For the record, Apple, I never, ever, EVER wish to include a colorful, grinning unicorn-face emoji blowing a kiss in any of my communications. Yet it pops up regularly, a modern-day stowaway l have to toss overboard before my text messages leave the dock.
My twelve-year-old and her friend made up a game in which you have to guess what emoji the other player is thinking of. It was quite amusing. My suggested version of it—guessing what literary device I was thinking of—was not.
But the thing is, if you put literary devices to creative use, you don’t need emojis or anything else to communicate a full range of thoughts and feelings. I’m not saying we need to outlaw emojis, just that we don’t want to forget about more traditional literary tools. And if you look carefully enough, you just might find we haven’t.
There isn’t a grade-level test for literary devices. You can graduate high school unlicensed to use them. Our ancestors knew how to conjure bright fire from two sticks in the woods or evoke a flash of insight with an apt metaphor, but common thought says we’ve long since lost such literary skills.
Or have we?
Here are some sparking examples plucked from contemporary communications.
In The Umbrella Academy, the iconic umbrella logo is a metaphor intended to represent the magical orphans’ role: protecting the world from evil. The series has plenty of literary devices, including the ultimate irony that the apocalypse happens only because Reginald tries to stop it. Metaphor and irony are alive and well, it seems, in contemporary media such as television drama and comic books (this popular show is based on a comic book).
Educational publisher Scholastic has an interesting analysis of graphic novels that includes this observation: “Graphic novels have all of the same literary themes used in classic literature.” (A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens.) Quests, reluctant heroes, unknown destinies—All the elements of epic adventure are there in this new and yet perhaps not so very modern form.
And graphic novels make frequent use of classic literary devices such as metaphors, points of view, foreshadowing and flashbacks. That’s why many school librarians and teachers think they’re a great entry into literacy. And it explains why great works of literature adapt well to graphic format (1984, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Odyssey have all been adapted).
The book and screen versions of A Series of Unfortunate Events entertain us with lots of literary devices. Simple techniques like alliteration (“Bad Beginnings”) abound, but it’s all the literary illusions that really entertain. And they’re often referenced to unfortunates from literary works past. Character names reach back to the French poet Charles Baudelaire (whose life was also a series of unfortunate events), Dante’s Divine Comedy, and lots more. Entertain yourself by trying to spot them. (Some are easy: The coughing banker, Mr. Poe, has sons named Edgar and, you guessed it, Allen!)
And why does the family banker cough? It’s a hint that he’s not up to the task of caring for the orphaned children since he can’t even take care of himself.
The Harry Potter stories use a standard symbol of evil deriving from Old Testament tales of Satan: the snake. The Hogwarts house most associated with bad characters is Slytherin, and in case the use of the root ‘slither’ (onomatopoeic for snake) isn’t an obvious enough literary device, an actual snake appears on the Slytherin crest too (an example of literary symbolism).
To my ear, the Harry Potter stories make excessive use of similes, often describing things as ‘like…’ but anyway this literary device is clearly alive and well in contemporary young adult fiction.
If you love Wuthering Heights’ use of an extensive flashback, consider how effectively the manga Naruto uses flashbacks too. Often we find ourselves sympathizing with characters we initially thought evil as a flashback explains their origins and motives.
The anime Attack on Titan pits humans against gigantic people-eating titans. It’s clear who the good and bad guys are—or is it? When the hero Erin discovers his true form, he’s horrified by the irony that he IS a titan. And yet this gives him the power to fight more strongly for humans. Irony is certainly one of the greats whenever we draw up lists of literary devices, and it’s fun to see it employed in modern stories—or in song lyrics like Alanis Morissette’s Isn’t it Ironic.
Speaking of lyrics, Taylor Swift drops frequent examples of clever figurative language (break me like a promise). I have kids so I’ve heard many a popular song—sometimes over and over—and I love it when the lyrics are well written and rich with literary devices!
Hyperbole is the greatest literary device of all time—well, maybe I’m exaggerating but that’s what hyperbole does. And like other classic devices, this one is alive and well in modern media. Although not brand new, the song As Small as a Mouse by Lenka is a wonderful example of clever lyrics and features extensive use of metaphor (As deep as a bite, as dark as the night) and hyperbole (I want to be everything at once!).
Rap lyrics are known for their braggadocio but they also feature plenty of literary devices, most notably the use of flashbacks to explain how the rapper got into his or her current dilemma or to contrast humble origins with recent success. For instance, Kodak Black’s current chart-topper, Gremlin, uses flashbacks to excellent effect: “We was just broke with no motion, Sleepin’ on sofas and creeping’ in houses like roaches.” I think Emily Brontë would approve.
In contemporary performance poetry, the 2021 youth poet laureate of the United States, Alexandra Huynh, writes about disasters at home in LA and back in Viet Nam using irony in her line, “They waited for news they did not want to hear” to capture that horrified attentiveness to the news that comes over us during unfolding tragedies.
The myth is that in the literary canon, the works are unmatchable and bejeweled by high literary devices. Not true at all! Curricula just haven’t caught up with contemporary culture, which is overflowing with brilliant writing albeit not always in the form of War and Peace length novels. Teachers who rely on their Norton anthologies of literature are forcing students to board ships as they pass in the night while ignoring the living works that float our boats today.
I admit I’m not a big rap fan, nor do I watch television series at length, but I am a fan of great writing in every medium, which often leads me to google song lyrics or ask to borrow a graphic novel from my teenagers.
Recall that today’s stuffy literary canon is made up of yesteryear’s best sellers!
And nobody has a monopoly on literary devices. Good writing reinvents itself with every generation and should be honored for what it is, not denigrated just because it isn’t in our literature anthologies. Yet.