Literary Terms

Accent (or Stress)
The emphasis or stress given a syllable in pronunciation.
A major division in the action of a play, typically indicating by lowering the curtain or raising the houselights. Playwrights frequently employ acts to accommodate changes in time, setting, mood, etc. In longer plays, acts are frequently subdivided into scenes, which mark the point where new characters enter or a location changes.
A story in which persons, places, and things form a system of clearly labeled equivalents, standing for other definite meanings, which are often abstractions. Characters may be given names such as "Hope" or "Everyman" because they have few personal qualities beyond their abstract meanings.
The repetition of the same consonant sounds, usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable (dangling dew drops or keen careening crashing cars). See assonance and consonance.
A brief reference to some person, place, or thing in history, in other literature, or in actuality.
Allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation.
Any force in a story that is in conflict with the protagonist. An antagonist may be another person, an aspect of the physical or social environment, or a destructive element in the protagonist's own nature.
A figure of speech in which someone absent or dead or something nonhuman is addressed as if it were alive and present and could reply.
A brief speech in which a character turns from the person he is addressing to speak directly to the audience, a dramatic device for letting the audience know what he is really thinking or feeling as opposed to what he pretends to think or feel.
A fairly short narrative poem written in a song-like stanza form.
Blank verse
Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
A harsh, discordant, unpleasant-sounding choice and arrangement of sounds.
The works generally considered by scholars, critics, and teachers to be the most important to study or read, which collectively constitute the "masterpieces" or "classics" of literature.
Carpe diem
(Latin--"seize the day") A theme, especially common in lyric poetry, that emphasize that life is short, time is fleeting, and that one should make the most of present pleasures.
(Greek--"purging") The release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy. According to Aristotle, these negative emotions are purged because the tragic protagonist's suffering is an affirmation of human values rather than a despairing denial of them.
(1) Any of the persons involved in a story. (2) The distinguishing moral qualities and personal traits of a character.
Developing (or dynamic) character
A character who during the course of a story undergoes a permanent change in some aspect of his personality or outlook.
Flat character
A character who has only one outstanding trait or feature, or at the most a few distinguishing marks.
Round character
A character who is complex, multi-dimensional, and convincing.
Stock character
A stereotyped character: one whose nature is familiar from prototypes in previous fiction.
Static character
A character who is the same sort of person at the end of a story as s/he was at the beginning.
The turning point or high point in a plot.
Casual conversation, informal, or regional writing, often includes slang expressions.
A type of drama, opposed to tragedy, usually having a happy ending, and emphasizing human limitation rather than human greatness.
Scornful comedy
A type of comedy whose main purpose is to expose and ridicule human folly, vanity, or hypocrisy.
Romantic comedy
A type of comedy whose likable and sensible main characters are placed in difficulties from which they are rescued at the end of the play, either attaining their ends or having their good fortunes restored. Oftentimes, romantic comedies conclude with marriages.
Comic relief
A humorous scene or incident that alleviates tension in an otherwise serious work. In many instances these moments enhance the thematic significance of the story in addition to providing laughter.
A clash of actions, desires, ideas, or goals in the plot of a story. Conflict may exist between the main character and some other person or persons (wo/man against wo/man), between the main character and some external force--physical nature, society, or "fate" (wo/man against environment), or between the main character and some destructive element in his own nature (wo/man against her/himself).
Implied, associated, or suggested meaning(s), usually derived in context. For example the word "eagle" connotes liberty and freedom, which has little to with its dictionary definition.
The repetition at close intervals of the final consonant sounds of accented syllables or important words book-plaque-thicker).
Two successive lines, usually in the same meter, linked by rhyme. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter.
Literal or dictionary meanings of words.
(French--"the untying of the knot") That portion of a plot that reveals the final outcome of its conflicts or the solution of its mysteries.
A variety of language spoken by a social group or spoken in a certain locality.
(Greek--"to do" or "to perform") Drama is designed to be performed, as opposed to plays, which is a term for a work of dramatic literature.
The presentation of character or of emotion through the speech or action of characters rather than through exposition, analysis, or description by the author.
Writing that departs from the narrative or dramatic mode and instructs the reader how to think or feel about the events of a story or the behavior of a character.
A mournful or contemplative lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in consolation.
End-stopped line
A line that ends with a natural speech pause, usually marked by punctuation.
One line of poetry that ends without a pause and continues into to the next; a line which has no natural speech pause at its end, allowing the sense to flow uninterruptedly into the succeeding line.
A long narrative poem, told in a formal elevated style, that focuses io a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation.
A brief quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter.
A brief, pointed, and witty poem that usually makes a satiric or humorous point, oftentimes written in couplets.
Some moment of insight, discovery, or revelation by which a character's life of view of life is greatly altered.
