by Annalee NewitzFor thousands of years, humans have been creating stories — and for just as long, they’ve been coming up with words to describe all the tools and techniques that make a story work. But these “literary devices” don’t just show up in classical drama and Anglo-Saxon poetry. They also show up in today’s science fiction. Here are ten literary devices you’ve already seen in movies or on TV, perhaps without even realizing it.
Apostrophe (pronounced just like the punctuation mark) describes the act of addressing a person or thing that is absent. It is far more common than you realize.
Where it appears in science fiction: When Kirk is stymied by his great nemesis Khan, he shakes his fist at the air and screams, “KHAAAAAN!” Because he’s addressing Khan after the evil mastermind has cut communications and abandoned him, Kirk is engaging in apostrophe.
Synechoche is when you describe something by using a part of it to stand in for the whole, or by using one thing to stand in for a whole class of things.
Where it appears in science fiction: In the TV series Person of Interest, there is a device called the Machine, which is a super-surveillance machine owned by the NSA. In the show, the Machine is used to represent the entire surveillance state. In other words, one thing (the Machine) is used to represent a class of things (all the machines the NSA uses to spy on us).
In literature or other writing, an aporia is a moment when meaning breaks down and becomes fragmented, contradictory, or murky. Often, it is used poetically to suggest a breakdown in our ability to understand certain aspects of life or reality.
Where it appears in science fiction: All those inexplicable sequences in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain — or practically any movie from Aronofsky, really — are moments of aporia. Why are there people floating randomly in bubbles? You’ll never know, because you can never truly know the nature of life.
4. Pathetic Fallacy
In the nineteenth century, the critic John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy” to scorn the Romantics’ habit of bestowing human feelings upon nature. Despite his and many other critics’ dislike of the idea that trees and bunnies have feelings, the pathetic fallacy continues to rule the genre, especially in fantasy-tinged SF.
Where it appears in science fiction: There are two good examples of the pathetic fallacy to consider. First of all, in Avatar, we encounter what is basically the Moon of the Pathetic Fallacy, where all of nature is part of one mind that has feelings. Similarly, in Miyazaki’s masterpiece Princess Mononoke, we see a battle between industrialization and the forces of nature.
Not to be confused with pathos, bathos refers to literary writing that is far too melodramatic and serious for its own good. Specifically, it refers to what happens when a story swings between deep, weighty topics and mundane, ordinary ones in a way that is often unintentionally funny. Bathos was first identified by 18th century satirist and poet Alexander Pope, who pointed out that bathos is often unintentional. In other words, Pope is the first person to identify a type of storytelling that today we would call campy or cheesy.
Where it appears in science fiction: You’re going to drown in bathos while watching many overly serious, melodramatic movies that are still completely adorable, like Highlander and Lord of the Rings. But it also appears in many less-than-adorable tales, like Prometheus and, well, Highlander II.
This is one of my favorite literary devices, and it goes all the way back to Anglo Saxon poetry of the 900s. It’s the use of understatement to underscore a point. One of the most famous examples is from the poem Beowulf, where the poet describes a king doing insanely difficult and heroic things and then concludes, in a ridiculously understated way, “That was a good king.” By understating his case, the poet makes it clear that he means the king was BADASS. This literary device is also sometimes called meiosis, probably by people who lived before molecular biology was invented.
Where it appears in science fiction: The perfect litotes moment comes in Firefly, when Captain Mal notes offhandedly, “I aim to misbehave.” Really? After leading a rebellion, killing a ton of bad guys, and barely escaping with his life in countless situations, he aims to “misbehave”? I call that the understatement of the millennium.
7. Stream of consciousness
When a story tries to capture the exact structure of human thought, it often seems weird and fragmented, jumping from one topic to the next with little transition. This kind of writing is called “stream of consciousness” because the author is trying to structure it the way our sometimes-random thoughts are, rather than in the orderly way stories are usually written.
Where it appears in science fiction: In the final sequence of 2001, Dave stares into the incomprehensible, disco-lit interior of the monolith. We see him staring into streaming lights, then grow old and become a baby again. What’s going on? Basically, we’re seeing exactly what’s going on in Dave’s mind, as he’s dazzled by a new alien intelligence.
When a word sounds like what it describes, like “buzz” or “murmur,” that’s onomatopoeia. The term also refers to using any syllables that are supposed to sound like what they describe.
Where it appears in science fiction: The entire Klingon language, full of grunts and growls, is supposed to sound warlike and angry, like the Klingons themselves. It’s an entire language based on onomatopoeia.
Like the Pathetic Fallacy, personification is all about projecting human feelings into non-human realms. With personification, we endow things or abstractions with elements of life.
Where it appears in science fiction: There are two perfect examples of personification in SF, and both involve giving software human properties. You can see this in both Tron and the Matrix series, where programs literally become people who exhibit traits that are related to what their programs would do. You can see a great example in this great scene from The Matrix Reloaded, with the “keymaker” and of course “the agent.”
10. Unreliable narrator
Sometimes you hear a story from a narrator who turns out to be lying to you, or unable to perceive the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Suddenly, you realize the story you thought was true is actually complete or at least partial bullshit. That’s when you’re in the hands of an unreliable narrator.
Where it appears in science fiction: You meet a lot of unreliable narrators in horror movies, or in stories where the twist is that it might “all be in their minds.” A great example of this in SF is the 1990 Total Recall movie, where we are never quite sure if everything we’re watching is really happening — or if it’s just a false memory implant that the narrator bought from Rekall to amuse himself.