Literary Techniques

Once you’ve understood how to go about answering your Paper 1 and Paper 2 questions, take a look at the following list (which is in no particular order, by the way). While this is not a complete list of literary techniques (there are absolutely TONS in the English language), it is comprised of many techniques that you may find in Paper 1 passages and may use yourself in Paper 2 questions.

Brace yourselves, though, because this is one LONG list, and I may keep adding to it if I think of any more relevant literary techniques.

Just a little note: while I’ve used the words ‘writer’, ‘reader’ and ‘text’ throughout this list, remember that it can be a ‘speaker’ and a ‘listener’, too, in some cases (e.g., voiceovers, T.V. broadcasts, podcasts, speeches etc).

1. Similes and metaphors

  • This is when the writer likens one thing to another using words such as ‘like’ or ‘as’. Examples include ‘The little boy’s golden locks framed his face like a lion’s mane.’ or ‘She looked as thin as a beanpole.’ These allow the reader to vividly picture what the author is trying to say. In the example above, for instance, it is implied that the boy’s hair does not simply sit on his head; it is voluminous and, perhaps, allows to give him an intimidating image. In this way, even though we do not know much about the boy’s appearance initially, the writer is trying to help us understand using the image of ‘a lion’s mane’, something we are already familiar with.
  • Metaphors are similar to similes, but a more direct comparison is made. Therefore, writers may use them to create a much more striking image. For example, ‘The stars were diamonds in the midnight sky.’ Notice how there is no ‘like’ or ‘as’ in this sentence.
  • When a metaphorical idea is developed as a text progresses, it is know as an extended metaphor or an extended image.

2. Personification

  • This is when a writer describes something non-human using human-like actions and emotions. (When these characteristics are applied to aspects of nature, specifically, it is known as a ‘pathetic fallacy’.)
  • An example would be ‘Amanda watched as the sea roared in fury.’
  • Of course, we know that a sea cannot actually roar and be furious, but since we are, quite obviously, humans, we can imagine what the sea was like because human emotions are attributed to it; we have all become furious at some point, and it is a feeling we are very likely to be familiar with.

3. Symbolism

  • This is the use of symbols to portray an idea.
  • For instance, a white dove is a symbol of peace.
  • Usually, what the symbol looks like is a key to helping us understand the idea that it symbolises. In the case of the dove, the colour white is one that brings a sense of serenity to our minds.

4. Using the five senses

  • Writers often describe settings by appealing to the reader’s senses.
  • They do this by mentioning the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and, less commonly, the feel or texture of things.
  • This allows the text to have some ‘depth’. Plus, going on and on about only what you can see is extremely boring!

5. Foreshadowing

  • This technique involves the writer hinting that something is going to happen, usually something bad.
  • A very common example in fiction would be the appearance of a stormy sky.
  • This acts as a sort of ‘sneak peek’ for the readers and may even be used as a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, for example, to create suspense and leave readers hanging.

6. Tone

  • This is the writer’s attitude towards what he is writing or to his readers.
  • Different tones allow writers to convey messages differently.
  • In some passages, the tone can change suddenly, e.g. with the introduction of a new character. In others, the tone may not even be very apparent or might be very understated. Make sure to write about this in your commentary.
  • In Paper 2, remember to adopt a tone that is appropriate to your audience and the kind of literary piece you are writing.
  • In Paper 1, when commenting on the writer’s tone, make sure to not just say that it is ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’. Avoid words like ‘negative’ and ‘positive’, too. These words are quite vague and do not reflect careful reviewing of the text. Instead, use words such as ‘jovial’, ‘light-hearted’, ‘affectionate’, ‘nostalgic’, ‘tongue-in-cheek’, ‘dismal’, ‘disapproving’ and ‘exasperated’, to name a few.

