The Literary Techniques Toolkit

This is our essential toolkit for literary texts. Click on the links in this guide to be taken to detailed explanations and examples.

Literary Techniques for Analysing a Written Text

All about the Literary Techniques Toolkit

This Literary Techniques Toolkit is your essential resource for analysing written texts for English.

Students of all Year levels should explore this page for techniques to enhance their discussion of texts and strengthen their repetoire of written techniques.

We are constantly adding to this reference to ensure that it is as detailed and comprehensive as possible to help you achieve your best in English.

Literary Techniques

Literary Techniques are the techniques that composers use in their written texts to help convey or heighten meaning.

Rather than writing in plain language, composers give more emphasis to their ideas by utilising literary techniques to make them stand out.

If you are after more practical advice about how to succeed in Year 11 and 12 English, you should read our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English.

While the list below is a comprehensive list of techniques, Year 11 and 12 Matrix English Students have an extensive 30+ page Glossary of Techniques with detailed definitions and examples included at the end of each Matrix Theory Book.

Below is a list of the most common literary techniques used in texts (the techniques underlined are clickable links that take you to expanded definitions and step-by-step tutorials on analysis):

Go to technique:
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Literary Techniques Toolkit
Technique Explanation and Example
Allegory Story with a double meaning: one primary (on the surface) and one secondary. An allegory is an extended metaphor where objects, persons and actions in a narrative are equated with meanings outside of the narrative. The meaning of an allegory can have moral, social, religious, or political significance, often relatable to the context of the author.

A well-known example of an allegorical text is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. If you are analysing this text, you should read extracts as examples of allegories. For example, Napoleon is an allegorical counterpart of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Allusion A subtle or indirect reference to another thing, text, historical period, or religious belief.

For example, in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men,’ there is an allusion to a celestial rose described by Dante in his Paradiso. At one point in Eliot’s poem the reader encounters the phrase ‘multifoliate rose,’ but Eliot does not mention Dante or the Paradiso by name. This is an allusion. Had Eliot quoted Dante’s Paradiso, then we would refer to this as a quotation (see below).

Alliteration Alliteration means the repetition of sounds at the start of a word in two or more words in close proximity. Alliteration is a real technique used in poetry, and, in some traditions, it is a unifying feature of the verse. For the most part, you should be careful identifying alliteration. It’s seldom used in prose, and when it is used in poetry, it often does not have a specific meaning, being rather a convention of the genre. Use with caution!

The opening line of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ provides an example of alliteration: ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright,’ and this technique is used throughout the poem.

Analogy A comparison of two things for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

For example, In 2016 a Fox News article repeated a clichéd analogy in a headline: ‘Is America collapsing like the Roman Empire?’  The journalist is suggesting that we can understand aspects of the United States today by appreciating their similarity with aspects of the Roman Empire.

Anecdote An interesting or unique personal story or account. Composer’s use of anecdotes in both fiction and non-fiction texts to develop their ideas, demonstrate elements of a character’s personality, or add to their world.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor Dumbledore offers the following anecdote about his brother:

“My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practising inappropriate charms on a goat. It was all over the papers, but did Aberforth hide? No, he did not! He held his head high and went about his business as usual! Of course, I’m not entirely sure he can read, so that may not have been bravery….” (Goblet of Fire, P. 454)

This anecdote is a clue to eagle-eyed readers that Aberforth, Dumbledore’s brother, is the barman of the Hog’s Head Tavern and the reason why Dumbledore knows so much about what happens there.

Anthropomorphism The act of attributing human qualities to a non-human figure.

Napoleon the pig in Animal Farm has been anthropomorphised – he speaks and acts like a person – and this allows Orwell to use him in an allegorical way.

Apostrophe A rhetorical technique where a character speaks to an object, quality, or idea, or discusses somebody who is absent or dead.

In ‘The Sunne Rising” by John Donne, the speaker refers to,

“Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch …”

Here, the speaker takes a casual (colloquial) register and mocking tone to chide the sun for interrupting him and his lover in bed.

