- Literary Terms
Glossary of Literary Terms
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Also called “ action- adventure,” action is a genre of film, TV, literature, etc., in which the primary feature is the constant slam-bang of fights, chases, explosions, and clever one-liners. Action stories typically do not explore complex relationships between human beings or the subtleties of psychology and philosophy.
Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man,” and refers to the logical fallacy (error) of arguing that someone is incorrect because they are unattractive, immoral, weird, or any other bad thing you could say about them as a person.
An adage is a brief piece of wisdom in the form of short, philosophical, and memorable sayings. The adage expresses a well-known and simple truth in a few words.
Adventure (pronounced ad-ven-cher) was originally a Middle English word derived from the Old French aventure meaning “destiny,” “fate,” or “chance event.” Today, we define adventure as a remarkable or unexpected journey, experience, or event that a person participates in as a result of chance. This last detail, a result of chance , is a key element of adventure; the stories usually involve a character who is brought to the adventure by chance, and chance usually plays a large role in the episodes of the story. Also, adventures usually includes dangerous situations, narrow escapes, problems to be solved through intelligence and skill, exotic people and places, and brave deeds.
An allegory is a story within a story. It has a “surface story” and another story hidden underneath. For example, the surface story might be about two neighbors throwing rocks at each other’s homes, but the hidden story would be about war between countries.
In alliteration, words that begin with the same sound are placed close together. Although alliteration often involves repetition of letters, most importantly, it is a repetition of sounds.
Allusion is basically a reference to something else . It’s when a writer mentions some other work, or refers to an earlier part of the current work. In literature, it’s frequently used to reference cultural works (e.g. by alluding to a Bible story or Greek myth).
Ambiguity is an idea or situation that can be understood in more than one way. This extends from ambiguous sentences (which could mean one thing or another) up to ambiguous storylines and ambiguous arguments .
Amplification involves extending a sentence or phrase in order to further explain, emphasize, or exaggerate certain points of a definition, description, or argument.
An anagram is a type of word play in which the letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to create new words and phrases.
An analogy is a literary technique in which two unrelated objects are compared for their shared qualities. Unlike a simile or a metaphor, an analogy is not a figure of speech, though the three are often quite similar. Instead, analogies are strong rhetorical devices used to make rational arguments and support ideas by showing connections and comparisons between dissimilar things.
Anaphora is when a certain word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of clauses or sentences that follow each other. This repetition emphasizes the phrase while adding rhythm to the passage, making it more memorable and enjoyable to read.
An anecdote is a very short story that is significant to the topic at hand; usually adding personal knowledge or experience to the topic.
In a story, the antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist, or main character. Typically, this is a villain of some kind, but not always! It’s just the opponent of the main character, or someone who gets in their way.
Anthimeria (also known as antimeria) is the usage of a word in a new grammatical form, most often the usage of a noun as a verb.
Anthropomorphism is giving human traits or attributes to animals, inanimate objects, or other non-human things. It comes from the Greek words anthropo (human) and morph (form).
Antithesis literally means “opposite” – it is usually the opposite of a statement, concept, or idea. In literary analysis, an antithesis is a pair of statements or images in which the one reverses the other. The pair is written with similar grammatical structures to show more contrast.
Antonomasia is a literary term in which a descriptive phrase replaces a person’s name. Antonomasia can range from lighthearted nicknames to epic names.
An aphorism is a short, concise statement of a general truth, insight, or good advice. It’s roughly synonymous with “a saying.” Aphorisms often use metaphors or creative imagery to get their point across.
Aphorismus is a term in which the speaker questions whether a word is being used correctly to show disagreement. Aphorismus is often written as a rhetorical question such as “How can you call this music ?”to show the difference between the usual meaning of a word and how it is being used. So, the point is to call attention to the qualities of the word, suggesting that how it is being used is not a good example of the word.
An apologia is a defense of one’s conduct or opinions. It’s related to our concept of “apology,” but in many cases it’s the precise opposite of an apology! When you apologize, you’re saying “I did the wrong thing, and I regret it.” But in an apologia, you’re defending yourself , either by saying that what you did wasn’t wrong or denying that you were responsible for what happened.
An apologue is a short story or fable which provides a simple moral lesson. Apologues are often told through the use of animal characters with symbolical elements.
In literature, aporia is an expression of insincere doubt. It’s when the writer or speaker pretends, briefly, not to know a key piece of information or not to understand a key connection. After raising this doubt, the author will either respond to the doubt, or leave it open in a suggestive or “hinting” manner.
Aposiopesis is when a sentence is purposefully left incomplete or cut off. It’s caused by an inability or unwillingness to continue speaking. This allows the ending to be filled in by the listener’s imagination.
Appositives are noun phrases that follow or precede another noun, and give more information about it.
An archaism is an old word or expression that is no longer used with its original meaning or is only used in specific studies or areas.
An archetype (ARK-uh-type) is an idea, symbol, pattern, or character-type, in a story. It’s any story element that appears again and again in stories from cultures around the world and symbolizes something universal in the human experience.
An argument is a work of persuasion. You use it to convince others to agree with your claim or viewpoint when they have doubts or disagree.
Assonance is the repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds within words, phrases, or sentences.
Asyndeton is skipping one or more conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) which are usually used in a series of phrases. Asyndeton is also known as asyndetism.
An autobiography is a self-written life story.
Auto = self
Graph = print or written
It is different from a biography , which is the life story of a person written by someone else. Some people may have their life story written by another person because they don’t believe they can write well, but they are still considered an author because they are providing the information.
Bathos is text that abruptly turns from serious and poetic, to regular and silly.
A buzzword is a word or phrase that has little meaning but becomes popular during a specific time.
Cacophony is the use of a combination of words with loud, harsh sounds—in reality as well as literature. In literary studies, this combination of words with rough or unharmonious sounds are used for a noisy or jarring poetic effect. Cacophony is considered the opposite of euphony which is the use of beautiful, melodious-sounding words.
Caesura refers to a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. It can be marked as || in the middle of the line, although generally it is not marked at all – it’s simply part of the way the reader or singer pronounces the line.
Catharsis, meaning “cleansing” in Greek, refers to a literary theory first developed by the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that cleansing our emotions was the purpose of a good story, especially a tragedy. Catharsis applies to any form of art or media that makes us feel strong negative emotions, but that we are nonetheless drawn to – we may seek out art that creates these emotions because the experience purges the emotions from our system.
A character is a person, animal, being, creature, or thing in a story. Writers use characters to perform the actions and speak dialogue, moving the story along a plot line. A story can have only one character (protagonist) and still be a complete story.
Chiasmus comes from a Greek word meaning “crossed,” and it refers to a grammatical structure that inverts a previous phrase. That is, you say one thing, and then you say something very similar, but flipped around.
Circumlocution means “talking around” or “talking in circles.” It’s when you want to discuss something, but don’t want to make any direct reference to it, so you create a way to get around the subject. The key to circumlocution is that the statement has to be unnecessarily long and complicated.
A cliché is a saying, image, or idea which has been used so much that it sounds terribly uncreative. The word “cliche” was originally French for the sound of a printing plate, which prints the same thing over and over.
Climax is the highest point of tension or drama in a narrative’s plot. Often, climax is also when the main problem of the story is faced and solved by the main character or protagonist.
Coherence describes the way anything, such as an argument (or part of an argument) “hangs together.” If something has coherence, its parts are well-connected and all heading in the same direction. Without coherence, a discussion may not make sense or may be difficult for the audience to follow. It’s an extremely important quality of formal writing.
A connotation is a common feeling or association that a word has, in addition to its literal meaning (the denotation). Often, a series of words can have the same basic definitions, but completely different connotations—these are the emotions or meanings implied by a word, phrase, or thing.
Consonance is when the same consonant sound appears repeatedly in a line or sentence, creating a rhythmic effect.
A conundrum is a difficult problem, one that is impossible or almost impossible to solve. It’s an extremely broad term that covers any number of different types of situations, from moral dilemmas to riddles .
Comedy is a broad genre of film, television, and literature in which the goal is to make an audience laugh. It exists in every culture on earth (though the specifics of comedy can be very different from one culture to another), and has always been an extremely popular genre of storytelling.
Denotation is a word’ or thing’s “dictionary defintion”, i.e. its literal meaning.
The denouement is the very end of a story, the part where all the different plotlines are finally tied up and all remaining questions answered.
- Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina is Latin for “a god from the machine.” It’s when some new character, force, or event suddenly shows up to solve a seemingly hopeless situation. The effect is usually much too abrupt, and it’s often disappointing for audiences.
Diacope is when a writer repeats a word or phrase with one or more words in between. A common and persistent example of diacope is Hamlet’s “ To be , or not to be !”
Dialogue means “conversation.” In the broadest sense, this includes any case of two or more characters speaking to each other directly. But it also has a narrower definition, called the dialogue form . The dialogue form is the use of a sustained dialogue to express an argument or idea.
Diction refers to word choice and phrasing in any written or spoken text. Many authors can be said to have their own “diction,” because they tend to use certain words more than others or phrase things in a unique way.
Doppelganger is a twin or double of some character, usually in the form of an evil twin . They sometimes impersonate a main character or cause confusion among the love interests.
Drama has two very different meanings. In modern pop culture, it means a genre of film or television that deals with serious, often negative, emotions. It’s the opposite of comedy, which is just for laughs. Drama refers only to film and television, not novels or other purely written art forms.
A dystopia is a horrible place where everything has gone wrong. Whereas utopia means a perfect paradise, dystopia means exactly the opposite.
Enjambment is continuing a line after the line breaks. Whereas many poems end lines with the natural pause at the end of a phrase or with punctuation as end-stopped lines, enjambment ends a line in the middle of a phrase, allowing it to continue onto the next line as an enjambed line.
An enthymeme is a kind of syllogism , or logical deduction, in which one of the premises is unstated.
An epigram is a short but insightful statement, often in verse form, which communicates a thought in a witty, paradoxical, or funny way.
An epiphany is an “Aha!” moment. As a literary device, epiphany is the moment when a character is suddenly struck with a life-changing, enlightening revelation or realization which changes his or her perspective for the rest of the story.
Epistrophe is when a certain phrase or word is repeated at the end of sentences or clauses that follow each other. This repetition creates a rhythm while emphasizing the repeated phrase. Epistrophe is also known as epiphora and antistrophe.
An epitaph is a short statement about a deceased person, often carved on his/her tombstone. Epitaphs can be poetic, sometimes written by poets or authors themselves before dying.
An Epithet is a glorified nickname. Traditionally, it replaces the name of a person and often describes them in some way.
An eponym refers to a person or thing after which something else is named. A person or thing’s name can come to be associated with the name of another character, person, product, object, activity, or even a discovery.
Commonly known as “doublespeak,” equivocation is the use of vague language to hide one’s meaning or to avoid committing to a point of view.
An essay is a form of writing in paragraph form that uses informal language, although it can be written formally. Essays may be written in first-person point of view (I, ours, mine), but third-person (people, he, she) is preferable in most academic essays.
Etymology is the investigation of word histories. Every word in every language has a unique origin and history; words can be born in many ways, and often their histories are quite adventurous and informative. Etymology investigates and documents the lives (mainly the origins) of words.
A euphemism is a polite, mild phrase that we substitute for a harsher, blunter way of saying something uncomfortable.
