Some may argue whether a screenplay is truly a work of literature. Nevertheless, anyone who’s sat down to write a screenplay knows it isn’t for the faint of heart. To juggle all aspects successfully, a screenwriter needs a few tools in their toolbelt. Enter common literary devices, literary elements and literary techniques. Besides listing, defining, and providing examples, this article will also take a moment to consider how and why a screenwriter might use these common literary devices in the first place.
Using Literary Devices in Screenwriting
Screenwriters and literary devices
Some may disagree that screenwriting is a literary art form. While it’s true that a screenplay is a transitory document necessary to turn an idea into a film, a screenwriter’s job is to make it an entertaining read. In giving the reader the experience of watching the film, these literary devices and literary elements help you understand stories and how to tell them effectively.
INTRODUCING LITERARY DEVICES
Literary elements vs techniques
Literary devices can be split into two camps: literary elements and literary techniques. Here’s a simple way to distinguish between the two.
Literary techniques are the how of your story. How you describe this, how you compare things, how you express your main character. All of these are strategies to affect your audience.
What are literary elements? These can be thought of as the what of your story. Common literary elements examples include conflict, plot, protagonist, theme. You get the picture.
As screenwriters, we spend considerable time conceptualizing the various literary elements of our story. So, let’s start there.
DEFINING LITERARY ELEMENTS
Literary Elements: What to write
While there isn’t a formal definition of literary elements, sometimes referred to as narrative elements, there is a mutually agreed-upon understanding taught in literary education.
LITERARY ELEMENT DEFINITION
What are literary elements?
A literary element is one of many necessary features of storytelling. These elements are found in both written and spoken narrative and they’re essential in the construction of a story. Here’s a selection of different types of literary devices.
Examples from our literary elements list:
The antagonist is the adversary of the story. She stands between the hero and her goal. Far from just a mustache-twirling evil-doer, a truly genuine antagonist will have a goal every bit as justified as the protagonists. Importantly, the antagonist is tailor-made to the protagonist, attacking their weakest vulnerabilities.
Whereas a climax is an exciting crescendo, an anticlimax offers the opposite. An anticlimax is a sudden drop, which is in disappointing contrast to a preceding rise in action. Still, it’s a useful tool, especially in postmodern media, where subversion is prevalent.
A crowd favorite, the antihero is a protagonist who lacks the virtues of a traditional hero. Classically, Batman is thought to be an antihero, although his archnemesis finds his own hero’s journey in Joker. But, if you’re looking for compelling antiheroes, look no further than your own TV set. The Golden Age of Television has given us great bad guys to root for. Walter White. Don Draper. Hell, Michael Scott. These characters make breaking bad look good.
Characterization is the construction of a fictional character. It’s not only vital for screenwriters to craft a great character, but one who is specific to the story you’re telling. It’s helpful to look at the story you want to tell and ask what kind of character needs this to happen to them?
Conflict is a significant element of narrative. Conflicts create challenges for the protagonist to overcome. They can come from anywhere but are designed to attack your protagonist in ways specific to her. By overcoming these conflicts, the audience cheers (or jeers) for your protagonist as she hurtles towards her goals.
Fundamentally, context is what circumstances surround your artistic expression. Context helps amp up a film’s message by being “relevant.” The example par excellence is 2017’s Get Out, which was a breakout hit for many reasons, but in large part due to the context in which the film was released, expressing fears of white supremacy after the election of Donald Trump.
Dialogue is simply characters talking within a story. Easier said than done. Because any screenwriter knows dialogue isn’t just about getting story information across. It’s getting information across in a way that reveals character, conflict, emotion, and moves the story forward.
The closing section added to a film which provides further comment. Hell or High Water’s epilogue offers a resolution to the exciting climax. The scene works well because of the lingering tension in the wake of the climax.
The bane of all screenwriters, exposition is a necessary evil. The exposition provides the audience with pertinent information they must know beforehand to understand the story. Exposition = explaining. The challenge for the screenwriter is getting exposition across in a way that shows no seams.
A kind or type of work, a genre is generally discussed as having a surface structure and a deep structure. For example, the Western genre has superficial similarities: cowboys, Indians, creaky weathervanes. The deep structure of a Western may concern ideologies and myths around Manifest Destiny and genocide. As a screenwriter, identifying tropes inside of a genre can help you better subvert audience expectations.
Related to theme, a motif is a recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. In film, motifs are often visual but they can also be found in dialogue, sound design, or the various elements of production design. Musical motifs are also known as leitmotifs.
A narrator is a character who relates parts or all of the story to an audience. She may be a character within the narrative. She may narrate with omniscience. Sometimes coming through in voice-over, although not exclusively. The narrator harkens back to Greek drama, where a chorus commented on the play’s action.
