7 Obscure Literary Devices


Metaphor. Foreshadowing. Boy wizards. Most of us know the common elements of fiction. But there’s an endless supply of devices authors use to augment their work, including some that demand such a high degree of difficulty that they’re rarely employed. We’re betting you haven’t seen these techniques in recent bestsellers—though they might’ve been more interesting if you had.

1. The Intrusive Narrator

Otherwise known as an omniscient narrator, this third-person storyteller is more than just a mere chronicler of events: he (or she) also editorializes, providing subjective insight into characters and situations. In Jane Eyre—ostensibly a first-person work—Charlotte Bronte interjects by describing details of a room or foreshadowing events and addressing the reader directly. In The Princess Bride, author William Goldman provides two intrusive narrators: fictional storyteller S. Morgenstern and Goldman himself, who claims to have abridged Morgenstern’s manuscript after it was read to him as a child. “This is my favorite book in all the world,” Goldman explains, “though I have never read it.” 

2. Amanuensis

A common prerequisite of writing is being literate, though that didn’t slow down some of the authors from earlier civilizations who had something to say. They employed an amanuensis, essentially someone to take dictation for them, while they recited their work verbally. Many contemporary writers reject this practice—which can now be done via software—because they prefer to see the words appear on the computer screen or paper. But Henry James and Dostoevsky employed women who actually acted as sounding boards, reacting to the story being told. It could change a narrative’s direction: Dostoevsky even called his typist (and later wife) a “collaborator.” 

3. Charactonyms

A common presence in cartoons, a charactonym is a name that’s overtly reflective of a character’s personality. Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash are charactonyms with training wheels; few authors are that on-the-nose. Charles Dickens was renowned for proper names that acted as descriptors: His Mr. Gradgrind was a tyrannical headmaster; Mr. Jaggers, a tenacious lawyer. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally well-stocked, though more subversive: Draco Malfoy resonates as a likely antagonist, Draco is Latin for dragon, and Rowling has indicated that Malfoy is French for "Bad Faith." 

4. Reverse Chronology

Starting with an ending and ending with the beginning, novels told in reverse trade surprise for unspooling exposition. Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow places its protagonist—a German Holocaust physician—as an elderly man postwar at the start and charts his journey until the book ends with his birth. Rebecca Makkai’s Hundred Year House begins in 1990 and wraps up in 1900, guiding the reader through a reversed series of occupant drama in a Chicago Mansion.   

5. The Second Person

Sometimes seen in short stories, the second person narrative is a tricky one to pull off in book-length form. While ostensibly immersive—the author directly addresses the reader, making him/her an active participant in the story—it’s also oddly displacing. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City is one of the few major novels of the past decades to attempt it, implicating the reader in a lurid tale of debauchery. The most popular example of the technique is the Choose Your Own Adventure series, which allowed young readers to make decisions inside the story.  

6. Poetic Novels

While some readers might describe a novel as poetry, it’s usually not meant literally. Poetic novels are told through verse in their entirety. Don Juan is one example, with the titular womanizer’s exploits related through more than 16,000 lines of verse. Karen Hesse’s 1997 novel, Out of the Dust, which describes a Dust Bowl family’s struggles in 1935 Oklahoma, is comprised entirely of free-verse poems.

7. The Book-Length Sentence

Of all literary devices, the level of difficulty in an entire book comprised of one sentence is substantial—that’s probably why only a handful of writers have ever tried it. The most notable is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a 1964 novel about a loquacious shoemaker that the New York Times described as “an unbroken highway of text.” Considering Hrabal’s objective, that should be considered a compliment.

Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]


More from mental floss studios