Basic Literary Terms

Terms used in literary analysis, including elements of literary works, rhetorical devices, and genres
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alliteration
the repetition of initial consonant sounds
anecdote
a brief story about an interesting, amusing, or strange event
antagonist
a character or a force in conflict with a main character, or protagonist
atmosphere
(also referred to as mood) the feeling created in the reader by a literary work or passage
autobiography
the story of the writer's own life, told by the writer
biography
a form of nonfiction in which a writer tells the life story of another person
character
a person or an animal that takes part in the action of a literary work
climax
(also called the turning point) the high point in the action of the plot; the moment of greatest tension, when the outcome of the plot hangs in the balance
comedy
a literary work, especially a play, which is light, often humorous or satirical, and ends happily
concrete poem
a poem with a shape that suggests its subject (arranged so as to create a picture)
conflict
a struggle between opposing forces (which causes the action in a story, play, or novel)
connotation
the set of ideas associated with a word in addition to its explicit meaning
denotation
the dictionary meaning of a word, independent of other associations that the word may have (i.e. connotations)
dialect
the form of a language spoken by people in a particular region or group
dialogue
a conversation between characters
essay
a short nonfiction work about a particular subject
exposition
the introduction of a story or a drama; the part of the work that introduces the characters, setting, and basic situation
figurative language
writing or speech that is not meant to be taken literally; figures of speech (e.g. metaphor, simile, personification)
folk tale
a story composed orally and then passed from person to person by word of mouth
foreshadowing
the author's use of clues to hint at what might happen later in the story
free verse
poetry not written in a regular, rhythmical pattern (meter)
genre
a division or type of literature (e.g., poetry, prose, drama)
hero/heroine
a character whose actions are inspiring, or noble
historical fiction
a fictional story into which real events, places, or people are incorporated
hyperbole
extreme exaggeration for rhetorical effect (often ironic)
irony
the general name given to literary techniques that involve surprising, interesting, or amusing contradictions
limerick
a humorous, rhyming, five-line poem with a specific meter and rhyme scheme
lyric poem
a highly musical verse that expresses the observations and feelings of a single speaker
metaphor
a figure of speech in which something is described as though it were something else
moral
a lesson taught by a literary work
myth
a fictional tale that explains the actions of gods or heroes or the origins of elements of nature
narration
writing that tells a story
narrative
a story (either fiction or nonfiction)
narrative poem
a story told in verse (poetry)
narrator
a speaker or a character who tells a story
novel
a long work of fiction
onomatopoeia
the use of words that imitate sounds (e.g. crash, buzz, boom)
personification
a type of figurative language in which a nonhuman subject is given human characteristics
plot
a sequence of events in which each event results from a previous one and causes the next
inciting incident
an event that introduces the central conflict in a plot
point of view
the perspective, or vantage point, from which a story is told
prose
the ordinary form of written language (writing that is not poetry, drama, or song)
resolution
the outcome of the conflict in a plot
protagonist
the main character in a literary work
rhyme scheme
a regular pattern of rhyming words in a poem (e.g. a b a b c d c d)
setting
the time and place of the action in a literary work
simile
a figure of speech that uses "like" or "as" to make a direct comparison between two unlike ideas
speaker
the imaginary voice a poet uses when writing a poem
stanza
a group of lines of poetry that are usually similar in length and pattern and are separated by spaces (a "paragraph" of poetry)
theme
a central message, concern, or purpose in a literary work (a generalization about human beings or about life; the writer's central idea)
tone
the writer's attitude toward his or her audience and subject
tragedy
a work of literature, especially a play, that results in a catastrophe (disaster) for the main character
understatement
the opposite of exaggeration; saying less than what one really means, often for ironic emphasis
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