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All Literary Terms


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in classical times, any poem on any subject written in "elegiac" meter; since the Renaissance, usually a formal lament on the death of a particular person.
a leading character who is not, like a hero, perfect or even outstanding, but is rather ordinary and representative of the more or less average person.
style, manner, way of proceeding, as in "tragic mode"; often used synonymously with genre, kind, and subgenre.
a fixed verse form consisting of fourteen lines usually in iambic pentameter.
rising action
the second of the five parts of plot structure, in which events complicate the situation that existed at the beginning of a work, intensifying the conflict or introducing new conflict.
a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one ("Homer").
informal diction
language that is not as lofty or impersonal as formal diction; similar to everyday speech.
an unrhymed poetic form, Japanese in origin, that contains seventeen syllables arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.
a metrical form in which each foot consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
(1) the concrete and literal description of what a story is about; (2) the general or specific area of concern of a poem—also called topic; (3) also used in fiction commentary to denote a character whose inner thoughts and feelings are recounted.
a poem (also called an eclogue, a bucolic, or an idyll) that describes the simple life of country folk, usually shepherds who live a timeless, painless (and sheep-less) life in a world full of beauty, music, and love.
(1) the concrete and literal description of what a story is about; (2) a poem's general or specific area of concern. Also called subject.
that part of the structure that sets the scene, introduces and identifies characters, and establishes the situation at the beginning of a story or play. Additional exposition is often scattered throughout the work.
third-person narrator
a character, "he" or "she," who "tells" the story; may have either a limited point of view or an omniscient point of view; may also be an unreliable narrator.
the point from which people, events, and other details in a story are viewed. See point of view.
a direct, explicit comparison of one thing to another, usually using the words like or as to draw the connection. See metaphor.
occasional poem
a poem written about or for a specific occasion, public or private.
when applied to an individual author,it (like oeuvre) means the sum total of works written by that author. When used generally, it means the range of works that a consensus of scholars, teachers, and readers of a particular time and culture consider "great" or "major." This second sense of the word is a matter of debate since the literary canon in Europe and America has long been dominated by the works of white men. During the last several decades, in the United States, it has expanded considerably to include more works by women and writers from various ethnic and racial backgrounds.
heroic couplet
rhymed pairs of lines in iambic pentameter.
a section of a poem demarcated by extra line spacing. Some distinguish between a stanza, a division marked by a single pattern of meter or rhyme, and a verse paragraph, a division governed by thought rather than sound pattern.
the sum total of works verifiably written by an author.
the last six lines of the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. See also octave.
a low building in the back of the stage area in classical Greek theaters. It represented the palace or temple in front of which the action took place.
unreliable narrator
a speaker or voice whose vision or version of the details of a story are consciously or unconsciously deceiving; such a narrator's version is usually subtly undermined by details in the story or the reader's general knowledge of facts outside the story. If, for example, the narrator were to tell you that Columbus was Spanish and that he discovered America in the fourteenth century when his ship the Golden Hind landed on the coast of Florida near present-day Gainesville, you might not trust other things he tells you.
the voice or figure of the author who tells and structures the story and who may or may not share the values of the actual author.
a verse form consisting of nineteen lines divided into six stanzas—five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (fourline stanza). The first and third lines of the first tercet rhyme, and this rhyme is repeated through each of the next four tercets and in the last two lines of the concluding quatrain. The villanelle is also known for its repetition of select lines. A good example of a twentieth-century villanelle is Dylan Tho-mas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."
unity of time
one of the three unities of drama as described by Aristotle in his Poetics. Unity of time refers to the limitation of a play's action to a short period—usually the time it takes to present the play or, at any rate, no longer than a day.
literary criticism
the evaluative or interpretive work written by professional interpreters of texts. It is "criticism" not because it is negative or corrective, but rather because those who write criticism ask hard, analytical, crucial, or "critical" questions about the works they read.
a light or humorous verse form of mainly anapestic verses of which the first, second, and fifth lines are of three feet; the third and fourth lines are of two feet; and the rhyme scheme is aabba.
the anticipation of what is to happen next (see curiosity and suspense), what a character is like or how he or she will develop, what the theme or meaning of the story will prove to be, and so on.
