I'm an aspiring screenwriter, but have never been much of a printwriter nor do I aim to be.

I appreciate the value of literary devices in screenwriting but am not trained to identify them while watching TV.

I want to use the right literary devices to enhance the story my video script is trying to tell, but I'm not sure which are the ones I should make more use of than others.

Are some literary devices significantly more common than others in screenwriting? Or are there no such best practices that have been established over the years?

(to take an example, I know a soliloquoy is one literary device but if it were to be used on a sitcom it would make the character look demented so might be ill-advised for television)


There are many literary devices used in movies and television. Here are a few:

Subtext, or the meaning behind the words, is vital to screenwriting. If someone tells you your dialogue is "on the nose" then it's time to bring on the subtext. People rarely say exactly what they feel so it comes across as jarring in movies if a character does. It can be difficult to get right but, when you do, it's extremely engaging for the audience.

Good examples here: http://www.quora.com/What-are-some-great-examples-of-subtext-in-screenplays

Themes/Symbols Recurring idea which may be represented through a symbol. As an example, in one scene in the King's Speech, King George idly puts together his therapist's son's model airplane as he talks about his childhood. The airplane represents the childhood he never had and, in this scene, he finally opens up about his past. In another scene his brother is shown landing an airplane, demonstrating his sense of freedom, whereas "Bertie" couldn't even build models.

Dramatic irony is very important in screenwriting. This is where the audience is aware of something important but the characters remain unaware. Or sometimes one or more characters may be in the know. Without this device, thrillers wouldn't be very thrilling.

Good description here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DramaticIrony

You see Pathetic Fallacy a lot. That's when the mood (of the character, of the scene) is reflected in the weather. Lovers at sunset, killers in the rain etc.

Deus ex machina is where the problem is solved out of nowhere. For example, towards the end of the original Jurassic Park the remaining heroes are surrounded by velociraptors (efficient killing machines) in the main hall, and we're thinking: how are they going to get out of this one? Then (cue the John Williams score!) out of nowhere comes T-Rex to save the day! She attacks and kills both velociraptors, allowing the heroes to escape. I don't know if you want to use deus ex machina, because it could be considered lazy writing, but I think it works here because it's the ally is unexpected. Suddenly we're rooting for T-Rex? What?

Foreshadowing is very common. It's when a future event is suggested before it happens. Also in Jurassic Park, several characters describe how the velociraptors attack (not from the front, from the side) so later, when they're confronted with one dead ahead we might remember there will also be one coming from the side. If we do remember, that's also pathetic fallacy.

  • Thanks for the examples. Is this list the result of your experience or is there a good list somewhere that mentions these specifically? Jun 25 '15 at 20:36
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    These are examples from my experience, though I did go through a list (english.learnhub.com/lesson/4025-literary-devices) to remind myself of common ones.
    – Deejay
    Jun 25 '15 at 20:58

One example of a good literary device for television is an aside. This is when a character speaks to the audience, telling them a secret that the characters on stage (or in the movie) are not supposed to know. An example of a movie using asides is Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Another would be a monologue. Monologues can be delivered with great effect on television or onstage because the viewers can see the emotions of the speaker, rather than just reading and assuming. An example of a good monologue is the one delivered by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

  • Thanks for the practical examples (even though I personally find shows that use those particular devices take me out of the moment). May 29 '15 at 20:58
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    @Sridhar-Sarnobat Asides can tend to disrupt the flow of the show, but monologues can be used to great effect in dramatic moments.
    – jm13fire
    May 29 '15 at 20:59
  • Note to self (or anyone else who cares): an example of an aside would be when Zak Morris speaks to the audience in the middle of a Saved by the Bell episode. So don't disqualify it too easily ;) Jun 28 '15 at 7:35

I am not sure you really want literary devices. You want moving image specific devices. These vary between genres. For example, a love story is more likely to use soft focus shots than a sit com.

I would recommend finding an introduction to film/television analysis. It will tell you what the techniques are and when to use them. Then you can see how other writers have used them and use them in your own writing.

  • Thanks for the info. Can you recommend any books or articles that go into this specific aspect? I have "Story" by Robert McKee but that doesn't really mention devices. This one is the first thing that Google presents me with: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NarrativeDevices Jun 25 '15 at 20:34
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    I can't really recommend a book. I found the information in text books and articles when teaching media studies (which I no longer do). Typing 'camera techniques in film' and 'cinematography' into Google yielded some interesting results. Jun 25 '15 at 20:59

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