ALLEGORY is an extended narrative that carries a second meaning along
with the surface story. Although the surface story or description may
have its own interest, the author’s major interest is in the ulterior
meaning. The writer of an allegory uses events, actions, objects and
persons in narrative to represent moral qualities, universal struggles or
abstract ideas, such as love or fear. In political allegory, the author may
disguise his criticism or satire for fear of reprisal, but perception of the
analogy between the narrative and contemporary events reveals the
intended meaning. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, on the other hand, the
political allegory of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Stalinist
excesses is little concealed by the surface.
ALLITERATION is the repetition at close intervals of initial consonant
sounds of accented syllables or important words. Writers use alliteration
to draw attention to certain words or ideas, to imitate sounds and to
create musical effects. “To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock” is an
example from The Mikado by W.S. Gilbert.
ALLUSION is a reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work
or work of art. Allusions enrich the reading experience by adding another
dimension of meaning. Understanding what a writer is saying often
depends on recognizing allusions. If one says, “If you take my parking
spot, you can expect World War II all over again,” everyone understands
the type of message that is being spoken because they know about World
War II. An example from literature: In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man
and the Sea, parallels are drawn between the suffering of Santiago and
the suffering of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion.
ANTAGONIST is a character in a story or poem who frustrates, deceives or
works against the protagonist, the main character. The antagonist does
not have to be a person. It could be the devil, illness, death or any type of
challenge that prevents the protagonist from achieving happiness. The
cold, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is the protagonist.
APOSTROPHE is a figure of speech in which someone absent or dead or
something nonhuman is directly addressed as if present and could reply.
Since apostrophe is chiefly associated with deep emotional expression,
the form is readily adopted by humorists for purposes of satire. Examples
of apostrophe: “Milton! Thou shouldst be living in this hour” (Wordsworth)
and “With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!” (Sidney)
ATMOSPHERE is the physical qualities of a literary piece that contributes
to the mood, such as time, place and weather.
CHARACTER is a person or animal who takes part in the action of a literary
work. A character is responsible for the actions or thoughts within a poem
or story. Every character has his own personality which an author uses to
form the plot or to create the mood. The different mannerisms, attitudes
and appearances of characters can influence the tone and theme of a
story. Characters are the medium through which the reader interacts
with a story or poem.
- The main character is the most important character in a story,
poem or play.
- A minor character is one who takes part in the action, but who is
not the focus of attention.
- A flat character is one-dimensional and often stereotypical. A flat character never surprises the reader, is immediately recognizable and can usually be represented by a single sentence.
- A round character, on the other hand, is fully developed and exhibits many traits—often both faults and virtues. A roundly developed character is drawn with sufficient complexity to be able to surprise the reader without losing its credibility.
- A dynamic character is one who changes or grows during the course of the work.
- A static character is one who does not change. Things may happen to static characters without modifying their inner selves. They do not go through the process of development like dynamic characters do.
CHARACTERIZATION is the act of creating and developing a character.
Writers use two major methods of characterization—direct and indirect.
- Direct characterization is when a writer states the character’s
traits, or characteristics.
- Indirect characterization is when a writer depends on the reader to draw conclusions about the character’s traits. Sometimes, the writer describes the character’s appearance, actions or speech. At other times, the writer tells what other participants in the story say and think about the character. The reader then draws his or her own conclusions.
CLIMAX is the high point of interest or suspense in a story. It is the
decisive point in a story or play when the central problem of the plot must
be resolved in one way or another. Not every story has a dramatic climax.
Sometimes a character may simply resolve a problem in his or her mind. At
time there is no resolution of the plot; the climax then comes when a
character realizes that a resolution is impossible.
COMEDY is a form of drama that aims to amuse and which ends happily.
Compared with tragedy, comedy is a lighter form of drama.
CONFLICT is a struggle between opposing forces. Conflict is one of the
most important elements of stories, novels and plays because it causes
action and intrigue (plot - often complicated). There are two kinds of
conflict: external and internal.
- External conflict is one in which a character struggles against some outside force. This force might be another character (usually the antagonist), a force in nature (such as, a hurricane, an animal), society, the supernatural or fate (destiny).
- Internal conflict is one that takes place within the mind of a character. The character struggles to make a decision, take an action or overcome a feeling.
Seldom do we find a single conflict in a plot. The term conflict not only
implies the struggle of a protagonist against someone or something, it also
implies the existence of some motivation for the conflict or some goal to
be achieved by it. Conflict is the raw material out of which plot is
DENOUEMENT , literally meaning the action of untying, is the final
unraveling of the plot in drama or fiction; the solution of the mystery; the
explanation or outcome. Denouement implies an ingenious untying of the
knot of an intrigue, involving not only a satisfactory outcome of the main
situation but an explanation of all the secrets and misunderstandings
connected with the plot complication. By some writers, denouement is
used as a synonym for falling action.
DIALOGUE is a conversation between characters. Dialogue helps to move
the action along and helps to characterize the personalities of the
speakers. In poems, novels and short stories, dialogue is usually set off by
quotation marks to indicate a speaker’s exact words. In a play, dialogue
follows the names of the characters, and no quotation marks are used.
DRAMA is a story that is written to be acted out in front of an audience, It
is also called a “play” or “stage play.”
FALLING ACTION is the second “half” of resolution of a dramatic plot. It
follows the climax.
FICTION is a type of literature drawn from the imagination of an author,
that tells about imaginary people and events. Novels, short stories and
may plays are fiction.
FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE is writing or speech that is not meant to be taken
literally (any way of saying something other than the ordinary way). The
many types of figurative language are known as figures of speech. The
purpose of figurative language is to gain strength and freshness of
expression, to create a pictorial effect, to describe by analogy or to
discover and illustrate similarities in otherwise dissimilar things. In a
simile, for example, an author may compare a person to an animal. “He ran
down the hill like
a cheetah” is the figurative way to describe a person.
”He ran down the hill fast” is the literal way. Another example of
figurative language is the line by Robert Burns, My luv is a red, red rose.
Clearly, Burns does not mean that he has fallen in love with a thorny plant.
He means that his love is a sweet and delicate as a rose.
FIGURES OF SPEECH are specific types of figurative language, including
simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, irony and apostrophe.
FLASHBACK is a section of a literary work that interrupts the sequence of
events to relate an event from an earlier time (turn back the clock). The
writer may present the flashback as a character’s memory or recollection,
as part of an account or story told by a character or as a dream or
daydream. Writers use flashbacks to show what motivates a character, to
supply background information in a dramatic way or to create tension or
contrast. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, flashback is used to
related Willy Loman’s memories of the past. At one point in the play, Willy
is talking to his dead brother while playing cards with Charley, reliving a
conversation from the past in the present.
FORESHADOWING is the use, in a literary work, of clues that suggest
events that have yet to occur. Writers use foreshadowing to build their
readers’ expectations and to create suspense.
GENRE is a division or type of literature. Literature is commonly divided
into three major genres: poetry, prose (fiction and nonfiction) and drama.
Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical
characteristics among works of the same “kind” regardless of time or
place of composition, author or subject matter; and that these
characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of
basic significance in talking about literary art.
HERO or HEROINE is a character who has such admirable traits as
courage, idealism and fortitude (strength of character). A hero’s actions
are inspiring or noble. Often, heroes and heroines struggle mightily to
overcome forces or to escape difficulties. These characters are the focal
points of the readers’ interest. The earliest heroes were generally
favored by the gods. Moreover, early heroes embodied the cultural values
of their time and functioned as defenders of society. In time, however, as
man’s values changed, different concepts of the hero emerged. During the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the anti-hero emerged. This new type
of hero finds commitment to ideals difficult or impossible because of his
sense of helplessness in a world over which he has not control.
HYPERBOLE is a figure of speech in which intentional exaggeration is used
to create humor, vivid description or emphasis. Shakespeare uses
hyperbole in a scene from Macbeth. Macbeth has just murdered King
Duncan. Horrified by his bloody hands, he asks:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
Literally Shakespeare does not mean that Macbeth requires an ocean to
wash his bloody hands. The hyperbole is used to show his guilt.
IMAGE is a word or phrase that appeals to one or more of the five senses.
Writers use images to describe how their subjects look, sound, feel, taste
IMAGERY is descriptive language that appeals to one or more of the five
senses. Most imagery is visual, but it can also help readers hear sounds,
smell aroma, taste food and feel textures. Poets often use imagery to
appeal to several senses.
IRONY is the general name given to literary techniques that involve
surprising, interesting or amusing contradictions (inconsistencies). Irony
refers to how a person, statement, situation or circumstance is not as it
would actually seem.
- Verbal irony – words are used to suggest the opposite of their usual meanings [In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony’s reference to Brutus as an “honorable man” is an example.]
- Dramatic irony – a contradiction between what a character thinks and what the reader or audience knows to be true [In the Gospel according to St. John, the Pharisees say of Jesus, “Can any good think come out of Nazareth.” The reader knows that Jesus has already done many good things.]
- Irony of situation – an event occurs that directly contradicts the expectations of the characters, the reader or the audience. [In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the main character murders his king hoping that in becoming king he will achieve happiness. In reality Macbeth never knows another moment that is peaceful. In the end, he is beheaded.]
METAPHOR is a figure of speech in which something is described as though
it were something else. A metaphor, like a simile, works by pointing out a
similarity between two unlike things. Metaphors may be simple, that is,
may occur in the single isolated comparison, or a large metaphor may
function as the controlling image of a whole work. Example: “The mind is
but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted and will produce no crop,
or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign
matter.” (Joshua Reynolds)
METER is the rhythmical pattern of a poem. This pattern is determined by
the number of stresses, or beats, in each line. To describe the meter of a
poem, each line must be scanned to determine stressed and unstressed
syllables. The rhythmical unit within the line is called a “foot.”
MONOLOGUE is any speech or narrative presented wholly by one person.
It can also be referred to as a “soliloquy.”
MOOD is the feeling that a literary work creates for a reader. Often, a
writer creates a mood at the beginning of a work and then sustains this
mood throughout. Sometimes, however, the mood of the work changes
dramatically. Mood is a broader term than tone, which refers to the
attitude of the speaker or narrator. It also differs from atmosphere,
which is concerned mainly with the physical qualities that contribute to
mood, such as time, place and weather.
MOTIF is a recurrent image, work object, phrase or action that ends to
unify the work. A motif allows the reader to see the main points and
themes that the author is trying to express.
NARRATION is writing that tells a story. Fictional works, such as novels
and short stories, are examples of narration. Narration can also be found
in many kinds of nonfiction, including autobiographies, biographies and
newspaper reports. A story told in fiction, nonfiction, poetry or drama is
called a narrative.
NARRATOR is a speaker or character who tells a story. A third-person
narrator is one who stands outside the action and speaks about it. A first-
person narrator is one who tells a story and participates in its action. A
narrator is always present, at least by implication, in any work of fiction.
If the narrator is reliable, the reader should accept without serious
question the statements of fact and judgment which are made. If the
narrator is unreliable, the reader should question or seek to qualify the
statement so fact and judgment made.
NONFICTION is prose writing that presents and explains ideas or that
tells about real people, places, objects or events. Autobiographies,
biographies, essays, reports, letters, memos and newspaper articles are all
types of nonfiction.
ONOMATOPOEIA is the use of words that sound like what they mean.
Crash, buzz, screech, hiss and jingle are examples. The usefulness of
onomatopoeia, of course, is strictly limited because it can be used only
where the poet is describing sound, and most poems do not describe sound.
Onomatopoeia, in the hands of a poet, becomes a much more subtle device
than simply the use of words when, in an effort to suit sound to sense, the
poet creates verses which themselves carry their meaning in their sounds.
“The moan of doves in immemorial elms; And murmuring of innumerable
bees,” is a notable example from Tennyson’s poem “The Princess.”
PARABLE is a story answering a question or pointing a moral or lesson.
PERSONIFICATION is a type of figurative language in which a nonhuman
subject is given human characteristics. Personification is often used in
everyday life, such as “This coffee is strong enough to get up and walk
away.” Example from literature: “Men say they love Virtue, but they leave
her standing in the rain.” (Juvenal)
PLOT is the sequence of events in a literary work. The plot usually begins
with an exposition that introduces the setting, the characters and the
basic situation. This is followed by the introduction of the central
conflict. The conflict then increases during the rising action until it
reaches a high point of interest or suspense, the climax. The climax is
followed by the falling action, or end, of the central conflict. Any events
that occur during the falling action make up the resolution, or denouement.
It is important to note that some plots do not have all of these parts. A
story arouses only curiosity; whereas plot demands intelligence and
memory. Thus, plotting is the process of converting story into plot, of
changing a sequential arrangement of incidents into a causal and inevitable
POINT OF VIEW is the perspective, or vantage point, from which a story is
told. Point of view is used to describe the way in which a reader is
presented with the material of the story. Three commonly used points of
view are first person, omniscient third person and limited third person.
