Literary Terms in Alphabetical Order
Allegory: A narrative in which characters and settings stand for abstract ideas or moral qualities. An allegory is a symbolic meaning.
Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginnings of words that are close together
Allusion: Reference to a statement, a person, a place, or an event from literature, history, religion, mythology, politics, sports, science, or pop culture
Ambiguity: a word, image, or event generating two or more different meanings
Anachronism: Something outside of its proper historical time period.
Analogy: a comparison of two or more like objects that suggests if they are alike in certain respects, they will probably be alike in other ways as well. Two types are metaphor and simile.
Anaphora: A rhetorical figure involving the exact repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive lines or sentences. this is a type of parallelism. For example: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."
Anecdote: A witty story to capture the purpose. (sermons, Seinfeld's intro)
Antagonist: character in the story who provides conflict with the protagonist.
Antithesis: A rhetorical figure in which two ideas are directly opposed. For example: "I long and dread to close." It must be presented in a grammatically parallel way.
Aphorism: A concise or witty statement the reveals a truth.
Apostrophe: A rhetorical figure in which the speaker directly addresses a person who is dead or absent, an imaginary or nonhuman entity, or a place or concept (generally abstract). The object of the apostrophe, if not human, is often personified.
Archetype: The original model from which something is developed (images, characters, settings, story patterns). For example: The snake is the archetypal image of the trickster. Doctor Who is an archetype of the Wandering Jew.
Aside: Words that are spoken by a character in a play to the audience or to another character but that are not supposed to be overheard by the others onstage
Assonance: Repetition of similar vowel sounds that are followed by different consonant sounds, especially in words that are close together in a poem
Asyndeton: A rhetorical figure involving the elaborate omission of conjunctions to create a concise, terse, and often memorable statement. (I came, I saw, I conquered.)
Ballad: A song or poem written by an unknown author that tells a sensational story of tragedy or adventure and uses repetition and rhyme; a type of narrative poem
Bildungsroman: A novel that recounts the development of an individual from childhood to maturity, to the point at which the protagonist recognizes his place/role in the world.
Blank Verse: A poem written in unrhymed iambic pentameter
Cacophony: Harsh, unpleasant, or discordant sounds (the opposite of Euphony). For example: "The nasal whine of power whips a new universe... Stars prick the eyes with sharp ammoniac proverbs..."
Caesura: a pause or a sudden break in a line of poetry that is not dictated my meter but by natural speaking rhythm. For example:
I will arise and go now, ll for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping ll with low sounds by the shore...
Canon: a body of written works accepted as authoritative or authentic.
Caricature: an exaggeration of an individual's prominent features or characteristics that makes the person appear ridiculous.
Catharsis: The emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience. It explains the feeling of relief that playgoers experience during and after the catastrophe in a play; it purges or cleanses their emotions of fear and pity, resulting in relief.
Cliche: an overused expression no longer considered original
Climax: moment of great emotional intensity or suspense in the plot
Character: a person who is responsible for the thoughts and actions within a story, poem, or other form of literature
Character Traits: the characterization of the characters; both physical and non-physical (personality, mental ability, etc.)
Chiasmus: A rhetorical figure in which certain words, sounds, concepts, or syntactic structures are reversed or repeated in verse order. Example: (from MacBeth) "Fair is foul and foul is fair."
Colloquialism: the absence of formality in speech, in favor of slang. Example: "What's up?" instead of "Good afternoon."
Conceit: an extended metaphor (it can go on for an entire poem, or for a few lines/sentences).
Concrete Poetry: a poem whose physical form takes on the shape of the poem's meaning
Couplet: Two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme
Conflict: struggle or clash between opposing characters or opposing forces (man vs. man; man vs. nature; man vs. self)
Connotation: all the meanings, associations, or emotions that have come to be attached to some words, in addition to their literal dictionary definitions, or denotations
Consonance: Like assonance and alliteration, consonance is the repetition of certain sounds (in this case, consonants in the middle of the words) in close proximity to each other. i.e. pitter patter
Cumulative/loose sentence: A sentence that begins with an independent clause, and then continues on with more dependent (subordinate) clauses that give more details.
Denotation: literal definition of the word
Denouement: the final outcome of the main complication in the plot
Description: type of writing intended to create a mood or emotion or to re-create a person, a place, a thing, an event, or an experience
Dialect: way of speaking that is characteristic of a particular region or a particular group of people
Dialogue: The conversation between characters in a story
Diction: A writer's or speaker's choice of words
Didactic: informative and realistic, marked by the omission of pleasing details. This type of literature is often seen as "instructional". Examples here are fables and parables.
