Literary Terms



Acrostic: A poem or other form of writing in which the first or last letter, syllable or word of each line or paragraph, when arranged one after the other, form a word.

Action: An event or series of events (real or fictional), that make the subject of a literary piece of work. Actions along with dialogs of the character shape the plot of a narrative poem, prose, novel, story or a play.

Allegory: This term acts as an extended metaphor in which, objects, characters or actions are used to denote something other than their literal meaning. They are used to symbolize qualities of social, religious or political significance and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas like charity, kindness, greed or jealousy. In other words, through allegory, authors use elements of the narrative, to stress upon broader ideas that may not be explicitly mentioned in the narrative.

Alliteration: Alliteration is a literary or rhetorical stylistic device in which, consonant sounds are repeated (usually at the beginning) of a number of words in close succession. However, the repetitive sound can come inside the words as well.

Allusion: In literary work, allusion is a reference to some person, place or event in history or in another work of literature. Allusions are often used to convey broad complex ideas with a quick reference to well-known events or characters.

Analogy: Using an instance somewhat similar (not the same) to the one being talked about, in order to highlight the important features of the instance in question, through comparison of the two.

Antagonist: A character in prose or poetry that deceives, frustrates, works against or tries to harm the main character who is known as the protagonist. The antagonist need not be a live character. It could be any quality as well. Also, the antagonist needn’t be always bad. In fact, an antagonist can be a virtue which acts against a protagonist, who in this case would be evil.

Anthology: A collection of poetry, drama or verse.

Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of identical or similar vowels (specially in stressed syllables), in words that occur in close sequence.

Atmosphere or Ambiance: The emotional tone prevalent throughout a literary work or a section of it, that helps the reader to anticipate and relate to the course of events, whether happy or sad. Alternatively, the terms mood or ambiance (French word) are also used for atmosphere.

Autobiography: A non-fictional work by a subject, about his or her own life. Every account of the author’s life is true.


Ballad: A narrative folk song or poem that tells a story and is passed orally through tradition. Ballads cannot be traced to a particular author. Characteristically, ballads are dramatic and impersonal narratives.

Beat: Beat is a heavy stress or accent in a line of poetry. Usually it is the number of syllables in a line. The meter of a line is determined by the number of beats in it.

Biography: A complete account of a particular person’s life that attempts to portray the character, temperament as well as the experiences of the individual.

Blank Verse: A verse in iambic pentameter that does not have any rhyme scheme, hence the name ‘blank’. It was popularly used in verse drama of the sixteenth century by Shakespeare and later by Milton and Wordsworth for poetry.


Catastrophe: Catastrophe refers to the final action that results in the unfolding of the plot in a play, especially in a tragedy.

Character: The embodiment of a person in a drama or narrative through verbal representation or actions. It is the person, or people, or personalities (character can be an animal) in the story. It is who is in the story.

Characterization: Use of description, dialogs, dialect and actions to create the emotional, intellectual and moral dimension of a character is called characterization. Besides enabling the reader to understand the personality of a character, characterization may also give clues about the social, cultural and geographic background of a character as well.

Climax: A point in the play or any form of literary work at which crisis or conflict reaches its maximum intensity and then is resolved.

Close Reading: Bit by bit analysis of every word and literary devices used to understand their significance, inter-relationship and ambiguity (multiple meanings).

Conflict: Depiction of struggle in literary work, be it between two ideas, characters or groups of people. The conflict can also be internal, that is the protagonist struggling with psychological tendencies. Forms include Person versus Self (Internal Conflict), Person versus Person, Person versus Nature, Person versus Society, and Person versus God.

Connotation: While denotation is the main meaning or defintion of a word, connotation means the associated, implied, or secondary significance of a word. Connotation is the understood meaning that is not part of the actual definition.

Crisis: A moment of uncertainty and tension that results from earlier conflicts in a plot. During crisis, it is unclear if a protagonist will fail or succeed in his struggle.

Criticism: Literary criticism is the overall term for study, analysis, defining, interpreting and evaluating works of literature. The different types of criticisms are practical criticism or applied criticism, impressionistic criticism and judicial criticism.

Cynicism: Having a negative view of others and their motivations.


Denotation: The strict meaning or definition of a word as found in the dictionary, without any reference to its implications or associations. The literal meaning. Also see connotation.

Dialog: The lines spoken by characters in a play, novel or essay. It is through dialogs that characters converse with each other. Dialogs help in characterization and helps the plot to advance.

