Glossary of Literary Terms
Also called “action-adventure,” action is a genre of film, TV, literature, etc., in which the primary feature is the constant slam-bang of fights, chases, explosions, and clever one-liners. Action stories typically do not explore complex relationships between human beings or the subtleties of psychology and philosophy.
Ad hominem is Latin for “against the man,” and refers to the logical fallacy (error) of arguing that someone is incorrect because they are unattractive, immoral, weird, or any other bad thing you could say about them as a person.
An adage is a brief piece of wisdom in the form of short, philosophical, and memorable sayings. The adage expresses a well-known and simple truth in a few words.
An allegory is a story within a story. It has a “surface story” and another story hidden underneath. For example, the surface story might be about two neighbors throwing rocks at each other’s homes, but the hidden story would be about war between countries.
Allusion is basically a reference to something else. It’s when a writer mentions some other work, or refers to an earlier part of the current work. In literature, it’s frequently used to reference cultural works (e.g. by alluding to a Bible story or Greek myth).
Ambiguity is an idea or situation that can be understood in more than one way. This extends from ambiguous sentences (which could mean one thing or another) up to ambiguous storylines and ambiguous arguments.
An anagram is a type of word play in which the letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to create new words and phrases.
An analogy is a literary technique in which two unrelated objects are compared for their shared qualities. Unlike a simile or a metaphor, an analogy is not a figure of speech, though the three are often quite similar. Instead, analogies are strong rhetorical devices used to make rational arguments and support ideas by showing connections and comparisons between dissimilar things.
Anaphora is when a certain word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of clauses or sentences that follow each other. This repetition emphasizes the phrase while adding rhythm to the passage, making it more memorable and enjoyable to read.
An anecdote is a very short story that is significant to the topic at hand; usually adding personal knowledge or experience to the topic.
In a story, the antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist, or main character. Typically, this is a villain of some kind, but not always! It’s just the opponent of the main character, or someone who gets in their way.
Anthimeria (also known as antimeria) is the usage of a word in a new grammatical form, most often the usage of a noun as a verb.
Anthropomorphism is giving human traits or attributes to animals, inanimate objects, or other non-human things. It comes from the Greek words anthropo (human) and morph (form).
Antithesis literally means “opposite” – it is usually the opposite of a statement, concept, or idea. In literary analysis, an antithesis is a pair of statements or images in which the one reverses the other. The pair is written with similar grammatical structures to show more contrast.
Antonomasia is a literary term in which a descriptive phrase replaces a person’s name. Antonomasia can range from lighthearted nicknames to epic names.
An aphorism is a short, concise statement of a general truth, insight, or good advice. It’s roughly synonymous with “a saying.” Aphorisms often use metaphors or creative imagery to get their point across.
Aphorismus is a term in which the speaker questions whether a word is being used correctly to show disagreement. Aphorismus is often written as a rhetorical question such as “How can you call this music?”to show the difference between the usual meaning of a word and how it is being used. So, the point is to call attention to the qualities of the word, suggesting that how it is being used is not a good example of the word.
An apologia is a defense of one’s conduct or opinions. It’s related to our concept of “apology,” but in many cases it’s the precise opposite of an apology! When you apologize, you’re saying “I did the wrong thing, and I regret it.” But in an apologia, you’re defending yourself, either by saying that what you did wasn’t wrong or denying that you were responsible for what happened.
In literature, aporia is an expression of insincere doubt. It’s when the writer or speaker pretends, briefly, not to know a key piece of information or not to understand a key connection. After raising this doubt, the author will either respond to the doubt, or leave it open in a suggestive or “hinting” manner.
Aposiopesis is when a sentence is purposefully left incomplete or cut off. It’s caused by an inability or unwillingness to continue speaking. This allows the ending to be filled in by the listener’s imagination.
Appositives are noun phrases that follow or precede another noun, and give more information about it.
An archaism is an old word or expression that is no longer used with its original meaning or is only used in specific studies or areas.
An archetype (ARK-uh-type) is an idea, symbol, pattern, or character-type, in a story. It’s any story element that appears again and again in stories from cultures around the world and symbolizes something universal in the human experience.
An argument is a work of persuasion. You use it to convince others to agree with your claim or viewpoint when they have doubts or disagree.
Assonance is the repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds within words, phrases, or sentences.
Asyndeton is skipping one or more conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) which are usually used in a series of phrases. Asyndeton is also known as asyndetism.
An autobiography is a self-written life story.