Archetype An archetype is a recurring idea, character, or object. Throughout literary history, there is a hero archetype, for example.

Homer’s Penelope from The Illiad and The Odyssey is considered the archetype of the faithful wife. While now understood as sexist and misogynistic, for many centuries Penelope was held up as an example of the perfect wife and used to restrict women’s behaviour and freedom.

Assonance Assonance occurs when similar vowel sounds appear close together. This repetition can occur anywhere in the word, not only at the start.

An example of assonance is ‘she sells sea shells by sea shore.’ Like alliteration, assonance can contribute particular meanings or effects, but is often simply an organising feature.

Again, use with caution!

Bricolage This is a term usually used to describe modern texts that are constructed from pre-existing material, often belonging to multiple sources and text types.

Alain De Botton’s Art of Travel can be broadly considered a bricolage text. This pluralistic method of representation, which reflects de Botton’s postmodernist context, suggests that there are multiple, equally valuable versions of reality – those found in art and those that we experience individually.

Cliché An over-used, common expression.

For example, the statements “brave as a lion” or “opposites attract” are clichés that define personal traits and relationships, respectively.

Consonance Repetition of consonants throughout a sentence or phrase.

For example, John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale” employs half-rhyming consonance in the first stanza. We can see this in the first two lines:

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,”

There is consonance in the “n” sounds in the first line and the “k” sounds in the second.

Contrast Contrast is the deliberate positioning of two or more objects/events/characters who have different characteristics. This is often done to accentuate their unique individual qualities.

Paradox, antithesis, oxymoron, juxtaposition, contrast in description are all techniques that employ contrast.

For example, IN Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt 1, there is a consistent contrasting occurring between Henry, the title character, who is old and stern; his young son, Hal, or is wild, unpredictable and intelligent; and, the quick-tempered and stubborn Hotspur, Hal’s rival for the throne. Shakespeare contrasts these figures to discuss the ideal qualities of a king.

Dialect A dialect is a form of English spoken by a particular group, such as a group of people from a particular region. If your text is written in a certain dialect, you could explain why the author has chosen to adopt this language. If a character speaks in a particular dialect, that is part of their characterisation and suggests where they come from and their socio-economic status.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell includes dialogue from a woman speaking in cockney English, a dialect historically associated with East London and the working class. From this, the reader can infer that the Proles in Orwell’s novel are descendants of Cockney speakers, an inference even the novel’s protagonist would not be able to make.

Dialogue Dialogue is one of the major techniques you will refer to, and it is often good to refer to it in connection with other techniques. For example, you may refer to the diction in a speaker’s dialogue, which will suggest their level of education. Dialogue can be used to infer a speaker’s intentions, as well as their personality (are they assertive or restrained when speaking to other people?).
Didactic Any text that instructs the reader or is obviously delivering a moral message.

For example, Jane Austen’s Emma is considered by some to be a didactic text because it presents examples of how a young woman should and shouldn’t behave.

Deixis This refers to the use of words or expressions that are considered deictic – meaning they require on the context of other words to develop clear meaning. the most common examples of this are “me” or “here.” These words require us to know, or at least assume we know, contextual information to develop meaning.

For example, in the sentence, “I talk about writing from here.” You, the reader, will assume that “I” am a teacher at Matrix and that by “here” I mean that I am writing from or at one of the Matrix campuses.

Composers can manipulate and disorientate their readers by disrupting deixis in their texts.

TS Eliot utilises deixis extensively in ‘The Hollow Men.’ He refers to an unknown “I” and “we” and numerous places connoted as “here” to disorientate the reader.

Disjunct A disjunct is a type of adverb that modifies a whole sentence. They function in a similar way to introductory clauses and introduce examples or observations by commenting on them.

Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with a disjunct: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The initial clause about acknowledged truth is modified by “universally” to make it hyperbolic and satirise the regency conventions of marriage.

