22 Supplemental Reading #2: Literary Terms

To discuss and analyze literature it is important to know some of the basic terms and expressions used within the subject area. The following glossary covers the most widely used terms.

Literary Terms
Term Definition
allegory Simply put, an allegory is a narrative that has a symbolic meaning. That is, the whole story, its plot, characters and often setting, are all elements that signify a second correlated narrative.
alliteration Alliteration is when a text (most often poetry,but also prose) has three or more succeeding words that start with the same sound. It is usually applied to consonants, either at the beginning of the word or on a stressed syllable within the word.
allusion In a literary work there will often be a brief reference to a person, place, event or to another literary work. This is called an allusion, and was very common in classic and romantic poetry which had many references to ancient mythology.
ambiguity Ambiguity means double meaning. It is a common literary technique in both poetry and prose to use words and expressions with multiple meanings.
atmosphere The word covers the mood or ambiance that the writer creates in his narrative. The intention is to give the reader a feeling(often dark and foreboding) of what is going to happen.
biography A biography is, simply put, the story of a person’s life. It is a popular genre; people love to read about the lives of famous persons. An autobiography is a biography written by the person himself.
blank verse Blank verse is when a poem (of a certain metric pattern) has no end rhymes. Many of Shakespeare’s texts, both his plays and poems are in blank verse. It will then have a certain melodic rhythm that comes alive when it is recited.
character and characterization Character refers to the person(s) in a narrative or a play. They can be described directly (through the narrator) or indirectly(through the eyes of other characters. We also use the terms flat or round characters to indicate their complexity.
cliché A verbal cliché is a fixed and often used expression. A structural cliché is a common and predictable element of a narrative. It can be either a character or a turn of the plot. In film and literature clichés are negative elements, since they indicate lack of creativity, both in terms of language and plot arrangements.
comedy A comedy is a play or a film that puts the audience in a good and safe mood. Certain techniques are used to create a good comedy, e.g. mistaken identity and misunderstandings. The audience will be amused and confident that things will turn out happily for the characters (at least the ones who deserve it).
connotation Connotation is the same as denotation, and means that a word (mostly in poetry) has a different meaning than it has in everyday use. E.g. “cold” will in colloquial settings mean low temperature, but as a connotation it may also mean e.g. heartless or unfeeling.
contrast When certain opposites are juxtaposed, or put up against each other, e.g. two scenes in a film, this will highlight the contrast between them. The effect is that the two elements will mutually amplify each other.
epic This is one of the main literary genes (epic,lyric, dramatic) and will denote a narrative which is told like a story or a plot. There are many sub-genres of epic literature.
epigram Originally this means some sort of inscription. It is a short, pointed poem that is often witty and well composed with a striking punch line.
epiphany Epiphany in Greek means “manifestation of God.”In literature it means a sudden and often spiritual awakening, like when a character suddenly sees with clarity the way out of a predicament or a dilemma.
essay An essay is a composition about a topic, often arguing a certain thesis or stating a point of view.
fiction Fiction, or a fictive narrative is invented, as opposed to a factual presentation of events that are historically true.
foreshadow To foreshadow is to place hints or bits of information that will lead the reader to an anticipation of the outcome of the narrative. The opening parts of a novel or a short-story will often hold elements of foreshadowing.
genre Genre is French and means type or form; it is used to categorize literature in groups according to certain criteria.
gothic In architecture, Gothic means the pointed style that broke with the traditional Roman rounded form of arches and ceilings in cathedrals. In literature the word is used about the type of novels of the late18th century, containing eerie ingredients like ghosts in derelict castles with dark hallways and hidden doors. Other elements would include violent action,occultism and sorcery.
humanism This is an alternative denotation of the Renaissance (1550-1650), and it signifies the human as a master of his universe; man is able to seek within himself for answers, but must also appreciate his own shortcomings and inner contradictions.
hyperbole and understatement Hyperbole comes from Greek and means to exaggerate, as opposed to an understatement, which is a blunt way of making a statement by giving it less significance than it really has; e.g. to say “bad luck” when a disaster has struck.
imagery Imagery is a common term in modern literary theory; it describes poetry that is rich with suggestive images and associations.
irony In colloquial speech irony means to say the opposite of what one really means (verbal irony). In literature one also has this verbal irony, but also what is called structural irony, where the writer gives his plot a turn that can be read with a double meaning. In a short-story there may be an ironic twist at the ending to sum up the theme.
melodrama Originally a melodrama was a drama with song. In literature the term will denote a plot which is a bit over the top when it comes to effects. The plot will often be sentimental and not strictly credible,and the characters are more exaggerated “types” than believable persons.
metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech where two or more elements of a different nature are compared with each other, but without”like” or “as”. If the comparison includes “like” or “as” it is called a simile.
meter Meter is a collective term for the rhythmic pattern of a poem. There are a number of metric systems. A text written in meter is called a verse.
motif Note the spelling. A motif is a recurring element in a literary text. It may be an incident or a phrase that occurs indifferent situations and settings through the text.
myth and legend Originally a myth is a story derived from mythology, e.g. the ancient religions of Greece and Rome, or Norse mythology. At the time the myth was believed to be true. The story of gods and supernatural beings is a myth, but if the protagonist is a man it is called a legend. Today a myth will usually mean something which is a popular claim, but it is not true.
narrator and narrative The narrator is the one that relates the story,and whose information unfolds the plot. The narrative is the story itself.
novel A novel can be defined as a substantial narrative with many characters and a plot that stretches over a long time span(not always) and may have many settings. There are many sub-categories.
omniscient To be omniscient means “to know it all,” and is used about a narrator who is everywhere in the story and can reveal the thoughts of all the characters.
paradox A paradox is a phrase or statement which seems self-contradictory, but turns out to have a valid meaning after all. “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) is an example of a literary paradox.
pathos Pathos is Greek and means deep feeling or passion. Today we associate pathos with a slightly overexposed sentimentality designed to evoke pity or compassion of the reader or a theatre audience.
plot The plot is the structure and order of actions in a narrative text or a play.
point of view The point of view is also called “angle” and signifies the way a narrative is told, and from where. The point of view will be the eyes through which we see the narrative.
protagonist The protagonist is the main character of a narrative. There will also be sub-characters that the protagonist relates to.
satire A satire is a narrative which will expose a questionable practice or element in a subtle and “concealed” way. A satire can be funny, but has a serious intent.
setting The setting of a narrative or a play will define where and when the plot takes place. The setting will always be strongly related to the plot, and will include description of weather and light / dark.
short story A short story is exactly that – a short story. It has a condensed plot that evolves over a short time span, and has few characters.
soliloquy This term is used in dramatic literature and means that the actor is speaking to himself, or “aside” as it also is called. It is widely used in many of Shakespeare’s plays.
stream of consciousness “Stream of consciousness” was a term which was introduced during modernism, and means that the narrative is based on what goes on in the mind of a protagonist. It is also called interior monologue.
style The style is the way the writer arranges his narrative and his choice of words. The style will be closely connected to the mood and atmosphere.
symbol A symbol is an object, expression or event thatre presents an idea beyond itself. The weather and light/darkness will often have a symbolic meaning.
tragedy In a tragedy an innocent protagonist will be involved in escalating circumstances with a fatal result. The tragic development is either caused by a flaw in the character’s personality or by events that evolve beyond his control.
theme The theme of a narrative or a play is the general idea or underlying message that the writer wants to expose.


