Guide to Literary Terms Complete Index

Complete Index of Literary Terms

(the) Absurd

(the) Absurd - an avant-garde style in which structure, plot, and characterization are disregarded or garbled in order to stress the lack of logic in nature and man’s isolation in a universe which has no meaning or value.

The term is derived from the Latin absurdus, formed from ab and surdus, meaning “deaf” and “stupid”. Albert Camus used the word in discussing his concept of existentialism, the philosophy that the individual is responsible for whatever decisions (s)he makes according to the doctrine of free will, but that (s)he makes those decisions without knowing what is right or wrong, as demonstrated in his novel, The Stranger. In this novel, the protagonist, Meursault, commits a murder without seeming to realize either the seriousness or the consequences of such an act; there was neither an evaluation of the act before it was committed nor remorse for having done “wrong” after the fact. Living this way was considered absurd or senseless, illogical, and contrary to common sense.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an example of an absurdist short story, in which a man wakes one day having been mysteriously transformed into an insect. The term is usually used to indicate the Theater of the Absurd, a phrase invented by Martin Esslin in 1961 to refer to the plays of such 1950s dramatists as Eugéne Ionesco, Edward Albee, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett.


An allegory is a narrative that functions as an extended metaphor in which characters, events, settings, objects, etc. have symbolic as well as literal meanings. Allegorical texts often illustrate moral or religious lessons, abstract concepts, and/or historical, social, or political situations.

Correct examples:

  • Plato’s allegory of the cave, which draws a parallel between the men in the cave and their ignorance of the outer world to an intellectual’s search for truth and society’s subsequent rejection of that truth.

  • Animal Farm, which critiques Stalinism through a story about farm animals staging a revolution and creating a totalitarian society.


Alliteration (sometimes called initial rhyme) - common in poetry and occasionally in prose, this is the repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase, line, or sentence. It is usually a consonant and marks the stressed syllables in a line of poetry or prose. Alliteration may be considered ornamental or as a decoration which appeals to the sense of hearing.

The word comes from the Latin ad literam, which means “according to the letter.”

This device was consistently used in Old English poetry, but fell out of favor in the Middle Ages. Now it is used to emphasize meaning and is especially effective in oratory. It is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as in Beowulf, and is still used by modern poets in nonsense verse, tongue twisters, and jingles.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare makes satirical use of alliteration in order to demonstrate the artisan-acting troupe’s lack of poetic skill. In the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe, Quince says as prologue:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.
Act V, scene i : lines 155 – 156


An allusion is an expression or phrase that is meant to reference an event, person, place, thing, or idea without mentioning it explicitly. Typically, the things being alluded to are historically or culturally significant in some way. It is important to remember that an allusion is an indirect reference and it is left up to the audience to successfully make the connection.

Correct examples:

  • “A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
    In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
    A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
    The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
    Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets”

    • This excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet alludes to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

  • “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

    • Martin Luther King alludes to Abraham Lincoln by using the phrase “five score years” to call to mind the iconic opening of the Gettysburg Address ("Four score and seven years ago") and by mentioning the Emancipation Proclamation (which Lincoln signed).




Ambiguity - a doubtfulness or uncertainty about the intention or meaning of something. It usually refers to a statement that is subject to more than one interpretation. The term is used for words that suggest two or more appropriate meanings or that convey both a basic meaning and complex overtones of that meaning. Sometimes, authors make deliberate choices of words that simultaneously cause several different streams of thought in the reader’s mind. Ambiguity is also used to mean confusion between the denotation and connotation of a literary work. A simple kind of ambiguity is the use of homophones to promote a multiplicity of possible meanings. In Sonnet 135, Shakespeare puns on the word “Will,” invoking its sense as one’s wish, as well as its sense as a nickname for “William”: “whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” (line 1).

The word is derived from the Latin ambiguus, which means “doubtful,” and was formed from ambigere—a combination of amb, meaning “both ways,” and agere, meaning “drive.”

see: allusion, connotation


Anachronism - an error in chronology, or placing an event, person, item, or language expression in the wrong period.

The term is originally from the Greek anakhronismos formed by combining ana, which means “back or backwards,” and khronos, which means “time.”

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, an anachronism is used:

Brutus: Peace! count the clock.
Cassius: The clock has stricken three.
Act II, scene i : lines 193 – 194

There were no clocks during Roman times, and the striking clock was not invented until 1,400 years after Caesar’s death.

Contemporary theater often uses anachronisms, such as when one of Shakespeare’s plays is performed in modern-day clothing.


An analogy draws a comparison between two disparate ideas, generally for the purpose of explaining an unusual or difficult-to-understand idea by relating it to a broadly familiar concept. While metaphors and similes are figures of speech, an analogy is an argument. Metaphors and similes often help develop an analogy.

Correct example:

  • “They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.”

    • In this excerpt from his essay “A Hanging,” George Orwell explains the interactions between the man about to be hanged and the prison guards around him by comparing this unusual situation to one that is more commonplace and easily understood—that of a fish out of water.

Incorrect example:

  • “The new snow was like powdered sugar.”

    • This is more precisely a simile and does not advance a logical argument.



Anaphora refers to the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive clauses, sentences, or lines of verse. This emphasizes the effect of the repeated word or phrase and can also create rhythm, stir emotion, and unify separate clauses, sentences, or lines into a cohesive whole.

Correct example:

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .”

    • The famous first sentence of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities involves the repetition of “it was,” “we had,” and “we were” at the beginning of each clause. (This sentence is also an example of antithesis.)



Antagonist - the character who strives against another main character. This character opposes the hero or protagonist in drama. The term is also used to describe one who contends with or opposes another in a fight, conflict, or battle of wills. In literature, this is the principal opponent or foil of the main character and is considered the villain unless the protagonist is a villain; in that case, the antagonist is the hero.

The word is derived from the Greek antagonistes, which means “rival” and was formed from the combining of anti, meaning “against,” and agon, meaning a “contest.”

Shakespeare’s plays provide apt examples of antagonists: his Macduff in Macbeth is an antagonist and the hero, since the protagonist—Macbeth—is a villain; Laertes and Claudius are the antagonists of Hamlet in the play of the same name; Iago is Othello’s antagonist in Othello. Also, the antagonist does not have to be another person. In Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” the antagonist is the bitterly cold weather.

see: protagonist


Anticlimax - a drop, often sudden and unexpected, from a dignified or important idea or situation to a trivial one or a descent from something sublime to something ridiculous. In fiction and drama, this refers to action which is disappointing in contrast to the previous moment of intense interest or anything which follows the climax. The effect may be comic and is often intended to be. According to Samuel Johnson, who first recorded the word, it is “A sentence in which the last part expresses something lower than the first.”

The term comes from the combination of two Greek words: anti, which means “against” or “the reverse of,” and klimax, which means “a ladder” and was derived from klinein meaning “to slope.”

An example of an anticlimax is when the indigent protagonist finds a great amount of money for which (s)he has been intently searching and does nothing with it.
see: climax


Antithesis occurs when contrasting ideas are expressed in a sentence or line(s) with the effect of both highlighting the contrast and balancing the opposing elements. Writers typically use parallel structure in the contrasting phrases.

Correct example:

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)



Anthropomorphism is when human characteristics are given to animals, objects, or gods. Though anthropomorphism sounds similar to personification, there is actually a distinction between these two terms. In personification, the non-human being/object is described using human characteristics, but the reader understands that it does not really possess them. For example, in the line “the trees peeked over the rooftop,” we understand that the trees are not actually looking furtively over the roof and that this description serves to create imagery. With anthropomorphism, the non-human beings are truly taking on human characteristics (ex: the talking animals in Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web).

Correct example:

  • “The house tried to save itself. Doors sprang tightly shut, but the windows were broken by the heat and the wind blew and sucked upon the fire.”

    • Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” features an anthropomorphic house that is programmed to perform many human-like functions. The house literally does cook dinner, speak aloud, and attempt to fight off the fire that eventually engulfs it.

Incorrect example:

  • “The barking dog berated his owner for taking too long.”

    • This is an example of personification since we understand that the dog isn’t literally criticizing his owner.




Aphorism - a brief, pithy, usually concise statement or observation of a doctrine, principle, truth, or sentiment.

The word comes from the Greek aphorizein, which means “to mark off by boundaries” and was formed by combining apo, meaning “from,” and horos, meaning “a limit.” The term was first used by Hippocrates.

An example of an aphorism is Benjamin Franklin’s

Early to bed
and early to rise,
makes a man
healthy, wealthy, and wise.

see: epigram, proverb


Apology - a defense and justification for some belief, doctrine, piece of writing, cause, or action without any admission of blame with which we contemporarily associate the word. In the Eighteenth Century, the word came to be used loosely almost as a synonym for autobiography without any suggestion of justifying or defending the writer’s ideas or conduct.

The term comes from the Greek apologia, meaning defense. This Greek word was formed by joining apo, which means away, and logia, which means speaking.

Plato recorded Socrates’s Apologia in the Fourth Century B.C. At the end of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there is a retraction or apology for his work; in this case, apology means both an explanation and an expression of regret


Apostrophe occurs when a narrator or speaker directly addresses an absent (or no longer living) person, an object, an abstract idea, or something or someone imagined as if the addressee were a present, living person able to hear and understand them. Examples of apostrophe sometimes, though not always, begin with “O” or “Oh.”

Correct examples:

  • “O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells . . .”

    • In Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” the speaker directly addresses his dead captain.

  • “Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me . . .”

    • In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor directly addresses the stars, clouds, and winds.

  • “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . .”

    • In John Donne’s sonnet “Death Be Not Proud,” the speaker directly addresses Death.

  • “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? / Come, let me clutch thee! / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”

    • In Act II, Scene I of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth directly addresses an imagined dagger.



An archetype is any element of a story (be it a character, relationship, action, or setting) that represents a universal pattern of human behavior. The psychologist Carl Jung saw archetypes as evidence for the “collective unconscious” of humanity; he thought that archetypes showed the shared experiences of the world. As readers, we may enjoy archetypical plot elements because they are easily relatable and familiar. In literature, common archetypes for characters include the hero, the mentor, and the villain.

Correct example:

  • In the Harry Potter series, Harry is the hero, as he fights evil forces and is predominantly good. Dumbledore is a mentor figure, helping Harry succeed in his quest against the villain, Voldemort. Though archetypes can, like Harry and Dumbledore, be developed, dynamic characters, the role they fill in the story is universal and easily understood.

Incorrect example:

  • It would be incorrect to say that Harry is an archetype of a dark-haired wizard with an owl named Hedwig. This is too specific to Harry to be an example of an archetype.

In addition to archetypical characters, there are archetypical situations for a story’s plot to be built around.

Correct example:

  • The Harry Potter series is broadly about the archetypical theme of good versus evil. Since the series follows Harry through his adolescence, it can also be seen as an archetypical coming-of-age story.



Atmosphere is the way an author describes specific places to make readers feel a particular emotion. Atmosphere differs slightly from mood in that it is broader and can apply to a location, while mood applies more to a person or people's emotions. A literary piece's atmosphere can help readers determine what the piece's genre is.

Correct example:

  • "Ten minutes of determined effort brought another sound to his ears—the most welcome he had ever heard—the muttering and growling of the sea breaking on a rocky shore. He was almost on the rocks before he saw them; on a night less calm he would have been shattered against them. With his remaining strength he dragged himself from the swirling waters. Jagged crags appeared to jut up into the opaqueness; he forced himself upward, hand over hand. Gasping, his hands raw, he reached a flat place at the top. Dense jungle came down to the very edge of the cliffs. What perils that tangle of trees and underbrush might hold for him did not concern Rainsford just then."

    • This portion of "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell establishes the atmosphere of the island.



Black Comedy

Black comedy - Often considered perverted and morbid, black comedy depicts situations normally thought of as tragic or grave as humorous. Specifically, it displays marked disillusionment and depicts humans without convictions and with little hope. The term is also used to describe theater dealing with sinister or disturbing subjects handled lightly in an attempt to offend and shock, as is common in Theater of the Absurd.

