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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

The Purpose of Literary Devices and Techniques

It’s easy for students to get caught in the trap of simply identifying literary techniques without considering their purpose and how they contribute to the overall meaning of the text. It is fun to figure out the rules of say, a villanelle or sonnet. Some techniques exist simply because they are pleasing to the ear or eye, but most allow for some meaning-making digging to occur. They allow us to deep dive instead of swimming around on the surface.

I like to break it down into three main purposes for students to make it easy.

Most literary techniques:

1. Convey an emotion

Also called tone, literary techniques convey the emotion of the speaker. A speaker or narrator doesn’t merely describe facts and experiences, they show the reader how it felt with metaphors and similes. In this indirect way, readers can interpret the emotions instead of reading something straightforward and boring like, “I am sad”.

2. Express an idea

Most literature starts with the introduction of an idea or concept and then explores it more in greater depth. Rather than close things down with a theme or argument, a motif opens possibilities up for the reader and allows for an independent understanding of the greater meaning of the concept. Ideas can start as simple topics like family, imagination, tradition, joy, race, crime, time, or art.

3. Depict a reality

Writers create a mood or atmosphere by depicting all the details of a situation. This includes all the sensory imagery inside a room or in a forest, and includes action and dialogue. The rhythm of a line of poetry often corresponds to the image of the poem, like a river, a growing flower, or a falling leaf. Think of scenes from The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, or Invisible Man. The hot room, the trenches, and the boxing arena all contain the symbolic keys to the emotions of the character and ideas. These details accurately conjure up an imaginary reality with all its sounds and smells.

I remember a paragraph in Emma by Jane Austen where the characters tour the valleys of the countryside, and the sentences twist and turn with repetition, parallel structure, and punctuation. The same happens at the end of the first book of Great Expectations, where Pip pauses and hesitates out of fear but also excitedly leaves his hometown of Kent. The punctation and conjunctions speed up and slow down the reality of him wanting to stay and wanting to leave.

Techniques can also create patterns that help unfold a theme, or show the transformation of a character. They could show the logical development of thought or decision or closely examine the beauty and spirit of an image, like in “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop. Literary techniques help the reader become immersed in a moment or a person and create pleasing melodies that exists in the sounds that surround us in real life, like walking, chewing, or dribbling a basketball. Students study the impact of literary language and as a consequence, they acquire the ability to write and speak creatively and conjure up those transformative worlds on their own.

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

literary techniques

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