7 (more) literary terms to improve your writing

Most people probably trash their college notes after the graduation ceremony. I’m not one of those people. Five years later, my study guide for the Major Field Test still lives in the bottom drawer of my desk. This study guide contains a 3-page literary terms list, plus literary history from 1200 AD onward.

Why did I keep the study guide? Because I paid a lot of money for the information in it. (And because I’m a huge nerd.)

The above sentence is an example of hypophora, or asking a question and immediately answering it. That’s just one literary device we use in everyday speech. Let’s dive in to 6 more, sourced from my Major Field Test study guide. (Don’t forget to read the precursor to this post, “7 useful writing terms every writer should know“!)

7 (more) literary terms every writer should know

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Adynaton

Definition: Extreme exaggeration that illustrates an impossibility.

You’ll find this popular literary device in works from Romeo and Juliet to the Bible. Adynaton is a type of hyperbole, but it goes a step further than mere exaggeration. Any hyperbole that alludes to impossibility is an adynaton.

We use adynaton all the time. Ever declared, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” while caught in a storm? That’s adynaton. Such overstatements are typically lighthearted or amusing, but not always.

Examples of adynaton

  • I died laughing.
  • I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
  • That will happen when pigs fly.

Anadiplosis

Definition: Repeating the last word or phrase in the beginning of the next for emphasis.

I took the above definition from my Major Field Test study guide, but it’s not entirely correct. The repeated phrases or words are typically adjacent in a sentence or passage, but not always.

Anadiplosis is not to be confused with chiasmus, in which a speaker reverses phrases or clauses. Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Examples of anadiplosis

Sourced from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”

  • “I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony…”
  • “For the moment, at least, I was free. Free!—and in the grasp of the Inquisition!”
  • “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal. Unreal!—Even while I breathed, there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapour of heated iron!”

Aposiopesis

Definition: Breaking off in the middle of a sentence due to sudden reluctance

In my study guide, I noted this “isn’t the same as cutting off dialogue” — which is true, but a little vague.

Aposiopesis occurs when a speaker pauses or cuts themselves off due to a reluctance to continue. Anger, modesty, and morality often inspire such omissions. Em dashes and ellipses often indicate aposiopesis.

Subtypes of aposiopesis

  • Emotive: Occurs between an excited speaker and an unresponsive audience. Typically takes the form of pauses.
  • Calculated: Conflict between the content of the omission and the “opposing force” that rejects that content. (I can’t fully wrap my head around this one, if I’m honest.)
  • Audience-respecting: Omitting sentiments that may offend the audience.
  • Transito-aposiopesis: Deliberately omitting an idea from the end of a speech to cultivate excitement and anticipation among the audience.
  • Emphatic: Reiterating the inexpressibility of an idea, akin to a loss for words.

Examples of aposiopesis

  • “You’d better behave, or I’ll—!”
  • “If I—what would you—”
  • “I’m about to give you a piece of my mind—well, I would, but my mama raised me better than that.”
literary terms list

Elision

Definition: Removing letters or sounds to blend two words together or decrease the number of letters.

Poets commonly use elision to fit a meter pattern, like iambic pentameter. Authors use it to portray realistic speech.

I use elision all the time in my novel-in-progress, Escape Artist. Here are a few examples:

  • “I just hope the gov’ment makes good on all them promises they keep blabberin’ about on the radio.”
  • “We ain’t eatin’ until your daddy’s home, end of discussion.”
  • “You ain’t gon’ be laughin’ when I hit the big time.”

I most commonly omit the “g” sound from spoken “-ing” words because it’s how my Southern characters talk.

Hypophora

Definition: When a speaker raises a question and immediately answers it.

Politicians and public speakers use hypophora to elicit interest. Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Shakespeare all use hypophora.

Examples of hypophora

  • “What do we want? Change.”
  • “Why should we care about the fate of the bees? Because our survival directly depends upon it.”
  • “What does this mean for the future? It means we must act.”

Hamartia

Definition: Fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero.

Not to be confused with hubris, hamartia encompasses all sorts of fatal flaws — including hubris, or extreme pride.

Your character’s fatal flaw doesn’t have to adhere to some fancy literary definition. An example of hamartia from my own novel is alcoholism, which causes heart disease that kills two of my characters.

Examples of hamartia in literature

(sourced from literarydevices.net)

  • Odeipus Rex: unintentional mistakes
  • Hamlet: indecisiveness
  • Dr. Frankenstein: hubris

Isocolon

Definition: A sentence or complete thought containing perfectly equal parts.

Each part of an isocolon is called a cola. A tricolon, perhaps the most common type of isocolon, consists of three equal parts. A tetracolon comprises four parallel components.

However, numbers don’t matter. A sentence or complete thought is considered an isocolon as long as it contains two cola.

Examples of isocolon

  • I came, I saw, I conquered.
  • “No care—no hope—no effort.” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”
  • “In the deepest slumber—no! In delirium—no! In a swoon—no! In death—no!” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Literary terms every writer should know: wrapping up

If you read my first post, you’re now armed with 14 literary terms you can use in your writing. Or as tidbits of trivia to impress (read: bore) your friends at your next get-together.

What are your favorite literary devices? Share some examples from your own work in the comments!

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