Glossary of Literary Terms

A complete list of literary terms with examples of their uses.

Glossary of Literary Terms

Additional Glossary of Literary Terms:


Allegory : a fictional work in which the setting, characters, plot, and other elements are all symbols, each conveying an aspect of an abstract moral, religious, or social concept.
Alliteration: Repetition of initial identical consonants: (Showers) beat on broken blinds.
Allusion: A reference a writer makes to a recognized literary work, person, historic event, or artistic achievement to clarify the meaning of an action or detail in a story, poem, or play.
Ambiguity: Use of language that has more than one meaning, creating uncertainty about how to interpret what has been stated.
Antagonist: The character or force that opposes the main character in a literary work.
Aphorism: A pointed statement that expresses a principle or observation in a concise, memorable way. This statement by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an example: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Apostrophe: A figure of speech formed when something abstract or someone who is absent is addressed directly even though response is not possible.
Archetype: Universal image or pattern evident in myths.
Aside: A comment an actor makes while engaged in dialogue, carefully delivered so that only the audience hears it.
Assonance: A vowel sound repeated in nearby words that have dissimilar consonants.
Ballad: A story that is sung. In ancient oral traditions, ballads were used to celebrate shared experiences involving adventure, war, love, death, and the supernatural.
Blank Verse: Poetry in which the lines are in unrhymed iambic pentameter (each line has ten syllables, five unstressed and five stressed).
Catharsis: A release of emotions experienced by the audience at the end of a tragedy. As explained by Aristotle, it has a cleansing effect, purging their feelings of pity and fear.
Character: An imaginary person in a piece of literature.
Characterization: The means a writer uses to reveal character, by outright description of an individual, by what an individual says and does, and by what others say about the individual.
Comedy: A form of drama that has a happy ending; it is designed to provoke amusement and laughter.
Comic Relief: A humorous incident used to reduce dramatic tension in a drama, often involving minor characters.
Confidant: A character to whom the protagonist gives critically important information that other characters do not have knowledge of—as the audience watches. This dramatic convention is used to give the audience opportunities to gain insight into the main character or learn about plot developments.
Conflict: The struggle that develops between two opposing forces in a plot or between competing forces within a character.
Connotation: The implications associated with a word that are widely or locally known.
Couplet: A pair of lines that rhyme.
Culture: Common characteristics of a group or a region. Writers often reflect a particular culture through the setting of a story or the spirit of the character’s lives—providing insight, for example, into Southern culture, post–World War I culture, or global culture.
Denotation: The exact, literal meaning of a word.
Deus ex machina: A Latin term that means “god from the machine;” refers to the intervention of a god (actually lowered by a machine in Greek drama) to resolve a situation; today refers to any artificial means used to resolve an incident in a play’s plot.
Dialogue: The conversation of the characters on the stage, carefully developed by the writer to reveal character, advance the plot, and establish tone in the play.
Diction: The use of words in written or oral expression.
Dramatic Irony: A situation in a drama that the audience knows more about than the character facing it knows.
Dramatic Monologue: A poem in which only one person speaks to one or more silent listeners, creating dramatic tension.
Elegy: A lyric poem that expresses thoughts about death, usually initiated by the death of a person highly regarded by the poet. The tone in the elegy is somber.
English Sonnet: A poem with 14 lines, three quatrains and a couplet, a carefully developed thought pattern, and the rhyme scheme abab, cdce, efef, gg; also called the Shakespearean sonnet.
Enjambment: The continuation of a thought in a line of poetry into the succeeding line, uninterrupted by punctuation.
Epic: A long narrative poem written in elevated style and having a central heroic figure on whose adventures significant patterns in a culture are established.
Epiphany: A profound and sudden personal discovery. Literary writers use epiphanies to reveal character and theme.
Exposition: The section of a narrative or drama in which basic information is provided related to setting, characters, and tone.
Fable: A story that often features animals as characters—but sometimes people and inanimate objects are featured prominently in them. In all cases, the fable presents a moral, a lesson.
Fairy Tale: A story that involves supernatural adventures intended to teach lessons about good and evil and wise human behavior.
Farce: A comedy; a short play, in which both subtle humor and hilarity are developed through improbable situations, exaggeration, and (often) ridiculous antics.
Fate: In mythology, the outside source that determines human events.
Figurative Language: Use of words in ways they are not normally used in order to create a distinct, imaginative effect or impression. For example, in the expression “He sang at the top of his lungs,” the suggested meaning of the words is understood—not their literal meaning.
Flashback: A technique a writer uses to inter¬ject a previous incident into a story or drama.
Flat Character: A one-dimensional character, as opposed to a round character whose personality is many-faceted and whose behavior is dynamic and often unpredictable.
Foil: A character in a story who is presented in sharp contrast to another character, particularly to the main character.