The theme is the main idea, lesson or message in the novel. It usually states an idea about humans, society or life.

You will often be asked to analyze how the theme is expressed. Study the novel to check if any elements are repeated that may suggest a theme. Is there more than one theme? In the Harry Potter stories there may be many themes. One of the most important must be the value of being modest. Harry does not boast, he is humble, loyal and good. That is why he succeeds in the end. This is the lesson that Rowling wants to pass on to us. We are clearly shown what happens to the characters that are selfish and mean.

  • The theme is the main idea in the story.
  • The message is the lesson the author wants to teach us.

Theme can also be expressed as

  • the underlying meaning of a literary work, a general truth about life or mankind.

A theme is the general subject the story revolves around. It often represents universal and timeless ideas that are relevant in most people’s lives.

Even though a novel may have an action-packed story, the underlying theme may be to stick to your friends and be loyal – as in Harry Potter.


If stories were without conflicts or tension, we would be easily bored. The conflict is usually the heart of the story and revolves around the main character. What does Harry struggle with? The main conflict is Harry’s attempt to stop Voldemort, the murderer of his parents, from stealing the Philosopher’s Stone. So, it is a classical fight between good and evil forces. We also note that the world of the wizards clashes with the world of the Muggles, where the Muggles are represented by the stupid Dursleys. These are outer conflicts threatening Harry. However, there are also conflicts going on inside Harry; like, should he:

  • Avenge the murder of his parents?
  • Live by the wizard rules and obligations?
  • Punish the Dursleys for treating him so badly?
  • Boast of his skills and abilities?
  • Be loyal to his friends?

Conflicts are important to stories to make them interesting.

There may be outer and inner conflicts.

Conflict: a struggle between opposing forces.

A conflict is a misunderstanding or clash of interests that develops in the story. This often occurs between main characters. It drives the story forward and creates suspense.

If a story had no conflict, it would be very boring. A conflict is basically a situation which has to change.


In a story where someone finds a lump of gold, the conflicts will probably revolve around who gets to keep this gold. The conflict here would involve greed.

If a plane crashes in the mountains, the conflict will deal with survival.

But conflicts may also be on a personal level – like in novels where a person struggles with emotional issues or moral dilemmas.


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