Spenserian stanza
a stanza that consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter (five feet) followed by a ninth line of iambic hexameter (six feet). The rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc.
high (verbal) comedy
humor that employs subtlety, wit, or the representation of refined life. See low (physical) comedy.
pastoral play
a play that features the sort of idyllic world described in the definition for pastoral.
a broad category of dramatic works that are intended primarily to entertain and amuse an audience. May take many different forms, but they share three basic characteristics: (1) the values that are expressed and that typically present the conflict within the play are social and determined by the general opinion of society (as opposed to being universal and beyond the control of humankind, as in tragedy); (2) characters are often defined primarily in terms of their society and their role within it; (3) often end with a restoration of social order in which one or more characters take a proper social role.
the art of "shaped" poems in which the visual force is supposed to work spiritually or magically.
minor characters
those figures who fill out the story but who do not figure prominently in it.
to verbally depict an image so that readers can "see" it.
a plot-structuring device whereby a scene from the fictional past is inserted into the fictional present or dramatized out of order.
broadly defined, any sensory detail or evocation in a work; more narrowly, the use of figurative language to evoke a feeling, to call to mind an idea, or to describe an object.
descriptive structure
a textual organization determined by the requirements of describing someone or something.
the one who opposes the hero and heroine—that is, the "bad guy." See antagonist and hero/heroine.
someone other than the reader—a character within the fiction—to whom the story or "speech" is addressed.
what is suggested by a word, apart from what it explicitly describes. See denotation.
rhetorical trope
traditional figure of speech, used for specific persuasive effects.
a statement that seems contradictory but may actually be true, such as "That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me" in Donne's "Batter My Heart."
overstatement characterized by exaggerated language.
a line of poetry with eight feet: "Once u | pon a | midnight | dreary | while I | pondered, | weak and | weary" (Poe, "The Raven").
a line of poetry with five feet: "Nuns fret | not at | their con | vent's nar | row room" (Wordsworth).
centered (central) consciousness
a limited third-person point of view, one tied to a single character throughout the story; this character often reveals his or her inner thoughts but is unable to read the thoughts of others.
imitative structure
a textual organization that mirrors as exactly as possible the structure of something that already exists as an object and can be seen.
extended metaphor
a detailed and complex metaphor that stretches through a long section of a work.
turning point
the third part of plot structure, the point at which the action stops rising and begins falling or reversing. Also called climax.
rite of passage
a ritual or ceremony marking an individual's passing from one stage or state to a more advanced one, or an event in one's life that seems to have such significance; a formal initiation; common in initiation stories.
controlling metaphors
metaphors that dominate or organize an entire poem. In Linda Pastan's "Marks," for example, the controlling metaphor is of marks (grades) as a way of talking about the speaker's performance of roles within her family.
the fifth part of plot structure, the point at which the situation that was destabilized at the beginning of the story becomes stable once more.
a literary work that holds up human failings to ridicule and censure.
a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.
shaped verse
another name for concrete poetry; poetry that is shaped to look like an object.
symbolic poem
a poem in which the use of symbols is so pervasive and internally consistent that the larger referential world is distanced, if not forgotten.
the way words are put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.
first-person narrator
a character, "I," who tells the story and necessarily has a limited point of view; may also be an unreliable narrator.
a metrical foot consisting of a pair of stressed syllables ("Dead set").
tetrameter couplet
rhymed pairs of lines that contain (in classical iambic, trochaic, and anapestic verse) four measures of two feet or (in modern English verse) four metrical feet.
the first eight lines of the Italian,or Petrarchan, sonnet. See also sestet.
