Senior English Literary Terminology


Active voice:         The subject performs the action expressed in the verb. The subject act.

The dog bit the boy. (active)

The boy was bitten by the dog. (passive)


Accent:         The stress placed upon certain syllables in a line of verse.  (symbolized by /)


Acrostic:         A poem in which the successive letters of each line form a word.


Act:                  The main division of a play.  Shakespeare's plays consist of five acts.  The climax occurs in Act Three.


Allegory:         An extended narrative that carries a second meaning.


Alliteration:         The repetition of initial consonant sounds.


Allusion:         An allusion is a direct or indirect reference to a familiar figure, place, or event from history, literature, mythology, or from the Bible.  Most allusions expand or develop a significant idea, impression, or mood.


Anachronism:         Something placed in an inappropriate period of time.


Analogy:         The resemblance between two different things.


Anecdote:         A brief narrative concerning a particular individual or incident.


Antagonist:         The antagonist is the major character or force that opposes the protagonist.


Anticlimax:         This is an event or conclusion that is an abrupt shift from the important to the comical or trivial.



Antihero:         A character who lacks the qualities needed for heroism.  He is not noble in life or mind and does not have an attitude marked by high purpose or lofty aims.


Antithesis:         Using opposite phrases in close conjunction. Examples might be, "I burn and I freeze," or "Her character is white as sunlight, black as midnight." The best antitheses express their contrary ideas in a balanced sentence.


Aphorism:         A brief statement which expresses an observation on life, usually intended as a wise observation. Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" contains numerous examples, one of which is Drive thy business; let it not drive thee, which means that one should not allow the demands of business to take control of one's moral or worldly commitments.


Apostrophe:         A figure of speech in which a person not present is addressed.


Archaic language:         old fashioned, out of date language and expressions.


Aside:                  A stage convention used to indicate words spoken by a character but heard only by the audience and not by other characters on stage.


Assonance:         The close repetition of similar vowel sounds, usually in stressed syllables.


Atmosphere:         The atmosphere is the prevailing feeling that is created in a story.  The atmosphere usually sets up the reader's expectations about the ending or outcome of the plot.  Atmosphere is usually created through the dialogue and the imagery.


                                    The mood or primary emotional quality developed largely through descriptions of setting details.


Audience:         The people for whom a written work or presentation is intended.


Autobiography:         A non-fictional account of a person’s life written by the subject.


Ballad:         A narrative song handed down in oral tradition, or a written poem which imitates the traditional ballad, essentially narrating a story in poetic form.



Bias:         A subjective point of view in which the writer’s opinion affects the integrity of the work.



Biography:         A non-fictional account of someone’s life. If the work is about the writer’s life, it is called an autobiography.


Blank verse:         Poetry which lacks rhyme but has a very specific meter or rhythm called iambic pentameter. Unrhymed lines of ten syllables with the even numbered syllables stressed or accented. The natural movement of the English language tends to be iambic pentameter.  (See also iambic pentameter).


Cacophony:         Harsh sounds introduced for poetic effect -- sometimes words that are difficult to pronounce.


Caesura:          A pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry. The pause may or may not be         typographically indicated.


Caricature:         Ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things for comic reasons. It may be pictorial or literary         .

Carpe diem:         A Latin phrase which translated means "Seize (Catch) the day," meaning "Make the most of today." The phrase originated as the title of a poem by the Roman Horace (65 B.C.E.-8B.C.E.) and caught on as a theme with such English poets as Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell.

Catastrophe:         A disaster of huge proportions                 


Cause and effect:         The concept that one action or event will produce a response in the form of another event. Noting relationships between events such that one or more are the result of the other or others.


Character:         This is a term used to describe the fictional persons who carry out the action of a story.  It also refers to the personality and moral attitudes of a fictional person.  Characters may be classified as any of the following:


Dynamic (developing) character: This character, often the protagonist, undergoes a significant, lasting change, usually in his or her outlook on life.


Static character:         This is a character who does not change in the course of a story.  Often protagonists who are static characters fail to achieve their goals or are defeated by their unwillingness to change or adapt.