An excursus is a moment where a text moves away from its main topic – it’s roughly similar to “digression.”
Exemplum is just Latin for “example.” And that’s all it is. It’s an example, story, or anecdote used to demonstrate a point.
The exposition of a story is the first paragraph or paragraphs in which the characters, setting (time and place), and basic information is introduced.
- Extended Metaphor
An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is developed in some detail by being used in more than one phrase, from a sentence or a paragraph, to encompassing an entire work.
A fairy tale is a story, often intended for children, that features fanciful and wondrous characters such as elves, goblins, wizards, and even, but not necessarily, fairies. The term “fairy” tale seems to refer more to the fantastic and magical setting or magical influences within a story, rather than the presence of the character of a fairy within that story.
In literature, a fable (pronounced fey-buh l) is a short fictional story that has a moral or teaches a lesson. Fables use humanized animals, objects, or parts of nature as main characters, and are therefore considered to be a sub-genre of fantasy.
Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic). This can mean magic, the supernatural, alternate worlds, superheroes, monsters, fairies, magical creatures, mythological heroes—essentially, anything that an author can imagine outside of reality.
A farce is a comedy in which everything is absolutely absurd. This usually involves some kind of deception or miscommunication.
- Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a word or phrase using figurative language—language that has other meaning than its normal definition. In other words, figures of speeches rely on implied or suggested meaning, rather than a dictionary definition.
Flashback is a device that moves an audience from the present moment in a chronological narrative to a scene in the past.
Folklore refers to the tales people tell – folk stories, fairy tales, “tall tales,” and even urban legends . Folklore is typically passed down by word of mouth, rather than being written in books. The key here is that folklore has no author – it just emerges from the culture and is carried forward by constant retelling.
Foreshadowing gives the audience hints or signs about the future. It suggests what is to come through imagery, language, and/or symbolism.
A genre is a category of literature identified by form, content, and style. Genres allow literary critics and students to classify compositions within the larger canon of literature.
A haiku is a specific type of Japanese poem which has 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haikus or haiku are typically written on the subject of nature.
Hamartia is the tragic flaw or error that reverses a protagonist’s fortune from good to bad.
Homophone is when two or more words have the same sound, but different meanings. They may be spelled the same or differently.
In literature, horror is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror.
Hyperbaton is a figure of speech in which the typical, natural order of words is changed as certain words are moved out of order.
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which an author or speaker purposely and obviously exaggerates to an extreme. It is used for emphasis or as a way of making a description more creative and humorous.
An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning different from the words used. In this sense, idiom is pretty much synonymous with “figure of speech,” though with a slightly narrower definition: an idiom is part of the language.
Imagery is language used to create images in the mind of the reader. Imagery includes figurative and metaphorical language to improve the reader’s experience through their senses.
An innuendo is when you say something which is polite and innocent on the surface, but indirectly hints at an insult or rude comment, a dirty joke, or even social or political criticism.
Intertextuality is a fact about literary texts – the fact that they are all intimately interconnected. Every text is affected by all the texts that came before it, since those texts influenced the author’s thinking and aesthetic choices.
Invective is the literary device in which one attacks or insults a person or thing through the use of abusive language and tone.
Irony is when there are two contradicting meanings of the same situation, event, image, sentence, phrase, or story. In many cases, this refers to the difference between expectations and reality.
Jargon is the specific type of language used by a particular group or profession.
Juxtaposition is the placement of two or more things side by side, often in order to bring out their differences.
Kairos in Ancient Greek meant “time” – but it wasn’t just any time. It was exactly the right time to say or do a particular thing. In modern rhetoric, it refers to making exactly the right statement at exactly the right moment.
A limerick is a five-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme (AABBA, lines 1,2, and 5 rhyme together, while lines 3 and 4 rhymes togther) and a reasonably strict meter (anapestic triameter for lines 1, 2, and 5; anapestic diameter for lines 3 and 4). Limericks are almost always used for comedy, and it’s usually pretty rude comedy at that – they deal with bodily functions, etc., and could be considered “toilet humor.”
Lingo is language or vocabulary that is specific to a certain subject, group of people, or region; including slang and jargon. The term lingo is relatively vague—it can mean any type of nonstandard language, and varies between professions, age groups, sexes, nationalities, ethnicities, location, and so on.
- Literary Device
In literature, any technique used to help the author achieve his or her purpose is called a literary device .
Litotes is an understatement in which a positive statement is expressed by negating its opposite. The classic example of litotes is the phrase “not bad.” By negating the word “bad,” you’re saying that something is good, or at least OK.
Malapropisms are incorrect words used in place of correct words; these can be unintentional or intentional, but both cases have a comedic effect.
A maxim is a brief statement that contains a little piece of wisdom or a general rule of behavior.
Metanoia is a self-correction. It’s when a writer or speaker deliberately goes back and modifies a statement that they just made, usually either to strengthen it or soften it in some way.
A metaphor is a common figure of speech that makes a comparison by directly relating one thing to another unrelated thing (though these things may share some similarities).
Unlike similes, metaphors do not use words such as “like” or “as” to make comparisons.
Metonymy is a figure of speech that replaces words with related or associated words. A metonym is typically a part of a larger whole, for example, when we say “wheels,” we are figuratively referring to a “car” and not literally only the wheels.
A mnemonic, also known as a memory aid, is a tool that helps you remember an idea or phrase with a pattern of letters, numbers, or relatable associations. Mnemonic devices include special rhymes and poems, acronyms, images, songs, outlines, and other tools.
A monologue is a speech given by a single character in a story.
A motif is a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. Motifs can be symbols , sounds, actions, ideas, or words.
Mystery is a genre of literature whose stories focus on a mysterious crime, situation or circumstance that needs to be solved.
A narrative is a story. The term can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, narrative refers to the story being told. As an adjective, it describes the form or style of the story being told.
A nemesis is an enemy, often a villain. A character’s nemesis isn’t just any ordinary enemy, though – the nemesis is the ultimate enemy, the arch-foe that overshadows all the others in power or importance.
Neologism is new word or phrase that is not yet used regularly by most speakers and writers.
In the strict definition, an ode is a classical poem that has a specific structure and is aimed at an object or person. In the loose definition, an ode is any work of art or literature that expresses high praise.
Onomatopoeia refers to words whose pronunciations imitate the sounds they describe. A dog’s bark sounds like “woof,” so “woof” is an example of onomatopoeia.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that puts together opposite elements. The combination of these contradicting elements serves to reveal a paradox, confuse, or give the reader a laugh.
A palindrome is a type of word play in which a word or phrase spelled forward is the same word or phrase spelled backward.
A parable is a short story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.
A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself, or that must be both true and untrue at the same time.
Parallelism, also known as parallel structure, is when phrases in a sentence have similar or the same grammatical structure.
A paraphrase is a restatement or rewording of text in order to borrow, clarify, or expand on information without plagiarizing.
A parody is a work that’s created by imitating an existing original work in order to make fun of or comment on an aspect of the original.
Pastiche is a creative work that imitates another author or genre. It’s a way of paying homage , or honor, to great works of the past.
- Pathetic Fallacy
The pathetic fallacy is a figure of speech in which the natural world (or some part of it) is treated as though it had human emotions.
Peripeteia is a sudden change in a story which results in a negative reversal of circumstances. Peripeteia is also known as the turning point, the place in which the tragic protagonist’s fortune changes from good to bad.
Persona can refer to the characters in any dramatic or literary work. But it has another special meaning in literary studies, where it refers to the voice of a particular kind of character—the character who is also the narrator within a literary work written from the first-person point of view.
Personification is a kind of metaphor in which you describe an inanimate object, abstract thing, or non-human animal in human terms.
Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s ideas, words, or thoughts as your own, without giving credit to the other person. When you give credit to the original author (by giving the person’s name, name of the article, and where it was posted or printed), you are citing the source.
A platitude repeats obvious, simple, and easily understood statements that have little meaning or emotional weight.
A pleonasm is when one uses too many words to express a message. A pleonasm can either be a mistake or a tool for emphasis.
In a narrative or creative writing, a plot is the sequence of events that make up a story, whether it”s told, written, filmed, or sung. The plot is the story, and more specifically, how the story develops, unfolds, and moves in time.
Poetry is a type of literature based on the interplay of words and rhythm. It often employs rhyme and meter (a set of rules governing the number and arrangement of syllables in each line). In poetry, words are strung together to form sounds, images, and ideas that might be too complex or abstract to describe directly.
Polyptoton is the repetition of a root word in a variety of ways , such as the words “enjoy” and “enjoyable.” Polyptoton is a unique form of wordplay that provides the sentence with repetition in sound and rhythm.
A prologue is a short introductory section that gives background information or sets the stage for the story to come.
Prose is just non-verse writing. Pretty much anything other than poetry counts as prose.
Protagonist is just another word for “main character.” The story circles around this character’s experiences, and the audience is invited to see the world from his or her perspective.
A proverb is a short saying or piece of folk wisdom that emerges from the general culture rather than being written by a single, individual author.
A pun is a joke based on the interplay of homophones — words with the same pronunciation but different meanings.
A quest is a journey that someone takes in order to achieve a goal or complete an important task. Accordingly, the term comes from the Medieval Latin questa, meaning “search” or “inquiry.”
A rebus is a code or reference where pictures, letters, or symbols represent certain words or phrases. Perhaps the simplest and most common rebus in use today is “IOU” for “I owe you.”
- Red Herring
A red herring is a misleading clue. It’s a trick used by storytellers to keep the reader guessing about what’s really going on.
Quite simply, repetition is the repeating of a word or phrase. It is a common rhetorical device used to add emphasis and stress in writing and speech.
The resolution, also known as the denouement, is the conclusion of the story’s plot structure where any unanswered questions are answered, or “loose ends are tied.”
Rhetoric is the ancient art of persuasion, in the broadest sense. It is the way you present and make your views convincing or attractive to your audience.
- Rhetorical Device
A rhetorical device is any way of using language that helps an author or speaker achieve a particular purpose. Usually, the purpose is persuasion , since rhetoric is typically defined as the art of persuasion.
- Rhetorical Question
A rhetorical question is a question that is not asked in order to receive an answer, but rather just to make a point.
In the strictest academic terms, a romance is a narrative genre in literature that involves a mysterious, adventurous, or spiritual a story line where the focus is on a quest that involves bravery and strong values, not a love interest. However, modern definitions of romance also include stories that have a relationship issue as the main focus.
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony that mocks, ridicules, or expresses contempt. You’re saying the opposite of what you mean (verbal irony) and doing it in a particularly hostile tone.
The formal definition of satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” It’s an extremely broad category.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that somehow causes itself to come true. The characters may try to prevent their fate, but in the end their actions simply cause that fate to come about.
Setting is the time and place (or when and where) of the story. It may also include the environment of the story, which can be made up of the physical location, climate, weather, or social and cultural surroundings.
A simile is a literary term where you use “like” or “as” to compare two different things, implying that they have some quality in common.
A soliloquy is a kind of monologue , or an extended speech by one character. In a soliloquy, though, the speech is not given to another character, and there is no one around to hear it.
A sonnet is a fourteen line poem with a fixed rhyme scheme. Often, sonnets use iambic pentameter: five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables for a ten-syllable line.