Direct Characterization: the writer directly tells the reader what a character is like
Drama: Story that is written to be acted for an audience
Dramatic Irony: when the audience or the reader knows something important that a character in a play or story does not know (Romeo does not know that Juliet is NOT dead, but the audience does).
Dramatic Monologue: A poem in which a speaker addresses one or more silent listeners, often reflecting on a specific problem or situation
Dynamic Character: a character whose personality changes during the course of the story; a character who grows, emotionally, due to the actions in the story (usually a round character)
Elegy: a type of literature defined as a song or poem that expresses sorrow, usually for one who has died.
Ellipsis: three dots used in order to omit part of a sentence or end a sentence leaving the reader to imagine the completed thought. Example from Gatsby: "She yawned gracefully in my face. 'Please come and see me...'"
Enjambment: The continuation of one line of poetry to the next without punctuation
Epigram: a short poem that seeks to ridicule a though or event, usually with witticism or sarcasm
Epiphany: a sudden moment of understanding that causes a character to change or to act in a certain way. Example from Hamlet: Hamlet suddenly realized that there is no wisdom in exacting revenge on Claudius.
Ethos: credibility or an ethical appeal which involves persuasion by the character involved. Example from Julius Caesar: In Brutus's speech, he begins by addressing the crowd as "Romans, countrymen, and lovers," demonstrating that he is one of them and that he values their role in Roman society. This helps establish credibility, and as Brutus continues by arguing that he killed Caesar to protect all citizens from Caesar's ambition, he appeals to their sense of Roman values.
Euphemism: polite, indirect expressions which replace words and phrases considered harsh and impolite or which suggest something unpleasant.
Exposition: the beginning part of a plot that gives background information about the characters and their problems or conflicts
Epic: Long story told in elevated language (usually poetry) which relates the great deeds of a hero. Most epics include elements of myth, legend, folk tale, and history.
Epic Hero: A hero in an epic tale that is of legendary abilities (often having great strength and/or wisdom) and sometimes even having a connection to the deities.
Epithet: Adjective or descriptive phrase that is regularly used to characterize a person, place, or thing. i.e. Honest Abe; Alexander the Great; America the Beautiful.
Euphemism: a polite, indirect expression which places something else that might appear harsh or impolite, or unpleasant. For example, "Kick the bucket" for "died", or "downsized" instead of fired.
Extended Metaphor: A metaphor that is developed over several lines of writing or even through an entire poem
Fable: a brief tale that teaches a lesson about human nature. Fables often feature animals.
First Person Point of View: one of the characters is telling the story, using the pronoun "I". We get to know this narrator very well, but we can know only what this character knows.
Flat Character: a character whose actions are predictable; he acts in a set pattern from which he never deviates
Foil: Character who is used as a contrast to another character; he/she "sets off" the qualities of another character
Folklore: traditions, customs, and stories that are passed down within a culture. Folklore contains various types of literature such as legends, folktales, bytes, and fables.
Foot: a unit of meter within a line of poetry
Foreshadowing: the use of clues to hint at events that will occur later in a plot
Free Verse: Poetry that does not have a regular meter or rhyme scheme
Genre: A category of composition characterized by subject matter or style. For example: Satire, drama, tragedy, poetry (can be broad or narrow)
Haiku: Japanese verse form consisting of three lines and seventeen syllables (5-7-5). A haiku often presents an image of daily life that relates to a particular season.
Hamartia: tragic flaw leading to one's demise
Homeric Epithet: A compound adjective that is regularly used to modify a particular noun. i.e. "the grey-eyed goddess Athene; rosy-fingered dawn
Homeric Simile: An extended simile over a few lines of poetry or more.
Homily: Public discourse on a moral or religious subject. Priests give homilies every mass... Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is an example of a homily.
Hubris: excessive pride
Hyperbole: extreme exaggeration to make a point. For example: "Scrooge was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, wheezing, covetous old sinner" or Juliet's memorable speech to Romeo, "My love is as deep as an ocean..."
Invective: speech/writing that attacks and insults by using negative language. For example: In King Lear, Kent denounces Oswald as, " a knave, coward, pander - the son and heir of a mongrel...."
Iambic Pentameter: Line of poetry that contains five iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot, or unit of measure, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Pentameter comes from the Greek penta (five) and meter (measure). This is by far the most common verse line in English poetry.
