Important Terms to Know

A Glossary of Terms for Literary Analysis


act:  a major unit of action in a drama or play.  Each act can be further divided into smaller sections called scenes.

alliteration (a-LIT-uh-RAY-shuhn): the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words (tongue twisters)

analogy: a comparison of two or more like objects that suggests if they are alike in certain respects, they will probably be alike in other ways as well.

anecdote:  a brief account of an interesting incident or event that usually is intended to entertain or to make a point.

antagonist (an-TAG-uh-nist):  see character

assonance:  repetition of vowel sounds within a line of poetry.

audience:  the particular group of readers or viewers that the writer is addressing.  A writer considers his or her audience when deciding on a subject, a purpose for writing and the tone and style in which to write.

author: the writer of a book, article or other text.

author’s purpose:  an author’s purpose is his or her reason for creating a particular work.  The purpose can be to entertain, explain or inform, express an opinion, or to persuade.

autobiography: a form of nonfiction in which a person tells the story of his or her life.


ballad: is a poem that tells a story and is meant to be sung or recited.

biography:  the story of a person’s life that is written by someone else.


caesura: a pause or a sudden break in a line of poetry

cause and effect:  two events are related as cause and effect when one event brings about or causes the other.  The event that happens first is the cause; the one that follows is the effect.

character:  a person who is responsible for the thoughts and actions within a story, poem, or other literature. Characters are extremely important because they are the medium through which a reader interacts with a piece of literature. Every character has his or her own personality, which a creative author uses to assist in forming the plot of a story or creating a mood.

                        Terms Associated with Characterization:

1.      antagonist (an-TAG-uh-nist):  a character in a story or poem who deceives, frustrates, or works against the main character, or protagonist, in some way. The antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could be death, the devil, an illness, or any challenge that prevents the main character from living “happily ever after."

2.      caricature: a picture or imitation of a person’s habits, physical appearance or mannerisms exaggerated in a comic or absurd way.

3.      foil: a character who serves as a contrast or a conflict to another character

4.      hero/heroine: a character whose actions are inspiring or noble; often the main character in a story.

5.      main characters:  the characters who are central to the plot of a story; main characters are usually dynamic and round.

6.      minor characters:  a less important character who interacts with the main characters, helping to move the plot along and providing background for the story.  Minor characters are usually static and flat.

7.      novel, play, story, or poem.  He or she may also be referred to as the "hero" of a work.

characterization:  all of the techniques that writers use to create characters. 

                        Terms Associated with Characterization:

1.      character trait:  a character’s personality; a trait is not a physical description of a character.

2.      direct characterization:  the author directly states a character’s traits or makes direct comments about a character’s nature.

3.      dynamic character:  a character who changes throughout the course of the story.

4.      flat character:  a character about whom little information is provided.

5.      indirect characterization:  the author does not directly state a character’s traits; instead the reader draws conclusions and discovers a character’s traits based upon clues provided by the author.

6.      round character:  is a character who is fully described by the author (several character traits, background information, etc.)

7.      static character:  a character who does not change or who changes very little in the course of a story.

chronological order:  the order in which events happen in time.

clarifying: the reader’s process of pausing occasionally while reading to quickly review what he or she understands.  By clarifying as they read, good readers are able to draw conclusions about what is suggested but not stated directly.

cliché: a type of figurative language containing an overused expression or a saying that is no longer considered original.

climax:  see plot

comedy:  a dramatic work that is light and often humorous in tone and usually ends happily with a peaceful resolution of the main conflict.

comparison:  the process of identifying similarities.

concrete poetry: a type of poetry that uses its physical or visual form to present its message.

conflict:  the tension or problem in the story; a struggle between opposing forces. 


connecting:  a reader’s process of relating the content of a literary work to his or her own knowledge and experience.


connotation (KAH-nuh-TAE-shun): the idea and feeling associated with a word as opposed to its dictionary definition or denotation.

