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Literary Terminology


The repetition of sounds, most often consonant sounds, at the beginning of the words.  Example: Sally sold seashells at the seashore.


A reference in a work of literature to a character, place, or situation from another work of literature, music, or art, or from history.


A comparison based on a similarity between things that are otherwise dissimilar.


A brief account of an interesting or amusing incident.  An anecdote is often used as evidence to support or explain an idea, or it may be used to entertain readers or reveal the personality of the author or another person.


A person or force in society or nature that opposes the protagonist, or central character, in a literary work.


In a play, a comment made by a character that is heard by the audience or another character but is not heard by the other characters onstage.   Asides are frequently used to provide information to the audience and reveal the private thoughts of characters.


The repetition of similar vowel sounds within non-rhyming words, especially in a line of poetry.  Example: ride the thermals mile after guileless mile without resting.

Author’s Purpose

The author’s reason for writing.  For example the purpose may be to persuade, to express an opinion, or to inform.  Sometimes an author may have more than one purpose for writing.


The story of a person’s life written by that person from the first-person point of view.


A song or poem that tells a story.


The account of a person’s life written by someone other than the subject.

Blank Verse

Verse written in unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, a rhythm pattern with five units, or feet, each of which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.


The methods an author uses to reveal a character’s personality.


The point of greatest emotional intensity, interest, or suspense in the plot of a narrative.  The climax typically comes at the turning point in a story or drama.

Colloquial Language

Refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions.


A type of drama that deals with light and amusing subjects or with serious and profound subjects in a light, familiar, or satirical manner.  Comedies typically have happy endings, and they entertain audiences through the use of verbal wit, physical humor, ridicule, or irony.  They often poke fun at people’s faults and limitations in order to teach something about the follies and foibles of human nature.

Comic Relief

A short, funny episode that interrupts an otherwise serious or tragic work of drama.  Such an episode may break the tension after a particularly intense scene, it may provide a bitterly humorous twists on the work’s theme, or it may emphasize an unfolding tragedy.


The struggle between opposing forces in a story or play.


The repetition of consonant sounds before or after different vowel sounds.  Example: thick socks.


Two consecutive lines of poetry that usually rhyme and have the same meter. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter.


A French term meaning “unraveling” or “unknotting,”used to describe the resolution of the plot following the climax.


A variation of a standard language spoken by a group of people, often within a particular region.  Sentence structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation are all affected by dialect.


Conversation between characters in a literary work.


A author’s choice of words and the arrangement of those words in phrases, sentences, or lines of a poem. 

Direct Characterization

The author or narrator makes direct statements about a character’s traits.  Example: He was a tall, rawboned man with a bullet-shaped head, and he looked exactly like what he was—a deacon in a church.

Dramatic Irony

When the reader knows something that a character does not know.

Dramatic Monologue

A type of lyric poem in which a character (the speaker) addresses a distinct but silent audience imagined to be present in the poem in such a way as to reveal a dramatic situation and, often unintentionally, some aspect of his or her temperament or personality.

Dramatic Poetry

Poetry that uses elements of drama.  One or more characters speak to other characters, to themselves, or to the reader.  Dramatic poetry typically includes a tense situation or emotional conflict.

Dynamic Character

A character that develops and changes in the course of a literary work.  This change may result fro ma conflict or from a newfound understand of him- or herself or others.


A mournful, contemplative lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in a consolation.


A long narrative poem on a great and serious subject that is centered on the actions of a heroic figure.  The epic hero has a goal and typically is embarked on a long journey that involves struggles with natural and supernatural beings—gods, monsters, and other human beings—which test the hero’s bravery, wits, and skill in battle.  The purpose of the epic poem is to entertain, teach, and inspire the listener or reader with examples of how people can strive and succeed against great odds.


The introduction of the characters, the setting, or the situation at the beginning of a story.

