Oftentimes, writers are able to draft the first-version of a story without a problem. They collect the characters, the plot, and the setting on the page, but when they read that first draft, it sometimes feels dry and dull. The reality is that the first draft often falls flat.
Once writers get the first draft done, the next step they take is incredibly important. If you assume the first draft is the best you can do and give up, then you lose the opportunity of crafting a truly lovely story. But, if you take another look at the story, you can edit and revise that first draft into a masterful piece of writing.
Regardless of the type of story (memoir, science fiction, etc.), writers try to achieve common goals: engage the reader throughout the story, capture their story’s essence, and create a piece that reflects the writer’s skills. There are a few tools writers can use to achieve all of these goals. As we revise our stories from the first drafts to the polished drafts, we can use literary devices to improve the writing.
What are literary devices?
Literary devices are structures, techniques, and practices writers use in non-fiction and fiction writing as well as poetry and screenplay. Literary devices are the building blocks of literature that engage readers, bring stories alive, and turn writing into an art form. Having a basic understanding of literary devices can help writers change their writing from dull to delightful.
A metaphor is a comparison of two things; it makes a direct comparison.
Typically, the two things being compared are otherwise unrelated, and the metaphor does not use the words “like” or “as”. The metaphor is one of the most common literary device; it tends to be easy for readers to decipher and enjoyable for writers to employ.
The grove of oak trees was an impenetrable fortress.
Sheila was a smart cookie.
When we say that the grove of oak trees was an impenetrable fortress, we are not literally saying that the trees had transformed into an actual fortress, but rather than the trees were so difficult to get through they had might as well be a fortress.
And when we say that Sheila is a smart cookie, we are not saying she is a baked good, but rather that Sheila is a smart person.
A similar is a comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as”; it makes an indirect comparison.
The simile is similar to a metaphor in that it makes a comparison between two things, which typically are unrelated. Like the metaphor, the simile is a common literary device, is easy to use for writers, and easy for readers to decipher.
My dog shuffles like an old man.
The sleeping cat was as a ticking time bomb.
When we say the dog shuffles like an old man, we’re comparing the way the dog walks with the way some older gentlemen may walk. Though the two creatures, the dog and the man, might not be compared in normal circumstances, their manner of walk is compared here.
When we compare the sleeping cat with the time bomb, we are not saying the two are exactly the same. Rather, we are saying the cat is as delicate as the bomb. Likely, when the cat wakes up, she would be as dangerous as a bomb.
Imagery is a writer’s technique use of sensory details to describe something.
Writers can use imagery in any type of writing: poetry, non-fiction, and any type of fiction. It is a universal literary device and can be used in a literal or figurative way. Since many people tend to be visual, readers tend to engage with imagery.
The fog smothered the city in layers of thick cold that struck strait to the bone.
Marvin’s head felt like it had burst, the flesh burned and throbbed constantly as sharp pains stabbed sharpened daggers behind his eyes.
The fog’s description shows us how overwhelming the fog is. It has given the city a sense of having been enveloped by the cold, which a person feels in their bones.
Marvin’s headache is so bad that he feels both a burning and stabbing sensation from the pain.
Personification gives human traits to non-human things.
When writers use personification, they can pull the reader into the story by creating a connection between the reader and the story’s objects (animals, places, things). This can develop connection, compassion, or empathy between the reader and the story.
The bookshelf stood watch over the office and ensured the safety of Anya’s prized book collection.
The old Ford’s engine coughed and hacked back to life.
In our bookshelf example, we suggest that the bookshelf is doing the human tasks of standing guard and ensuring safety. It is not just holding books, as other bookshelves would do.
The old Ford makes human sounds when it coughs and hacks back to life, just as a person might adjust after sleeping for a long time.
How often should you use literary devices in your writing?
There is a balance when using literary devices. If you overuse them, your writing can be weighted down with description and the story’s pace slowed down or even stopped. If you under-use them, the story can be dull and lifeless. Finding the balance for your writing is one of the key steps for you to create your personal writing style.
After you have written the first draft of your story, add one literary device to each paragraph. Re-read the story and decide if that revision made a positive change for your story. Is the story more interesting? Is it more alive? If so, continue to experiment with literary devices. Add a second literary device to each paragraph, then check the story again. Did the second addition improve the writing? Is the story more engaging for the reader without losing the story’s pace?
As you work literary devices into your writing, try to find the balance of how often you can use these techniques in your writing without losing the value of your narrative. Once you try them, you will be hooked and integrate them into all of your writing.
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