This glossary of literary terms is excerpted from the Excellence in Literature curriculum, and is useful for the study of literature and writing. If there are other terms you would like to see added, please let us know.

Allegory: A story in which ideas are represented or personified as actions, people, or things. Example: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

Alliteration: The repetition of beginning consonant sounds through a sequence of words. Gerard Manley Hopkins is noted for using alliteration in lines such as “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;” from “Pied Beauty.”

Allude / Allusion: To make a reference, either implied or stated, to the Bible, mythology, literature, art, music, or history that relies on the reader’s familiarity with the alluded-to work to make or reinforce a point in the current work.

Analogy: A comparison based upon similarities and relationships of things that are somewhat alike but mostly different. An analogy often makes a point-by-point comparison from a familiar object to an unfamiliar.

Antagonist: The character who opposes the main character (the protagonist).

Antithesis: A counter-proposition that denotes a direct contrast to the original proposition, balancing an argument for parallel structure.

Archetype: A plot pattern, such as the quest or the redeemer/scapegoat, or character element, such as the cruel stepmother, that recurs across cultures.

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in a series of words. Example: “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

Ballad: A narrative poem or song with a repeating refrain. A ballad often tells the story of a historical event or retells a folk legend. Example: “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe.

Beast Fable: Also known as a “beast epic,” this is an often satirical, allegorical style in which the main characters are animals. It is often written as a mock epic. Example: Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Blank Verse: Unrhymed poetry, usually iambic pentameter. Example: Paradise Lost (Milton), Tintern Abbey (Wordsworth), The Second Coming (Yeats).

Burlesque: Refers to ridiculous exaggeration in language, usually one that makes the discrepancy between the words and the situation or the character silly. For example, to have a king speak like an idiot or a workman speak like a king (especially, say, in blank verse) is burlesque. Similarly, a very serious situation can be burlesqued by having the characters in it speak or behave in ridiculously inappropriate ways. In other words, burlesque creates a large gap between the situation or the characters and the style with which they speak or act out the event.

Caricature: The technique of exaggerating for comic and satiric effect one particular feature of a subject, in order to achieve a grotesque or ridiculous effect. Caricatures can be created either through words or pictures.

Characterization: The artistic presentation of a fictional character.

Citation: A standardized reference to a source of information in a written work. The citation usually includes author, title, publisher, and so forth, in a specific format. In the MLA style of citation that we use with this curriculum, the citations appear as signal phrases in the body of the text, and a “works cited” list follows the text.

Climax: The turning point in fiction; the transition from rising to falling action.

Comedy: In literary terms a comedy is a story, often centered on love, that has a positive ending. It may or may not be humorous.

Conflict: A struggle between two opposing forces. The conflict usually forms the central drama in a fictional narrative, and can be man vs. man, man vs. God, man vs. nature, man vs. society, or even man vs. himself.

Consonance: An “almost rhyme” in which consonants agree but the vowels that precede them differ. Example: word/lord, slip/slop.

Couplet: In poetry, a pair of rhyming lines often appearing at the end of a sonnet.

Denouement: Resolution or conclusion.

Diction: An author’s word choices.

Didactic: Literature with a moralistic or instructive purpose.

Elegy: A poem, usually written as a formal lament on the death of a person. In classical time an elegy was any poem written in elegiac meter. Example: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden.

End Rhyme: The repetition of identical or similar sounds in two or more different words found at the end of poetic lines.

English Sonnet: A sonnet with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. Also known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Epic: A long narrative poem that tells a story, usually about the deeds of a hero. Example: Beowulf.

Epigram: A brief saying or poem, often ironic or satirical.

Epigraph: A phrase, quotation, or poem that suggests something about the theme
and is set at the beginning of a chapter or book.

Epistolary Style: A novel composed of a series of letters.

Essay: A paper that takes a position on a topic.

Eucatastrophe: A word first used by J. R. R. Tolkien to refer to a sudden, favorable turn of events at the end of a story.

