How to Identify Literary Devices

"Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." This famous simile, spoken by Tom Hank's titular character in "Forrest Gump," is just one example of the many literary devices available to screenwriters, novelists and poets. Authors use literacy devices to underscore meaning in their texts. Whether you're studying poetry or prose, recognizing different literary devices can help you understand and appreciate what you're reading -- or watching.

Review the forms of figurative language, such as metaphors, similes and personification. A metaphor compares by substituting one idea for another: The classroom was a jail. A simile also makes a comparison, using the words "like or "as": She slithered across the dance floor like a snake. With personification, inanimate objects are endowed with human characteristics: The flower looked up at the sun and reached for its light.

Identify the setting in literature. The setting is a literary device that denotes the time and place of a story. Sometimes it's specific, but often it's implied or ambiguous.

Explore themes. The main message or idea of a piece is the theme. Works of art can have more than one theme. One of the main themes in Toni Morrison's book "The Bluest Eye," for example, is racism.

Recognize allegory. In an allegory, aspects of a story symbolize something else. George Orwell's book, "Animal Farm," is an allegory for Stalinism and communism.

Watch for alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds. The sounds are usually in close proximity to one another: The star shows its stunning strength.

Identify hyperbole, an obvious exaggeration for emphasis: The desert was so hot, fire burned high along the sand.

Watch for paradoxes. A paradox is an idea that makes sense on the surface, but has another, usually opposing, meaning that is revealed upon closer reading.

Look for allusions. An allusion, not illusion, is an indirect reference to something else, often in a historical sense. "Dante's Inferno" features numerous allusions to Greek mythology.

Pick up on puns, or words or phrases with double meanings, like "I get a charge out of working with electricity." Puns are usually used for humorous effect. Shakespeare's works abound in puns.

Watch for foreshadowing, or an event that foretells how the plot might unfold. It might be something insignificant, like a description of a setting in which it's noted that a gun is hanging on the wall, as in Anton Chekov's play "Uncle Vanya." In a movie, creepy music usually foreshadows a frightening event.

Wait for the climax, when the protagonist confronts his chief obstacle, the tension is greatest, or the plot otherwise reaches its peak. The climax of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," for example, is when Ebenezer Scrooge visits his own grave with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Photo Credits
  • Hemera Technologies/ Images