Literary Terms


Figurative Language - In general, this is a way of using words to make imaginative connections in the reader's "inner eye." These connections can be called images. As you learn to recognize and appreciate figurative language, your appreciation and ability to actively read good writing will increase. These are the types of figurative language on which we will concentrate this year:
Metaphor - the comparison of two unlike things to suggest things which they have in common - for example: Joe is a lion on the playing field would compare Joe to a lion in how he moves, his aggression, his animal-like actions, his skill and strength, his leadership. When you identify a metaphor, you have to dig deeply to find all of the layers of possible meaning.

Simile - a comparison of two unlike things using like or as - for example: Sue flits through life like a moth in a room of candles compares Sue to a delicate, fluttering moth which is drawn to fire and raises an image of both delight and confusion, perhaps also mindlessness and upcoming death or failure. Like a metaphor, a simile can seem obvious, but it is usually telling you something about a character or setting if you are willing to dig a little deeper. 

Personification - the description of an inanimate object as if it were a human being or an animal - for example: The kite tugged and pulled at the string, longing for the freedom of the skies gives the kite human actions and a motive for them. In using personification the author asks the reader to identify with the object or character viewing it more deeply than would be possible in a simple description.

Extended metaphor - a paragraph or longer of description which builds upon an initial metaphor, often bringing several of the senses (sight, sound, touch, hearing, taste) into play. This is often used by an author seeking to make a point in a setting description or seeking to create a character for the narrator or narrative focus (e.g.: imaginative, naive, fanciful, terrified)

Hyperbole - an obvious and unrealistic exaggeration - for example: His gaping jaw could hold a flock of the King's fattest sheep indicates excess and perhaps a fearful or highly imaginative narrative focus. A good way to identify hyperbole is to ask yourself the old tall-tale question: Just how [tall, wide, hungry, lazy, angry...] was he/she/it?

Onomatopoeia - use of a word which sounds like it means - for example: plunk, zip, buzz, bong, zap all have meaning which is reinforced by the sound of the word. Repetition of onomatopoeiaic words is used by authors to create a mood or tone and to convey sense impressions (e.g. motion, touch, sound)

Pun - a word which has several meanings, all of which apply; puns are often based on sound, so homophones and homonyms have to be though of as well - for example: In Induction I of Taming of the Shrew the bum Sly states "I smell" when testing to see if he is awake; he can smell, but he also does smell. Puns are generally a source of humor, but they can also be cruel or unkind. Lewis Carroll is very fond of puns and uses them to good effect in Alice. 

Oxymoron - a phrase which contains opposite elements or words with opposite meanings, yet which expresses one idea when taken as a whole - for example: Bottom says in Midsummer Night's Dream, "I'll speak in a monstrous little voice."

Literary Vocabulary

Setting - time (date, time of day, season) and place - a piece of writing will generally have many settings and each setting will generally carry with it a mood or atmosphere.

Plot - what happens, concretely, as though it were placed on a history time line.

Incident - one specific thing which happens in a plot. Many short stories are basically one incident described in detail.

Theme - the answer to this question: What is this all about? Themes tend to be the author's message about important human conditions or problems, such as Good and Evil, Death, Freedom, Bondage, Hope, the Quest, Heritage, Believing, Family, Relationships, The Role of Women in Society. The Theme Statement is your one sentence summary of what the author or the work (novel, story, poem, play) has to say about an overall theme - for example: A theme of the novel Dragonwings is that the support of family is essential in a good life. Stories, plays and poems will have more than one theme about which you can formulate more than one theme statement. But be careful - you must be able to support a theme statement with specific evidence from the story, play or poem itself. Another expression for theme of a poem is the abstract meaning.

