Literary Techniques List: Techniques for Analysing a Written Text
When it comes to writing English essays, there is one thing that teachers scan for like a hawk over the page- techniques!
Literary techniques are devices and stylistic features used by authors and composers to convey meaning and underlying messages through their texts. They are specific strategies that enable relay of information in a way that has been largely predetermined by the writer
As you proceeded through high school, you would have been introduced to new techniques every year which seem to get progressively complicated. But they’re all great to implement in your critical analysis of texts.
Depending on the text type you are analysing, it is possible to know which techniques you should scan for. The tables below illustrate most of the literary devices that are embedded in popular media of text.
Narratives – Literary Techniques List
|A narration that has double meaning- one dominant and the other recessive; add layers of depth to a text.
|The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is a religious allegory with Aslan, the lion, as Christ and Edmund as Judas.
|Use of a more simplistic idea to explain a more complicated phenomenon.
|A Short History of Nearly Everything: Analogy of a child’s paddle pool is used to explain volcanic plateaus.
|A short, interesting story from personal experience to supplement the topic of discussion.
|Harry Potter: In a discussion of Hogwart’s maze-like corridors, Dumbledore says; “Only this morning I took a wrong turn…”
|A phrase or sentence repeated in reverse order for rhetorical effect
|“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
|Portrayal of ideas that highly contrasted the norm or accepted views; shows distance from contemporary context
|Brave New World: “The words mother and father have become unmentionable obscenity.”
|Character conventions that are adhere to represent a persona that fits into that niche.
|A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson predominantly uses the scientist-superhero archetype to marvel at the narrated discoveries.
|Similar to antimetabole where two parallel phrases are inverted for rhetorical effect.
|Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.”
|A common, frequently occurring saying; may relate to the reality/humaneness of the story’s context.
|“…they lived happily ever after.”-common fairytale ending.
|Highlight differences between two people, objects or ideas to emphasise their dissimilarity.
|“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
|A phrase that expresses double meanings, to mock or articulate an idea perfectly but indirectly.
|“Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.”
|Quotation of another work included by an author in their own.
|In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot uses Dante’s Inferno for his epigraph to show his poem will be about confession.
|Hinting upcoming downfall or demise to create suspense
|Romeo and Juliet: “life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love,”
|Highly exaggerated comment/idea
|“frightened to death”
|A person, object or symbol that represents a particular concept.
|The Hunger Games: The golden mocking jay is an icon for rebellion.
|Shaping of a text’s meaning using another text to generate related understandings of both texts.
|Brave New World’s title is an intertextual reference to Miranda’s dialogue in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
|The expression of a meaning using language that implies the opposite, for humorous or emphatic effect.
|Brave New World: The value of humanity degenerates the more humankind progresses with technology &commercialism.
|Rhetorical device that places two elements in close relationship for comparative purposes.
|Hamlet employs many words related to the field of law used in Shakespeare’s time, e.g. “tenure”, “action of battery”, “statutes” and “conveyances”.
|Two scenes described consecutively to give a contrasting effect.
|In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens portrays one city as “the best of times”, and “the worst of times” at the other.
|Using the characteristics of an object or event to describe another concept as being itself.
|“Words are daggers when laced with anger.”
|An object or idea that repeats itself throughout a literary work; it can be an image, idea, sound or words, that convey the text’s theme.
|In V for Vendetta, The Guy Fawkes mask is a motif, symbolising liberation, civil uprising, revolt and freedom.
|Usually a biblical story or reference through which a moral lesson is taught.
|The Boy Who Cried Wolf teaches the religious and ethical lesson to refrain from dishonesty.
|A contradictory statement which, when investigated, is found to be true.
|“It takes darkness to be aware of the light.”- Treasure Tatum
|The language used to address the audience: colloquial, formal, Shakespearean, poetic, slang, etc
|Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “But by-and-by pap got too handy with his hick’ry, and I couldn’t stand it.”
|Use of humour and irony to criticise vices in context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
|Aldous Huxley uses satire as the basis of Brave New World to criticise the entire fascist political system of London and American consumerism culture.
|A figure of speech that makes a comparison to show similarity between two things and improve understanding.
|Shakespeare’s Othello: “She was as false as water.”
|Figure of speech in which a single term refers to the whole of something or vice versa.
|“England lost by six wickets.”−referring to English cricket team.
|Set of rules dictating how words from different parts of speech are put together; asyndeton: omission of articles of speech.
|“Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?” Julius Caesar, by W. Shakespeare.
|Small impactful scene or descriptive passage (non-personal) that adds depth to the topic of narration.
|A Well-Lighted Cafe by Ernest Hemingway: “In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled on the dust and the old man liked to sit late…”
|Descriptions which are connotative of the setting, using sensory details to paint a picture with words.
|“The burger, aromatic with spices, made his mouth water in anticipation of the first bite.”
Poems – Literary Techniques List
|Alliteration & Assonance
|Stylistic device in which a number of words share same first letter (alliteration) or vowel sounds (assonance).
|“warm wreaths of breaths” -Ted Hughes’ Full Moon and Little Frieda
|A subtle reference to another text, event, historically significant or natural occurrence, a well-known figure’s discovery or a time period.
|Allusion to the Big Bang in Stormwolf’s Cloak of Protection: “searing pain of universal cautering iron, that transformational tool.”
|Deliberate repetition of the first part of a sentence to achieve an artistic effect.
|Richard III by W. Shakespeare: “This blessed pot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
|Pair of related opposite terms
|“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires.”
|Use of words or expressions that are different from the literal interpretation
|“A bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage. His wings are clipped and his feet are tied…” →represents oppression
|A line in verse or poetry that has five strong metrical feet or beats, with stressed and unstressed syllables to provide structural form to poems.
|Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life.”
|Words that imitate natural sounds to make the description more expressive and relatable.
|“buzz”, “splash”, “thump”, “roar”, etc.
|Using aspects of the weather or natural forces to set the mood/setting of the text.
|Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down…”
|Human characteristics attributed to a non-living object to help audience empathise with it.
|“The moon has stepped back like an artist.” Ted Hughes’ Full Moon and Little Frieda
|Phonic sounds of consonants made by stopping the airflow of the oral passage.
|e.g. “His stop consonants are too aspirated.”- includes letters p, b, t, d, k, g.
|How the author promotes a certain truth or meaning through textual tools.
|Ted Hughes’ anthology of poems, Birthday Letters, and Sylvia Plath’s poems were written to represent each other in a specific way (unreasonable, mad, irrational).
|Repetition of similar sounding words, occurring at the end of lines of a poem to give it a melody and offer symmetrical structure.
|“A bird that stalks down his narrow cage/ Can seldom see through his bars of rage.” I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
|Alliteration of only soft ‘s’ sounds to create a hissing or whooshing effect.
|“Sally sells sea shells by the seashore.”
|Use of an object, concept, word or artefact that is representative of an idea with much deeper and more significant meaning.
|Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
Articles/Journals – Literary Techniques List
|Words that trigger the audience’s emotions and acquire their sympathy/anger/joy etc.
|“I am cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished.” Richard III, Shakespeare.
|First/second/third person narration
|Dependent on the perspective from which the story or text is being conveyed to readers.
|e.g. [first person] “I”, “me” and “we”.
|Powerful use of a verb at the beginning of a sentence of phrase to establish command.
|“Yield never to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”- Winston Churchill.
|Persuasively using language to question the audience in a manipulative way to gain their support.
|“And do you now strew flowers in his way that comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?” Julius Caesar, by W. Shakespeare.
|Numbers to indicate quantity and offer credibility of facts in the text.
|A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: “There are 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water on Earth.”
|A high degree adjective, usually with suffix –est to emphasise its attribute.
|“tallest”, “funniest”, “most difficult”, “the best”, etc.
|Attitude of the writer towards a subject or audience, indicating general atmosphere/mood/approach.
|“I shall be telling this with a sigh…” –The Road not Taken, by Robert Frost.
Play scripts – Literary Techniques List
|Short speech from a character that is spoken directly to the audience while other characters do not hear it.
|Macbeth [aside]: “Time thou anticipat’st my dread exploits. The flighty purpose never is o’ertook.”
|Character speaks to an inanimate object or to someone who isn’t there to bring abstract ideas or non-existent people to life; helps communicate emotions better.
|“Oh! Stars and winds, ye are all about to mock me.”-Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
|A text that promotes instructions through its language and sends a moral message.
|Machiavelli’s The Prince indirectly details a guideline of what a prince in that era should act/rule like.
|A conjunctive word that dramatically perturbs the rhythm of the sentence.
|“He either missed the opportunity, or the opportunity wasn’t his to take.”
|Three dots to show continuity or tailing thoughts; instigates suspense.
|“It shouldn’t be a problem, unless…”
|A poetic technique where a long line of a poem overflows to the next for coherence.
|“The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun is sinking-“.
|Describing a graphic or distressing event using more subtle, less offensive phrasing.
|“Her clothes had seen better days.”
|Gaps and Silence
|The absence of sound or dialogue momentarily to give reverberating spacious effect during reading, or trigger suspense.
|“It shouldn’t be a problem, unless…” [silence]
|Sense of amusement, wording that induces laughter through irony, puns, mockery or satire.
|“I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I’ve heard you mention them…these twenty years at least.”-Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
|A long speech by one actor in a play as part of theatrical performance.
|See Hamlet’s famous monologue.
|Amusing imitation or secondary version of an established style, media or genre.
|10 Things I Hate About You is a parody of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew.
|Form of language that has no formal metrical structure to imitate the natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure.
|Almost all Shakespearean plays (dramatic tragedies) are composed in prose form.
|A short, well-known saying, stating general truth or advice.
|The Merchant of Venice: “All that glitters is not gold.”
|A play on words, merging the different meanings of like-sounding terms; causes amusement/provocation.
|Richard III, son of the Duke of York: “our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of
|Act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when alone regardless of other listeners.
|See Richard’s soliloquy at the beginning of Richard III.
TIPS for literary analysis
- As a general rule of thumb, DO NOT IDENTIFY A TECHNIQUE WITHOUT EXPLAINING ITS EFFECT! It is outrageous how many students across the state continue to omit an explanation of the technique that they have extracted; little do they know that mentioning the technique has little value to the marker without its effect. The two must always go hand-in-hand.
- We understand that it is often difficult to immediately pull out a good technique from the text. But never despair- techniques do not always have to be a technical, fancy term to make your analysis look A-grade. In a test scenario, your best chance is to return to the basics−it might not be the most impressive, but it will award you the marks.
- For visuals and graphic novels, this could be as simple as outlining the positioning of characters/objects, salience, colour or monochrome (lack of colour), panels, or framing.
- Films and photographs have the largest scope of scraping out a technique: tone of character’s speech, diegetic or non-diegetic dialogue, the type of film shot, lighting, angles or camera movement.
- Literary passages: if you can’t easily find a technique from the meaning of the text, then pay attention to the sentence structure, such as syntax, asyndeton, truncated lines, or modality, superlatives and super adjectives from the wording. Is the diction emotive? Is it evocative?
Do NOT make up techniques or force them to comply with the text you are analysing out of desperation. It is appalling how students write “such-and-such symbolises this-and-that” when there is no symbolism evident! Use the method above and remember, there will always be potential to write.