Auto = self
Bio = Life
Graph = print or written
It is different from a biography, which is the life story of a person written by someone else. Some people may have their life story written by another person because they don’t believe they can write well, but they are still considered an author because they are providing the information.
Bathos is text that abruptly turns from serious and poetic, to regular and silly.
A buzzword is a word or phrase that has little meaning but becomes popular during a specific time.
Cacophony is the use of a combination of words with loud, harsh sounds—in reality as well as literature. In literary studies, this combination of words with rough or unharmonious sounds are used for a noisy or jarring poetic effect. Cacophony is considered the opposite of euphony which is the use of beautiful, melodious-sounding words.
Caesura refers to a break or pause in the middle of a line of verse. It can be marked as || in the middle of the line, although generally it is not marked at all – it’s simply part of the way the reader or singer pronounces the line.
Catharsis, meaning “cleansing” in Greek, refers to a literary theory first developed by the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that cleansing our emotions was the purpose of a good story, especially a tragedy. Catharsis applies to any form of art or media that makes us feel strong negative emotions, but that we are nonetheless drawn to – we may seek out art that creates these emotions because the experience purges the emotions from our system.
A character is a person, animal, being, creature, or thing in a story. Writers use characters to perform the actions and speak dialogue, moving the story along a plot line. A story can have only one character (protagonist) and still be a complete story.
Chiasmus comes from a Greek word meaning “crossed,” and it refers to a grammatical structure that inverts a previous phrase. That is, you say one thing, and then you say something very similar, but flipped around.
Circumlocution means “talking around” or “talking in circles.” It’s when you want to discuss something, but don’t want to make any direct reference to it, so you create a way to get around the subject. The key to circumlocution is that the statement has to be unnecessarily long and complicated.
A cliché is a saying, image, or idea which has been used so much that it sounds terribly uncreative. The word “cliche” was originally French for the sound of a printing plate, which prints the same thing over and over.
Coherence describes the way anything, such as an argument (or part of an argument) “hangs together.” If something has coherence, its parts are well-connected and all heading in the same direction. Without coherence, a discussion may not make sense or may be difficult for the audience to follow. It’s an extremely important quality of formal writing.
A connotation is a common feeling or association that a word has, in addition to its literal meaning (the denotation). Often, a series of words can have the same basic definitions, but completely different connotations—these are the emotions or meanings implied by a word, phrase, or thing.
Consonance is when the same consonant sound appears repeatedly in a line or sentence, creating a rhythmic effect.
A conundrum is a difficult problem, one that is impossible or almost impossible to solve. It’s an extremely broad term that covers any number of different types of situations, from moral dilemmas to riddles.
Denotation is a word’ or thing’s “dictionary defintion”, i.e. its literal meaning.
The denouement is the very end of a story, the part where all the different plotlines are finally tied up and all remaining questions answered.
Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina is Latin for “a god from the machine.” It’s when some new character, force, or event suddenly shows up to solve a seemingly hopeless situation. The effect is usually much too abrupt, and it’s often disappointing for audiences.
Diacope is when a writer repeats a word or phrase with one or more words in between. A common and persistent example of diacope is Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be!”
Dialogue means “conversation.” In the broadest sense, this includes any case of two or more characters speaking to each other directly. But it also has a narrower definition, called the dialogue form. The dialogue form is the use of a sustained dialogue to express an argument or idea.
Diction refers to word choice and phrasing in any written or spoken text. Many authors can be said to have their own “diction,” because they tend to use certain words more than others or phrase things in a unique way.
Doppelganger is a twin or double of some character, usually in the form of an evil twin. They sometimes impersonate a main character or cause confusion among the love interests.
Enjambment is continuing a line after the line breaks. Whereas many poems end lines with the natural pause at the end of a phrase or with punctuation as end-stopped lines, enjambment ends a line in the middle of a phrase, allowing it to continue onto the next line as an enjambed line.
An enthymeme is a kind of syllogism, or logical deduction, in which one of the premises is unstated.
An epiphany is an “Aha!” moment. As a literary device, epiphany is the moment when a character is suddenly struck with a life-changing, enlightening revelation or realization which changes his or her perspective for the rest of the story.
Epistrophe is when a certain phrase or word is repeated at the end of sentences or clauses that follow each other. This repetition creates a rhythm while emphasizing the repeated phrase. Epistrophe is also known as epiphora and antistrophe.
An epitaph is a short statement about a deceased person, often carved on his/her tombstone. Epitaphs can be poetic, sometimes written by poets or authors themselves before dying.
An Epithet is a glorified nickname. Traditionally, it replaces the name of a person and often describes them in some way.
