Literary Devices

We have looked at the basic elements of the short story: setting, character, conflict, point of view, plot, and theme.   In addition to considering the elements of a short story we need to understand the various literary devices that an author may use.  These literary devices guide our interpretation and help us to better understand the story’s complexities and overall meaning. They are IRONY, SYMBOL, FLASHBACK and FORESHADOWING.


There are several types of irony in literature.  Three main types are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.

Verbal Irony:  This is the contrast between what is said and what is meant. In other words, sarcasm.

Dramatic Irony:  This is the contrast between what the character thinks to be true and what we (the reader) know to be true.  Sometimes as we read we are placed in the position of knowing more than what one character knows.  Because we know something the character does not, we read to discover how the character will react when he or she learns the truth of the situation.  Think:  soap operas!

A form of dramatic irony in which a character who is about to become a victim of disaster uses words that have one meaning to him and quite another to the spectator or those who are aware of the real situation is called TRAGIC IRONY.  In some instances the character may not be about to become a victim, but rather their statement is based on partial knowledge or misunderstanding, and the spectator is aware of the truth of the situation.

Situational Irony:  This is the most common in literature.  It is the contrast between what happens and what was expected (or what would seem appropriate).  Because it emerges from the events and circumstances of a story it is often more subtle and effective than verbal or dramatic irony.

A character, an action, a setting, or an object representing something else can be a symbol.  Most often, the symbol in a story is an object that represents its owner’s character or situation, or both.  For example, a secluded, near-empty apartment might represent the alienation and emotional emptiness of the tenant.  Symbols are usually recognizable by the amount of emphasis they receive.  Objects intended to be viewed as symbolic may be described in detail, be included in the title, be referred to frequently, or emphasized at the beginning or ending of the story.  When we recognize a symbol and understand its meaning or meanings we see more clearly what the writer chose to emphasize.

FLASHBACK:  This is a writers’ technique in which the author interrupts the plot of the story to recreate an incident of an earlier time (goes back in time; like giving the reader a memory).  This device is often used to provide additional information to the reader.

FORESHADOWING: This is a writers’ technique in which the author provides clues or hints as to what is going to happen later in the story.  It’s like the music in a scary movie when we know that something bad is about to happen.