Extended Metaphor

A sustained comparison in which part or all of a poem consists of a series of related metaphors.

External Conflict

A conflict when a character struggles against some outside force, such as another character, nature, society, or fate.

Falling Action

In a play or story, the action that typically follows the climax and reveals its results.


Literature in which situations and characters and invented by the writer.

Figurative Language

Language used for descriptive effect, often to imply ideas indirectly.  Figurative expressions are not literally true but express some truth beyond the literal level.  Example: memory sleeps beneath the gray and windless sky and brings no dreams of any well remembered day.

First-Person Point of View

The narrator is a character in the story, referred t as “I.”  The reader sees everything through that character’s eyes.


A literary device in which an earlier episode, conversation, or event is inserted into the chronological sequence of a narrative.  Often presented as a memory of the narrator or of another character, a flashback may be sparked by one or more cues, such as a sound or odor associated with a prior experience or a visit to a related setting.

Foil Character

A character who provides a strong contrast to another character.  A foil may emphasize another character’s distinctive traits or make a character look better by comparison.


An author’s use of clues that hint at events that will occur later in the plot.  Foreshadowing often helps to build suspense as well as to prepare readers for what is to come.

Free Verse

Poetry that has no fixed pattern of meter, rhyme, line length, or stanza arrangement.  Example: “I Was a Skinny Tomboy Kid”by Alma Luz Villanueva is an example.


A category or type of literature characterized by a particular form or style.  Prose—including fiction and nonfiction—poetry, and drama are examples of genres.


A figure of speech in which great exaggeration is used for emphasis or humorous effect.

Iambic Pentameter

A rhythm pattern with five units, or feet, each of which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.


A work or phrase that has a special meaning different from its standard or dictionary meaning.  Example: burning the midnight oil is an idiom that means staying up late at night.


The “word pictures”that writers use to help evoke an emotional response in readers.  In creating effective imagery, writers use sensory details, or descriptions that appeal to one or more of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

Internal Conflict

A conflict within the mind of a character who is torn between different course of action.


A contrast between appearance and reality.


In a poem, a word or row of words that may or may not form a complete sentence.


A type of narrative nonfiction that presents the story of a period in a person’s life and is usually written from the first-person point of view.  A memoir often emphasizes a person’s thoughts and feelings, the person’s relationships with other people, or the impact of a significant historical event on the person’s life.


A figure of speech that compares or equates two or more things that have something in common.  A metaphor does not use like or as.


A regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that gives a line of poetry a predictable rhythm.


The feeling or atmosphere that an author creates in a literary work.  The mood can suggest a specific emotion, such as excited or fearful.  Mood can also suggest the quality of a setting, such as somber or calm.  In a poem, work choice, line length, rhythm, and other elements contribute to its mood.  Descriptive language and figures or speech also help to establish the mood.


A theme or idea that is repeated throughout a literary work.


The kind of writing or speech that tells a story.


A book-length, fictional prose narrative, typically having a plot that unfolds through the actions, speech, and thoughts of characters.


The use of a word or phrase that imitates or suggests the sound of what it describes.  Example: splash, pop, fizz.


A figure of speech that is a combination of seemingly contradictory words.


The use of a series of words, phrases, or sentences that have similar grammatical form.  Parallelism emphasizes the items that are arranged in the similar structures.


A literary or musical work that imitates the style of some other work in a satirical or humorous way.


A figure of speech in which an animal, object, force of nature, or idea is given human qualities or characteristics.


The sequence of events in a narrative work.  The plot begins with the exposition, or the introduction of the characters, the setting, and the conflict.  Rising action occurs as complications, twists, or intensifications of the conflict occur.  This action leads up to the climax, or emotional high point.  The climax gives way rapidly to its logical result in the falling action, and finally to the resolution in which the final outcome is revealed.

Point of View

The relationship of the narrator to the story.


The central character in a literary work around whom the main conflict revolves.  The protagonist is often the person with whom audience members or readers sympathize or identify.


A humorous play on two or more meanings of the same word or on two different words with the same sound.


A literary device in which sounds, words, phrases, lines, or stanzas are repeated for emphasis in a poem or other literary work.  The use of repetition may lend a sense of unity or continuity to the writing.


The part of the plot that concludes the falling action by revealing or suggesting the outcome of the conflict.


The repetition of the same stressed vowel sounds and any succeeding sounds in two or more words.  Example: block, clock or weather, together.  In a poem, internal rhyme occurs within a line, while end rhyme occurs at the end of lines.  Slant rhymes occur when words include sounds that are similar by not identical. 

Rhyme Scheme

The pattern that end rhymes form in a stanza or poem.  The rhyme scheme is designated by the assignment of a different letter of the alphabet to each new rhyme.


The pattern of sound created by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables, especially in poetry.

Rising Action

The part of a plot that adds complications to the conflict and increases reader interest.


A strong form of verbal irony that is calculated to hurt someone through, for example, false praise.

Sensory Imagery

Evocative words that convey sensory experiences—seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.  Sensory details make writing come alive by helping readers experience what is being described.


The time and place in which the events of a story, novel, or play occur.  The setting often helps create an atmosphere or mood.  Setting is not just physical, however; it includes ideas, customs, values, and beliefs of a particular time and place.

Short Story

A brief fictional narrative in prose.


A figure of speech using like or as to compare seemingly unlike things.

Situational Irony

Exists when the actual outcome of a situation is the opposite of what is expected/


A long speech delivered by a character who is alone onstage.  A soliloquy typically reveals the private thoughts and emotion of the character.


A lyric poem of fourteen lines, almost always written in iambic pentameter and usually following strict patterns of stanza division and rhyme.


In a poem, a group of lines forming a unit.  A stanza in a poem is similar to a paragraph in prose.

Static Character

A character that remains the same from the beginning to the end of a work of literature.


The distinctive way in which an author uses language.  Such elements as word choice, phrasing, sentence length, tone, dialogue, author purpose, and attitude toward the audience and subject can all contribute to an author’s writing style.


The growing interest and excitement readers experience while awaiting a climax or resolution in a work of literature.  To build suspense, an author may use foreshadowing—or clues to what will happen next—as well as a number of other literary devices.


An object, a person, a place, or an experience that represents something else, usually something abstract.  A symbol may have more than one meaning, or its meaning may change from the beginning to the end of a literary work.


The main idea or message of a literary work.  Theme is not the subject of the work but instead is an insight about life or human nature.  Some works have a stated theme, which is expressed directly and explicitly.  Others have an implied theme, which is revealed gradually through such other literally elements as plot, character, setting, point of vive, imagery, figures of speech, or symbolism.


The central idea or purpose of an essay or other work of nonfiction, commonly stated in one or more sentences.

Third-Person Point of View

The narrator reveals the thoughts, feelings, and observations of the characters, referring to the characters as “he” or “she.”

Third-Person Limited Point of View

The narrator reveals the thoughts, feelings, and observations of only one character, referring to that character as “he” or “she.”

Third-Person Omniscient Point of View

In this all-knowing point of view the narrator is not a character in the story but someone who stands outside the story and comments on the action.  A third-person omniscient narrator knows everything about the characters and the events and may reveal details that the characters themselves could not reveal.


A reflection of a writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward a subject of a poem, story, or other literary work.  Tone may be communicated through words and details that express particular emotions and that evoke an emotional response in the reader.  For example, word choice or phrasing may seem to convey respect, anger, lightheartedness, or sarcasm.


A play in which a main character, the tragic hero, suffers a downfall.  The downfall may result from outside forces or from a weakness within the character, which is known as a tragic flaw.


The distinctive use of language that conveys the writer’s or narrator’s personality to the reader.  Voice is determined by elements of style such as word choice and tone.