Euphemism: The substitution of a socially acceptable word or expression in place of harsh or unacceptable language. Example: “Passed away” for “died.”

Exaggerate: To exaggerate is to overstate; colloquially “to make a mountain out of a molehill.”

Exposition: The part of the narrative structure in which the scene is set, characters introduced, and the situation established. It usually falls at the beginning of the book, but additional exposition is often scattered throughout the work.

Fable: A short story, usually featuring animals or other non-human characters, that illustrates a moral lesson. Example: Aesop’s “The Crow and the Pitcher.”

Falling Action: The portion of plot structure, usually following the climax, in which the problems encountered during the rising action are solved.

Figure of Speech: A comparison in which something is pictured or figured in other more familiar terms. See simile and metaphor.

Flashback: A plot device in which a scene from the fictional past is brought into the fictional present, often to explain or illustrate a character’s next action.

Foot: A group of syllables that form a basic unit of poetic rhythm.

Foreshadow: Hints or clues about future events in a narrative.

Framed Narrative: A story or stories told within a narrative frame. Example: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer has framed a vivid grouping of stories within the frame of a narrative about a group of pilgrims who are traveling to Canterbury.

Free Verse: Poetry that does not rhyme, has no set line length, and is not set to traditional meter.

Full Stop: A period or other punctuation mark that indicates the end of a sentence.

Genre: A category of classification for literature such as fiction, non-fiction, and so forth. Pronounced zhahn-ruh.

Gothic Novel: A genre that evokes an aura of mystery and may include ghosts, dark and stormy nights, isolated castles, and supernatural happenings. Example: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Handbook: A writer’s handbook such as the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers, Write for College, Writer’s Inc. from Write Source, or Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker.

Heroic Couplet: Two rhymed lines in iambic pentameter, forming a complete thought. This form was often used by Alexander Pope.

Homonym / Homophone: Words that sound much the same but have different meanings, origins, or spelling.

Hubris: A term derived from the Greek language that means excessive pride. In Greek tragedy and mythology, hubris often leads to the hero’s downfall.

Hyperbole: Overstatement through exaggerated language.

Imagery: Words, phrases, and sensory details used to create a mood or mental picture in a reader’s mind. Example: From “Mariana” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson-
“With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all;
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable wall.
The broken sheds looked sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worth the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange …”

Iambic Pentameter: In poetry, a metrical pattern in a ten-syllable line of verse in which five unaccented syllables alternate with five accented syllables, with the accent usually falling on the second of each pair of syllables.

Irony: A stylistic device or figure of speech in which the real meaning of the words is different from (and opposite to) the literal meaning. Irony, unlike sarcasm, tends to be ambiguous, bringing two contrasting meanings into play.

Italian Sonnet: A sonnet with an abba abba cdd cee rhyme scheme.

Limerick: A quintain (five line poem) with an aabba rhyme scheme in which the first, second, and fifth lines have nine syllables and the third and fourth lines have six syllables.

Manners: A novel of manners focuses on and describes in detail the social customs and habits of a particular social group. Examples include Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

Metaphor: A comparison between two objects, not using the terms “like” or “as.”

Meter: The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry.

Mock Heroic: A satiric style which sets up a deliberately disproportionate and witty distance between the elevated language used to describe an action or event and the triviality or foolishness of the action (using, for example, the language of epics to describe a tea party). The mock heroic style tends to be an inside joke, in that it appeals to the sophistication of a reader familiar with the epic original but is not understood by readers who are not familiar with the traditional epic form. It encourages the reader to see the ridiculousness of the heroic pretensions of trivial people and is thus an excellent vehicle for skewering the sin of pride. Example: “Mac Flecknoe” by John Dryden or Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.”

Motif: A recurrent device, formula, or situation, often connecting a fresh idea with common patterns of existing thought.

