Glossary of Literary Terms

alliteration (uh-lih-tuh-RaY-shuhn):  When two or more words in a group of words begin with the same sound (usually, the same letter or group of letters).  For example: Anne’s awesome apple; Fred’s frozen french fries.  See also: figurative language.

antagonist (an-taG-uh-nist):  The opponent or enemy of the main character, or protagonist.  See also: protagonist.

aside (uh-SahYd):  Words spoken to the audience by a character in a drama that are not supposed to be heard by the other characters onstage.  An aside is usually used to let the audience know what a character is thinking.

characterization (kar-ik-ter-uh-zaY-shun):  The means through which an author reveals a character’s personality. Characterization may be direct or indirect.  In direct characterization, the writer or a narrator tells the reader what the character is like: “Ben was a quiet, serious boy.”  In indirect characterization, the author shows the reader or audience member what the character is like through (1) how the character looks, (2) what the character does, (3) what the character says, (4) what the character thinks, and (5) how the character affects other characters.  From these five things, the reader or audience member understands the character’s personality.

climax (KlahY-maks):  The point in a play, novel, short story, or narrative poem at which the conflict reaches its greatest intensity and is then resolved.  The climax is also the part of a narrative when the reader or audience member experiences the most-intense emotions.  See also: plot.

conflict (Kahn-flikt):  A struggle between opposing forces.  A conflict may be external (between the character and another person, society, nature, or technology) or internal (a struggle within the character).

dialogue (dahY-uh-lawg):  The conversation between characters in a work of literature.

dynamic character (dahy-naM-ik KaR-ik-ter):  A character who undergoes a significant internal change over the course of a story.  This may be a change in understanding, values, insight, etc.  See also: static character.

figurative language (fiG-yer-uh-tiv lanG-gwidj):  The literal meaning of a word is its definition as you would find it in a dictionary.  Figurative language uses words in some way other than for their literal meanings to make a comparison, add emphasis, or say something in a fresh and creative way.  Examples of figurative language include alliteration, hyperbole, idiom, imagery, metaphor, onomatopoeia, personification, and simile.  (You can find definitions of these words in this glossary.)

flashback (flaSh-bak):  A scene in a story that occurred before the present time in the story.  Flashbacks provide background information about events happening during the current narration. They may be presented as memories, dreams, or stories of the past told by characters.

foreshadowing (for-Shad-oh-ing):  Clues or hints about something that is going to happen later in the story.  Authors use foreshadowing to build suspense and to prepare the reader for what happens later.

hyperbole (hahy-PuR-buh-lee):  Extreme exaggeration used for emphasis or effect; an extravagant statement that is not meant to be taken literally.  For example: “I almost died of boredom.”   Hyperbole is frequently used in humorous writing.  See also: figurative language.

idiom (id-ee-um):  An expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its individual words.  For example, “it’s raining cats and dogs” is an idiom that means it’s raining really hard—but there is no way to know that from the meanings of its individual words.  See also: figurative language.

imagery (ih-muhj-ree):  Language that portrays sensory experiences, or experiences of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  Authors use imagery to describe actions, characters, objects, and ideas, and to heighten the emotional effect of their writing.  One way authors create imagery is through the use of figurative language.  See also: figurative language.

irony (ahY-ruh-nee):  There are three types of irony: (1) dramatic irony, when the reader or audience member is aware of something that the characters are not aware of; (2) situational irony, when something happens that is the reverse of what you expected; and (3) verbal irony, when the name or description of something implies the opposite of the truth (for example, calling a very tall person “tiny”).

major character (MeY-jer KaR-ik-ter):  A main or important character; a character who plays a large role in a story.  Major characters usually face some sort of obstacle, and they will be present throughout all, or almost all, of a story.  A story can have one major character or several.  See also: minor character.

