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A moment of recognition or discovery, primarily used in reference to Greek tragedy. For example, in Euripides' The Bacchae, Agave experiences it when she discovers that she has murdered her own son, Pentheus.
A sudden and unexpected drop from the lofty to the trivial or excessively sentimental. It is sometimes used intentionally, to create humor, but just as often is derided as miscalculation or poor judgment on a writer's part. An example from Alexander Pope: "Ye Gods! Annihilate but Space and Time / And make two lovers happy."
A description or characterization that exaggerates or distorts a character's prominent features, usually to elicit mockery.
Deus ex machina
Greek for "God from a machine." The phrase originally referred to a technique in ancient tragedy in which a mechanical god was lowered onto the stage to intervene and solve the play's problems or bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion. Now, the term describes more generally a sudden or improbable plot twist that brings about the plot's resolution.
A sudden, powerful, and often spiritual or life changing realization that a character reaches in an otherwise ordinary or everyday moment.
An author's deliberate use of hints or suggestions to give a preview of events or themes that do not develop until later in the narrative.
In medias rest
Latin for "in the middle of things." The term refers to the technique of starting a narrative in the middle of the action. For example, John Milton's Paradise Lost, which concerns the war among the angels in Heaven, opens after the fallen angels already are in Hell and only later examines the events that led to their expulsion from Heaven.
A prayer for inspiration to a god or muse usually placed at the beginning of an epic. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey both open with this.
A wide-ranging technique of detachment that draws awareness to the discrepancy between words and their meanings, between expectation and fulfillment, or, most generally, between what is and what seems to be.
The use of a statement that, by its context, implies its opposite. For example, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Antony repeats, "Brutus is an honorable man," while clearly implying that Brutus is dishonorable.
A technique in which one understanding of a situation stands in sharp contrast to another, usually more prevalent, understanding of the same situation.
An author's persistent reminding of his or her presence in the work. By drawing attention to the artifice of the work, the author ensures that the reader or audience will maintain critical detachment and not simply accept the writing at face value.
A technique in which the author lets the audience or reader in on a character's situation while the character himself remains in the dark. One example is in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus vows to discover his father's murderer, not knowing, as the audience does, that he himself is the murderer.
The perception of fate or the universe as malicious or indifferent to human suffering, which creates a painful contrast between our purposeful activity and its ultimate meaninglessness.
The use of sentimentality, gushing emotion, or sensational action or plot twists to provoke audience or reader response.
Similarities between elements in a narrative (such as two characters or two plot lines). For instance, in Shakespeare's King Lear, both Lear and Gloucester suffer at the hands of their own children because they are blind to which of their children are goodhearted and which are King Lear, evil.
From the Greek word for "feeling," the quality in a work of literature that evokes high emotion, most commonly sorrow, pity, or compassion.
The use of specific types of words, phrases, or literary structures that are not common in contemporary speech or prose.
The liberty that authors sometimes take with ordinary rules of syntax and grammar, employing unusual vocabulary, metrical devices, or figures of speech or committing factual errors in order to strengthen a passage of writing.
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