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Literary Terms & Devices

The following list of terms and definitions is for your reference. You are expected to know and be able to use
these definitions throughout the year; shaded terms are those that you will likely encounter the most. You can
expect to be tested/quizzed on these throughout the year.


absurd A philosophical term for a fundamental lack of reasonableness and coherence in human
existence and that the search for order brings one into conflict with this. The term was is as
the basis for existentialism, where man is thrown into an alien, irrational world in which there
are no guides or criteria. The absurd has also been conveyed through deliberate distortion
and violations of conventional forms to undermine ordinary expectations of continuity and
allegory story or poem in which characters, settings, and events represent other people, events, or
abstract ideas/qualities
alliteration the repetition of identical or similar initial consonant sounds in neighboring word
allusion the indirect reference by a writer to another famous work such as the Bible or a Shakespeare
play; indirect reference to someone or something known from history, literature, religion,
politics, sports, science, or another branch of culture
ambiguity vagueness or uncertainty of meaning; use of words that allow for alternative interpretation
analogy a comparison of two things made to explain something unfamiliar through its similarities to
something familiar, or to prove one point based on the acceptedness of another; similes and
metaphors are types of this
anecdote a short account (story) about something interesting or funny, intended to illustrate or support
an argument
antagonist character opposing the main character
anthropomorphism the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object; similar to
personification, except the animal/object is doing something human, not just seeming to

aphorism a brief pointed statement that makes a wise or clever observation

apostrophe a poetic device in which the poet directly addresses a person (often dead), an idea, or an
object as if it were present
archetype a character type, a pattern or model of an action or an image that recurs consistently enough
in life and literature to be considered universal
aside actor’s words to the audience that are not supposed to be heard by the other actors
assonance the repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds (followed by different consonant sounds) in
neighboring words
audience the people for whom a work is written
blank verse poetic lines written in unrhymed iambic pentameter
Bildungsroman a German word meaning "novel of development"; a study of the maturation of a youthful
character, typically brought about through a series of social or sexual encounters that lead to
self-awareness; used interchangeably with erziehungsroman,a novel of initiation and
cacophony harsh and discordant sound patterns used in verse
caesura a conscious break or pause in a line of poetry, usually occurring near the middle; typically
corresponds to a break in the natural rhythm or sense of the line but is sometimes shifted to
create special meanings or rhythmic effects
caricature a depiction of a person’s features or mannerisms exaggerated as to be comic or absurd; a form of
characterizing, but usually meant to satirize, parody, or criticize
character a person in a literary work

static one who does not change during the course of the work
dynamic one who changes during the story or play

flat a one dimensional character, with only one side of the person shown

round a complex and multi-faceted character, like a real person

characterization the way a character is developed by the author

direct occurs when the author simply states the character’s traits
indirect occurs when the traits are inferred through the character’s actions, character’s words, or the
words and reactions of other characters (Methods of showing characterization include: what
he says, his actions, his appearance, his environment, what he thinks, what others say about
him, how others react to him)
chronological order a plot sequence according to time of occurrence
cliché a word or phrase which is so overused that it is no longer effective
climax the high point of the dramatic conflict often the turning point in the action
colloquial/ism an informal or conversational use of language
comedy a play that ends happily
conceit a clever and fanciful metaphor, usually expressed through elaborate and extended
comparison, that presents a striking parallel between two seemingly dissimilar things
conflict the struggle between opposing forces
internal (man vs. himself)
external (man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. supernatural, man vs. machine, man vs. nature)
connotation the impression that a word gives beyond its defined meaning
consonance the repetition of the same or similar consonant sounds in neighboring words, especially at the
ends of words (blank and think, odds and ends, first and last, low coal load)
context those parts of a text preceding and following any particular passage, giving it a meaning fuller
or more identifiable than if it were read in isolation. A context clue is a method by which the
meanings of unknown words may be obtained by examining the parts of a sentence
surrounding the word for definition/explanation clues, restatement/synonym clues,
contrast/antonym clues, or inference/general context clues.
counterclaim a claim that negates or disagrees with the thesis/claim
couplet two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme and are usually written in the same meter
denotation the definition of a word
descriptive writing writing intended to create a mood or emotion or re re-create a personal, place, think, event, or
experience; uses specific detail and imagery
dialect the version of a language spoken by people of a particular region or social group
dialogue in written texts, an exchange of two or more people conversing
diction the deliberate selection of words used by an author in a literary work; influences the reader's
reaction to and contributes to the author's style and tone
digression a passage or section that deviates from the central theme in speech or writing
editorial an article presenting the opinion of the publisher or editor
elision the slurring or omission of an unstressed vowel or weak consonant sound; used to fit words
into a metrical scheme, to smooth the rhythm of a poem, or to ease the pronunciation of words
enjambment the running over of the sense and structure of a line of verse or a couplet into the following
verse or couplet
epic a long narrative poem about the adventures of a hero of great historic or legendary
importance; the setting is vast and the action is often given cosmic significance through the
intervention of supernatural forces such as gods, angels, or demons; typically written in a
classical style of grand simplicity with elaborate metaphors and allusions that enhance the
symbolic importance of a hero's adventures; well-known examples include Homer's Iliad and
Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

