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What Is a Literary Technique?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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A literary technique is a method for telling a story or part of a story. Although the word “literary” usually refers to written literature, these techniques can be used in a broader sense in any narrative form, including movies, television, and comic books. For example, the literary technique called foreshadowing, which hints at future events in a story, is common to every type of narrative. Some literary techniques apply to a wide range of stories, such as twist endings in the genre of mystery fiction. Others may be specific to a particular author or work.

The art of storytelling is an essential human activity that predates recorded history. Some literary forms, such as poetry, drama, or the novel, are hundreds or thousands of years old. Other media like film, comics, and television arrived with the technological revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries; each medium has since established its own techniques and borrowed others. Some are essentially storytelling shortcuts that are used to quickly convey or skip over information that media-savvy audiences will already know. Other kinds of literary techniques can set a mood, establish character, or engage the audience.

In medias res is an example of a literary technique that has been widely used in stories for centuries. The Latin phrase refers to a story that starts in the middle of the action and then employs flashbacks or character dialogue to describe earlier events. This often has the effect of immediately drawing the audience into the story while dispensing with scenes that are unimportant. The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War, employed this technique nearly 3,000 years ago. The modern TV series Lost also started this way, with the revelation of prior events forming a major part of the series’ narrative.

Some literary techniques are matters of form. Shakespeare wrote his plays using a poetic technique called iambic pentameter so the dialogue would have a pleasing rhythm. Film noir is a cinematic technique employing shadowy images, calculating characters, and grim storylines. Originating with American mystery films of the 1940s, it was later borrowed by filmmakers around the world. Noir has since been imitated in television, comic books, and even video games, effectively becoming a widespread literary technique.

Popular literary techniques can become so widely known that most audiences will recognize them instantly; these are called tropes. Properly used, these can generate a sense of familiarity with the story and characters and reduce the amount of time normally spent on exposition. When the literary technique becomes too familiar, however, it is called a cliché, which most writers try to avoid. Other techniques are simply useful storytelling tricks, such as onomatopoeia. This is the use of words to imitate real-life sounds, a common literary technique that is employed by writers around the world.

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