Literary terms

‘Allegory: a story which has several – at least two – levels of meaning with things or human characters representing ideas. Allegories are often intended to teach a moral lesson.


Allite’ration: the repetition of a consonant sound in a sequence of words which are close together, either at the beginning of the words or in a stressed syllable.


Ambi’guity: the use of a word or phrase with more than one possible meaning; the corresponding adjective is am’biguous.


An’tagonist: the adversary of the protagonist in a play or a novel/short story.


‘Assonance: the repetition of identical or similar vowel sounds in a sequence of words which are close together, especially in stressed syllables.


‘Ballad: a form of poem which tells a story. In its original form it was intended to be sung and it was an important part of early English literature. Typically a ballad would deal with dramatic or romantic topics. The most common stanza form is a quatrain, four lines in which the second and fourth lines rhyme. There will usually be a refrain. There are various types of ballads, e.g. the folk ballad or traditional ballad, the broadside ballad and the lyrical ballad.


Blank verse: lines of iambic pentameter which are unrhymed. It is very close to the natural rhythm of English speech. Shakespeare’s dialogues and monologues are good examples.


Broadsheet: the traditional and largest format for newspapers.


‘Carpe ‘diem: is Latin for ‘seize the day’, make the most of your youth as life is brief and death inevitable.


‘Character: a person in a story or a play. A distinction is usually made between flat characters, who are types who do not change during the story or play, and round characters, who portray several personality traits. They are more complex and the readers follow their development through the text. Sometimes the terms static and dynamic characters respectively are used to convey a similar idea.


‘Climax: the major turning point or highest point of tension in a story or play.


‘Comedy: often used about plays, but can also be used about poetry and prose to describe a work designed to amuse and entertain its audience and in which the action usually turns out happily for the main characters.


‘Comedy of manners: can refer to a drama, but some novels, e.g. Jane Austen’s, are also called comedies of manners as they describe people’s behaviour and attitudes, which usually reflect the social hierarchies of the novel, with a humorous or ironic twist.


Con’ceit: see sonnet.


Conno’tation: what a word suggests beyond its basic definition or denotation. The word home, for instance, by denotation means only a place where one lives, but by connotation it suggests security, comfort and family.


‘Couplet: a pair of lines in a poem or drama.


Deno’tation: the basic meaning/s of a word that you will find in a dictionary. See connotation.


Dys’topia: the opposite of utopia; an imaginary state or place in which everything is extremely bad, unpleasant or imperfect.


En’jamb(e)ment (run-on lines): is the opposite of an end-stopped line. In a run-on line the sense of one line continues into the next where the punctuation mark may then appear. This is a common feature in much of Shakespeare’s writing as well as in much modern poetry.


‘Epilogue: the end of a play, book or film that comments on or acts as a conclusion to what has happened.


E’piphany: the moment in a story when the main character achieves a sudden insight.


‘Essay: a short piece of prose on a specific topic that sets out to discuss a point, express an opinion or to persuade the reader to accept a thesis.


‘Ethos: a rhetorical term used to describe the appeal form/mode of persuasion when the speaker appeals to the audience’s trust by establishing his own authority or expertise concerning his subject.


‘Euphemism [‘ju:fәmizm]: the rephrasing of an unpleasant or impolite term in a nice or polite way, like ‘pass away’ instead of ‘die’.


Expo’sition: the introduction of background information in a literary work to secure the audience’s understanding of the text.


Fable: a fictional story in which the characters are animals, plants, mythical creatures or forces of nature which are given human traits. They often teach a moral lesson, which is sometimes stated explicitly at the end of the story.


Fairy tale: usually a children’s story in which magical things happen. Often starts with the words “Once upon a time” and has a happy ending. The characters face a number of trials.


‘Fantasy: a genre that blends aspects from the real world with something that is unreal. Primary elements of the plots are magic and other supernatural elements.


‘Feature article: gives readers an in-depth analysis of a certain topic. Such articles are also intended to entertain and therefore writers use a style which has elements from fiction, e.g. figurative and poetical language.


‘Figurative language: language which uses figures of speech such as metaphors, similes and symbols.

‘Figure of speech/trope: a word or phrase that is used in a way that is different from its usual meaning in order to create a particular mental image or effect. Metaphors and similes are figures of speech/tropes.


Flashback: a literary device used to supply information about events which occurred earlier than the main story.


Flash-forward: a literary device used to supply information about events which occur later than the main story.


Foot: a number of stressed and unstressed syllables forming a unit within the metre of a poem.


Foreshadowing: the use of an element early in a text that gives a hint about or anticipates a later part of the text.


Free verse: verse that does not rhyme and uses no particular rhythm.


Genre: a particular type or style of literature. The most common fictional genres are the novel, the short story, poetry and drama. Some common non-fictional genres are the essay, the article, the speech and the biography.


Gothic novel: a novel which emphasizes the grotesque, mysterious and desolate. It often has a medieval setting with castles and secret chambers, there may be supernatural elements, and there is an atmosphere of terror and gloom. More modern versions have contemporary settings but maintain the uncanny events and the brooding atmosphere.