In poetry, a stanza is a dividing and organizing technique which places a group of lines in a poem together, separated from other groups of lines by line spacing or indentation. There are many important pieces that together make up a writer’s style; like tone, word choice, grammar, language, descriptive technique, and so on.
Style is the way in which an author writes and/or tells a story. It’s what sets one author apart from another and creates the “voice” that audiences hear when they read.
The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation.
Surrealism is a literary and artistic movement in which the goal is to create something bizarre and disjointed, but still somehow understandable.
A symbol is any image or thing that stands for something else. It could be as simple as a letter, which is a symbol for a given sound (or set of sounds).
A synecdoche is figure of speech which allows a part of something to stand for a whole, or the whole to stand for a part.
A synonym is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word. When words or phrases have the same meaning, we say that they are synonymous of each other.
A synopsis is a brief summary that gives audiences an idea of what a composition is about. It provides an overview of the storyline or main points and other defining factors of the work, which may include style, genre, persons or characters of note, setting, and so on.
Tautology is defining or explaining something by saying exactly the same thing again in different words.
Theme is the central idea, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative.
A thriller is a genre of literature, film, and television whose primary feature is that it induces strong feelings of excitement, anxiety, tension, suspense, fear, and other similar emotions in its readers or viewers—in other words, media that thrills the audience.
A thesis is the main argument or point of view of an essay, nonfiction piece or narrative—not just the topic of the writing, but the main claim that the author is making about that topic.
Tone refers to the “feel” of a piece of writing. It’s any or all of the stylistic qualities of the writing, such as formality, dialect, and atmosphere.
The word trope can refer to any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times. Any kind of literary device or any specific example can be a trope.
Understatement is when a writer presents a situation or thing as if it is less important or serious than it is in reality.
Utopia is a paradise. A perfect society in which everything works and everyone is happy – or at least is supposed to be.
Verisimilitude simply means ‘the quality of resembling reality’ and a work of art, or any part of a work of art, has verisimilitude if it seems believably realistic. A verisimilitudinous story has details, subjects, and characters that seem similar or true to real life.
A villain is the bad guy, the one who comes up with diabolical plots to somehow cause harm or ruin. It is one of the archetype characters in many stories.
Wit is a biting or insightful kind of humor. It includes sharp comebacks, clever banter, and dry, one-line jokes. It is often cynical or insulting, which is what provides it with its characteristic sharpness.
Zeugma is when you use a word in a sentence once, while conveying two different meanings at the same time.
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Have you wondered how authors of literary text evoke certain responses in the reader? They do this with the help of certain techniques which add meaning to a text.Literary terms – These are the techniques and devices used by writers to create or add layers of meaning to their works. Literary terms are…
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- A Raisin in the Sun
- Amiri Baraka
- Arcadia Tom Stoppard
- August Wilson
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
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Save the explanation now and read when you’ve got time to spare.
Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken
Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.
Have you wondered how authors of literary text evoke certain responses in the reader? They do this with the help of certain techniques which add meaning to a text.
Literary terms: meaning
Literary terms – These are the techniques and devices used by writers to create or add layers of meaning to their works.
Literary terms are an important factor to consider when analysing novels and short stories. Literary terms are used to create meaning in texts, as well as to create vivid images in stories. Examples of literary terms include metaphor, symbolism and themes.
Literary terms vs literary devices
L iterary device – This refers to any technique used to create meaning, or emphasize a particular idea, theme , or object in a story.
Literary devices are the techniques that are used to enhance key elements of a story. These devices can affect the novel on a word, sentence, or structural level. Literary terms are the names that are given to these devices. They are integral to the formation of a literary work. Examples of literary devices include personification, simile, and imagery .
Literary terms in English literature
Literary terms include figurative language and plot devices.
1. Figurative language
Figurative language – A form of writing that uses literary devices to create an image in the mind of the reader.
Figurative language employs literary devices in a text to aid the reader in forming a mental image. This type of language will not use a word's literal meaning to convey an idea. Instead, figurative language uses devices such as metaphors and similes to create images.
2. Plot devices
Plot devices – This refers to any literary device that will move the plot forward.
Plot devices refer to a broad category of literary devices that can be used to move a plot forward. Plot devices are found in almost all novels and are used to create the plot of the story. Literary terms that are often associated with plot devices include character, action , and symbolism .
Literary terms: personification, simile, and metaphor
Personification, similes, and metaphors are all types of literary terms that involve figurative language and comparisons.
Personification is a type of figurative language that is used to create emphasis in a text.
Personification - A device where human characteristics are assigned to non-human objects.
Personification can be used to humanise objects and animals to the reader. It can also be used to create innovative ways to convey common phrases. In doing this, personification is a useful way to grab the reader's attention. This device is also important for describing settings, as it can be used to make a description more vivid. A notable example of personification is found in Emily Dickinson 's poem 'Because I could not stop for Death' (1890). In this poem, the speaker personifies death as a carriage driver.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
Similes are an important and frequently used literary term.
Simile – A literary device that compares one object to another. These comparisons will use 'like' or 'as'.
They often use exaggeration and so are a useful way to hold a reader's attention in a story. Similes are also used by writers to introduce abstract ideas such as love or death. One of the most famous similes in English Literature is found in William Shakespeare 's Macbeth (1606) . In this scene, Lady Macbeth uses a simile to show her husband how to hide his true intentions.
Look like th' innocent flower,But be the serpent under ’t.
Top Tip! An easy way to tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor is to look for 'like' or 'as' – if these words are present, it's a simile!
A metaphor is similar to a simile, however, here the device will directly apply the comparison, rather than using 'like' or 'as'.
Metaphor - A literary term where a phrase is applied to something when it is not literally applicable.
Metaphors are primarily used to describe either an idea, setting , or character. They are effective as they can provide unconventional ways of presenting descriptions. This is because of the vivid imagery that can be created through the use of metaphors. Sometimes metaphors are used to describe natural scenery. An example of this can be found in Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding . In this example, a metaphor is used to describe a sunset.
The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid nearer and nearer the sill of the world.
Literary terms: imagery and symbolism
Imagery and symbolism are created through the use of personification, metaphors and similes. These are images that are used to represent a deeper meaning in the text.
Imagery is created by using other literary devices such as metaphor or simile.
Imagery - Visual images, described using figurative language.
Imagery is created by using other literary devices such as metaphor or simile. These devices are used together to create a picture in the mind of the reader. Imagery will often use sensory descriptions in these depictions. This can include language that focuses on the smell, sight, sound, or touch of the image.
These images are sometimes used to represent a key idea in the text. An example of imagery is found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). In the story, the imagery of the wallpaper is used to represent the protagonist 's sickness, madness, and despair.
The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Symbolism is a way of introducing themes into a text.
Symbolism - A practice in literature where an object is used to represent an idea or theme .
This is an easy way to present themes in a text without directly addressing them. Symbolism is found in almost all literary works and can be one of the most memorable parts of a novel . It is also used to create memorable characters. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D Salinger, Holden Caulfield is defined by his red hunter's hat. This hat is a symbol of Caulfield's alienation from society. A famous piece of symbolism is found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925). In this novel , the green light becomes a symbol of Gatsby's hopes and dreams for the future. Specifically his hope to reunite with Daisy - a married woman.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.
Literary terms: themes
Themes are found throughout literature and are formed through the use of literary terms such as symbolism or metaphor.
Themes are a key element of literature and can be found in all literary works.
Themes – In literature, a theme is a key idea or meaning that is in the text.
Themes are a key element of literature and can be found in all literary works. Themes are created in literature through the use of literary terms and devices such as metaphor, imagery , or symbolism . In literature, themes are typically abstract and tackle key issues regarding, politics, society, or the human condition.
Examples of themes include love, death, war, sexuality, and nature. Gender is a key theme in Jane Austen 's novel , Pride and Prejudice (1813). The book explores how strict gender roles intersect with themes of class, reputation, and family at the turn of the 19th century.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Literary terminology examples
Now that we understand what some of the key literary terms are, let's look at how these can appear in a piece of literature.
That mouse ain't fresh, Lennie; and besides, you've broke it pettin' it. You get another mouse that's fresh and I'll let you keep it a little while.
In John Steinbeck 's Of Mice and Men (1937), mice are a symbol of false hope. Like the men in the novel , the mice have no real say in their fate and are subject to the whims of those who are stronger (physically or socially) than them. In the novel , Lennie has mice that he hopes to keep as pets, however, he kills each one.
There were but few lights in sight at sea, for even the coasting steamers, which usually ‘hug’ the shore so closely, kept well to seaward, and but few fishing-boats were in sight.
Personification can be seen frequently in the descriptions in Bram Stoker 's Dracula (1897). Here, personification is used to describe the sea. The literary term helps emphasise the isolation that the narrator feels while out in the water, while also creating an image of the sea in the reader's mind.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
William Shakespeare 's play As You Like It (1599) features one of the most famous metaphors in English Literature. The metaphor uses the image of a stage and actors to say that life is a performance and human beings are assigned roles to perform in life.
Literary terms: effect
Literary terms are an extremely effective way to improve your work. They are able to add detail to writing as well as present common phrases in new and exciting ways. Terms like symbolism can be used to create subtext and a deeper meaning to writing also. Literary terms are a simple way to elevate your writing and make it more memorable.
Literary Terms - Key takeaways
- Literary terms are the techniques and devices used by writers to create meaning in their works.
- Literary devices are any technique used to create meaning or emphasise a particular idea, theme, or object in a story.
- Literary terms are used to create figurative language and plot devices.
- Literary terms include metaphor, simile, personification, and symbolism.
- Literary terms are effective as they can add detail and subtext to a piece of writing.
Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Terms
--> what does literary term mean.
These are the techniques and devices used by writers to create meaning in their works.
--> What is a theme in literary terms?
In literature, a theme is a key idea or meaning.
--> How many literary terms are there in English literature?
There are numerous literary terms in English literature. Some examples of literary terms include personification, metaphor, and simile.
--> What is a literary term for a play on words?
A literary term for a play on words is a pun.
--> What does irony mean in literary terms?
Irony is when contradictory statements reveal a different situation than what would be expected.
Final Literary Terms Quiz
Literary terms quiz - teste dein wissen.
Is imagery a literary element?
Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language.
Is imagery a rhetorical device?
Imagery is a type of rhetorical device in literature.
What is imagery?
Imagery is a literary element that refers to the use of figurative language. It is a vivid, detailed description of an object or scene.
What can be included to create imagery?
To create imagery, you can include a description of sensory perception and uses other aspects of figurative language such as similes and metaphors and personification.
What are the 5 types of imagery and what do they mean?
- Visual imagery: sense of sight involved in imagery.
- Auditory imagery: sense of sound involved in imagery.
- Gustatory imagery: sense of taste involved in imagery.
- Tactile imagery: sense of touch involved in imagery.
- Olfactory imagery: sense of smell involved in imagery.
What is an example of visual imagery?
'Her hair was a flaming red.'
What is an example of auditory imagery?
'The dog whimpered in fear.'
What is an example of gustatory imagery?
'Her honey-sweet voice.'
What is an example of tactile imagery?
'Her skin was smooth as silk.'
What is an example of olfactory imagery?
'Something was making the room smell sour, sour like vinegar, the kind of sour like it hasn’t been looked after properly in a while.’
What kind of imagery is used in the following passage from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597)? ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/ Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’
Visual imagery is used.
What is the effect of imagery?