Tone: Style or manner or expression in speech or writing. The way the author feels about the topic. (Some words describing tone: Formal, informal, serious, humorous, amused, angry, playful, neutral, satirical, gloomy, conciliatory, sad, resigned, cheerful, ironic, clear, detailed, imploring, suspicious, witty)

Mood or atmosphere  - the overall feeling created by a piece of writing. Mood can often be described in a few words, such as scared, lonely, empty, triumphant, anxious, but you must be able to refer to specific details in the description, setting, or passage to defend your word or words. The way the reader feels as he/she reads the work. (Other mood words: happy, excited, frustrated ,confused ,angry ,sad ,surprised, unhappy, nervous, relieved, relaxed, reassured, passionate, embarrassed ,irritated ,disappointed ,uncertain ,
            skeptical ,optimistic ,restless ,threatened ,offended ,heartbroken, mournful,         bored, guilty

Dialogue - a discussion or conversation between two or more characters. Most dialogues follow the rules of punctuation. Do not confuse dialogue with a play script. Dialogue is part of, or sometimes all of, a story or novel and this is what you should write when you asked to write a dialogue

Monologue - one character alone talking to the reader/audience/to himself. A monologue in a play is called a soliloquy and finds the character alone on the stage, often speaking about a decision, plan, or other internal conflict.

Interior monologue or internal monologue - a character thinking to himself. The author will often begin this by saying: He thought, he was thinking, she imagined...

Malapropism - substitution of "fancy" or "pompous" words, often opposite to the intended meanings or meaningless, for a correct word - for example: in Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom says, "We will rehearse most obscenely (seemly?) and courageously." 

Character traits of a character - what type of person is this? Character traits are revealed through actions, dialogue, internal monologue, and by the author or narrator directly.

Motive - why a character does what he/she does. Motives are often feelings or logical conclusions, but can be also impulse based upon the actions or words of another. Every action has a motive.

External Conflict - a fight, argument, disagreement or simply opposition in which 2 sides are present. Characters, themes, ideas, forces can all be in conflict. Conflicts are stated this way: Joe vs. Sue, man vs. nature, love vs. hate, freedom vs. bondage, free vs. caged, beautiful vs. ugly. Be sure that both sides of the vs. are the same part of speech and that they are, in fact, nearly opposite or in opposition in the book. An external conflict is shown through actions (fight, argument, physical struggle), character traits (a good and a bad character), dialogues, descriptions - just about anything. Identification of conflicts will lead you to theme. The resolution of the external conflict will advance the plot toward the climax and the end.

Internal Conflict - an argument or decision-making process within one character's mind. An internal conflict is stated this way: Should I swallow my pride and go visit my son, or should I wait until he comes to me with an apology? An internal conflict has a motive and its resolution is important to the development of the plot.

Plot diagram

A.Introduction or Exposition - setting, characters, main conflicts are introduced to the reader; this is the beginning of a novel or story and may be short or long, but is always flat (little action or emotion).

B.Rising Action - the round characters are developed, the conflicts are increased and acted out in many ways, motives are introduced, things happen; generally, the major part of a novel or story.

C.Climax - the "high point" of a story in which the major conflicts erupt in some kind of final show-down (fight, argument, violent or physical action, very tense emotional moment...); at the end of the climax, the "winner" will be clear (there is not always a winner!).

D.Falling Action - what events immediately follow the climax; a kind of "cleaning up."
E.Resolution - where everything ends; the reader may have some sense of "closure" or may be asked to think about what might come next; in fairy tales, the Happy Ending; in some novels, you will read about the characters many years later.

Irony - There are 3 types of irony which you need to know:

Irony of situation - when the reverse of the expected happens or when the person you least expect to do something, does it - for example: It is ironic that Cinderella gets the prince; it is ironic in Dragonwings that the Chinese own and are able to rebuild houses upon the land denied to them by the Demons; it is ironic in Dragonwings that Black Dog dies in the same manner that he tries to kill Moon Shadow.

