Bonus Material: Literary Devices Summary Sheet + Identification Quiz

Do you know the difference between a simile and a metaphor? Can you spot personification when it’s being used out in the wild?

If you’re a student in an English class, if you’re taking a test like the SAT or the ACT or the AP English Language or the AP English Literature exams, or if you’re writing college application essays, you’re going to need to know some literary devices!

Our students have used knowledge of these literary devices to write amazing college essays that helped get them into their dream schools.

Knowing their literary devices has also helped our students achieve great scores on the SAT, ACT, and AP tests.

However, there are a lot of literary devices out there. Literally hundreds. How do you tell which ones you actually need to know?

We’ve used our many years of experience teaching high school and college students to narrow down the list to the 16 most essential literary devices. 

These are the ones that you’ll actually be expected to know on important exams or in your English classes. They’re also the most useful literary devices to make your college application essays really sparkle

Think you know your literary devices? Try our quiz and see how many you can correctly identify in context!

Then keep reading for explanations and examples of all 16 essential literary devices. No offense to Shakespeare and Dickens, but we took all of our examples from the best books out there today for young adults, the ones you’re actually reading 😉.

Download a definition of each term with our one-page summary sheet to use as a study guide!

This post will cover:

Download our one-page summary of the 16 most essential literary devices and a literary device identification quiz

Download now: literary devices summary sheet + identification quiz


What is a literary device?

A literary device is any technique that an author uses to achieve their purpose.

These techniques help authors describe things in more detail, cause a more emotional reaction for readers, convey their ideas with more precision, add additional layers of meaning, and so on.

Over the centuries, we’ve developed a set of terms that help define these different techniques.

You may also hear people refer to rhetorical devices. These are largely the same thing! 

People often use “literary device” to refer to terms that are more decorative and artistic, whereas “rhetorical device” is used to describe techniques that make writing more persuasive. The term “poetic device” is used to describe these techniques when talking about poetry.

In practice, though, these three terms are more or less the same!


Why you need to know these literary devices

These 16 literary devices are essential knowledge for the SAT or ACT

They’re even more important for the AP English Literature and AP English Language tests. 

And your instructors in high school and college English classes will expect you to know them and be able to use them to analyze different pieces of literature. 

What’s more, knowledge of these literary devices will help you immensely as you write your college application essays, along with any other type of creative or personal writing. 

Using devices like metaphors, alliteration, and parallel structure helps you to set your writing apart and raise it to the next level. This is especially important if you’re applying to a competitive school!

Student reading a book

The 16 essential literary devices:

Simile

Probably the most famous and commonly-used literary device is the simile. A simile uses the words “like” or “as” to compare two unrelated things. Don’t confuse similes with metaphors!

(The word “simile” comes from the same root as the word “similar”—so essentially we’re saying two things are similar.)

Similes are powerful tools that allow authors to show us a new way of looking at the world. 

“He gets up slowly like he is a very old toy running out of batteries.” — Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

“There are moments that I feel like I might suffocate, as if all my insides are tied into a tight little ball.” — Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

“Now I was alone, leaving the smaller cities that had winked out long ago like Christmas lights on a faulty wire.” — Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves

“Her words fell in between the sheets of rain like downed planes: defeated, useless.” — Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves

“There are lemons, grapes, strawberries, and the brightest mangoes I’ve ever seen. They look like miniature suns.” — Kacen Callender, Felix Ever After

“Call me tonight, okay? If you go into the prom court kickoff meeting tomorrow without me prepping you on what to expect, it’ll be like seasoning yourself and stepping directly into a lion’s mouth.” — Leah Johnson, You Should See Me in a Crown

Think you can identify a simile? Try our 55-question literary devices quiz!

Student reading a book

Metaphor

Often confused with similes, metaphors are direct comparisons. Whereas similes say that two things are similar to each other, metaphors just go for it and flat out claim that a person, place, or thing is something else. Metaphors do not use the words “like” or “as.”

Check out the difference:

Simile: The bad news was like a slap to the face.

Metaphor: The bad news was a slap to the face.

These two sentences are almost identical. But where the simile version compares the news to a slap indirectly, the metaphor version says that the news actually was a slap. The reader has to suspend their disbelief here, because of course the news didn’t actually involve any physical slapping.