Disjunction Related to Disjuncts, see above, a disjunction is a conjunction (e.g. usually ‘either’ or ‘either….or’, but also ‘but’ or ‘yet’) that dramatically interrupts the rhythm of the sentence to introduce a contrast.

For example, in the Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald Nick Carraway observes that: “Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.” In this quotation, ‘but’ is used to dramatically dismiss the religious allusion in the previous clause.

Ellipsis Ellipsis is sometimes used to truncate quotations that are long by using three consecutive periods (…).

In literature,  Ellipsis can be employed in a variety of different ways. Most commonly, a dramatic pause is signalled by (…) creates tension or suggests words can’t be spoken. For example, if a character were to suggest doubt about what another has just said they might respond with, “…Sure…,” where the pauses convey the speaker’s scepticism. In To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf employs ellipsis to convey the unease at the Ramsay dinner table: “Why don’t some of you take up botany?.. With all those legs and arms why doesn’t one of you . . .?” So they would talk as usual, laughing, among the children. ”

In addition, Woolf uses a different form of ellipsis in the second chapter of the novel, “Time Passes”. Here, she uses parenthetical insertions [in square parenthesis] to denote a passing of time – 10 years – and significant events and interrupt the narrative in each section. For example, in section 6 Woolf represents both Prue Ramsay’s marriage and subsequent death in two parenthetical remarks that bookend a description of summer: “[Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!]” and then, “[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]”

Emotive language Words that stir the readers’ emotions.

For example, Prince Hamlet’s self-indulgent rant in Scene to of Shakespeare’s Hamlet uses emotive language to describe how depressed he is:

“O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”

Enjambment A poetic technique, when a sentence or phrase runs over more than one line (or stanza). Enjambment is an interesting technique. Visually, this gives the sense that the poem flows between lines. However, in utterance, enjambment leads to a pause between lines when spoken aloud. This effect is known as a Rejet. Composers often use this to disrupt the flow or a poem or contrast distinct images or ideas.

In The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot, the persona states:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;”

This use of enjambment conveys a romantic image of a night sky only to contrast it with the macabre image of an unconscious patient about to undergo surgery. This is jarring contrast further emphasized by the rejet.

Euphemism Mild expression used to replace a harsh one.

For example, an embarrassed student might tell their parent that they had a “working lunch” rather than admitting to having been given a lunchtime detention for poor behaviour.

Exclamation Exclamatory sentence ending in “!” to convey high emotion.

In Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ the persona’s insecurities about their appearance are conveyed with the exclamation: “(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)”

Figurative language & sound devices Metaphor, metonymy, hyperbole, simile, personification, assonance, alliteration, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc. These devices have a powerful impact as they work on our senses to strengthen the subject matter of the text.

You will find specific examples of the above techniques throughout this toolkit.

Form Purpose and features of a text influence its construction and will suggest its structure.
Foreshadowing Foreshadowing is simply an allusion to something that will happen later in the narrative.
Flashback A flashback is a scene appearing in a text that occurs earlier than the main narrative. Flashbacks can have many effects.

A significant flashback occurs in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in Part Two, Chapter 7. In this scene, a traumatic dream causes a flashback in the protagonist Winston Smith. The flashback concerns painful memories involving his family. The spontaneous nature of this flashback suggests that Winston has gone to lengths to repress the traumatic memory involving his family. It is also a narrative device. By revealing new details about Winston’s past, Orwell keeps the reader engaged and interested.

Fragmented/truncated sentences Incomplete sentences used to increase tension or urgency, or reflect the way people speak to each other. Sentence fragments are sentences that cannot stand on their own. A single noun is a sentence fragment, as is a subordinate clause, such as ‘That he knew better.’ If you’re trying to identify a sentence fragment, just ask yourself whether it could stand on its own, or whether it needs some other element to complete it. In the previous example, we could add ‘I said that he knew better.’ Sentence fragments can convey many things.