consonance:  the repetition of consonant sounds anywhere within a line of poetry.  Alliteration is a specific type of consonance.

context clues:  hints or suggestions that may surround unfamiliar words or phrases and clarify their meaning.

contrast:  the process of pointing out differences between things.

couplet (KUP-let):  a rhymed pair of lines in a poem.  One of William Shakespeare’s trademarks was to end a sonnet with a couplet, as in the poem “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long as lives this, and this gives life to thee.


denotation (DEE-no-TAE-shuhn) is the opposite of connotation in that it is the exact or dictionary meaning of a word.

denouement (day-noo-mon):  see plot

dialogue (di-UH-log): The conversation between characters in a drama or narrative. A dialogue occurs in most works of literature.

drama:  a drama or play is a form of literature meant to be performed by actors before an audience.  In a drama, the characters’ dialogue and actions tell the story.  The written form of a play is known as a script.

drawing conclusions:  combining several pieces of information to make an inference is called drawing a conclusion.


epic:  a long narrative poem about the adventures of a hero whose actions reflect the ideals and values of a nation or group.

epitaph: a short poem or verse written in memory of someone

essay: a short work of nonfiction that deals with a single subject.


Various Types of Essays

1.      descriptive essay is one that describes a particular subject.

2.      expository essay is one whose purpose is to explain and give information about a subject.

3.      formal essay is highly organized and thoroughly researched.

4.      humorous essay is one whose purpose is to amuse or entertain the reader.

5.      informal essay is lighter in tone and usually reflects the writer’s feelings and personality.

6.      narrative essay is an essay that tells a story.

7.      persuasive essay attempts to convince a reader to adopt a particular option or course of action.

evaluating:  the process of judging the value of something or someone.  A work of literature can be evaluated in terms of such criteria as entertainment, believability, originality, and emotional power. 

exaggeration:  see hyperbole

exposition:  see plot


fable: a brief tale that teaches a lesson about human nature. Fables often feature animals as characters.

fact and opinion:  a fact is a statement that can be proved. An opinion, in contrast, is a statement that reflects the writer’s or speaker’s belief, but which cannot be supported by proof or evidence. 

falling action:  see plot

fantasy:  a work of literature that contains at least one fantastic or unreal element.

fiction:  prose writing that tells an imaginary story.  Fiction includes both short stories and novels.

figurative language or figure of speech:  expressions that are not literally true.  see simile, metaphor, or hyperbole

first person point of view:  see point of view

flashback:  an interruption of the chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) of an event of earlier occurrence. A flashback is a narrative technique that allows a writer to present past events during current events, in order to provide background for the current narration. 

folklore:  traditions, customs and stories that are passed down within a culture.  Folklore contains various types of literature such as legends, folktales, myths, and fables. 

folktale:  a simple story that has been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.  Folktales are told primarily to entertain rather than to explain or teach a lesson.

foreshadowing: when the writer provides clues or hints that suggest or predict future event in a story.   

free verse:  poetry without regular patterns of rhyme and rhythm.  Often used to capture the sounds and rhythms of ordinary speech.


generalization:  a broad statement about an entire group.

genre (ZHAHN-ruh): a type or category of literature.  The four main literary genres include:  fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. 


haiku:  a traditional form of Japanese poetry, usually dealing with nature.  A haiku has three lines and describes a single moment, feeling or thing.  The first and third lines contain five syllables and the second line contains seven syllables.

hero or heroine: see character

heroic couplet or closed couplet: a couplet consisting of two successive rhyming lines that contain a complete thought.

historical fiction:  fiction that explores a past time period and may contain references to actual people and events of the past. 

horror fiction: fiction that contains mysterious and often supernatural events to create a sense of terror.

humor:  the quality that provokes laughter or amusement.  Writers create humor through exaggeration, sarcasm, amusing descriptions, irony, and witty dialogue.

hyperbole (hi-per-bo-lee): a figure of speech in which the truth is exaggerated for emphasis or humorous effect.