epigraph a quotation at the beginning of a book, chapter, etc, suggesting its theme
epiphany sudden revelation of truth inspired by a seemingly trivial incident
episodic order a plot that consists of a series of disconnected events
epithet an adjective or adjective phrase applied to a person or thing that is frequently used to
emphasize a characteristic quality. A Homeric epithet is a compound adjective used with a
person or thing, such as “swift-footed Achilles” or “rosy-fingered dawn”
essay short piece of nonfiction that examines a single subject from a limited point of view; a prose
composition with a focused subject of discussion
ethos (rhetoric) a presentation of the writer’s credibility or a deliberate attack on the credibility of
another author. A conscientious appeal to the reader’s appreciation of credentials and or
professional experience.
euphemism expressing an unpleasant or unsavory idea in a less blunt and more pleasant way
euphony pleasing and harmonious sound patterns used in verse
exposition the part of the plot that introduces characters and their situation
expository writing writing that is done to explain something
fact a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true
falling action events that follow the climax and deal with the results of the climax
figurative language language that is symbolic or metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally; used in order to
achieve a special effect or meaning
flashback a section of a literary work that interrupts the chronological presentation of events to relate an
event from an earlier time
foil a character in a work of literature whose physical or psychological qualities contrast strongly
with, and therefore highlight, the corresponding qualities of another character.
foreshadowing the use of clues to suggest events that will occur later in the plot
framed story a narrative technique arranged as a story within a story
free verse poetry that lacks regular metrical and rhyme patterns but that tries to capture the cadences of
everyday speech
genre a category of writing; a term for a class of composition such as novel, poem, short story, and
such sub-categories as sonnet, science fiction, or mystery
gothic a late 18th- and early 19th-century style of fiction characterized by the use of medieval
settings, a murky atmosphere of horror and gloom, and macabre, mysterious, and violent
incidents; characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents or by an atmosphere of
irrational violence, desolation, and decay.
hero the principal sympathetic character in a literary work
history a drama representing historical events
hyperbole a deliberate exaggeration or overstatement.