The effect of imagery is that it communicates to the reader a specific perception of an object or a scene. Imagery could also add to the overall themes of the text.
What is pathetic fallacy?
A literary device and a type of figurative language that attributes human emotions, moods and concerns to animals, inanimate objects or abstract concepts.
What are the major features of pathetic fallacy?
It can show contrast in emotion. It can feature weather and the environment. It can feature just one or two adjectives or a lengthy description.
Why is pathetic fallacy used?
Pathetic fallacy is used to convey an atmosphere or tone that the writer is trying to create or an idea, plot or characterisation they are trying to express. It is also used to foreshadow.
How to use pathetic fallacy in a sentence?
Pick an animal or inanimate object. Consider the emotion you want to convey in your writing. Finally, describe the object as having these emotions either in their demeanour or in their movement.
What is the difference between personification and pathetic fallacy?
Pathetic fallacy is a type of personification. Personification attributes human characteristics in general to animals, inanimate objects or treats them as though they were alive, pathetic fallacy attributes human emotions specifically.
When is pathetic fallacy used?
Pathetic fallacy can be used in literary novels and poetry. It can be one phrase long or more than a paragraph long.
What effect does pathetic fallacy have?
Pathetic fallacy shows a reflection of how a character is feeling, allowing for their inner experience to be understood.
What is the difference between pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism?
Pathetic fallacy is the non-literal attribution of human emotions specifically to inanimate objects or non-human entities. Anthropomorphism is the literal attribution of human characteristics in general to inanimate objects or non-human entities.
How can you remember what ‘pathetic fallacy’ means?
‘Pathetic’ is from Greek ‘pathos’ meaning ‘emotion’, ‘experience’ and ‘fallacy’ meaning ‘logical absurdity’. So the logical absurdity of giving human emotion/moods to things that cannot feel human emotion.
Who coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’?
John Ruskin, a Victorian critic.
What is symbolism in literature?
Symbolism is when an object, occurrence or action represents something beyond itself.
What does nature symbolise in literature?
Nature can symbolise growth and prosperity in literature.
What are the types of symbolism in literature?
The types of symbolism in literature are romantic symbolism, emotional symbolism, religious symbolism, animals, weather, objects and colours.
Give an example of symbolism in literature.
The green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Green is symbolic of money and wealth, and the green light overall symbolises his hope and dream to win his lover, Daisy, back.
How do you identify symbolism in literature?
A description that involves a change in a potential symbol and the symbol may disappear. Repetition of the mention of an object could indicate it is a symbol.
What is the difference between a symbol and an allegory?
A symbol is more complex and less specific, allowing for a variety of interpretations. An allegory features extensive use of a symbol sustained through a text which compares a subject to something else.
What are some common symbols used in literature?
Common symbols in literature include colours, seasons, weather, animals and landscapes.
When do you use symbolism in literature?
You can use symbolism to express a broader meaning or idea you do not want to explicitly say in a text. You can show this idea and show its development through the text.
What was the symbolism of the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604)?
The symbolic meaning of the handkerchief shifts depending on which character possesses it- with Desdemona it is a precious gift, yet with Othella, it reminds him of Desdemona’s supposed cuckoldry.
Do symbols always convey conventional meanings in literature?
No, symbols do not always convey conventional meanings in literature. Writers may alter the conventional meaning of a symbol to suit the point they want to make.
What is a parody?
A parody is written in the style of another author or written work, usually to point out weaknesses.
What is an example of a parody?
Parody examples include:
Fielding’s Shamela (1740), Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818)
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918) etc
How do you write a parody?
A parody must be a recognisable reflection of the book of style.
What is the difference between parody and satire?
A parody is aimed at a written work (prose), or style of writing; satire is aimed at people, usually politicians and celebrities and events.
Complete: Other words for parody include: …, send-up, take-off, …
Other words for parody include: lampoon, send-up, take-off, caricature.
Austen takes the tropes of the gothic novel (... houses, … characters, frightened, fainting …) and re-cycles them.
Austen takes the tropes of the gothic novel (haunted houses, sinister characters, frightened, fainting heroines) and re-cycles them.
True or False? A parody is aimed at a person or event; satire is aimed at written works or style of writing.
8A)False: A parody is aimed at a written work, or style of writing; satire is aimed at people, usually politicians, celebrities and/or events.
Choose (more than one answer is possible): satire was popular in the 18th century with writers like
Nightmare Abbey is a parody of... (there is more than one answer is possible).
Ann Radcliffe’s novels
Complete: A parody must be a ... reflection of the book or ....
A parody must be a recognisable reflection of the book or style.
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the story of imaginative Catherine Morland, an avid reader of
Complete: Parody is like a distorted ... of the original.
Parody is like a distorted reflection of the original.
What is Pastiche?
Pastiche is an imitation or copy of another author’s style.
What is the purpose of pastiche?
Pastiche is a form of praise; it also offers variety and colour to a text.
What is pastiche in postmodern literature?
A mixture of styles and formats.
What's the difference between pastiche and homage?
Pastiche is a form of admiration, homage offers respect.
Who coined the term pastiche?
Proust with his Pastiches et mélanges (1919)
Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards
Multiple choice: In the film Citizen Kane, Rosebud is the name of:
Choose: Mrs Malatrop is arranging with Sir Anthony for his son to visit Lydia as a potential suitor and hopes Lydia will not be ‘ altogether illegible.’ She has confused the word with
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This handout gives a rundown of some important terms and concepts used when talking and writing about literature.
Included below is a list of literary terms that can help you interpret, critique, and respond to a variety of different written works. This list is by no means comprehensive, but instead offers a primer to the language frequently used by scholars and students researching literary works. This list and the terms included in it can help you begin to identify central concerns or elements in a work that might help facilitate your interpretation, argumentation, and analysis. We encourage you to read this list alongside the other guides to literary interpretation included on the OWL Website. Please use the links on the left-hand side of this page to access other helpful resources.
- Characterization : The ways individual characters are represented by the narrator or author of a text. This includes descriptions of the characters’ physical appearances, personalities, actions, interactions, and dialogue.
- Dialogue : Spoken exchanges between characters in a dramatic or literary work, usually between two or more speakers.
- Genre : A kind of literature. For instance, comedy, mystery, tragedy, satire, elegy, romance, and epic are all genres. Texts frequently draw elements from multiple genres to create dynamic narratives. Alastair Fowler uses the following elements to define genres: organizational features (chapters, acts, scenes, stanzas); length; mood (the Gothic novel tends to be moody and dark); style (a text can be high, low, or in-between depending on its audience); the reader’s role (readers of a mystery are expected to interpret evidence); and the author’s reason for writing (an epithalamion is a poem composed for marriage) (Mickics 132-3).
- Imagery : A term used to describe an author’s use of vivid descriptions “that evoke sense-impressions by literal or figurative reference to perceptible or ‘concrete’ objects, scenes, actions, or states” (Baldick 121). Imagery can refer to the literal landscape or characters described in a narrative or the theoretical concepts an author employs.
- Plot : The sequence of events that occur through a work to produce a coherent narrative or story.
- Point of View: The perspective (visual, interpretive, bias, etc.) a text takes when presenting its plot and narrative. For instance, an author might write a narrative from a specific character’s point of view, which means that that character is our narrative and readers experience events through his or her eyes.
- Style : Comprising an author’s diction, syntax, tone, characters, and other narrative techniques, “style” is used to describe the way an author uses language to convey his or her ideas and purpose in writing. An author’s style can also be associated to the genre or mode of writing the author adopts, such as in the case of a satire or elegy with would adopt a satirical or elegiac style of writing.
- Symbol(ism): An object or element incorporated into a narrative to represent another concept or concern. Broadly, representing one thing with another. Symbols typically recur throughout a narrative and offer critical, though often overlooked, information about events, characters, and the author’s primary concerns in telling the story.
- Theme : According to Baldick, a theme may be defined as “a salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subject-matter; or a topic recurring in a number or literary works” (Baldick 258). Themes in literature tend to differ depending on author, time period, genre, style, purpose, etc.
- Tone : A way of communicating information (in writing, images, or sound) that conveys an attitude. Authors convey tone through a combination of word-choice, imagery, perspective, style, and subject matter. By adopting a specific tone, authors can help readers accurately interpret meaning in a text.
- First person : A story told from the perspective of one or several characters, each of whom typically uses the word “I.” This means that readers “see” or experience events in the story through the narrator’s eyes.
- Second person : A narrative perspective that typically addresses that audience using “you.” This mode can help authors address readers and invest them in the story.
- Third person : Describes a narrative told from the perspective of an outside figure who does not participate directly in the events of a story. This mode uses “he,” “she,” and “it” to describe events and characters.
Types of Prose Texts
- Bildungsroman : This is typically a type of novel that depicts an individual’s coming-of-age through self-discovery and personal knowledge. Such stories often explore the protagonists’ psychological and moral development. Examples include Dickens’ Great Expectations and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man .
- Epistolary : A novel composed primarily of letters sent and received by its principal characters. This type of novel was particularly popular during the eighteenth century.
- Essay : According to Baldick, “a short written composition in prose that discusses a subject or proposes an argument without claiming to be a complete or thorough exposition” (Baldick 87). A notable example of the essay form is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which uses satire to discuss eighteenth-century economic and social concerns in Ireland.
- Novella : An intermediate-length (between a novel and a short story) fictional narrative.
Terms for Interpreting Authorial Voice
- Apology : Often at the beginning or conclusion of a text, the term “apology” refers to an instance in which the author or narrator justifies his or her goals in producing the text.
- Irony : Typically refers to saying one thing and meaning the opposite, often to shock audiences and emphasize the importance of the truth.
- Satire : A style of writing that mocks, ridicules, or pokes fun at a person, belief, or group of people in order to challenge them. Often, texts employing satire use sarcasm, irony, or exaggeration to assert their perspective.
- Stream of consciousness : A mode of writing in which the author traces his or her thoughts verbatim into the text. Typically, this style offers a representation of the author’s exact thoughts throughout the writing process and can be used to convey a variety of different emotions or as a form of pre-writing.
Terms for Interpreting Characters
- Antagonist : A character in a text who the protagonist opposes. The antagonist is often (though not always) the villain of a story.
- Anti-hero : A protagonist of a story who embodies none of the qualities typically assigned to traditional heroes and heroines. Not to be confused with the antagonist of a story, the anti-hero is a protagonist whose failings are typically used to humanize him or her and convey a message about the reality of human existence.
- Archetype : “a resonant figure of mythic importance, whether a personality, place, or situation, found in diverse cultures and different historical periods” (Mickics 24). Archetypes differ from allegories because they tend to reference broader or commonplace (often termed “stock”) character types, plot points, and literary conventions. Paying attention to archetypes can help readers identify what an author may posit as “universal truths” about life, society, human interaction, etc. based on what other authors or participants in a culture may have said about them.
- Epithet : According to Taafe, “An adjective, noun, or phase expressing some characteristic quality of a thing or person or a descriptive name applied to a person, as Richard the Lion-Hearted” (Taafe 58). An epithet usually indicates some notable quality about the individual with whom it addresses, but it can also be used ironically to emphasize qualities that individual might actually lack.
- Personification : The artistic representation of a concept, quality, or idea in the form of a person. Personification can also refer to “a person who is considered a representative type of a particular quality or concept” (Taafe 120). Many classical deities are good examples of personifications. For instance, the Greek god Ares is a personification of war.