Round character:         A round character is a realistic character having several sides to his/her nature.



Flat character:         This is a limited character, usually a minor character who has only one apparent quality.


Stereotyped or stock character: Stereotyped or stock characters are familiar figures in fiction such as the "hard-boiled" private investigator, the absent-minded professor, the "stiff upper lip" officer, and the imperiled heroine from Victorian melodrama.


Characterization:         This is a method of presenting the special qualities or features of a character in a literary work.


Direct characterization: (Tell) This is character revelation through the author's or narrator's comments.


Indirect characterization: (Show) This is character revelation through what the character says, does, thinks, and how he reacts.  The reader is left to infer from these details what the character is like.


Character foil: A character foil is a character whose behavior, attitudes, and opinions are in contrast to those of the protagonist.  He/She helps the reader to understand better the character of the protagonist.


Character sketch:         A character sketch is a description of a character's moral and personality qualities using nouns, adjectives, and specific examples and quotations from the story.  It does not normally describe the character's physical appearance or dress, except briefly.


Chorus:         A group of performers (actors or singers) that stands on stage with the performers in a dramatic performance; or the song this group sings.


Chronological order: A sequence according to time of occurrence.


Cinquain:         A five line non rhyming poem of 22 syllables and a set pattern.


Cliché:         A timeworn expression or idea


Coherence:         Clarity of presentation. A logical, orderly, unified and aesthetically consistent relationship of parts.


Colloquial:         Language used in everyday informal talk or conversation, but not in formal speech or writing.


Comedy:         Today, a comedy is typically light, humourous or satirical in tone with a happy resolution. Originally a comedy meant a play or narrative with a happy ending. It could be serious in tone.



Comic relief:         A humorous scene, incident, or remark within an essentially serious or even tragic drama.  It evokes laughter as a release from the tension of the serious action and follows scenes of intense emotion.


Compare and contrast:         A written exercise that examines similarities and differences.


Comparison:         Examining the similarities (and differences) between two items.


Complication:          An event that prevents or delays a character from achieving a resolution to a problem.                                                                                                  

Conceit:          A far-fetched simile or metaphor, a literary conceit occurs when the speaker compares two highly dissimilar things. In the following example from Act V of Shakespeare's "Richard II," the imprisoned King Richard compares his cell to the world in the following line: I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world:

Concrete poetry:         A poem in which the design or shape helps express the content.


Conflict:         A conflict is a struggle between opposing characters or forces, usually between the protagonist and someone or something else.  All conflicts are either external (physical) or internal (emotional, moral, psychological).  There are three main conflicts discussed below:


Man versus environment:         This is a conflict between a character and his or her environment whether this is nature, society, or circumstances.


Man versus man:         This is a conflict between two characters.  The struggle may be physical, emotional, moral, or psychological.


Man versus self:         The character experiences a conflict in emotion or thought. May be

                                                               emotional, intellectual, moral, or spiritual



Connotation:         The emotional suggestions attached to words beyond their strict definition.


Consonance:         The close repetition of identical consonant sounds before and after different vowels.  (flip-flop-feel-fill)


Contradiction:                  A statement which is contrary to or opposes itself or another.


Contrast or juxtaposition:          refers to the overlap or mixing of opposite or different situations, characters, settings, moods, or points of view in order to clarify meaning, purpose, or character, or to heighten certain moods, especially humor, horror, and suspense.  See also character foils.


Couplet:         Two lines, one following the other, which rhyme.


Denotation:         The dictionary meaning of words.


Descriptive:         writing where the purpose is to paint a picture through strong imagery.


Deus ex machina:         "God out of the machine" -- specifically when a god rescues the hero or helps untangle the plot.  The term can also refer to any artificial device that produces the easy resolution of difficulties.


Dialect:         Dialect is a form of speech characteristic of a particular geographic region, social class, or a people.  A distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard. Eg. The Texan drawl. Cockney English “I dare say, I’m goin’ up the apples and stairs to git me a dickey dirt.”


Diary:                  A personal journal


Dialogue:         A conversation including two or more characters in a story is a dialogue.  Dialogue is often used to reveal character and conflict.


