Literary Terms






In order to more fully understand and appreciate works of literature, a reader must possess a keen and firm grasp of the literary elements (components) which together compose the fabric of the writing. The following is a brief overview of some of those key, foundational literary elements:



The setting of a story is the time and place in which the action occurs. The author may state the setting directly (explicitly), or the author may hint at or suggest the setting through action or dialogue (implicitly). Some settings are general and some are specific. Setting can help create the mood, or atmosphere, of the story. It can also provide important background; this is especially important in historical fiction. In some works of literature the setting is a very important part of the story; in others, it is not so important.



A character is a personality (a human, an animal, or even a non-living object) in a story. A character in a story may be real or imaginary.

Characterization is the device used by an author to make a character believable. The character is developed through (1) what that character says and does, (2) what other people say about him/her and how they react to him/her, and (3) what the author reveals directly or through a narrator.

The main character is called the protagonist. The character or force that opposes the protagonist is called the antagonist.

Flat characters are characters that usually represent a single virtue or vice, such as goodness, innocence, or evil. In other words, they are usually all good or all bad. Round characters, on the other hand, are complicated individuals with strengths as well as weaknesses. The strengths and weaknesses a character possesses are called character traits.

A static character stays pretty much the same throughout the story. A dynamic character changes in some important way during the story.



Conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. It results when the protagonist encounters a problem – a force which may prevent him/her from achieving a goal. There are four basic types of conflict, each involving a different type of obstacle, or antagonist.


Character versus Character: This conflict pits one character against another.

Character versus Nature: This conflict pits a character against some force of nature.

Character versus Society: With this conflict a character has a problem with a particular  sector of society: family, friends, community, government, and so on.

Character versus Self: With this conflict the character must deal with a problem within, such as his/her own weaknesses, fears, or faults.                   

Often, more than one kind of conflict is taking place at the same time. In every case, however, the existence of conflict enhances the reader’s understanding of a character and creates the suspense and interest that make you want to continue reading.


Suspense, which is triggered by conflict, is a growing sense of tension or anxiety about what will happen next in the story.



The plot is the pattern or sequence of cause-and-effect events that occur in the story. The plot almost always begins with some conflict or problem that a character must face or somehow resolve.


Plot Development


Plot describes the structure of a story. The way an author structures a story may vary, but the following are the main components of plot development:


Beginning (Exposition): The introductory material which gives the setting, creates the tone, presents the characters, and presents other facts necessary to understanding the story.

Conflict: The essence of fiction. It creates plot. The conflicts encountered can usually be identified as one of four kinds (Character versus…Character, Nature, Society, or Self)

Rising Action: It is series of many events that builds from the conflict and ends with the climax.

Climax: The climax is the high point, the turning point of the story for the reader. It is the point where the story reaches its greatest tension or action or excitement.

Falling Action: It is the series of events (usually fewer than the rising action) after the climax which closes the story.

Resolution (Denouement): It rounds out and concludes the action.



The theme is the author’s message or underlying purpose in writing a story, novel, or play.  The theme provides a basic message about life. A theme may be stated directly or implied. Theme differs from the subject or topic of a literary work in that it involves a statement or opinion about the topic. Not every literary work has a theme. Themes may be major or minor. A major theme is an idea the author returns to time and again. It becomes one of the most important ideas in the story. Minor themes are ideas that may appear from time to time.

It is important to recognize the difference between the theme of a literary work and the subject of a literary work. The subject is the topic on which an author has chosen to write. The theme, however, makes some statement about or expresses some opinion on that topic. For example, the subject of a story might be war while the theme might be the idea that war is useless.

Topic is the subject or main idea about which the author has chosen to write.



Foreshadowing is an author’s use of hints or clues to suggest events that will occur later in the story. Not all foreshadowing is obvious. Frequently, future events are merely hinted at through dialogue, description, or the attitudes and reactions of the characters.

Foreshadowing frequently serves two purposes. First, it builds suspense by raising questions that encourage the reader to go on and find out more about the event that is being foreshadowed. Secondly, foreshadowing is also a means of making a narrative more believable by partially preparing the reader for events which are to follow.



Flashback is a technique authors use to move back in time in order to provide valuable background information or insight into a character or to clarify current actions in a story. Flashbacks can appear as character memories or dreams, or in dialogue or narration.


