Literary Terms

These are words and concepts used in the study of literature, and we will be using many of them frequently. The list is evolving, so if you see anything missing or incorrect, or can think if a better way to explain something, let me know.

The Language of Literary Analysis

These are the words and expressions that describe the way readers read and analyze literature.

Archetype: Archetypes are old imaginative patterns (character, plot, or image) that appear across cultures and are repeated through the ages. Scholars say that readers recognize archetypes because they are part of our "collective unconscious." 
Controlling Idea: the main idea or message of a text. It ties every part of the text together and gives it focus and purpose. (Note: Not to be confused with theme. While a text may have many themes, it has just one controlling idea.)
Critical Theory: Theory describes the lenses through which readers read or critique texts. For example, some readers find meaning in a text by responding to it directly, based on personal experience (Reader Response), while others find meaning by examining the historical context of the text (Historical Approach), or by studying its formal, stylistic, or structural features, such as grammar, syntax, and literary devices (Formalism)
Historical Context: moods, attitudes, and conditions associated with a certain time that connect to the text 
Imply: author gives clues to the reader 
Infer: reader interprets the clues the author provides 
Inferences: conclusions based on clues –reader makes these
Intertextuality:  This is when the meaning of a text is shaped by another text. This can be done by the author, using allusion, quotation, plagiarism, translation, or parody, or by the reader by referencing one text when reading another.
Read: the process of finding meaning in a text
Text: anything that can be read. This includes visual and/or non-print media (visual art, television, film, advertisements, etc.) etc. as well as books, essays, and poems. 

Narrative Elements

These are the fundamental components (the "bricks and mortar") of stories (e.g., novels, epics, short stories, and drama); however, many of these terms can be applied to other literary forms, such as poetry and non-fiction. When you analyze a literary work, you should be prepared to discuss all 6 of these.

I. Characters (individuals who act and think in a story) 
  • Direct Characterization: The author tells us directly what the character is like. He is tall.
  • Indirect Characterization: The author reveals a character’s personality by describing his or her actions, speech, appearance, effect on others, or inner thoughts. When he walked into the classroom, his head almost hit the top of the door jam.
  • Static Character: no change in his thinking or behavior throughout the story.
  • Dynamic Character: shows significant change in thinking or behavior throughout the story and usually as a result of the action of the story.
  • Flat Character: not well-developed, does not have many traits, easily defined in a single sentence because we know little about the character, sometimes stereotyped, most minor characters are flat
  • Round Character: well-developed, has many traits, both good and bad, not easily defined because we know many details about the character, realistic and life-like, most major characters are round
  • Protagonist:  the main character (sometimes the hero)
  • Antagonist: the one in conflict with the protagonist or hero
  • Foil: Characters that contrast and emphasize the traits of the hero
  • Hero: the main character who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize 
  • Antihero: a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes 
  • Tragic Hero: central dignified or noble character with a defect
  • Tragic Flaw: defect that brings out the or contributes to the downfall  
  • Motivation: what drives a character’s actions 
II. Plot (the events that make up a story)

  • Plot Structure: Action moves from a problem to a solution.  
    1. Exposition: establishes character and setting prior to or as part of the conflict
    2. Rising Action: events leading up to the climax 
    3. Climax: turning point
    4. Falling Action: specific events after the climax that lead to the resolution 
    5. Resolution: The outcome of the story 
  • Conflict/Complication: problem or source of tension in the story
  • External Conflict: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society , man versus beast,  man versus God or fate 
  • Internal Conflict:man versus self
  • Foreshadowing: the use of clues to hint at what is going to happen later in the plot. 
  • Flashback: a scene that interrupts the present action of the plot to go back and tell what happened earlier. 
  • Suspense: causes uncertainty and tension about what will happen in the story 
III. Setting (time and place)
  • Setting (time and place) is one way authors create mood or atmosphere. Mood  is the general emotional effect of a story or of a scene from a story. For example, a story set in a dark forest may create a mood of gloom, mystery, or bewilderment.   
  • Setting is also used to help develop characters. For example, setting often mirrors characters' thoughts, feelings, and personalities. 
VI. Style (the language choices an author makes)
  • Syntax : the way words or phrases are arranged in a sentence for a particular purpose 
  • Diction: word choice
  • Tone is the author’s attitude towards what he or she is presenting. The attitude can be humorous, ironic, sarcastic, loving or spiteful. The author can be sympathetic towards his characters or scornful of them. The attitude shows up in the way he writes about the events (using, for example, particular diction, syntax, or figures of speech).
  • Literary and Rhetorical Devices (see below) 
  • Point of View: The voice that narrates the story 
    • First person: used when a character in the story functions as the narrator. 
    • Third person omniscient (all knowing): not a character in the story. This voice has unlimited access to characters' thoughts.
    • Third person limited has limited access to the information in the story
VI. Theme (what the story REALLY means)
  • A Theme is an idea or concept that is central to a story. It can sometimes be summed in a single word (i.e., love, death, betrayal), but typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society, coming of age, humans in conflict with technology, nostalgia, and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A story may have several themes. Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas, such as ethical questions, and are usually implied rather than stated explicitly.