iambic pentameter five metric feet consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable
idiom a word construction or verbal expression closely associated with a given language
imagery the use of words that evoke pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, or touch in the reader’s or
listener’s mind.
in medias res a Latin term meaning "in the middle of things;" refers to the technique of beginning a story at
its midpoint and then using various flashback devices to reveal previous action
irony the incongruity, or difference, between reality (what is) and appearance (what seems to be)
situational irony a contradiction between what is intended or expected and what actually occurs
verbal irony a contradiction between what is said and what is actually meant; sometimes sarcastic
dramatic irony a contradiction in which the audience knows more about a character’s situation than the
character does, foreseeing an outcome contrary to the character’s expectations
juxtaposition device in which normally unassociated ideas, words, or phrases are placed next to one
another, creating a contrasting effect
literal language language in which every word is truthful, accurate, and free of exaggeration or embellishment
logos (rhetoric) a deliberate appeal to the reader’s sense of logic, need for factual proof or
reasonable sense
magical realism is an artistic genre in which magical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting; a
blending of the realistic and the fantastic
metaphor a figure of speech that compares one thing directly with another
meter a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables
foot the smallest unit of rhythm in a line of poetry
metonymy a figure of speech in which a closely related term is substituted for an object or idea.
monologue a speech delivered entirely by one person or character
interior narrative technique in which characters' thoughts are revealed in a way that appears to be
monologue uncontrolled by the author; typically aims to reveal the inner self of a character; portrays
emotional experiences as they occur at both a conscious and unconscious level; images are
often used to represent sensations or emotions
mood The atmosphere or feeling created by a literary work, partly by a description of the objects or
by the style of the descriptions. A work may contain a mood of horror, mystery, holiness, or
childlike simplicity, to name a few, depending on the author's treatment of the work. The mood
of a work is not always what might be expected based on its subject matter
motif a theme or pattern that occurs several times in a work
myth a traditional story of a culture or social group that attempts to explain a natural phenomenon
or justify a belief of society
narrative a verse or prose accounting of an event or sequence of events, real or invented; the term is
also used as an adjective in the sense "method of narration"; in literary criticism, the
expression "narrative technique" usually refers to the way the author structures and presents
his or her story
narrator The teller of a story. The narrator may be the author or a character in the story through whom
the author speaks.
onomatopoeia the use of words whose sounds express or suggest their meaning
opinion judgment or belief not founded on certainty or proof
oxymoron phrase combining two contradictory terms
paradox a statement that appears impossible or contradictory but reveals a kind of truth
parallelism (or two or more words, phrases, clauses, or sentences that are similar in length and syntactical
parallel structure) structure (grammatical form) in order to create a definite pattern
parody a form of satire; an imitation of a serious literary work or the signature style of a particular
author in a ridiculous manner. A typical parody adopts the style of the original and applies it to
an inappropriate subject for humorous effect.
pathos (rhetoric) A deliberate appeal to the reader’s emotions. Common emotions appealed to by
writers include: pity, sympathy, fear, guilt, compassion, love, etc.
personification when human qualities are given to objects, animals, or ideas
persuasive writing writing designed to change the way a reader or listener thinks or acts
plot the chain of events that make up a story
plot structure

poetry writing in verse that creates an emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm
(forms include epic, ballad, sonnet, lyric, elegy, ode)
point of view The narrative perspective from which a literary work is presented to the reader
first person relates events as they are perceived by a single character, “I”
second person the narrator tells the story as if it is happening to the reader, “you”
third person, gives the reader a "godlike" perspective, unrestricted by time or place, from which to see
omniscient actions and look into the minds of characters, “he,” “she,” “they”
third person, presents the events of the story from outside of any single character's perception, “he,” “she,”
limited “they”
limited third person narrator who gives the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of one
omniscient character, usually the protagonist; narrator that is “godlike” but is only in one character’s head
at a time
prologue an introductory section of a literary work
prose a form of writing that attempts to mirror the language of everyday speech. It is distinguished
from poetry by its use of unmetered, unrhymed language consisting of logically related
protagonist the main character
pun a play on words that have similar sounds but different meanings
purpose (usually for writing) the reason why something is done or used : the aim or intention of
rebuttal evidence that negates or disagrees with a thesis/claim
repetition (for effect) an instance of using a word, phrase, or clause more than once in a short passage
to emphasize an idea
resolution/ the way that the central conflict ends or is resolved

rhetoric the art of effective communication in speaking and writing, especially persuasive discourse
rhetorical question a question asked merely for effect with no answer expected
rhyme generally, words from a poem that sound identical or very similar and appear in parallel
positions in two or more lines
internal rhyme rhyme within a line rather than at the end of lines
slant rhyme (or two words that have only their final consonant sounds and no preceding vowel or consonant
partial rhyme) sounds in common (such as stopped and wept, or parable and shell); an imperfect rhyme
using assonance or consonance only
rhyme scheme the pattern of rhymes in a poem
rhythm a regular pattern of sound, time intervals, or events occurring in writing, most often and most
discernably in poetry
rising action the part of the plot that leads up to the climax. It is here that conflict and complications
satire a type of writing that uses ridicule, humor, and wit to criticize and provoke change in human
nature and institutions
scansion the analysis of metrical patterns in poetry
science fiction fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or
individuals; literary fantasy including a scientific factor as an essential orienting component; a
type of narrative about or based upon real or imagined scientific theories and technology;
often peopled with alien creatures and set on other planets or in different dimensions.