T.S. Eliot used fragmentation in tandem with symbolism to explore non-mimetic forms of expression, for example in ‘The Hollow Men’. Fragmentation will usually convey notions of destruction and decay, so when interpreting instances of it think about what sorts of themes your author is exploring.

Gaps & silences What is not said; whose voice isn’t heard and whose voice dominates?
Humour Incongruity, parody, satire, exaggeration, irony, puns etc. used to lighten the overall tone.
Hyperbole A literary term for exaggeration. This is a simple technique, so refer to it sparingly.

In Emma, Jane Austen uses hyperbole in Elton’s comment that, “I have no hesitation in saying — at least if my friend feels at all as I do — I have not the smallest doubt that, could he see his little effusion honoured as I see it, (looking at the book again, and replacing it on the table), he would consider it as the proudest moment of his life,” to convey the growing misunderstanding between Elton, Harriet, and Emma about who fanices whom.

Icons A single person, object or image that represents complex ideas and feelings.
Imagery Vivid pictures created by words. Reader visualises character/setting clearly.

Imagery is language that evokes one of the five senses, and you must always refer to the specific kind. In other words, never use simply ‘imagery,’ but always ‘olfactory imagery,’ ‘tactile imagery,’ ‘visual imagery,’ ‘auditory imagery’ or ‘gustatory imagery.’ Occasionally, students, noticing that ‘visual imagery’ is something of a tautology, omit the adjective ‘visual’ when referring to this category. They shouldn’t, though. Always be specific.

Imperative Voice or Mood Forceful use of the verb at the start of sentence or phrase. The imperative mood is one of the grammatical moods in English. Other moods include the indicative (as in ‘That cat is suspicious’) and the interrogative (‘Is that cat suspicious?’). The imperative mood is useful to refer to since it’s the mood for commands (e.g. ‘Go to bed!’ ‘Shut the door!). If a speaker uses the imperative, then he or she may be an authority figure.

Before the third section of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia are caught. A man named Mr. Charrington, whom Winston had believed was a gentle shopkeeper, turns out to be a member of the secret police. Mr. Charrington’s authority in the secret police is indicated by his use of the imperative to command another officer when he first enters the room.

Intertextuality When a text makes a reference to other texts. This reference can be an explicit quotation or implied and inferred by allusion.

For example, much of the meaning in Margaret Edson’s play W;t is developed through constant intertextual references to the poetry of John Donne.

In media res This means ‘in the middle of things,’ and it refers to narratives that begin in the middle of action, as opposed to slowly building up to this action. This is an ancient technique, and it has a number of meanings. Most obviously, it’s a hook to draw the reader in. It can also be used to disorientate.

Homer’s Iliad, the first text of western literature, begins in media res. The Tempest begins in media res, many years after Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded on Caliban’s Isle after Antonio’s treachery.

Irony Gap between what is said and what is meant.

For example In Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway’s assertion that, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores,” is ironic because he is not, in fact, reserving judgement on those he calls “veteran bores.”

Juxtaposition Layering images/scenes to have a dramatic impact.

In Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous Prince holds up images of his father and uncle to illustrate Hamlet’s feelings about their differences through juxtaposition:

“Look here upon this picture and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow?
…Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear
Blasting his wholesome brother.”(3.4.54-67

Level of language (also known as Register) This refers to the level of sophistication of a piece of language. We expect a high register in formal contexts, while we might expect lower registers in more familiar contexts. High register is signalled by conceptual, ‘bigger’ vocabulary and complex, lengthy syntax. The common registers we refer to are: slang, colloquial, informal or formal. Consider the following greetings:

  • Slang: Hey, how youse goin, cuz’?
  • Colloquial: G’day, how ya going, mate?
  • Informal: How’re you doing?
  • Formal: Hello, how are you today, Ms?
Linear narrative and non-linear narrative Sequential – in chronological order.

In a linear narrative, authors simply tell the reader what happens in their story chronologically.

