Glossary of Literary Devices
Allegory – a figurative story in which the principal subject is depicted by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances; a symbolic representation; a narrative in which abstract ideas are personified; a sustained metaphor, e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress, Everyman
Anaphora – the stylistic repetition of the initial words of a sentence for dramatic effect
Antagonist – the character who impedes the progress of the protagonist towards his goal. Note that this is not necessarily a villain.
Anthropomorphism – Ascribing human qualities to animals or non-human beings
Anti-hero – a protagonist who fails to demonstrate the typical heroic qualities (Charlie Brown, for example)
Archetype – the original pattern after which a thing is made; a model or first form
Authorial Intrusion – a device by which the narrator inserts comments regarding the characters and story in a direct address to the reader
Bard – an oral storyteller
Caesura – a dramatic, poetic pause; most notable in Anglo-Saxon verse in which each line divides neatly in two with two stressed syllables on either side of the break
Cacophony – intentional creation of dissonant sound through syntax
Catharsis – an emotional release provided by an artistic or aesthetic experience
Character – one of the people in a story
Characterization – the creative act of describing and developing a fictional character
Chiasmus – a rhetorical device in which clauses or phrases are repeated in reverse order for effect
Climax – the turning point of a story; the highest point of interest; the peak of tension
Close Reading – reading a second time, paying attention to details; careful reading
Comedy – a dramatic composition which portrays light and humorous characters or utilizes satire, typically with a happy ending
Conflict – the problem that drives the plot of a story forward toward its conclusion
Connotation – the implied meaning of an author’s words
Context – text surrounding words that provide significance and communicate meaning; historical and cultural factors surrounding events that give them significance
Criticism – a philosophy that encompasses well-developed viewpoints on the proper way to read, understand, and interpret literature
Dénouement – the disentangling of the intricacies of the plot of a story; also referred to as Falling Action
Dialogue – written conversation between two or more characters
Dramatic Monologue – type of poem in which the poet assumes a persona and delivers a speech (either aloud in soliloquy, or in conversation with an implied listener) the nature of which reveals his ambitions, motives, or personal character
Euphemism –the use of words with positive connotations to disguise a darker meaning
Euphony – the arrangement of words to create harmonious, pleasant sound
Exposition – the introduction of a story, in which the author presents his characters in their setting and places them in an initial conflict that will drive the story forward
Fiction – narrative prose that is not factual. Examples include novel, short story, myth and fable.
Figurative Meaning – meaning that lies beneath the surface; implicit meaning
Figure – a stock character within a story. Examples include the Christ-Figure, the Hero, the Villain, and the Everyman.
Flashback – a device by which an author breaks from a temporal scene to retrospectively fill in narrative details from an earlier event
Foil – a character created to demonstrate the qualities of the hero through comparison and contrast
Foreshadowing – early hints within the text of events that will take place in later in the story
Frame – the external story or context in which the story takes place
Genre – a type of literature, distinguished from other types by form, technique, and subject matter. Genres include fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and poetry.
Hero – a “superman” whose deeds aid the protagonist and resolve the story’s conflict
Inversion – a figure of speech by which the writer inverts words for rhetorical effect
Irony – a mode of speech or writing expressing a literal sense contrary to the meaning intended by the speaker (verbal irony), or a situation contrary to what was expected (circumstantial irony), or a theatrical scene in which the audience knows more about a character’s words or circumstances than the character himself (dramatic irony)
Juxtaposition – placing two things in close proximity for the sake of comparison; similar to the concept of the literary foil
Kennings – compound word metaphors that suggest abstract ideas, abundant in Anglo-Saxon verse, e.g., whale road to signify ocean, ring giver to suggest a king
Literal Meaning – the face value of words or idea
Literary Device – a verbal tool employed by an author to enhance the effect of his story. Examples include imagery, alliteration, metaphor and rhyme
Literary Period – the historical era that was the scene of the development of a particular type of literary expression
Litotes – a sarcastic understatement created by a use of a negative expression to convey a positive comment, e.g., “you won’t go hungry” for “you will feast”
Malapropism – an intentional syntactical misuse of a word for the sake of humor
Metonymy – a figure of speech by which a thing is named by something commonly associated with it, e.g., boiling water for tea is referenced as putting on the kettle
Meter – the rhythmical composition of a poetic line
Mood – the atmosphere or emotional tone of a work of art
Motif – a theme or idea that appears repeatedly throughout a story and characterizes it
Negative Capability – Keats’s idea of the artistic ability to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in tension, not demanding scientific clarity; the ability to live with uncertainty
Non-Fiction – writing that is based in fact. Examples include biographies, news stories, encyclopedia articles, and research papers.
Novel – a long work of fiction
Novella – a short novel or lengthy short story
Paradox – an apparent contradiction
Pathetic Fallacy – the artistic attribution of emotion to inanimate things or animals. This is narrower than personification, as it communicates emotion very specifically.
Persona – Latin for “mask;” the personality assumed by a poet; the voice in which a poet speaks
Personification – a comparison in which human qualities are assigned to inanimate things
Plot – the sequence of events in a story; the simple story line without all of the details
Poem – a verse composition, especially one characterized by economy of linguistic expression, vivid imagery, and intense emotional tone; generally characterized by adherence to rules of structure and form, including rhythm and sometimes rhyme
Point of View – the perspective from which a story is told. Examples include first-person (written from the perspective of the narrator using the first-person pronoun “I”), third-person narrative (written from the perspective of a third party using third-person pronouns like he, she, they, and it), third-person omniscient narrative (written from the perspective of a third-party witness to the story who has a God’s eye view of the events, allowing them to access the internal thought processes of the characters), and third-person limited (written from the perspective of a third party who has a God’s eye perspective of the main character, but a view of the other characters which is limited to what may be observed or overheard).
Prose – writing that is not poetry. Examples include essays, novels, history, scientific treatises, journal articles and literary criticism.
Protagonist – the main character in a story; the character whose goals drive the plot
Pun – a play on words, often resulting in humorous effects
Satire – the use of irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to expose, denounce, or deride a particular vice or folly; a literary composition in verse or prose in which such vices or abuses are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule
Setting – the place and time in which the action of the story occurs
Soliloquy – a monologue delivered by a performer alone onstage, during which he reveals his innermost thoughts to the audience, but not to the other performers
Stock Characters – familiar characters used regularly and interchangeably in a wide variety of stories. Examples include the young lovers, the snake oil salesman, the court jester, and the stiff butler.
Stream of Consciousness – a narrative device by which an author expresses the disordered thoughts running through the mind of a character
Symbolism – the use in literature of a physical object to represent an abstract idea. The object usually carries both a figurative and literal meaning, e.g., a flag represents the ideals of a nation, patriotism, etc.
Synecdoche – a rhetorical device by which a part references a whole, e.g., referring to a car as wheels
Tautology – repetition of something syntactically self-evident; redundancy; in logic, a statement necessarily true due to its form
Theme – the underlying universal idea the author hopes to communicate by his story; the author’s message; the author’s thoughts on his leading subject. Some universal themes include: The Danger of Mob Rule, The Evils of Prejudice, The Pain of Betrayal, The Value of Innocence, Materialism vs. Idealism, The Nature of Pride and Humility, The Folly of Ambition, The Inevitable Triumph of Good Over Evil, The Process of Coming of Age, The Praiseworthiness of Personal Honor, Loyalty, and Survival.
Tragedy – a drama portraying the struggle of a strong-willed protagonist against fate. The downfall of the protagonist usually hinges upon the fatal flaw in his otherwise heroic character.
Voice – the tone of the author; the product of his vocabulary and syntax