Black is from the Middle English blak derived from the Old English blaec, which is probably the same as the Latin flagrare, meaning “to burn.” Comedy is derived from the Latin comoedia which, in turn, was from the Greek komoidia formed by joining komos, meaning “revel,” and, aidein, meaning “to sing.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a Twentieth-Century novelist whose works, including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five are filled with black comedy. There are representatives of the genre in Twentieth Century drama such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

see: absurd

Blank Verse

Blank verse (also called unrhymed iambic pentameter) - unrhymed lines of ten syllables each with the even-numbered syllables bearing the accents. Blank verse is considered best for dramatic verse in English since it is the verse form closest to the rhythms of everyday English speech and has been the dominant verse form of English drama and narrative poetry since the mid-Sixteenth Century. Such verse is blank in rhyme only, having a definite meter, although variations in meter are sometimes used. As Milton explained in his 1667 preface to Paradise Lost:

The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in larger Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter.

The term is originally from the French blanc, meaning “white”— in the sense of “left white” or “requiring something to be filled in.”

The term was first used by the Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, in 1540 in his translation of Books II and III of The Aeneid of Virgil, but previously had been adapted by Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources. It was used a great deal for reflective and narrative poems until the late Seventeenth Century. In the latter Nineteenth Century, the English romantic poets—Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats—made use of blank verse. Later yet, the English poets, Robert Browning and Lord Tennyson, and the American poets, Robinson and Frost, employed it for less lofty themes, leading its use to become more colloquial in tone.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus’s speech to Hippolyta explaining the lovers’ rearrangement of couples is written in blank verse:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth,
from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Act V, scene i : lines 12 – 17


Bombast - originally, cotton or any soft material used for padding to produce clothes in the fashion of the Sixteenth Century. It has come to mean a highflown unnatural style, rather inflated and insincere, pretentious, ranting, and using extravagant language. Also, it can denote extravagance at the expense of content.

The word is from the Greek bombux, meaning “silkworm” or “silk,” and the Latin bombyx, meaning “silkworm,” “something made of silk, any fine fiber, or cotton.” Both were used to form the Old French bombace, meaning “cotton.”

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago uses the word in complaining to Roderigo about Othello:
But he, as loving of his own pride and purposes,

Evades them with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators.
Act I, scene i : lines 13 – 17

see: hyperbole


Canon - a standard of judgment or a criterion. It is also an approved list of books belonging in the Christian Bible, in addition to being the accepted list of any given order, and the list of books accepted as Scripture. The term is increasingly used to refer to those works of literature that have come to be considered standard in any anthology or course of study. In addition, it refers to the works of an author which are accepted as genuine, such as the Chaucer Canon.

The term is derived from the Middle French canon, which was adapted from the Italian cannone, meaning “large tube.” This definition evolved from the Latin canna, which meant “cane or reed.” Common usage eventually led to the term being defined as a straight rod or bar, a carpenter’s rule, or a standard of excellence. Greek authors were known as kanones or “models of excellence.”

Melville’s canon consists of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.


Canto - one of the main or larger divisions of a long poem. It is also used to denote a singing or chanting section of a poem, or a subdivision of an epic or narrative (comparable to a chapter in a novel).

The word is taken from the Italian, which originally took it from the Latin cantus, meaning “song.”

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is divided into cantos.


Catharsis - any emotional discharge which brings about a moral or spiritual renewal or welcome relief from tension and anxiety. The usual intent is for an audience to leave feeling this relief from tension or anxiety after having viewed a play.

The word comes from the Greek katharis, meaning “cleansing, or purification.” This evolved from kathairo, which means I cleanse, and katharos, which means “pure or clean.”

Catharsis was referred to by Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.) in his Poetics:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.
Book 6 : 2


Character - an aggregate of traits and features that form the nature of some person or animal. It also refers to moral qualities and ethical standards and principles. In literature, character refers to a person represented in a story, novel, play, etc.

The word is from the Greek kharakter, meaning “stamp,” and kharassein, meaning “to engrave.” Originally, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (372 – 287 B.C.), a pupil of Aristotle’s, used it in his book Characters which contained short prose sketches of different types of people molded to a pattern which served as a model for some Seventeenth-Century writers. In Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century England, a character was a formal sketch or descriptive analysis of a particular virtue or vice as represented in a person, what is now more often called a character sketch.

Chaucer wrote character sketches in the General Prologue to his The Canterbury Tales.


Characterization - the creation of the image of imaginary persons in drama, narrative poetry, the novel, and the short story. Characterization generates plot and is revealed by actions, speech, thoughts, physical appearance, and the other characters’ thoughts or words about him.

The etymology and derivation of the word are the same as those for character.

In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck’s use of dialect, running away, his guardian’s feelings about him, and Jim’s response to him all comprise Twain’s characterization of his protagonist.

see: allegory, fable, plot, thesis


Chorus - a group of singers distinct from the principal performers in a dramatic or musical performance and, also, the song or refrain that they sing.

The word comes from the Greek choros, meaning “a company of dancers or singers,” or “a group of persons singing in unison.”

In ancient Greece, a chorus was a group of male singers and dancers who participated in religious festivals and dramatic performances as actors, commenting on the deeds of the characters and interpreting the significance of events within the play for the audience.

In Aeschylus’s works, the chorus takes part in the action of the play, while in Sophocles’s, the chorus comments on the action. In Euripides’s works, the chorus is lyrical. During the Elizabethan era, a single actor recited both the prologue and the epilogue, and sometimes commented in-between acts to interpret the significance of events, as in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which The Chorus is a character. Contemporarily, the playwrights T. S. Eliot and Brecht used choruses in their Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), respectively.


Chronicle (also called history) - a detailed and continuous record of events, usually a systematic account or narration of events that contain little or no interpretation or analysis.

The word is from the Greek khronos, meaning “time,” and khronik, meaning “annals.”

Chronicles were used as a form of history from Roman times until the early 1600s when they were largely replaced by biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, logs, travel books, and narratives of sea voyages and exploration.

Shakespeare adapted Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) for his history plays, such as Henry V.


Climax - the moment in a play, novel, short story, or narrative poem at which the crisis comes to its point of greatest intensity and is resolved. It is also the peak of emotional response from a reader or spectator, and it usually represents the turning point in the action. Additionally, the term is used for the arrangement of words, clauses, or sentences in order of their importance, the least forcible coming first and the others rising in power until the last or, simply, the last term of the arrangement. Climax also means a culmination.

The word comes from the Greek klimax, meaning “a ladder,” and klinein, meaning “to slope, or slant.”

The climax of Beowulf is when Beowulf slays the mother of the monster, Grendel. Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles (1891) climaxes when Tess murders Alec D’urberville, who has harassed and tormented her throughout the novel.

see: anticlimax, denouement


Closure - the sense of completion or resolution at the end of a literary work or part of a work. In literary criticism, it is the reduction of a work’s meanings to a single and complete sense that excludes the claims of other interpretations.

The term came from Middle English, which took it from Middle French, and was originally from the Latin clausura, meaning “to close.”

An example of closure is the Finale in George Eliot’s Middle-march in which the author explains what happened to each of the characters in the novel.


Colloquialism - a word or phrase used in an easy, informal style of writing or speaking. It is usually more appropriate in speech than formal writing. Colloquialisms appear often in literature since they provide a sense of actual conversation and use the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of everyday speech.

The word is taken from the Latin colloqui, which is a joining of com, meaning “with or together,” and loqui, meaning “to speak” and “conversation.”

Mark Twain makes use of colloquialisms in his Huckleberry Finn, such as in the opening line of the story:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”

see: dialogue, idiom


Comedy - a ludicrous and amusing event or series of events designed to provide enjoyment and produce smiles or laughter usually written in a light, familiar, bantering, or satirical style. Comedy is the opposite of tragedy. Dramatic comedy begins in difficulty and rapidly involves its characters in amusing situations and ends happily, but not all comedies are humorous and lighthearted. It differs from burlesque and farce in that comedy has a more closely knit plot, more sensible and intelligent dialogue, and more plausible characterization. Often comedy assures its desired effect by stressing some oddity or incongruity of character, speech, or action—perhaps by caricature or exaggeration. There are many different kinds of comedy with the most usual being:

1. the comedy of humors in which characters’ actions are controlled by some whim or humor,

2. the comedy of manners which involves the conventions or manners of artificial and sophisticated society, and

3. the comedy of intrigue or situation which depends more on plot than characterization.
There are also topical, romantic, satirical, and verbal wit comedies.

The word comes from the French comedie which was derived from the Greco-Latin comoedia which was formed by combining komos, meaning “to revel,” and aeidein, meaning “to sing.”

In the Middle Ages, comedy referred to narrative poems that ended happily, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320). Prior to that, comedy may be traced as far back as Aristophanes, the Fifth Century B.C. Greek playwright.

An example of contemporary comedy comes from Faye Kellerman’s The Quality of Mercy:

“Aye, a strong neck I have. Yet it is neither as long nor graceful as thine—” He corrected himself. “As yours. As far as the head is concerned, I’ve been told I have a head for words, yet not much of one for numbers and none for science and languages, as you have. So as far as heads go, you are heads above me. Which explains why your neck is longer than mine.”

see: black comedy, comic relief, farce

Comic Relief

Comic relief (also called episode and interlude) - a humorous scene, incident, or remark occurring in the midst of a serious or tragic literary selection and deliberately designed to relieve emotional intensity and simultaneously to heighten, increase, and highlight the seriousness or tragedy of the action. Apart from being a simple diversion, though, comic relief normally plays some part in advancing the action of drama.

The phrase comes from two words: the first, comic, has the same etymology as that of comedy which is discussed above; relief may be traced from Middle English, back to Middle French, and originally to the Old French relever, meaning “to relieve.”

Since the Sixteenth Century, tragedians have almost universally used comic relief, as in Shakespeare’s drunken porter in Macbeth:

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Belzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t. Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator! Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here you may roast your goose. Knock, knock! Never at quiet! What are you? But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. Anon, anon! I pray you remember the porter.
Act II, scene iii : lines 1 – 19

see: black comedy, comedy, farce, subplot


Connotation - suggestions and associations which surround a word as opposed to its bare, literal meaning. It is the opposite of denotation. Literature uses connotation; science and philosophy use denotation. Connotation refers to qualities, attributes, and characteristics implied or suggested by the word and depends upon the context in which the word is used. Metaphors depend a great deal on connotation. Connotations often elicit emotional responses from the reader.

The word is from the Latin connotare, meaning “to mark together.”

In his love poetry, John Donne often uses the word “die” which in the Renaissance had a sexual connotation, such as in these lines from “The Canonization:”

"We die and rise the same and prove mysterious by this love.”

see: context, device, figure of speech, metaphor


Context - the part of a written (or spoken) statement which leads up to, follows, and specifies the meaning of that statement. The context of a group of words is nearly always very intimately connected as to throw light upon not only the meaning of individual words, but also the sense and purpose of an entire work.

The term is taken from the Latin contextus which is from contexere, meaning “to weave together.”

Understanding the context in which a work of literature was produced often leads to a deeper understanding of the work itself; for instance, understanding the social and economic position of women in the early Nineteenth Century can provide a greater insight into the characterizations of women in Jane Austen’s novels.


Couplet - a pair of successive lines of verse, especially a pair that rhymes, that are of the same metrical length, and form a single unit. The term is also used for lines that express a complete thought or form a separate stanza. Couplets are usually written in decasyllabic lines. A closed couplet is one that is logically and grammatically complete.

The word comes from the French diminutive of couple which was derived from the Latin copula, meaning “a band or bond.”

The form was first used by Chaucer in the Fourteenth Century. Tudor and Jacobean poets and dramatists used it as a variation of blank verse and to round off a scene or act. The couplet eventually evolved into the heroic couplet, which was rhymed iambic pentameter and popular in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Nineteenth-Century Romantic poetry used the couplet, as do epigrams.

Shakespeare used this form in the concluding lines of his sonnets. Chaucer used it in his “Merchant’s Tale” within The Canterbury Tales:

Whilom ther was dwellynge in Lumbardye
A worthy knyght, that born was of Pavye,
In which he lyved in greet prosperitee;
And sixty yeer a wyflees man was hee,
And folwed ay his bodily delyt
On wommen, ther as was his appetyt…
lines 1 – 6

see: epigram, stanza, sonnet


Denotation is the definition a word has in the dictionary. The way people respond to that word is not taken into account. Two words may have the same denotation, but their connotation could be different.