Literary and Rhetorical Devices

Literary and rhetorical devices are the tools an author uses to convey or strengthen his/her message, tone, or argument, or to engage the reader.

Alliteration: repetition of initial consonant sounds 
Allusion: a reference to a statement, a person, place or event that is known from literature (most commonly from the Bible, mythology and Shakespeare)  or history 
Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses 
I didn’t like the swimming pool, I didn’t like swimming, and I didn’t like the swimming instructor, and after all these years I still don’t.
Antithesis: antithetical constructions are simply balanced phrases or clauses expressing opposed ideas 
Cattiness is a cold war staged by women; macho is a hotter war fought by men.
Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds in non-rhyming words 
Cacophony: harsh, discordant mixture of sounds
Cliché: overused phrase that is not original 
Epiphany: moment of sudden revelation or insight 
Figurative Language: These are words or phrases that are not meant to be taken literally, such as:

Analogy: a similarity or comparison between two different things or the relationship between them
Connotation: The associations called up by a word that go beyond its dictionary meaning. 
Epithet: adjective or descriptive phrase emphasizing the quality characteristic of the person 
Hyperbole: a gross exaggeration for effect; overstatement 
Idiom: an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its individual words. For example, “It’s raining cats and dogs” is an idiom that means it is raining really hard—but there is no way to know that from the meanings of its individual words.
Irony: A discrepancy between what happens to be and what really is (appearance and reality)
Situational Irony: Difference between what appears to be and what really is
Dramatic Irony: When the audience knows something that the characters do not
Verbal Irony: To say one thing but mean something else (Sarcasm)
Metaphor: A comparison between essentially unlike things without an explicitly comparative word such as like or as. An example is "My love is a red, red rose," from Burns's "A Red, Red Rose." Langston Hughes's "Dream Deferred" is built entirely of metaphors. Metaphor is one of the most important of literary uses of language. Compare Simile.
            Extended Metaphor: comparison over a few lines or an entire work 
Metonymy: A figure of speech in which a closely related term is substituted for an object or idea. 
We have always remained loyal to the crown.
Paradox: a statement that appears to contradict itself but contains a truth beneath the surface
Personification: The endowment of inanimate objects or abstract concepts with animate or living qualities. An example: "The yellow leaves flaunted their color gaily in the breeze." Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" includes personification.
Pun: A play on the multiple meanings of words. 
Simile: comparison of two unlike things using like or as  
        Epic Simile: extended simile over several lines
Symbol: a symbol is a concrete object that stands for itself and for something broader than itself as well. In literature, a symbol may be an object, a person, a situation or an action that suggests or represents a wider meaning. Thing stands for idea. 
Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. An example: "Lend me a hand."
Understatement: A figure of speech in which a writer or speaker says less than what he or she means; the opposite of exaggeration. The last line of Frost's "Birches" illustrates this literary device: "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches."

Imagery: descriptions that appeal to one of the 5 senses
Inversion: rearranging the main elements of a sentence in some order other than subject-verb-object, which is often called natural word order. Inversions almost always draw attention and is used for emphasis.
Him Nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory picture; him the past instructs; him the future invites.
Juxtaposition: two contrasting elements placed side by side 
Motif: reoccurring idea shown through symbols, action, and dialogue. 
Onomatopoeia: a word that imitates a sound 
Oxymoron: contradictory terms brought together to express a paradox for strong effect. 
Parallelism or Parallel Structure: The use of repeated syntactical structures. Several parts of a sentence or several sentences are expressed similarly to show that the ideas in the parts or sentences are equal in importance. Parallelism also adds balance and rhythm and, most importantly, clarity. An example is the repetition of “Does it …” in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.”
Persuasive Techniques:
logical appeal—a persuasive technique that uses facts, examples and logical arguments
ethical appeal—a persuasive technique that uses arguments based on values or moral belief
emotional appeal—a persuasive technique that uses language and details that play on our feelings
Repetition: technique in which a sound, word, phrase or line is repeated for emphasis 
Rhetorical Question: asked for effect and not expected to be answered 
Stereotype: widely used, oversimplified idea or image of a person 
Vernacular: a dialect or way of speaking that is non-standard or may not be grammatically correct 