The linear narrative of a bank robbery might begin with the bandits approaching in their car and move through all the noteworthy incidents until their inevitable capture and arrest.

While it begins in media res, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a linear narrative.

The non-linear version might begin in media res during a shootout, and move backwards to explain how the robbers arrived in their predicament, before moving forward to the resolution of the story. Margaret Atwood’s Hagseed is a non-linear text.

Metaphor Comparison of 2 objects where one becomes another – adds further layers of meaning about the object being compared.

Metaphor is one of the most fundamental figures of speech, and indeed aspects of language itself. Literary texts are typically dense in metaphor. In the cases of writers such as Shakespeare, it is impossible to understand the text without constantly unpacking metaphors.

In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt 1, Sir John Fallstaff puns on the homonyms “son” and “sun” to develop the metaphor of Prince Hal as the Sun, the ruler of the heavens:

“If then thou be son to me, here lies the point: why, being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? . . . Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses?” (2.4.359-67)

Metonymy A word or name that is used in the place of something it is closely related to.

The Kremlin, for example, has long been conventionally used as a metonym for the Russian government.

A student might say, “I’m going to Matrix.” But they really mean that they are going to the Matrix Hurstville Campus. In this usage, the proper noun, “Matrix,”  is metonymic with all of the Matrix campuses.

Modality The certainty which a speaker employs in their language.

  • High modality = Certainty. “It will hail today.”
  • Medial modality (also called Semi-modality) = doubt that something that should occur will occur. “It ought to rain today.”
  • Low modality = Uncertainty. “It may rain today.”
Non-linear Non-sequential narrative, events do not occur in chronological order. See, Linear narrative above.
Onomatopoeia A word that echoes the sound it represents. The reader hears what is happening.

Sometimes this can be overt, as in “the drip-dripping and plip-plopping of a tap.”

Other times, this can be more subtle, such as in “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eve” from John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale.” This example is specifically known as mechanical onomatopoeia because the sound of the word imitates the same sound being referenced – “murmurous” sounds like the low buzz of a swarm of flies.

Parody Conscious imitation for a satiric purpose. Parody is a style that mocks the serious manner and characteristic features of literary works through imitation. Parodies work by exaggerating certain traits common to the work.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston reads a heretical political tract called ‘The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism’. This tract is clearly a parody of political writing and in particular the theoretical writing of communist revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin. Orwell’s aim is to subvert the self-important, vague, and even contradictory style found in these texts.

Pathetic Fallacy Pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human emotions to nonhuman objects, particularly objects of nature. Note that the term should just apply to the ascription of emotions, not thoughts or other properties. The term was invented by the English writer John Ruskin, and is widely used in literature.

In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip’s misery is reflected in the weather which surrounds him:

“It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind. So furious had been the gusts, that high buildings in town had had the lead stripped off their roofs; and in the country, trees had been torn up, and sails of windmills carried away; and gloomy accounts had come in from the coast, of shipwreck and death. Violent blasts of rain had accompanied these rages of wind, and the day just closed as I sat down to read had been the worst of all.”

Person First, second or third person.

  • First person refers to the speaker himself or a group that includes the speaker (i.e., I, me, we and us). T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ is a first person narrative.
  • Second person refers to the speaker’s audience (i.e., you). Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is a narrative in the second person.
  • Third person refers to everybody else (e.g., he, him, she, her, it, they, them), including all other nouns (e.g. James, Swedish, fish, mice).  Jane Austen’s Emma is written in the third person.

Some texts might shift between different perspectives throughout. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ is relatively unusual in that it switches between first, second, and third person throughout.

Periphrasis Circumlocution. That is, the use of a longer expression for an idea where a shorter one might suffice. Periphrasis is widespread, and often quite significant as a technique. Writers sometimes use periphrasis to refer to an object or person in a more creative way, or to avoid repetition.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius often speaks periphrastically, from which the reader can infer much about his character.