7. Punctuation and font

  • Commas can be used to create a feeling of abundance, e.g., ‘The tables were laden with platters of rice, bowls of delicious fruit, freshly baked bread and mouth-watering curries.’ Commas can also be used to create a sense of urgency; ‘With a piece of toast in his mouth, he pulled on his socks, slipped into his shoes, grabbed his keys and….’
  • Colons and semi-colons create a sort of break in the sentence and may allow the writer to divert the reader’s attention to the words placed after the colon or semi-colon. An example would be ‘As I entered the living room, I was met with a horrific sight: a pool of blood.’
  • Capital letters, exclamation marks and large, emboldened fonts, too, serve the purpose of capturing the reader’s attention, especially in titles and subtitles.
  • Hyphens and brackets may help writers to provide additional information, e.g., ‘Mohammed had no real interest in algebra – or any Mathematical topic, for that matter – and he fell asleep as he soon as he opened his book.’ In some instances, hyphens and brackets also make it seem like a connection is being formed between the writer and his audience; he seems to be telling us things we would, otherwise, not have known.

8. Rhetorical questions

  • Rhetorical questions are questions posed to the audience to make them think more deeply about an issue, to question their conscience or to prove a point, rather than to receive an answer.
  • In some narrative pieces, they may even suggest that a character is confused, scared or going through some sort of internal struggle.
  • These types of questions are especially helpful in Paper 2 for speeches and persuasive articles, but make sure you don’t use too many of them, which might make your writing seem awkward.

9. Repetition

  • Another technique that is useful in speeches and persuasive articles is repetition.
  • It is quite similar to rhetorical questions in the fact that it is used to prove a point. And, just like rhetorical questions, do not repeat yourself excessively or unnecessarily in your writing; you want to sound persuasive, not like an annoying parrot.

10. Alliteration

  • This is when words starting with the same letter or having the same sounds are placed together.
  • It is a technique that is often used to mimic sounds or to create rhythm.
  • One example would be: ‘The serpent slipped and slid through the cracks.’
  • Here, the repeated ‘s’ sound may reflect the hissing of the serpent, perhaps to build up a sense of danger and to invoke fear in the reader.
  • Sometimes, writers alliterate unintentionally so in Paper 1, so make sure you pick out an example only if it is blatantly obvious that alliteration has been used and that it has been used to create a particular effect.

11. Onomatopoeia

  • This refers to a word that is formed from a sound.
  • ‘Thud’, ‘crash’ and ‘slam’ are common examples.
  • Onomatopoeia helps to create a lively atmosphere, especially when describing noisy scenes.
  • Once again, if you’re going to use these, do so sparingly.

12. Juxtaposition and oxymorons

  • Juxtaposition is when contrasting ideas or words are placed close together (but not necessarily right beside each other). For instance, a calm, quiet character could be passing through a chaotic marketplace.
  • Oxymorons are phrases in which contradicting words are placed side-by-side, e.g., ‘deafening silence’.
  • Both the use of juxtaposition and oxymorons may help to place emphasis on one (or both) of the words or ideas described. In the example above, for instance, the character’s calmness may appear to be more striking because he is placed in a setting that is nothing but calm.

13. Hyperbole

  • A hyperbole is an exaggerated statement.
  • An example would be ‘You’ve told me this story a million times before!’ Of course, ‘a million times’ is impossible, but it helps to reflect the writer’s feelings, which, in this case, seems to be annoyance.

14. Allusion

  • This is when an indirect reference is made to a person, place or event.
  • Take this sentence for instance: ‘He stood with his paintbrush poised in mid-air, almost as if he was going to yell ‘Expelliarmus!’ at us.’ This is, as many of you will know, a reference to Harry Potter.
  • Like similes and metaphors, allusions provide an idea that is familiar to us to describe something or someone that is not as familiar.

15. Tense

  • Different tenses may be used to give a writer’s tone a different quality.
  • For instance, while the past tense may be used in flashbacks and suggests that the writer is nostalgic, perhaps, the present tense creates a sense of urgency and, sometimes, fear and suspense. The present tense also makes us feel more connected to the text because we may feel like we are experiencing whatever the character is experiencing along with him or her.
  • The future tense is not as commonly used as the past and present tense, but it, too, can be quite effective in your writing. It can, for example, be used to create a sense of determination; ‘I will wake up at 4 a.m. tomorrow and do some cardio.’