Imagery: language that appeals to the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)
Indirect Characterization: the writer shows us a character, but allows us to interpret for ourselves the kind of person we are meeting
Internal Rhyme: a rhyme that occurs in the middle of a line - i.e. "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary" (Poe)
Irony: contrast between expectation and reality - between what is said and what is really meant, between what is expected to happen and what really does happen, or between what appears to be true and what is really true (can be in these forms: verbal, situational, and dramatic)
Limerick: lighter form of poetry - comical. Five lines rhyming scheme is AABBA.
Litotes: a trope that involves making an affirmative point by negating its opposite. For example: "that's not bad" typically means "that's good". This is a type of understatement, often used for ironic effect. Another example from Chaucer: ""She was nat undergrowe" meaning, she was a large woman.
Logos: the use of logic and reason to make a point. Here's an example from Aristotle: "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal".
Lyric Poetry: Poetry that does not tell a story but expresses a speaker's emotions or thoughts. They are usually short. i.e. a sonnet
Metaphor: figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, in which one thing becomes another thing without the use of the word "like" or "as"
Meter: Generally regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry (see iambic pentameter and class notes on this)
Metaphysical Poetry: Lyric poems of certain 17C men (Donne, Marvell, Herbert). Intellectual and philosophical ponderings on ethics, religion, or love.
Metonymy: the metaphorical substitution of one word or phrase for another related word or phrase. For example, "The pen is mightier than the sword." The word "pen" is used in place of "words" and the word "sward" is used to represent the idea of fighting or war.
Mood: a story's atmosphere or the feeling it evokes
Motif: a recurring image or concept in a work of literature
Myth: a traditional story that attempts to explain how the world was created or why the world is the way that it is. Myths are stories that are passed on from generation to generation and are of unknown authorship.
Narration: Type of writing or speaking that tells about a series of related events
Narrative Poetry: A poem that tells a story. This type of poem is typically longer. Two types are ballads and epics.
Non Sequitur: statements, sayings and conclusions that do not follow the fundamental principles of logic and reason. They are frequently used in theater and comedies to create comedic effects. Latin for "It does not follow". Example: business is business and a cup of tea is a cup of tea.
Ode: a lyric poem of some length, usually of serious or meditative nature and having an elevated style and formal structure.
Omniscient Point of View: the person telling the story knows everything there is to know about the characters and their problems.
Onomatopoeia: a word whose sound imitates its meaning. i.e. crackle, pop, fizz
Oxymoron: a figure of speech containing contradictory terms. i.e. brawling love; loving hate;
Paradox: a statement that seems contradictory, but represents the way things actually are.
Parody: Greek meaning "a song beside" - a form of high burlesque popular since ancient times that comically imitates a specific, generally serious work or the style of an author or genre. The literary counterpart to caricature, which is designed to ridicule through an exaggerated depiction of an individual's features or characteristics, parody is often used to make a satiric (and even a political) point. Example: Weird Al songs, Shrek, The Colbert Report.
Parallelism: the use of similar grammatical constructions to express ideas that are related or equal in importance. For example: The sun rises. The sun sets.
Parody: a literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author's work for comic effect or ridicule.
Pathos: From the Greek for "emotion", "passion", or "suffering" - a quality in a work or a portion thereof that makes the reader experience pity, sorrow, or tenderness. For example: Charles Dickens achieves pathos in his description of the death of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son.
Pedantic: concerned with precision, formalism, accuracy, and minute details to make an ostentatious or arrogant show of learning. This can be expressed by a person, feeling, or tone. For example: Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby as he tries to show off his learning at the beginning of the book.
Periodic Sentence: A complex sentence that is not syntactically complete until its very end; the opposite of a loose sentence. This includes at least one dependent clause and/or parallel construction before the final independent clause, which completes the sentence and provides its grammatical close as well as its meaning. For example: If all mankind, minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
Persona: mask or voice assumed by a writer when the writer himself is not the speaker of the poem
Personification: kind of metaphor in which a nonhuman thing or quality is talked about as if it were human
Persuasion: a type of writing written to convince an audience of one's argument
Plot: series of related events that make up a story; includes exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement (sometimes called "resolution")
Point of View: Vantage point from which a writer tells a story. In broad terms there are three possible points of view: omniscient, first person, and third person limited
Polysyndeton: several coordinating conjunctions used in succession in order to achieve artistic effect. For example: There were frowsy fields, and cow houses, and dustheaps, and dunghouses, and ditches...