Drama: A composition in prose or verse that is designed to be presented on stage. In this, actors take the role of characters. Through their dialogs and actions, the characters advance the plot. An individual work of drama is called a play.

Dystopia: A work of fiction which presents a very grim picture of the social, political and technological aspects of a society that is characterized by poverty, disease, oppression, war, violence, violation of human rights and widespread unhappiness.


Epic: A genre of classical poetry that is a long narrative verse written on a serious subject, usually about the ideals and cultural values of a race, a nation or a group of people upheld by a hero or a demi God. The exploits of this central character is written in high elevated language. An epic is set over a vast geographical area and involves Gods and supernatural beings taking part in it.

Epilogue: A conclusion (known as the final chapter) written at the end of a novel, play or a long poem. It is usually a long speech, delivered either by the (or one of the) central character or by the writer himself, where the speaker speaks to the audience directly.

Euphemism: The use of a mild and comparatively less negative word instead of a blunt or harsh word.

Extended Metaphor: An extended metaphor or a conceit is a metaphor that extends into the next line. It is also found frequently throughout the work. They are highly applicable or effective in poems and fiction.


Fable: A fable is a short story that essentially has a moral. Fables are written and told to induce certain morals without instructions. There is mostly a use of animals and other imaginary creatures.

Fantasy: Fantasy is also closely related with fancy. However, fantasy is imagination which is vivid and unrestrained. Fantasy is, ordinarily, extravagant and not having any specific relation with reality. It is mostly an exaggerated vision of a desire.

Fiction: Fiction is an aspect of literature that deals with the imagination and the contrafactual events (events that are not true while writing, but may be true in the future). It can also mean to be an imaginary event that has been made to make a certain point clear.

Figurative Language: Figurative language is one that goes beyond its literary meaning to have a deeper, more effective bearing. Figurative language uses figures of speech.

Figure of Speech: Figures of speech are words or phrases that are used to express a meaning that is not confined to its literary meaning. Figures of speech are used very often in prose as well as poetry to make the point clear and apparent.

Flashback: Flashback is remembering or reviewing past events. Flashbacks are often used in dramatics, poetry and prose to allow the reader or the audience to visualize an event that took place in the past.

Foil: Foil is that character in the play (or any other literary work), who brings out/highlights the qualities of the protagonist and also emphasizes on the moral factor of the story. The foil is mostly in contrast to the protagonist.

Folklore: Folklores are the unwritten stories, poetry, phrases and morals of a certain culture. Folklores are, ordinarily, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth in the form of stories, poems, songs and phrases. Folklore are known to have a major impact on the mindset of the audience.

Folk Tale: Folk tales are stories that are used to show a certain moral. These folk tales are ordinarily unwritten and passed down from parent to child. Folk tales exist in all cultures and play a big role in maintaining the values of the culture.

Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing is a tool used to give the reader or audience a hint of what may happen ahead. It consists of subtle hints that would make the audience “get intuitive” of an event and anticipate it. When that event does occur, the impact is stronger and the feedback is positive.

Free Verse: A free verse is verse or poetry that does not abide by the rules of rhyming. However, it can be interpreted as poetry due to the style it is written in. The general flow of thoughts, use of words and form can help in perceiving it as a poem.


Genre: Genre is a literary term that is, ordinarily, used only with reference to art and literature. Genre means a certain class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content or technique. A few examples would be, genre of story writing or genre of music.


Hero: A hero is an unavoidable aspect of literature. The literary term often refers to the lead character (main protagonist) or the one of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.

Homily: A homily is a literary term that refers to a commentary that, ordinarily, follows the reading of a scripture. It is often considered synonymous to a sermon.

Hyperbole: Hyperbole is a part of speech that is used, both in prose and poetry, to express a certain emotion by the use of exaggeration.


Idiom: An idiom is a word, phrase or sentence that is specific to a language or culture, but does not have a literal meaning. For instance, the phrase a little birdie told me, does not mean that a bird came and actually told a person something, rather it is used when someone does not want others to know where he/she got the information from.

Imagery: Imagery is one of the most important terms in literary criticism. The term imagery may suggest only visual pictures or images found in a piece of literature. However, on the other hand, it includes all the other human sensations including smell, actions, feelings and tastes. When a poem, novel or play uses descriptive language along with figurative speech to explain things like nature, a particular place or situation, etc., it is said to be a work of imagery, where the reader gets the minutest details of what is exactly happening in the scene.