“Night is a starlit blanket outside, and the cold air reaches my bones.” — Ibi Zoboi, American Street

“These, the regular injections of poison I was gifted from strangers, were definitely the worst things about wearing a headscarf. But the best thing about it was that my teachers couldn’t see me listening to music.” — Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea

“Mas has had to grow up fast these past two years. He tries to be like Dad and keep me and Shig out of trouble, especially now, except Dad was made of warm, soft pine instead of stone.” — Traci Chee, We Are Not Free

Extended metaphors take the same idea and develop it over more sentences. Sometimes an extended metaphor can last for an entire essay or entire chapter! This can be a beautiful and impactful technique when executed well. 

“To call Linda and Mark Mom and Dad on purpose would mean that Joaquin’s heart would form into something much more fragile, something impossible to put back together if it broke, and he could not—would not—do that to himself again. He still hadn’t managed to pick up all the pieces after last time, and one or two holes remained in his heart, letting the cold air in.” Robin Benway, The Far From the Tree

Practice distinguishing between similes and metaphors with our 55-question quiz on identifying literary devices.

Student reading a book

Personification

Personification is what it sounds like—it means giving human attributes to an animal, place, or thing.

Another related term is anthropomorphism, which is when an animal or thing behaves in a human-like way.

A slight variation on this term is zoomorphism, which is when you assign traits from an animal to a person or thing.

“Manman will not go quietly. She will fight with her claws to get to me.” — Ibi Zoboi, American Street

Personification is often accomplished either with a simile or a metaphor, because you’re describing a thing as something else. It’s an effective way of creating a sense of empathy in the reader. 

“The summer is made for stoop-sitting
And since it’s the last week before school starts,
Harlem is opening its eyes to September.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

“There are no mansions or big buildings here. The small houses are so close together, they might as well be holding hands.” — Ibi Zoboi, American Street

“When the animals and the wildflowers were gone from the brush field, the men of the town took their axes and hammers and mallets to the base of the water tower, until it fell like a tree. It arced toward the ground, its fall slow, as though it were leaning forward to touch its own shadow.” — Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours

Student reading book


Imagery

Imagery is a great catch-all term. Imagery means using descriptive and figurative language to paint a mental picture of something.

Similes, metaphors, and personification are all types of imagery. At times authors might combine all of these techniques at once!

“The stars began to rip through the hard skin of dark [metaphor] like the sharp points of silver needles through velvet [simile].” — Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves

Imagery can also include a particularly detailed description. Strong imagery might include multiple sensory elements: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel. Combining all of these elements creates vivid, immersive writing. 

Life-hack for English class and literary analysis: if you’re not sure what to call it, or if it seems to fit multiple categories…call it imagery! It might not be the most specific term to use, but it won’t be wrong. 😉

“The words sit in my belly,
and I use my nerves
like a pulley to lift
them out of my mouth.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

“Joaquin always liked early mornings best. He liked the pink sky that slowly turned yellow and then blue on clear mornings. When it wasn’t clear, he liked the fog that folded into the city like a blanket, curling itself over the hills and freeways, so thick that sometimes Joaquin could touch it.” Robin Benway, The Far From the Tree

“Deborah Howard steps closer to me. At first she smells of her freshly ironed uniform, but then I smell the faint scent of cigarettes and oily food lingering behind her starchy presence.” — Ibi Zoboi, American Street

“It was the end of August, all volatile heat and the occasional breeze. I was surrounded by starched backpacks and stiff denim and kids who smelled like fresh plastic. They seemed happy.” — Nina LaCour, We Are Okay

“And although our names do have similar letters, mine is full of silverware-sharp sounds: E-Mah-Nee. Hers is soft, rolls off the tongue like a half-dreamed murmur.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire on High

“They had been in the same classes together for years, but it was as if they had been figurines in an automated diorama, moving on mechanical tracks that approached each other but never intersected until now. Today they had broken free from those prescribed grooves, and Lily was acutely aware of the unprecedented nature of their new friendliness.” — Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club

For a one-page summary of all 16 essential literary devices, download our guide and practice quiz.

Books on shelf

Allusion

An allusion is a brief and indirect reference to literature, history, or cultural figures with which the reader would be familiar. 

In the mid 2000s, the show Gilmore Girls was famous for packing every scene with countless allusions to literature, movies, history, and popular culture. 

In Western literature, allusions to the Bible, Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey), and Virgil (The Aeneid) are especially common.

