption.

From Hamlet by Shakespeare.
Symbolism An object that represents an idea. Gives an object additional meaning.
Sensory Imagery Words that construct a sensory experience (e.g. taste, touch, smell, feel, sight) in the reader's mind. Makes it easier for the reader to relate to or understand the message being conveyed (by the sensory imagery).

Form

Form will include:

  • allegory
  • apostrophe
  • bricolage
  • dialogue
  • epistolary
  • flashbacks
  • foreshadowing
  • intertextuality
  • linearity
  • metatheacricality
  • satire
Technique Description Effect Example
Allegory A story that conveys a second meaning through the telling of the first, literal one Conveys the similarities between the two stories For instance, Arthur Miller's The Crucible uses the Salem witch hunts as the central allegory for 1950s McCarthyism during the Cold War. This draws a parallel between a historical moment of hysteria in American history with his contemporary politics in order to highlight the descent of American politics and democracy in the 'present.'
Bricolage A text reconstructed from multiple, pre-existing sources Reflects multiple perspectives and the plurality of life (particularly in the post-modern context)
Dialogue A conversation between two or more people Provides insight into a character's thoughts, feelings or emotions
Didactic An instructional text that tries to deliver a moral message Commands the reader into believing the text is authoritative
Epistolary Form A story told through letters Enables insight into different perspectives (if the letters have different authors)
Otherwise, gives greater insight into the character's perspective
Flashbacks An earlier scene that appears later in the text Gives insight into past events which would otherwise be unknown
Foreshadowing An allusion to something that will happen later in the text Builds anticipation for the future event
Incantation A song-like poetic form Depends on the style. Often mimics spell-casting chants to reflect a dark magic; other times mimics a lullaby to create a motherly/protective tone
Intertextuality A reference (in a text) to another text Gives the relevant text additional meaning by comparing it to themes or ideas in another text "To know and not to know"

This intertextual reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet reflects the existential nature of Winston's search for knowledge and truth
Linearity The chronological order of a text

NB: non-linear texts tell the story in non-chronological order through flashbacks etc.
Linear form reflects order, structure and often, the nature of life from birth to death.

Non-linear forms may reflect the subjective nature of time or the chaos and complexity of life.
Meta / metatheatre When a text refers to itself, or to its status as a text. In an instance of metatheatre, for example, which refers to its manifestation in plays specifically, the composer reminds the audience they are watching a play Forces the responder to fit the text into their own lives; reminds us that the themes of the text relate beyond the play itself and the characters within it "the purpose of playing, ... was and is to hold, ... the mirror up to nature"

Shakespeare's use of metatheatre invites the audience to confront the themes of Hamlet just as Hamlet's play encourages Claudius to confront his own guilt.

From Hamlet by Shakespeare
Satire The use of humour/irony to ridicule certain behaviours or beliefs Emphasises the silliness or stupidity of certain characteristics or tendencies

Expression

Expression will include:

  • cliché
  • euphemism
  • exclamation
  • humour
  • hyperbole
  • imperative tone
  • irony
  • modality
  • parody
  • person/voice
  • pun
  • rhetorical question
  • tense
  • tone
Technique Description Effect Example
Cliche An over-used phrase or expression Highlights all of the connotations that particular cliche carries. May even ironically highlight the fact that the cliche is overused.
Euphemism A mild expression used instead of one that might be more harsh or direct
Exclamation An exclamation mark '!' or common sound expressions like 'oh', 'ugh' and 'ah'.
Humour The quality of being amusing or comic.
Hyperbole The exaggeration of a person, place or thing Emphasises the scale of the relevant object or idea
Imperative A grammatical mood used for commands Conveys an authoritative tone
Irony The space between what is meant and what is said Either emphasises what is being unsaid or the gap itself "Miss Lucas ... instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane."

Austin's use of irony mocks Charlotte's ability to contrive a relationship and sacrifice her autonomy for financial security.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Modality The degree of certainty conveyed by a word Depending on the degree of modality will convey either a sense of certainty or uncertainty
Parody An imitation which satirises Emphasises the silliness or faults in the thing being imitated
Person/Voice The point of view from which a speech is written Shapes the perspective from which we see the evens of the text. For example, first person narration and voice might offer a limited perspective compared to an omniscient third person, but it may be used to build intimacy with the narrator, or empathy, sympathy, etc.
Pun The comical use of a word/sound that has two different meanings Often draws connection between the two words in question, but can also emphasise the plurality of language itself (the fact that words can be interpreted in different ways) "I am too much i'the sun"

Hamlet's use of pun (which draws on the homophones sun and son) reflects the theme of duality and duplicity.

From Hamlet by Shakespeare
Rhetorical Question A question that does not require an answer. Requires the reader to consider the answer for themselves.

If the question is rhetorical because the answer is already known, then may highlight the relationship between the questioner and the supposed answerer.
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?"

This rhetorical question (and the correct answer it affords) highlights the prescriptive nature of language in Oceania

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Tense The time of a verbs action
e.g. present, past, future
Depends on the tense -
present tense can convey a sense of immediacy; past tense can be quite reflective; and future can convey a sense of uncertainty, hope or fear
"there did not exist, and never again could exist"

The use of both past and future tense reflects the Party's complete control over Oceania's history and, therefore, its future.

From Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Tone The overall feel of a phrase, sentence or text Very much depends on the tone used. Tone is also often created by other techniques - for instance, imagery, modality, etc.

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