verbal irony
a statement in which the literal meaning differs from the implicit meaning. See dramatic irony and situational irony.
a characterization based on conscious or unconscious assumptions that some one aspect—such as gender, age, ethnic or national identity, religion, occupation, marital status, and so on—is predictably accompanied by certain character traits, actions, even values.
a lyric poem characterized by a serious topic and formal tone but no prescribed formal pattern. See Keats's odes and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind."
dramatic monologue
a monologue set in a specific situation and spoken to an imaginary audience.
a form of verbal irony in which apparent praise is actually harshly or bitterly critical.
a main plot in fiction or drama.
figures of speech
comparisons in which something is pictured or figured in other, more familiar terms.
in medias res
"in the midst of things"; refers to opening a story in the middle of the action, necessitating filling in past details by exposition or flashback.
plot/plot structure
the arrangement of the action.
a morning song in which the coming of dawn is either celebrated or denounced as a nuisance.
the leading male/female character, usually larger than life, sometimes almost godlike. See antihero, protagonist, and villain.
a direct and specific meaning.
a line of poetry with four feet: "The Grass | divides | as with | a comb" (Dickinson).
exaggerated language; also called hyperbole.
a monologue in which the character in a play is alone and speaking only to him-or herself.
point of view
also called focus; the point from which people, events, and other details in a story are viewed. This term is sometimes used to include both focus and voice.
concrete poetry
poetry shaped to look like an object. Robert Herrick's "Pillar of Fame," for example, is arranged to look like a pillar. Also called shaped verse.
the practice in literature of attempting to describe nature and life without idealization and with attention to detail.
a short pause within a line of poetry; often but not always signaled by punctuation. Note the two caesuras in this line from Poe's "The Raven": "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary."
Shakespearean sonnet
also called an English sonnet; a sonnet form that divides the poem into three units of four lines each and a final unit of two lines (4+4+4+2 structure). Its classic rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg, but there are variations.
a play characterized by broad humor, wild antics, and often slapstick, pratfalls, or other physical humor.
arena stage
a stage design in which the audience is seated all the way around the acting area; actors make their entrances and exits through the auditorium.
an author's choice of words.
a speech of more than a few sentences, usually in a play but also in other genres, spoken by one person and uninterrupted by the speech of anyone else. See soliloquy.
round characters
complex characters, often major characters, who can grow and change and "surprise convincingly"—that is, act in a way that you did not expect from what had gone before but now accept as possible, even probable, and "realistic."
stock character
a character that appears in a number of stories or plays, such as the cruel stepmother, the braggart, and so forth.
language that avoids obvious emphasis or embellishment; litotes is one form of it.
the person, not necessarily the author, who is the voice of a poem.
like allegory,it usually is symbolic and extensive, including an entire work or story. Though it no longer is necessarily specific to or pervasive in a single culture—individual authors may now be said to create myths—myth still seems communal or cultural, while the symbolic can often be private or personal . Thus stories more or less universally shared within a culture to explain its history and traditions can be called this.
terza rima
a verse form consisting of three-line stanzas in which the second line of each stanza rhymes with the first and third of the next.
stage directions
The words in the printed text of a play that inform the director, crew, actors, and readers how to stage, perform, or imagine the play. Stage directions are not spoken aloud and may appear at the beginning of a play, before any scene, or attached to a line of dialogue. The place and time of the action, the design of the set itself, and at times the characters' actions or tone of voice are dictated through stage directions and interpreted by the group of people that put on a performance.
a situation or statement characterized by a significant difference between what is expected or understood and what actually happens or is meant. See cosmic irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.
another name for an underplot; a subordinate plot in fiction or drama.
cosmic irony
a type of irony that arises out of the difference between what a character aspires to and what so-called universal forces deal him or her; such irony implies that a god or fate controls and toys with human actions, feelings, lives, outcomes.
thrust stage
a stage design that allows the audience to sit around three sides of the major acting area.
