Glossary of Literary Terms


NOTE: Most base definitions are from the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (2016), though I did modify and/or expound on some of them for further clarification and understanding.

If you do not find a term (or terms) here that you would like me to add, please let me know and I will see if I can find a good definition to put on here.

ALLEGORY: The use of symbols in a story to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral, social, philosophical, religious, or political one; symbolic representation. The symbols can be characters, objects, events, and/or settings. One classic example would be from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which various characters, often revealed by their names, embody a certain virtue or sin.

ALLITERATION: The commencement of adjacent words with the same sound and/or letter. A famous example would be an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream,” in which he states that his wishes his children will be judged “by the content of their character.”

ALLUSION: An implied, indirect, or passing reference to a person or thing, or the action or process of making such a reference. For example, in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, and particularly in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan alludes to Jesus Christ, his father, the Emperor Beyond the Sea, God, and the deep magic as the Scriptures of the Bible.

APHORISM (also known as a MAXIM): Any principle or precept expressed in few words; a short pithy sentence containing a truth of general import that utilizes a play on words, puns, metaphors, alliteration, parallelism, and other literary devices.

CHARACTERIZATION: The imparting of a distinct character or identity to something, such as distinct features of appearance (which may themselves be symbolic in one way or another), habits, quirks, preferences, actions, and/or flaws, names, and words said by or about the character(s).

  • Round Characters are typically realistic, either mostly or fully, in their attributes. These are the kind of characters you want in your writing.
  • Flat Characters are usually the polar opposite of round characters, lacking in one aspect or another.
  • Dynamic Characters are ones capable of changing, either for better or worse.
  • Static Characters are ones that remain the same throughout the story, never changing in any significant way.
  • Tragic Characters are ones in which “the odds are never in their favor,” so to speak (yes, I went there, Hunger Games fans ;-D), or they exhibit a detrimental character flaw which costs them in the end.
  • Comic Characters are the ones in which, despite what the title may imply, are ones to whom positive things tend to happen, or ones who are able to redeem themselves in some way by the end of the story.

CONCEIT (also known as EXTENDED METAPHOR or SIMILE, see below): An idea or mental image which corresponds to some distinct entity or class of entities.

CONNOTATION: Inclusion of something in the meaning of a word besides what it primarily denotes; implication.

DICTION: The manner in which anything is expressed in spoken or written words and phrasing, which might be dominantly scientific, domestic, religious, culinary, etc. and/or carry certain connotations.

DOUBLING (also known as DOPPELGANGERS): Mirror images in a story that often reflect a certain character’s state of mind, revealing what is hidden within. An example of this is in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Fall of the House of Usher” in which the narrator’s friend Roderick Usher and his sister are twins both in a state of disarray and decay. The house in that story also serves as a grim reflection of its residents.

ELEGY: A song or poem of lamentation, especially for the dead; a memorial poem.

FREE VERSE: poetic writing in which the traditional rules of prosody (versification), especially those of meter and rhyme, are disregarded in favor of variable rhythms and line lengths.

GOTHIC: Stories or novels that involve secrets, mystery, and the supernatural (or seemingly supernatural) and large, gloomy, and usually antiquated (especially medieval) houses as settings. Gothic stories also often depict men who seem civilized, even refined or humane but are secretly obsessed with power and do horrific deeds in their quest to control nature and/or women. Gothic elements can be used to explore the dark side of the human psyche, parts usually hidden from polite society, such as guilty secrets and the inescapability of death or punishment. Ghosts and other supernatural beings serve as manifestations of characters’ fears. The presence of gloomy old houses and images of decay represent the breakdown of society that results from the hidden rottenness of human nature. Gothic also explores the breakdown of the rational mind into insanity and the intrusion of subconscious fears into the conscious imagination. By the way, if you haven’t already guessed, Edgar Allan Poe specialized in this genre of fiction.

HYPERBOLE: A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.

IMAGERY: A concrete description that appeals to any or all of the five senses.

IRONY: The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect; the use of approbatory language to imply condemnation or contempt.

JUXTAPOSITION: When two things are placed next to each other for the purpose of comparison and contrast, their proximity bringing out their similarities and differences.

LYRIC: Short poems usually divided into stanzas or strophes, and directly expressing the poet’s own thoughts and/or sentiments.

METAPHOR: A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

METER: A pattern of rhythm in a poem, determined by the number of syllables per line and which syllables are accented.

MOTIF: The structural principle or dominant idea repeated throughout a work, whether through imagery, diction, metaphor, thematic statements, irony, symbols, character types, etc.

PARADOX: A seeming contradiction that upon further inspection actually makes sense, often pointing out unexpected ironies.

PARALLELISM (also known as PROSODY): Correspondence, in sense or construction, of successive clauses or passages.

PERSONA: An assumed character or role, especially one adopted by an author in his or her own writing.

PERSONIFICATION: The attribution of human form, nature, or characteristics to something not human, such as animals or objects.

PUN: The usage of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words.

ROMANCE: A fictitious narrative, usually in prose, in which the settings or the events depicted are remote from everyday life, or in which sensational or exciting events or adventures form the central theme.

SATIRE: A poem or other work which uses humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality and foolishness.

SIMILE: Metaphor which uses the signal, comparative words “like” or “as.”

SLANT RHYME: Rhyme in which the last letters of two rhyming words share similar, but not identical, sounds.

THEME: The main idea, lesson, insight, moral, message, or universal truth conveyed by a literary work. Usually, all parts of the work unite to convey the theme. Often the theme is implied rather than explicitly stated, but sometimes a theme will be stated in a prominent place in the work, such as the beginning, middle, or end, in the title, or even in a character’s words.

TONE: Author or speaker’s attitude towards his or her subject matter, characters, etc.


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