setting the time, place, and cultural or emotional atmosphere of the action
simile a figurative comparison introduced by like, as, than or resembles.
soliloquy a long speech made by a character who is alone and who reveals his or her private thoughts
and feelings to the audience
stage directions an instruction written into the script of a play, indicating stage actions, movements of
performers, or production requirements; often written in italics

staging the elements of dramatic production including lighting design and cues, costume design, set
design, props, stage movement (blocking), voice (tone, pitch, inflection, emotion), facial
expressions, make-up, curtain cues, music, and sound effects
stanza a subdivision of a poem consisting of lines grouped together, often in recurring patterns of
rhyme, line length, and meter; may also serve as units of thought in a poem much like
paragraphs in prose
stream of a narrative technique for rendering the inward experience of a character; gives the impression
consciousness of an ever-changing series of thoughts, emotions, images, and memories in the spontaneous
and seemingly illogical order that they occur in life; a technique in which the writer records
thoughts and emotions in a “stream” as they come to mind, without giving order or structure
structure a purposeful organizational pattern that writers use; the way a piece of writing has been put
together; may be made obvious for ease of understanding, as in nonfiction works, or may
obscured for artistic purposes
cause/ effect the cause (or reason) is usually discussed first, leading to a discussion of the effect (or result)
definition/ used when explaining a term or concept; places the subject in the appropriate class, and
classification provides details that show how the term or concept is different from others in the same class
enumeration the listing of items; think “number”
generalization the author gives a general statement or idea that is supported by one or more examples
and example

comparison/ items are related by the comparisons (similarities) that are made or by the contrasts
contrast (differences) that are presented; the purpose is to show similarities and differences
chronological arranged in the order of time

spatial items are arranged according to their physical position or relationships

problem/ the problem is presented first, followed by details about the problem (including its cause), then
solution a suggested solution (including details that support the solution)
style a writer's unique way of arranging words to suit his or her ideas and purpose in writing; the
author's writing personality; the product of an author's way of arranging ideas and his or her
use of diction, different sentence structures, rhythm, figures of speech, and other elements of
symbol a person, a place, a thing, or an event that stands for itself and for something beyond its literal
meaning as well.
synecdoche a figure of speech in which a word standing for part of something is used to represent the
whole of that thing or vice versa

syntax the way in which words are put together to form phrases or clauses
cumulative begins with a standard sentence pattern and adds multiple details after it

periodic begins with multiple details and holds off a standard sentence pattern—or at least its
sentence predicate—until the end
inverted sentence in which the verb comes before the subject (unlike the standard English
sentence sentence pattern)
tall tale a humorous tale told in a straightforward, credible tone but relating absolutely impossible
events or feats of the characters

theme a central message or insight about human life that is revealed in a literary work; a statement of
theme includes a topic and the author’s point or message about that topic

implied a theme that is not stated directly but instead hinted at through other elements of the work
stated a theme that is explicit within the text of the work
thesis the overall idea a writer will argue
tone the author’s attitude toward the subject of his/her writing, which could be serious, humorous,
admiring, accusatory, sympathetic, etc.
topic/subject the person or event at the center of a work of literature
tragedy drama in prose or poetry about a noble, courageous hero of excellent character who, because
of some tragic character flaw, brings ruin upon him- or herself
understatement figure of speech in which a writer or speaker says less than what he or she means; the
(litotes) opposite of exaggeration
verisimilitude literally, the appearance of truth; in literary criticism, aspects of a work of literature that seem
true to the reader
verse poetry; metrical language
voice evidence of the writer’s personality on the written page

zeugma a device that joins together two apparently incongruous things by applying a verb or adjective
to both which only really applies to one of them, e.g., “Kill the boys and the luggage”
(Shakespeare, Henry V)

Last updated 12/2017

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Third edition. Harper & Row, 1987.
Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 1998.
Elements of Literature, Fourth Course. Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 2007.
Gale’s Literary Index. Gale Group, 2001, http://vccslitonline.vccs.edu/drama/glossary.htm#s.
Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Merriam-Webster, 1995.