Foreshadowing: A technique a writer uses to hint or suggest what the outcome of an important conflict or situation in a narrative will be.
Free Verse: Poetry in which lines have irregular rhythm and lack rhyme.
Genre: A category or type of literature, both the broadest categories of literature—prose, poetry, and drama—and specific types of literature within these categories.
Haiku: A Japanese poetic form with a compact 17-syllable structure, consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively. A haiku poem creates a clear picture that stimulates a distinct emotion or spiritual insight. There is no set rhyme pattern in haiku.
Hubris: A Greek word translated as “overweening pride,” or ambition; a character trait commonly found in the tragic hero.
High Comedy: Performance in a play in which intellectual awareness is pervasive; laughter is thoughtful, often brought about by witty observations. Incongruities are presented for the sake of seeking improvement rather than merely emphasizing their ludicrous aspects.
Hyperbole: A figure of speech that deliberately exaggerates a description about something or somebody to create a desired effect.
Iamb: A metrical unit in poetry consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
Iambic Foot: Consists of an unemphasized syllable followed by an emphasized syllable. When a line has five of these feet, the meter is identi¬fied as iambic pentameter.
Iambic Pentameter: A line with ten syllables and five iambic feet, arranged in a pattern in which an unempha¬sized syllable is followed by an emphasized one.
Image: A distinct representation of something that can be experienced and understood through the senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste), or the representation of an idea. Writers use precise language in developing images, or imagery, in literature.
Imagination: The human power that shapes artistic expression; it enables a writer’s work to become an expression of meaning in our world, and allows readers to engage in identifying with what the writer’s work has to say about things that matter.
Implicit Values: Values expressed subtly through symbols, character development and transformations, and plot outcome.
Intensity of Emotion: Emotional quality created through the author’s intentional use of such elements as dialog, foreshadowing, irony, and reversals to develop a pervasive or culminating tone (tragic or comic).
Interpretative Power: Ability to communicate a dominant and informing impression, theme, or cause through such elements as setting, staging, costuming, and identification with particular traditions.
Irony: A discrepancy or contradiction occurs between what is expected to happen and what actually happens in a situation (situation irony) or in an expressed statement (verbal irony).
Italian Sonnet: A poem with 14 lines, consisting of an octave and a sestet, a carefully developed thought pattern, and the rhyme scheme abba, abba, cde, cde (or cd, cd, cd); also called the Petrarchan sonnet.
Legends: Often are traditions as well as stories. They are more rooted in history than myths are, and have fewer supernatural aspects.
Limerick: A form of narrative poetry, a jingle usually created with humorous intent. Its structure consists of five lines: The first two lines and the third and fourth lines have rhyming end words, and the first and last lines usually end with the same word.
Local Color: Writing that depicts in detail the speech, dress, mannerisms, ways of thinking, and geographic features that are typical of a particular region.
Low Comedy: Performance in which there is little seriousness and minimal intellectual appeal. Subtle insights are replaced with boisterous conduct.
Lyric Poem: A brief poem that expresses feelings and imagination; its melody and emotion create a dominant, unified impression.
Melodrama: An entertaining literary work in which sensationalism and type characters (gallant heroes, innocent heroines, and treacherous villains, for instance) are used to keep the audience engaged. The conflict is rudimentary— good versus evil; the plot is often contrived but ends happily.
Metaphor: An image that imaginatively compares one thing with another, showing how each has qualities that resemble the other.
Meter: The rhythmic pattern in a line of poetry created by stressed and unstressed syllables.
Metonymy: A figure of speech, a kind of metaphor, formed when a characteristic of a thing is used to represent the whole thing.
Minor Characters: Characters that are interpreters of what is happening around them, rather than initiators of the action. Their conversations provide insight into the main character’s dilemma, and these characters often are used to reduce tensions and change tone in the play.
Mood: The atmosphere in a literary work, created to establish emotion or emphasize feeling; what the reader feels.
Motif: A recurring theme in a literary work.
Myth: An anonymous story that interprets the meaning of human experience, including beliefs about divinity, creation, truth, and death.
Octave: An eight-line stanza in a poem, the first part of the Italian sonnet.
Ode: A form of lyric poetry in which a single subject or purpose is exalted in a serious, dignified way. Odes are imaginative and expressed with a meditative, intellectual tone, but do not have a prescribed pattern.
Onomatopoeia: A word whose sound suggests its meaning or sense—for example sizzle, meow.
Oxymoron: An expression in which two contradictory terms are brought together to emphasize an idea or a feeling in a striking or shocking manner. For example, a wise fool or cruel kindness.
Parable: A brief story that illustrates a moral sit¬uation or lesson, with details of the story carefully paralleling those of the situation to which it refers or on which it comments.
Paradox: An apparent contradiction.
