Any writer looking to master the art of storytelling will want to learn the literary devices in prose. Fiction and nonfiction writers rely on these devices to bring their stories to life, impact their readers, and uncover the core truths of life. You can, too, with mastery over the different literary devices!
If you’re not familiar with the common literary devices, start with this article for definitions and examples. You may also benefit from brushing up on the six elements of fiction, as most prose stories have them. Combined with the following literary devices in fiction and nonfiction, these framing elements can help you write a powerful story.
10 Important Literary Devices in Prose
We’ve included examples and explanations for each of these devices, pulling from both contemporary and classical literature. Whether you’re a writer, a student, or a literary connoisseur, familiarize yourself with the important literary devices in prose.
1. Parallelism (Parallel Plots)
Parallelism refers to the plotting of events that are similarly constructed but altogether separate.
Are you familiar with the phrase “history often repeats itself”? If so, then you’re already familiar with parallelism. Parallelism refers to the plotting of events that are similarly constructed but altogether separate. Sometimes these parallels develop on accident, but they are powerful tools for highlighting important events and themes.
A surprising example of parallelism comes in the form of the Harry Potter series. As an infant, Harry is almost killed by Voldemort but is protected by his mother’s love. Eighteen years later, Harry must die in order to defeat Voldemort, thus shouldering the burden of love himself.
What does this parallelism do for the story? Certainly, that’s open to interpretation. Perhaps it draws attention to the incompleteness of love without action: to defeat Voldemort (who personifies hatred), Harry can’t just be loved, he has to act on love—by sacrificing his own life, no less.
This is unrelated to grammatical parallelism, a different literary device.
2. Foil Characters
A foil refers to any two characters who are “opposites” of each other.
A foil refers to any two characters who are “opposites” of each other. These oppositions are often conceptual in nature: one character may be even-keeled and mild, like Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet, while another character may be quick-tempered and pugnacious, like Tybalt.
What do foil characters accomplish? In Romeo & Juliet, Benvolio and Tybalt are basically Romeo’s devil and angel. Benvolio discourages Romeo from fighting, as it would surely end in his own death and separation from Juliet, whereas Tybalt encourages fighting out of family loyalty.
Of course, foils can also be the protagonist and antagonist, especially if they are character opposites. A reader would be hard-pressed to find similarities between Harry Potter and Voldemort (except for their shared soul). If you can think of other embodiments of good versus evil, they are most assuredly foils as well.
Foil characters help establish important themes and binaries in your work.
Foil characters help establish important themes and binaries in your work. Because Shakespeare wrote Benvolio and Tybalt as foils, one of the themes in Romeo & Juliet is that of retribution: is it better to fight for honor or turn the other cheek for love?
When considering foil characters in your writing, consider which themes/morals you want to turn your attention towards. If you want to write about the theme of chaos versus order, and your protagonist is chaotic, you might want a foil character who’s orderly. If you want to write about this theme but it’s not central to the story, perhaps have two side characters represent chaos versus order.
Learn more about foil characters here:
You’ll often hear that “diction” is just a fancy term for “word choice.” While this is true, it’s also reductive, and it doesn’t capture the full importance of select words in your story. Diction is one of the most important literary devices in prose, as every prose writer will use it.
Diction is best demonstrated through analyzing a passage of prose, so to see diction in action, let’s take apart the closing paragraphs of The Great Gatsby.
Take a look at the highlighted words, as well as the opposition between different highlights. F. Scott Fitzgerald juxtaposes many different emotions in this short, poignant passage, resulting in an ambivalent yet powerful musing on the passage of time. By focusing the diction of this passage on emotions both hopeful and hopeless, Fitzgerald masterfully closes one of the most important American novels.
For a further analysis of diction, as well as some great examples, check out our article expanding upon word choice in writing!
The mood of a story or passage refers to the overall emotional tone it invokes.
The mood of a story or passage refers to the overall emotional tone it invokes. When writers craft a mood in their work, they’re heightening the experience of their story by putting you in the characters’ shoes. Since mood requires using the right words throughout a scene, mood can be considered an extended form of diction.
The writer cultivates mood by making consistent language choices throughout a passage.
The writer cultivates mood by making consistent language choices throughout a passage of the story. Take, for example, the cliché “it was a dark and stormy night.” That phrase wasn’t clichéd when it was first written; in fact, it did a great job of opening Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford. The narrator’s dark, bleak description of the weather brings the reader into the bleary, tumultuous life of its protagonist, building a mood in both setting and story.
Or, consider this excerpt from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë:
Charlotte is quick to build the mood, keying in on Jane’s sombre beginnings before juxtaposing it against the ironic perfection of her siblings. Jane’s world is clear from the beginning: a cloudy house amidst a sunny street.
Learn more about this device at our article on mood in literature.
A foreshadow refers to any time the writer hints towards later events in the story.
Foreshadowing is a powerful literary device in fiction, drawing readers ever-closer to the story’s climax. A foreshadow refers to any time the writer hints towards later events in the story, often underscoring the story’s suspense and conflict.
