Literary devices are important to anyone who uses or studies words in a creative context. Ill-used literary devices can make a story or other literary work seem weak, flat or underdeveloped. Well-used literary devices have the opposite effect, helping writers create dynamic, strong and interesting stories.
An allusion is a reference to a well-known person, event, place or phrase. The writer assumes the reader will understand the allusion, which may be crucial to the plot. Genre writers -- those specializing in fiction such as romance, mystery or science fiction -- may allude to places and characters from within their genre, while writers for a general audience tend to use allusions that do not require specialized knowledge by the reader. Examples include: "He's as brave as Han Solo" and "She was as lovely as Helen of Troy."
Ambiguity gives multiple meanings to a sentence or phrase, such as Mercutio's line in "Romeo and Juliet" after he is fatally wounded. He says, "Call on me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man," meaning he could be sad or, more likely, in his grave. Writers often use ambiguity to underscore the complexity of an issue or to help the character at hand confuse his or her opponents. Ambiguity can be useful in mystery stories, where a character may take a phrase to mean one thing although the speaker means something else.
Writers use foreshadowing to tell readers what to expect. This may come in the form of events or phrases that hint at actions to come later in the plot. Foreshadowing can be obvious or very subtle, creating suspense because the readers aren’t sure what to expect. For instance, a writer may focus on describing a weapon in the setting of a room, foreshadowing the fact that it will be used later.
Imagery is arguably one of the most important literary devices. Writers use imagery to describe scenes, settings and characters to help readers visualize what is happening in the story. Imagery can be as simple as describing a character's physical surroundings or delve into more complex descriptions of the character's emotions and thoughts. For instance, T.S. Eliot uses imagery to describe the London fog in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" when he writes, "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes ... licked its tongue into the corners of the evening."
Metaphor is a form of figurative language that compares two things that are unrelated in an effort to give imagery and meaning to one of the things. Metaphors often state that one thing is another; for instance, "Her skin was ivory and her hair was flowing silk." The woman is not actually made of ivory and silk, but those words describe the woman's skin and hair, furthering the image.
Conflict in a story is a struggle between two opposing characters or forces. Conflict often composes the main part of the plot or theme in a narrative. Conflict can involve two struggling characters, a character against society, natural forces, the supernatural or an internal conflict. For instance, in "Romeo and Juliet" the conflict is between the feuding Montagues and Capulets.
The climax is the turning point of a work, often the point of the greatest action, suspense, tension or emotional intensity. The author may use climax to describe the final battle of a work, reveal a mystery or show whether or not the main character is successful at his or her endeavors. For instance, in the movie "Clue" the climax comes near the end when those responsible for all of the deaths are revealed.