idiom: a phrase or expression that means something different from what the words actually say (for example, using the phrase “over his head” instead of “He doesn’t understand”).

imagery:  the use of words and phrases that appeal to the five senses.  Writers use sensory details to help readers imagine how things look, feel, smell, sound, and taste.

inference:  is a logical guess based on evidence based on evidence in the text.

interview:  a meeting in which one person asks another about personal matters, professional matters or both.




legend: a story handed down from the past about a specific person, usually someone of heroic accomplishments.

limerick:  a short humorous poem composed of five lines that usually has the rhyme scheme aabba, created by two rhyming couplets followed by a fifth line that rhymes with the first couplet.  A limerick typically has a sing-song rhythm.

literal meaning: the actual meaning of a word or phrase.

lyric (LEER-ick) poetry: a song-like poem written mainly to express the feelings or emotions of a single speaker.    


main character:  see character

main idea:  the most important point that a writer wishes to express.

memoir:  a specific type of autobiography; like autobiography, a memoir is about the author’s personal experiences. However, a memoir does not necessarily cover the author’s entire life.

metaphor (met-AH-for): a type of figurative language in which a comparison is made between two things that are essentially unalike but may have one quality in common.  Unlike a simile, a metaphor does not contain an explicit word of comparison, such as “like” or “as”.

minor character: see character

mood: a mood or atmosphere is the feeling that a literary work conveys to readers.  Mood is created through the use of plot, character, the author’s descriptions, etc.

moral: a lesson that a story teaches.  A moral is often stated directly at the end of a fable.

motivation: the reason why a character acts, feels or thinks in a certain way.

myth (mith): a traditional story that attempts to explain how the world was created or why the world is the way that it is. Myths are stories that are passed on from generation to generation and are of unknown authorship.  Also see folklore.


narrative (na-RAH-tiv): any writing that tells a story. Most novels and short stories are placed into the categories of first-person and third-person narratives, which are based on who is telling the story and from what perspective.

Terms that relate to "narrative”

1.      narrative poetry: poetry that tells a story. A narrative poem can come in many forms and styles, both complex and simple, short or long, as long as it tells a story. Like fiction, narrative poetry contains characters, settings and plots.

2.      narrator: one who tells a story; the speaker or the “voice” of an oral or written work. The narrator is not usually the same person as the author. The narrator is the direct window into a piece of work. Who the author chooses to narrate establishes the point of view in the story.

3.      unreliable narrator: one who gives his or her own understanding of a story, instead of the explanation and interpretation the author wishes the audience to obtain. This type of action tends to alter the audience’s opinion of the conclusion. 

narrative poem (nar-RAH-tiv po-EM): see narrative

narrator (nar-RAY-ter): see narrative 

nonfiction: is prose writing that presents and explains ideas or that tells about real people, places, objects or events.  Some examples of nonfiction include autobiographies, newspaper articles, biographies, essays, etc.

novel: a work of fiction that is longer and more complex than a short story.  In a novel, setting, plot and characters are usually developed in great detail.


onomatopoeia:  the use of words whose sound suggest their meaning (ex. buzz, bang, hiss).

opinion:  see fact and opinion


paraphrasing:  the restatement of a text by readers in their own words or in another form.

parody: a literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author’s work for comic effect or ridicule.

personification {PER-son-E-fih-ka-shEn): a figure of speech where animals, ideas or inanimate objects are given human characteristics.

perspective:  see point of view

persuasion:  persuasive writing is meant to sway readers’ feelings, beliefs, or actions.  Persuasion normally appeals to both the mind and the emotions of readers.

play:  see drama

plot:  the sequence of related events that make up a story.                                                                                            

Terms Associated with Plot

1.      exposition:  introduces the characters and the conflicts they face.

2.      inciting incident:  occurs after the exposition and introduces the central conflict within the story. 