A plot is the plan of action of a play, novel, or screenplay. The protagonist generally drives the action of the story, leading to a sequence of events known as the plot. The plot guides the story along to a hopefully satisfying dramatic resolution.
Point of View
In literature, point of view is a particular attitude or way of considering a subject matter. In screenwriting, point of view is not only important for your protagonist and other characters, but for you, too! A common buzzword around Hollywood is “voice,” something that comes through only when a writer expresses their unique point of view on the page.
A prologue is an introduction. More common in prose, but useful in film, a prologue delivers pertinent information to the audience before the narrative begins. For example, in True Grit, we’re given a prologue from a mysterious narrator that establishes the context for the film’s action.
Simply put, the protagonist is often, but not always, the main character of a story. She can be thought of as the audience’s “in” to the story since we're typically aligned within her perspective.
The protagonist classically wants to achieve a certain thing. Therefore, she drives the action of the story to accomplish her goal. Along the way, she suffers trials and tribulations, usually at the hands of the antagonist. In the end, whether or not the protagonist achieves her goal, she’s typically forever changed.
Setting is often taken for granted, but it is one of the most important literary elements. A story’s setting is the time, place, state of being in which your story takes place. Setting can breed conflict. In movies such as Jojo Rabbit, the setting of WWII-era Germany informs its conflict, character, and theme.
Somewhat ambiguous, a story beat is an event, choice, or discovery that alters the protagonist’s journey in some way. Story beats can be momentous events on which your entire narrative is built, such as the Inciting Incident, or Midpoint. Or, they can be microscopic movements inside individual scenes.
A subplot is a secondary plotline inside a narrative. However, a subplot is anything but insignificant. They serve the protagonist in her goal just as much as the main plot. A subplot usually starts developing at the beginning of Act II. Conventionally, you’ll find romance in a subplot.
Perhaps one of the most ambiguous terms in screenwriting, the theme is what your story is about. Coming from the Greek thema, the theme is thought of as an argument or question. While young writers are tempted to put down “brotherhood” or “death” as their theme, it is important to highlight that a theme is an argument. Common movie themes include: “Is it better to die free or live as a slave?” “Life is beautiful, even in the face of suffering.” “If you love something, let it go.” Whether cliche or profound, your protagonist wrestles with this argument and comes to find the solution.
Tone and Mood
Tone and mood are closely-linked but distinguishable. The tone is the attitude the author has towards a subject vs. the mood, which is the atmosphere or emotional temperature felt by the reader. In a film, the tone is how you frame the story — a thriller, horror, comedy, etc. The mood created in setting, imagery, and “diction” helps the audience feel that story's specific tone.
Stretching as far back as Greece, Aristotle defines the tragic hero as a person who evokes pity and fear in the audience. She usually has a fatal flaw, which brings about misfortune through an error of judgment.
Literary Techniques List
Literary techniques: How to write
Now that we've covered the essential literary elements, let's move on to literary techniques. If literary elements are the framework of your script, literary techniques will help bring it to life. Let's begin with a quick definition and then we'll get into the list of techniques.
LITERARY DEVICES DEFINITION
What are literary techniques?
Literary techniques are constructions of language every writer uses to convey meaning. While literary elements express the what, devices are techniques in how a writer expresses those elements. Here are some basic literary devices examples.
Examples from our literary techniques list:
When a story’s characters and events have symbolic meaning, a piece of writing is allegorical. Allegories populate the landscape of fairy tales because a key aspect to allegory is its ability to instruct an audience, especially children.
Alliteration is the purposeful repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase. While alliteration may seem unnecessary in screenwriting terms, it’s a useful tool for pace and rhythm, two vitally important yet often overlooked aspects of screenwriting.
Indirect or casual references, otherwise known as allusions, are ubiquitous in film these days. This is especially true in family movies where filmmakers often subtly nod to the adults in the audience by throwing in a quick allusion kids probably won’t get.
We can thank Aristotle’s Poetics (a quick and valuable read for screenwriters) for this term, which comes from the Greek word for ‘to puke.’ Catharsis is what your film builds towards. It’s an emotional response you want from your audience through a relieving of emotional tensions. This occurs in your film when the protagonist overcomes the struggles you’ve created for her and comes to embody the theme. Both the character and the audience feel a sense of relief and “purge.”
A euphemism is the use of a less direct word or phrase for one considered offensive. This device is important for screenwriters because it’s yet another way to reveal character.
An extended metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that continues through a series of sentences, lines, or even an entire work. In film, an extended metaphor is superb for getting across the theme.
By the end of this definition, you’ll know what foreshadowing is. This literary technique example is when an author suggests or indicates something beforehand. A fantastic example of foreshadowing is The Wizard of Oz. From Dorothy’s family members who’ll eventually return as her allies on the Yellow Brick Road to the Miss Gulch-The Wicked Witch musical motif, the First Act of the film sets up just about everything happening in the Land of Oz.