16. Sentence length

  • Long, winding sentences can be used to describe things that are, well, long and winding. For instance, a journey through a village could be described like this: ‘The bullock cart rocked back and forth, and up and down, and we rode over every single pothole on the road, the wheels rattling noisily and dangerously, as if threatening to fall apart and relieve the cart of its passengers.’ From this, we can infer that the ride was probably a very exhausting (an even slightly scary) one.
  • Short sentences are often used to catch the reader off guard or to create suspense and fear, e.g., ‘I hear a knock. Then, the door creaks. A shadow. A footstep.’

17. Point of view

  • First person – when the writer uses words such as ‘I’ and ‘myself’ while describing what he or she is experiencing. This may help audience to look at the happenings of the text through the writer’s eyes.
  • Second person – uses personal pronouns, words such as ‘you’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. This can help writers to make their work more engaging by appearing to speak directly to their audience. They are particularly effective in speeches and persuasive writing. Just like rhetorical questions, personal pronouns help to question the conscience of the audience.
  • Third person – writing that describes another person’s feelings and experiences using pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ etc. This point of view is, perhaps, better at giving an overview of a setting, something that one character alone might find it difficult to do.

18. Puns

  • A pun is a type of word-play that uses words or phrases that sound similar but mean totally different things.
  • For instance, when I say that ‘I’m so fed up with chocolate’, I could either mean that I am full to bursting with chocolate, or I’m bored of/annoyed by the extensive use of chocolate, perhaps.
  • Puns may help create interest by focusing our attention on just one word or group of words.

19. Jargon

  • This refers to any technical term to do with a particular field that people outside of the field may find hard to understand.
  • Jargon is mostly used in text that is targeted towards a very specific audience so a game review, for example, could contain phrases like ‘glitching’ and ‘easter eggs’ that others may be confused about.
  • This, too, is a technique that seems to create a bond between the writer and reader because it uses terms only they are familiar with.

20. Neologism

  • A word newly coined by the writer is known as a neologism.
  • For instance, in a Paper 1 question, the term ‘eater-tainment’ had been used to describe the idea that people are now eating food ‘to feel good for a few minutes or to relax’; it is becoming a form of entertainment rather than a way in which we can nourish ourselves.

21. Asyndeton

  • This is when conjunction is omitted from a sentence.
  • An example would be ‘I stopped, turned, waved goodbye at him.’
  • This increases the pace of the story, and I remember an Examiner Report, where it said that this makes the writer sound ‘breathless’.

22. Irony

  • Irony refers to the conveying of a message/idea using language that means the exact opposite of what the writer is trying to say, thus creating a humorous effect.
  • However, it doesn’t always have to be through language; it can also be an ironic idea. For example, another Examiner Report mentioned about a candidate who wrote that it was ironic that Steve Jobs, a college dropout, was giving a speech during a university graduation ceremony. (The passage that was to be commented upon had been the script for the speech.)

23. Verbs, adverbs and adjectives

  • We often overlook these because they don’t seem as flashy as metaphors or rhetorical questions, but powerful and meaningful verbs, adverbs and adjectives are worth commenting on (Paper 1) and including in your writing (Paper 2).
  • Just to recap, a verb is an action word, e.g., ‘bellowed’. Notice how ‘shouted’ can also mean the same thing but has a lot less ‘oomph’ than ‘bellowed’.
  • An adverb is a word that describes a verb, e.g, ‘ferociously’. So, ‘The beast bellowed ferociously.’ has both a verb and an adverb in it. Again, I could have said ‘angrily’, but it just doesn’t have the same effect as ‘ferociously’.
  • Adjectives are words that describe a noun (a person, place or thing), e.g., ‘enormous’. Combining the verb, adverb and adjective, we have the sentence ‘The enormous beast bellowed ferociously.’ Once again, ‘large’ or ‘big’ could have been used instead of enormous, but which sounds better – ‘the big beast shouted angrily’ or ‘the enormous beast bellowed ferociously’?