- Protagonist : The primary character in a text, often positioned as “good” or the character with whom readers are expected to identify. Protagonists usually oppose an antagonist.
Terms for Interpreting Word Choice, Dialogue, and Speech
- Alliteration : According to Baldick, “The repetition of the same sounds—usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllabus—in any sequence of neighboring words” (Baldick 6). Alliteration is typically used to convey a specific tone or message.
- Apostrophe : This figure of speech refers to an address to “a dead or absent person, or an abstraction or inanimate object” and is “usually employed for emotional emphasis, can become ridiculous [or humorous] when misapplied” (Baldick 17).
- Diction : Word choice, or the specific language an author, narrator, or speaker uses to describe events and interact with other characters.
Terms for Interpreting Plot
- Climax : The height of conflict and intrigue in a narrative. This is when events in the narrative and characters’ destinies are most unclear; the climax often appears as a decision the protagonist must make or a challenge he or she must overcome in order for the narrative to obtain resolution.
- Denouement : The “falling action” of a narrative, when the climax and central conflicts are resolved and a resolution is found. In a play, this is typically the last act and in a novel it might include the final chapters.
- Deus Ex Machina : According to Taafe, “Literally, in Latin, the ‘god from the machine’; a deity in Greek and Roman drama who was brought in by stage machinery to intervene in the action; hence, any character, event, or device suddenly introduced to resolve the conflict” (43).
- Exposition : Usually located at the beginning of a text, this is a detailed discussion introducing characters, setting, background information, etc. readers might need to know in order to understand the text that follows. This section is particularly rich for analysis because it contains a lot of important information in a relatively small space.
- Frame Narrative : a story that an author encloses around the central narrative in order to provide background information and context. This is typically referred to as a “story within a story” or a “tale within a tale.” Frame stories are usually located in a distinct place and time from the narratives they surround. Examples of stories with frame narratives include Canterbury Tales, Frankenstein , and Wuthering Heights .
- In media res : Beginning in “the middle of things,” or when an author begins a text in the midst of action. This often functions as a way to both incorporate the reader directly into the narrative and secure his or her interest in the narrative that follows.
Terms for Interpreting Layers of Meaning
- Allegory : A literary mode that attempts to convert abstract concepts, values, beliefs, or historical events into characters or other tangible elements in a narrative. Examples include, Gulliver’s Travels, The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Paradise Lost .
- Allusion : When a text references, incorporates, or responds to an earlier piece (including literature, art, music, film, event, etc). T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) offers an extensive example of allusion in literature. According to Baldick, “The technique of allusion is an economical means of calling upon the history or the literary tradition that author and reader are assumed to share” (7).
- Hyperbole : exaggerated language, description, or speech that is not meant to be taken literally, but is used for emphasis. For instance, “I’ve been waiting here for ages” or “This bag weighs a ton.”
- Metaphor : a figure of speech that refers to one thing by another in order to identify similarities between the two (and therefore define each in relation to one another).
- Note that metonymy differs subtly from synecdoche, which substitutes a part of something for the whole. For example, the phrase "all hands on deck" can substitute for the more awkward "all people on deck."
- Parody : a narrative work or writing style that mocks or mimics another genre or work. Typically, parodies exaggerate and emphasize elements from the original work in order to ridicule, comment on, or criticize their message.
- Simile : a figure of speech that compares two people, objects, elements, or concepts using “like” or “as.”
For more information or to read about other literary terms, please see the following texts:
Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms . Oxford University Press, 2001.
Mikics, David. A New Handbook of Literary Terms . Yale University Press, 2007.
Taafe, James G. A Student’s Guide to Literary Term s. The World Publishing Company, 1967.
Literary Devices & Terms
An acrostic is a piece of writing in which a particular set of letters—typically the first letter of each line, word, or paragraph—spells out a word or phrase with special significance to the text. Acrostics... (read full acrostic explanation with examples) An acrostic is a piece of writing in which a particular set of letters—typically the first letter of each line,... (read more)
An allegory is a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and events. The story of "The Tortoise and The Hare" is a well-known allegory with a... (read full allegory explanation with examples) An allegory is a work that conveys a hidden meaning—usually moral, spiritual, or political—through the use of symbolic characters and... (read more)
Alliteration is a figure of speech in which the same sound repeats in a group of words, such as the “b” sound in: “Bob brought the box of bricks to the basement.” The repeating sound... (read full alliteration explanation with examples) Alliteration is a figure of speech in which the same sound repeats in a group of words, such as the... (read more)
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas, and they do so in... (read full allusion explanation with examples) In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... (read more)
An anachronism is a person or a thing placed in the wrong time period. For instance, if a novel set in Medieval England featured a trip to a movie-theater, that would be an anachronism. Although... (read full anachronism explanation with examples) An anachronism is a person or a thing placed in the wrong time period. For instance, if a novel set... (read more)
Anadiplosis is a figure of speech in which a word or group of words located at the end of one clause or sentence is repeated at or near the beginning of the following clause or... (read full anadiplosis explanation with examples) Anadiplosis is a figure of speech in which a word or group of words located at the end of one... (read more)
An analogy is a comparison that aims to explain a thing or idea by likening it to something else. For example, a career coach might say, "Being the successful boss or CEO of a company... (read full analogy explanation with examples) An analogy is a comparison that aims to explain a thing or idea by likening it to something else. For... (read more)
An anapest is a three-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed syllable. The word "understand" is an anapest, with the unstressed syllables of "un" and "der" followed... (read full anapest explanation with examples) An anapest is a three-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which two unstressed syllables are followed by a stressed syllable.... (read more)
Anaphora is a figure of speech in which words repeat at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. For example, Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech contains anaphora: "So let freedom... (read full anaphora explanation with examples) Anaphora is a figure of speech in which words repeat at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences. For... (read more)
An antagonist is usually a character who opposes the protagonist (or main character) of a story, but the antagonist can also be a group of characters, institution, or force against which the protagonist must contend.... (read full antagonist explanation with examples) An antagonist is usually a character who opposes the protagonist (or main character) of a story, but the antagonist can... (read more)
Antanaclasis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated within a sentence, but the word or phrase means something different each time it appears. A famous example of antanaclasis is... (read full antanaclasis explanation with examples) Antanaclasis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated within a sentence, but the word... (read more)
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, and behaviors to animals or other non-human things (including objects, plants, and supernatural beings). Some famous examples of anthropomorphism include Winnie the Pooh, the Little Engine that Could, and Simba from... (read full anthropomorphism explanation with examples) Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, and behaviors to animals or other non-human things (including objects, plants, and supernatural beings). Some famous... (read more)
Antimetabole is a figure of speech in which a phrase is repeated, but with the order of words reversed. John F. Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you... (read full antimetabole explanation with examples) Antimetabole is a figure of speech in which a phrase is repeated, but with the order of words reversed. John... (read more)
Antithesis is a figure of speech that juxtaposes two contrasting or opposing ideas, usually within parallel grammatical structures. For instance, Neil Armstrong used antithesis when he stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969... (read full antithesis explanation with examples) Antithesis is a figure of speech that juxtaposes two contrasting or opposing ideas, usually within parallel grammatical structures. For instance,... (read more)
An aphorism is a saying that concisely expresses a moral principle or an observation about the world, presenting it as a general or universal truth. The Rolling Stones are responsible for penning one of the... (read full aphorism explanation with examples) An aphorism is a saying that concisely expresses a moral principle or an observation about the world, presenting it as... (read more)
Aphorismus is a type of figure of speech that calls into question the way a word is used. Aphorismus is used not to question the meaning of a word, but whether it is actually appropriate... (read full aphorismus explanation with examples) Aphorismus is a type of figure of speech that calls into question the way a word is used. Aphorismus is... (read more)
Aporia is a rhetorical device in which a speaker expresses uncertainty or doubt—often pretended uncertainty or doubt—about something, usually as a way of proving a point. An example of aporia is the famous Elizabeth Barrett... (read full aporia explanation with examples) Aporia is a rhetorical device in which a speaker expresses uncertainty or doubt—often pretended uncertainty or doubt—about something, usually as... (read more)
Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which a speaker directly addresses someone (or something) that is not present or cannot respond in reality. The entity being addressed can be an absent, dead, or imaginary... (read full apostrophe explanation with examples) Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which a speaker directly addresses someone (or something) that is not present or... (read more)
Assonance is a figure of speech in which the same vowel sound repeats within a group of words. An example of assonance is: "Who gave Newt and Scooter the blue tuna? It was too soon!" (read full assonance explanation with examples) Assonance is a figure of speech in which the same vowel sound repeats within a group of words. An example... (read more)
An asyndeton (sometimes called asyndetism) is a figure of speech in which coordinating conjunctions—words such as "and", "or", and "but" that join other words or clauses in a sentence into relationships of equal importance—are omitted.... (read full asyndeton explanation with examples) An asyndeton (sometimes called asyndetism) is a figure of speech in which coordinating conjunctions—words such as "and", "or", and "but"... (read more)
A ballad is a type of poem that tells a story and was traditionally set to music. English language ballads are typically composed of four-line stanzas that follow an ABCB rhyme scheme. (read full ballad explanation with examples) A ballad is a type of poem that tells a story and was traditionally set to music. English language ballads... (read more)
A ballade is a form of lyric poetry that originated in medieval France. Ballades follow a strict rhyme scheme ("ababbcbc"), and typically have three eight-line stanzas followed by a shorter four-line stanza called an envoi.... (read full ballade explanation with examples) A ballade is a form of lyric poetry that originated in medieval France. Ballades follow a strict rhyme scheme ("ababbcbc"),... (read more)
Bildungsroman is a genre of novel that shows a young protagonist's journey from childhood to adulthood (or immaturity to maturity), with a focus on the trials and misfortunes that affect the character's growth. (read full bildungsroman explanation with examples) Bildungsroman is a genre of novel that shows a young protagonist's journey from childhood to adulthood (or immaturity to maturity),... (read more)
Blank verse is the name given to poetry that lacks rhymes but does follow a specific meter—a meter that is almost always iambic pentameter. Blank verse was particularly popular in English poetry written between the... (read full blank verse explanation with examples) Blank verse is the name given to poetry that lacks rhymes but does follow a specific meter—a meter that is... (read more)
A cacophony is a combination of words that sound harsh or unpleasant together, usually because they pack a lot of percussive or "explosive" consonants (like T, P, or K) into relatively little space. For instance, the... (read full cacophony explanation with examples) A cacophony is a combination of words that sound harsh or unpleasant together, usually because they pack a lot of... (read more)
A caesura is a pause that occurs within a line of poetry, usually marked by some form of punctuation such as a period, comma, ellipsis, or dash. A caesura doesn't have to be placed in... (read full caesura explanation with examples) A caesura is a pause that occurs within a line of poetry, usually marked by some form of punctuation such... (read more)
Catharsis is the process of releasing strong or pent-up emotions through art. Aristotle coined the term catharsis—which comes from the Greek kathairein meaning "to cleanse or purge"—to describe the release of emotional tension that he... (read full catharsis explanation with examples) Catharsis is the process of releasing strong or pent-up emotions through art. Aristotle coined the term catharsis—which comes from the... (read more)
Characterization is the representation of the traits, motives, and psychology of a character in a narrative. Characterization may occur through direct description, in which the character's qualities are described by a narrator, another character, or... (read full characterization explanation with examples) Characterization is the representation of the traits, motives, and psychology of a character in a narrative. Characterization may occur through... (read more)
Chiasmus is a figure of speech in which the grammar of one phrase is inverted in the following phrase, such that two key concepts from the original phrase reappear in the second phrase in inverted... (read full chiasmus explanation with examples) Chiasmus is a figure of speech in which the grammar of one phrase is inverted in the following phrase, such... (read more)