Correct example:

  • Curious and inquisitive both mean eager to learn, but inquisitive is sometimes thought to connotatively imply a pushier method of learning information.



Denouement - refers to the outcome or result of a complex situation or sequence of events. It is the final outcome or unraveling of the main dramatic complications in a play, novel, or other work of literature. In drama, the term is usually applied to tragedies or to comedies with catastrophes in their plot. Denouement is usually the final scene or chapter in which any necessary, and, as yet unmade, clarifications are made.

The word is taken directly from French and means literally “untying.” The French nouer is from the Latin nodare which was derived from nodus, meaning “knot to untie.”

An example of denouement is when, after Beowulf has once again saved a group of villagers, this time from a dragon, the poet writes of Beowulf’s funeral and the grief of his followers (lines 3058 – 3182).

see: anticlimax, climax, plot


Dialect - the language of a particular district, class, or group of persons. It encompasses the sounds, grammar, and diction employed by a specific people as distinguished from other persons either geographically or socially. Dialect, as a major technique of characterization, is the use by persons in a narrative of distinct varieties of language to indicate a person’s social or geographical status, and is used by authors to give an illusion of reality to fictional characters. It is sometimes used to differentiate between characters.

The word is derived from the Greek dialektos which evolved from dialegesthai, meaning “to discourse.”

Mark Twain used dialect in his Huckleberry Finn to differentiate between characters, such as when Huck and Jim are discussing Jim’s freedom:

Jim: “We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels! Dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it!”

Huck: “I’ll take the canoe and go see, Jim. It mightn’t be, you know.”
-Chapter XVI : The Rattlesnake-Skin Does Its Work

George Eliot also made use of dialect in her novels, such as Silas Marner and Middlemarch.


Dialogue - is a conversation, or a literary work in the form of a conversation, that is often used to reveal characters and to advance the plot. Also, the lines spoken by a character in a play, essay, story, or novel.

The word is derived from the Greek dialogosa, meaning “conversation.” This Greek word evolved from dialegesthai, meaning “to discourse.”

Greek philosophers used dialogue as the best way to instruct their students.

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s good night to Romeo is part of the dialogue:

Juliet: Tis almost morning: I would have thee gone:
And yet no further than a
wanton’s bird:
Who lets it hop a little from
her hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his
twisted gyves,
And with a silk thread plucks
it back again,
so loving - jealous of his liberty.

Romeo: I would I were thy bird.

Juliet: Sweet, so would I:
Yet I should kill thee with
much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting
is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till
it be morrow.
Act II, scene ii : lines 189-201

An example of a modern dialogue is the following from Margaret Truman’s Murder in Georgetown:

“Joe, I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Yeah, me too. What’s happened? Why did they do this to you? Have you been like this since you disappeared?”

She shook her head. “No, nothing like this. They brought me here and—”

“Who brought you here?”

“I don’t know. They brought me here and I’ve been okay. They’ve treated me well. I’ve had good food and they even let me play the piano. They talk to me.”


Diction refers to an author or speaker’s choice of words. The diction used in a text often changes based on context or setting and helps to convey the writer’s tone and meaning while setting the mood. Diction can be divided into two main categories: formal and informal.

Formal diction typically involves elevated language, a lofty tone, complex words, an adherence to the traditional rules of syntax and grammar, and an absence of contractions.

Correct example:

  • “That is no country for old men. The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees —Those dying generations—at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.” (William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”)

Informal diction has a more conversational tone and includes the kinds of words, phrases, and syntax used in everyday speech, including contractions, colloquial language, and slang.

Correct example:

  • “I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean, that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all. He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place.” (J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)


Digression - a passage or section of writing that departs from the central theme or basic plot, usually within the framework of the piece of writing rather than added at the end or prefaced at the beginning. It is used extensively in storytelling.

The term is taken from the Latin digressus, which was formed by combining dis, meaning “apart,” and gradi, “to step.”

Laurence Sterne famously used the digression throughout his work Tristram Shandy (1759) to produce a startling unconventional narrative form; the story begins with a description of the title character’s conception, but the event of his birth is delayed for some 200 pages of asides and anecdotes.

Direct Characterization

Direct characterization occurs when an author explicitly tells the reader what kind of person a character is. This information can be given by a narrator or a character in the story.

Correct examples:

  • “Sam was a stubborn and proud boy.”

  • “‘I am a very independent person,’ Sam said.”

    • In this case, a character is directly characterizing himself.

Incorrect example:

  • “Sam was not pleased when he received a C- on his math exam.”

    • Remember that direct characterization occurs only when something is said that speaks to someone’s character traits. Not every explicit description or revelation is direct characterization.




Drama - a composition in prose or verse presenting, in pantomime and dialogue, a narrative involving conflict and usually designed for presentation on a stage. Aristotle called it “imitated human action.” This type of composition needs a theater, actors, and an audience in order to be fully experienced; reading it is not enough. Sometimes, the word is used to mean a serious play.

The word is taken directly from the Greek drama, meaning “a deed or action of the stage.” The Greek word evolved from the Greek term dran, meaning “to do” or “to act.”

Drama arose from religious ceremonies, as opposed to comedy and tragedy’s evolvement from themes in ceremonies such as fertility, life, death. Thespis of Sixth Century B.C. Attica was the first composer and soloist in tragedy. Aeschylus added a second actor to allow conflict and dialogue. Sophocles and Euripides added a third. Medieval drama largely evolved from the rites commemorating birth and the resurrection of Christ. During the Renaissance, we can see the beginning of drama as we know it: a picture of human life revealed in successive changes or events and told in dialogue and action for the entertainment and instruction of an audience. During the mid-Sixteenth Century, England was host to one of the greatest eras of world drama. It was during the Elizabethan/Jacobean Age that Shakespeare wrote his 38 plays.

According to the modern definition, any play (such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) may be considered a drama.

see: absurd, antagonist, dialogue, protagonist, satire, tragedy


Elegy - a mournful, melancholy poem, especially a funeral song or lament for the dead or a personal, reflective poem.

The word comes from the Greek elegeia derived from elegos, meaning “mournful poem.”

Elegies originated in Greek and Roman literature where they were used for various subjects such as death, war, or love and were distinguished for having a specific meter, rather than for their subject matter. Since the Sixteenth Century, modern poets characterized elegies not by the form, but by the content, which was invariably melancholy and centered on death.

The best known elegy in English is “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray (1751). Ellipsis or ellipse - the omission of a word or words that a reader must supply for full understanding, or a mark or marks to indicate the omission or suppression of words, phrases, etc. This also means the omission in a sentence of one or more words needed to express the sense completely.

The word is taken from the Greek elleipsis derived from elleipein, meaning “to fall short” or “a deficiency.”

Sometimes the words are omitted for compact expression, as in T. S. Eliot’s use of ellipses in “The Wasteland”:

Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
lines 279 – 289


Epic (sometimes called heroic poem) - a lengthy narrative poem in which the action, characters, and language are on a heroic level and the style is exalted and even majestic. Early epics often stemmed from oral traditions. The major characteristics of an epic are:

1. a setting remote in time and place
2. an objective, lofty, dignified style
3. a central incident or series of incidents dealing with legendary or traditional material
4. a theme involving universal human problems
5. a towering hero of great stature
6. superhuman strength of body, character, or mind
7. superhuman forces entering the action

The word is from the Greek epikos which was derived from epos, meaning “word,” “narrative,” or “poem.”

The ancient Greeks recited epics but sang lyric poetry. The epics summarized and expressed the nature or ideals of an entire nation at a significant or crucial period of its history. The char- acteristics of the hero in an epic are national, rather than individual, so that the exercise of those traits served to gratify the sense of national pride. Epics may also synthesize the ideals of a great religious or cultural movement such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy did with medieval Christianity in the Fourteenth Century, or Paradise Lost written in 1667 by the Englishman John Milton to represent the ideals of Christian humanism. Usually, epics are the result of a number of ballads or lays, or short ballads, gradually joined together by poets or bards. An example is a thane beginning to compose a lay about Beowulf in the epic poem of the same name:

And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf’s
Victory tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet’s
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud
While he shaped it, and the old songs as well -
lines 867 – 873

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Aeneid of Virgil are ancient epics. In modern writing, specific novels are referred to as epic, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.


Epigram - a witty, ingenious, and pointed saying that is tersely expressed.
The term is from the Greek epigramma, meaning “an inscription,” and was formed by combining epi, meaning “upon,” and gramma, meaning “a writing,” or graphein, meaning “to write.”

Originally, it meant an inscription or epitaph, usually in verse, on a building, tomb, or coin. Then it came to mean a short poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought.

Pope included an epigram in his “Essay on Criticism”:

Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
lines 335 – 336

see: antithesis, aphorism, epithet, proverb


Epilogue - a concluding part added to such a literary work as a novel, play, or long poem. It is the opposite of a prologue. Sometimes, the word is used to refer to the moral of a fable. Often, we see it as a speech by one of the actors at the end of a play asking for the indulgence of the critics and audience.

The word comes from the Greek epilogos, meaning “conclusion,” and was formed by combining epi, meaning “upon,” and legein, meaning “to speak.”
Shakespeare used an epilogue at the end of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Act V, scene i : lines 440 – 455


Epithet - an adjective which expresses a quality or attribute considered characteristic of a person or thing. It is also an appellation or descriptive term which is common in historical titles such as “Catherine the Great.”

The term is taken from the Greek epitheton, meaning “attributed” or “added,” and was formed by combining epi, meaning “on,” and tithenai, meaning “to place.”
Homer used many epithets, among them:

“rosy-fingered dawn”
“swift-footed Achilles”
“all-seeing Jove.”


Essay - a short literary composition on a particular theme or topic, usually in prose and generally thoughtful and interpretative. This type of writing is devoted to the presentation of the writer’s own ideas and generally addresses a particular aspect of the subject.

The word is directly from the Latin exagium, meaning “weighing” or “trial by weight.”

The essay is considered an invention of the European Renaissance, a product of the period’s emphasis on the individual and the exploration of one’s inner self in relation to the outside world. The term was first used by Montaigne in 1580 for informal reflections on himself and mankind in general called Essaia, which means “trying out” in French. Francis Bacon’s Essays in 1597 were written as “counsels for the successful conduct of life and the management of men.” Since the Seventeenth Century, English writers, such as Addison, Goldsmith, Lamb, Hazlitt, Steele, Chesterton, Huxley, and Orwell, have written essays.


A euphemism is a softer or less direct expression that has been substituted for an unpleasant, rude, or offensive term.

Correct examples:

  • “Passed away” or “in a better place” for “died”

    • Euphemisms almost always take the form of stock expressions or widely recognized phrases.

  • “Let go” for “fired” or “collateral damage” for civilian casualties

    • A true euphemism is recognizable without context; no matter what the surrounding words are, everyone will know what you mean.

Incorrect example:

  • “The discomfort of the three-hour dental procedure was difficult to forget.”

    • Be careful not to confuse all polite or gentle word choice with euphemisms. For example, while a construction like this is certainly a mild way of expressing the idea that you had a painful and protracted dental experience you can still vividly recall, it isn’t a euphemism—it’s simple understatement. In order for an understatement to be a euphemism, the substitution must be recognizable regardless of the context. Here, though you could make the case that “discomfort” is a substitution for “pain” and “difficult to forget” is standing in place of “traumatic,” it’s only the context of this sentence that helps you know what the speaker really means.



Exegesis - a critical interpretation and explanation of a literary work, but usually applied to an analysis of an unusually difficult passage in poetry or prose. Exegesis refers especially to the interpretation and explanation of a selection from the Bible.

The word comes directly from the Greek and evolved from exegeesthai, meaning “to explain.” That term was formed by combining ex, meaning” out,” and hegeesthai, meaning “to guide.”

In Roman times, exegetes were professional and official interpreters of charms, omens, dreams, sacred law, and oracular pronouncements.


Exposition - a form of discourse that explains, defines, and interprets. The word is also applied to the beginning portion of a plot in which background information about the characters and situation is set forth.