An eponym refers to a person or thing after which something else is named. A person or thing’s name can come to be associated with the name of another character, person, product, object, activity, or even a discovery.
Commonly known as “doublespeak,” equivocation is the use of vague language to hide one’s meaning or to avoid committing to a point of view.
An essay is a form of writing in paragraph form that uses informal language, although it can be written formally. Essays may be written in first-person point of view (I, ours, mine), but third-person (people, he, she) is preferable in most academic essays.
Etymology is the investigation of word histories. Every word in every language has a unique origin and history; words can be born in many ways, and often their histories are quite adventurous and informative. Etymology investigates and documents the lives (mainly the origins) of words.
A euphemism is a polite, mild phrase that we substitute for a harsher, blunter way of saying something uncomfortable.
An excursus is a moment where a text moves away from its main topic – it’s roughly similar to “digression.”
Exemplum is just Latin for “example.” And that’s all it is. It’s an example, story, or anecdote used to demonstrate a point.
An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is developed in some detail by being used in more than one phrase, from a sentence or a paragraph, to encompassing an entire work.
A fairy tale is a story, often intended for children, that features fanciful and wondrous characters such as elves, goblins, wizards, and even, but not necessarily, fairies. The term “fairy” tale seems to refer more to the fantastic and magical setting or magical influences within a story, rather than the presence of the character of a fairy within that story.
Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic). This can mean magic, the supernatural, alternate worlds, superheroes, monsters, fairies, magical creatures, mythological heroes—essentially, anything that an author can imagine outside of reality.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a word or phrase using figurative language—language that has other meaning than its normal definition. In other words, figures of speeches rely on implied or suggested meaning, rather than a dictionary definition.
Flashback is a device that moves an audience from the present moment in a chronological narrative to a scene in the past.
Folklore refers to the tales people tell – folk stories, fairy tales, “tall tales,” and even urban legends. Folklore is typically passed down by word of mouth, rather than being written in books. The key here is that folklore has no author – it just emerges from the culture and is carried forward by constant retelling.
Foreshadowing gives the audience hints or signs about the future. It suggests what is to come through imagery, language, and/or symbolism.
A genre is a category of literature identified by form, content, and style. Genres allow literary critics and students to classify compositions within the larger canon of literature.
A haiku is a specific type of Japanese poem which has 17 syllables divided into three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haikus or haiku are typically written on the subject of nature.
Hamartia is the tragic flaw or error that reverses a protagonist’s fortune from good to bad.
Homophone is when two or more words have the same sound, but different meanings. They may be spelled the same or differently.
In literature, horror is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror.
Hyperbaton is a figure of speech in which the typical, natural order of words is changed as certain words are moved out of order.
Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which an author or speaker purposely and obviously exaggerates to an extreme. It is used for emphasis or as a way of making a description more creative and humorous.
An idiom is a phrase that conveys a figurative meaning different from the words used. In this sense, idiom is pretty much synonymous with “figure of speech,” though with a slightly narrower definition: an idiom is part of the language.
Imagery is language used to create images in the mind of the reader. Imagery includes figurative and metaphorical language to improve the reader’s experience through their senses.
An innuendo is when you say something which is polite and innocent on the surface, but indirectly hints at an insult or rude comment, a dirty joke, or even social or political criticism.
Intertextuality is a fact about literary texts – the fact that they are all intimately interconnected. Every text is affected by all the texts that came before it, since those texts influenced the author’s thinking and aesthetic choices.
Irony is when there are two contradicting meanings of the same situation, event, image, sentence, phrase, or story. In many cases, this refers to the difference between expectations and reality.
Jargon is the specific type of language used by a particular group or profession.
Juxtaposition is the placement of two or more things side by side, often in order to bring out their differences.
Kairos in Ancient Greek meant “time” – but it wasn’t just any time. It was exactly the right time to say or do a particular thing. In modern rhetoric, it refers to making exactly the right statement at exactly the right moment.
A limerick is a five-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme (AABBA, lines 1,2, and 5 rhyme together, while lines 3 and 4 rhymes togther) and a reasonably strict meter (anapestic triameter for lines 1, 2, and 5; anapestic diameter for lines 3 and 4). Limericks are almost always used for comedy, and it’s usually pretty rude comedy at that – they deal with bodily functions, etc., and could be considered “toilet humor.”
Lingo is language or vocabulary that is specific to a certain subject, group of people, or region; including slang and jargon. The term lingo is relatively vague—it can mean any type of nonstandard language, and varies between professions, age groups, sexes, nationalities, ethnicities, location, and so on.