Myth: A type of story that is usually symbolic and extensive, including stories shared across a culture to explain its history and traditions. Example: “Romulus and Remus.”

Narrator: The character who tells the story. This may or may not be the hero, and the narrator may be reliable or unreliable. Example: Ishmael in Moby Dick.

Nature: As it refers to a person, this is used to identify something inborn or inherent, such as the “old nature” of Scripture, that often leads to predictable actions.

Octave: In poetry, the first eight lines of the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet.

Ode: A lyric poem with a serious topic and formal tone but without formal pattern. This form was especially popular among the Romantic poets. Example: “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Omniscient Point of View: In literature, a narrative perspective from multiple points of view that gives the reader access to the thoughts of all the characters.

Onomatopoeia: The formation or use of a word that sounds like what it means. Example: hiss; sizzle; pop.

Oxymoron: A figure of speech that combines two seemingly contradictory elements. Example: living death; sweet sorrow.

Palindrome: A word, phrase, number, or other sequence of characters which reads the same backward or forward. Palindromes can be a single word, a phrase, or a sentence. Examples include “kayak” or “Madam, I’m Adam,”  “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”, “Was it a car or a cat I saw?” or “Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus.”

Parable: A short story with an explicit moral lesson. Example: The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18–30).

Paradox: A statement that may appear contradictory but is actually true. Example: “Less is more.”

Parody: A style of writing that deliberately seeks to ridicule another style, primarily through exaggeration.

Pastoral: Poem or play that describes an idealized, simple life that country folk, usually shepherds, are imagined to live in a world full of beauty, music, and love.

Personification: To endow a non-human object with human qualities. Example: Death in “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne.

Picaresque: A style of novel that features a loosely connected series of events, rather than a tightly constructed plot, often with a non-traditional hero. Example: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.

Plagiarism: To plagiarize is to copy or borrow the work or ideas of another author without acknowledgement. It is both unethical and illegal. When you are writing anything, such as essays, reports, dissertations, or creative works, you must cite your sources of information, including books, periodicals, or online resources, within your text as well as in a list of references appended to the work.

Plot: The sequence of narrated events that form a story.

Poetic Justice: A literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished.

Point of View: The perspective from which people, events, and other details in a story are viewed.

Prose: Language in its ordinary, non-poetic form.

Protagonist: The main character in a work, either male or female.

Pseudonym: A false name used to disguise a writer’s identity. Example: Mary Anne Evans used the pseudonym George Eliot.

Pun: A wordplay that exploits the double meaning or ambiguity in a word to create an amusing effect. Example: The title of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

Quatrain: A stanza or complete poem with four lines. Example: abab, abba, aaba, etc.

Quest: A type of literary plot that focuses on a protagonist’s journey toward a difficult goal. There may or may not be a physical journey involved. Example: Homer’s Odyssey; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Realism: A type of literature that tries to present life as it really is.

Reductio ad absurdum: A popular satiric technique in which the author agrees enthusiastically with the basic attitudes or assumptions he wishes to satirize and, by pushing them to a logically ridiculous extreme, exposes the foolishness of the original attitudes and assumptions. Example: “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.

Refrain: A phrase, line, or group of lines that is repeated throughout a poem, usually after every stanza.

Resolution: The point of closure to the conflict in the plot.

Rhetoric: The art of using language to persuade or influence others. Sometimes includes the idea of eloquence (an older meaning) or of insincerity or artificiality in language (more modern interpretation). Examples: Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare or the character of Squealer in Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Rhetorical Question: A figure of speech in which a question is asked in order to make a point rather than elicit an answer.

Rhyme Scheme: The pattern of end rhymes in a poem, noted by small letters, e.g., abab or abcba, etc.

Rising Action: The part of the plot structure in which events complicate or intensify the conflict, or introduce additional conflict.

Romance: A type of novel that presents an idealized picture of life. A novel of romance can be considered almost the opposite of a novel of realism. If you were expecting that the definition of “romance” would have something to do with love, you may want to look at the definition of “comedy” instead.

