A Glossary of Literary Terms
Adapted from http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary
Act A major division in the action of a play. The ends of acts are typically indicated by lowering the curtain or turning up the houselights. Playwrights frequently employ acts to accommodate changes in time, setting, characters onstage, or mood. In many full-length plays, acts are further divided into scenes, which often mark a point in the action when the location changes or when a new character enters.

Allegory A narration or description usually restricted to a single meaning because its events, actions, characters, settings, and objects represent specific abstractions or ideas. Although the elements in an allegory may be interesting in themselves, the emphasis tends to be on what they ultimately mean. Characters may be given names such as Hope, Pride, Youth, and Charity; they have few if any personal qualities beyond their abstract meanings. These personifications are not symbols because, for instance, the meaning of a character named Charity is precisely that virtue.

Alliteration The repetition of the same consonant sounds in a sequence of words, usually at the beginning of a word or stressed syllable: "descending dew drops"; "luscious lemons." Alliteration is based on the sounds of letters, rather than the spelling of words; for example, "keen" and "car" alliterate, but "car" and "cite" do not. Used sparingly, alliteration can intensify ideas by emphasizing key words, but when used too self-consciously, it can be distracting, even ridiculous, rather than effective.

Allusion A brief reference to a person, place, thing, event, or idea in history or literature. Allusions conjure up biblical authority, scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, historic figures, wars, great love stories, and anything else that might enrich an author’s work. Allusions imply reading and cultural experiences shared by the writer and reader, functioning as a kind of shorthand whereby the recalling of something outside the work supplies an emotional or intellectual context, such as a poem about current racial struggles calling up the memory of Abraham Lincoln.

Ambiguity Allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations of a word, phrase, action, or situation, all of which can be supported by the context of a work. Deliberate ambiguity can contribute to the effectiveness and richness of a work, for example, in the open-ended conclusion to Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown." However, unintentional ambiguity obscures meaning and can confuse readers.

Anagram A word or phrase made from the letters of another word or phrase, as "heart" is an anagram of "earth." Anagrams have often been considered merely an exercise of one’s ingenuity, but sometimes writers use anagrams to conceal proper names or veiled messages, or to suggest important connections between words, as in "hated" and "death."

Antagonist The character, force, or collection of forces in fiction or drama that opposes the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story; an opponent of the protagonist, such as Claudius in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

Antihero A protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. He or she may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely pathetic. Often what antiheroes learn, if they learn anything at all, is that the world isolates them in an existence devoid of God and absolute values. Yossarian from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is an example of an antihero.

Apostrophe An address, either to someone who is absent and therefore cannot hear the speaker or to something nonhuman that cannot comprehend. Apostrophe often provides a speaker the opportunity to think aloud.
Archetype A term used to describe universal symbols that evoke deep and sometimes unconscious responses in a reader. In literature, characters, images, and themes that symbolically embody universal meanings and basic human experiences, regardless of when or where they live, are considered archetypes. Common literary archetypes include stories of quests, initiations, scapegoats, descents to the underworld, and ascents to heaven.

Aside In drama, a speech directed to the audience that supposedly is not audible to the other characters onstage at the time. When Hamlet first appears onstage, for example, his aside "A little more than kin, and less than kind!" gives the audience a strong sense of his alienation from King Claudius.

Assonance The repetition of internal vowel sounds in nearby words that do not end the same, for example, "asleep under a tree," or "each evening." Similar endings result in rhyme, as in "asleep in the deep." Assonance is a strong means of emphasizing important words in a line.

Ballad Traditionally, a ballad is a song, transmitted orally from generation to generation, that tells a story and that eventually is written down. As such, ballads usually cannot be traced to a particular author or group of authors. Typically, ballads are dramatic, condensed, and impersonal narratives, such as "Bonny Barbara Allan." A literary ballad is a narrative poem that is written in deliberate imitation of the language, form, and spirit of the traditional ballad, such as Keats’s "La Belle Dame sans Merci."

Blank verse Unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse is the English verse form closest to the natural rhythms of English speech and therefore is the most common pattern found in traditional English narrative and dramatic poetry from Shakespeare to the early twentieth century. Shakespeare’s plays use blank verse extensively.

Cacophony Language that is discordant and difficult to pronounce, such as this line from John Updike’s "Player Piano": "never my numb plunker fumbles." Cacophony ("bad sound") may be unintentional in the writer’s sense of music, or it may be used consciously for deliberate dramatic effect.

Caesura A pause within a line of poetry that contributes to the rhythm of the line. A caesura can occur anywhere within a line and need not be indicated by punctuation. In scanning a line, caesuras are indicated by a double vertical line (||).

Carpe diem The Latin phrase meaning "seize the day." This is a very common literary theme, especially in lyric poetry, which emphasizes that life is short, time is fleeting, and that one should make the most of present pleasures. Robert Herrick’s poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" employs the carpe diem theme.