Implied Meaning: A meaning that has been suggested without ever being explicitly stated. The meaning requires interpretation based on other knowledge not contained in the statements. (What the speaker or writer does.)

Inferred Meaning: A meaning that was arrived at after thought and consideration, because the meaning was not obvious in the statements themselves. (What the reader or listener does.)

Internal Rhyme: Internal rhyme is where a poem has rhyming words in the same sentence. One word would be in the middle of the line while the rhyming word would be at the end of the line. Here is an example of internal rhyming from the poem The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe – While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.

Irony: Irony is a literary device where the reality is totally different from what is actually portrayed or expected. Sarcasm can also be said to be a form of irony, where it may appear that a person is praising someone, but actually is doing just the opposite. In dramatic irony, though the character does not understand the cause of the situations that he is experiencing, the reader or the audience knows perfectly about why certain situations have taken place. It is often used to describe situations where the outcome is the opposite of what was planned or expected, especially when that unexpected outcome proves to be humorous or meaningful. Examples of Irony


Legend: Legend is often confused with myth, however, both have different meanings. Unlike myth which is based on stories of the supernatural, a legend is a story that tells the tale of a human being and his accomplishments. Though there may not be any proof about the various details mentioned in the legends, the characters and locations surely must have existed in reality.

Literal Meaning: The meaning only as stated without interpretation, based on the face value of exactly what has been said.

Literature: Though works that have scientific as well as technical subject matter can be called literature, most often works that include creative writing are referred to as literature. Drama, novels (fiction and non-fiction), poetry, etc., are part of what is known as literature.

Lyric: Lyric is a short poem written in first person, where a single speaker expresses his emotions and personal feelings. These poems usually do not go beyond sixty lines and can also be sung in the song form. The different forms of lyric include sonnets, elegies, hymns, odes, etc.


Metaphor: Metaphor is a figure of speech where two distinctly different things are compared without using adverbs of comparison, ‘as’, ‘like’, etc. A metaphor is used to lay emphasis and bring out certain qualities of the object or person which may not be noticeable in normal situations. For instance, Shakespeare’s metaphor in the play, As You Like It, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…. where actually the writer is trying to make the audience understand that there is no difference between life and theater, and human beings are merely playing parts allotted to them, just as the actors are doing on the stage.

Meter: Meter refers to the varying, nevertheless recognizable pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that occur in regular units in the lines of a verse.

Monologue: Monologue refers to long and uninterrupted dialog by a character in the play, where he expresses all his thoughts and emotions in front of the audience or any other character on the stage.

Motivation: What characters want, and the reason for their behavior. It is why characters make the choices they make. It is why the story takes place at all.

Mood: The feeling and emotions associated with a story, poem, or scene. See also Atmosphere.

Myth: The term myth refers to stories that talk about the creation and evolution of the world. Myths are usually attached to religion and have a deep cultural significance too. Most of the mythological stories involve Gods, ancestral heroes, supernatural beings, etc.


Narration: The act of telling a sequence of events to an audience. It also refers to a story that involves situations, characters, action, etc.

Narrator: The speaker or the voice, who is narrating the story.

Near Rhyme: A type of rhyme form, where the rhythmic pattern of the words is similar but not exactly alike. These rhymes either have matching vowel segments or matching consonant segments. These rhymes are also known as inexact rhymes or slant rhymes.

Novel: A long fictional narrative of 50,000 words or more originated in the late seventeenth century. Novels focus on the lives of a few primary complex characters, but also involve several secondary characters


Omniscient Narrator: Also known as third person narrative or outside speaker, it is the literary technique employed, where the story is narrated by a person who is separated from the characters in the story. He is party to all the happenings in the story and different perspectives of the characters in the same.

Onomatopoiea: Words that sound like the sound they are describing. Examples include bang, buzz, and clatter.

Opposition: The stand that is taken against the protagonist in literature.

Oxymoron: A literary device in which two words that contradict each other in meaning are used together to form a paradox. For example, “And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.” from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.


Palindrome: A word or a sentence, that reads the same, when read forwards or backwards. Palindromes date back at least to 79 A.D., as the palindromic Latin word square “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” was found as a graffito.

Parable: Parable is a literary term used for a short story or narrative, that uses allegory and real life occurrences, to give out messages about religion, values and morals.