Diamante:         A diamond shaped poem.


Diction:         Diction is a style of speaking or writing resulting from a deliberate choice and arrangement of words in a story.  Each writer uses diction appropriate to his or her purpose, subject, story type, characters, and style.


Didactic:                  Literature designed explicitly to instruct.


Dilemma:         A dilemma is a situation in which a character must make a difficult choice between two disagreeable, undesirable, or unfavorable alternatives.  Dilemma is one method by which an author can generate suspense in a story.


Direct presentation: see characterization                 


Dissonance:         The juxtaposition of harsh jarring sounds (a synonym for cacophony) or the juxtaposition of closely related but not identical vowel sounds in one or more lines.


Drama:         A composition in prose or verse for presenting through dialogue and acting.


Dramatic irony         see irony


Dramatic monologue: A poetic form in which a single speaker addresses at length either a presumed audience or an internal listener.


Dramatic poetry:         Usually a lyric poem that emotionally characterizes the speaker or a situation.


Dynamic character:         See character.


Dystopia:         An extremely unpleasant imaginary world resulting from current social problems.


Editorial:                  An article that presents the opinion of an individual or a publication.


Elegy:                   A lyric poem lamenting death


Emotional appeal:         A writer elicits emotions to create empathy with characters or to convince a reader of an argument.        


Endings:         The resolutions of stories may be classified as follows:


Happy ending:         The protagonist is successful in achieving his/her goals.


Sad ending:         The protagonist is unsuccessful in achieving his/her goals and might be destroyed emotionally, financially, or physically.


Indeterminate ending:         A story ending in which there is no clear outcome or result.


Surprise ending:         This is the sudden twist in the direction of a story, producing a conclusion which surprises the reader and often the story's characters as well.  This ending is foreshadowed but unanticipated.


Full circle:         This is the type of story which begins and ends in the same situation or place.


End rhyme:         Rhyme which comes at the ends of lines.


Epic:                  An extended narrative poem.


Epigram:         A short, witty, pointed statement often in the form of a poem.


Epiphany:         An epiphany is a moment of significant realization which happens to the main character, usually at the end of the story.


Episode:         An episode is an incident or single set of events within the main plot of the story.


Epitaph:         An inscription on a gravestone or a short poem written in memory of someone who has died.


Escapist fiction:         This refers to a type of fiction which is designed to help the reader "escape" the daily cares and problems of reality.  Escapist fiction has lively, melodramatic plots and stereotyped or flat characters,

                                    and requires limited involvement on the part of the reader.  Most commercial science fiction, westerns, and romances would fall into the category of escapist fiction.  See also interpretive fiction.


Euphemism:         The use of a mild or indirect expression instead of one that is harsh or unpleasantly direct.


Euphony:         Agreeable sounds which are easy to articulate.


Existentialism:         Writing from an existentialist viewpoint, often pointing out the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence.


Expert testimony:            Incorporating the opinions of someone who has sufficient knowledge in a field so that others may rely on his opinion. 


Exposition:         See plot.


Expository:         Writing intended to explain or persuade


Extended metaphor:         This is an implied comparison between two things which are essentially not alike.  These points of comparison are continued throughout the selection so that the comparison becomes an analogy.


External conflict:  See conflict


Fable:                  A brief story that is told to present a moral, or practical lesson.  The characters of fables are often animals who speak and act like human beings.


Falling action:         See plot.


Fantasy:         A fantasy is a highly exaggerated or improbable story.  As a rule, events, characters, and settings in a fantasy would not be possible or found in real life.


Farce:                  A type of comedy based on a humorous situation such as a bank robber who mistakenly wanders into a police station to hide. It is the situation here which provides the humor, not the cleverness of plot or lines, nor the absurdities of the character, as in situational comedy.


Fiction:         Fiction is any narrative which is imagined and invented rather than historically or factually true.  It includes novels as well as short stories.


Figurative language:         Language used in such a way as to force words out the literal meanings and, by emphasizing their connotations, to bring new insight and feeling to the subject desired.  (See simile, metaphor, personification.)



Flashback:         A flashback is a plot device which shifts the story from the present to


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