Catharsis Meaning "purgation," catharsis describes the release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy. In his Poetics, Aristotle discusses the importance of catharsis. The audience faces the misfortunes of the protagonist, which elicit pity and compassion. Simultaneously, the audience also confronts the failure of the protagonist, thus receiving a frightening reminder of human limitations and frailties. Ultimately, however, both these negative emotions are purged, because the tragic protagonist’s suffering is an affirmation of human values rather than a despairing denial of them.

Character, characterization A character is a person presented in a dramatic or narrative work, and characterization is the process by which a writer makes that character seem real to the reader. A hero or heroine, often called the protagonist, is the central character who engages the reader’s interest and empathy. The antagonist is the character, force, or collection of forces that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story. A static character does not change throughout the work, and the reader’s knowledge of that character does not grow, whereas a dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. They are not psychologically complex characters and therefore are readily accessible to readers. Some flat characters are recognized as stock characters; they embody stereotypes such as the "dumb blonde" or the "mean stepfather." They become types rather than individuals. Round characters are more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They are more fully developed, and therefore are harder to summarize. Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Showing allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is. In telling, the author intervenes to describe and sometimes evaluate the character for the reader. Characters can be convincing whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated. Motivated action by the characters occurs when the reader or audience is offered reasons for how the characters behave, what they say, and the decisions they make. Plausible action is action by a character in a story that seems reasonable, given the motivations presented.

Chorus In Greek tragedies (especially those of Aeschylus and Sophocles), a group of people who serve mainly as commentators on the characters and events. They add to the audience’s understanding of the play by expressing traditional moral, religious, and social attitudes. The role of the chorus in dramatic works evolved through the sixteenth century, and the chorus occasionally is still used by modern playwrights such as T. S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

Cliche An idea or expression that has become tired and trite from overuse, its freshness and clarity having worn off. Cliches often anesthetize readers, and are usually a sign of weak writing.

Colloquial Refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions.

Comedy A work intended to interest, involve, and amuse the reader or audience, in which no terrible disaster occurs and that ends happily for the main characters. High comedy refers to verbal wit, such as puns, whereas low comedy is generally associated with physical action and is less intellectual. Romantic comedy involves a love affair that meets with various obstacles (like disapproving parents, mistaken identities, deceptions, or other sorts of misunderstandings) but overcomes them to end in a blissful union. Shakespeare’s comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are considered romantic comedies.

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. When Hamlet jokes with the gravediggers we laugh, but something hauntingly serious about the humor also intensifies our more serious emotions.

Conflict The struggle within the plot between opposing forces. The protagonist engages in the conflict with the antagonist, which may take the form of a character, society, nature, or an aspect of the protagonist’s personality.

Connotation Associations and implications that go beyond the literal meaning of a word, which derive from how the word has been commonly used and the associations people make with it. For example, the word eagle connotes ideas of liberty and freedom that have little to do with the word’s literal meaning.

Consonance A common type of near rhyme that consists of identical consonant sounds preceded by different vowel sounds: home, same; worth, breath.

Convention A characteristic of a literary genre (often unrealistic) that is understood and accepted by audiences because it has come, through usage and time, to be recognized as a familiar technique. For example, the division of a play into acts and scenes is a dramatic convention, as are soliloquies and asides. Flashbacks and foreshadowing are examples of literary conventions.

Couplet Two consecutive lines of poetry that usually rhyme and have the same meter. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter.

A turning point in the action of a story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist. Opposing forces come together decisively to lead to the climax of the plot.

Denotation The dictionary meaning of a word.

Deuouement A French term meaning "unraveling" or "unknotting," used to describe the resolution of the plot following the climax.

Dialect A type of informational diction. Dialects are spoken by definable groups of people from a particular geographic region, economic group, or social class. Writers use dialect to contrast and express differences in educational, class, social, and regional backgrounds of their characters.

Dialogue The verbal exchanges between characters. Dialogue makes the characters seem real to the reader or audience by revealing firsthand their thoughts, responses, and emotional states.

Diction A writer’s choice of words, phrases, sentence structures, and figurative language, which combine to help create meaning. Formal diction consists of a dignified, impersonal, and elevated use of language; it follows the rules of syntax exactly and is often characterized by complex words and lofty tone. Middle diction maintains correct language usage, but is less elevated than formal diction; it reflects the way most educated people speak. Informal diction represents the plain language of everyday use, and often includes idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and many simple, common words. Poetic diction refers to the way poets sometimes employ an elevated diction that deviates significantly from the common speech and writing of their time, choosing words for their supposedly inherent poetic qualities. Since the eighteenth century, however, poets have been incorporating all kinds of diction in their work and so there is no longer an automatic distinction between the language of a poet and the language of everyday speech.

Didactic poetry Poetry designed to teach an ethical, moral, or religious lesson. Michael Wigglesworth’s Puritan poem “Day of Doom” is an example of didactic poetry.

Drama Derived from the Greek word dram, meaning "to do" or "to perform," the term drama may refer to a single play, a group of plays ("Jacobean drama"), or to all plays ("world drama"). Drama is designed for performance in a theater; actors take on the roles of characters, perform indicated actions, and speak the dialogue written in the script. Play is a general term for a work of dramatic literature, and a playwright is a writer who makes plays.

Dramatic monologue A type of lyric poem in which a character (the speaker) addresses a distinct but silent audience imagined to be present in the poem in such a way as to reveal a dramatic situation and, often unintentionally, some aspect of his or her temperament or personality.

Electra complex The female version of the Oedipus complex. Electra complex is a term used to describe the psychological conflict of a daughter’s unconscious rivalry with her mother for her father’s attention. The name comes from the Greek legend of Electra, who avenged the death of her father, Agamemnon, by plotting the death of her mother.

Elegy A mournful, contemplative lyric poem written to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in a consolation. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, written on the death of Arthur Hallam, is an elegy. Elegy may also refer to a serious meditative poem produced to express the speaker’s melancholy thoughts.

End-stopped line A poetic line that has a pause at the end. End-stopped lines reflect normal speech patterns and are often marked by punctuation. The first line of Keats’s "Endymion" is an example of an end-stopped line; the natural pause coincides with the end of the line, and is marked by a period:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Enjambment In poetry, when one line ends without a pause and continues into the next line for its meaning. This is also called a run-on line. The transition between the first two lines of Wordsworth’s poem "My Heart Leaps Up" demonstrates enjambment:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:

Epic A long narrative poem, told in a formal, elevated style,that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation. Milton’s Paradise Lost, which attempts to "justify the ways of God to man," is an epic.

Epigram A brief, pointed, and witty poem that usually makes a satiric or humorous point. Epigrams are most often written in couplets, but take no prescribed form.

Epiphany In fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth which is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment.

Euphony Euphony ("good sound") refers to language that is smooth and musically pleasant to the ear.

Exposition A narrative device, often used at the beginning of a work, that provides necessary background information about the characters and their circumstances. Exposition explains what has gone on before, the relationships between characters, the development of a theme, and the introduction of a conflict.

Farce A form of humor based on exaggerated, improbable incongruities. Farce involves rapid shifts in action and emotion, as well as slapstick comedy and extravagant dialogue. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is a farcical character.

Figures of speech Ways of using language that deviate from the literal, denotative meanings of words in order to suggest additional meanings or effects. Figures of speech say one thing in terms of something else, such as when an eager funeral director is described as a vulture.

Fixed form A poem that may be categorized by the pattern of its lines, meter, rhythm, or stanzas. A sonnet is a fixed form of poetry because by definition it must have fourteen lines. Other fixed forms include limerick, sestina, and villanelle. However, poems written in a fixed form may not always fit into categories precisely, because writers sometimes vary traditional forms to create innovative effects.

Flashback A narrated scene that marks a break in the narrative in order to inform the reader or audience member about events that took place before the opening scene of a work.

Foil A character in a work whose behavior and values contrast with those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character (usually the protagonist). In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laertes acts as a foil to Hamlet, because his willingness to act underscores Hamlet’s inability to do so.

Foot The metrical unit by which a line of poetry is measured. A foot usually consists of one stressed and one or two unstressed syllables. An iambic foot, which consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable ("away"), is the most common metrical foot in English poetry. A trochaic foot consists of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable ("lovely"). An anapestic foot is two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed one ("understand"). A dactylic foot is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones ("desperate"). A spondee is a foot consisting of two stressed syllables ("dead set"), but is not a sustained metrical foot and is used mainly for variety or emphasis.

Foreshadowing The introduction early in a story of verbal and dramatic hints that suggest what is to come later.

Form The overall structure or shape of a work, which frequently follows an established design. Forms may refer to a literary type (narrative form, short story form) or to patterns of meter, lines, and rhymes (stanza form, verse form).

Found poem
An unintentional poem discovered in a nonpoetic context, such as a conversation, news story, or advertisement. Found poems serve as reminders that everyday language often contains what can be considered poetry, or that poetry is definable as any text read as a poem.

Free verse Also called open form poetry, free verse refers to poems characterized by their nonconformity to established patterns of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Free verse uses elements such as speech patterns, grammar, emphasis, and breath pauses to decide line breaks, and usually does not rhyme.

Genre A French word meaning kind or type. The major genres in literature are poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. Genre can also refer to more specific types of literature such as comedy, tragedy, epic poetry, or science fiction.

Haiku A style of lyric poetry borrowed from the Japanese that typically presents an intense emotion or vivid image of nature, which, traditionally, is designed to lead to a spiritual insight. Haiku is a fixed poetic form, consisting of seventeen syllables organized into three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Today, however, many poets vary the syllabic count in their haiku.

Hamartia A term coined by Aristotle to describe "some error or frailty" that brings about misfortune for a tragic hero. The concept of hamartia is closely related to that of the tragic flaw: both lead to the downfall of the protagonist in a tragedy. Hamartia may be interpreted as an internal weakness in a character (like greed or passion or hubris); however, it may also refer to a mistake that a character makes that is based not on a personal failure, but on circumstances outside the protagonist’s personality and control.

Hubris or Hybris Excessive pride or self-confidence that leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or to violate an important moral law. In tragedies, hubris is a very common form of hamartia.

Hyperbole A boldly exaggerated statement that adds emphasis without in-tending to be literally true, as in the statement "He ate everything in the house." Hyperbole (also called overstatement) may be used for serious, comic, or ironic effect.

Iambic pentameter A metrical pattern in poetry which consists of five iambic feet per line. (An iamb, or iambic foot, consists of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.)
Image A word, phrase, or figure of speech (especially a simile or a metaphor) that addresses the senses, suggesting mental pictures of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, or actions. Images offer sensory impressions to the reader and also convey emotions and moods through their verbal pictures. See also figures of speech.

Irony A literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. It is ironic for a firehouse to burn down, or for a police station to be burglarized. Verbal irony is a figure of speech that occurs when a person says one thing but means the opposite. Sarcasm is a strong form of verbal irony that is calculated to hurt someone through, for example, false praise. Dramatic irony creates a discrepancy between what a character believes or says and what the reader or audience member knows to be true. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the plague that ravishes his city and ironically ends up hunting himself. Situational irony exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control. The suicide of the seemingly successful main character in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem "Richard Cory" is an example of situational irony. Cosmic irony occurs when a writer uses God, destiny, or fate to dash the hopes and expectations of a character or of humankind in general. In cosmic irony, a discrepancy exists between what a character aspires to and what universal forces provide. Stephen Crane’s poem "A Man Said to the Universe" is a good example of cosmic irony, because the universe acknowledges no obligation to the man’s assertion of his own existence.

Limerick A light, humorous style of fixed form poetry. Its usual form consists of five lines with the rhyme scheme aabba; lines 1, 2, and 5 contain three feet, while lines 3 and 4 usually contain two feet. Limericks range in subject matter from the silly to the obscene, and since Edward Lear popularized them in the nineteenth century, children and adults have enjoyed these comic poems.

Line A sequence of words printed as a separate entity on the page. In poetry, lines are usually measured by the number of feet they contain. The names for various line lengths are as follows:
monometer: one foot
dimeter: two feet
trimeter: three feet
tetrameter: four feet

pentameter: five feet
hexameter: six feet
heptameter: seven feet
octameter: eight feet

The number of feet in a line, coupled with the name of the foot, describes the metrical qualities of that line.

Lyric A type of brief poem that expresses the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker. It is important to realize, however, that although the lyric is uttered in the first person, the speaker is not necessarily the poet. There are many varieties of lyric poetry, including the dramatic monologue, elegy, haiku, ode, and sonnet forms.

Metaphor A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, without using the word like or as. Metaphors assert the identity of dissimilar things, as when Macbeth asserts that life is a "brief candle." An implied metaphor is a more subtle comparison; the terms being compared are not so specifically explained. For example, to describe a stubborn man unwilling to leave, one could say that he was "a mule standing his ground." This is a fairly explicit metaphor; the man is being compared to a mule. But to say that the man "brayed his refusal to leave" is to create an implied metaphor, because the subject (the man) is never overtly identified as a mule. Braying is associated with the mule, a notoriously stubborn creature, and so the comparison between the stubborn man and the mule is sustained. Implied metaphors can slip by inattentive readers who are not sensitive to such carefully chosen, highly concentrated language. An extended metaphor is a sustained comparison in which part or all of a poem consists of a series of related metaphors. Robert Francis’s poem "Catch" relies on an extended metaphor that compares poetry to playing catch. A controlling metaphor runs through an entire work and determines the form or nature of that work. The controlling metaphor in Anne Bradstreet’s poem "The Author to Her Book" likens her book to a child. Synecdoche is a kind of metaphor in which a part of something is used to signify the whole, as when a gossip is called a "wagging tongue," or when ten ships are called "ten sails." Sometimes, synecdoche refers to the whole being used to signify the part, as in the phrase "Boston won the baseball game." Clearly, the entire city of Boston did not participate in the game; the whole of Boston is being used to signify the individuals who played and won the game. Metonymy is a type of metaphor in which something closely associated with a subject is substituted for it. In this way, we speak of the "silver screen" to mean motion pictures, "the crown" to stand for the king, "the White House" to stand for the activities of the president.

Meter When a rhythmic pattern of stresses recurs in a poem, it is called meter. Metrical patterns are determined by the type and number of feet in a line of verse; combining the name of a line length with the name of a foot concisely describes the meter of the line. Rising meter refers to metrical feet which move from unstressed to stressed sounds, such as the iambic foot and the anapestic foot. Falling meter refers to metrical feet which move from stressed to unstressed sounds, such as the trochaic foot and the dactylic foot.

Motif: A recurring image, word, phrase, action, idea, object, or situation that appears in various works or throughout the same work. When applied to several different works, motif refers to a recurrent theme, such as the carpe diem motif—the idea that life is short, time is fleeting, and one must make the most of the present moment. When applied to a single work, motif (sometime leitmotif) refers to any repetition that tends to unify the work by bringing to mind its earlier occurrences and the impression that surround them.

Narrative poem A poem that tells a story. A narrative poem may be short or long, and the story it relates may be simple or complex.

Narrator The voice of the person telling the story, not to be confused with the author’s voice. With a first-person narrator, the I in the story presents the point of view of only one character. The reader is restricted to the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of that single character. For example, in Melville’s "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the lawyer is the first-person narrator of the story. First-person narrators can play either a major or a minor role in the story they are telling. An unreliable narrator reveals an interpretation of events that is somehow different from the author’s own interpretation of those events. Often, the unreliable narrator’s perception of plot, characters, and setting becomes the actual subject of the story, as in Melville’s "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Narrators can be unreliable for a number of reasons: they might lack self-knowledge (like Melville’s lawyer), they might be inexperienced, they might even be insane. Naive narrators are usually characterized by youthful innocence, such as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn or J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An omniscient narrator is an all-knowing narrator who is not a character in the story and who can move from place to place and pass back and forth through time, slipping into and out of characters as no human being possibly could in real life. Omniscient narrators can report the thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as their words and actions. The narrator of The Scarlet Letter is an omniscient narrator. Editorial omniscience refers to an intrusion by the narrator in order to evaluate a character for a reader, as when the narrator of The Scarlet Letter describes Hester’s relationship to the Puritan community. Narration that allows the characters’ actions and thoughts to speak for themselves is called neutral omniscience. Most modern writers use neutral omniscience so that readers can reach their own conclusions. Limited omniscience occurs when an author restricts a narrator to the single perspective of either a major or minor character. The way people, places, and events appear to that character is the way they appear to the reader. Sometimes a limited omniscient narrator can see into more than one character, particularly in a work that focuses on two characters alternately from one chapter to the next. Short stories, however, are frequently limited to a single character’s point of view.

Octave A poetic stanza of eight lines, usually forming one part of a sonnet.

Ode A relatively lengthy lyric poem that often expresses lofty emotions in a dignified style. Odes are characterized by a serious topic, such as truth, art, freedom, justice, or the meaning of life; their tone tends to be formal. There is no prescribed pattern that defines an ode; some odes repeat the same pattern in each stanza, while others introduce a new pattern in each stanza.

Oedipus complex A Freudian term derived from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. It describes a psychological complex that is predicated on a boy’s unconscious rivalry with his father for his mother’s love and his desire to eliminate his father in order to take his father’s place with his mother. The female equivalent of this complex is called the Electra complex.
One-act play A play that takes place in a single location and unfolds as one continuous action. The characters in a one-act play are presented economically and the action is sharply focused.

Onomatopoeia A term referring to the use of a word that resembles the sound it denotes. Buzz, rattle, bang, and sizzle all reflect onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia can also consist of more than one word; writers sometimes create lines or whole passages in which the sound of the words helps to convey their meanings.
Oxymoron A condensed form of paradox in which two contradictory words are used together, as in "sweet sorrow" or "original copy."

Paradox A statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense. For example, John Donne ends his sonnet "Death, Be Not Proud" with the paradoxical statement "Death, thou shalt die." To solve the paradox, it is necessary to discover the sense that underlies the statement. Paradox is useful in poetry because it arrests a reader’s attention by its seemingly stubborn refusal to make sense.

Paraphrase A prose restatement of the central ideas of a poem, in your own language.

Parody A humorous imitation of another, usually serious, work. It can take any fixed or open form, because parodists imitate the tone, language, and shape of the original in order to deflate the subject matter, making the original work seem absurd. Anthony Hecht’s poem "Dover Bitch" is a famous parody of Matthew Arnold’s well-known "Dover Beach." Parody may also be used as a form of literary criticism to expose the defects in a work. But sometimes parody becomes an affectionate acknowledgment that a well-known work has become both institutionalized in our culture and fair game for some fun. For example, Peter De Vries’s "To His Importunate Mistress" gently mocks Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress."

Personification A form of metaphor in which human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things. Personification offers the writer a way to give the world life and motion by assigning familiar human behaviors and emotions to animals, inanimate objects, and abstract ideas. For example, in Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the speaker refers to the urn as an "unravished bride of quietness."

Plot An author’s selection and arrangement of incidents in a story to shape the action and give the story a particular focus. Discussions of plot include not just what happens, but also how and why things happen the way they do. Stories that are written in a pyramidal pattern divide the plot into three essential parts. The first part is the rising action, in which complication creates some sort of conflict for the protagonist. The second part is the climax, the moment of greatest emotional tension in a narrative, usually marking a turning point in the plot at which the rising action reverses to become the falling action. The third part, the falling action (or resolution) is characterized by diminishing tensions and the resolution of the plot’s conflicts and complications. In medias res is a term used to describe the common strategy of beginning a story in the middle of the action. In this type of plot, we enter the story on the verge of some important moment.

Point of view Refers to who tells us a story and how it is told. What we know and how we feel about the events in a work are shaped by the author’s choice of point of view. The teller of the story, the narrator, inevitably affects our understanding of the characters’ actions by filtering what is told through his or her own perspective. The various points of view that writers draw upon can be grouped into two broad categories: (1) the third-person narrator uses he, she, or they to tell the story and does not participate in the action; and (2) the first-person narrator uses I and is a major or minor participant in the action. In addition, a second-person narrator, you, is also possible, but is rarely used because of the awkwardness of thrusting the reader into the story, as in "You are minding your own business on a park bench when a drunk steps out and demands your lunch bag." An objective point of view employs a third-person narrator who does not see into the mind of any character. From this detached and impersonal perspective, the narrator reports action and dialogue without telling us directly what the characters think and feel. Since no analysis or interpretation is provided by the narrator, this point of view places a premium on dialogue, actions, and details to reveal character to the reader.

Problem play Popularized by Henrik Ibsen, a problem play is a type of drama that presents a social issue in order to awaken the audience to it. These plays usually reject romantic plots in favor of holding up a mirror that reflects not simply what the audience wants to see but what the playwright sees in them. Often, a problem play will propose a solution to the problem that does not coincide with prevailing opinion. The term is also used to refer to certain Shakespeare plays that do not fit the categories of tragedy, comedy, or romance.

Prologue The opening speech or dialogue of a play, especially a classic Greek play, that usually gives the exposition necessary to follow the subsequent action. Today the term also refers to the introduction to any literary work.

Prose poem
A kind of open form poetry that is printed as prose and represents the most clear opposite of fixed form poetry. Prose poems are densely compact and often make use of striking imagery and figures of speech.

Prosody The overall metrical structure of a poem.

Protagonist The main character of a narrative; its central character who engages the reader’s interest and empathy.

Pun A play on words that relies on a word’s having more than one meaning or sounding like another word. Shakespeare and other writers use puns extensively, for serious and comic purposes; in Romeo and Juliet (III.i.101), the dying Mercutio puns, "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man." Puns have serious literary uses, but since the eighteenth century, puns have been used almost purely for humorous effect.

Quatrain A four-line stanza. Quatrains are the most common stanzaic form in the English language; they can have various meters and rhyme schemes.

Recognition The moment in a story when previously unknown or withheld information is revealed to the protagonist, resulting in the discovery of the truth of his or her situation and, usually, a decisive change in course for that character. In Oedipus the King, the moment of recognition comes when Oedipus finally realizes that he has killed his father and married his mother.

Resolution The conclusion of a plot’s conflicts and complications. The resolution, also known as the falling action, follows the climax in the plot.

Reversal The point in a story when the protagonist’s fortunes turn in an unexpected direction.

Rhyme The repetition of identical or similar concluding syllables in different words, most often at the ends of lines. Rhyme is predominantly a function of sound rather than spelling; thus, words that end with the same vowel sounds rhyme, for instance, day, prey, bouquet, weigh, and words with the same consonant ending rhyme, for instance vain, feign, rein, lane. Words do not have to be spelled the same way or look alike to rhyme. In fact, words may look alike but not rhyme at all. This is called eye rhyme, as with bough and cough, or brow and blow.
End rhyme is the most common form of rhyme in poetry; the rhyme comes at the end of the lines.
It runs through the reeds
And away it proceeds,
Through meadow and glade,
In sun and in shade.

The rhyme scheme of a poem describes the pattern of end rhymes. Rhyme schemes are mapped out by noting patterns of rhyme with small letters: the first rhyme sound is designated a, the second becomes b, the third c, and so on. Thus, the rhyme scheme of the stanza above is aabb. Internal rhyme places at least one of the rhymed words within the line, as in "Dividing and gliding and sliding" or "In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud." Masculine rhyme describes the rhyming of single-syllable words, such as grade or shade. Masculine rhyme also occurs where rhyming words of more than one syllable, when the same sound occurs in a final stressed syllable, as in defend and contend, betray and away. Feminine rhyme consists of a rhymed stressed syllable followed by one or more identical unstressed syllables, as in butter, clutter; gratitude, attitude; quivering, shivering. All the examples so far have illustrated exact rhymes, because they share the same stressed vowel sounds as well as sharing sounds that follow the vowel. In near rhyme (also called off rhyme, slant rhyme, and approximate rhyme), the sounds are almost but not exactly alike. A common form of near rhyme is consonance, which consists of identical consonant sounds preceded by different vowel sounds: home, same; worth, breath.

Rhythm A term used to refer to the recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds in poetry. Depending on how sounds are arranged, the rhythm of a poem may be fast or slow, choppy or smooth. Poets use rhythm to create pleasurable sound patterns and to reinforce meanings. Rhythm in prose arises from pattern repetitions of sounds and pauses that create looser rhythmic effects.

Satire The literary art of ridiculing a folly or vice in order to expose or correct it. The object of satire is usually some human frailty; people, institutions, ideas, and things are all fair game for satirists. Satire evokes attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation toward its faulty subject in the hope of somehow improving it.

Scansion The process of measuring the stresses in a line of verse in order to determine the metrical pattern of the line.

Scene In drama, a scene is a subdivision of an act. In modern plays, scenes usually consist of units of action in which there are no changes in the setting or breaks in the continuity of time. According to traditional conventions, a scene changes when the location of the action shifts or when a new character enters.

Script The written text of a play, which includes the dialogue between characters, stage directions, and often other expository information.

Sestet A stanza consisting of exactly six lines.

Sestina A type of fixed form poetry consisting of thirty-six lines of any length divided into six sestets and a three-line concluding stanza called an envoy. The six words at the end of the first sestet’s lines must also appear at the ends of the other five sestets, in varying order. These six words must also appear in the envoy, where they often resonate important themes. An example of this highly demanding form of poetry is Elizabeth Bishop’s "Sestina."

Setting The physical and social context in which the action of a story occurs. The major elements of setting are the time, the place, and the social environment that frames the characters. Setting can be used to evoke a mood or atmosphere that will prepare the reader for what is to come, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story "Young Goodman Brown." Sometimes, writers choose a particular setting because of traditional associations with that setting that are closely related to the action of a story. For example, stories filled with adventure or romance often take place in exotic locales.

Simile A common figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems: "A sip of Mrs. Cook’s coffee is like a punch in the stomach." The effectiveness of this simile is created by the differences between the two things compared. There would be no simile if the comparison were stated this way: "Mrs. Cook’s coffee is as strong as the cafeteria’s coffee." This is a literal translation because Mrs. Cook’s coffee is compared with something like it—another kind of coffee.

Soliloquy A dramatic convention by means of which a character, alone onstage, utters his or her thoughts aloud. Playwrights use soliloquies as a convenient way to inform the audience about a character’s motivations and state of mind. Shakespeare’s Hamlet delivers perhaps the best known of all soliloquies, which begins: "To be or not to be."

Sonnet A fixed form of lyric poetry that consists of fourteen lines, usually written in iambic pentameter. There are two basic types of sonnets, the Italian and the English. The Italian sonnet, also known as the Petrarchan sonnet, is divided into an octave, which typically rhymes abbaabba, and a sestet, which may have varying rhyme schemes. Common rhyme patterns in the sestet are cdecde, cdcdcd, and cdccdc. Very often the octave presents a situation, attitude, or problem that the sestet comments upon or resolves, as in John Keats’s "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer." The English sonnet, also known as the Shakespearean sonnet, is organized into three quatrains and a couplet, which typically rhyme abab cdcd efef gg. This rhyme scheme is more suited to English poetry because English has fewer rhyming words than Italian. English sonnets, because of their four-part organization, also have more flexibility with respect to where thematic breaks can occur. Frequently, however, the most pronounced break or turn comes with the concluding couplet, as in Shakespeare’s "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?"

Speaker The voice used by an author to tell a story or speak a poem. The speaker is often a created identity, and should not automatically be equated with the author’s self.

Stage directions A playwright’s written instructions about how the actors are to move and behave in a play. They explain in which direction characters should move, what facial expressions they should assume, and so on.

Stanza In poetry, stanza refers to a grouping of lines, set off by a space, that usually has a set pattern of meter and rhyme.

Stream-of-consciousness technique The most intense use of a central consciousness in narration. The stream-of-consciousness technique takes a reader inside a character’s mind to reveal perceptions, thoughts, and feelings on a conscious or unconscious level. This technique suggests the flow of thought as well as its content; hence, complete sentences may give way to fragments as the character’s mind makes rapid associations free of conventional logic or transitions. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses makes extensive use of this narrative technique.

Stress The emphasis, or accent, given a syllable in pronunciation.

Style The distinctive and unique manner in which a writer arranges words to achieve particular effects. Style essentially combines the idea to be expressed with the individuality of the author. These arrangements include individual word choices as well as matters such as the length of sentences, their structure, tone, and use of irony.

Subplot The secondary action of a story, complete and interesting in its own right, that reinforces or contrasts with the main plot. There may be more than one subplot, and sometimes as many as three, four, or even more, running through a piece of fiction. Subplots are generally either analogous to the main plot, thereby enhancing our understanding of it, or extraneous to the main plot, to provide relief from it.