The word is taken directly from the Latin exposition, meaning “a showing forth.”

Shakespeare’s Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and Richard III all contain exposition. Magazine articles, editorials, and essays usually consist almost wholly of exposition.


Fable - a short, simple story, usually with animals as characters, designed to teach a moral truth. Such a story often concludes with an epigram containing the moral. Allegories, parables, and fables with animals as the principal characters are sometimes called beast fables. Occasionally, the term is applied to stories about supernatural persons, to accounts of extraordinary events, to legends and myths, and to outright falsehoods.

The word is from the Latin fabula which was derived from fari, meaning “to speak.”

The first collection of fables is ascribed to Aesop, who is said to have been a slave in the Sixth Century B.C. in Greece.

George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm (1945) is a fable.

see: allegory, folklore, parable, proverb


Fantasy - extravagant and unrestrained imagination. In writing, it is used to denote a literary work in which the action occurs in a nonexistent and unreal world (such as fairyland) or to a selection that involves incredible characters.

The word is from the Greek phantasia, meaning “making visible” which was derived from phainein, meaning “to show.”

Science fiction and utopian stories are forms of fantasy. Fantasy writers include Lewis Carroll, Ray Bradbury, and H. P. Lovecraft.

see: fable, science fiction


Farce - a foolish show or a ridiculous sham. Also, a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a carefully exploited situation rather than upon character development. Farce is usually considered to be a boisterous comedy involving ludicrous action and dialogue which is intended to excite laughter through exaggeration and extravagance rather than by a realistic imitation of life. It contains exaggerated physical action which is often repeated, exaggeration of character and situation, absurd situations, and surprises in the form of unexpected appearances and disclosures. The characters and dialogue are almost always subservient to the plot and situation which are so complex that the events happen with bewildering rapidity. Elements of farce can be found in Classical Literature, and it is the mainstay of many television and film comedians.

The word comes from the Vulgar Latin farsa which was derived from farcire, meaning “to stuff viands (food).”

Farce was originally an impromptu interlude “stuffed in” between the parts of a more serious play and has been extant since Aristophanes. In Fifteenth Century France, farce was used by lay companies such as notaries and law clerks for their annual festivals.

Farce can be found in “The Miller’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Shakespeare also used farce in his The Taming of the Shrew. In this play, a wild, unhappy, angry, and seemingly incorrigible young woman is not only “tamed,” but becomes a willing role model of womanhood and the young wife simply because her new husband has coerced her into this role; even in Shakespeare’s time, this was considered a ridiculous supposition.

see: the absurd, black comedy


Fiction - any imagined and invented literary composition fashioned to entertain and possibly instruct. While fiction makes its readers think, its primary purpose is to make its readers feel. The most common elements of fiction are: point of view, characters, conflict, plot, and setting. The term is usually applied to novels and short stories, but drama, epic, fable, fairy tale, folklore, verse, and parable also contain fictional elements.

The word is from the Latin fictionem which was derived from fingere, meaning “to shape” or “fashion.”

Since fiction is imaginary, any novel, such as those of Austen, Brontë, Cather, or Conrad, may be included in this genre, in addition to any other “made-up” work of literature.

see: allegory, ballad, comedy, drama, epic, fable, fairy tale, fantasy, folk tale, novel, parable, saga, science fiction, short story, story, tragedy

Figure of Speech

Figure of speech (also called trope) - the expressive use of language in which words are used in other ways than their literal senses so as to suggest and produce pictures or images in a reader or hearer’s mind, bypassing logic and appealing directly to the imagination in order to give particular emphasis to an idea or sentiment. There are three classes:

1. imagined similarities such as allegory, allusion, conceit, and simile 2. suggestive associations in which one work is linked with another such as hypallage, hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche 3. appeals to the ear and eye such as alliteration, anacoluthon, and onomatopoeia

Figures of speech may also be grouped into figures of thought in which words retain their meaning but not their rhetorical patterns.

Examples are given under each of the following listings.

see: analogy, allegory, alliteration, allusion, conceit, irony, metaphor, onomatopoeia, simile


Folklore - the long-standing and traditional beliefs, legends, and customs of a people. It is a general term for the verbal, spiritual, and material aspects of any culture that are transmitted orally, by observation, or by imitation, and passed on and preserved from generation to generation with constant variations shaped by memory, immediate need or purpose, and the degree of individual talent. Not only does folklore entertain, but it passes on the culture and behavior models of a people, which psychologist Carl Jung called “the collective unconscious.” Folklore is comprised of folk tales.

The term comes from Old English folc which became Middle English folk, meaning “people,” and the Anglo-Saxon lar, meaning “learning.”

The word was coined in 1846 by the Englishman William John Thoms in Athenaeum to replace the word then being used: antiquities. Once this embraced only orally transmitted materials, but now includes written accounts of traditions, literature, craftsmanship, and folk habits. There is much folklore in ballads, epics, fables, fairy tales, maxima, myths, and riddles.

Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are all heavily invested with elements of folklore.

see: ballad, fairy tale, myth, proverb, riddle

Folk Tale

Folk tale - a traditional legend or narrative originating among a people, usually part of an oral tradition
and subject to variation in transmission. Folk tales include legends, myths, fables, and the supernatural. Folk tales make up the folklore of a people.

The etymology of this word is the same as that of folklore.

Examples of folklore include the “Johnny Appleseed” and “Babe, the Blue Ox,” stories of the Old West American culture.

see: fable, folklore, legend, myth

Flat and Round Characters

Flat characters are notable for a single characteristic or personality trait, though they may still be described in detail. In contrast, round characters have complex personalities. The way their traits relate to one another is sometimes complicated, just like it is in real life. These traits do not always easily reconcile with one another.

Flat character examples:

  • Mrs. Micawber in David Copperfield

  • Pangloss in Candide

  • Fagin in Oliver Twist

  • Harrison in "Harrison Bergeron"


Round character examples:

  • Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair

  • Jane in Jane Eyre

  • Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

  • Victor in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"



Formula - a fixed and conventional method of developing a plot. In films, television, and western stories, there are several stock formulas, including the redemption theme, the Cinderella story, and the country bumpkin plot. While formulas are hackneyed, stereotypical, and use the same conventions repeatedly, there are also formulas in the form of poems in the oral tradition. They are predictable and conform to the patterns of the genre.

Formula is Latin, a diminutive of forma, meaning “form.”

An example of a formula plot is the traditional rags to riches story, such as found in the novel Moll Flanders.

Free Verse

Free verse - verse that lacks regular meter and line length but relies upon natural rhythms. It is free from fixed metrical patterns, but does reveal the cadences that result from alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The form is thought to add force to thought and expression. While giving an address on May 17, 1935, Robert Frost explained, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Free came through Middle English from the Old English freo, meaning “free.” The etymology of verse is discussed under that listing.

Milton was experimenting with free verse in Samson Agonistes, and Walt Whitman used it in his “After the Sea-ship”:

After the sea-ship, after the whistling winds,
After the white-grey sails taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad myriad waves hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship,
Waves of the ocean bubbling and gurgling, blithely prying,
Waves, undulating waves, liquid, uneven, emulous waves,
Toward that whirling current, laughing and buoyant, with curves,
Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displace the surface . . .
lines 1 – 8


Foreshadowing is a literary device that hints at what will come later in the story and is often used to create suspense. It is achieved through the author’s use of clues and/or subtle suggestions. Foreshadowing is usually quite subtle and is often only fully noticed or understood after a second reading of the work. Please keep in mind foreshadowing occurs when there has been a significant interval of time between the clue and the event that it foreshadows.

Correct example:

  • “I fear too early, for my mind misgives
    Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
    Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
    With this night’s revels, and expire the term
    Of a despisèd life closed in my breast
    By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
    But he that hath the steerage of my course,
    Direct my sail. On, lusty gentlemen.” (Act I, Scene IV)

  • In this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s feelings of trepidation quite clearly foreshadow his eventual demise.

Incorrect examples:

  • “Two households, both alike in dignity
    (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
    From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
    Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
    From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
    A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
    Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
    Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.”

    • Though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet may, at first glance, appear to foreshadow the ending of the play, it is not technically foreshadowing. By definition, foreshadowing should be a hint or clue, rather than an explicit statement of what will come to pass.

  • Mercutio:
    “O calm dishonourable, vile submission!
    Alla stoccata carries it away. (draws his sword)
    Tybalt, you ratcatcher, will you walk?"

  • It would not be correct to say that these lines foreshadow the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. There is not enough of an interval between Mercutio’s challenge and the fight scene that occurs a few lines later for this to be a solid example of foreshadowing.



Literary Genre

Genre - a category or class of artistic endeavor having a particular form, technique, style, or content. Some current genres are the novel, short story, essay, epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, and lyric.

The word is the French synonym for type and kind.

Before the Eighteenth Century, the distinction between genres was great. The accepted genres were epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy, and satire. Today, there is less of a distinction between genres and sometimes a work can contain elements of two or more genres.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, is considered to be part of the gothic genre established at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

see: comedy, epic, essay, novel, short story, tragedy


Haiku (called hokku until the Nineteenth Century) - Japanese verse usually employing allusions and comparisons. The verse is composed of three lines containing a fixed number of syllables, usually 17 or 19, within three unrhymed lines: five, seven, and five syllables per each line in order. The haiku presents a pair of contrasting images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting observation which, together, evoke mood and emotion.

The following example is from Basho (pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa 1644–94):

Now the swinging bridge
Is quieted with creepers . . .
Like our tendrilled life.

The word evolved from renga, used extensively by Zen Buddhist monks in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.


Homily - a moralizing discourse or sermon explaining some part of the Bible with accompanying instruction for the congregation.

The term is derived from the Greek homilia, meaning “converse or discourse.”

Books of Homilies were published in 1547 and, again, in 1563 to be read in parish churches. Shakespeare refers to homilies in As You Like It when Rosalind comments on the verses Celia is reading :

O most gentle pulpiter! What tedious homily of love have you wearied your parishioners withal, and never cried “Have patience, good people”!
Act III, scene ii : lines 154 – 156


Hubris - arrogance, excessive self-pride and self-confidence. The word was used to refer to the emotions in Greek tragic heroes that led them to ignore warnings from the gods and thus invite catastrophe. It is considered a form of hamartia or tragic flaw that stems from overbearing pride and lack of piety.

The word is taken directly from the Greek hubris, meaning “insolence or pride.”

The concept was used by Sophocles in his The Oedipus Trilogy. In this cycle of plays, Apollo, the God of Truth, warns King Laius of Thebes that he will be killed by his child. When Oedipus is born, his father exiles him but the child returns as an adult and kills Laius, not recognizing him as his father. King Laius invited catastrophe by attempting to circumvent Apollo’s prophecy. The King’s actions revealed his hubris because he, a mortal, thought he knew more than Apollo, a god.


Hyperbole is an obvious and deliberate exaggeration or an extravagant statement. It is a figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, since it is exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. Hyperbole is a common poetic, comedic, and dramatic device, but is also used in everyday speech (ex: you might say “I’m starving” when you are hungry).

Correct example:

  • “Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sun up to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”

    • The hyperbole employed in this excerpt from a Paul Bunyan folktale lets the reader know that the winter in question was very cold, but makes the tone silly and whimsical because of the obvious exaggeration.  

Incorrect example:

  • “I stayed up late last night, so I’m very tired.”

    • The feeling of tiredness described here is not exaggerated enough to be hyperbole and lacks a figurative component, as in “I stayed up late last night, so I’m dying of exhaustion.”



Idiom - the language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people or the constructions or expressions of one language whose structure is not matched in another language. Idioms often possess a meaning other than their grammatical or logical ones and cannot be directly translated into another language. It also is used to describe something peculiar to an individual.

The word comes from the Greek idioma, meaning “a peculiarity in language” which was derived from idio, and omai, together meaning “make one’s own.”

In the original Greek, the word was used to mean either a private citizen or something belonging to a private citizen, hence, personal.

Some examples in English are “no wonder,” “better late than never,” “to lead by the nose,” and “spick and span.”

see: colloquialism


Imagery refers to an author’s use of descriptive language to vividly depict settings, characters, objects, events, or ideas. Imagery need not be only visual; it can include any kind of sensory detail that appeals to one of the five senses. (These five types of imagery are referred to as visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile.) The key part of a passage that demonstrates imagery is the uncommonly descriptive language, which often also includes figurative language such as metaphor, simile, or personification.