24. Showing, not telling

  • This is when you imply something, as opposed to explicitly stating it.
  • For instance, instead of saying that it was hot/humid, you could say ‘My T-shirt stuck to my back as I made my way up the hiking trail, beads of sweat rolling down my face.’
  • This might help to make your writing seem more mature. I mean, if you just said that ‘it was hot and I was getting tired’, it sounds a bit childish, doesn’t it?

25. Paradox

  • A paradox is a statement or idea that seems false, but, on closer inspection, could actually turn out to be true.
  • I couldn’t think of any examples off the top of my head but here’s one from ‘Animal Farm’, a novel by George Orwell: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’
  • At first, this seems absurd because it is impossible to be more or less equal, right? However, if you think about, it could actually be true. Although we say that everyone is equal, do we really think so? Don’t we treat certain groups of people differently to others?
  • In this way, writers may use paradoxes to make us actually THINK and not just read over their work mechanically. They might also help us to be more involved with the text.

26. Euphemism

  • This refers to a term that is used in place of an offensive, harsh, embarrassing or blunt one.
  • For example, a writer could say ‘he relieved himself’ instead of, well, ‘he peed’ or ‘she passed away’ instead of the very blunt ‘she died’.
  • This may be helpful in making the writer’s words seem quite considerate.
  • Newspaper articles talking about gruesome crimes, for example, employ this technique so that readers can be informed of these events without being too frightened or shocked in the process.

27. Amplification

  • This is when a writer adds on extra information to enhance an idea.
  • Example: Instead of ‘The waterfall was an amazing sight‘, you could say ‘The stream was a cerulean carpet, gracefully trickling down the moss-covered rocks, sliding in and out of every crack like a nimble snake.’ (Challenge: what other techniques can you find in this example?)

28. Dialogue

  • A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people.
  • In your narrative writing, this would be a helpful tool for creating feelings of fear, happiness, anger etc. through your characters’ words.

29. Triadic structure

  • This refers to when things are placed in groups of three.
  • An example would be ‘Sugar, spice and everything nice.’ (Yes, The Powerpuff Girls!)
  • A triadic structure creates a pleasant rhythm and therefore might help readers to ‘cling’ onto these words or phrases.

30. Stream of consciousness

  • This is a technique of writing in which a character’s thoughts and emotions are described continuously.
  • For instance, ‘I waded through the cool stream, water entering my muddy shoes which had been a gift from Emma – ‘Don’t get them too dirty,’ she had said (and, of course, she would, being a germaphobe) – and I made my way to the other side – which looked far greener, I must say – and seemed to be home to at least a hundred different exotic-looking butterflies; there was one that had neon pink spots!’
  • Since it often shows the natural thought process of a person, it doesn’t necessarily have to be grammatically or syntactically (this is to do with ‘syntax’ which you will find below!) correct because that is how we naturally think; one thought overrides another, one thing reminds you of another etc.
  • This kind of writing may allow readers to feel more connected to the characters of the text because they know exactly what the characters are thinking.

31. Syntax

  • Syntax refers to the order of words in a phrase or sentence.
  • Changing up the syntax of a sentence can help divert focus to different parts of it because the readers may not be used to that particular syntax.
  • For example, the phrase ‘Never have I lied to you’ could be used instead of ‘I have never lied to you.’ In the first sentence, ‘never’ is in the beginning and may help divert our attention to it and emphasise the idea.

32. Tautology

  • This is the repetition of a single idea using different words.
  • e.g. ‘This is the last and final call.’
  • Here, ‘last’ and ‘final’ both mean the same thing but have been used simultaneously, possibly to put more emphasis on the idea.