Suspense The anxious anticipation of a reader or an audience as to the outcome of a story, especially concerning the character or characters with whom sympathetic attachments are formed. Suspense helps to secure and sustain the interest of the reader or audience throughout a work.

Symbol A person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significance. Symbols are educational devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience. Conventional symbols have meanings that are widely recognized by a society or culture. Some conventional symbols are the Christian cross, the Star of David, a swastika, or a nation’s flag. Writers use conventional symbols to reinforce meanings. Kate Chopin, for example, emphasizes the spring setting in "The Story of an Hour" as a way of suggesting the renewed sense of life that Mrs. Mallard feels when she thinks herself free from her husband. A literary or contextual symbol can be a setting, character, action, object, name, or anything else in a work that maintains its literal significance while suggesting other meanings. Such symbols go beyond conventional symbols; they gain their symbolic meaning within the context of a specific story. For example, the white whale in Melville’s Moby-Dick takes on multiple symbolic meanings in the work, but these meanings do not automatically carry over into other stories about whales. The meanings suggested by Melville’s whale are specific to that text; therefore, it becomes a contextual symbol.

Syntax The ordering of words into meaningful verbal patterns such as phrases, clauses, and sentences. Poets often manipulate syntax, changing conventional word order, to place certain emphasis on particular words. Emily Dickinson, for instance, writes about being surprised by a snake in her poem "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," and includes this line: "His notice sudden is." In addition to the alliterative hissing s-sounds here, Dickinson also effectively manipulates the line’s syntax so that the verb is appears unexpectedly at the end, making the snake’s hissing presence all the more "sudden."

Tercet A three-line stanza.

Terza rima An interlocking three-line rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, ded, and so on. Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Frost’s "Acquainted with the Night" are written in terza rima.

Theme The central meaning or dominant idea in a literary work. A theme provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a work are organized. It is important not to mistake the theme for the actual subject of the work; the theme refers to the abstract concept that is made concrete through the images, characterization, and action of the text. In nonfiction, however, the theme generally refers to the main topic of the discourse.

Thesis The central idea of an essay. The thesis is a complete sentence (although sometimes it may require more than one sentence) that establishes the topic of the essay in clear, unambiguous language.

Tone The author’s implicit attitude toward the reader or the people, places, and events in a work as revealed by the elements of the author’s style. Tone may be characterized as serious or ironic, sad or happy, private or public, angry or affectionate, bitter or nostalgic, or any other attitudes and feelings that human beings experience.

Tragedy A story that presents courageous individuals who confront powerful forces within or outside themselves with a dignity that reveals the breadth and depth of the human spirit in the face of failure, defeat, and even death. Tragedies recount an individual’s downfall; they usually begin high and end low. Shakespeare is known for his tragedies, including Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet. The revenge tragedy is a well-established type of drama that can be traced back to Greek and Roman plays, particularly through the Roman playwright Seneca (c. 3 b.c.–a.d. 63). Revenge tragedies basically consist of a murder that has to be avenged by a relative of the victim. Typically, the victim’s ghost appears to demand revenge, and invariably madness of some sort is worked into subsequent events, which ultimately end in the deaths of the murderer, the avenger, and a number of other characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet subscribes to the basic ingredients of revenge tragedy, but it also transcends these conventions because Hamlet contemplates not merely revenge but suicide and the meaning of life itself. A tragic flaw is an error or defect in the tragic hero that leads to his downfall, such as greed, pride, or ambition. This flaw may be a result of bad character, bad judgment, an inherited weakness, or any other defect of character. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus ironically ends up hunting himself.

Tragicomedy A type of drama that combines certain elements of both tragedy and comedy. The play’s plot tends to be serious, leading to a terrible catastrophe, until an unexpected turn in events leads to a reversal of circumstance, and the story ends happily. Tragicomedy often employs a romantic, fast-moving plot dealing with love, jealousy, disguises, treachery, intrigue, and surprises, all moving toward a melodramatic resolution. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a tragicomedy.

Triplet A tercet in which all three lines rhyme.

Understatement The opposite of hyperbole, understatement (or litotes) refers to a figure of speech that says less than is intended. Understatement usually has an ironic effect, and sometimes may be used for comic purposes, as in Mark Twain’s statement, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Verse A generic term used to describe poetic lines composed in a measured rhythmical pattern, that are often, but not necessarily, rhymed.

Villanelle A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas: five tercets and a concluding quatrain. The first and third lines of the initial tercet rhyme; these rhymes are repeated in each subsequent tercet (aba) and in the final two lines of the quatrain (abaa). Line 1 appears in its entirety as lines 6, 12, and 18, while line 3 reappears as lines 9, 15, and 19. Dylan Thomas’s "Do not go gentle into that good night" is a villanelle.