Literary Terms- Definitions

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Last updated: December 8, 2019

allegory
Characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities; the writer intends a second meaning to be read beneath the surface story.

alliteration
In poetry or prose, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or within words.

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Used for unity, emphasis, and musical effect.

allusion
A passing reference to historical or fictional characters, places, or events, or to other works that the writer assumes the reader will recognize. Commonly made to the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, and Greek mythology.

analogy
A comparison of similar things, often for the purpose of using something familiar to explain something unfamiliar.

antagonist
The force that opposes the protagonist. An antagonist can be a character or even a force of nature. Antagonists are not necessarily “bad,” just opposite of the protagonist.

antihero
A central character (protagonist) who lacks traditional heroic qualities and virtues (such as idealism, courage, steadfastness, intelligence, and bravery.

)

aphorism
A statement of a principle of truth, usually an observation about life; a maxim. Often used to characterize or develop theme in literature.

archetype
A specific type of character that recurs consistently enough in life and literature to be considered universal.

assonance
The close repetition of middle vowel sounds between different consonant sounds; used within a line of poetry for unity or rhythm.

cacophony
Harsh, clashing, or dissonant sounds; the opposite of euphony. Produced by combinations of words that require a quick, explosive delivery.

chaismus
A grammatically balanced statement of contrasting or opposing ideas in which the second half of the statement inverts the word order of the first half.

cliché
Any expression that has been used so often it has lost its freshness and precision.

climax
The moment of highest intensity in a story, after which nothing can be the same.

conflict
The struggle between opposing forces that determines the action in a story. There are two main types: internal and external.

connotation
The associations, images, or impressions carried by a word, as opposed to the word’s literal meaning. Opposite of denotation.

consonance
The close repetition of identical consonant sounds before and after differing vowel sounds, used to create emphasis and unity.

couplet
In poetry, two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme and are written with the same pattern of stressed/ unstressed syllables (meter.)

denotation
The exact dictionary definition of a word.

Opposite of connotation.

dialect
The version of a language spoken by people of a region or social group.

diction
Word choice.

dystopia
The opposite of a utopia; an undesirable imaginary society, usually futuristic.

ethos
The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided our means of persuasion into three types. This type is used when a writer or speaker tries to persuade his audience by appealing to authority (his own or another’s.)

euphony
The opposite of cacophony, this refers to a succession of sweetly melodious sounds that create smoothly flowing prose or poetry.

fable
Usually a short, simple story designed to illustrate a moral lesson, most often featuring animals as characters who exhibit human frailties.

figurative language
Language that contains figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole meant to be interpreted imaginatively rather than literally.

flashback
Flashbacks occur in literature and film when the story includes scenes from the past, creating a non-linear narrative.

foil
A character that is the opposite of another character in a story. Foils help to define and highlight character traits in others by contrast.

foreshadowing
In literature, the technique of giving hints or clues to suggest or prepare for events that occur later in the work; creates suspense and makes final outcomes seem inevitable.

free verse
Poetry term that refers to lines without any particular pattern of rhyme or rhythm.

genre
One of the many types of text.

hamartia
The error, misstep, frailty, or flaw that causes the downfall of the tragic hero.

(Also called the tragic flaw.)

hero/heroine
Usually the central figure in a literary work, directly involved in the main action, the hero/heroine commands the most interest and sympathy of the reader/audience and has noble qualities.

hubris
This word is Greek for pride or insolence, seen as a defect of character that leads a tragic hero to disregard all warnings of impending disaster and thereby hasten his downfall.

hyperbole
An obvious, extravagant exaggeration or overstatement not intended to be taken literally, but used figuratively to create emphasis or humor.

imagery
In literature, the making of a “mind movie” or a “picture in words” that appeals to all five senses and internal feelings.

Often, imagery involves metaphors, similes, and symbols, and can be both figurative and literal.

irony
A recognition of the difference between reality (what is) and appearance (what seems to be.) Three types: situational, verbal, and dramatic.

logos
The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided our means of persuasion into three types. This type is used when a speaker or writer attempts to persuade by using reasoning or logic.

lyric
Usually a short, personal poem expressing the poet’s emotions and thoughts rather than telling a story.

metaphor
A type of figurative language when the qualities of one thing are ascribed to something else, qualities that it does not ordinarily possess.

monologue
An extended speech in a drama or narrative that is presented by one character.

mood
The prevailing emotional attitude in a work of literature.

motif
A recurring image, word, phrase, action, idea, object, or situation in literature.

motivation
The psychological and moral impulses and external circumstances that cause a literary character to act, think, or feel a certain way.

myth
An anonymous narrative, originating in the primitive folklore of a race or nation, that explains the origin of life, religious beliefs, and the forces of nature as some kind of supernatural occurrence, or that recounts the deeds of traditional heroes.

onomatopoeia
The use of words whose sound imitates the sound of the thing being named.

oxymoron
A figure of speech in which two contradictory words or phrases are used in a single expression.

paradox
A statement that, while apparently self-contradictory, is nonetheless essentially true.

parallelism
The technique some writers use to make certain phrases sound more important by writing them in a similar form.

pathos
The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided our means of persuasion into three types. This type used when a speaker or writer attempts to appeal to the emotions of the audience.

personification
A figure of speech in which human characteristics are attributed to non-human things (animals, plants, etc.)

point of view
The vantage point or narrative perspective from which a story is told.

prose
All forms of ordinary writing and speech lacking the sustained and regular rhythmic patterns found in poetry.

protagonist
The principal and central character of a novel, short story, play, or other literary work.

proverb
A short saying that expresses some commonplace truth or wisdom about some aspect of practical life.

pun
A clever, although not necessarily funny, play on words that have multiple meanings.

rhyme
A similarity of sound between words.

rhythm
The patterned flow of sound in poetry and prose. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, meter, and onomatopoeia contribute greatly to it.

sarcasm
Harsh, cutting remarks, sometimes ironic.

satire
Any form of literature that blends ironic humor with criticism for the purpose of ridiculing vice and stupidity in individuals and institutions.

simile
A figure of speech that uses “like” or “as” to compare two different things.

slant rhyme
An approximate or near-rhyme in which two words very closely resemble each other in sound but do not exactly rhyme.

symbol
Anything that signifies, or stands for, something else. In literature, it is usually something concrete that stands for something abstract.

theme
The central or dominating idea or message in a work of literature, seldom stated directly, but instead expressed through images, characters, symbols, etc.

tone
The reflection in a work of the author’s attitude toward his or her subject, characters, and readers. Tone in writing is comparable to a tone of voice in speech.

utopia
An imaginary ideal society or political state.

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