Personification Human characteristics given to a non-human object. Inanimate objects take on a life.

Personification is usually well-understood by students. It is a specific kind of metaphor in which human attributes are applied to nonhumans. Note that unlike pathetic fallacy, personification involves the application of any form of an attribute, not just emotions. Like other forms of metaphor, it is widely used in literature, as well as daily life.

In John Donne’s ‘Death, be Not Proud,’ Donne personifies Death.

Perspective A particular way of looking at individuals, issues, events, texts, facts etc.
Plosive consonants Harsh sounds in a sentence or phrase. While this can be used to draw attention to specific things in the sentence, more often than not it is purely an aesthetic device. Use this technique with caution.
Pun  A pun is formed by exploiting two different meanings of the same sound.

Richard’s famous soliloquy at the start of Mod A text Richard III includes a pun. Speaking at the end of a battle, Richard declares that ‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.’ The sun of York brings this summer, and ‘sun’ is, of course, a pun on ‘son’ as Edward is the first son of the York family – and thus the rightful heir to the throne (according to the Yorks).

Reference Reference is a very broad term. It simply means mentioning, usually clearly and unambiguously, something else, whether it is a historical event, another author, another text, or even a set of ideas.

‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet’ is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’

Register See Level of Language
Rejet An effect of enjambment. The rejet is the disjunction between the appearance of a poem flowing between lines on a page and the pause that speakers unconsciously insert between lines when first reading a poem aloud. See enjambment.
Repetition The repetition of words or syntax (order of words) for emphasis or persuasion. Repetition does matter, but it is an extremely easy technique to identify, so you should refer to it sparingly, and always analyse it further. Never point out that repetition of a term emphasises the term. Instead, think critically about what the repetition actually suggests.

A famous example of repetition comes at the end of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Declaring that this repetition ‘highlights’ or ‘emphasises’ Eliot’s idea tells the reader nothing. To begin with, what is the idea? Repetition here has to be interpreted in the context of the central themes of the poem. You could begin by thinking about how this repetition relates to the cycles of revolution alluded to elsewhere in the poem, or to the scientific theories, including the theory of entropy, Eliot appears to explore.

Representation How a composer conveys meaning through textual features. This is a key concept in works of art. You can read more about processes of representation here.
Rhyme Rhyme is one of the most familiar techniques, and there is little to be said about it. Rhyme is often more of an organising feature and used to please aesthetically rather than to create meaning. Be careful in attributing meaning to rhyme in verse. It usually doesn’t mean anything.
Satire Composition which ridicules in a scornful & humorous way. In satire, common human behaviours, beliefs, and vices are held up to shame and scorn. Satire is often considered a high form of comedy. Satire is often employed for biting social or political commentary. Queen Elizabeth I banned satire in  1599 to curb criticism of her reign in print.

Satire is often a part of Shakespeare’s plays, such as in the historical play, Henry IV, Part 1. Many critics argue that the character of Falstaff is a satirical representation of Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard (the pre-cursor to protestants) who was executed for treason and heresy. Falstaff’s character was originally called, John Oldcastle, but complaints by a prominent Lord, William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, forced Shakespeare to rename him.

Setting Location of a story – internal and external.
Sibilance The repetition of soft consonant sounds, such as “s” sounds. This is often used to create a sinister or sensuous tone or mood.

For example, in John Keats’ ‘Hyperion’ he develops a sinister mood through sibilance in the description, “Instead of thrones, hard flint they sat upon Couches of rugged stone, and slaty ridge Stubborn’d with iron.”

Simile Similes function in the same way as metaphors, but rather than identifying the tenor and vehicle, tend to make the comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as,’ while metaphors tend to use a form of the verb ‘to be.’

King Hamlet uses simile to emphasise his sufferings in hell, declaring to Hamlet that the details of his tortures would:
“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres;
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.”