metaphor (Met-uh-for):  The comparison of two unlike things to illuminate a particular quality or aspect of one of those things.  For example, “Karen was a ray of sunshine” is a metaphor in which Karen is compared with a ray of sunshine.  The metaphor suggests that Karen was cheerful, happy, warm, hopeful—qualities we associate with the sun.  Metaphors state that one thing is something else; they do not use the words like or as.  See also: figurative language, simile.

minor character (MY-ner KaR-ik-ter):  A character who does not play a large role in a story.  Minor characters usually do not face any obstacles during the course of the story, and they usually do not change during the course of the story.  The reader does not usually learn much about minor characters.  They are just there for the major characters to interact with and to help advance the plot.  See also: major character.

mood (mood):  The feeling the reader gets from a work of literature.  Another way to describe a story’s mood is atmosphere.  When you walk into a place, it has an atmosphere that makes you feel a certain way; when you “walk into” a story, it too has an atmosphere that makes you feel a certain way.  For example, the mood could be calm, creepy, romantic, sad, or tense.  Authors create mood through word choice, imagery, dialogue, setting, and plot.  The mood can stay the same from the beginning to the end of a story, or it can change.

onomatopoeia (on-uh-maht-uh-Pee-uh):  The use of words whose sounds imitate the sounds of what they describe, such as hiss, murmur, growl, honk, buzz, woof, etc.  See also: figurative language.

personification (per-son-uh-fih-KaY-shun):  Describing nonhuman animals, objects, or ideas as though they possess human qualities or emotions.  For example: “The moon smiled down at her,” “I felt the cold hand of death on my shoulder,” “There is a battle being fought in my garden between the flowers and the weeds.”

plot (plaht):  The sequence of events in a story.  The plot includes the opening event (what happens at the beginning/the main problem that the main character faces), the rising action (what happens to intensify the problem), the climax (when the problem reaches its most intense point and begins to be resolved), the falling action (what happens to solve the problem), and the resolution (how things end).

point of view (poynt uhv vyoo):  The perspective from which a story is told.  In other words, who is telling the story—a character in the story or an outside narrator.  There are several types of point of view:  (1) first-person point of view, where the narrator is a character in the story who describes things from his or her own perspective and refers to himself or herself as “I”; (2) third-person limited point of view, where the narrator is not a character in the story but the narrator can describe the experiences and thoughts of only one character in the story; (3) third-person omniscient point of view, where the narrator is not one of the characters and is able to describe the experiences and thoughts of every character in the story.

protagonist (proh-taG-uh-nist):  The main or central character of a work of literature.  Usually, the main character is involved in a conflict or struggle with the antagonist.  See also: antagonist.

setting (Seht-ing):  The environment in which a story takes place, including the time period, the location, and the physical characteristics of the surroundings.

simile (SiM-uh-lee):  When two unlike things are compared—using like or as—in order to illuminate a particular quality or aspect of one of those things.  For example, “Randy’s voice is like melted chocolate” is a simile in which Randy’s voice is compared to melted chocolate.  The simile suggests that Randy’s voice is rich, smooth, sweet, warm—qualities we associate with melted chocolate.  See also: figurative language, metaphor.

static character (Stat-ik KaR-ik-ter):  A character who does not undergo a significant change over the course of a story.  See also: dynamic character.

symbol (SiM-buhl):  An object, setting, event, animal, or person that on one level is itself, but that has another meaning as well.  For example, the American flag is really a piece of fabric with stars and stripes on it, but it also represents the United States and ideals like freedom, patriotism, and pride.  In a story or play, rain could be a symbol; the rain would really be rain, but it might also represent an idea like sadness or leaving the past behind.  Symbolize means “to be a symbol of.”

symbolism (SiM-buhl-izm):  The practice of using symbols.  See also: symbol.

theme (theem):  A story’s main message or moral.

tone (tohn):  The author’s attitude toward the subject matter or toward the reader or audience.  Words that could describe tone include doubtful, humorous, gleeful, serious, and questioning.  Tone is conveyed through the author’s word choices and the details that he or she includes.

From Scholastic Scope