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Glossary of Literary Terms




Works of prose that have imaginary elements, such as the novel and the short story. Fiction can be based on actual events and real people, but it comes primarily from the imagination of the writer.


Prose writing that deals with real people, events and places. The major types of nonfiction include: autobiography, biography, essay.


The sequence of events in a story.  Generally built around conflict, the plot tells what happens, when and to whom.  A story’s plot usually includes four stages:  exposition, rising action, climax and falling action.


The structure of the plot normally begins with exposition.  The exposition sets the tone, establishes the setting, introduces the characters and gives the reader background information.


Tone is the attitude a writer takes toward a subject. Tone reflects the feelings of the writer (mood is intended to shape the reader’s emotional response).


   Setting is the time and place of action of the story.


The people who take part in the action of the story.

Main Characters:   The most important characters in the story. The protagonist is the central character or hero.  The antagonist is usually the principal character in opposition to the protagonist. The antagonist can be a force of nature, some aspect of society or an internal force within the protagonist.

Minor Characters:  The other characters in the story

Dynamic Characters:  Characters that undergo changes as the plot unfolds.

Static Characters: Characters that remain the same in the story.

Round Characters: Characters whose many personality traits are revealed by the author.

Flat Characters: Characters who are described more simply.


The methods an author uses to develop characters. Four methods:

Description:  The author may describe the character’s physical traits and personality.

Self-Revelation:  The character’s nature may be revealed through his or her own speech, thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Opinions and Reactions: The speech, thoughts, feelings, or actions of other characters can be used to develop a character.

Narrator Comments: The narrator can make direct comments about a character.


The plot of a story always involves some sort of conflict or struggle between opposing forces.

External Conflict:  Involves a character pitted against an outside force, such as nature, a physical object, another character or group of characters (society).

Internal Conflict: Occurs within a character.

Rising Action

Refers to the events in a story that move the plot along by adding complications, or expanding the conflict(s). Rising action usually builds suspense to a climax, or turning point.


Often called the turning point, the climax is the moment when the reader’s interest and emotional intensity reach the highest point. The climax usually occurs toward the end of the story.  The climax sometimes, but not always, points to a resolution of the conflict.

Falling Action

The falling action, sometimes called the resolution, occurs after the climax of a story. The conflict is usually resolved at this time, and any loose ends of the story are tied up.  The final outcome is called the denouement.

Point of View

Refers to the method of narrating a short story, novel, narrative poem, or work of nonfiction. Point of view is usually first person or third person.

First person: the narrator is a character in the story who can reveal only his or her own thoughts and feelings and what he sees and is told by other characters.

Third person: The story is told by a narrative voice outside of the story (objectively), not by one of the characters. The narrator can only report what she/he sees and hears.

Third person omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator who can enter the minds of one or all of the characters.

Third person limited: The narrator tells only what one character thinks, feels, and observes.


The main idea(s) or underlying meaning(s) in a work of literature. It is a perception about life or human nature that the writer shares with the reader.  In most cases, the theme is not stated directly but must be inferred.  A statement of theme may, but does not usually, tell the reader how to live and should not be confused with a moral.


The lesson taught in a work such as a fable.


A judgment based on reasoning rather than on direct or explicit statements (reading between the lines).


Refers to a writer’s unique use of language that allows a reader to “hear” a human personality in his or her writing.


A writer’s choice of words and way of arranging words in sentences.

Glossary of Literary Terms (continued)


The repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words.


An indirect reference to another literary work or to a famous person, place or event.


A point-by-point comparison between two things that are alike in some respect.


The repetition of vowel sounds within non-rhyming words.


Written conversation between two or more characters in either fiction or nonfiction works.  Dialogue helps bring characters to life and gives readers insights into the characters’ qualities, personality traits, and reactions to other characters.


A brief descriptive phrase that points out traits associated with a particular person or thing. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is often called the “…master strategist.”

Extended Metaphor

A figure of speech that compares two essentially unlike things at some length and in several ways


A conversation, an episode, or an event that happened before the beginning of the story.  Often a flashback interrupts the chronological flow of the story to give the reader information to help in understanding a character’s present situation.


A writer’s use of hints or clues to indicate events and situations that will occur later in the plot.  This technique creates suspense while preparing the reader for what is to come.

Historical Fiction

Contemporary fiction that is set in the past.  It may contain references to actual people and events of the past.


 A figure of speech in which the truth is exaggerated for emphasis or for humorous effect.


An expression that has meaning different from the meaning of its individual words.  For example, “go to the dogs” is an idiom meaning “go to ruin.”


Descriptive words and phrases that re-create sensory experiences for the reader.  Imagery usually appeals to one of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – to help the reader imagine exactly what is being described.


A special kind of contrast between appearance and reality – usually one in which reality is the opposite from what it seems.

Situational Irony:  the contrast between what a reader or character expects and what actually exists or happens.

Dramatic Irony:  The reader or viewer knows something that a character does not know.

Verbal Irony: Someone knowingly exaggerates or says one thing and means another.


A figure of speech that makes a comparison between two things that are basically unlike but that have something in common.


A statement that seems to contradict itself but is, nevertheless, true.


The use of similar grammatical constructions to express ideas that are related or equal in importance.  The parallel elements may be words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs.


A figure of speech in which human qualities are attributed to an object, animal, or idea.


A joke that comes from a play on words.

Realistic Fiction

A type of fiction that creates a truthful imitation of ordinary life.


A technique in which a sound, word, phrase, or line is repeated for effect or emphasis.


The occurrence of a similar or identical sound at the ends of two or more words.

Internal Rhyme:  Occurs within a line.

End Rhyme: Occurs at the ends of lines.

Slant Rhyme:  Occurs when the sounds are not quite identical as in words such as care and dear. Also known as near or approximate rhyme.

Rhyme Scheme:  The pattern of end rhyme in a poem. The pattern is charted by assigning a letter of the alphabet, beginning with the letter a, to each line.  Lines that rhyme are given the same letter.


A literary technique in which ideas or customs are ridiculed for the purpose of improving society.  While satire can be funny, its aim is not to amuse, but to arose contempt or dissatisfaction for the present situation.


A figure of speech that makes a comparison between two things using the word like or as.


In drama it is a speech in which a character speaks thoughts aloud.  Generally, the character is on stage alone, not speaking to other characters.


A lyric poem of 14 lines, commonly written in iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean (Elizabethan) sonnet consists of three quatrains, or four-line units, and a final couplet. The typical rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.


A symbol is a person, a place, an activity, or an object that stands for something beyond itself. Symbols can have many levels of meaning.


A dramatic work that presents the downfall of a dignified character or characters who are involved in historically or socially significant events.


A technique of creating emphasis by saying less than is actually or literally true.  It is the opposite of hyperbole, or exaggeration.