Persona: Literally, in Latin, “a mask.” When it is used in analyzing literature, persona refers to the narrator in a story or the speaker in a poem, who may or may not reflect the perspective of the author.
Personification: A figure of speech formed when qualities normally associated with a person are attributed to abstract things or inanimate objects.
Plot: A dynamic element in fiction, a sequence of interrelated, conflicting actions and events that typically build to a climax and bring about a resolution.
Point of View: How the action is presented to the reader. First-person point of view occurs when the narrator describes his or her personal action and thoughts as a participant in the story. Third-person point of view is expressed by someone who is not a participant in the story. It is referred to as an omniscient point of view (all-knowing) when the external narrator relates all thoughts and feelings of the characters, and as a limited omniscient point of view when the thoughts and feelings of only one of the characters are related. An external narrator who takes a detached approach to the action and characters, usually to create a dramatic effect, and does not enter into their minds is using an objective point of view.
Problem Play: Presents and explores an existing social problem or issue—with the intention of awakening audience awareness of a need for change or solutions, and offers the playwright’s own preferences for change.
Protagonist: The main character in a literary work. The term can be applied to any main character whether good or bad, thus differentiating it from hero or heroine—which identify a character who possesses positive or noble values.
Pun: A pun is created when two separate sounds or meanings of a word are aligned to create humor; a play on words. For example, consider: “We’re not sure how worms reproduce, but we often find them in pears.”
Recognition (anagnorisis): The ironic discovery in a drama that brings about the reversal of the protagonist’s fortunes.
Reversal (peripeteia): The point in a drama where the protagonist’s fortunes unexpectedly change.
Romantic Comedy: Presents lovers in a world filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles—which turns out to be an ideal world for them in the end.
Round Character: A character whose personality is many-faceted and whose behavior is dynamic and often unpredictable. A flat character, by comparison, is one-dimensional.
Rhyme: Similarity in the sound of stressed syllables in words at the end of lines of poetry.
Rhyming Couplet: Two lines of poetry with the same number of syllables and having rhyming end words.
Rhythm: The recognizable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry, which may recur in the poem..
Satire: The literary art that calls attention to the difference between what a particular thing should be and what it actually is, or between the way a particular person should behave and how that person is actually behaving. The writer of satire exaggerates or criticizes such conditions but blends ridicule with gentle humor—often intending to encourage change or improvement.
Sestet: A six-line stanza in a poem, the last part of the Italian sonnet.
Set: The visual environment in which the action of the play occurs—the features you see on stage that reflect the time and place in which the play’s action occurs.
Setting: The time or place in which fictional events occur. It puts boundaries around the action and defines the environment in which conflicts can be witnessed and character development observed. Setting may also have a social dimension in which particular local customs, dress, or speech provide a framework for understanding the characters and their interactions.
Simile: A direct comparison to show the similarity of two things that ordinarily are not thought of as being similar, using the word like or as to connect them.
Soliloquy: A speech that a character makes, revealing inner thoughts and intentions, heard only by the audience.
Song: A lyrical musical expression, a source of emotional outlet common in ancient communities and still influential in contemporary culture.
Sonnet: A lyric poem with 14 lines. The Italian sonnet and the English sonnet are the most popular forms
Spectacle: The impressive effect created in a dramatic presentation through use of visual and audio stagecraft techniques.
Stagecraft: The design and preparation of stage scenes, lighting, technical functions, and cos-tumes necessary to support the artistic vision in a drama.
Stage Directions: Brief, specific instructions by the playwright about particular aspects of the setting, actions, or dialogue.
Stock Characters: Character types whose speech and behavior are easily recognized as representative of conventional personalities or roles in literature (the wicked witch, for example, in children’s literature).
Symbol: An object, person, or action that conveys two meanings: its own literal meaning and something it stands for as well.
Tale: An anecdote about an event told in an uncomplicated manner.
Tone: The mood or attitude reflected in a literary work; it is important in identifying how the author approaches a subject and conveys it to readers.
Tragedy: A drama presented in seriousness and dignity, in which a person suffers and fails to overcome powerful opposing forces but demonstrates courage and the greatness of the human spirit in engaging them.
Tragic Flaw (hamartia): A weakness or error in judgment that brings about a tragic hero’s downfall. Ambition is considered to be Macbeth’s tragic flaw.
Tragicomedy: A play that has a classical tragic structure but ends in comedy, as the result of an unexpected turn of events.
Tragic Hero: A main character who acts with courage but falls from high standing into catastrophic circumstances because of a weakness of character or serious misjudgment.
Turning Point
(or crisis) : In tragedy, this is the point when the reversal of the protagonist’s fortunes or high standing begins. It can be a decision or an action, and it usually comes in the middle of the play, dividing the rising action from the falling action.
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