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This LibGuide provides information on where to start when you read poetry and how to conduct a Close Reading, as well as general guidelines on how to research for papers.

Literary Elements - Explanations and Examples

Figurative language:

Many authors often employ figurative language in order to create specific images or associations.  Here are some examples of common types of figurative language:


  • generally use like or as to compare two things that on the surface may not seem similar, but in a way are.  For example, if I want to convey how big a dog is, instead of just saying the dog is big, I might want to use a simile.  So, I write, “The dog is as big as a house.”  This conveys the idea that the dog is very large.  Of course, this is also an exaggeration, unless the dog is Clifford, of course, from the beloved children’s books.


  • generally use is or was to compare two things that on the surface may not seem similar, but in a way are.  Usually these are used to convey a deeper meaning.  Metaphors can be written, but metaphors can also be created visually, so you will want to be aware of this, especially if a text contains images.  If I want to convey that a woman has a fiery personality and is ready to defend her point of view, I might say, “That woman is a pistol.”  This metaphor then demonstrates that fiery personality and her readiness to "go off" at any moment.


  • gives human qualities to inanimate objects or non-human entities.  For example, "The chair squatted on the floor."  A chair cannot actually "squat," but this word creates a specific image in the reader's mind of a chair that is low to the ground.


  • is a term used for sound words.  These are words like, “bam,” “boom,” “meow,” “woof,” “bang,” and so forth.  These words engage auditory memory and add realism to a text.


  • uses extreme exaggeration.  For example, if I am hungry, and I want to emphasize just how hungry I am, I might say, “I’m hungry enough to eat a whole herd of horses.”  This conveys that I am not just hungry, but very hungry.  Often this kind of figurative language is used for humorous effect due to the ridiculous nature of the exaggeration.  If you want to familiarize yourself with hyperbole in story form, try reading some tall tales, such as the Paul Bunyan stories.


  • is a repeated sound at the beginning of words.  This is usually used for emphasis or in order to create a poetic quality that uses auditory memory.  Tongue twisters use alliteration.  For example, “Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers.” The repeated sound is the “p” sound.


  • is an item, person, etc. that represents an idea, office, or even philosophy.  Authors often use symbolism in order to convey a complex idea.  A symbol is designed to engage the reader and create opportunities for deeper thought and understanding.  For example, an author might write, "A ray of light split the darkness in two, and the path became easy to follow."  The ray of light may symbolize hope or even an intellectual awakening.  The darkness may represent depression or even ignorance.  Such a seemingly simply sentence can convey very complex ideas.


  • uses vivid descriptions designed to create a complete, complex picture in a reader's mind.  Using imagery draws the reader into a text and helps make the world of the text vivid and as real as possible.  For example, an author might write, "The dew-soaked red petals of the budding rose lifted their faces to the rising sun, stretching toward that life-living light."  The idea of petals opening and extending toward the sun is conveyed through the many details.  Romantic Era literature is know for rich and vivid imagery. 

There are many other kinds of figurative language, but the ones listed above are the most likely ones that you will encounter in the works that we will read this semester.

Evoking the Senses: 

  • When an author evokes the senses, that author wants the reader to immerse him/herself in the story with as many vivid sensory details as possible.  The more sensory details, the easier it is for the reader to imagine the scene presented in the text.  In addition, senses like smell can trigger memories in the reader, and the reader can immerse him/herself in the text more easily than if these details were not present.  For example, a writer might say, "The smell of freshly baked bread wafted down the hall."  The reader then would imagine this scene and even think about a time when (s)he last encountered that smell.

Patterns of Repetition: 

  • Sometimes authors will repeat phrases, themes, etc.  Often this will be to emphasize a point, but it can also emphasize the opposite.  For example, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Marc Antony keeps repeating the words "Brutus is an honorable man," after describing something terrible that Brutus did.  Antony is emphasizing that Brutus is NOT an honorable man through this repetition.

Patterns of Opposition: 

  • Often opposition is presented through contrast, such as good and evil.  Another way opposition can be created is through mirror images.  For example, James Joyce's novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, is written as a mirror image.

Appeal to Emotion (also known as pathos): 

  • In order to engage the reader and make that reader invested in the outcome of the characters, writers will create scenes and situations that tug at the heart strings.  For example, an author might write, "The abandoned puppy shivered and whined in the corner of the dank, dark alley."  The author wants you to feel sympathy for the puppy's situation, and if that puppy is then rescued, the reader feels happy and relieved for the puppy.  Becoming emotionally invested in a story makes it more "real."

