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Literary Terms Locker

Literary Terms

Glossary of Literary Terms
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Terms to Know

Construction of Literature:

  1. People or characters
  2. Events or plot (includes conflict)
  3. Setting (time and place)
  4. Point of View (who tells the story)
  5. Tone, moodand atmosphere (how story is told)
  6. Theme (what the author is saying)


I.  The People:

The people in the story are called characters, and the author’s way of telling you what kind of people they are is called characterization.

Direct Characterization:  The author tells you straight out information.

          EX:  He is tall.

Indirect Characterization:  The author shows you information, and you must make your own conclusions.  This is much more colorful and interesting to read.

          EX:  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: 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: 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:  hero

Antagonist: the one in conflict with the hero

Foil:  Opposite characters to contrast and emphasize the traits


II.  Plot

The action moves from a problem to a solution.

       Exposition - Rising Action - Climax - Falling Action - Resolution

Conflict/Complication:   Source of tension in the story. 

External:                                       Internal:

Human vs. human                         Human vs. himself/herself

Human vs. nature

Human vs. society

Human vs. beast or fate


Plot Structure:  Open base triangle diagram

Exposition:  characters and setting

Inciting incident:  first clue to the main problem that leads to the climax

Rising Actions:  events leading up to the climax

Climax:  Turning point

Falling Actions: specific events after the climax that leads to the resolution

Resolution:  The outcome of the story


III.  Setting

Time and place.  Be specific as possible.


IV.  Point of View

The voice telling the story.

First person is the voice used when a character in the story functions as the narrator.

Third Person is also known as omniscient (all knowing) and is not a character in the story.  This voice has unlimited access to location and thoughts of more than one character.

Third Person Limited has limited access to the information and isn’t as common as the other two.


V.  Tone, Mood, and Atmosphere

Tone is the author’s attitude towards what 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 and in the event and setting he chooses.

Mood is the attitude of the characters towards what is happening.  It may be sadness, fear, happiness or one of many others.  In some fiction, the mood may change from hope to despair, courage to fear or vice versa.

Atmosphere is the general emotional effect of a story or of a scene from a story.  It includes the effect of moods and is controlled by the author’s tone.  Thus, a story may have an atmosphere of gloom or horror, or of joy or bewilderment, just to name a few.


VI.  Theme

What is the authors’ message to the reader?  The theme is usually that message.  It can usually be some observation about the human condition-- how the universe treats us, how we treat each other, how we treat ourselves, etc.  Some stories may have more than one theme.  Another way to define theme is: a particular point of view the author wishes to express about a particular topic (love, death, growing up, nature, relationships, etc.).


VII.  Other important terms and Figurative Language:

A.  Poetry Terms:can also be used in novels, short stories, etc.

Alliteration:  repetition of initial consonant sounds

Assonance:  repetition of vowel sounds in non rhyming words

Blank Verse:  unrhymed poetry written in iambic pentameter

Cacophony:  harsh, discordant mixture of sounds

End-stopped line:  end of a poetic line with punctuation

Epic Simile:  extended simile over several lines

Epilogue:  end of a book which comments on the conclusion

Epiphany:  moment of sudden revelation or insight

Epithet:  adjective or descriptive phrase emphasizing the quality characteristic of the person

Extended metaphor:  comparison over a few lines or an entire work

Figurative:  meaning beyond the literal

Foot:  a unit of meter with stressed or unstressed syllables

Heroic Couplet:

Hyperbole:  a gross exaggeration for effect; overstatement

Idiom:  a form or expression commonly used

Iambic:  an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable

Imagery:  descriptions that appeal to one of the 5 senses

Literal:  exact meaning that the words convey

Lyric:  poem of a single speaker who expresses his thoughts and feelings

Motif:  reoccurring idea shown though symbols, action and dialogue.

Metaphor:  comparison of to unlike things

Meter:  repetition of a regular rhythmic unit of poetry

Monologue:  speech by one person where other characters are present

Onomatopoeia:  a word that imitates a sound

Personification:  giving inanimate objects human qualities.

Poetic form/structure:  poem that has a set pattern

Prose:  no form or structure to the writing

Repetition:  technique in which a sound, word, phrase or line is repeated for emphasis

Rhyme Scheme::  specific pattern of end rhymes in a poem

Rhythm:  pattern or beat of stressed and unstressed syllables

Simile:  comparison of two unlike things using like or as

Soliloquy:  alone on stage character speaks her thoughts to the audience

Sonnet:  lyric poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter

Speaker:  the voice that talks to the readerStanza:  group of lines that forms a unit of poetry


B.  Literary Terms

Allusion:  a reference to a statement, a person, place or event that is known from literature or history.  The most common:  The Bible, mythology and Shakespeare.

Aside:  a remark in a play meant for the audience

Cliché:  overused phrase that is not original

Comic Relief:  including a humorous character in a serious work

Connotation:  the feelings evoked by a word

Denotation:  definition of a word

Diction:word choice

Ethical Appeal:  making use of what the audience values as true

Imply:  author gives clues to the reader

Infer:  reader interprets the clues the author provides

Inferences:  conclusions based on clues –reader makes these

Irony:  Irony is essentially a discrepancy between what happens to be and what really is (appearance and reality.  There are three types:

  • Situational:  Difference between what appears to be and what really is
  • Dramatic:  When the audience knows something that the characters don’t
  • Verbal:  To say one thing but mean something else (Sarcasm)

Exaggeration:  emphasize by overstating the truth

Flashback:  a scene that interrupts the present action of the plot to go back and tell what happened earlier.

Foreshadowing:  the use of clues to hint at what is going to happen later in the plot.

Historical Context:   moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed in a certain time and connects to the novel

Juxtaposition:two contrasting elements placed side by side

Motivation: what drives a character’s actions

Non Standard:  dialect that may not be grammatically correct

Oxymoron:  contradictory terms brought together to express a paradox for strong effect.

Pun:  A play on the multiple meanings of words.

Rhetorical Question:  asked for effect and not expected to be answered

Satire:  a style of writing that ridicules human weaknesses, vice or folly in order to bring out social reform.

Scene:  subdivision is a play

Stereotype:  widely used, oversimplified idea or image of a person

Suspense:  causes uncertainty and tension about what will happen in the story

Symbol:  a symbol is something 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.

Syntax :  words or phrases to create effectively arranged sentences for a particular purpose

Tragic Flaw:  defect that brings out the or contributes to the downfall

Tragic Hero:  central dignified or noble character with a defect

Understatement:  technique to emphasize by saying less than is actually or literally true

Vignette:  a brief account of something that could be part of a whole, but the whole is not presented.


VIII.  Literary Genres

Comedy:  dramatic work with a light and humorous tone

Epic:  long narrative on a serious subject  in a classic or common sense

Epic Poem:  long narrative poem on a serious subject

Essay:brief non-fiction composition

Fable:  short story conveying emotion

Memoir:  autobiography with historical events that affect the author

Myth:  traditional story concerning some supernatural being or unlikely event

Narrative:  tells a story

Narrative Poem:poem that tells a story

Nonfiction:  about real people and events

Novel:  extended work of fiction

Parable:  a simple story that illustrates a lesson

Propaganda:  biased information presented to publicize a particular point of view

Romance:  imaginative story relating with noble heroes, chivalric codes of honor, passionate love, daring deeds or supernatural events

Tragedy:  drama where the actions or events of the main characters end disastrously