In literature, any technique used to help the author achieve his or her purpose is called a literary device.
Litotes is an understatement in which a positive statement is expressed by negating its opposite. The classic example of litotes is the phrase “not bad.” By negating the word “bad,” you’re saying that something is good, or at least OK.
Malapropisms are incorrect words used in place of correct words; these can be unintentional or intentional, but both cases have a comedic effect.
A maxim is a brief statement that contains a little piece of wisdom or a general rule of behavior.
Metanoia is a self-correction. It’s when a writer or speaker deliberately goes back and modifies a statement that they just made, usually either to strengthen it or soften it in some way.
A metaphor is a common figure of speech that makes a comparison by directly relating one thing to another unrelated thing (though these things may share some similarities).
Unlike similes, metaphors do not use words such as “like” or “as” to make comparisons.
Metonymy is a figure of speech that replaces words with related or associated words. A metonym is typically a part of a larger whole, for example, when we say “wheels,” we are figuratively referring to a “car” and not literally only the wheels.
A mnemonic, also known as a memory aid, is a tool that helps you remember an idea or phrase with a pattern of letters, numbers, or relatable associations. Mnemonic devices include special rhymes and poems, acronyms, images, songs, outlines, and other tools.
A monologue is a speech given by a single character in a story.
A motif is a symbolic image or idea that appears frequently in a story. Motifs can be symbols, sounds, actions, ideas, or words.
Mystery is a genre of literature whose stories focus on a mysterious crime, situation or circumstance that needs to be solved.
A narrative is a story. The term can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, narrative refers to the story being told. As an adjective, it describes the form or style of the story being told.
A nemesis is an enemy, often a villain. A character’s nemesis isn’t just any ordinary enemy, though – the nemesis is the ultimate enemy, the arch-foe that overshadows all the others in power or importance.
Neologism is new word or phrase that is not yet used regularly by most speakers and writers.
In the strict definition, an ode is a classical poem that has a specific structure and is aimed at an object or person. In the loose definition, an ode is any work of art or literature that expresses high praise.
Onomatopoeia refers to words whose pronunciations imitate the sounds they describe. A dog’s bark sounds like “woof,” so “woof” is an example of onomatopoeia.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that puts together opposite elements. The combination of these contradicting elements serves to reveal a paradox, confuse, or give the reader a laugh.
A palindrome is a type of word play in which a word or phrase spelled forward is the same word or phrase spelled backward.
A parable is a short story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.
A paradox is a statement that contradicts itself, or that must be both true and untrue at the same time.
Parallelism, also known as parallel structure, is when phrases in a sentence have similar or the same grammatical structure.
A paraphrase is a restatement or rewording of text in order to borrow, clarify, or expand on information without plagiarizing.
A parody is a work that’s created by imitating an existing original work in order to make fun of or comment on an aspect of the original.
The pathetic fallacy is a figure of speech in which the natural world (or some part of it) is treated as though it had human emotions.
Peripeteia is a sudden change in a story which results in a negative reversal of circumstances. Peripeteia is also known as the turning point, the place in which the tragic protagonist’s fortune changes from good to bad.
Persona can refer to the characters in any dramatic or literary work. But it has another special meaning in literary studies, where it refers to the voice of a particular kind of character—the character who is also the narrator within a literary work written from the first-person point of view.
Personification is a kind of metaphor in which you describe an inanimate object, abstract thing, or non-human animal in human terms.
Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s ideas, words, or thoughts as your own, without giving credit to the other person. When you give credit to the original author (by giving the person’s name, name of the article, and where it was posted or printed), you are citing the source.
A platitude repeats obvious, simple, and easily understood statements that have little meaning or emotional weight.
A pleonasm is when one uses too many words to express a message. A pleonasm can either be a mistake or a tool for emphasis.
In a narrative or creative writing, a plot is the sequence of events that make up a story, whether it”s told, written, filmed, or sung. The plot is the story, and more specifically, how the story develops, unfolds, and moves in time.
Poetry is a type of literature based on the interplay of words and rhythm. It often employs rhyme and meter (a set of rules governing the number and arrangement of syllables in each line). In poetry, words are strung together to form sounds, images, and ideas that might be too complex or abstract to describe directly.
Polyptoton is the repetition of a root word in a variety of ways, such as the words “enjoy” and “enjoyable.” Polyptoton is a unique form of wordplay that provides the sentence with repetition in sound and rhythm.
A prologue is a short introductory section that gives background information or sets the stage for the story to come.
Prose is just non-verse writing. Pretty much anything other than poetry counts as prose.