when used to describe a poem, play, or story, referential means making textual use of a specific historical moment or event or, more broadly, making use of external, "natural," or "actual" detail.
red herring
a false lead, something that misdirects expectations.
omniscient point of view
also called unlimited point of view; a perspective that can be seen from one character's view, then another's, then another's, or can be moved in or out of any character's mind at any time. Organization in which the reader has access to the perceptions and thoughts of all the characters in the story.
authorial time
distinct from plot time and reader time, authorial time denotes the influence that the time in which the author was writing had upon the conception and style of the text.ballad a narrative poem that is, or originally was, meant to be sung. Characterized by repetition and often by a repeated refrain (recurrent phrase or series of phrases), ballads were originally a folk creation, transmitted orally from person to person and age to age.
a line of poetry with six feet: "She comes, | she comes | again, | like ring | dove frayed | and fled" (Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes).
running over from one line of poetry to the next without stop, as in the following lines by Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky."
a distinctive manner of expression; each author's style is expressed through his/her diction, rhythm, imagery, and so on.
(1) a generalized, abstract paraphrase of the inferred central or dominant idea or concern of a work; (2) the statement a poem makes about its subject.
protest poem
a poetic attack, usually quite direct, on allegedly unjust institutions or social injustices.
proscenium arch
an arch over the front of a stage; the proscenium serves as a "frame" for the action on stage.
exactness, accuracy of language or description.
classical unities
as derived from Aristotle's Poetics, the principles of structure that require a play to have one action that occurs in one place and within one day.
a recurrent device, formula, or situation that deliberately connects a poem with common patterns of existing thought.
usually applied to language that uses figures of speech. Figurative language heightens meaning by implicitly or explicitly representing something in terms of some other thing, the assumption being that the "other thing" will be more familiar to the reader.
word order
the positioning of words in relation to one another.
the repetition of vowel sounds in a sequence of words with different endings— for example, "The death of the poet was kept from his poems" in W. H. Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats."
(or prosopopeia) treating an abstraction as if it were a person by endowing it with humanlike qualities.
free verse
poetry characterized by varying line lengths, lack of traditional meter, and nonrhyming lines.
a plot or character element that recurs in cultural or cross-cultural myths, such as "the quest" or "descent into the underworld" or "scapegoat."
(1) one thing pictured as if it were something else, suggesting a likeness or analogy between them; (2) an implicit comparison or identification of one thing with another unlike itself without the use of a verbal signal. Sometimes used as a general term for figure of speech.
the context of the literary work's action, what is happening when the story, poem, or play begins.
dramatic structure
a textual organization based on a series of scenes, each of which is presented vividly and in detail.
discursive structure
a textual organization based on the form of a treatise, argument, or essay.
the main character in a work, who may be male or female, heroic or not heroic. See antagonist, antihero, and hero/ heroine. Protagonist is the most neutral term.
the metrical pattern in which each foot consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones.
one character that serves as a contrast to another.
dramatis personae
the list of characters that appears either in the play's program or at the top of the first page of the written play.
the design, decoration, and scenery of the stage during a play.
originally, a poem meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre; now, any short poem in which the speaker expresses intense personal emotion rather than describing a narrative or dramatic situations.
a struggle between opposing forces, such as between two people, between a person and something in nature or society, or even between two drives, impulses, or parts of the self.
a neutral term for a character who opposes the leading male or female character. See hero/heroine and protagonist.
a figure of speech that combines two apparently contradictory elements, as in wise fool (sophomore).
a figure of speech that emphasizes its subject by conscious understatement. An example from common speech is to say "Not bad" as a form of high praise.
the more or less regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. This is determined by the kind of "foot" (iambic and dactylic, for example) and by the number of feet per line (five feet = pentameter, six feet = hexameter, for example).