The word cinquain can refer to two different things. Historically, it referred to any stanza of five lines written in any type of verse. More recently, cinquain has come to refer to particular types of... (read full cinquain explanation with examples) The word cinquain can refer to two different things. Historically, it referred to any stanza of five lines written in... (read more)
A cliché is a phrase that, due to overuse, is seen as lacking in substance or originality. For example, telling a heartbroken friend that there are "Plenty of fish in the sea" is such a... (read full cliché explanation with examples) A cliché is a phrase that, due to overuse, is seen as lacking in substance or originality. For example, telling... (read more)
Climax is a figure of speech in which successive words, phrases, clauses, or sentences are arranged in ascending order of importance, as in "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... (read full climax (figure of speech) explanation with examples) Climax is a figure of speech in which successive words, phrases, clauses, or sentences are arranged in ascending order of... (read more)
The climax of a plot is the story's central turning point—the moment of peak tension or conflict—which all the preceding plot developments have been leading up to. In a traditional "good vs. evil" story (like many superhero movies)... (read full climax (plot) explanation with examples) The climax of a plot is the story's central turning point—the moment of peak tension or conflict—which all the preceding plot... (read more)
Colloquialism is the use of informal words or phrases in writing or speech. Colloquialisms are usually defined in geographical terms, meaning that they are often defined by their use within a dialect, a regionally-defined variant... (read full colloquialism explanation with examples) Colloquialism is the use of informal words or phrases in writing or speech. Colloquialisms are usually defined in geographical terms,... (read more)
Common meter is a specific type of meter that is often used in lyric poetry. Common meter has two key traits: it alternates between lines of eight syllables and lines of six syllables, and it... (read full common meter explanation with examples) Common meter is a specific type of meter that is often used in lyric poetry. Common meter has two key... (read more)
A conceit is a fanciful metaphor, especially a highly elaborate or extended metaphor in which an unlikely, far-fetched, or strained comparison is made between two things. A famous example comes from John Donne's poem, "A... (read full conceit explanation with examples) A conceit is a fanciful metaphor, especially a highly elaborate or extended metaphor in which an unlikely, far-fetched, or strained... (read more)
Connotation is the array of emotions and ideas suggested by a word in addition to its dictionary definition. Most words carry meanings, impressions, or associations apart from or beyond their literal meaning. For example, the... (read full connotation explanation with examples) Connotation is the array of emotions and ideas suggested by a word in addition to its dictionary definition. Most words... (read more)
Consonance is a figure of speech in which the same consonant sound repeats within a group of words. An example of consonance is: "Traffic figures, on July Fourth, to be tough." (read full consonance explanation with examples) Consonance is a figure of speech in which the same consonant sound repeats within a group of words. An example... (read more)
A couplet is a unit of two lines of poetry, especially lines that use the same or similar meter, form a rhyme, or are separated from other lines by a double line break. (read full couplet explanation with examples) A couplet is a unit of two lines of poetry, especially lines that use the same or similar meter, form... (read more)
A dactyl is a three-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which a stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables. The word “poetry” itself is a great example of a dactyl, with the stressed syllable... (read full dactyl explanation with examples) A dactyl is a three-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which a stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables.... (read more)
Denotation is the literal meaning, or "dictionary definition," of a word. Denotation is defined in contrast to connotation, which is the array of emotions and ideas suggested by a word in addition to its dictionary... (read full denotation explanation with examples) Denotation is the literal meaning, or "dictionary definition," of a word. Denotation is defined in contrast to connotation, which is... (read more)
The dénouement is the final section of a story's plot, in which loose ends are tied up, lingering questions are answered, and a sense of resolution is achieved. The shortest and most well known dénouement, it could be... (read full dénouement explanation with examples) The dénouement is the final section of a story's plot, in which loose ends are tied up, lingering questions are answered, and... (read more)
A deus ex machina is a plot device whereby an unsolvable conflict or point of tension is suddenly resolved by the unexpected appearance of an implausible character, object, action, ability, or event. For example, if... (read full deus ex machina explanation with examples) A deus ex machina is a plot device whereby an unsolvable conflict or point of tension is suddenly resolved by... (read more)
Diacope is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated with a small number of intervening words. The first line of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike;... (read full diacope explanation with examples) Diacope is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated with a small number of intervening... (read more)
Dialogue is the exchange of spoken words between two or more characters in a book, play, or other written work. In prose writing, lines of dialogue are typically identified by the use of quotation marks... (read full dialogue explanation with examples) Dialogue is the exchange of spoken words between two or more characters in a book, play, or other written work.... (read more)
Diction is a writer's unique style of expression, especially his or her choice and arrangement of words. A writer's vocabulary, use of language to produce a specific tone or atmosphere, and ability to communicate clearly... (read full diction explanation with examples) Diction is a writer's unique style of expression, especially his or her choice and arrangement of words. A writer's vocabulary,... (read more)
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given situation, and that of the audience. More specifically, in dramatic... (read full dramatic irony explanation with examples) Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a... (read more)
A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character's change can be extreme or subtle, as long as his or her development is important to... (read full dynamic character explanation with examples) A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character's change... (read more)
An elegy is a poem of serious reflection, especially one mourning the loss of someone who died. Elegies are defined by their subject matter, and don't have to follow any specific form in terms of... (read full elegy explanation with examples) An elegy is a poem of serious reflection, especially one mourning the loss of someone who died. Elegies are defined... (read more)
End rhyme refers to rhymes that occur in the final words of lines of poetry. For instance, these lines from Dorothy Parker's poem "Interview" use end rhyme: "The ladies men admire, I’ve heard, / Would shudder... (read full end rhyme explanation with examples) End rhyme refers to rhymes that occur in the final words of lines of poetry. For instance, these lines from... (read more)
An end-stopped line is a line of poetry in which a sentence or phrase comes to a conclusion at the end of the line. For example, the poet C.P. Cavafy uses end-stopped lines in his... (read full end-stopped line explanation with examples) An end-stopped line is a line of poetry in which a sentence or phrase comes to a conclusion at the... (read more)
Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or clause across a line break. For example, the poet John Donne uses enjambment in his poem "The Good-Morrow" when he continues the opening sentence across the line... (read full enjambment explanation with examples) Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or clause across a line break. For example, the poet John Donne uses... (read more)
An envoi is a brief concluding stanza at the end of a poem that can either summarize the preceding poem or serve as its dedication. The envoi tends to follow the same meter and rhyme... (read full envoi explanation with examples) An envoi is a brief concluding stanza at the end of a poem that can either summarize the preceding poem... (read more)
Epanalepsis is a figure of speech in which the beginning of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end of that same clause or sentence, with words intervening. The sentence "The king is dead,... (read full epanalepsis explanation with examples) Epanalepsis is a figure of speech in which the beginning of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end... (read more)
An epigram is a short and witty statement, usually written in verse, that conveys a single thought or observation. Epigrams typically end with a punchline or a satirical twist. (read full epigram explanation with examples) An epigram is a short and witty statement, usually written in verse, that conveys a single thought or observation. Epigrams... (read more)
An epigraph is a short quotation, phrase, or poem that is placed at the beginning of another piece of writing to encapsulate that work's main themes and to set the tone. For instance, the epigraph of Mary... (read full epigraph explanation with examples) An epigraph is a short quotation, phrase, or poem that is placed at the beginning of another piece of writing to... (read more)
Epistrophe is a figure of speech in which one or more words repeat at the end of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln urged the American people to ensure that,... (read full epistrophe explanation with examples) Epistrophe is a figure of speech in which one or more words repeat at the end of successive phrases, clauses,... (read more)
Epizeuxis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated in immediate succession, with no intervening words. In the play Hamlet, when Hamlet responds to a question about what he's reading... (read full epizeuxis explanation with examples) Epizeuxis is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated in immediate succession, with no intervening... (read more)
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Ethos is an argument that appeals to the audience by emphasizing the... (read full ethos explanation with examples) Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... (read more)
Euphony is the combining of words that sound pleasant together or are easy to pronounce, usually because they contain lots of consonants with soft or muffled sounds (like L, M, N, and R) instead of consonants with harsh, percussive sounds (like... (read full euphony explanation with examples) Euphony is the combining of words that sound pleasant together or are easy to pronounce, usually because they contain lots of consonants with soft... (read more)
Exposition is the description or explanation of background information within a work of literature. Exposition can cover characters and their relationship to one another, the setting or time and place of events, as well as... (read full exposition explanation with examples) Exposition is the description or explanation of background information within a work of literature. Exposition can cover characters and their... (read more)
An extended metaphor is a metaphor that unfolds across multiple lines or even paragraphs of a text, making use of multiple interrelated metaphors within an overarching one. So while "life is a highway" is a... (read full extended metaphor explanation with examples) An extended metaphor is a metaphor that unfolds across multiple lines or even paragraphs of a text, making use of... (read more)
An external conflict is a problem, antagonism, or struggle that takes place between a character and an outside force. External conflict drives the action of a plot forward. (read full external conflict explanation with examples) An external conflict is a problem, antagonism, or struggle that takes place between a character and an outside force. External conflict... (read more)
The falling action of a story is the section of the plot following the climax, in which the tension stemming from the story's central conflict decreases and the story moves toward its conclusion. For instance, the traditional "good... (read full falling action explanation with examples) The falling action of a story is the section of the plot following the climax, in which the tension stemming from... (read more)
Figurative language is language that contains or uses figures of speech. When people use the term "figurative language," however, they often do so in a slightly narrower way. In this narrower definition, figurative language refers... (read full figurative language explanation with examples) Figurative language is language that contains or uses figures of speech. When people use the term "figurative language," however, they... (read more)
A figure of speech is a literary device in which language is used in an unusual—or "figured"—way in order to produce a stylistic effect. Figures of speech can be broken into two main groups: figures... (read full figure of speech explanation with examples) A figure of speech is a literary device in which language is used in an unusual—or "figured"—way in order to... (read more)
A character is said to be "flat" if it is one-dimensional or lacking in complexity. Typically, flat characters can be easily and accurately described using a single word (like "bully") or one short sentence (like "A naive... (read full flat character explanation with examples) A character is said to be "flat" if it is one-dimensional or lacking in complexity. Typically, flat characters can be easily... (read more)
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making explicit statements or leaving subtle... (read full foreshadowing explanation with examples) Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... (read more)
Formal verse is the name given to rhymed poetry that uses a strict meter (a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables). This two-line poem by Emily Dickinson is formal verse because it rhymes and... (read full formal verse explanation with examples) Formal verse is the name given to rhymed poetry that uses a strict meter (a regular pattern of stressed and... (read more)
Free verse is the name given to poetry that doesn’t use any strict meter or rhyme scheme. Because it has no set meter, poems written in free verse can have lines of any length, from... (read full free verse explanation with examples) Free verse is the name given to poetry that doesn’t use any strict meter or rhyme scheme. Because it has... (read more)
Hamartia is a literary term that refers to a tragic flaw or error that leads to a character's downfall. In the novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein's arrogant conviction that he can usurp the roles of God... (read full hamartia explanation with examples) Hamartia is a literary term that refers to a tragic flaw or error that leads to a character's downfall. In... (read more)