Propaganda: text that uses false or misleading information to present a slanted point of view
Protagonist: main character in fiction
Pun: play on words
Refrain: A repeated word, phrase, line, or group of lines - used to build rhythm.
Repetition: intentional repeating of a word, words, or ideas for emphasis
Resolution: see Denouement
Rhyme: Repetition of accented vowel sounds, and all sounds following them, in words that are close together in a poem. (variations: end, internal, approximate/slant)
Rhythm: Musical quality in language produced by repetition
Romantic Poetry: literary movement that peaked in England during the 19thC. (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron). Love poetry to their sweethearts...
Round Character: a character capable of surprising the reader with his actions; not predictable
Sarcasm: from the Greek for "to tear flesh like dogs"; intentional derision through cutting humor or wit, often directed at another person and designed to hurt or ridicule. Usually involves verbal irony.
Satire: a literary technique in which ideas or customs are ridiculed for the purpose of exposing humanity's vices or foibles and thereby improving society.
Setting: the time and place of a story
Simile: figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, using a the words "like" or "as"
Short Story: short, concentrated, fictional prose narrative
Soliloquy: Long speech in which a character who is onstage alone expresses his/her thoughts aloud (the audience gets to overhear the private thoughts of a character)
Sonnet: Fourteen-line lyric poem that is usually written in iambic pentameter and that has one of several rhyme schemes. The oldest kind of sonnet is called the Italian sonnet, or Petrarchan sonnet, after the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. Another important sonnet form is the Shakespearean sonnet. It has three four-line stanzas (quatrains), followed by a concluding two-line couplet. The most common rhyme scheme for the Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg. An Italian or Petrarchan sonnet has a scheme of abbaabbacdecde.
Speaker: Voice that is talking to us in a poem. Sometimes the speaker IS the poet, sometimes not.
Stanza: Group of consecutive lines in a poem that form a single unit (like a paragraph)
Static Character: a character who does not change throughout the course of the story; a character who does not grow, but remains the same at the end as the beginning (usually a flat character)
Style: How an author chooses to present his message (the way he writes it). Traditionally, it was divided into three categories: high (grand - epics), middle (mean - love poems), and low (base - comedies).
Syllepsis: rhetorical figure; from the Greek for "yoking"; yoked words or phrases modify two or more words or phrases. For example (from Cicero): "Lust conquered shame, boldness fear, madness reason."
Syllogism: a rhetorical device that starts an argument with something general and from this draws a conclusion about something more specific. In Logic, it looks like this: All men are mortal, John is a man, therefore John is mortal. In Literature, it can look like this: "Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, Lady, were no crime" (Marvell). It implies a general truth that life is short and man is mortal, so they have little time to love and shouldn't waste it being "coy".
Symbol: when a person, place, thing, or event that stands for something other than what it is
Synecdoche: a literary technique in which the whole is represented by naming one of its parts, or vice versa. For example: "You've got to come take a look at my new set of wheels."
Tautology: From the Greek "tauto" meaning "same", and "logos" meaning "word/idea": the repetitive use of words or phrases that have similar meanings. Often this presents itself as repetition. For example (from Hamlet" Polonious asks Hamlet "What are you reading", and Hamlet responds, "Words, words, words."
Tension: the linking together of opposites to make a point
Theme: central idea of a work of literature (not the same as the subject), rather the idea the writer wishes to reveal about that subject
Third Person - Limited Point of View: the narrator, who plays no part in the story, zooms in on the thoughts and feeling of just one character. With this point of view, we observe the action through the eyes and with the feelings of this one character.
Tone: attitude a writer takes toward a subject, a character, or the audience. Tone is conveyed through the writer's diction and the details.
Tragedy: Play that depicts serious and important events in which the main character comes to an unhappy end
Tragic Hero: main character who is dignified and courageous, but usually has a downfall due to a character flaw (often hubris); usually wins some self-knowledge and wisdom, even though he/she suffers defeat or death
Understatement: also referred to as "meiosis" - from the Greek for "lessening". Used for satiric effect by minimizing significance. For example: "One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day." Or, from Monty Python: "Tis but a scratch... I've had worse."
Universal Theme: a theme that crosses all cultures and all ages. i.e. love conquers all
Unreliable Narrator: narrator either doesn't know the truth or may purposefully choose to deceive the audience
Verbal Irony: when someone says the opposite of what he truly means
Villanelle: 19 line poem with five three-line stanzas and one quatrain. Light in tone.
Voice: the writer's distinctive use of language in a text. Voice is created by a writer's tone and diction.