a drama in which a character (usually a good and noble person of high rank) is brought to a disastrous end in his or her confrontation with a superior force (fortune, the gods, social forces, universal values), but also comes to understand the meaning of his or her deeds and to accept an appropriate punishment. Often the protagonist's downfall is a direct result of a fatal flaw in his or her character.
standard or traditional ways of saying things in literary works, employed to achieve certain expected effects.
the use of a word or expression to mean more than one thing.
a short fiction that illustrates an explicit moral lesson.
situational irony
in a narrative, the incongruity between what the reader and/or character expects to happen and what actually does happen.
the modulation of weak and strong (or stressed and unstressed) elements in the flow of speech. In most poetry written before the twentieth century, rhythm was often expressed in regular, metrical forms; in prose and in free verse, rhythm is present but in a much less predictable and regular manner.
limited point of view or limited focus
a perspective pinned to a single character, whether a first-person-or a third-person-centered consciousness, so that we cannot know for sure what is going on in the minds of other characters; thus, when the focal character leaves the room in a story we must go, too, and cannot know what is going on while our "eyes" or "camera" is gone. A variation on this, which generally has no name and is often lumped with the omniscient point of view, is the point of view that can wander like a camera from one character to another and close in or move back but cannot (or at least does not) get inside anyone's head and does not present from the inside any character's thoughts.
an elaborate verse structure written in blank verse that consists of six stanzas of six lines each followed by a three-line stanza. The final words of each line in the first stanza appear in variable order in the next five stanzas, and are repeated in the middle and at the end of the three lines in the final stanza, as in Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina."
a verbal reference that recalls a word, phrase, or sound in another text.
(1) a fictional personage who acts, appears, or is referred to in a work; (2) a combination of a person's qualities, especially moral qualities, so that such terms as "good" and "bad," "strong" and "weak," often apply. See nature and personality.
second-person narrator
a character, "you," who tells the story and necessarily has a limited point of view; may be seen as an extension of the reader, an external figure acting out a story, or an auditor; may also be an unreliable narrator.
as in metaphor, one thing (usually nonrational, abstract, religious) is implicitly spoken of in terms of something concrete, but in an allegory the comparison is extended to include an entire work or large portion of a work.
a poem that celebrates, in a continuous narrative, the achievements of mighty heroes and heroines, usually in founding a nation or developing a culture, and uses elevated language and a grand, high style.
Scansion is the process of scanning a poem, analyzing the verse to show its meter, line by line.
a work that imitates another work for comic effect by exaggerating the style and changing the content of the original.
colloquial diction
a level of language in a work that approximates the speech of ordinary people. The language used by characters in Toni Cade Bambara's "Gorilla, My Love" is a good example.
the attitude a literary work takes toward its subject and theme.
a metrical form in which the basic foot is a trochee.
iambic pentameter
a metrical form in which the basic foot is an iamb and most lines consist of five iambs; iambic pentameter is the most common poetic meter in English: "One com | mon note | on ei | ther lyre | did strike" (Dryden, "To the Memory of Mr. Oldham")
blank verse
the verse form most like everyday human speech; blank verse consists of unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. Many of Shakespeare's plays are in blank verse.
an imagined event or series of events; an event may be verbal as well as physical, so that saying something or telling a story within the story may be an event.
flat character
a fictional character, often but not always a minor character, who is relatively simple; who is presented as having few, though sometimes dominant, traits; and who thus does not change much in the course of a story.
initiation story
a kind of short story in which a character—often but not always a child or young person—first learns a significant, usually life-changing truth about the universe, society, people, himself or herself.
as it refers to a person—"it is his (or her) nature"—a rather old term suggesting something inborn, inherent, fixed, and thus predictable. See character, personality.
reflective (meditative) structure
a textual organization based on the pondering of a subject, theme, or event, and letting the mind play with it, skipping from one sound to another or to related thoughts or objects as the mind receives them.
implied author
the guiding personality or value system behind a text; the implied author is not necessarily synonymous with the actual author.
