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Literary Terms Defined
Drama Terms
1. Aside—line or two spoken by the character to himself, so that no other character on stage
hears. Usually, the character turns aside to portray this to the audience
2. Antagonist—Any force in a story that is in conflict with the protagonist. An antagonist
may be another person, an aspect of the physical or social environment, or a destructive
element in the protagonist's own nature.
3. Act— major division in the action of a play, typically indicating by lowering the curtain
or raising the houselights. Playwrights frequently employ acts to accommodate changes
in time, setting, mood, etc. In longer plays, acts are frequently subdivided into scenes,
which mark the point where new characters enter or a location changes.
4. dynamic character—A character who during the course of a story undergoes a permanent
change in some aspect of his personality or outlook.
5. flat character--A character who has only one outstanding trait or feature, or at the most a
few distinguishing marks.
6. round character--A character who is complex, multi-dimensional, and convincing.
7. static character--A character who is the same sort of person at the end of a story as s/he
was at the beginning.
8. stock character-- stereotyped character: one whose nature is familiar from prototypes in
previous fiction
9. comedy--A type of drama, opposed to tragedy, usually having a happy ending, and
emphasizing human limitation rather than human greatness.
10. comic relief--A humorous scene or incident that alleviates tension in an otherwise
serious work. In many instances these moments enhance the thematic significance of the
story in addition to providing laughter
11. farce--A type of drama related to comedy but emphasizing improbable situations, violent
conflicts, physical action, and coarse wit over characterization or articulated plot.
12. foil character—characters who, when presented on stage together, bring out one another’s
13. epilogue—statement at the end of a novel or play that tells what occurred following the
conclusion of it
14. hubris—Greek word for pride (often the downfall of a character)
15. monologue—a long speech spoken by one character to other characters on the stage
16. prologue—opening section of a play that sets up the plot
17. protagonist--The central character in a story who is trying to accomplish something
18. scene—divisions within the act of a play, broken apart by location but still related to the
overall purpose of the act
19. soliloquy—A speech in which a character, alone on the stage, addresses himself; a
soliloquy is a "thinking out loud," a dramatic means of letting an audience know a
character's thoughts and feelings.
20. Tragedy--A type of drama, opposed to comedy, in which the protagonist, a person of
unusual moral or intellectual stature or outstanding abilities, suffers a fall in fortune
because of some error of judgment, excessive virtue, or flaw in her/his nature. A tragedy
often ends with one or more deaths.
21. tragic flaw—the downfall of the protagonist (who is often noble or of elevated status);
pride is a common tragic flaw.
22. tragic hero—protagonist whose downfall is his tragic flaw
23. villain—an inherently evil character
Fiction Terms
1. antithesis—establishing a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by
joining them together in parallel structure
Ex: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—Neil Armstrong
Ex: Success makes men proud; failure makes them wise
2. anecdote—a short, simple story to illustrate a point
3. allegory—the representation of abstract ideas and principles by characters and
events (Pilgrim’s Progress)
4. allusion—well known reference to something in mythology, history, literature, the
5. ambiguity—being unclear
6. analogy—a comparison of 2 things that are slightly similar for the purpose of
explaining an unfamiliar or difficult idea
a. Ex: It is not the health who need a physician but those who are sick; I
didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. Mark 2:17
7. epigraph—a quotation at the beginning of a book that sets forth the theme
8. epiphany—moment of awakening or realization for a character
9. euphemism—the substitution of a milder or less negative phrase for a harsh or
blunt one (Ex: passed away for death or restroom for toilet/bathroom)
10. epigram—a witty saying briefly expressed or a short, satirical poem
11. fable—a short tale used to teach a moral lesson usually using animals
12. figurative language—non literal language
13. flashback—when a character moves back to an earlier memory or scene that is
usually important to the plot (usually the flashback interrupts)
14. hyperbole—extreme exaggeration
15. jargon—the language familiar to a particular trade, profession or group. (medical
16. irony
a. dramatic—audience or another character knows something that a character
does not
b. situational—surprise twist at the end (Fight Club)
c. verbal—play on words; pun
17. metaphor-3
18. metaphysical—deals with the spiritual or non-material world
19. Modernism—literary movement from early 1900’s (see Catch-22 intro ppt)
20. narrative voice—the speaker or ―voice‖ telling you the story (personality)
21. oxymoron—a paradox reduced to two words (usually adj.-noun) "jumbo shrimp"
22. paradox-- a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in
reality expresses a possible truth
23. pathos—the quality in writing that evokes pity or compassion
24. parable-- a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth,
religious principle, or moral lesson.
25. personification
26. point of view
a. first person—narrator is referred to as ―I‖ and we see only his or her
b. third person objective – outside narrator only; we only see what a camera
would capture and no thoughts revealed. The only things revealed are
what the reader can "see" (such as imagery) or "hear" (such as dialogue).
We don’t go inside any character’s head/thoughts.
c. third person omniscient—third person narrator who is able to see into
more than one character’s mind and understands all the action (we get into
two or more characters’ heads/thoughts)
d. third person limited—third person narrator who only gives the thoughts of
one character (only get inside one character’s thoughts)
27. prose—opposite of poetry
28. satire --A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony,
derision, or wit
29. sarcasm—criticism in the form of praise or flattery; to mean the opposite of what
you say
30. setting—time and place where a narrative occurs; usually affects the plot line
31. simile—comparison of two things that uses like or as (the snow glittered like
diamonds in the sun)
32. stream-of-consciousness—form of writing in which a character or narrator’s
thoughts flow together as they go through the character’s mind; can be confusing
33. subplot—smaller plots within the story that help to develop the main plot
34. symbol—common or every day object or person which represents some abstract
idea; something that is simultaneously itself and a sign of something else. Ex:
winter and darkness may represent death or a sad mood
35. theme—the main lesson or moral the author wants to teach
36. tone—author’s attitude towards the subject matter of the book or towards a
character in the novel
37. understatement—opposite of exaggeration; a kind of irony that deliberately
represents something as being much less than it really is. Ex: From Macbeth, ―It
was a rough night‖ after the murder
38. grotesque -- imagery or characters that inspire fear, disgust, empathy, and curiosity.