Poetic Terms

Blank Verse: unrhymed poetry written in iambic pentameter

Caesura: A strong pause within a line of verse. The following stanza from Hardy's "The Man He Killed" contains caesuras in the middle two lines:

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps, Off-hand-like--just as I--

Was out of work-had sold his traps-- No other reason why.

Couplet: A pair of rhymed lines that may or may not constitute a separate stanza in a poem. Shakespeare's sonnets end in rhymed couplets, as in: For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

End Rhyme: rhyme that occurs at the end of lines
End-stopped line: end of a poetic line with punctuation 
Enjambment: A run-on line of poetry in which logical and grammatical sense carries over from one line into the next. An enjambed line differs from an end-stopped line in which the grammatical and logical sense is completed within the line. In the opening lines of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," for example, the first line is end-stopped and the second enjambed:
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now....
Foot: a unit of meter with stressed or unstressed syllables
Iamb: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable
Internal Rhyme: rhyme that occurs within lines
Meter: repetition of a regular rhythmic unit of poetry
Rhyme Scheme: specific pattern of end rhymes in a poem 
Rhythm: The recurrence of accent or stress in lines of verse. In the following lines from "Same in Blues" by Langston Hughes, the accented words and syllables are underlined:
I said to my baby, Baby take it slow.... Lulu said to Leonard
I want a diamond ring
Slant Rhyme: a rhyming sound that is not exact
Speaker: the voice that talks to the reader (not to be confused with the poet)
Stanza: group of lines that forms a unit of poetry

Dramatic Terms

Aside: Words spoken by an actor directly to the audience which are not "heard" by the other characters on stage during a play. In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago voices his inner thoughts a number of times as "asides" for the play's audience.
Catastrophe: The action at the end of a tragedy that initiates the denouement or falling action of a play. One example is the dueling scene in Act V of Hamlet in which Hamlet dies, along with Laertes, King Claudius, and Queen Gertrude.
Catharsis: The purging of the feelings of pity and fear that, according to Aristotle, occur in the audience of tragic drama. The audience experiences catharsis at the end of the play, following the catastrophe.
Chorus: A group of characters in Greek tragedy (and in later forms of drama), who comment on the action of a play without participation in it. Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus the King both contain an explicit chorus. Tennessee Williams's Glass Menagerie contains a character who functions like a chorus.
Comic Relief: including a humorous scene or character in a serious work (usually a tragedy)
Deus ex machina: A god who resolves the entanglements of a play by supernatural intervention. The Latin phrase means, literally, "a god from the machine." The phrase refers to the use of artificial means to resolve the plot of a play.
Dramatis personae: Latin for the characters or persons in a play. Included among the dramatis personae of Miller's Death of a Salesman are Willy Loman, the salesman, his wife Linda, and his sons Biff and Happy.
Fourth wall: The imaginary wall of the box theater setting, supposedly removed to allow the audience to see the action. The fourth wall is especially common in modern and contemporary plays such as Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Wasserstein's Tender Offer, and Wilson's Fences.
Monologue: speech by one person where other characters are present 
Pathos: A quality of a play's action that stimulates the audience to feel pity for a character. Pathos is always an aspect of tragedy, and may be present in comedy as well.
Props : Articles or objects that appear on stage during a play. The Christmas tree in A Doll's House and Laura's collection of glass animals in The Glass Menagerie are examples.
Soliloquy: A speech in a play that is meant to be heard by the audience but not by other characters on the stage. If there are no other characters present, the soliloquy represents the character thinking aloud. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is an example.
Stage direction: A playwright's descriptive or interpretive comments that provide readers (and actors) with information about the dialogue, setting, and action of a play. Modern playwrights, including Ibsen, Shaw, Miller, and Williams tend to include substantial stage directions, while earlier playwrights typically used them more sparsely, implicitly, or not at all. 
Staging: The spectacle a play presents in performance, including the position of actors on stage, the scenic background, the props and costumes, and the lighting and sound effects. Tennessee Williams describes these in his detailed stage directions for The Glass Menagerie and also in his production notes for the play.
Tragedy: A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the worse. In tragedy, catastrophe and suffering await many of the characters, especially the hero. Examples include Shakespeare's Othello and Hamlet; Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus the King, and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
Tragic flaw: A weakness or limitation of character, resulting in the fall of the tragic hero. Othello's jealousy and too trusting nature is one example.
Tragic hero: A privileged, exalted character of high repute, who, by virtue of a tragic flaw and fate, suffers a fall from glory into suffering. Sophocles' Oedipus is an example.