Correct example:

  • “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Ch. 1)

    • It isn’t enough to identify passages that simply offer a basic description of the scene (ex: “The house sat atop the hill. The lawn was large and green”); visual imagery must create a vivid and detailed picture. Notice that in the above passage, Harper Lee doesn’t simply say the weather was hot; rather, she describes the heat through specific, vivid images that allow us to imagine the feeling of the heat and visualize its effects.


In medias res

In medias res - beginning a narrative well along in the sequence of events. It is a convention used in epic poetry and sometimes novels, short stories, drama, and narrative poetry designed to attract immediate attention from and secure the prompt interest of the reader or audience.

The phrase is Latin and means “in the middle of things.”

The Iliad begins in the final year of the Trojan War, with Homer recounting the beginning of the war later in the epic. Milton used in medias res in Paradise Lost by beginning his narrative in Hell after the rebel angels have fallen.

Interior Monologue

Interior monologue - represents the inner thoughts of a character, recording the internal or emotional thoughts or feelings of an individual.

Interior is from the Old Latin interus, meaning “inward” or “on the inside.” The etymology of monologue is discussed under the listing for that term.

William Faulkner uses interior monologue in his novels, such as The Sound and the Fury, and even comments on the impressions passing through the minds of his characters.

see: monologue

Indirect Characterization

Indirect characterization occurs when an author shows the reader what kind of person a character is without explicitly telling them. Indirect characterization relies on the audience to infer things about a character’s personality based on what they say, do, or think. It’s also important to remember that, while the audience must make the connection, the author (not the reader) is the one employing indirect characterization.

Correct example:

  • “At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.”

    • In this excerpt from “Charles,” Shirley Jackson uses Laurie’s behavior to show the reader that he is a troublemaker instead of explicitly stating it.




There are three types of irony: situational, verbal, and dramatic.

Situational irony involves a reversal of readers’ and/or characters’ expectations.

Correct examples:

  • In Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” big game hunter Rainsford relishes his status as a hunter rather than a “huntee,” but finds these roles reversed when he is hunted by Zaroff.

  • In Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” middle-class Mathilde Loisel dreams of being rich, but ends up spending years in poverty as she works to earn enough money to replace a diamond necklace she borrowed from a friend and lost, only to find that the original had been a fake.

Verbal irony occurs when a character/narrator intentionally says something different from or contradictory to what they really mean, often revealing hidden meanings and motives underlying their words. This type of irony can include sarcasm.

Correct examples:

  • In Julius Caesar, Antony sarcastically refers to Brutus as an “honorable man” in his speech at Caesar’s funeral. He also says, “Let me not stir you up / To such a sudden flood of mutiny,” when stirring his listeners to mutiny against Brutus and the other conspirators is in fact his goal.

  • In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor employs verbal irony when he tells Fortunato, whom he plans to shortly murder, that he will drink to Fortunato’s “long life.”

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience knows something vital that a character doesn’t. This type of irony is used most commonly, though not exclusively, in plays.

Correct examples:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks poison in Juliet’s tomb, thinking her dead, but the reader/audience knows she is only in a death-like slumber due to the effects of Friar Laurence’s potion.

  • In Othello, Othello continues to trust Iago, while the reader/audience is aware that Iago is lying and plotting Othello’s downfall.


Kennings are compound phrases that can replace a noun. Kennings have to have a figurative or metaphorical component—in fact, they are sometimes referred to as compressed metaphors. They are most often found in Old English and Old Norse literary works.

Correct example:

  • “Battle-sweat”

    • This is a kenning from Beowulf that refers to blood.

Incorrect example:

  • “Son of Ecgtheow”

    • It’s important to avoid misidentifying simple epithets as kennings. When the Beowulf poet uses “Son of Ecgtheow” to refer to Beowulf, this is not a kenning, as there is no figurative or metaphorical component.



Lampoon - prose or verse, sometimes in the form of sharp satire, which severely ridicules the character, intentions, or behavior of a person, institution, or society. Lampoons appeared often in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, but are less common today because of libel laws.

The term is taken from the Old French lampon which was derived from lampos, meaning “let us guzzle (used as a refrain in derogatory songs).”

Dryden lampoons Shadwell, whom he names Og in “Absalom and Achitophel - Part II.”

Now stop your noses, Readers, all and some,
For here’s a tun of Midnight work to come,
Og from a Treason Tavern rowling home.
Round as a Globe and Liquored ev’ry chink,
Goodly and Great he Sayls behind his Link,
With all this Bulk there’s nothing lost in Og,
For ev’ry inch that is not Fool is Rogue:
A Monstrous mass of foul corrupted matter,
As all the Devils had spew’d to make the batter,
When wine has given him courage to Blaspheme,
He curses God, but God before curst him;
And if man cou’d have reason, none has more,
That made his Paunch so rich and him so poor.
lines 457 – 469


Legend - a tradition or story handed down from earlier times and popularly accepted as true but actually a mix of fact and fiction. The term is also applied to any fictitious tale concerning a real person, event, or place and is likely to be less concerned with the supernatural than a myth. Another definition of legend is brief, explanatory comments accompanying a photograph, map, or painting; in such a case, a synonym is caption.

The term comes from the Medieval Latin legenda, meaning “to be read,” which was derived from legere, meaning “to read.”

Originally, the term denoted a story about a saint which was read aloud during the services of the early Christian church.

Among the many Greek legends are the epics of Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Some legendary characters are King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, and Beowulf.

see: folklore, hagiography, myth


Limerick - light verse consisting of a stanza of five lines, rhyming aabba, which is usually naughty in nature. The first, second, and fifth lines are in trimeter, and the third and fourth lines are in dimeter. Limericks are almost always humorous in tone.

The term takes its name from a county in Ireland and social gatherings there, at which nonsense verse was set out in facetious jingles.

Limericks first appeared in print in Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies and The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women in 1820. They were popularized by Edward Lear in two of his books: Book of Nonsense and More Nonsense.

An example is the following by Langford Reed:

An indolent vicar of Bray
His roses allowed to decay.
His wife, more alert,
Bought a powerful squirt
And said to her spouse, “Let us spray.”


Litany - a form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations with identical responses in succession. It is also the term for the supplications in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Often, it is used for a recitation that is ceremonial and repetitive. It is common to hear the term used to describe any repetitive, monotonous statement or account.

The term comes from the Greek litaneia derived from litaneuein, meaning “to pray.”

The form originated at Antioch in the Fourth Century


Literature - writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas and concerns of universal and apparently permanent interest, are essential features. While applied to any kind of printed material, such as circulars, leaflets, and handbills, there are some who feel it is more correctly reserved for prose and verse of acknowledged excellence, such as George Eliot’s works. The term connotes superior qualities.

The etymology of literature is the same as that of literal and may be found under that listing.

Any novel, such as Hardy’s Jude the Obscure or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, may be considered literature.


A malapropism, or a Dogberryism, is when someone uses an incorrect, but similar-sounding word in the place of the correct word, often to humorous effect. In fiction, the use of a malapropism often shows a character to be poorly educated and/or lower class. The term malapropism comes from the 1775 play, “The Rivals” by Richard Sheridan wherein a Mrs. Malaprop often says wrong, but similar-sounding words to what she means. For instance: “Sure if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs,” (Act 3 Scene III). Malaprop comes from the French-derived word “malapropos” meaning inappropriate.

Incorrect example:

  • “You have hissed the mystery lectures,” when someone, “you have missed the history lectures.”

    • This is not a malapropism, but a spoonerism. A spoonerism is when the initial sounds of two words are switched.



Melodrama - a form of play that intensifies sentiment, exaggerates emotions, and relates sensational and thrilling action with four basic sharply contrasted and simplified characters: the hero, the heroine, their comic ally, and a villain. The action is constantly kept at high tension.

The term is from the French melodrame which was derived from the Greek melos, meaning “song.”

Originally, melodramas were Roman plays with music, song, and dance. In the Eighteenth Century, the form evolved into productions with elaborate but oversimplified and coincidental romantic plots without regard for character development or logic, but having much sentimentality and sometimes a happy ending. The first in England was the 1802 A Tale of Mystery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1853, is also considered a melodrama.


Metaphor - a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to a person, idea, or object to which it is not literally applicable. It is an implied analogy or unstated comparison which imaginatively identifies one thing with another. This device is used by an author to turn or twist the meaning of a word. Metaphors are the most often used figure of speech. While not required in poetry, they are universally used there. A “dead metaphor” is a former metaphor now accepted as common usage, such as table leg or car hood.

The term is from the Greek metaphora, meaning “transference” which was formed by combining meta, meaning “over” and pherein, meaning “to carry.”

John Donne makes use of metaphor when he writes in Twickenham Garden:

And take my tears, which are love’s wine.

see: analogy, connotation, metaphor, simile


Monologue - refers to a speech by one person in a drama, a form of entertainment by a single speaker, or an extended part of the text of a play uttered by an actor.

The term is taken directly from the Greek monologos, meaning “speaking alone.”

An example is Macbeth’s questioning of his own sanity in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
Act II, scene i : lines 42 – 48

see: dialogue, interior monologue, soliloquy

Morality Play

Morality play - an allegory in dramatic form. Popular from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries, most morality plays used personified abstractions of vices and virtues. They did not necessarily use the Bible or strictly religious material and were more concerned with morality than spirit. This type of play essentially depicted a battle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul.

The word “morality” comes from the Latin moralis which was derived from mor or mos, meaning “custom.” The word play comes from the Old English plegan, meaning “to play.”

The morality play had its dramatic origins in the Mystery and Miracle plays of the late Middle Ages. Its allegorical origins were from sermon literature and other works of spiritual education.

Everyman (c. 1510) is the most common, but was preceded by Castle of Perseverance (c. 1420). The legacy of the morality play may be seen in Shakespeare’s Iago, from Othello, who resembles the Vice in morality plays.

see: allegory


Mood is what makes readers feel an emotional attachment to what they are reading. The mood of a piece expresses internal feelings, not the feeling of a place—that’s atmosphere.

  • "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
    And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
    For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
    Nameless here for evermore."

    • Edgar Allan Poe does a very effective job of creating mood for readers, as seen in this stanza of "The Raven."



Myth - a legendary or traditional story, usually one concerning a superhuman being and dealing with events that have no natural explanation. A myth may also be an unproved belief that is accepted uncritically, or an invented idea or story. It usually attempts to explain a phenomenon or strange occurrence without regard to fact or common sense and appeals to the emotions rather than reason. A myth is less historical than a legend and usually persists through oral transmission, as do legends and fables.

The term is taken directly from the Greek muthos, meaning “fable.”

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville may be considered a myth. The Greek myth of Apollo driving his chariot across the sky is an early attempt to explain the rising and setting of the sun. Another Greek myth—that of Zeus throwing his thunderbolts—is an attempt to explain lightning and thunder.

see: legend


Narrative - a form of discourse which relates an event or series of events. Narratives need a narrator to communicate with the reader or hearer. The term is usually applied to anecdotes, exemplums, fables, fabliaux, fairy tales, incidents, legends, novels, novelettes, short stories, and tales. The primary and basic appeal of narration is to the emotions of the reader or hearer.

The term is from the Latin gnarus, which means “knowing.”

A novel/autobiography such as Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is considered a narrative.

see: fiction, plot


Novel - a lengthy fictitious prose narrative portraying characters and presenting an organized series of events and settings. Novels are accounts of life and involve conflict, characters, action, settings, plot, and theme. This is considered the third stage of the development of imagination fiction, following the epic and the romance.

The term is from the Latin novellus which is a diminutive of novus, meaning “new.”

The term was used during the early Renaissance for any new story. The first great novel of the Western world was that of Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote de la Mancha, written from 1605 to 1612. Early novels were often heavily moralistic, intended to teach the reader a lesson about human nature.

Daniel Defoe wrote the novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders in Eighteenth-Century England, but the form was firmly established in England later in the same century with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). In the Nineteenth Century, Dickens serialized his novels, making them overwhelmingly popular.