A smooth, pleasant-sounding choice and arrangement of sounds.
A narrative device, often at the beginning of a work, that provides necessary background information about the characters and their circumstances.
A brief story that sets forth some pointed statement of truth.
Falling action
That segment of the plot that comes between the climax and the conclusion.
A type of drama related to comedy but emphasizing improbable situations, violent conflicts, physical action, and coarse wit over characterization or articulated plot.
Figurative language
Language employing figures of speech; language that cannot be taken literally or only literally.
Figure of speech
Broadly, any way of saying something other than the ordinary way, more narrowly a way of saying one thing and meaning another.
Folk ballad
A narrative poem designed to be sung, composed by an anonymous author, and transmitted orally for years or generations before being written down. It has usually undergone modification through the process of oral transmission.
The basic unit used in the scansion or measurement of verse.
The external pattern or shape of a poem, describable without reference to its content.
A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used in the service of truth.
Indirect presentation of character
That method of characterization in which the author shows us a character in action, compelling us to infer what he is like from what he says or does.
Intentional Fallacy
The judging of the meaning of success or a work of art by the author's expressed or ostensible intention in producing it.
A situation, or a use of language, involving some kind of incongruity or discrepancy.
Verbal irony
A figure of speech in which what is said is the opposite of what is meant.
Dramatic irony
An incongruity or discrepancy between what a character says or thinks and what the reader knows to be true (or between what a character perceives and what the author intends the reader to perceive).
Irony of situation
A situation in which there is an incongruity between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between the actual situation and what would seem appropriate.
A type of drama related to tragedy but featuring sensational incidents, emphasizing plot at the expense of characterization, relying on cruder conflicts (virtuous protagonist versus villainous antagonist), and having a happy ending in which good triumphs over evil.
A figure of speech in which an implicit comparison is made between two things essentially unlike. An analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second. It may take one of four forms:
(1) that in which the literal term and the figurative term are both named;
(2) that in which the literal term is named and the figurative term implied;
(3) that in which the literal term is implied and the figurative term named,
(4) that in which both the literal and the figurative terms are implied.
Metaphysical Poetry
Although sometimes used in the broad sense of philosophical poetry, the term usually applies to the work of seventeenth-century poets, such as John Donne. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by the use of conceits, condensed metaphorical language, unusual comparisons between medicine, love, death, and religion, and complex imagery.
Regularized rhythm, an arrangement of language in which the accents occur at apparently equal intervals in time. The number of feet in a line forms a means of describing the meter
A metrical line containing one foot.
A metrical line containing two feet.
A metrical line containing three feet.
A metrical line containing four feet.
A metrical line containing five feet.
Hexameter (or Alexandrine)
A metrical line containing six feet.
A metrical line containing seven feet.
A metrical line containing eight feet.
The rythymic unit within the line
(u') A metrical foot consisting of one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable.
('u) A metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented syllable (bar-ter).
(uu') A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable (un-der-stand).
('uu) A metrical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables (mer-ri-ly).
(uu) A metrical foot consisting of two unaccented syllables.
The basic foot of dipodic verse, consisting (when complete) of an unaccented syllable, a lightly accented syllable, an unaccented syllable, and a heavy accented syllable, in that succession. However, dipodic verse accommodates a tremendous amount of variety.
('') A metrical foot consisting of two syllables equally or almost equally accented ( true-blue).
A figure of speech in which some significant aspect or detail of an experience is used to represent the whole experience, sometimes distinguished as two separate figures synecdoche (the use of the part for the whole) and metonymy (the use of something closely related for the thing actually meant).
Usually considered to begin with World War I in 1914, to be marked by the sense of catastrophe and fin-de-siecle of that experience and the flowering of talent and artistic experiment that came during the boom of the twenties and fall away during the ordeal of the economic depression. Modernism is marked radical new formal innovations and the sense of dislocation and alienation, the sense that centuries-old accepted ways of understanding the world were disintegrating: standards of religion, politics, family, gender, science, economic progress, increased urbanization were all called into question.
A rule of conduct or maxim for living expressed or implied as the "point" of a literary work.
The use of words that supposedly mimic their meaning in their sound (boom, click, plop).
A compact paradox, one in which two successive words apparently contradict each other.
A statement or situation containing apparently contradictory or incompatible elements, a figure of speech in which an apparently self-contradictory statement is nevertheless found to be true.
A restatement of the content of a poem designed to make its prose meaning as clear as possible.
Pathetic Fallacy
A phrase coined by Ruskin to denote the tendency to credit nature with human emotions. In a larger sense, the pathetic fallacy is any false emotionalism resulting in a too impassioned description of nature. It is the carrying over to inanimate objects of the moods and passions of a human being.