Allegory: a story or poem in which characters, settings, and events stand for something else
Ballad: A narrative poem written in four-line stanzas, characterized by swift action and narrated in a direct style.
Bildungsroman: a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education
Comedy: dramatic work with a light and humorous tone 
Dramatic monologue: A type of poem in which a speaker addresses a silent listener. As readers, we overhear the speaker in a dramatic monologue. Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" represents the epitome of the genre.
Elegy: A lyric poem that laments the dead.
Epic: long narrative on a serious subject in a classic or common sense 
Epic Poem: long narrative poem on a serious subject
Epilogue: end of a book which comments on the conclusion 
Essay: brief non-fiction composition
Fable: A brief story with an explicit moral provided by the author. Fables typically include animals as characters. Their most famous practitioner in the west is the ancient Greek writer Aesop, whose "The Dog and the Shadow" and "The Wolf and the Mastiff" are included in this book.
Lyric: poem of a single speaker who expresses his thoughts and feelings 
Memoir: autobiography with historical events that affect the author
Myth: traditional story concerning some supernatural being or unlikely event
Narrative:  a story - basically, anything with a plot, characters, and a setting. 
Narrative Poem: poem that tells a story
Nonfiction: about real people and events
Novel: extended prose work of fiction 
Parable: a simple story that illustrates a lesson 
Parody: a work that closely imitates the style or content of another with the specific aim of comic effect and/or ridicule
Pastoral: literature that describes country or rural life
Propaganda: biased information presented to publicize a particular point of view
Prose:  a form of language which applies ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic (as in most poetry) structure
Romance: imaginative story relating with noble heroes, chivalric codes of honor, passionate love, daring deeds or supernatural events 
Satire: a style of writing that ridicules human weaknesses, vice or folly in order to promote social reform. 
Sonnet: lyric poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter 
Tragedy: A type of drama in which the characters experience reversals of fortune, usually for the worse. In tragedy, catastrophe and suffering await many of the characters, especially the hero. 
Vignette:  a brief evocative description, account, or episode
Villanelle : A nineteen-line lyric poem that relies heavily on repetition. The first and third lines alternate throughout the poem, which is structured in six stanzas --five tercets and a concluding quatrain. Examples include Bishop's "One Art," Roethke's "The Waking," and Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." 

Modes of Discourse

Most writing (fiction as well as non-fiction) can be classified as one of the following, as determined by its purpose: 

Narration: The purpose of narration is to tell a story or narrate an event or series of events. This writing mode frequently uses the tools of descriptive writing. Narration is an especially useful tool for sequencing or putting details and information into some kind of logical order, usually chronological.
Description: The purpose of description is to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described. Descriptive writing can be found in the other rhetorical modes.
Exposition: Expository writing is a type of writing where the purpose is to explain, inform, or even describe. The purpose of expository writing is to explain and analyze information by presenting an idea, relevant evidence, and appropriate discussion.
Argumentation: The purpose of argumentation (also called persuasive writing) is to prove the validity of an idea, or point of view, by presenting sound reasoning, discussion, and argument to thoroughly convince the reader. Persuasive writing/Persuasion is a type of argumentation with the additional aim to urge the reader to take some form of action.

Non-Fiction Text Structures

Order/Sequence: The text indicates the order in which steps in a process or series of events occur. 
Cause and Effect: The text explains the result of an event or occurrence and the reasons it happened.
Comparison and Contrast: The text describes the differences and similarities of two or more objects, places, events or ideas by grouping their traits for comparison.
Problem and Solution: The text introduces and describes a problem and presents one or more solutions.