Literary TermsThese are common terms used to define, analyze, and discuss literature.
- Allusion- a reference to a person, place, thing, or event that most readers should know.
repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of two more
words. Although it’s often found in poems, it’s also found in
force working against the protagonist, or main character, in a
story. It can be another character, the setting, or the
protagonist’s own flaws.
- Assonance-the repetition of vowel sounds in two or more words.
are people in a fictional work. A character can be dynamic if he
changes over the course of a story or static if he does not, major or
minor, and simple (all good or bad) or complex (a mixture of
is the process of revealing a character to the reader.
Characterization can be direct when the writer tells the reader a
character is intelligent, amoral, etc. and indirect when he shows the
reader through a character's actions or thoughts.
- Colloquialism-informal words and phrases used in everyday conversation.
- Comic relief-a humorous scene, incident, or speech that occurs in the course of a serious or tragic literary work.
- Consonance-the repetition of consonants inside words and at the ends of words.
- Dialect-the type of language unique to a region.
- Figurative language or a "figure of speech" is found in stories and plays as well as poetry. A simile is a comparison between two things using like or as. A metaphor
makes the same comparison but it doesn't use like or as; it says one
thing is another or implies it. "Her eyes were like daggers" is a
simile. "Her eyes were daggers" is a metaphor using the past
tense if is. "Daggers shot from her eyes and I knew I was in trouble"
is an implied metaphor with her anger compared to daggers without any form of is. Personification
occurs when a writer speaks of an inanimate object as if it were a
person or had human qualities. "The pencil sharpener grew tired
of chewing" is a personification. A hyperbole is an obvious exaggeration. “Mr. Roden is Sean Connery’s clone.” An oxymoron is putting two opposites together like icy hot.
- A flashback
is a scene that interrupts the present action to tell about the events
that happened at an earlier time. It breaks up the chronological
is the use of clues to hint at what will happen next in a story or
drama. The shadow that appears in a doorway before the person is
seen explains the term's origins.
- Imagery-words and phrases that appeal to a reader’s senses. Another term that applies to both fiction and poetry.
- Interior monologue-the character’s thoughts in sentence form.
is using a word or phrase to mean the exact opposite of its literal
meaning. In this way it's similar to sarcasm, but it's usually
less harsh. In "Julius Caesar" Anthony attacks Caesar's killers
using irony. During a lengthy speech he calls Brutus and the rest
"honorable men" several times and points out what they did as
“honorable” men. By the end of his speech, it's obvious that he
really means the opposite. If this had been simple sarcasm, he
would have said, "So you killed Caesar by stabbing him in the
back. My, but aren't you honorable men." Irony is subtler
than sarcasm. In dramatic irony the reader sees the irony but the character doesn't. In verbal irony the writer says one thing but means another. In irony of the situation, the opposite of what was expected to happen happens. Rain on a wedding day would serve an example.
- Mood refers to the emotions that the author makes the reader feel through his choice of images, words, etc.
- Moral-a moral is synonymous with theme, but not all themes are morals. Morals tell you how you should live.
- Motivation-what makes a character do things. These can be physical or emotional needs.
- Myth-a traditional story about a superhuman or unlikely event.
- A pun
is a word or phrase used in such a way that it has more than one
meaning. "I don't really mind school: it's the principle of the
thing." Said aloud, the principle can become the school's
principal creating two possible meanings. In "Romeo and Juliet,"
one character after being mortally wounded tells another that if he
comes to see him the next day, he will find him a grave man.
Since grave can mean serious or a hole in the ground, the visitor may
find him in a serious mood or very dead.
- Protagonist-the main character, who may be “the good guy” or the bad one.
- Romance-any imaginative story with heroes, love, codes of honor, daring deeds, and supernatural events.
is found in a story that mocks or ridicules the stupidity or
foolishness of individuals, groups, institutions, or society in
- Setting includes the time and place where the story occurs as well as the emotional atmosphere or climate in that place.
- Stereotype-an oversimplified idea of something or someone.
- Suspense-the tension or excitement caused by the events of a story.
occurs when something stands for itself and for something broader as
well. The flag is not only a piece of multi-colored fabric, but also a
symbol of an entire country. Rain can become a symbol of death or
strong emotion. Colors often symbolize emotions: red is passion,
white is purity or friendliness, and black is grief.
is the statement about life or people a story makes. In serious
literature it is seldom spelled out for the reader. Ask what the
story tells you about the "human experience," and that will be the
theme. Not every story has one, but the serious ones in
literature books do. It is, consequently, the most important term on this handout.
The rest of the terms are just tools used to present the theme. (Your
literature teacher may disagree, and this is America, where people have
the right to be wrong. ;)