(Greek--"felling") The quality in art and literature that stimulates pity, tenderness, or sorrow.
A figure of speech in which human attributes are given to an animal, an object, or a concept.
A chronicle, usually autobiographical, presenting the life story of a rascal of low degree engaged in menial tasks and making her/his living more through wits than industry. A picaresque tale tends to be episodic and structureless, and the picaro, or central figure, tends not to develop or change in the course or her/his adventures.
A maker of plays.
The sequence of incidents or events of which a story is composed; the meaningful manipulation of action.
Writing that uses immoderately heightened or distended language to sway the reader's feelings.
Point of view
The angle of vision from which a story is told.
First person point of view
The story is told by one of its characters, using the first person.
Second Person Point of View
The story is told by one of its characters using second-person pronouns.
Third Person Omniscient Point of view
The author tells the story, using the third person; s/he knows all and is free to tell anything, including what the characters are thinking or feeling and why they act as they do.
Third Person Limited Omniscient Point of View
The author tells the story, using the third person, but limits her/himself to a complete knowledge of one character in the story and tells only what that one character thinks, feels, sees, or hears.
Third Person Objective (or Dramatic) Point of View
The author tells the story, using the third person, but limits her/himself to reporting what his characters say or do; s/he does not interpret their behavior or tell their private thoughts or feelings.
Non-metrical language, the opposite of verse.
Prose poem
Usually a short composition having the intentions of poetry but written in prose rather than verse.
The central character in a story.
A play on words based on the similarity of sound between two different words with different meanings.
A four-line stanza or a four-line division of a sonnet marked off by its rhyme scheme.
A repeated word, phrase, line, or group of lines
Rhyme (or rime)
The repetition of the accented vowel sound and all succeeding sounds.
Double Rhyme
A rhyme in which the repeated vowel is in the second last syllable of the words involved (politely-rightly-sprightly); one form of feminine rhyme.
End Rhyme
Rhymes are end-rhymed when both rhyming words are at the end of the lines.
Feminine Rhyme
Rhymes are feminine when the sounds involve more than one syllable (turtle-fertile, spitefully-delightfully). A rhyme in which the repeated accented vowel is in either the second or third last syllable of the words involved (ceiling-appealing or hurrying-scurrying).
Identical Rhyme
If the preceding consonant sound is the same (for example, manse-romance, style-stile), or if there is no preceding consonant sound in either word (for example, aisle-isle, alter-altar), or if the same word is repeated in the rhyming position (for example, hill-hill).
Internal Rhyme
An internal rhyme occurs when one or both rhyming words are within the line.
Masculine (or Single) Rhyme
Rhymes are masculine when the sounds involve only one syllable (decks-sex or support-retort). A rhyme in which the repeated accented vowel sound is in the final syllable of the words involved (dance-pants, scald-recalled).
Triple rhyme
A rhyme in which the repeated accented vowel sound is in the third last syllable of the words involved (gainfully-disdainfully)
Rhyme scheme
Any fixed pattern of rhymes characterizing a whole poem or its stanzas.
Any wavelike recurrence of motion or sound.
Rising action
That development of plot in a story that precedes and leads up to the climax.
Bitter or cutting speech; speech intended by its speaker to give pain to the person addressed.
A kind of literature that ridicules human folly or vice with the purpose of bringing about reform or of keeping others from falling into similar folly or vice.
The process of measuring verse, that is, of marking accented and unaccented syllables, dividing the lines into feet, identifying the metrical pattern, and noting significant variations from that pattern.
Unmerited or contrived tender feeling; that quality in a story that elicits or seeks to elicit tears through an oversimplification or falsification of reality.
A six-line stanza or the last six lines of a sonnet
The context in time and place in which the action of a story occurs.
A figure of speech in which an explicit comparison is made between two things essentially unlike. The comparison is made explicit by the use of some such word or phrase as like, as, than, similar to, resembles, or seems.
A speech in which a character, alone on the stage, addresses himself; a soliloquy is a "thinking out loud," a dramatic means of letting an audience know a character's thoughts and feelings.
The internal organization of a poem's content.
A figure of speech in which something (object, person, situation, or action) means more than what it is. A symbol, in other words, may be read both literally and metaphorically.
The central idea or unifying generalization implied or stated by a literary work.
The writer's or speaker's attitude toward subject matter, audience, or her/himself; the emotional coloring, or emotional meaning, of a work.
A type of drama, opposed to comedy, in which the protagonist, a person of unusual moral or intellectual stature or outstanding abilities, suffers a fall in fortune because of some error of judgment, excessive virtue, or flaw in her/his nature.
A figure of speech that consists of saying less than one means, or of saying what one means with less force than the occasion warrants.