Literary Terms

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These are common terms used to define, analyze, and discuss literature.

  1. Allusion- a reference to a person, place, thing, or event that most readers should know.
  2. Alliteration-the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of two more words.  Although it’s often found in poems, it’s also found in fiction.
  3. Antagonist-the force working against the protagonist, or main character, in a story.  It can be another character, the setting, or the protagonist’s own flaws.
  4. Assonance-the repetition of vowel sounds in two or more words.
  5. Characters 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 many).
  6. Characterization 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.
  7. Colloquialism-informal words and phrases used in everyday conversation.
  8. Comic relief-a humorous scene, incident, or speech that occurs in the course of a serious or tragic literary work.
  9. Consonance-the repetition of consonants inside words and at the ends of words.
  10. Dialect-the type of language unique to a region.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 order.
  13. Foreshadowing 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.  
  14. Imagery-words and phrases that appeal to a reader’s senses. Another term that applies to both fiction and poetry.
  15. Interior monologue-the character’s thoughts in sentence form.
  16. Irony 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.
  17. Mood refers to the emotions that the author makes the reader feel through his choice of images, words, etc.
  18. Moral-a moral is synonymous with theme, but not all themes are morals.  Morals tell you how you should live.
  19. Motivation-what makes a character do things. These can be physical or emotional needs.
  20. Myth-a traditional story about a superhuman or unlikely event.
  21. 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.  
  22. Protagonist-the main character, who may be “the good guy” or the bad one.
  23. Romance-any imaginative story with heroes, love, codes of honor, daring deeds, and supernatural events.
  24. Satire is found in a story that mocks or ridicules the stupidity or foolishness of individuals, groups, institutions, or society in general.
  25. Setting includes the time and place where the story occurs as well as the emotional atmosphere or climate in that place.
  26. Stereotype-an oversimplified idea of something or someone.
  27. Suspense-the tension or excitement caused by the events of a story.
  28. Symbolism 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.
  29. Theme 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.  ;)