3.      rising action:  following the introduction of the central conflict; complications arise as the characters struggle with the conflict.                                                                                                                                                                               

4.      climax:  the turning point, point of maximum interest, and highest tension in the plot of a story, play, or film.  The climax usually occurs towards the end of story after the reader has understood the conflict and become emotionally involved with the characters.  At the climax, the conflict is resolved, and the outcome of the plot becomes clear.                                           

5.      falling action:  the end of the central conflict in a story, when the action starts to wind down.                                 

6.      resolution or denouement:  occurs after the climax and is where conflicts are resolved and loose ends are tied up.

7.      subplot:  an additional minor plot that involves a secondary conflict in the story; the subplot may or may not affect the main plot.

poetry:  a type of literature in which ideas and feelings are expressed in compact, imaginative, and often musical language.  Poets arrange words in ways designed to touch readers’ senses, emotions, and minds.  Most poems are written in lines that may contain patterns of rhyme and rhythm.  These lines may in turn be grouped in stanzas. 

point of view: perspective from which a story is told. Understanding the point of view used in a work is critical to understanding literature; it serves as the instrument to relay the events of a story, and in some instances the feelings and motives of the character(s). 

Terms Associated with Point of View:         

1.      first person point of view:  the person telling the story is one of the characters in the story.  It is the “I” point of view.  It is the most limited among the types because the narrator can only state what he or she sees, feels, and hears.  He or she cannot go into the minds of the other characters.

2.      second person point of view:  refers to the use of “you” in explanations or arguments. It is not frequently used, but is appropriate in certain circumstances.  Most second person points of view occur within instructions that are meant to be followed. 

3.      third person limited or third person objective:  the person telling the story is not one of the characters in the story.  He or she is an outside observer.  The reader can only know what one character learns through interaction with other characters or through overheard conversations.  The narrator cannot supply the thoughts or feelings of other characters in the story.       

4.      third person omniscient:  the narrator is not a character in the story, but the events in the story are seen through the eyes of more than one of the characters.  The narrator is considered to be “all knowing” and cannot only see and hear everything that is happening to all characters in the story, but can also enter their minds and tell the reader what each is thinking and feeling. This is the least limited point of view because the narrator has knowledge of all the characters.           

predicting:  the process of gathering information and combining it with the reader’s own knowledge to guess what might occur in the story.

primary source:  a first hand account of an event; primary sources include: diaries, journals, letters, speeches, news stories, photographs, and pieces of art.

propaganda: text that uses false or misleading information to present a slanted point of view.

prose:  the ordinary form of spoken and written language; that is, language that lacks the special features of poetry.  Examples of prose include:  essays, stories, articles, speeches, etc. 

protagonist (pro-TAG-eh-nist)  see character


questioning:  the process of raising questions while reading in an effort to understand characters and events.


realistic fiction:  imaginative writing set in the real, modern world.  The characters act like real people who use ordinary human abilities to cope with problems and conflicts typical of modern life. 

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

resolution:  see plot

rhyme (rime): repetition of an identical or similarly accented sound or sounds in a work.  Rhyme gives poems flow and rhythm, helping the lyricist tell a story and convey a mood.

                                    Some Terms Associated with Rhyme:

1.            end or terminal rhymes:  words that rhyme at the end of a verse-line.

2.            eye rhymes: are words that when written appear to rhyme, but when spoken do not (ex:  dog/fog, cough/enough/bough, etc).

3.            internal rhyme:  rhyme found within a line of poetry (alliteration, assonance, and consonance). 

4.            slant rhyme (slänt rime) is also known as near rhyme, half rhyme, off rhyme, imperfect rhyme, oblique rhyme, or pararhyme. A distinctive system or pattern of metrical structure and verse composition in which two words have only their final consonant sounds and no preceding vowel or consonant sounds in common. Instead of perfect or identical sounds or rhyme, it is the repetition of near or similar sounds or the pairing of accented and unaccented sounds that if both were accented would be perfect rhymes (stopped and wept, parable and shell). Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are accepted as slant rhyme due to their usage of sound combinations (spilled and spoiled, chitter and chatter).

rhyme scheme: the pattern of end rhyme used in a poem, generally indicated by matching lowercase letters to show which lines rhyme. The letter "a" notes the first line, and all other lines rhyming with the first line. The first line that does not rhyme with the first, or "a" line, and all others that rhyme with this line, is noted by the letter "b", and so on. The rhyme scheme may follow a fixed pattern (as in a sonnet) or may be arranged freely according to the poet's requirements.

rhythm (see also meter):  refers to the pattern of flow of sounds created by the arrangement of stressed and unstressed syllables in a line of poetry.  The accented or stressed syllables are marked with:

                                                stressed or accented syllables:  /

                                                unstressed or unaccented syllables:  X or U

rising action:  see plot


scanning:  the process of searching through writing for a particular fact or piece of information.

scene:  a section in a play presenting events that occur in one place at one time.

science fiction:  prose writing in which a writer explores unexpected possibilities of the past or the future by using scientific data and theories as well as his or her imagination. 

secondary source: a secondary source presents information compiled from or based on other sources.

sensory details:  words and phrases that help readers see, hear, taste, feel, or smell what an author is describing.

sequence:  the order in which events occur or in which ideas are presented.


setting (set-ting): the time, place, physical details, and circumstances in which a story occurs. Settings include the background, atmosphere or environment in which characters live and move, and usually include physical characteristics of the surroundings.

Settings enables the reader to better envision how a story unfolds by relating necessary physical details of a piece of literature.

short story:  brief work of fiction that generally focuses on one or two main characters who face a single problem or conflict.

simile (sim-EH-lee): a simile is a type of figurative language that makes a comparison between two otherwise unlike objects or ideas by connecting them with the words "like" or "as."


sound devices: see alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, rhyme and rhythm.

speaker: the voice that talks to the reader in a poem, as the narrator does in a work of fiction.  The speaker in the poem is not necessarily the poet.

speech: a talk given in public.

stage directions: the instructions to the actors, director and stage crew in the script of a play.

stanza: a grouping of two or more lines within a poem.  A stanza is comparable to a paragraph in prose. Some common stanza forms include:                                                                                                                                                   

·        two line stanza: couplet

·        three line stanza: triplet or tercet

·        four line stanza: quatrain

·        five line stanza: cinquain or quintet

·        six line stanza: sestet or sextet

·        seven line stanza: septet

·        eight line stanza: octave

·        fourteen line stanza: sonnet

stereotype: a broad generalization or an oversimplified view that disregards individual differences.

story mapping: a visual organizer that helps a reader understand a work of literature by tracking setting, characters, events and conflicts.

subplot: see plot

summarizing: the process of briefly recounting the main ideas of a piece of writing in a person’s own words, while omitting unimportant details.

suspense: a feeling of growing tension and excitement.  Writers create suspense by raising questions in readers’ minds about what might happen.



tall tale: a humorously exaggerated story about impossible events.

theme: a common thread or repeated idea that is incorporated throughout a literary work. A theme is a thought or idea the author presents to the reader about life or human nature. Generally, a theme has to be extracted as the reader explores the passages of a work. The author utilizes the characters, plot, and other literary devices to assist the reader in this endeavor. The author often intertwines the theme throughout the work, and the full impact is slowly realized as the reader processes the text. The ability to recognize a theme is important because it allows the reader to understand part of the author’s purpose in writing the book.

tone: the writer’s attitude or feeling  about his or her subject.



understatement: a statement that is restrained in ironic contrast to what might have been said; the opposite of hyperbole. Understatement is usually used for a humorous effect.

urban legend: a contemporary story that is told in many rumored versions that have little basis in fact.


voice: an author or narrator’s distinctive style or manner of expression.  Voice can reveal much about the author or narrator’s personality.