- First-person point of view – the narrator is a character in the story and refers to himself or herself with the pronoun “I.”
- Omniscient third-person point of view - the narrator knows and tells about what each character feels and thinks. This all-knowing impersonal observer does not take part in the events but can describe the feelings and thoughts of all the characters.
- Limited third-person point of view – the narrator relates the inner thoughts and feelings of only one character, and everything is viewed from this character’s perspective (“limited” to only one character). The actions of other characters may be described fully but we do not learn their thoughts and feelings.
PROSE is the ordinary form of written language. Written or spoken
expression that does not have a regular rhythmic pattern is considered
prose. Prose in one of the major genres of literature and occurs in two
forms: fiction and nonfiction.
PROTAGONIST is the main character in a literary work. The protagonist is
the leading figure in both terms of importance and in terms of his or her
ability to enlist our interest and sympathy.
REFRAIN is a regularly repeated line or group of lines in a poem or song.
REPETITION is the use, more than once, of any element of language—a
sound, word, phrase, clause or sentence. Repetition is used in both prose
and poetry. In prose, a situation or character may be repeated with some
variations. Poets make use of many varieties of repetition. Rhyme,
alliteration and rhythm are all repetitions of sounds or sound patterns. A
refrain is a repeated line. Authors may use repetition to unify a work.
They may also use it to create a musical or rhythmic effect or to
emphasize an idea. Repetition used carelessly is unpleasantly noticeable.
Employed by deliberate design, it adds force and clarity to a statement.
Repetition as a poetic device gives pleasure by arousing, by satisfying or by
RHYME is the repetition of sounds at the ends of words. Poets use rhyme
to lend a songlike quality to their verses and to emphasize certain words
and ideas. Many traditional poems contain end rhymes, or rhyming words
at the ends of the lines.
RHYME SCHEME is a regular pattern of rhyming words in a poem. To
indicate the rhyme scheme of a poem, use lowercase letters. This is an
example from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.”
Under a spreading chestnut tree a
The village smithy stands; b
The smith, a mighty man is he, a
With large and sinewy hands; b
And the muscles of his brawny arms c
Are strong as iron bands. b
RHYTHM is the pattern of beats, or stresses in spoken or written language.
In both poetry and prose the presence of rhythmic patterns lends both
pleasure and heightened emotional response to the listener or reader, for
it established a pattern of expectations and rewards the listener or
reader with the pleasure of a series of fulfillments or gratifications of
RISING ACTION is the part of a dramatic plot that leads up to the climax.
In rising action, the complication caused by the conflict of opposing forces
SARCASM is a cutting remark Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony in which,
under the guise of praise, a caustic and bitter expression of strong and
personal disapproval is given. Sarcasm is personal, intended to hurt and is
intended as a sneering taunt.
SENSORY LANGUAGE is writing or speech that appeals to one or more of
the five senses.
SETTING is the time and place of the action in a literary work. The time
includes not only the historical period—the past, present or future—but
also the year; the season, the time of day and even the weather. The place
may be a specific country, state, region, community neighborhood, building,
institution or home. Details such as dialects, clothing, customs and modes
of transportation are often used to establish setting. In most stories the
setting serves as a backdrop—a context in which the characters interact.
Setting can help establish the mood of a story. In addition, it can
influence the way characters think and behave.
SIMILE is a figure of speech that uses like or as to make a direct
comparison between two unlike ideas. Everyday speech often contains
similes, such as “pale as a ghost” and “good as gold.” Writers use similes to
describe people, places and things vividly. Poets, especially, create similes
to point out new and interesting ways of viewing the world. Examples:
“Fortune is like glass—the brighter the glitter, the more easily broken.”
(Publilius Syrus) and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”
(Shakespeare) Note that in this example, the simile is negative, asserting
that two things are unlike each other in one or more respects.
SOUND DEVICES are techniques which writers use for effect, such as the
choice and arrangement of words to please the ear and suit the meaning.
Examples of sound devices are rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and
SPEAKER is the imaginary voice assumed by the writer of a poem—the voice
that talks to the person whom the work addresses. In some poems, the
speaker has a distinct identity like a character in a story. One should
never assume that the speaker and writer are identical. A speaker who is
clearly different from the writer is called a “persona.” The speaker is the
character who tells the poem. This character, or voice, often is not
identified by name.