Paradox: A sentence that seems contradictory in the context but if inspected closely makes sense and is a description of a truth.

Paraphrase: A technique in which a writer, rewrites in one’s own words, a part or the whole of a literary work.

Parody: An imitation of the work of an author with the intention of ridiculing the ideas in the work. Usually involves humor.

Personification: A figure of speech in which animals, ideas and inanimate objects are shown to have human traits and characteristics.

Plot: The effect of the structure and relationship of the actions, events and characters in a fictional work. It is what happens in the story.

Poetic License: The freedom that a poet possesses to depart from normalcy, where reality, historical facts and common discourse is concerned, in order to convey a certain idea to the reader.

Poetic Justice: A term coined by Thomas Rhymer in the seventeenth century, according to which, every narrative or drama should end with proper moral resolution for all the characters.

Poetry: A genre which is characterized by the use of rhythm and patterns like meter, rhyme, figures of speech, etc.

Point of View: It is a narrative method which determines the manner in which and the position from where, a story is told. Forms include 1st Person (story told by one of the characters, often the protagonist), 3rd Person Limited (told by someone outside the story who has incomplete information, and can usually only see the mind and/or actions of one character), and 3rd Person Omniscient (outside the story but teller can see the thoughts and/or actions of multiple characters).

Prequel: A literary work which is often written after the success of an author’s work but is set before the occurrence of events in the earlier work. It has the same characters.

Prologue: A section of introductory material, before the start of the main literary work.

Prose: Any literary work that is not written in a rhythmic pattern.

Protagonist: The main character in a literary work, on which a majority of the narrative focuses.


Refrain: Refrain is a line or a set of lines that appear at the end of every stanza in a poem. When refrain appears in the end of the stanzas in a song, it is often referred to as chorus. These lines can either be similar in each stanza or may appear with slight variations.

Rhetoric: Rhetoric can be explained as an art of writing or speaking in a manner that would aid in persuading the reader or the audience. Aristotle in his ‘Rhetorics’ has mentioned the ways in which an orator can persuade the audience in accepting his point of view.

Rhyme: When two similar sounding words are repeated in a stanza of a poem, it is known as a rhyme. Rhymes that appear on the end of the lines are called end rhyme which is the most common type of rhyme in poetry. There is also internal rhyme where rhyming words appear in the same line.

Rhyme Scheme: Rhyme scheme refers to the pattern in which the rhyming words appear in a poem. The rhyme scheme may be similar in all the stanzas throughout the poem, or it may also vary. In the olden days, when poems were passed along as songs, rhyme scheme helped people to memorize the songs. The most commonly used rhyme schemes found in English poetry include aa, bb, cc, dd, ee and abab, cdcd.

Romantic Comedy: Romantic comedy is a literary genre which became popular during the Elizabethan Era. Romantic comedy plays revolve around two young lovers who have to face lot of problems and hardships before they unite at the end of the play. Mistaken identities, misunderstandings, disapproving parents, etc., are some of the themes that can be commonly found in romantic comedy plays.


Saga: In contemporary times, saga refers to a work of literature that narrates the exploits of a hero or the accomplishments of a family through several generations. A good example of a recent saga is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Sarcasm: Sarcasm is another name for verbal irony in which the speaker means something very different from what he speaks. It is usually used to hurt someone, say for example, through false praise. It is often saying the opposite of what you mean for the purpose of humor and criticism.

Satire: Satire is a literary device that is used by an author to express disapproval of vices and imperfections in individuals or human beings in general. He may use ridicule, derision, irony or other methods to meet this end. Although, on the surface a satire seems to be funny, its purpose isn’t to amuse the reader. In fact, the writer cleverly uses wit to criticize follies or shortcomings he doesn’t agree with, with the aim of arousing contempt in the reader.

Setting: Setting refers to the time, place and social circumstances in which a literary work occurs. Dystopia, fantasy world, imaginary world, mythical place, parallel universe, virtual reality and utopia are some of the different types of settings. It is where and when the story takes place.

Short Story: A short story is a fictional narrative that centers around one main event and aims at developing a single character only.

Simile: Simile is a figure of speech in which two objects are compared using adverbs such as “like” and “as”. For example, the courage of an individual can be emphasized by using the simile He was as brave as a lion in the battlefront.

Soliloquy: A literary device most commonly used in drama in which a character reveals his thoughts and feelings, audible only to the audience and not to the other characters in the play.

