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Whereas figures of speech work on the level of individual words or sentences, writers also use a variety of techniques to add clarity or intensity to a larger passage, advance the plot in a particular way, or suggest connections between elements in the plot.



Allusion: An implicit reference within a literary work to a historical or literary person, place, or event. For example, the title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury alludes to a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Authors use allusion to add symbolic weight because it makes subtle or implicit connections with other works. For example, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab’s name alludes to the wicked and idolatrous biblical king Ahab—a connection that adds depth to our understanding of Ahab’s character.

Anagnorisis: A moment of recognition or discovery, primarily used in reference to Greek tragedy. For example, in Euripides’ The Bacchae, Agave experiences anagnorisis when she discovers that she has murdered her own son, Pentheus.

Bathos: A sudden and unexpected drop from the lofty to the trivial or excessively sentimental. Bathos sometimes is used intentionally, to create humor, but just as often is derided as miscalculation or poor judgment on a writer’s part. An example from Alexander Pope: “Ye Gods! Annihilate but Space and Time / And make two lovers happy.”

Caricature: A description or characterization that exaggerates or distorts a character’s prominent features, usually to elicit mockery. For example, in Candide, Voltaire portrays the character of Pangloss as a mocking caricature of the optimistic rationalism of philosophers like Leibniz.

Deus ex machina: Greek for “God from a machine.” The phrase originally referred to a technique in ancient tragedy in which a mechanical god was lowered onto the stage to intervene and solve the play’s problems or bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion. Now, the term describes more generally a sudden or improbable plot twist that brings about the plot’s resolution.

Epiphany: A sudden, powerful, and often spiritual or life changing realization that a character reaches in an otherwise ordinary or everyday moment. Many of the short stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners involve moments of epiphany.

Foreshadowing: An author’s deliberate use of hints or suggestions to give a preview of events or themes that do not develop until later in the narrative. For example, in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the nightmares Lockwood has the night he spends in Catherine’s bed prefigure later events in the novel.

In medias rest: Latin for “in the middle of things.” The term refers to the technique of starting a narrative in the middle of the action. For example, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which concerns the war among the angels in Heaven, opens after the fallen angels already are in Hell and only later examines the events that led to their expulsion from Heaven.

Interior monologue: A record of a character’s thoughts, unmediated by a narrator. Interior monologue sometimes takes the form of stream-of-consciousness narration (see Point of View, above) but often is more structured and logical than stream of consciousness.

Invocation: A prayer for inspiration to a god or muse usually placed at the beginning of an epic. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey both open with invocations.

Irony: A wide-ranging technique of detachment that draws awareness to the discrepancy between words and their meanings, between expectation and fulfillment, or, most generally, between what is and what seems to be.

  • Verbal irony: The use of a statement that, by its context, implies its opposite. For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony repeats, “Brutus is an honorable man,” while clearly implying that Brutus is dishonorable. Sarcasm (see Figures of Speech, above) is a particularly blunt form of verbal irony.
  • Situational irony: A technique in which one understanding of a situation stands in sharp contrast to another, usually more prevalent, understanding of the same situation. For example, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” comments on the grotesque difference between politicians’ high-minded praise of the noble warrior and the unspeakably awful conditions of soldiers at the front.
  • Romantic irony: An author’s persistent reminding of his or her presence in the work. By drawing attention to the artifice of the work, the author ensures that the reader or audience will maintain critical detachment and not simply accept the writing at face value. Laurence Sterne employs romantic irony in Tristram Shandy by discussing the writing of the novel in the novel itself.
  • Dramatic irony: A technique in which the author lets the audience or reader in on a character’s situation while the character himself remains in the dark. With dramatic irony, the character’s words or actions carry a significance that the character is not aware of. When used in tragedy, dramatic irony is called tragic irony. One example is in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus vows to discover his father’s murderer, not knowing, as the audience does, that he himself is the murderer.
  • Cosmic irony: The perception of fate or the universe as malicious or indifferent to human suffering, which creates a painful contrast between our purposeful activity and its ultimate meaninglessness. Thomas Hardy’s novels abound in cosmic irony.


Melodrama: The use of sentimentality, gushing emotion, or sensational action or plot twists to provoke audience or reader response. Melodrama was popular in Victorian England, but critics now deride it as manipulative and hokey. Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, is a particularly melodramatic work.

Parallelism: Similarities between elements in a narrative (such as two characters or two plot lines). For instance, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, both Lear and Gloucester suffer at the hands of their own children because they are blind to which of their children are goodhearted and which areKing Lear, evil. Parallelism can also occur on the level of sentences or phrases (see Figures of Speech, above).

Pathos: From the Greek word for “feeling,” the quality in a work of literature that evokes high emotion, most commonly sorrow, pity, or compassion. Charles Dickens exploits pathos very effectively, especially when describing the deaths of his characters.

Poetic diction: The use of specific types of words, phrases, or literary structures that are not common in contemporary speech or prose. For example, Wilfred Owen’s “Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of Our Artillery Brought Into Action,” though written in the 20th century, uses antiquated diction and the time-tested sonnet form. The intentional discrepancy creates an ironic contrast between the horrors of modern war and the way poets wrote about war in the past: “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, / Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse.”

Poetic license The liberty that authors sometimes take with ordinary rules of syntax and grammar, employing unusual vocabulary, metrical devices, or figures of speech or committing factual errors in order to strengthen a passage of writing. For example, the poet e. e. cummings takes poetic license in violating rules of capitalization in his works.

Wit: A form of wordplay that displays cleverness or ingenuity with language. Often, but not always, wit displays humor. Oscar Wilde’s plays are famous for their witty phrases, which expose the hypocrisies of the intellectual beliefs of Wilde’s time.


Brian M Logan

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