(An archetypal villain would only inspire fear and disgust.) Examples of grotesque
characters: Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, Beast (of Beauty and the
Style Terms
1. atmosphere—feelings of the environment
2. colloquial—conversational, everyday speech, usually regional in nature ("pop" or
"soda" for carbonated beverage; "wanna" or "ain't"; sayings such as "there's more
than one way to skin a cat")
3. connotation—implication of a word (to associate a secondary meaning with it)
4. denotation—the explicit, "dictionary" meaning of a word
5. dialect—local language used by the people of a particular region
6. diction—word choice
7. invective—harsh, scathing words or criticism
8. litotes -- understatement usually combined with double negatives for rhetorical
effect. (Examples: not unattractive, not bad, not as young, not wrong, no ordinary)
9. mood—the emotional feeling that the story gives the reader
10. paradox—a statement that appears contradictory but has truth ―I always lie‖ is a
paradox b/c if it is true it must also be false
11. pun—the humorous use of a word or phrase to suggest its different meanings
12. sarcasm— SEE FICTION
13. satire—SEE FICTION
14. slang—words that come about in society and eventually turn into a socially
acceptable word; informal diction not considered "correct" among the educated
and elite.
15. syntax—sentence structure (telegraphic vs. long and flowing, parallelism, etc.)
Poetry Terms
1. alliteration—repetition of consonant sounds at beginning of words
2. allusion—well known reference to the Bible, mythology, literature, history
3. apostrophe—a figure of speech in which someone (usually dead), some abstract
quality, or some idea in nature is addressed by the poet/speaker: "O death!" "Is
this a dagger....."
4. assonance—repetition of vowel sounds, usually in the middle or end of words: ―a
land laid waste with all its young men slain‖
5. blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter
6. cacophony—the harsh, unpleasant combination of sounds or words
7. caesura—a pause, usually near the middle of a line of verse: ―To err is human, to
forgive divine‖
8. conceit—an elaborate metaphor or analogy that points to a striking parallel
between two seemingly dissimilar things. Ex: John Donne’s poem where he
compares his and his wife’s souls to the legs of a math compass
9. consonance—repetition of similar consonant sounds in a group of words, usually
at end (bill and ball, barn and burn)
10. couplet—a two line stanza, usually ending with the same rhymes
11. didactic poem—a poem intended primarily to teach a lesson
12. elegy—a formal poem that meditates on death or some other solemn theme
13. dramatic monologue/poem—poem that takes on the form of a monologue
14. enjambment—the continuation of one line of poetry to the next (no pauses or
15. extended metaphor—an implied analogy or comparison that is carried throughout
a stanza or entire poem. Donne compares a beautiful woman to fish bait and men
to fish who want to be caught by the woman.
16. euphony—style in which the combination of words is pleasant sounding. Keats: a
thing of beauty is a joy for ever/Its loveliness increases, it will never/pass into
nothingness, but still will keep/ a bower quiet for us and a sleep/full of sweet
dreams and health and quiet breathing.
17. figurative language--writing that uses a figure of speech as opposed to literal
language. Examples include similes and metaphors.
18. free verse—poetry that has no specific meter but is still rhythmical
19. heroic couplet—entire poem made of couplets, where each pair are end stopped
iambic pentameter lines that rhyme. Example from Pope: "But when to mischief
mortals bend their will / How soon they find instruments of ill‖ (from The Rape
of the Lock, canto III, lines 125-126)
20. imagery—the sensory details of a work (visual or auditory descriptions)
21. lyric poem—any short poem that presents a single speaker who expresses
thoughts and feelings
22. meter—rhythmic quality in poetry; each unit of meter is known as a foot
23. metonymy—a figure of speech—the substitution of a term naming an object
closely associated with the word in mind for the word itself. Ex: ―The Pen is
mightier than the sword‖ (pen stands for publishing, sword for the military), or
the ―crown‖ is an object closely associated with royalty. Ask, "Is A closely
associated with B but not part of its whole?"
24. narrative poem—a non dramatic poem which presents a narrative or tells a story.
Epics and ballads are examples of narrative poems
25. onomatopoeia—use of sound words
26. poetic foot
a. iambic—u /
b. trochaic--/ u
27. quatrain—four line stanza
28. scansion -- metrical analysis of a line of verse
a. monometer—one foot per line
b. dimeter--2
c. trimeter--3
d. tetrameter—4 feet per line
e. pentameter—5 feet per line
29. sonnet—14 line iambic pentameter poem; petrarchan, spenserian, shakespearian
30. stanza—a repeated grouping of 3 or more lines with the same meter and rhyme
31. synecdoche—figurative language where mentioning a part signifies the whole.
For example: Foot soldiers for infantry and field hands for manual labor. Ask, "Is
A a component of B?"
32. terza rima -- rhyming verse stanza with interlocking three line scheme, such as
ABA, BCB, CDC, DED. Example: Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind."
33. ballad (or common) meter -- four lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter
(four metrical feet, u/s) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet, u/s). Example:
"Amazing Grace." ("Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch
like me! / I once was lost, but now I'm found / Was blind, but now I see.")
Other Terms not on the list: