Broadly defined literary devices are tools that writers use to express or evoke larger themes and guiding ideas in any work of fiction. They are often used as “shorthand” to make connections that might be painfully tedious or less powerful if they were fully spelled out in concrete language.
Although literary devices have been common throughout the ages in all forms of writing, their succinct and implied nature make them particularly useful in the composition of short stories and other creative works that have lower overall word counts.
With this in mind, read on to learn about five literary devices that can dramatically improve your short stories.
Metaphor occurs when to unlike things are presented as similar or the same. Although it abounds in all forms of literature, few people make proper, extensive use of metaphor in their writing. While it is relatively common for a writer to work a simple simile (such as Robert Burns’ “my Love is like a red, red, rose) into their work, an extended analogy (such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s wallpaper) is far less common. In her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as an analogy for the oppressive social norms of the patriarchy. Although she never explicitly identifies it as such, Gilman’s descriptions of an imaginary women trapped beneath the yellow wallpaper communicates volumes about female repression in the short story.
Far wider in use and more culturally universal than a mere metaphor, a symbol is an object, image, or word that isn’t necessarily limited to a single implied meaning. A terrific example of symbolism in a short story can be found in the “Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. After killing unnamed old man and hiding his body under the floorboards of the house that they shared, the protagonist and narrator of this short story is driven insane by a distinct thumping sound in the house that they both had shared. In light of the complex associations that humankind has long drawn between the heart and notions of love, togetherness, and morality, this supposed heartbeat infuses this rather brief tale with an outsized amount of extremely poignant symbolism.
Foreshadowing (previewing or hinting at key literary themes or narrative plot points relatively early in a work of fiction) may take a long time to pay off in a longer creative form like a novel. However, this payoff can be just as satisfying within the relatively compressed duration of a short story. Because it has precious little time to place a firm grip on a reader’s attention, a short story can foreshadow a future event within the first few paragraphs to create a compelling hook for the narrative and build suspense throughout.
The ample use of narrative twists in short story writing, makes them fertile ground for the use of irony. In particular, short stories often contain situational irony, which subverts expected outcomes for maximum reader impact and enhanced contextual meaning. Take O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” for example. This widely read short story depicts a wife who cuts off her long hair and sells it to purchase a chain for her husband’s cherished watch. At the same time, her husband sells this watch to buy his wife a comb for her long hair.
Works of satire use humor or wit to ridicule influential and/or authoritative figures, institutions, and cultural ideas. Writers can use it to make powerful statements of inference that often stretch far beyond the limited lines of text in a short story. One of the most famous instances of satire in a short story is the central character of Mathilde in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.” Maupassant uses satire to point out the extremely destructive vanity of his protagonist as well as other members of the petty bourgeoisie.