Imagery is a technique writers use to create a mental picture to help the reader see, hear, feel, taste, and sometimes even smell what is being described in a story. In short, it appeals to the senses.


Suspense is the excitement or tension that builds in a story. Writers use suspense to build and maintain the reader’s interest.



Point of view has to do with who tells the story; in other words, who the narrator is. The most common points of view are first person and third person. Generally a story’s point of view is fixed, that is it does not change throughout the story.


First Person
The narrator is a character in the story who can reveal only personal thoughts and feelings and what he or she sees and is told by other characters. He cannot tell us thoughts of other characters. The narrator uses such words as I, me, myself and our to tell the story.

Third-Person Objective
The narrator is not a character in the story, but an outsider who can report only what he or she sees and hears. This narrator can tell us what is happening, but he cannot tell us the thoughts of any of the characters. The narrator uses such words as she, he, and they, them, their to tell the story.

Third-Person Limited
The narrator is not a character in the story, but an outsider who can report only what he or she sees and hears and who sees into the mind of one of the characters.

Third-Person Omniscient 
The narrator is not a character in the story, but an outsider who is all-knowing and can enter the minds of two or more of the characters.

Second Person

The author writes directly to the reader. The second person point of view is common in guides and handbooks.




A symbol is a word, an object, an event, a character – anything really – that stands for, or represents, something else. Some symbols are nearly universally recognized such as a heart for love, a skull for death, and a flag for patriotism. Other symbols are created by an author for a particular writing.

Symbolism is the use of symbols by an author in either a fiction or a nonfiction story.

An allegory is a very special type of fiction which from beginning to end, in every respect, is symbolic. The characters, the action, the setting – all suggest a meaning beyond the literal, or actual.



Irony occurs in stories when the opposite of what is expected or intended occurs. It is a contrast of what is thought to be true and what really is true. The three most common types of irony are verbal, situational, and dramatic.


Verbal Irony
It occurs when a character says one thing and means something quite the opposite.

Situational Irony
It occurs when the outcome of some action in a story is the opposite of what was originally intended or expected. Sometimes this is called an ironic twist.

Dramatic Irony
It occurs when the reader (or viewer) knows something that a character does not yet know.



Tone is the author’s attitude, stated or implied, toward a subject. Some possible tones are pessimistic, optimistic, serious, bitter, humorous, sad, and suspicious. An author’s tone can be revealed through choice of words and details.

Mood is the feeling created in a reader by a literary work. The choice of setting, objects, details, images, and words all contribute towards creating a specific mood. Some possible moods are frightening, joyous, sorrowful, hopeful, gloomy, mysterious, romantic, and suspenseful



Figurative language is language that goes beyond the literal meaning of words in order to provide fresh insights into an idea or a subject. The most common figures of speech are simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, idioms, and hyperbole.

A simile is a comparison between two things that are unlike but have something in common. A simile uses the words like or as to make the comparison. Example: When the girl ate her lunch, she devoured it like a pig.


A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are unlike but have something in common; however, it does so directly without using the words like or as. Example: When the boy moves in the hallway between classes, he is a turtle.


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds occurring at the beginning of words or within words. Alliteration is used to create melody, establish mood, call attention to important words, and point out similarities and contrasts. Example: We were wide-eyed and wondering while we waited for others to waken.

Personification is a figure of speech which gives the qualities of a person to an animal, an object, or an idea. It is a comparison which the author uses to show something in an entirely new light, to communicate a certain feeling or attitude towards it and to control the way a reader perceives it. Example: The cheerful maple trees were wearing their bright yellow and red autumn garments.

Onomatopoeia is the use of words that mimic sounds. They appeal to our sense of hearing and they help bring a description to life. A string of syllables the author has made up to represent the way a sound really sounds. Examples: Buzz! Meow! Quack! Bang! Boom! Roar! Zip! Sizzle! Whack! Slurp! and Swish!

An idiom is an expression that means something different from what it states, a statement that does not make sense if it is taken literally. Example: It is raining cats and dogs (which means it is raining heavily).

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement used to heighten effect. It is not used to mislead the reader, but to emphasize a point. Example: The exasperated mother shouted, “I’ve told you a million times to clean up your room, and I will not tell you again!”