Hubris refers to excessive pride or overconfidence, which drives a person to overstep limits in a way that leads to their downfall. In Greek mythology, the legend of Icarus involves an iconic case of hubris:... (read full hubris explanation with examples) Hubris refers to excessive pride or overconfidence, which drives a person to overstep limits in a way that leads to... (read more)
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements are usually quite obvious exaggerations intended to emphasize a point, rather than be taken literally.... (read full hyperbole explanation with examples) Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker exaggerates for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbolic statements... (read more)
An iamb is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which one unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. The word "define" is an iamb, with the unstressed syllable of "de" followed by the... (read full iamb explanation with examples) An iamb is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which one unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable.... (read more)
An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning that is difficult or impossible to understand based solely on a literal interpretation of the words in the phrase. For example, saying that something is... (read full idiom explanation with examples) An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning that is difficult or impossible to understand based solely on... (read more)
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages the senses of touch, movement,... (read full imagery explanation with examples) Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... (read more)
Internal rhyme is rhyme that occurs in the middle of lines of poetry, instead of at the ends of lines. A single line of poetry can contain internal rhyme (with multiple words in the same... (read full internal rhyme explanation with examples) Internal rhyme is rhyme that occurs in the middle of lines of poetry, instead of at the ends of lines.... (read more)
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition, don't worry—it is. Irony is a... (read full irony explanation with examples) Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... (read more)
Juxtaposition occurs when an author places two things side by side as a way of highlighting their differences. Ideas, images, characters, and actions are all things that can be juxtaposed with one another. For example,... (read full juxtaposition explanation with examples) Juxtaposition occurs when an author places two things side by side as a way of highlighting their differences. Ideas, images,... (read more)
A kenning is a figure of speech in which two words are combined in order to form a poetic expression that refers to a person or a thing. For example, "whale-road" is a kenning for... (read full kenning explanation with examples) A kenning is a figure of speech in which two words are combined in order to form a poetic expression... (read more)
A line break is the termination of one line of poetry, and the beginning of a new line. (read full line break explanation with examples) A line break is the termination of one line of poetry, and the beginning of a new line. (read more)
Litotes is a figure of speech and a form of understatement in which a sentiment is expressed ironically by negating its contrary. For example, saying "It's not the best weather today" during a hurricane would... (read full litotes explanation with examples) Litotes is a figure of speech and a form of understatement in which a sentiment is expressed ironically by negating... (read more)
Logos, along with ethos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Logos is an argument that appeals to an audience's sense of logic... (read full logos explanation with examples) Logos, along with ethos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... (read more)
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as in the sentence "Love is... (read full metaphor explanation with examples) A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other.... (read more)
Meter is a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that defines the rhythm of some poetry. These stress patterns are defined in groupings, called feet, of two or three syllables. A pattern of unstressed-stressed,... (read full meter explanation with examples) Meter is a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that defines the rhythm of some poetry. These stress patterns... (read more)
Metonymy is a type of figurative language in which an object or concept is referred to not by its own name, but instead by the name of something closely associated with it. For example, in... (read full metonymy explanation with examples) Metonymy is a type of figurative language in which an object or concept is referred to not by its own... (read more)
The mood of a piece of writing is its general atmosphere or emotional complexion—in short, the array of feelings the work evokes in the reader. Every aspect of a piece of writing can influence its mood, from the... (read full mood explanation with examples) The mood of a piece of writing is its general atmosphere or emotional complexion—in short, the array of feelings the work evokes... (read more)
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book or play. For example, one... (read full motif explanation with examples) A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... (read more)
A narrative is an account of connected events. Two writers describing the same set of events might craft very different narratives, depending on how they use different narrative elements, such as tone or point of view. For... (read full narrative explanation with examples) A narrative is an account of connected events. Two writers describing the same set of events might craft very different narratives,... (read more)
Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which words evoke the actual sound of the thing they refer to or describe. The “boom” of a firework exploding, the “tick tock” of a clock, and the... (read full onomatopoeia explanation with examples) Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech in which words evoke the actual sound of the thing they refer to or... (read more)
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms or ideas are intentionally paired in order to make a point—particularly to reveal a deeper or hidden truth. The most recognizable oxymorons are... (read full oxymoron explanation with examples) An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two contradictory terms or ideas are intentionally paired in order to... (read more)
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is much too important to be... (read full paradox explanation with examples) A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel... (read more)
Parallelism is a figure of speech in which two or more elements of a sentence (or series of sentences) have the same grammatical structure. These "parallel" elements can be used to intensify the rhythm of... (read full parallelism explanation with examples) Parallelism is a figure of speech in which two or more elements of a sentence (or series of sentences) have... (read more)
Parataxis is a figure of speech in which words, phrases, clauses, or sentences are set next to each other so that each element is equally important. Parataxis usually involves simple sentences or phrases whose relationships... (read full parataxis explanation with examples) Parataxis is a figure of speech in which words, phrases, clauses, or sentences are set next to each other so... (read more)
A parody is a work that mimics the style of another work, artist, or genre in an exaggerated way, usually for comic effect. Parodies can take many forms, including fiction, poetry, film, visual art, and... (read full parody explanation with examples) A parody is a work that mimics the style of another work, artist, or genre in an exaggerated way, usually... (read more)
Pathetic fallacy occurs when a writer attributes human emotions to things that aren't human, such as objects, weather, or animals. It is often used to make the environment reflect the inner experience of a narrator... (read full pathetic fallacy explanation with examples) Pathetic fallacy occurs when a writer attributes human emotions to things that aren't human, such as objects, weather, or animals.... (read more)
Pathos, along with logos and ethos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Pathos is an argument that appeals to an audience's emotions. When a... (read full pathos explanation with examples) Pathos, along with logos and ethos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... (read more)
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent to their plans." Describing the... (read full personification explanation with examples) Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... (read more)
Plot is the sequence of interconnected events within the story of a play, novel, film, epic, or other narrative literary work. More than simply an account of what happened, plot reveals the cause-and-effect relationships between... (read full plot explanation with examples) Plot is the sequence of interconnected events within the story of a play, novel, film, epic, or other narrative literary... (read more)
Point of view refers to the perspective that the narrator holds in relation to the events of the story. The three primary points of view are first person, in which the narrator tells a story from... (read full point of view explanation with examples) Point of view refers to the perspective that the narrator holds in relation to the events of the story. The... (read more)
Polyptoton is a figure of speech that involves the repetition of words derived from the same root (such as "blood" and "bleed"). For instance, the question, "Who shall watch the watchmen?" is an example of... (read full polyptoton explanation with examples) Polyptoton is a figure of speech that involves the repetition of words derived from the same root (such as "blood"... (read more)
Polysyndeton is a figure of speech in which coordinating conjunctions—words such as "and," "or," and "but" that join other words or clauses in a sentence into relationships of equal importance—are used several times in close... (read full polysyndeton explanation with examples) Polysyndeton is a figure of speech in which coordinating conjunctions—words such as "and," "or," and "but" that join other words... (read more)
The protagonist of a story is its main character, who has the sympathy and support of the audience. This character tends to be involved in or affected by most of the choices or conflicts that... (read full protagonist explanation with examples) The protagonist of a story is its main character, who has the sympathy and support of the audience. This character... (read more)
A pun is a figure of speech that plays with words that have multiple meanings, or that plays with words that sound similar but mean different things. The comic novelist Douglas Adams uses both types... (read full pun explanation with examples) A pun is a figure of speech that plays with words that have multiple meanings, or that plays with words... (read more)
A quatrain is a four-line stanza of poetry. It can be a single four-line stanza, meaning that it is a stand-alone poem of four lines, or it can be a four-line stanza that makes up... (read full quatrain explanation with examples) A quatrain is a four-line stanza of poetry. It can be a single four-line stanza, meaning that it is a... (read more)
A red herring is a piece of information in a story that distracts readers from an important truth, or leads them to mistakenly expect a particular outcome. Most often, the term red herring is used to refer... (read full red herring explanation with examples) A red herring is a piece of information in a story that distracts readers from an important truth, or leads them... (read more)
In a poem or song, a refrain is a line or group of lines that regularly repeat, usually at the end of a stanza in a poem or at the end of a verse in... (read full refrain explanation with examples) In a poem or song, a refrain is a line or group of lines that regularly repeat, usually at the... (read more)
Repetition is a literary device in which a word or phrase is repeated two or more times. Repetition occurs in so many different forms that it is usually not thought of as a single figure... (read full repetition explanation with examples) Repetition is a literary device in which a word or phrase is repeated two or more times. Repetition occurs in... (read more)
A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in which a question is asked for a reason other than to get an answer—most commonly, it's asked to make a persuasive point. For example, if a... (read full rhetorical question explanation with examples) A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in which a question is asked for a reason other than to... (read more)
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words. Rhyming is particularly common in many types of poetry, especially at the ends of lines, and is a requirement in formal verse.... (read full rhyme explanation with examples) A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words. Rhyming is particularly common in many types... (read more)
A rhyme scheme is the pattern according to which end rhymes (rhymes located at the end of lines) are repeated in works poetry. Rhyme schemes are described using letters of the alphabet, such that all... (read full rhyme scheme explanation with examples) A rhyme scheme is the pattern according to which end rhymes (rhymes located at the end of lines) are repeated... (read more)
The rising action of a story is the section of the plot leading up to the climax, in which the tension stemming from the story's central conflict grows through successive plot developments. For example, in the story of "Little... (read full rising action explanation with examples) The rising action of a story is the section of the plot leading up to the climax, in which the tension stemming... (read more)
A character is said to be "round" if they are lifelike or complex. Round characters typically have fully fleshed-out and multi-faceted personalities, backgrounds, desires, and motivations. Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby... (read full round character explanation with examples) A character is said to be "round" if they are lifelike or complex. Round characters typically have fully fleshed-out and... (read more)
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take aim at other targets as... (read full satire explanation with examples) Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians,... (read more)
A sestet is a six-line stanza of poetry. It can be any six-line stanza—one that is, itself, a whole poem, or one that makes up a part of a longer poem. Most commonly, the term... (read full sestet explanation with examples) A sestet is a six-line stanza of poetry. It can be any six-line stanza—one that is, itself, a whole poem,... (read more)
Setting is where and when a story or scene takes place. The where can be a real place like the city of New York, or it can be an imagined location, like Middle Earth in... (read full setting explanation with examples) Setting is where and when a story or scene takes place. The where can be a real place like the... (read more)