Symbolism When an object represents one or more (often complex) ideas. Symbolism is a very important technique, and in some texts, it is the central technique. A symbol is any visual object that by convention signifies something else, whether it be another object, an idea, a process, or an emotion. The letters of the alphabet are therefore symbols, in that they represent speech sounds. Numbers are symbols.

Although all language is symbolic, literary symbolism usually refers more specifically to the use of objects to represent ideas and emotions. The Eliot poems set for study in Module B are all heavily symbolic. Consider the following example, from the opening of Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’:
’We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.”

A first step in interpreting the symbolism is to think about the ideas the objects conventionally imply. ‘Hollow’ and ‘dried’ and ‘dry’ all evoke aridity. This suggests the poem might be concerned with decline and decay. Eliot was influenced by Frazer’s Golden Bough, which he cited in the notes to his most famous poem, The Waste Land. (A reader wanting to push her analysis further would look into how the symbols evoking aridity reflect Frazer’s theory that a number of important religions, including Christianity, had their origins in prehistoric fertility cults.)

Syntax – sentence structure Syntax is one of the main components of language. It refers to the organisation of words and phrases in a sentence, as well as their structural relations.

For example, in the English sentence ‘John thanked the president,’ we know that John is the one doing the thanking since English syntax usually follows a subject, verb, object order. ‘John’ is the subject, ‘thanked’ is the verb, and ‘the president’ is the object.

If I swap the roles, the nouns of English syntax change the meaning of the sentence: ‘The president thanked John.’Therefore, when referring to syntax as a technique, you need to provide further analysis. Some strategies you can take to assess this are:

  • Complex syntax is a marker of a high education. This could imply a narrative voice that is well-educated.
  • Simple syntax might be a marker of poor education, as might fragmented or incomplete syntax.
Tense Present, past, future (events are predicted). This is an important and commonplace feature of grammar that students should be familiar. Tense is an important aspect of narrative form and can tell the audience when things are occurring.

T.S Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ is written in the present continuous tense in sections I and II but then is written in the past tense in sections III and IV.

Textual Integrity The organic unit of a text. Its use of universal themes. This is an essential part of Year 11 and Year 12 Module B. You can find a detailed explanation of Textual Integrity in this post.
Theme Message or moral of a story – makes us ponder bigger issues in life.
Tone The way composer or character feels – conveyed by word choice. Tone is a very common technique and useful to discuss in your responses. There are many different ways to describe the tone of a text. Here is an extensive list of tones employed in texts.
Word choice or Diction Emotive, forceful, factual, descriptive, blunt, graphic, disturbing, informative etc. E.g. use of forceful verbs ‘insist’ & ‘demand’ can be very persuasive. Diction is a useful technique to discuss, especially if you are using it to convey information about the characterisation of that person.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago’s bestial and demonic diction is adopted by Othello as the play progresses, symbolising the loss of Othello’s nobility.

Zoomorphism The attribution of animal properties to non-animals. This technique is more common than many people expect.

It is used, for example, in Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

The fog appears to be compared with a dog, which is suggested by the actions of the fog and the diction throughout, such as the word ‘muzzle.’ This somewhat uncanny image is difficult to interpret, but at the least relates to the disorientation caused to the speaker by the urban environment.

What next?

If you want to take your analysis further and expand your awareness of literary techniques, read the blog post:  Understanding Literary Techniques: How to Analyse Poetry and Prose to learn how to analyse literary techniques in poetry and prose with reference to all the major techniques.

When you write an essay identifying the techniques used by a composer, you need to explain how that technique is creating meaning in the text. This process is called literary analysis and it is an important skill that Matrix English students are taught in the Matrix English courses.

Great marks in essays and writing tasks are earned through the detailed analysis of your texts and not merely listing examples and techniques. You can learn more about how to analyse texts in our Beginner’s Guide to Acing HSC English.


Need more help with textual analysis?

Use the Matrix Textual Analysis Planner to Analyse your English texts and produce insightful notes for your next assessment task. Download your FREE Textual Analysis Planner.

Year 11 English Textual Analysis Planner


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