Appeal to Self-Interest: 

  • The author might tell the reader that the reader will get something personally out of reading a text or investing in an idea or product.  For example, an author might say, "By reading this essay, you will become a better person."  This technique engages the reader and is a good advertising technique.  It also is not necessarily true, so be wary of such claims.

Appeal to Authority: 

  • Sometimes authors will use experts, well-known writers who have become canonical, data, and other evidence in their writings.  Doing so adds credibility to a text.  For example, a writer might say, "If Shakespeare did it, so can I."  Shakespeare is widely considered one of the best playwrights in British literature, and so using his name carries a lot of weight and authority.



  • Everybody has bias.  Bias is an inclination toward or against something.  It is neither good nor bad, but simply is.  You will often here bias used in negative ways, but it is important to understand that bias, in its purest definition, is simply an inclination.  You could have a bias toward spicy food.  You could have bias against cow’s milk (perhaps because you are allergic to it).  Your bias depends on the baggage from your life that you carry with you.  Authors have bias, no matter if they are writing fiction or a scientific paper.  Sometimes that bias is explicit and stated outright.  Sometimes, though, bias is revealed through author’s specific word choices, and it can be a bit difficult to spot.  This kind of hidden bias is implicit bias.


  • Gender can be used in many ways.  It can be used in personification, such as calling a country "she" or a car "he."  It can also be considered in terms of titles and ranks, such as "airmen first class, " being used, even when the person holding the rank is a woman.  It can also be considered in relation to language choices, which sometimes is termed "gendered language."  Often certain words are reserved for specific genders depending on the time period within which a text is written.  For example, in today’s world, the word “handsome” is generally used for men and “beautiful” generally used for women, but historically, these words were a bit more fluid and could be used for either gender, depending on the context.  Another consideration might be how “he” was used as a generic pronoun in older texts versus the relatively new conventions of “(s)he” or even "they."

Tense Shifting: 

  • Occasionally, you will notice that a character might switch between present tense, past tense, or even future tense.  If the character is narrating in present tense and suddenly switches to past tense, this can alert the reader that the action presented in past tense is, for example, a memory.


  • This is how the narrator or author sounds.  An author might have a serious tone, a ironical tone, a sarcastic tone, etc.  The tone determines how you read and interpret a text.  If the text is satirical, then the reader will consider the text as something humorous with a bit of bite, but not something that should be read seriously.  For example, consider Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  He meant the piece to be satirical, and it was his way of highlighting the difficulties of the poor in Ireland, but many people took his work to be a serious proposal, which caused him many problems.  Swift’s work is a great example of the importance of tone and of how one needs to be careful about presenting the tone so that a work is not misinterpreted.


  • Often writers have central themes to which they refer throughout their texts.  For example, a tragic story might relate that "Death is inevitable."  Another theme might be that "Love is destructive."  Still another might be, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."  The author will emphasize these themes throughout a text.


  • There are many different kinds of conflicts that might arise during a story.  One could be an epic struggle between a character who is good and a character who is evil.  This is known as "Person versus Person."  This is a popular conflict in comic books.  Another conflict might be "Person versus Nature," such as in Jack London's "Call of the Wild."  Still another might be "Person versus Self," which is popular with psychological thrillers.  One example would be Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."


  • This is not the absence of speaking.  Sometimes silence can say a great deal.  Consider for a moment that your best friend gets a new haircut.  The haircut is terrible and not very flattering.  Your friend asks you what you think.  You remain silent, as you do not want to hurt your friend’s feelings.  That silence says a great deal.  It is similar in texts.  What is not said can be just as important as what is said.  Also writers will sometimes use silence as a means of making the reader fill in the blanks in a text.  This can make the reader feel like (s)he is part of the story or even complicit in what happens to the characters.


  • Even punctuation matters!  If I use an exclamation point, that means excitement.  Why am I excited?  What has made me excited?  These are questions that I need to ask when I am reading.  If I use a question mark, I am not just conveying a question.  I might be conveying uncertainty.  I might also be inviting the reader to answer the question, thereby engaging the reader.  I might use an ellipsis (that’s the dot-dot-dot), which generally indicates missing words or silence.  Even where I put a comma matters, as this is a natural pause and can change the meaning of a statement or even change the tone.  Consider the following two sentences, "I ate grandma," or "I ate, grandma."  In the first sentence, you have become a cannibal.  In the second sentence, you are telling your grandmother that you have already eaten.  Punctuation is also particularly important when reading poetry. Punctuation matters when we read, and it also matters when we write.

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