“I didn’t know things could get any worse at home, but apparently they can. The apartment feels like the play The House of Bernarda Alba, but much less interesting. Just like the crazy and grieving mother, Amá keeps all the blinds and curtains drawn, which makes our cramped apartment even more stuffy and depressing.” — Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

“Suddenly I’m Eve in the Garden after she ate the fruit—it’s like I realize I’m naked. I’m by myself at a party I’m not even supposed to be at, where I barely know anybody.” — Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

“I could scroll through Twitter until my vision blurs and then collapse on my bed like an Oscar Wilde character.” — Nina LaCour, We Are Okay

“We dressed pretty much the way we always are: even though it’s summer, Ezra wears a black T-shirt, sleeves rolled up to his shoulders to show off his Klimt tattoo of Judith I and the Head of Holofernes. He has on tight black jeans that’re cut off a few inches too high above his ankles, stained white Converses, and long socks with portraits of Andy Warhol.” — Kacen Callender, Felix Ever After

“Babygirl nods as if I just gave her the most serious Jada Pinkett Smith success speech. I hug her to my stomach, making sure not to nuzzle her too tight and fuzz up the braids I spent an hour doing.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire on High

“With clearly practiced finesse, Rachel runs forward, leaps into his arms, and is lifted above the crowd in the cafeteria. She looks less like Baby and more like Simba looking over the Pride Lands if you ask me, but whatever.” — Leah Johnson, You Should See Me in a Crown

Smaug, the Irrepressibly Finicky, was our industrial-strength water boiler. I named it Smaug my first week on the job, when I got scalded three times in a single shift, but so far the name hadn’t stuck with anyone else at Tea Haven.” — Adib Khorram, Darius the Great is Not Okay


Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing refers to when the author hints at upcoming events in the narrative, either explicitly or through imagery or allusion. It can often create a sense of foreboding and suspense.

“It looks like a one-winged bird crouching in the corner of our living room. Hurt. Trying to fly every time the heat pump turns on with a click and a groan and blows cold air onto the sheet and lifts it up and it flutters for just a moment and then falls down again. Still. Dead.” — Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

“I would give anything to go back to the day she died and do things differently. I think of all the ways I could have kept Olga from getting on that bus.” — Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

“You asked for a story, so here it is. I’ll begin with the night the sluggers told me the world was toast, and when I’m finished, we can wait for the end together.” — Shaun David Hutchinson, We Are the Ants

Loosing track of the differences between these essential literary devices? Download our one-page summary sheet.

Student reading a book

Rhetorical question

A rhetorical question is a question for which the speaker doesn’t actually expect an answer, usually where the answer is supposed to be obvious.

A very specific type of rhetorical question is hypophora, which refers to when someone asks a question and then immediately answers it themself.

“Would it kill you to be home before eight o’clock at night? Really? Would it?
Oh, well, remind me again who wanted to redo the kitchen? Do you think that just pays for itself?” — Robin Benway, Far from the Tree


Irony

Verbal irony is when the words are the opposite of what they mean. It’s similar to sarcasm, but sarcasm is intended to be critical and negative, whereas verbal irony is much broader and can be more neutral. 

One example of verbal irony would be the character Little John in the DIsney Robin Hood film—Little John isn’t “little” at all, as he’s actually larger than all the other characters! 

“Ms. Fuentes looks up from the classroom window shades to see me staring at her inspirational sign. ‘Ms. Santiago, how was your summer?’ she says as she adjusts the shades so they let in more light.
I shrug. ‘Good. Got a job. Yours?’
Ms. Fuentes stops mid-shade-fussing to side-eye me. ‘You’re always so loquacious. It’s refreshing to have a student who believes in something other than monosyllables.’ But she’s smiling. She’s never said it, but I know I’m one of her favorites.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire on High

Situational irony is when readers expect a certain outcome, but the opposite occurs. An example of situational irony would be if the firehouse burns down.

Dramatic irony is when the readers know more about what’s going on in the story than the characters do—so the readers interpret events differently than do the characters. An example of dramatic irony is at the beginning of the film Titanic, when the audience knows the ship will sink but the characters do not.

“What is it like to even love someone at all? My name is Felix Love, but I’ve never actually been in love. I don’t know.” — Kacen Callender, Felix Ever After

Student reading a book

Satire (and sarcasm)

Like hyperbole, sarcasm is a literary device that many of us use on a daily basis: using words that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone’s feelings, express irritation, or to criticize something in a humorous way.

“I looked around his messy room. ‘I can see that you really like to take care of things.’
He didn’t get mad. He laughed.
He handed me a book. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘You can read this while I clean my room.’
‘Maybe I should just, you know, leave you—’ I stopped. My eyes searched the messy room. ‘It’s a little scary in here.’” — Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Satire is kind of like sarcasm but on a larger scale. It’s usually used to describe a work as a whole that criticizes or makes fun of some element of human society.