STANZA is a formal division of lines in a poem, considered a unit. Many
poems are divided into stanzas that are separated by spaces. Stanzas
often function just like paragraphs in prose. Each stanza states and
develops a single main idea.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS is the mind of an individual at any given
moment. Stream of consciousness is a mixture of all the levels of
awareness, an unending flow of sensations, thoughts, memories,
associations and reflections.
STRUCTURE refers to how the parts of a literary work are organized. For
example, a novel may be based on chronological order with occasional
foreshadowing and/or flashbacks.
STYLE is the expressive qualities that distinguish an author’s word choice
and the length and arrangement of sentences, as well as the use of
figurative language and imagery. Style can reveal an author’s attitude
and purpose in writing.
SUSPENSE is a feeling of anxious uncertainty about the outcome of events
in a literary work. Writers create suspense by raising questions in the
minds of their readers. [Suspense is a poised anticipation of the reader or
audience as to the outcome of the events of a short story, a novel or a
drama, particularly as these events affect a character in the work for
whom the reader or audience has formed a sympathetic attachment. It
may be either of two major types: in one, the outcome is uncertain and the
suspense resides in the question of who or what or how; in the other, the
outcome is inevitable from the events which have gone before and the
suspense resides in the audience’s frightened anticipation, in the question
SYMBOLISM is a device in literature where an object represents an idea.
Symbols are common in everyday life. A dove with an olive branch in its
beak is a symbol of peace. A blindfolded woman holding a balanced scale is
a symbol of justice. A rushing river often symbolizes the passing of time.
Sunrises often symbolize rebirth or hope. There are two types of symbols:
universal symbols that are universally recognized meanings, such as skull to
symbolize death, and constructed symbols that are given symbolic meaning
by the way they are used in the story, such as the sharks in The Old Man
and The Sea to symbolize evil.
THEME is the central message, concern or purpose in a literary work. A
theme can usually be expressed as a generalization, or general statement,
about people or about life. The theme of a work is not a summary of its
plot. The theme is the central idea that the writer communicates. A
theme can be stated directly by the writer, although this is unusual.
Instead, most themes are not directly stated but are implied. When the
theme is implied, the reader must figure out what the theme is by looking
carefully at what the work reveals about people or about life. Most
literary works have more than one theme.
TONE is the writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward his subject, his audience
or himself. It is the emotional meaning of the work. A correct
interpretation of the tone is an important part of understanding the full
meaning of a literary piece. These are examples of tone:
angry bitter admiring humorous
amused playful serious sad
calm reverent excited troubled
tense suspicious ironic regretful
reflective formal affectionate sarcastic
sincere bitter detached philosophic
teasing critical mocking nostalgic
TRAGEDY is a type of drama in which a noble or outstanding character is
brought to ruin or suffers a great sorrow. The character’s downfall is at
least partly caused by a flaw, a weakness or an error in judgment, often
called a tragic flaw. Because the character is so consumed with one
dominant emotion, he does not think about the consequences of his actions.
The tragic hero, through choice or circumstance, is caught up in a
sequence of events that inevitably results in disaster. Because the
protagonist is neither a wicked villain nor an innocent victim, the audience
reacts with mixed emotion. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle
in the Poetics, tragedy is “the imitation of an action that is serious and
also, as having magnitude, complete in itself.” In addition, the purpose of
tragedy is to arouse pity (through identification with the main character)
and fear (through dread at the possibility of sharing the main character’s
tragic flaw) as the main character’s terrible fate unfolds.
UNDERSTATEMENT is a figure of speech that consists of saying less than
one means, or of staying what one means with less force than the occasion
warrants. An example of an understatement is the description of a
flooded area as “slightly soggy.”
Literary terms adapted from the following sources:
A Glossary of Literary Terms. Harris, Robert. January 4, 2002. http://www.virtualsalt.com/litterms.htm
All American: Glossary of Literary Terms. June 7, 2003. http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/general/glossary.htm
Arp, Thomas R. Perrine’s Sound and Sense. New York: Harcourt Brace
College Publishers, 1997.
Holman, C. High, A Handbook to Literature. Indianapolis: ITT Bobbs-
Merrill Educational Publishing Company, Inc. 1985.
Literature and Integrated Studies. Glenview, Illinois: ScottForesman, 1997.
Prentice Hall Literature—Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Prentice Hall World Masterpieces. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1991.
Stern, Steven L. Preparing for Regents Comprehensive Examinations in
English. New York: Amsco School Publications, Inc. 2000.