Stanza: A stanza forms a unit of division of a poem. It may consist from 2 to 8 lines that have a distinct pattern of meter and rhyme. A two line stanza is called a couplet. A stanza consisting of three, four, five, six, seven and eight lines are called tercet, quatrain, quintain, sextain, septet and octet. Ballad stanza, Burns stanza or Scottish stanza and sestet are some other common stanza names.

Static Character: A character that does not undergo any change in personality throughout the course of a narrative is called a static character. In case an author provides little characterization of a static character, such a character is called a flat character. As opposed to static character, a dynamic character evolves in his personality over time.

Stereotype: A stereotype is a character that is so simple and ordinary in its personality that it seems to be a representation of a specific social group or types of people.

Subplot: A subplot is a minor secondary plot that runs simultaneously with the main plot and is auxiliary to it. A subplot involves the deuteragonist or any character other than the protagonist or the antagonist. The subplot may comment directly or indirectly on the main plot or may highlight the idea being projected by the main plot by contrasting with it. Sometimes, there may be more than one subplot in a piece of fiction that may join with the main storyline in time, place or in thematic significance.

Suspense: As a plot progresses, readers or audience establish a bond with the characters and understand the plot. Suspense refers to the anxious anticipation that readers or audience experience with respect to the future course of events or what will happen to the characters in the narrative. The aim of suspense is to maintain the interest of readers throughout its course.

Symbol: A character (symbolic character), object, place, image or event with a deeper, more abstract meaning than the literal one. Symbols help in conveying complex ideas without going into painstakingly elaborate descriptions. Conventional symbols like the Star of David express meaning that is understood throughout a particular culture. However, literary or contextual symbols express meanings that are specific only to the particular piece of literary work. For instance, the white whale in Moby Dick has several symbolic meanings. Use of symbols is referred to as symbolism.

Syntax: Syntax refers to the standard order in which words are arranged so that they form a meaningful sentence.


Tale: A tale is a simple narrative in which the main focus is on the course and outcome of events. Fairy tale, folk tale, fable, tall tale and urban legend are some of the different types of tales.

Theme: Theme denotes the central idea, message or lesson that is conveyed by a piece of literary work. Besides plot, character, style and setting, theme is the other main component of a work of fiction.

Tone: Tone refers to the attitude that a writer takes towards his subject, characters and readers. The words and details used in a piece of literary work denotes its tone.

Tragedy: Tragedy is a serious play in which the protagonist suffers a series of misfortunes that leads to conclusion which is disastrous for the protagonist.

Tragic Flaw: It is the error or mistake in choice of action that a tragic hero commits that leads to his downfall in a tragedy. Aristotle termed this “mistake in judgment” as hamartia.

Tragic Hero: Tragic hero is the protagonist in a tragedy who meets his doom due to the mistakes he makes in his choice of actions.


Understatement: Understatement is a literary device that stands completely opposite to the figure of speech, hyperbole. An understatement is when an issue or situation is expressed in a much lesser magnitude than it actually is. Understatement usually creates an ironic effect and sometimes is also used to create humor.

Unintrusive Narrator: Unintrusive narrator is someone who is completely different to an intrusive narrator. An unintrusive narrator is one who does not give away his opinions or judgments on a character or situation while narrating a novel.

Unreliable Narrator: An unreliable narrator is a narrator who interprets the events in the novel according to his opinions, rather than that of the author. Unreliable narrators are deceptive as they are influenced by personal bias, psychological instability, faulty perception and limited understanding, while narrating a particular event or situation. A novel narrated by an unreliable narrator would have some hints by the author so that the reader recognizes the unreliability of the narrator’s interpretations.


Verbal Irony: Verbal irony is a kind of irony, where the character says something that he actually does not mean, which the reader would understand immediately, but the other character would fail or take time to comprehend.

Verse: Any line, stanza or composition which follows some kind of meter and rhythm is called a verse. Poems can be found in rhymed verse, free verse as well as in blank verse.

Villain: The term ‘villain’ is derived from the old French word, vilein and refers to a character in the play who is evil and performs cruel and malicious deeds on other people. A villain is an antagonist who is pitted against the protagonist or the hero and plots against him.

Voice: Voice refers to a distinct style of the author which reflects in the way he creates a piece of work. The voice of the author is influenced by various factors including his personality, way of thinking, attitude, character, etc. Voice can also be referred to as the persona of the author.



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