The book The Marrow Thieves could be interpreted as a satire about racism and colonialism in our current world. It describes a dystopia set in a near-future North America, where indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, the only way that the rest of the population are able to regain something they’ve lost—the ability to dream.


Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a literary device that many of us (at least those of us who are more dramatic!) use frequently in our everyday lives.

It’s an exaggeration or grandiose claim that’s not intended to be interpreted literally. It’s a great way to inject a little creativity or humor into your writing, especially if you avoid cliches like “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” 

“Always is their thing. They’ll always love each other and whatever. I would conservatively estimate they have texted each other the word always four million times in the last year.” — John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

“The nice thing about having an overachieving ***hole for an older brother is that it takes the pressure off. Charlie has always been good enough for two sons. Now that he’s not so perfect after all, the pressure’s on me.
Here’s a conversation I’ve had 1.3 billion (give or take) times since he’s been home:
Mom: Your grades still okay?
Me: Yup.
Mom: Biology?
Me: Yup…” — Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star

See if you can find more examples of hyperbole on our practice quiz!

Student reading a book

Diction

Like imagery, diction is another great catch-all term. Diction refers to the author’s word choice, which can include the tone (formal, informal, humorous, sarcastic, etc.), words with specific meanings or etymologies, repetition, onomatopoeia, and so on.

Whereas imagery is a broad term for the ideas or content being conveyed, diction is a broad term for how the author is conveying them. 

Use the term diction when you want to describe the author’s striking word choice more generally—if you’re not sure what narrower literary devices are being used, or if you want to refer to a mix of literary devices.

“Two and a half more years until I could get free from this panopticon they called high school, these monsters they called people I was desperate to escape the institution of idiots. I wanted to go to college, make my own life. I just had to survive until then.” — Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea


Rhyme

Rhyme is a literary device familiar to all of us from nursery rhymes and children’s books: words with endings that have corresponding sounds. However, rhyme has also been used in complicated ways in lots of adult literature from Shakespeare to Hamilton.

There are many specific terms used to describe different types of rhyme schemes. When working with rhyme, you might encounter words like couplet, quatrains, sonnets, and internal rhyme.

Rhyme is most common in poetic and theatrical works, but a careful reader can sometimes spot it sneaking into prose works as well!

“Josh Bell
is my name.
but Filthy McNasty is my claim to fame.
Folks call me that
‘cause my game’s acclaimed,
so downright dirty, it’ll put you to shame.
My hair is long, my height’s tall.
See, I’m the next Kevin Durant,
LeBron, and Chris Paul.”
— Kwame Alexander, The Crossover

“I didn’t know it would be this many people. Girls wear their hair colored, curled, laid, and slayed. Got me feeling basic as hell with my ponytail.” — Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

Related to rhyme is the term meter, which refers to the rhythm of the words. Some poetic traditions are metered rather than rhyming, and some types of poetry will combine both meter and rhyme. Some terms that are associated with meter are caesura, dactyl, spondee, elision, iamb, pentameter, and hexameter.

Student reading a book


Alliteration

Alliteration refers to when a series of neighboring or linked words begins with the same letter or sound. Writers are especially fond of alliteration in titles and poetry, but you’ll find it used to create emphasis in prose as well.

Assonance is a close cousin of alliteration. It’s when the internal vowel sounds of a word repeat.

So alliteration is repetition of initial consonant sounds, assonance is repetition of internal vowel sounds, and rhyme is repetition of end sounds. 

“The summer is made for stoop-sitting
And since it’s the last week before school starts,
Harlem is opening its eyes to September.” — Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X

“He was funny and focused and fierce.” Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Alliteration is often the secret sauce that makes something sound good without us realizing why! See if you can spot all of the examples of alliteration on our practice quiz.


Onomatopoeia

This term has a long name, but it’s quite a simple concept: onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like the noise they describe.

This literary device is especially common in children’s books and poetry. It creates vivid, fun writing with lots of drama.

Not all words used as onomatopoeia will be in the dictionary! Feel free to make up your own words to convey the sound you’re describing.

“Our color printer clicks and whirrs.” — Nina LaCour, We Are Okay

BOOM-BOOM-boom-BOOM.
The drums.” — Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes

Student choosing book

Repetition

When used deliberately, repetition can create powerful effects. Repetition can be of individual words, phrases, or even entire sentences. Sometimes the meaning might change with each repetition, or the repetition could be used for emphasis.