Ode - a lyric poem with a dignified theme that is phrased in a formal, elevated style. Its purpose is to praise and glorify. Odes describe nature intellectually rather than emotionally and usually consist of a succession of stanzas in lines of varying length and meter.

The term comes from the Greek oide or aoide, which was derived from aeidein, meaning “to sing.”

Originally, an ode was a poem meant to be sung. The earliest ode-like poems were written by Sappho c. 600 B.C. and Alcaeus c. 611 – 580 B.C., while the modern ode dates from the Renaissance. Interest in this poetry form revived in the Twentieth Century.

John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” is an ode.


Onomatopoeia occurs when a word resembles or suggests the sound it is describing. Onomatopoetic language is used to make writing more expressive and dynamic. When identifying onomatopoeia, it is important to stick to clear and obvious examples rather than words that “could be” onomatopoeia or sound like “soft” onomatopoeia.

Correct example:

  • “How they clang, and clash, and roar!” from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells”

Incorrect example:

  • “He sheathed his sword”

    • Though you could argue that “sheathed” sounds vaguely similar to the sound made when a sword is put away, it is not a strong example of onomatopoeia.


Oratory - the rendering of a formal speech delivered on a special occasion, characterized by elevated style and diction and by studied delivery. Sometimes the term simply means an eloquent address.

The term is from the Latin orare, meaning “to pray.”

An example of oratory is found in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony speaks to his countrymen about his slain friend:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar . . .
Act III, scene ii : lines 75 – 79


An oxymoron is when two apparently contradictory words are combined and therefore juxtaposed. Some oxymorons have entered the lexicon as commonly used turns of phrase, like “alone together,” “open secret,” or “deafening silence.” An oxymoron is different from a paradox, in which a contradiction appears within a statement or multiple sentences, not two juxtaposed words. For example, “Cowards die many times before their death” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.32) might at first glance seem like an oxymoron, but this is a paradox.

Correct example:

  • Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
    O anything of nothing first created!
    O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
    Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
    Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
    Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
    This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

    • Authors use oxymorons to show the inherent complexities and conflicts in the story they tell. In Act 1, Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says a number of oxymorons in a conversation with Benvolio. For Romeo, romantic love is in itself complex and confusing, and his words reflect the contradictions he feels in his attraction to Rosaline.



Palindrome - a word, sentence, or verse reading the same backward as forward—excluding punctuation.

The term is from the Greek palindromos, meaning “running back again” which was formed by combining palin, meaning “again,” and drom, meaning “run.” The most common examples are the word “civic” and the phrase “Madam, I’m Adam.” The best known collection of palindromes was produced by Ambrose Pamperis in 1802; it contains 416 palindrome verses telling about the campaigns of Catherine the Great.


Parable - a short, simple story designed to convey some religious principle, moral lesson, or general truth by comparison with actual events. A parable is often an allegory in which each character represents an abstract concept—such as obedience or honesty—and is illustrated through real-life events.

The term is from the Greek parabole, meaning “comparison” or “putting beside” which was derived from paraballein, meaning “to throw beside.”

Melville’s Billy Budd is sometimes offered as a parable since it demonstrates that absolute good may not co-exist with absolute evil. In this novel, Billy is an innocent, impressionable, young sailor, the personification of absolute good. He is court-martialed and hanged for mutiny and murder under trumped-up charges brought against him by Claggart, the personification of absolute evil.

see: allegory, fable


A statement that is self-contradictory, sometimes to the point of being absurd, but contains an element of truth nonetheless. There are also situational paradoxes, in which characters find themselves in a situation that seems impossible to reconcile (fex: a “catch-22”). In literature, paradoxes often reveal or point to a larger theme in the novel; consider the line “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” from Animal Farm.

Correct example:
  • “I can resist anything but temptation.”

    • Oscar Wilde’s famous paradox highlights how we often think we can remain strong in the face of temptation but fail when put to the test.

Incorrect examples:

  • “sweet sorrow”

  • “open secret”

    • Both of these are oxymorons, not paradoxes.


Parallelism - an arrangement of the parts of a composition so that elements of equal importance are balanced in similar constructions. This arrangement may be applied to words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, or complete units of compositions. Parallelism is a rhetorical device.

The term comes from the Greek parallelos, meaning “beside one another.”

Shakespeare used this device in his Richard II when King Richard laments his position:

I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood . . . .
Act III, scene iii : lines 170 – 173

see: antithesis, subplot


Paraphrase (also called rewording) - the restatement of a passage giving the meaning in another form. This usually involves expanding the original text so as to make it clear.

The term is from the Greek paraphrasis, meaning literally, “beside phrase,” and “beside speech.”

In contemporary usage, paraphrase normally is synonymous with rewarding.


Parody - a humorous, satirical, or burlesque imitation of a person, event, or serious work of literature designed to ridicule in nonsensical fashion or to criticize by clever duplication. The term is also used for a comic imitation of a serious poem, similar to cartoon caricature of a person’s face.

The term is from the Greek paroidia, meaning “burlesque poem or song.”

This technique has been traced back as far as ancient Greek. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as some of Swift’s and Joyce’s works, are parodies.

see: lampoon


Pastoral - an artistic composition dealing with the life of shepherds or with a simple, rural existence. It is also a work of art representing the idealized life of shepherds to create an image of a peaceful and uncorrupted existence. In addition, the term is used to describe simplicity, charm, and serenity attributed to country life. Currently, it applies to any literary convention that places kindly, rural people in nature-centered activities.

The term is from the Latin pastor, meaning “shepherd.”

The rural settings and characters originate from folk songs and ceremonies that honored the pastoral gods. Theocritus (316 – 260 B.C.) first used the convention in his Idylls. As You Like It, written by Shakespeare in 1600, is also considered a pastoral.


Persona - a character in drama or fiction or the part any one sustains in the world or in a book. Persona also denotes the “I” who speaks in a poem or novel.

The term is from the Latin persona, meaning “actor’s mask,” “character acted,” or “human being.”

The term was used in Jungian psychology as “Public personality,” which means the facade or mask presented to the world, but not representative of inner feelings and emotions. Two well-known personas are the narrator in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Gulliver of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

see: monologue, point of view


Personification is a form of figurative language that assigns human qualities or characteristics to something that is nonhuman (such as animals, inanimate objects, or ideas). When identifying an example of personification in animals, it is important to make sure that the characteristic in question is uniquely human. Additionally, though personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, make sure you are not confusing these two terms (see: anthropomorphism).

Correct examples:

  • “The city was asleep.”

  • “The party was dead by the time I got there.”

Incorrect examples:

  • “The horse pranced around the field.”

  • “The dog sauntered into the kitchen.”


Plot - a plan or scheme to accomplish a purpose. In literature, this is the arrangement of events to achieve an intended effect consisting of a series of carefully devised and interrelated actions that progresses through a struggle of opposing forces, called conflict, to a climax and a denouement. This is different from story or story line which is the order of events as they occur.

The term is taken from the French complot, meaning “conspiracy. “

Aristotle insisted plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that its events constitute a whole entity.

The plot of Miller’s The Crucible involves a group of teenage girls who are discovered dancing naked in the woods by the town minister. Knowing that the punishment for their behavior will be severe, the girls claim that they were possessed by the spirits of members of the community who are trying to initiate them into witchcraft. Because of the gravity of the accusations (witchcraft is punishable by hanging), a court is set up to determine the guilt or innocence of those accused.


Poetry - a literary work in metrical form or patterned language. The term is also used to describe the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, which is designed to produce pleasure through beautiful, elevated, imaginative, or profound thoughts.

The etymology of “poetry” is the same as that of “poetic” discussed under “poetic justice.”

Aristotle divided poetry into three genres which have each spawned other genres:

1. epic, which included narratives of heroic action and events of more than personal significance
2. lyric, which was originally meant to be sung
3. satire, which was the moral censure of evil, pretension, or anti-social behavior

Shakespeare discusses poetry in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Theseus speaks of love:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Act V, scene i : lines 7 – 17

Point of View

The “point of view” or “perspective” of a story describes how the story is told. Typically, we say that a story is told in either first-person, second-person, or third-person.


A story narrated from the first-person perspective is one where the narrator writes or speaks directly about themself. The first-person perspective is usually easy to recognize because it will be narrated using words such as “I” and “me.” Sometimes first-person stories are written in the form of diaries or letters, in which case it’s important to consider the fictional or real audience the narrator addresses. For instance, if the narrator is writing in their secret diary, they will say things and express opinions they wouldn’t if it were a letter to a friend or a speech, although all of these are in the first-person.

Autobiographies and memoirs use the first-person, as do many novels. This inherently limited perspective (unless the narrator is a mind-reader) can serve any number of purposes. Readers get to know the narrator intimately through the narrator’s thoughts, reactions, and biases.

In detective stories, the first-person perspective lets the reader unravel the mystery alongside the narrator, as in the first-person narration of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes. Many authors use the first-person to create unreliable narrators, who may lie to or mislead the audience. The first-person perspective might also be used to create a frame-tale, where a story is told to the narrator, though the narrator themself is not involved with the main plot (ex: Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Lockwood in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights).

Incorrect example:

  • “It [the letter] was dated from Rosings, at eight o'clock in the morning, and was as follows:— ‘Be not alarmed, madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments or renewal of those offers which were last night so disgusting to you. I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes which, for the happiness of both, cannot be too soon forgotten; and the effort which the formation and the perusal of this letter must occasion, should have been spared, had not my character required it to be written and read.’”

    • In this part of Pride and Prejudice (a novel written in third-person perspective), Mr. Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter. Though Mr. Darcy writes his letter using “I” and “me,” that does not mean that the perspective has switched. We are reading the letter over Elizabeth’s shoulder; Mr. Darcy has not started narrating the story.


An author employs the second-person point of view when they are directly telling the story to another character or the audience. As second-person narration is addressed to the audience/another character, the author will frequently use the pronouns “you,” “you’re,” and “your.” In literature, this narrative perspective is usually used to make the audience feel included in the action of the story or to create a sense of intimacy between a character and the audience. More commonly, second-person point of view can be found in types of correspondence (ex: letters, emails) or in public addresses like a speech.

Correct examples:

  • “You must come visit soon. You and I have a lot of board games to play!”

  • “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy


In the third-person point of view, the story is narrated by someone who is distant to the main plot. In other words, they are telling us about the events of the story but they are not playing a major role in them. There are multiple ways to tell a story in the third person. For example, the story could be told from the third-person limited point of view. In this case, the narrator informs us of the events of a story but is only privy to the innermost thoughts or feelings of a single character (ex: “Young Goodman Brown”). In third-person objective, the narrator tells the story without ever referencing the thoughts or inner feelings of any character. This is usually done to achieve a neutral, unbiased storytelling style (ex: “Hills Like White Elephants”). The most commonly used form of third-person is third-person omniscient. In this style of narration, the story is told by a third person narrator who is all-knowing. They are aware of any and all events in the story as well as the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters. A great example of the third-person omniscient style is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Third-person limited example:

  • “So they parted; and the young man pursued his way, until, being about to turn the corner by the meeting-house, he looked back and saw the head of Faith still peeping after him, with a melancholy air, in spite of her pink ribbons.
    ‘Poor little Faith!’ thought he, for his heart smote him.”

    • In “Young Goodman Brown,” the narrator only expresses the thoughts and feelings of a single character (Goodman Brown) while the feelings of secondary characters (e.g., Faith) remain a mystery to us.

Third-person objective example:

  • “The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
    ‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
    ‘It’s pretty hot,’ the man said.
    ‘Let’s drink beer.’ ”

    • Notice that the narrator in “Hills Like White Elephants” only relays what is said aloud or can be visibly observed. The narrator is a purely uninvolved observer, much like you would be if you encountered these two characters in real life.

Third-person omniscient example:

  • “...all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise. And Bilbo pressed him to keep his word; for the thought came to him that this slimy creature might prove false, even though such promises were held sacred, and of old all but the wickedest things feared to break them. But after ages alone in the dark Gollum’s heart was black, and treachery was in it. He slipped away, and returned to the island, of which Bilbo knew nothing, not far off in the dark water. There, he thought, lay his ring. He was hungry now, and angry, and once his 'precious' was with him he would not fear any weapon at all.”