Protagonist is just another word for “main character.” The story circles around this character’s experiences, and the audience is invited to see the world from his or her perspective.
A proverb is a short saying or piece of folk wisdom that emerges from the general culture rather than being written by a single, individual author.
A pun is a joke based on the interplay of homophones — words with the same pronunciation but different meanings.
A quest is a journey that someone takes in order to achieve a goal or complete an important task. Accordingly, the term comes from the Medieval Latin questa, meaning “search” or “inquiry.”
A rebus is a code or reference where pictures, letters, or symbols represent certain words or phrases. Perhaps the simplest and most common rebus in use today is “IOU” for “I owe you.”
A red herring is a misleading clue. It’s a trick used by storytellers to keep the reader guessing about what’s really going on.
Quite simply, repetition is the repeating of a word or phrase. It is a common rhetorical device used to add emphasis and stress in writing and speech.
The resolution, also known as the denouement, is the conclusion of the story’s plot structure where any unanswered questions are answered, or “loose ends are tied.”
Rhetoric is the ancient art of persuasion, in the broadest sense. It is the way you present and make your views convincing or attractive to your audience.
A rhetorical device is any way of using language that helps an author or speaker achieve a particular purpose. Usually, the purpose is persuasion, since rhetoric is typically defined as the art of persuasion.
A rhetorical question is a question that is not asked in order to receive an answer, but rather just to make a point.
Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony that mocks, ridicules, or expresses contempt. You’re saying the opposite of what you mean (verbal irony) and doing it in a particularly hostile tone.
The formal definition of satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.” It’s an extremely broad category.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that somehow causes itself to come true. The characters may try to prevent their fate, but in the end their actions simply cause that fate to come about.
Setting is the time and place (or when and where) of the story. It may also include the environment of the story, which can be made up of the physical location, climate, weather, or social and cultural surroundings.
A simile is a literary term where you use “like” or “as” to compare two different things, implying that they have some quality in common.
A soliloquy is a kind of monologue, or an extended speech by one character. In a soliloquy, though, the speech is not given to another character, and there is no one around to hear it.
A sonnet is a fourteen line poem with a fixed rhyme scheme. Often, sonnets use iambic pentameter: five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables for a ten-syllable line.
In poetry, a stanza is a dividing and organizing technique which places a group of lines in a poem together, separated from other groups of lines by line spacing or indentation. There are many important pieces that together make up a writer’s style; like tone, word choice, grammar, language, descriptive technique, and so on.
Style is the way in which an author writes and/or tells a story. It’s what sets one author apart from another and creates the “voice” that audiences hear when they read.
The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation.
Surrealism is a literary and artistic movement in which the goal is to create something bizarre and disjointed, but still somehow understandable.
A symbol is any image or thing that stands for something else. It could be as simple as a letter, which is a symbol for a given sound (or set of sounds).
A synecdoche is figure of speech which allows a part of something to stand for a whole, or the whole to stand for a part.
A synonym is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word. When words or phrases have the same meaning, we say that they are synonymous of each other.
A synopsis is a brief summary that gives audiences an idea of what a composition is about. It provides an overview of the storyline or main points and other defining factors of the work, which may include style, genre, persons or characters of note, setting, and so on.
Tautology is defining or explaining something by saying exactly the same thing again in different words.
Theme is the central idea, topic, or point of a story, essay, or narrative.
A thesis is the main argument or point of view of an essay, nonfiction piece or narrative—not just the topic of the writing, but the main claim that the author is making about that topic.
Tone refers to the “feel” of a piece of writing. It’s any or all of the stylistic qualities of the writing, such as formality, dialect, and atmosphere.
The word trope can refer to any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times. Any kind of literary device or any specific example can be a trope.
Understatement is when a writer presents a situation or thing as if it is less important or serious than it is in reality.
Utopia is a paradise. A perfect society in which everything works and everyone is happy – or at least is supposed to be.
Verisimilitude simply means ‘the quality of resembling reality’ and a work of art, or any part of a work of art, has verisimilitude if it seems believably realistic. A verisimilitudinous story has details, subjects, and characters that seem similar or true to real life.
A villain is the bad guy, the one who comes up with diabolical plots to somehow cause harm or ruin. It is one of the archetype characters in many stories.
Wit is a biting or insightful kind of humor. It includes sharp comebacks, clever banter, and dry, one-line jokes. It is often cynical or insulting, which is what provides it with its characteristic sharpness.
Zeugma is when you use a word in a sentence once, while conveying two different meanings at the same time.