“In my white room, against my white walls, on my glistening white bookshelves, book spines provide the only color.” — Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything

“It’s so hard to say,
Shawn’s
dead.
Shawns’s
dead.
Shawn’s
dead.

So strange to say.
So sad.

But I guess
not surprising,
which I guess is
even stranger,

and even sadder.” — Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down

“I open the fridge to find bottles of soda and ketchup and hot sauce and mayonnaise and bread and eggs and too many plastic containers. In the freezer are boxes of pizza and waffles and frozen meat wrapped in plastic…I grab a slice of orange cheese wrapped in plastic.” — Ibi Zoboi, American Street

One specific type of repetition is anaphora, which is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence. It’s especially common in speeches (think Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

For a one-page review of all 16 essential literary devices, download our summary sheet.


Parallel structure

Parallel structure or parallelism is the repetition of a grammatical structure. It’s a great way to enhance clarity in your writing, but it can also be used for great dramatic effect.

We have more precise terms for specific types of parallelism. Isocolon refers to when phrases match exactly in structure, length, and rhythm. Antithesis refers to when the things placed in the parallel structure are complete opposites of each other.

Syndeton is when multiple conjunctions (words like “and” or “or”) are used in a row. Asyndeton is the opposite—when conjunctions aren’t used where you might expect them, and ideas are in separate sentences or joined by commas.

This poem is a great example of parallelism, specifically syndeton:

“I don’t know you,
don’t know
your last name,
if you got
brothers
or sisters
or mothers
or fathers
or cousins
that be like
brothers
and sisters
or aunties
or uncles
that be like
mothers
and fathers…” — Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down

“I find the blog of a woman named Josephine who explains the healing properties of gemstones and how to use them. I find images of pyrite (for protection), hematite (for grounding), jade (for serenity).” — Nina LaCour, We Are Okay

Student choosing a book

Next steps

Now that you’re read these definitions of the 16 most essential literary devices, test your knowledge with our quiz.

We’ve also included a handy one-page definition sheet to use as a study guide! Make sure that you know what each of these terms means and that you can recognize it in context.

If you’re working on writing your college application essays, try and incorporate a few of these literary devices into your writing!

If you’re interested in customized one-on-one tutoring support for the SATs, ACTs, APs, or your high school and college classes, please feel free to reach out to us. Our expert tutors are Ivy-League grads and students who can help you understand these literary devices. 

If you’re looking for help drafting and polishing your college essays or other writing assignments, our top-tier tutors can also help guide you through the writing process.

Download our one-page summary of the 16 most essential literary devices and a literary device identification quiz

Download now: literary devices summary sheet + identification quiz


The books we used

We drew on our team members’ professional experience as librarians and in the publishing industry to curate a list of the best YA books of the past decade.

All of these books have won prestigious awards like the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature and are listed among “TIME’s Best YA Books of All Time.” They’re national bestsellers that have captured the hearts of this generation. Many have also been adapted for film or for television.

If you’re looking for new books to read, check these out!

book covers, best YA books of the decade
  • Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X (2018 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Elizabeth Acevedo, With the Fire On High
  • Kwame Alexander, The Crossover
  • Leigh Bardugo, Six of Crows
  • Robin Benway, Far From the Tree (2017 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter
  • Kacen Callender, Felix Ever After
  • Kacen Callender, King and the Dragonflies (2020 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Traci Chee, We Are Not Free
  • Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves
  • Akwaeke Emezi, Pet
  • Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (2010 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
  • Shaun David Hutchinson, We Are the Ants
  • Adiba Jaigirdar, The Henna Wars
  • Leah Johnson, You Should See Me in a Crown
  • Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck (2013 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Adib Khorram, Darius the Great is Not Okay
  • Nina LaCour, We Are Okay
  • Malinda Lo, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea
  • Anna-Marie McLemore, When the Moon Was Ours
  • Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi
  • Jandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun
  • Jason Reynolds, Long Way Down
  • Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
  • Erika L. Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
  • Neal Shusterman, Challenger Deep (2015 National Book Award for YA winner)
  • Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not
  • Sabaa Tahir, Ember in the Ashes
  • Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
  • David Yoon, Frankly in Love
  • Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star
  • Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything
  • Ibi Zoboi, American Street

Download our one-page summary of the 16 most essential literary devices and a literary device identification quiz

Download now: literary devices summary sheet + identification quiz


Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.