    • In this excerpt from The Lord of the Rings, we are given the thoughts and feelings of both Bilbo and Gollum, which shows us that this narrator is all-knowing or “omniscient.”


Prologue - the opening section of a longer work. It also means the preface or introductory part of a novel, long poem, or play.

The term is from the Greek prologos formed by pro, meaning “before,” and logos, meaning “speech.”

In ancient Greek tragedy, the prologue was the part of a play that set forth the subject of the drama before the chorus entered. Prologues were common in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, usually in verse—except for plays, when a chorus was used.

The most famous example of a prologue in English is Chaucer’s “General Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. In this, Chaucer provides a background and setting for what is to follow as well as detailed sketches of the characters.

see: epilogue


Prose simply refers to language written in sentences and paragraphs rather than verse (i.e. language other than poetry). It applies to all language without a regular rhythmic pattern or metrical structure.

Correct example:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    • The first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an excellent example of prose.

Incorrect example:

  • “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun / Coral is far more red than her lips’ red: / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wire, black wires grow on her head” (lines 1-4).

    • These lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 are an example of verse.



Realism - the theory of writing in which the familiar, ordinary aspects of life are depicted in a matter of fact, straightforward manner designed to reflect life as it actually is. Realism often presents a careful description of everyday life, often concerning itself with the lives of the so-called middle or lower classes. According to Henry James, the main tenet of realism is that writers must not select facts in accord with preconceived aesthetics or ethical ideals but, rather, record their observations impartially and objectively. Realism downplays plot in favor of character and to concentrate on middle-class life and preoccupations. It became an important tradition in theater through the works of Ibsen and Shaw, among others. However, realism is most often associated with the novel.

The term is from the Latin realis, meaning “belonging to the thing itself.”

The movement began in the mid-Nineteenth Century in reaction to the highly subjective approach of romanticism, which was produced in Europe and the United States from about 1840 until the 1890s. Mark Twain was one of the pioneers of realism in the United States; other prominent American realists include Henry James, Edith Wharton, and William Dean Howells.


Protagonist - the leading character of a drama, novel, etc. This is not always the hero, but is always the principal and central character whose rival is the antagonist.

The term is from the Greek protagonistes, meaning “first actor in a drama.”

The Greek tragic poet was restricted to three actors: protagonist, deuteragonist, and tritagonist, or first, second, and third actor. In contests between actors, only the protagonists were considered.

Originally, Greek drama probably consisted of only a Chorus and the leader of the Chorus. Thespis (Sixth Century B.C.) added the first actor, Aeschylus the second, and Sophocles the third.

Some famous protagonists are Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Atticus Finch from Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the title character of Hamlet.

see: antagonist


Proverb - a short saying, usually of unknown or ancient origin, that expresses some useful thought, commonplace truth, or moral lesson and is most often expressed in simple, homely language. Sometimes, it is allegorical or symbolic. A proverb is appealing because it is succinct and uses simple rhyme, irony, metaphor, and comparison or contrast. Proverbs are common to almost all nations and peoples.

The term is from the Latin proverbium derived from verbum, meaning “word.”

Proverbs are rooted in folklore and preserved by oral tradition.

The best known collection is The Book of Proverbs following The Psalms in The Old Testament.

see: aphorism, epigram


Refrain - a phrase or verse recurring at intervals in a poem or song, usually at the end of a stanza, which may help to establish the meter of a poem, indicate its tone, or reestablish its atmosphere. It may also be a nonsense line such as that in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,” or a word or phrase that takes on added significance each time it appears.

The term is from the Old French refraindre, meaning “to restrain,” “check,” or to “repeat.” This word was derived from the Low Latin refringere, meaning “to break back”.

The refrain is very old, appearing in The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Bible.


Pun (also called paronomasia) - a play on words or the humorous use of a word emphasizing a different meaning or application. They have been called by some “the lowest form of humor.”

The term comes from combining two Greek words: para, meaning “beside,” and onomasia, meaning “naming.”

Puns have appeared in literature since Homer’s writings in the Eighth Century B.C.

There is a famous pun uttered by Mercutio as he is dying in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”
Act III, scene i : lines 97 – 98


Pyrrhic - a metrical foot of two short unaccented syllables which is common in classical poetry. Most often, it is used as an adjective, applying to a victory won at too great a cost. It also means an ancient Greek warlike dance in which the motions of combat were imitated, much like Native North American war-dances.

The term is from the Greek purrhikhios derived from purrhikhe which is said to be named for Purrhikhos, the inventor of a war-dance of the ancient Greeks.

Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, won a notable battle over the Romans at Asculum in the Third Century B.C. but lost so many men that he allegedly said, “One more such victory and we are lost.”


Rhetoric - the theory and principles concerned with the effective use of language or the theory and practice of eloquence, both written and oral. It consists of the rules that govern all prose composition or speech designed to influence the judgment or feelings of people, but is only loosely connected with specific details of mechanics, grammar, etc.; it is concerned with a consideration of the fundamental principles according to which oratorical discourses are composed: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

The term is from the Greek rhetorike or rhetor, meaning “an orator,” especially a professional one.

The actual founder of rhetoric as a science is said to be Corax of Syracuse in 465 B.C., while Homer is considered the Father of Oratory. To the ancient Greeks, rhetoric was essential for argumentation and oratory. By the medieval era, it became one of the trivium of The Seven Liberal Arts (the other two were grammar and logic) taught at universities. According to Aristotelian theory, rhetoric was a way of organizing material for the presentation of the truth. Socrates, conversely, considered it a superficial art.

Rhetoric was used by Nestor, Odysseus, and, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles. Satan makes use of rhetoric in Paradise Lost when, in the form of a serpent, he attempts to persuade Eve that eating the forbidden fruit will not kill her:

“ye shall not die: How should ye? By the fruit? It gives you life
To knowledge; by the threatener? look on mee,
mee who have touch’d and tasted,
yet both lives.
And life more perfect have attained than fate
meant mee.”

Book IX: lines 685-690

Rhetorical question

Rhetorical question - one asked solely to produce an effect or to make a statement, but not expected to receive an answer. The purpose to such a question, whose answer is obvious, is usually to make a deeper impression upon the hearer or reader than a direct statement would.

The etymology of rhetorical is the same as that of rhetoric, as discussed above. The second word of the term, “question,” is from the Latin quaestio derived from quarere, meaning “to seek or ask.”

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock uses rhetorical questions in his famous speech:

Hath not
a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? . . .
If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Act III, scene i : lines 55 – 63


Rhyme - the similarity or identity of terminal sound in words. In the most common form, two words rhyme when their accented vowels and all succeeding sounds are identical. This provides pleasing sense impressions and serves as an element of rhythm emphasizing the beat. Rhyme is the commonest and most ancient form of metrical devices.

The term is from the Greek rhuthmos derived from the Latin rhythmus, meaning measured motion or rhythm.

In the Fourteenth Century, rhyme replaced alliteration as the usual patterning device of verse in English. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have every other line rhyming as in “CXXX”:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wire, black wires grow on her head.
lines 1 – 4

see: couplet, poetry


Riddle - a puzzling problem or question, or an enigmatic saying or speech. The term also applies to a statement or query so phrased as to require ingenuity in discovering its meaning.

The term is from the Anglo-Saxon roedels derived from roedan, meaning “to read.”

This literary form existed during Greek and Roman times and the Middle Ages.

In Sophocles’s The Oedipus Trilogy (line 1524), King Oedipus of Thebes solved the most famous riddle—that of the Sphinx:

What goes on four feet, on two feet, and three
But the more feet it goes on, the weaker is he?

The answer is a man, who as an infant crawls upon all fours, as an adult walks erect on his own two feet, and in old age supports his tottering legs with a staff (the third leg).


Saga - a lengthy narrative or legend about heroic or historical events. The term applies particularly to any Scandinavian story from the middle ages dealing with the adventures of a person of lofty rank, but also applies to any traditional legend, myth, or tale involving extraordinary, marvelous, or detailed experiences and achievements. Its emphasis on feuds and family histories led the term to additionally be used to describe a long family story spanning two or more generations.

The term is from the Icelandic saw, meaning “saying,” and the Old Norse saga, meaning “story.”

The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy is an example of a contemporary saga; Erik the Red and Hrafnkel’s Saga are two examples of traditional Icelandic sagas.


Satire - the use of humor and wit with a critical attitude, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule for exposing or denouncing the frailties and faults of mankind’s activities and institutions, such as folly, stupidity, or vice. This usually involves both moral judgment and a desire to help improve a custom, belief, or tradition.

The term is from the Latin satura, meaning “full” or “sated” and was derived from satis, meaning “enough” or “sufficient.”

Satire began with the early Greek poets when they were supposed to tax weaknesses and correct vice. As a distinct literary form, satire was the creation of the Romans and was subsequently present in many forms of medieval literature. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer used this technique for “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” During the Renaissance, satire was more often prose rather than poetry. The Golden Age of Satire in England was the early Eighteenth Century when Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay and others dominated British letters.

In the Twentieth Century, satire includes George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 which satirized political situations and the status quo, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which satirized utopian dreams.

see: lampoon, parody


Scene - the place where some act or event occurs. Sometimes the term is used for an incident or situation in real life. It is also the division of an act of a play or a unit of dramatic action in which a single point is made or one effect obtained.

The etymology of scene is the same as that of scenario discussed above.

Originally, the term meant the stone or wooden background behind the stage in the ancient Greek or Roman theater; the stage itself was called the proscenium.

Science Fiction

Science fiction - a narrative which draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge, theory, speculation, and the effects of future events on human beings in its plot, theme, and setting. It considers these events rationally in terms of explanation and consequences and is concerned with the impact of change on people. This is a form of fantasy which hypothesizes by logical extrapolation about the possibilities of space travel, adventures on other planets, etc. Recently, it has become a form of literature that takes place in an alternative present, a preconceived past, or an extrapolated future with these alterations based upon technological or sociological changes in the present.

Science is from Middle English through Middle French into which it was derived from scient, meaning “having knowledge.” The etymology of fiction was discussed previously under that term.

Such narratives have existed since the second century when Lucian of Samosata wrote Vera Historia in which he created a hero who traveled to the moon and the sun and was involved in interplanetary warfare. Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels was based upon an imaginary voyage. Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein is permeated by a belief in the potential of science. Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court contains time travel. Jules Verne, who authored Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and H. G. Wells, who authored The Time Machine, are considered the modern fathers of the genre. The term was coined by Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories magazine in the 1920s.

see: apocalyptic, fantasy

Short story

Short story - a narrative that is designed to produce a single dominant effect and which contains the elements of drama. It may concentrate on a single character in a single situation at a single moment. Dramatic conflict is at the heart of a short story even if it has more than one of the above elements.

Short comes through Middle English from the Old English sceort, meaning “short.” Story also comes through Middle English, but from the Old French estorie derived from the Latin historia, which itself was derived from the Greek histor, meaning “knowing” or “learned.”

Margaret Cavendish wrote early versions of the short story in the Seventeenth Century. While short stories appear inside some of Defoe’s earlier novels, Poe is considered the father of the modern short story, which developed greatly in the Nineteenth Century due to their popularity in magazines.

Some examples of short stories are Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James Joyce’s Dubliners (1907) was a breakthrough collection of powerful short stories, including perhaps the most famous short story in English, “The Dead.”


A simile is a figure of speech that makes a comparison of two unlike things with the help of comparative words such as like or as. Remember, similes are a form of figurative language, so watch out for phrases that use a like or as format but are actually meant literally.

Correct example:

  • “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright./ It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear.”

Incorrect example:

  • “He straightened his tie and sighed with relief to see that he looked like himself again.”

    • This phrase does not qualify as a simile because the terms being compared are not really different; in other words, it is meant literally.

Static and Dynamic Characters

When a character doesn’t undergo significant internal changes in a story, we refer to them as static. Internal changes might include changes in perspective, personality, or character. A dynamic character is one that evolves throughout the work and, by the end, is fundamentally altered in some way. Remember, these terms are mutually exclusive! A character must either be static or dynamic; they cannot be both or switch back and forth. It’s also important not to assume that all protagonists are dynamic, just as not all side characters are static.