Half-rhyme (or slant rhyme): something that is nearly a rhyme, i.e. it is formed by similar, but not quite the same sounds, e.g. run/ moon; bald/hold; shallow/ hollow; yours/ years.


Hy´perbole [hai’pз:bәώli]: a deliberate, extravagant exaggeration of the truth. Not to be taken literally cf. Andrew Marvell “To His Coy Mistress”.


´Iamb [´aiæmb]: a metrical foot composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, for example ‘e’nough’.


I´ambic metre: a metre in which the majority of feet are iambs, the most common English metre.


I´ambic pen´tameter: line of poetry consisting of five iambic feet. Iambic pentameter can be found in sonnets and Shakespearean drama.


I´ambic te´trameter: a line of verse consisting of four iambic feet, an example can be seen in Andrew Marvell “To His Coy Mistress”.


´Imagery: descriptive language that produces mental pictures and sensory experiences in the minds of people reading or listening. The images may appeal to sight (visual imagery), sound, feeling, smell, taste and movement. 


In medias res: Latin for 'in the middle of things'. Used when a narrative starts in the middle of the action rather than from the very beginning.


Intertextu’ality: references in a text to other texts or elements in other texts both in the form of direct quotations or as indirect hints. You may even see characters or events from one text appearing in another.


‘Irony: saying the opposite of what is meant, giving a statement where the speaker’s intended meaning is different from what he explicitly says. A special kind of irony is dramatic irony where the audience knows something which the characters do not know.


‘Logos: a rhetorical term used about the appeal form/mode of persuasion when the speaker appeals to logic and focuses on facts and figures in his text in order to persuade the audience.


Mash-up text: a text which mixes an existing text, often a well-known novel or play, with vampire or zombie narratives.


´Metaphor: is the use of a word or phrase which literally denotes one kind of object or idea, but is applied to another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them, for example she has a heart of stone; the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees (Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice). Compare simile.


‘Metre: the rhythmical pattern of a poem or speech in a play. The syllables of words are stressed or unstressed so that the pronunciation creates a certain sound pattern. In English, the two most common patterns are:

  • Iamb [‘aiæmb]: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable “Shall ‘I com’pare thee ‘to a ‘summer’s ‘day”. (William Shakespeare)
  • Trochee [‘trәώki:]: a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable “'Tyger, 'Tyger”  (William Blake)



Na’rrator: the person who tells the story. In fiction a narrator is a fictitious character. Also see point of view.


‘Novel: a fictional prose text or narrative of some length which usually describes the development of one or several characters in a certain setting. The action of the novel is usually termed plot. In English literature the genre first appeared in the first half of the 18th century. Sometimes a distinction is made between the ‘novel of incident’, which focuses on the protagonist’s doings and the consequences of this, as opposed to the ‘novel of character’, in which the focus is on the protagonist’s personal development.


‘Octave: see sonnet.


‘Parable: a short story designed to teach a moral lesson by drawing a parallel between the story and actual events. A parable is often an allegory in which each character represents an abstract concept such as innocence or honesty. 


‘Parody: an artistic work which imitates another work on the same theme or of the same genre to ridicule or criticize it.


Pastoral poetry: poetry describing rural life, conventionally often including shepherds. Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is an example of this.


‘Pathos: a rhetorical term used about the appeal form/mode of persuasion used by the speaker to appeal to the audience’s emotions in order to create support for his view.


Personification: a kind of figurative language where an inanimate object or a concept is spoken of as if it had human life, thoughts or feelings.


Poem: an imaginative literary genre often used to describe feelings or thoughts. The genre often applies figures of speech and imagery as well as a certain metrical pattern and rhyme scheme.


Point of view: indicates how a story is told. It is the perspective from which the author has chosen to present the characters, setting and events. In a first person narrative the personal pronouns I or we are used and the point of view is limited to what the first-person narrator knows, experiences or finds out. Therefore the question will often be if the narrator is reliable or unreliable. In a third person narrative the pronouns he, she, it or they are used, and there is a distinction between the omniscient point of view, where the narrator knows everything necessary about the characters and events, and the limited point of view, where the narrator is confined to what is experienced and known by a single character.


Postco’lonial literature: literature from or about Britain’s former colonies.


Prologue: the opening speech of a play, or the beginning of a book or film that is an introduction to what is to follow. 


Pro’tagonist: the main character of a play or piece of prose fiction.


Quatrain: see sonnet.

Rhetorical question: a question to which no answer is expected, posed by a speaker to involve the audience.

Rhyme: the fact that two or more words sound similar. The phenomenon is particularly common in poetry and some drama, particularly the end rhyme when a word at the end of a verse line rhymes with a word at the end of another verse line. A distinction is made between full/true/perfect rhyme, where the sounds are identical, and half/partial/near/slant/imperfect rhyme, where most of the sounds are the same. A special kind of rhyme is the eye rhyme, where words look the same but are not necessarily pronounced the same way (anymore) like ‘daughter’ and ‘laughter’. Two rhyming stressed syllables are termed masculine rhyme ‘hill’/ ‘bill’, and rhyming words containing a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable are termed feminine rhyme, e.g. ocean/ motion’. When a poem is scanned, each new end rhyme is usually given a letter, so that a stanza containing four lines could have the rhyme scheme abab or abba. Assonance, alliteration and rhyming couplets are aspects of rhyme. Also see sonnet.