Sibilance is a figure of speech in which a hissing sound is created within a group of words through the repetition of "s" sounds. An example of sibilance is: "Sadly, Sam sold seven venomous serpents to Sally and... (read full sibilance explanation with examples) Sibilance is a figure of speech in which a hissing sound is created within a group of words through the repetition... (read more)
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often use the connecting words "like" or "as," but can also use other words that indicate... (read full simile explanation with examples) A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things. To make the comparison, similes most often... (read more)
Traditionally, slant rhyme referred to a type of rhyme in which two words located at the end of a line of poetry themselves end in similar—but not identical—consonant sounds. For instance, the words "pact" and... (read full slant rhyme explanation with examples) Traditionally, slant rhyme referred to a type of rhyme in which two words located at the end of a line... (read more)
A soliloquy is a literary device, most often found in dramas, in which a character speaks to him or herself, relating his or her innermost thoughts and feelings as if thinking aloud. In some cases,... (read full soliloquy explanation with examples) A soliloquy is a literary device, most often found in dramas, in which a character speaks to him or herself,... (read more)
A sonnet is a type of fourteen-line poem. Traditionally, the fourteen lines of a sonnet consist of an octave (or two quatrains making up a stanza of 8 lines) and a sestet (a stanza of... (read full sonnet explanation with examples) A sonnet is a type of fourteen-line poem. Traditionally, the fourteen lines of a sonnet consist of an octave (or... (read more)
A spondee is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which both syllables are stressed. The word "downtown" is a spondee, with the stressed syllable of "down" followed by another stressed syllable, “town”: Down-town. (read full spondee explanation with examples) A spondee is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which both syllables are stressed. The word "downtown" is a... (read more)
A stanza is a group of lines form a smaller unit within a poem. A single stanza is usually set apart from other lines or stanza within a poem by a double line break or... (read full stanza explanation with examples) A stanza is a group of lines form a smaller unit within a poem. A single stanza is usually set... (read more)
A character is said to be "static" if they do not undergo any substantial internal changes as a result of the story's major plot developments. Antagonists are often static characters, but any character in a... (read full static character explanation with examples) A character is said to be "static" if they do not undergo any substantial internal changes as a result of... (read more)
Stream of consciousness is a style or technique of writing that tries to capture the natural flow of a character's extended thought process, often by incorporating sensory impressions, incomplete ideas, unusual syntax, and rough grammar. (read full stream of consciousness explanation with examples) Stream of consciousness is a style or technique of writing that tries to capture the natural flow of a character's... (read more)
A syllogism is a three-part logical argument, based on deductive reasoning, in which two premises are combined to arrive at a conclusion. So long as the premises of the syllogism are true and the syllogism... (read full syllogism explanation with examples) A syllogism is a three-part logical argument, based on deductive reasoning, in which two premises are combined to arrive at... (read more)
Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more abstract. A strong symbol usually shares a set of key characteristics with whatever it is... (read full symbolism explanation with examples) Symbolism is a literary device in which a writer uses one thing—usually a physical object or phenomenon—to represent something more... (read more)
Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which, most often, a part of something is used to refer to its whole. For example, "The captain commands one hundred sails" is a synecdoche that uses "sails"... (read full synecdoche explanation with examples) Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which, most often, a part of something is used to refer to its... (read more)
A theme is a universal idea, lesson, or message explored throughout a work of literature. One key characteristic of literary themes is their universality, which is to say that themes are ideas that not only... (read full theme explanation with examples) A theme is a universal idea, lesson, or message explored throughout a work of literature. One key characteristic of literary... (read more)
The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical or mournful, praising or critical, and so on. For instance, an editorial in a newspaper... (read full tone explanation with examples) The tone of a piece of writing is its general character or attitude, which might be cheerful or depressive, sarcastic or sincere, comical... (read more)
A tragic hero is a type of character in a tragedy, and is usually the protagonist. Tragic heroes typically have heroic traits that earn them the sympathy of the audience, but also have flaws or... (read full tragic hero explanation with examples) A tragic hero is a type of character in a tragedy, and is usually the protagonist. Tragic heroes typically have... (read more)
A trochee is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable. The word "poet" is a trochee, with the stressed syllable of "po" followed by the... (read full trochee explanation with examples) A trochee is a two-syllable metrical pattern in poetry in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable.... (read more)
Understatement is a figure of speech in which something is expressed less strongly than would be expected, or in which something is presented as being smaller, worse, or lesser than it really is. Typically, understatement is... (read full understatement explanation with examples) Understatement is a figure of speech in which something is expressed less strongly than would be expected, or in which something... (read more)
Verbal irony occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different from—and often opposite to—what they actually mean. When there's a hurricane raging outside and someone remarks "what lovely weather we're having," this... (read full verbal irony explanation with examples) Verbal irony occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different from—and often opposite to—what they actually mean.... (read more)
A villanelle is a poem of nineteen lines, and which follows a strict form that consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) followed by one quatrain (four-line stanza). Villanelles use a specific rhyme scheme of ABA... (read full villanelle explanation with examples) A villanelle is a poem of nineteen lines, and which follows a strict form that consists of five tercets (three-line... (read more)
A zeugma is a figure of speech in which one "governing" word or phrase modifies two distinct parts of a sentence. Often, the governing word will mean something different when applied to each part, as... (read full zeugma explanation with examples) A zeugma is a figure of speech in which one "governing" word or phrase modifies two distinct parts of a... (read more)
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To discuss and analyze literature it is important to know some of the basic terms and expressions used within the subject area. The following glossary covers the most widely used terms.
- Literary Terms. Authored by : Jan-Louis Nagel. Provided by : NDLA. Located at : http://ndla.no/en/node/91060?fag=71085 . License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
Major literary terms.
allegory - device of using character and/or story elements symbolically to represent an abstraction in
addition to the literal meaning
alliteration - the repetition of sounds, especially initial consonant sounds in two or more neighboring words
(eg "she sells sea shells")
allusion - a direct or indirect reference to something which is presumably commonly known, such as an
event, book, myth, place, or work of art
ambiguity - the multiple meanings, either intentional or unintentional, of a word, phrase, sentence, or
analogy - a similarity or comparison between two different things or the relationship between them
antecedent - the word, phrase, or clause referred to by a pronoun
aphorism - a terse statement of known authorship which expresses a general turht or moral principle
apostrophe - a figure of speech that directly addresses an absent or imaginary person or a personified
abstraction, such as liberty or love
atmosphere - the emotional mood created by the entirety of a literary work, established partly by the setting
and partly by the author's choice of objects that are described
clause - a grammatical unit that contains both a subject and a verb
colloquial - the use of slang or informalities in speech or writing
conceit - a fanciful expression, usually in the form of an extended metaphor or surprising analogy between
seemingly dissimilar objects
connotation - the nonliteral, associative meaning of a word; the implied, suggested meaning
denotation - the strict, literal, dictionary definition of a word, devoid of any emotion, attitude, or color
diction - refereing to style, diction refers to the writer's word choices, especially with regard to their
correctness, clearness, or effectiveness
didactic - from the Greek, literally means "teaching"
euphemism - from the Greek for "good speech," a more agreeable or less offensive substitute for a
generally unpleasant word or concept
extended metaphor - a metaphor developed at great length, ocurring frequently in or throughout a work
figurative language - writing or speech that is not intended to carry litera meaning and is usually meant to
be imaginative and vivid
figure of speech - a device used to produce figurative language
generic convntions - refers to traditions for each genre
genre - the major category into which a literary work fits (eg prose, poetry, and drama)
homily - literally "sermon", or any serious talk, speech, or lecture providing moral or spiritual advice
hyperbole - a figure of speech using deliberate exaggeration or overstatement
imagery - the sensory details or figurative language used to describe, arouse emotion, or represent
infer (inference) - to draw a reasonable conclusion from the informaion presented
invective - an emotionally violent, verbal denunciation or attack using strong, abusive language
irony - the contrast between what is stated explicitly and what is really meant
verbal irony - words literally state the opposite of speaker's true meaning
situational irony - events turn out the opposite of what was expected
dramatic irony - facts or events are unknown to a character but known to the reader or audience or
other characters in work
loose sentence - a type of sentence in which the main idea comes first, followed by dependent grammatical
metaphor - a figure of speech using implied comparison of seemingly unlike things or the substitution of
one for the other, suggesting some similarity
metonomy - from the Greek "changed label", the name of one object is substituted for that of another
closely associated with it (eg "the White House" for the President)
mood - grammatically, the verbal units and a speaker's attitude (indicative, subjunctive, imperative);
literarily, the prevailing atmosphere or emotional aura of a word
narrative - the telling of a story or an account of an event or sereis of events
onomatopoeia - natural sounds are imitated in the sounds of words (eg buzz, hiss)
oxymoron - from the Greek for "pointedly foolish," author groups apparently contradictory terms to suggest
paradox - a statement that appears to be self-contradictory or opposed to common sense but upon closer
inspection contains some degree of truth or validity
parallelism - from the Greek for "beside one another," the grammatical or rhetorical framing of words,
phrases, sentences, or paragraphs to give structural similarity
parody - a work that closely imitates the style or content of another with the speific aim of comic effect
pedantic - an adjective that describes words, phrases, or general tone that is overly scholarly, academic, or
periodic sentences - a sentence that presents its central meaning in a main clause at the end
personification - a figure of speech in which the author presents or describes concepts, animasl, or
inanimate objects by endowing them with human attributes or emotions
point of view - the perspective from which a story is told (first person, third person omniscient, or third
person limited omniscient)
predicate adjective - one type of subject complement, an adjective, group of adjectives, or adjective cluase
that follows a linking verb
predicate nominative - another type of subject complement, a noun, group of nouns, or noun clause that
renames the subject
prose - genre including fiction, nonfiction, written in ordinary language
repetition - the duplication, either exact or approximate, of any element of language
rhetoric - from the Greek for "orator," the principles governing the art of writing effectively, eloquently,
rhetorical modes - the variety, conventions, and purposes of the major kinds of writing (exposition explains
and analyzes information; argumentation proves validity of an idea; description re-creates, invents,
or presents a person, place, event or action; narration tells a story or recount an event)
sarcasm - from the Greek for "to tear flesh," involves bitter, caustic language that is meant to hurt or
ridicule someone or something
satire - a work that targets human vices and follies or social institutinos and conventions for reform or
semantics - the branch of linguistics which studies the meaning of words, their historical and psychological
development (etymology), their connotations, and their relation to one another
style - an evaluation of the sum of the choices an author maks in blending diction, syntx, figurative
language, and other literary devices; or, classification of authors to a group and comparion of an
author to similar authors
subject complement - the word or clause that follows a linking verb and complements, or completes, the
subject of the sentence by either renaming it or describing it
subordinate clause - contains a subject and verb (like all clauses) but cannot stand alone; does not express
syllogism - from the Greek for "reckoning together," a deductive system of fromal logic that presents two
premises (first "major," second "minor") that inevitably lead to a sound conclusion (eg All men are
mortal, Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal)
symbol (symbolism) - anything that represents or stands for something else (natural, conventional, literary)
syntax - the way an author chooses to join words into phrases, clauses, and sentences
theme - the central idea or message of a work, the insight it offers into life
thesis - in expository writing, the thesis statement is the sentence or group of sentences that directly express
the author's opinion, purpose, meaning, or proposition
tone - similar to mood, describes the author's attitude toward his material, the audience, or both
transition - a word or phrase that links different ideas
understatement - the ironic minimalizing of fact, presents something as less significant than it is
wit - intellectually amusing language that surprises and delights
U - unaccented syllable, A - accented syllable
amphimacer - AUA
anapest - UUA
antibacchus - AAU
bacchius - UAA
chouambus - AUUA
dactyl - AUU
iambus - UA
pyrrhic - UU
spondee - UU
trochee - AU
breve - symbol for unstressed syllable
macron - a "-" symbol to divide syllables