Static character example:

  • Throughout Doyle’s series, Sherlock Holmes retains his quirky personality, making him a static character.

Dynamic character example:

  • Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol is a classic example of a character who undergoes major internal changes throughout the story.


Soliloquy - a speech delivered by a character in a play or other literature while alone, or an utterance by a person who is talking to him/herself, disregardful of or oblivious to any hearers present. This technique is frequently used to disclose a character’s innermost feeling, such as thoughts, state of mind, motives, and intentions or to provide information needed by the audience or reader.

The term is from the Late Latin soliloquium, coined by St. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, from the Greek monologia which was derived by combining solus, meaning “alone,” and loqui, meaning “to speak.”

Rare in Classical drama, Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights used it extensively, especially for their villains, as they manipulated the plot and commented on the action, such as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Iago in Othello.

A well-known example is Hamlet’s soliloquy which begins with:

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! . . .
Act I, scene ii : lines 129 – 132

see: device, interior monologue, monologue


Sonnet - a lyric poem of 14 lines, usually in iambic pentameter, with rhymes arranged according to certain definite patterns. It usually expresses a single, complete thought, idea, or sentiment. There are three different forms: Petrarchan (or Italian), English (or Shakespearean), and Miltonic. The Petrarchan has an eight line stanza (called octave) followed by a six line stanza (called sestet). The octave has two quatrains rhyming abba, abba, the first of which presents the theme, while the second develops it. In the sestet, the first three lines exemplify or reflect on the theme, while the last three bring the poem to a unified end. There are two or three different rhymes in the sestets arranged cdecde, cdcdcd, or cdedce. The Shakespearean sonnet developed as an adaptation to a language less rich in rhymes than Italian. It has three quatrains, each rhymed differently, with a final, independently rhymed couplet that makes an effective, unifying climax to the whole. Its rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. The Miltonic sonnet dealt not only with love as the Sixteenth Century sonnet did, but also politics, religion, and personal matters. The Miltonic sonnet has the same arrangement in the octave as the Petrarchan sonnet does, but no division is marked between the octave and sestet, the sense running from the eighth into the ninth line. After Milton, there was a decline in the sonnet’s popularity in England until the romantic poets revived it in the Nineteenth Century. The sonnet adapted well to Twentieth Century themes and diction.

The term comes from the Italian sonetto, which is a diminutive of suono, meaning “sound” and was derived from the Latin sonus.

The form was developed in Italy during the early Renaissance and introduced to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard, in the mid-Sixteenth Century. Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser both produced important sonnet sequences in the late-Sixteenth Century.

The most well-known sonnets are those of Shakespeare, who wrote 154.

This is Number 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow —
They rightly do inherit Heaven’s graces,
And husband Nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer flow’r is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

see: couplet


Spoonerism - a phrase in which two words’ initial consonants have been switched deliberately for a humorous effect.

The term comes from Reverend W. A. Spooner (1844 – 1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, who innocently switched the initial consonants of two words in specific phrases. An example is saying “the queer old dean” for the dear old queen.


Stanza - an arrangement of lines of verse in a pattern usually repeated throughout the poem. It has a fixed number of verses or lines, a prevailing kind of meter, and a consistent rhyme scheme. A stanza may form a division of a poem or constitute a selection in its entirety.

The term is from the Latin stantem, which was derived from stare, meaning “to stand.”

Earlier English terms for stanza were “batch,” “fit”, and “stave.”

see: ballad, haiku, ode


Story - a narrative, either true or fictional in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or inform listeners or readers. In literature, it is a sequence of imagined events that the reader constructs from the plot, and may include events preceding or postdating what the reader sees on the printed page, since the story may be started in medias res.

The etymology of story is discussed under the listing of short story.

Since a story is a narrative, any prose, such as Chopin’s The Awakening, Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcom X, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God are all examples of stories.

see: allegory, ballad, black comedy, comedy, drama, epic, fable, fantasy, farce, fiction, first person narrative, folk tale, legend, literature, melodrama, morality play, myth, narrative, Noh, novel, parable, parody, pastoral, poetry, plot, prose, saga, satire, science fiction, short story, tragedy


Style is the way an author uses narrative techniques (such as diction, syntax, and tone) to tell a story. Style is broader than voice, and can range from very straightforward and sparse to ornate and figurative language–laden. Multiple people may write in the same style, but each person writes in his or her own voice. For example, Herman Melville and Henry James are both known for writing in a grandiose style, but their literary voices are very distinct.

  • "He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness."

    • This excerpt from Melville's Moby Dick shows his distinct writing style.

  • “It argued a special genius; he was clearly a case of that. The spark of fire, the point of light, sat somewhere in his inward vagueness as a lamp before a shrine twinkles in the dark perspective of a church; and while youth and early middle-age, while the stiff American breeze of example and opportunity were blowing upon it hard, had made the chamber of his brain a strange workshop of fortune. This establishment, mysterious and almost anonymous, the windows of which, at hours of highest pressure, never seemed, for starers and wonderers, perceptibly to glow, must in fact have been during certain years the scene of an unprecedented, a miraculous white-heat, the receipt for producing which it was practically felt that the master of the forge could not have communicated even with the best intentions.”
    • This passage from James's The Golden Bowl demonstrates a different type of literary style.


Subplot (also called counterplot) - a secondary or minor plot within a play or other literary work which may contrast with the principal plot, highlight it, or be unrelated. It involves characters of lesser importance than those involved in the major plot.

The term is formed by joining the Latin sub, meaning “under,” with plot, whose etymology is discussed under that listing.

Subplots were very common in Tudor and Jacobean drama.

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, there is the subplot concerning Gloucester and his sons Edmund and Edgar: Edgar attempts to convince his father of the lie (with Edmund’s complete compliance) that Edmund, who is illegitimate, is trying to murder him. This subplot dealing with the father’s persecution of one son and the ingratitude of the other is juxtaposed with King Lear’s struggles with the villainy of his daughters, Regan and Goneril, and the innocence of his daughter, Cordelia.

see: plot

Symbols and Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols (objects, colors, characters, and so on) to represent certain abstract ideas or qualities to give a literary work a deeper and often more profound meaning. Be careful not to use symbolism too casually! Strong examples of symbols must go beyond the literal and will (most likely) contain multiple layers of meaning.

Correct example:

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, mockingbirds symbolize innocence and vulnerability, giving the reader a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play in the novel.

Incorrect example:

  • “When Lennie says, ‘Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like
    you done before,’ this symbolizes his desire to eventually own a farm with George.”

    • In this case, the term symbolism is being used too loosely. Be mindful that you don’t use “symbolizes” when you really mean to say “indicates” or “demonstrates.”



Synopsis - a condensed statement providing a general view of a topic or subject and more often used with fiction than nonfiction. It is a form of abridgment and is closely related in meaning to compendium, resume, and summary.

The term is from the Greek sunopsis, which is a combination of sun, meaning “with or together,” and opsis, meaning “a view.”

A synopsis of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn might be as follows: it tells the adventures of a young Midwestern boy who runs away from home with an escaped slave.


Syntax is the way authors or speakers arrange their words to form a sentence. Sentence length is an oft-manipulated aspect of syntax. Short sentences heighten a passage’s tension or pacing, while longer sentences prompt readers to slow down and consider what is being written more closely.


Writers use understatement to intentionally downplay the significance of something by describing it in terms that are much milder and lacking in emphasis than the reader would expect. Understatement creates an ironic effect and is sometimes used for comedic purposes.

Correct examples:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, after his fight with Tybalt, Mercutio tells Benvolio that the mortal wound he has received is “a scratch, a scratch.” Mercutio is aware that he is dying and that his stab wound is much worse than a “scratch.”

  • In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells Mrs. Morrow, “I have to have this operation . . . It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain." Holden is lying, but if he really did have a brain tumor, that would be a serious issue requiring a serious operation.

  • Saying “It’s a bit chilly” to describe below-freezing weather, “It wasn’t terrible” to describe a wonderful experience, or “I got a little carried away” to explain an extreme course of action are all examples of understatement.



The theme of a work of literature is its central idea or underlying message. A theme ties all the elements of a piece together and is reflected throughout the text as a whole. Literary works can have more than one theme, and a theme can be stated as a single word like “revenge” for “The Cask of Amontillado” or as a longer phrase like “the failure of the American dream” for The Great Gatsby. While a theme can be stated as a moral or lesson (such as “Holding a grudge is ultimately destructive to both parties” for “A Poison Tree”), it doesn’t have to be, as every work of literature isn’t necessarily intended to have a moral.


Thesis - a proposition for consideration, especially one to be discussed and proved or disproved, or a dissertation involving research on a particular subject. A thesis is less general than a theme. Thesis novels or plays are referred to as those of ideas that illustrate, develop, and reinforce an attitude or point of view of their authors. In poetry, the thesis is the unstressed syllable of a metrical foot.

The term is from the Greek thesis, meaning “a placing” or “arranging.”

According to this definition, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be considered a thesis novel in that it was written as an anti-slavery work meant to instruct in the evils of slavery.

see: essay, novel


Tone is the author's attitude toward a subject or audience. Word choice, imagery, and style all contribute to an author's tone, but specific plot events do not. An author's use of a specific tone can help readers interpret the text's meaning. Tone tells readers how they should feel while reading a piece, thereby influencing a work's mood. It should be noted, though, that tone creates the mood for a piece, but is not the same as mood.

  • “Trout, incidentally, had written a book about a money tree. It had twenty-dollar bills for leaves. Its flowers were government bonds. Its fruit was diamonds. It attracted human beings who killed each other around the roots and made very good fertilizer.”

Kurt Vonnegut creates a detached tone throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, as shown in this excerpt.


Tragedy - a serious play in which the chief figures, by some peculiarity of character, pass through a series of misfortunes leading to the final catastrophe. In contemporary theater, tragedy often has the evils of society as the cause of this downfall, especially in Theater of the Absurd. In literature, tragedy refers to any composition with a somber theme carried to a disastrous conclusion. Sometimes, the word is used to refer to an actual calamity, disaster, or fatal event.

The term is from the Greek tragoidia formed by combining tragos, meaning “he-goat,” and oide, meaning “song.” (A tragoidos was a tragic poet and singer; probably called “a goat singer” because he wore goatskins or because a he-goat was the prize in a competition among tragoidos.)

The form was developed by the Greeks from a ritual sacrifice accompanied by a choral song in honor of Dionysus, the God of the Fields and Vineyards. There seem to have been no tragedies written between Seneca (c. 4 B.C. – A.D. 65) and the Middle Ages. Tragedy was a popular form in Renaissance drama with Marlowe, Shakespeare, and others producing powerful plays depicting and pain and adversity of living.

In “The Monk’s Tale” of his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer defines it as:

Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.

lines 249 – 253

see: absurd, antagonist, catharsis, comedy, drama, hubris


Verse - a line of metrical writing, a stanza, or poetry in general. It also means the method by which one metrical line turns into a new line. In addition, the term refers to one of the short sections into which a chapter of the Bible is divided.

The term comes from the Latin versus, meaning a “furrow,” “a row,” “a line,” “a metric line,” or literally “turning,” which was derived from vertere, meaning “to turn.”


Voice has two applications as a literary term: authorial and character voice. Both are distinct from anyone else's.

An author's voice is the distinct way he or she writes compared to all other authors. Writers' word choice, language use, and punctuation are all factors that express their voice. Authors convey a lot about their personalities and worldviews through voice. A strong voice establishes consistency and makes people want to continue reading.

  • "Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent."

    • Mark Twain is known for having a very strong authorial voice, as shown in this quotation from Pudd'nhead Wilson.

Character voice is how characters put their words together and discuss ideas. Well-developed character voice makes readers feel as though the character is a real person. To make a character's voice believable, writers try to make each character have a believable and consistent manner of speaking. Character voice is especially important for the character narrating the story (especially if the author is using first-person point-of-view).

  • "It kills me sometimes, how people die."

  • "I am haunted by humans."

  • "A small but noteworthy note. I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me.”

Many people are drawn to Markus Zusak's book The Book Thief because of the strong character voice of its narrator, Death. Some of his quotes are above.