unlimited point of view
also called omniscient point of view; a perspective that can be seen from one character's view, then another's, then another's, or can be moved in or out of any character's mind at any time. Organization in which the reader has access to the perceptions and thoughts of all the characters in the story.
the second step in the creation of a character for the written text and the performed play; the representation of the character by the playwright in the words and actions specified in the text.
the organization or arrangement of the various elements in a work.
a person, place, thing, event, or pattern in a literary work that designates itself and at the same time figuratively represents or "stands for" something else. Often the thing or idea represented is more abstract, general, non-or superrational; the symbol, more concrete and particular.
falling action
the fourth part of plot structure, in which the complications of the rising action are untangled.
narrative structure
a textual organization based on sequences of connected events usually presented in a straightforward chronological framework.
psychological realism
a modification of the concept of realism, or telling it like it is, which recognizes that what is real to the individual is that which he or she perceives. It is the ground for the use of the centered consciousness, or the first-person narrator, since both of these present reality only as something perceived by the focal character.
ballad stanza
a common stanza form, consisting of a quatrain that alternates four-beat and three-beat lines; lines 1 and 3 are unrhymed iambic tetrameter (four beats), and lines 2 and 4 are rhymed iambic trimeter (three beats).
in classical Greek theater, a semicircular area used mostly for dancing by the chorus.
low (physical) comedy
humor that employs burlesque, horseplay, or the representation of unrefined life.
confessional poem
a relatively recent (or recently defined) kind in which the speaker describes a state of mind, which becomes a metaphor for the larger world.
the time and place of the action in a story, poem, or play.
a reference—whether explicit or implicit, to history, the Bible, myth, literature, painting, music, and so on—that suggests the meaning or generalized implication of details in the story, poem, or play.
the fictional or artistic presentation of a fictional personage. A term like "a good character" can, then, be ambiguous—it may mean that the personage is virtuous or that he or she is well presented regardless of his or her characteristics or moral qualities.
a word capturing or approximating the sound of what it describes; buzz is a good example.
originally any poem carved in stone (on tombstones, buildings, gates, and so forth), but in modern usage a very short, usually witty verse with a quick turn at the end.
the expectation of and doubt about what is going to happen next.
the character who "tells" the story.
plot summary
a description of the arrangement of the action in the order in which it actually appears in a story. The term is popularly used to mean the description of the history, or chronological order, of the action as it would have appeared in reality. It is important to indicate exactly in which sense you are using the term.
also called the turning point, the third part of plot structure, the point at which the action stops rising and begins falling or reversing.
syllabic verse
a form in which the poet establishes a precise number of syllables to a line and repeats it in subsequent stanzas.
the repetition of initial consonant sounds through a sequence of words— for example, "While I nodded, nearly napping" in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."
Petrarchan sonnet
also called Italian sonnet; a sonnet form that divides the poem into one section of eight lines (octave) and a second section of six lines (sestet), usually following the abbaabba cdecde rhyme scheme or, more loosely, an abbacddc pattern.
the acknowledged or unacknowledged source of a story's words; the speaker; the "person" telling the story.
the largest category for classifying lit-erature—fiction, poetry, drama.
discriminated occasion
the first specific event in a story, usually in the form of a specific scene.
in classical Greek plays, a group of actors who commented on and described the action of a play. Members of the chorus were often masked and relied on song, dance, and recitation to make their commentary.
formal diction
language that is lofty, dignified, and impersonal. See colloquial diction and informal diction.
a comparison based on certain resemblances between things that are otherwise unlike.
dramatic irony
a plot device in which a character holds a position or has an expectation that is reversed or fulfilled in a way that the character did not expect but that we, as readers or as audience members, have anticipated because our knowledge of events or individuals is more complete than the char-acter's.
rhyme scheme
the pattern of end rhymes in a poem, often noted by small letters, e.g., abab or abba, etc.

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