Rubric: A checklist for scoring that includes guidelines for expectations.

Sarcasm: A form of verbal irony in which apparent praise is actually criticism. Example: “A modest little person, with much to be modest about.” -Winston Churchill

Satire: A composition in verse or prose that uses humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to point out vice or folly in order to expose, discourage, and change morally offensive attitudes or behaviors. It has been aptly described as an attack with a smile. Example: “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.

Scansion: The process of analytically scanning a poem line by line to determine its meter.

Setting: The time and place in which the action of a story, poem, or play takes place.

Shakespearean Sonnet: A sonnet with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. Also known as the English sonnet.

Simile: A comparison of two things, using the words “like” or “as.” Example: “My love is like a red, red rose …” by Robert Burns.

Soliloquy: A monologue in which a character talks to himself. Example: Hamlet’s “To be or not to be …” soliloquy.

Sonnet: A fixed verse form consisting of fourteen lines, usually in iambic pentameter. Variations include Italian (Petrarchan), Shakespearean, and Spenserian.

Spenserian Stanza: A poetic form in which the first eight lines are written in iambic pentameter; with the final line as an alexandrine or six-foot line. Example: abab bcbc c

Stanza: A section of a poem, preceded and followed by an extra line space.

Stereotype: A characterization based on the assumption that a personal trait such as gender, age, ethnic or national identity, religion, occupation, or marital status is predictably accompanied by certain characteristics, actions, even values.

Stock Character: A flat character sketch that fills a classic, easily understood role without much detail. Example: The wicked stepmother in Cinderella.

Stream of Consciousness: A modern writing style that replicates and records the random flow of thoughts, emotions, memories, and associations as they rush through a character’s mind. Example: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

Structure: The arrangement of the various elements in a work.

Sturm und Drang: German for “storm and stress”; emotional upheaval; turmoil.

Style: A distinctive manner of expression distinguished by the writer’s diction, rhythm, imagery, and so on.

Syllabus: An outline of course requirements. In Excellence in Literature, the syllabus is this book in its entirety.

Symbol: A person, place, thing, event, or pattern in a literary work that is not only itself but also stands for something else, often something more abstract.

Textual Support: Brief quotes from a text that is being analyzed. These quotes should usually be smoothly integrated into an original, analytical sentence.

Theme: The main idea or dominant concern of a novel, play, or poem stated in a generalized, abstract way. Examples: “Crime doesn’t pay.” “Honesty is the best policy.”

Tom Swifties: A type of word play in which a phrase in a quoted sentence is linked by a pun to its attribution. For example, “That certainly took the wind out of my sails!” said Tom disgustedly” or “I haven’t had my photographs developed yet,” said Tom negatively.

Tone: The attitude a novel or poem takes toward its subject.

Tragedy: A story in which the character begins at a high point but ends badly, often because of a fatal flaw in his character that causes him to make poor choices. Example: King Lear by William Shakespeare; Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Tragic Hero: A character, often a noble person of high rank, who comes to a disastrous end in his or her confrontation with a superior force (fortune, the gods,
social forces, universal values), but also comes to understand the meaning of his or her deeds and to accept an appropriate punishment.

Unreliable Narrator: A speaker or voice whose narration is consciously or unconsciously deceiving. This type of narration is often subtly undermined by details in the story or through inconsistencies with general knowledge.

Voice: The style, personality, and tone of a narrative; also the speaker or narrator. An appropriate voice captures the correct level of formality, social distance, and personality for the purpose of the writing and the audience.

Wordplay is a type of humor and a literary technique in which word usage becomes the focus, with the goal of creating humor. Examples of word play include puns, phonetic mix-ups such as spoonerisms, obscure words and meanings, oddly formed sentences, double entendres, Tom Swifties, and descriptive character names.

Writer’s Handbook: See handbook.

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