I know, the “common wisdom” out there suggests you should avoid flashbacks like Covid-19, but hear me out first. A flashback is an interruption in the continuity of a story by telling or showing an earlier episode. Characters, like human beings, sometimes have sudden recollections of past events. For a filmmaker, this is an especially useful way of providing the audience with exposition that feels active. Look back at your favorite movies, and I’ll bet they have one or two.
Among literary techniques, a hyperbole is an exaggeration for effect, not meant to be taken literally. In screenwriting, hyperbole is almost integral to developing a film. At its core, movie stories and characters are larger-than-life, so hyperbole away.
The writer’s best friend, irony is simply an event or result that is the opposite of what is expected. Why it’s a writer’s best friend lies in the fact that a screenwriter’s central duty is not only to construct a story, but also not to bore audiences. Therefore, surprising actions really jolt life into your 110 pages. So, when you get stuck, ask yourself what the most ironic solution would be and try it out. The more unexpected, the better!
What is a screenplay, or a movie for that matter, without images? In the dictionary, imagery is not described as images, but rather mental images. A good question to ask of your script: what imagery am I putting in my reader’s mind?
Iambic pentameter is a way to structure dialogue in a very specific rhythm. An iamb is a metrical foot of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented one, as in a-bove. Pentameter indicates a line of five “feet” of iambs. Interestingly, the human heartbeat follows the iamb, each pair of beats resembling an iambic foot. Perhaps that’s why Shakespeare’s poetry resonates throughout the ages.
Juxtaposition comes from JUXTA, or beside and POSE, meaning to put side by side. This may sound a lot like a metaphor, but the implication in juxtaposition isn’t that the two things are being compared, only placed side by side. For example, if your character is falling in love and then Judgement Day begins, her Rom-Com turned survival story is not only ironic, but also an interesting juxtaposition.
Metaphor and Simile
Both are a comparison of two unlike things. Similes use “like” or “as.” Metaphors don’t. An example, this flan is like an opera in my mouth vs this flan is heaven. Neither operas nor heaven has anything to do with flan, but the comparison gets across just how good the flan really is.
A slight oddity, the mixed metaphor is a combination of incompatible metaphors, producing an absurd effect. If you want a mixed metaphor, look no further than the great Michael Scott.
A visual metaphor is a representation of a thing through a visual image that suggests an association or similarity. A visual metaphor is closely related to symbols, but are not the same because the metaphor is at the end of the day about comparing two unlike things. Great examples of visual metaphors come in the form of match cuts.
Bang. Zip. Plonk. Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates sounds. This device is a useful tool in deepening the sensory experience of your script for the reader.
Thunderous silence. Deep vapidity. A sharp-witted fool. Oxymorons are figures of speech in which contradictory ideas or terms combine. These can produce an effect much like a mixed metaphor, but they can also be quite poetic. As a paradox, an oxymoron can show complexity through its contrast.
A paradox is a statement that seems contradictory but may in fact be true. So much of screenwriting is coming up with contrasts. Especially when considering character, a paradox (or a few) can add complexity.
Parallelisms are parts of a sentence, text, or speech which are grammatically the same, or similar in construction. This repetition works wonders in rhetorical speeches such as Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech where the phrase “I have a dream…” is constructed throughout in parallels.
To personify, a screenwriter imbues a non-human thing with human qualities. Great examples of personification litter the landscape of Disney animation. Commonly, the hero gets help from some personified animal if the protagonist isn’t a personified animal herself!
Satire is a literary work where vices, follies, etc. are held up to ridicule and contempt with extensive use of sarcasm. A recent filmic example is Jojo Rabbit, whose light tone juxtaposes its dark subject matter. It satirizes current events through an allegorical story set in Nazi Germany. Satire requires a relevant context in which to live. For instance, would Jojo Rabbit be as poignant if they released it during Barack Obama’s presidency?
Visual media is rife with symbolic meaning, or objects given meaning by their representation of something abstract. In film language, symbols help a filmmaker get across more information with more economy.
Repetition is easy enough to define, something repeated for effect. However, the practical application is so much more rewarding than that. Repetition in a script can create mood, pace, tension. In dialogue, repetition can demonstrate a range of characteristics (just think of how many Coen Brothers’ characters repeat words and phrases). In comedy, the rule of threes necessitates repetition. So, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Explore more literary devices
This was just an overview of the various literary devices, broken down into either literary elements or literary techniques. Each of these devices is worthy of exploring further and we have detailed posts on each. Using the navigation below, you can explore many of these literary devices in greater detail. The only question is which one will you start with?