Sometimes foreshadowing is obvious, and sometimes you don’t notice it until rereading the story.
Sometimes foreshadowing is obvious, and sometimes you don’t notice it until rereading the story. For example, the foreshadowing in Harry Potter makes it fairly obvious that Harry will have to die. Once the idea of horcruxes, or “split souls,” was introduced in the books, it was only a matter of time before readers connected these horcruxes to the psychic connection Harry shared with Voldemort. His mission—to die and be reincarnated—becomes fairly obvious as the heptalogy comes to a close.
However, sometimes foreshadowing is much more discreet. In Jane Eyre, for example, it’s clear that many of the people in Jane’s life are keeping secrets from her. Rochester doesn’t let anyone know about his previous marriage but it gets alluded to several times, and St. John is reluctant to admit that he does not actually love Jane, foreshadowing Jane’s return to Rochester. All of this combines to reinforce Jane’s uncertain place in the world and the journey she must take to settle down.
6. In Media Res
In Media Res refers to writing a story starting from the middle
From the Latin “In the middle of things,” In Media Res is one of the literary devices in prose chiefly concerned with plot. In Media Res refers to writing a story starting from the middle; by throwing the reader into the center of events, the reader’s interest piques, and the storytelling bounces between flashback and present day.
Both fiction and nonfiction writers can use In Media Res, provided it makes sense to do so. For example, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale begins in the middle of a dystopian society. Atwood leads us through the society’s establishment and the narrator’s capture, but all of this is in flashback, because the focus is on navigating the narrator’s escape from this evil world.
In Media Res applies well here, because the reader feels the full intensity of this dystopia from its start. Writers who are writing stories in either alternate worlds or very private worlds may benefit from this literary device in fiction, as it helps keep the reader interested and attentive.
7. Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience understands more about the situation than the story’s characters do.
Dramatic irony is a literary device in prose in which the audience understands more about the situation than the story’s characters do. This is an especially important literary device in fiction, as it often motivates the reader to keep reading.
We often see dramatic irony in stories which involve multiple points-of-view.
We often see dramatic irony in stories which involve multiple points-of-view. For example, the audience knows that Juliet is still alive, but when Romeo discovers her seemingly dead body, he kills himself in grief. How ironic, then, for Juliet to wake up to her lover’s passing, only to kill herself in equal grief. By using dramatic irony in the story, Shakespeare points towards the haphazardness of young love.
A vignette is a passage of prose that’s primarily descriptive, rather than plot-driven.
A vignette (vin-yet) refers to a passage of prose that’s primarily descriptive, rather than plot-driven. Vignettes throw the reader into the scene and emotion, often building the mood of the story and developing the character’s lens. They are largely poetic passages with little plot advancement, but the flourishes of a well-written vignette can highlight your writing style and the story’s emotions.
The story snippets we’ve included are striking examples of vignettes. They don’t advance the plot, but they push the reader into the story’s mood. Additionally, the prose style itself is emotive and poetic, examining the nuances of life’s existential questions.
A flashback refers to any interruption in the story where the narration goes back in time.
A flashback refers to any interruption in the story where the narration goes back in time. The reader may need information from previous events in order to understand the present-day story, and flashbacks drop the reader into the scene itself.
Flashbacks are often used in stories that begin In Media Res, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. While the main plot of the story focuses on the narrator’s struggles against Gilead, this narration frequently alternates with explanations for how Gilead established itself. The reader gets to see the bombing of Congress, the forced immigration of POC, and the environmental/fertility crisis which gives context for Gilead’s fearmongering. We also experience the narrator’s separation from her daughter and husband, supplying readers with the story’s highly emotive world.
A soliloquy is a long speech with no audience in the story.
Soliloquy comes from the Latin for self (sol) and talking (loquy), and self-talking describes a soliloquy perfectly. A soliloquy is a long speech with no audience in the story. Soliloquies are synonymous with monologues, though a soliloquy is usually a brief passage in a chapter, and often much more poetic.
Shakespeare’s plays abound with soliloquies. Here’s an example, pulled from Scene II Act II of Romeo and Juliet.
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Romeo isn’t talking to anyone in particular, but no matter: his soliloquy is rife with emotion and metaphor, and one can’t help but blush when he expresses how his love for Juliet makes her like the sun to him.
As a literary device in prose, soliloquy offers insight into the characters’ emotions. Soliloquy doesn’t have to be in dialogue, it can also take the form of private thoughts, but a soliloquy must be an extended conversation with oneself that exposes the character’s own feelings and ideas.
Write Powerful Literary Devices in Prose with Writers.com
The literary devices in Jane Eyre, Romeo & Juliet, and The Great Gatsby help make these stories masterful works of fiction. By using these literary building blocks, your story will sparkle, too. Take a look at our upcoming courses in fiction and nonfiction, and take the next step in writing the great American novel. Happy writing!