Rhyming couplet: two successive lines, usually in the same metre, linked by rhyme. A closed rhyming couplet is one that is grammatically and logically complete. A rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter is called a ‘heroic couplet’.


Rhythm: see metre.


Sestet: see sonnet.


Setting: the time and place in which the events of the story, drama or film take place, the social background of the characters.


´Simile: a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared using 'like' or 'as', for example “My love is like a red, red rose.” (Robert Burns).


Science fiction: stories, often set in the future, which show what effect new discoveries and scientific developments will have on us in the future.


Short story: a short piece of fictional prose which can usually be read in a couple of hours. It mostly expands one central idea or episode, a “certain unique or single effect” (a term used by E.A Poe (1809-49)). The setting is established quickly, introducing place, time and character. It has few characters and the time span is relatively short. The main character usually faces a problem or conflict that needs to be solved. Some stories focus on the development of character, others on action or plot.


Soliloquy: a speech by a character in a play given while the character is either alone or the other characters are unaware of the speech. It is used to give the audience information, often about the character’s thoughts and feelings.


Sonnet: a sonnet is a poem of 14 lines, each consisting of five stressed and five unstressed syllables (iambic pentameter). Broadly speaking, there are two main types of sonnet, the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet and the English or Shakespearean sonnet. The Italian sonnet was introduced by the poet Petrarch (1304-74). This is usually composed of an octave or two quatrains, eight lines which form a specific rhyme scheme and  two tercets or triplets or a sestet which are also linked by rhyme: abba abba cdc cdc or  cdecde. The Shakespearean  sonnet usually consists of three quatrains and one rhyming couplet at the end: abab cdcd efef gg. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the conceit, an extended metaphor consisting of a parallel often between two apparently dissimilar things or situations, may appear early in the sonnet or in the rhyming couplet. Many sonnets contain a turn, a change in conditions, attitude or mood often indicated by a conjunction like ‘but’ or ‘if’. In particular, the poets of the First World War used the sonnet to a great extent, and because of its apparently simple, yet very complex structure, many British poets are still attracted to the form.


Stream of consciousness: a narrative technique where there is a continuous flow of thoughts and feelings as they are experienced by a character. This often continues throughout a short story or novel (e.g. Virginia Woolf’s, James Joyce’s, Katherine Mansfield’s works). Sometimes it may appear unstructured and incoherent as conventional sentence structure and punctuation is abandoned. In Jane Austen’s writing the thoughts of the main characters are sometimes rendered in a stream of consciousness-like way, also in quite short passages, e.g. in Pride and Prejudice.


Style: the way in which a text is written, the linguistic devices applied by the writer to achieve a certain effect. A distinction is usually made between high or formal style and low or informal style. Quite often written language is more formal than spoken language, but even in written language there are different degrees of formality and linguistic complexity.

Paratactic style is when a text contains a high degree of comparatively short and simple main clauses, whereas hypotactic style is used to describe more complex language combining a number of main and subordinate clauses by means of hypotactic conjunctions such as ‘when’, 'as’ or ‘because’. Ernest Hemingway is well known for his use of paratactic style, e.g. in “Indian Camp”. Raymond Carver in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” also applies a paratactic style. Also to be considered in connection with style are elements such as figurative language, word order, punctuation, grammar and the use of alliteration.


‘Symbol: something (object, person, situation, or action) that means more than what it actually is.


‘Tabloid: a newspaper in small format, usually illustrated and containing sensational and popular news stories in a condensed form.


‘Tercet: see sonnet.


Te’trameter: four feet in a verse line.


Theme: the main idea or concept in a piece of literature, the idea around which the plot evolves.


Tone: the writer’s or speaker’s attitude towards his subject, audience or himself. Almost all the elements of a text combine to indicate its tone: connotation, imagery, metaphor, irony, sentence structure and formal pattern.


Tragedy: a tragedy deals with serious and important events which turn out disastrously for the protagonist. The protagonist or tragic hero is a person whom the audience can admire even if he has a tragic flaw, an error in his character or mental make-up which usually leads to his fall. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth is said to be flawed by his ambition, which leads to his death at the end of the play.

A tragedy usually follows a three part structure: 1) The opening or exposition, 2) the middle of the play where a complication may arise, and 3) the end of the play, the resolution or denouement where some sort of order is established. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the two families in conflict are reunited after Romeo and Juliet have died. Until the 20th century many tragic plays followed this structure, but modern drama is often less predictable.


‘Trimeter: three feet in a verse line.


Utopia: ‘nowhere’ from Greek, a term generally used in literature to describe an ideal state, a perfect place or country.