Dramatic irony - when the viewer or the reader is aware of a situation of which the character(s) are not aware - for example: In Romeo and Juliet the reader knows that Juliet is not really dead, but Romeo does not know this. Another example is when the audience knows that Lysander is "drugged" into loving Helena, but he does not know this. Dramatic irony can be a source of tragedy, of comedy, or of tension.

Irony of language - when a name or description refers to or suggests the opposite of truth - for example: In Dragonwings the leader of a fierce brotherhood/gang is called Water Fairy. The irony is not just that the name is inappropriate, but that it was earned in an inappropriate way. Irony of language is often used for humor, but it can also be cruel or sarcastic. The name of the character Lefty, in Dragonwings, is as ironic as his situation.


Coincidence - something which happens by chance. Authors use coincidence to advance the plot, to create and resolve conflicts, and sometimes just for humor or to startle the reader. 

Mirroring or parallels - A character or incident mirrors another character or incident when the two follow similar plots, act in similar ways or contain similar elements or traits. Remember, though, that a mirror image is also opposite - left is right. So one mirror character may be rich, the other poor; one relationship may end happily, the other unhappily. Authors use mirrors to add depth to stories and to increase the reader's interest in and appreciation for the characters and their situations. Mirrors are used frequently on situation comedy shows - watch for them!

Concrete meaning - in a poem or story, what happens, in one sentence if possible. For example:
Upon my bed
Lies the bright moonlight
Like frost upon the earth.

Lifting my eyes,
I see the bright moon.
Closing my eyes,
I see home. (from Dragonwings)

The concrete meaning is this: The narrator is in a strange bed at night and the light of the moon makes him think of home.

Abstract meaning - the theme or message of the poem or story. This has to be based on the concrete meaning, upon what is actually in the poem, and should also take conflicts into consideration. For example: 
In the poem above, the abstract meaning might be: Loneliness and homesickness are cold feelings, but we are warmed by our memories of home.

Literaral vs. figurative meaning - relates to the meanings of words and phrases or expressions. For example, "She was all ears" has a figurative meaning (She was listening intently) as well as a literal meaning (Her body was composed of ears or she had a huge set of ears). Lewis Carroll and other authors use and confuse the meanings to create nonsense and humor. In some novels, characters who are literal-minded are a source of ridicule.

Terms more specific to the way poets use words:

The Form of a poem - The elements of form are number of lines, rhyme, rhythm, number of stanzas, and (for us) rules of grammar (standard or non-standard).

Stanza - a group of lines of poetry, like a paragraph, set off usually by a blank space. Poets create stanzas for a reason. The lines belong together.

Rhyme - The repetition of sound, almost always to achieve an effect or to create a rhythm. 
end rhyme is the repetition of the end sounds of the words at the ends of lines of poetry;
near rhyme or off rhyme is not quite true or pure - "tree" rhyme with "hurry";
internal rhyme rhymes a word in the middle of a line of poetry with a word elsewhere in the line.

Rhythm - is the beat or pattern of stressed and unstressed lines. We will try to identify patterns this year. For example, read the following lines out loud. 
Many poems do not use rhythm.

Free verse - poetry which does not have a regular rhythm, rhyme scheme, or form. Some free verse poems also do not use punctuation or capitalization, or otherwise break the rules of grammar.

Fulcrum of a poem - Poems, like stories, are built upon contrast and conflict. The fulcrum is that point in the poem in which the contrasting or conflicting ideas, images, or moods are resolved - one wins out. A fulcrum is often the most emotional line or lines and often carries the clue to meaning.

Alliteration is the repetition of consonants within words in close proximity. Alliteration generally refers to sounds at the start of a word. Here are two literary examples:
In Gerard Manley Hopkins's “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things...
Landscapes plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
The letter “g” is used in repetition in the first line, “p” and “f” in the second line, and “t” in the third line.
In one more example, Shakespeare parodies alliteration in Peter Quince's Prologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely breach'd his boiling bloody breast.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel-sounds within non-rhyming words.
In Poe's, "Bells" he uses assonance of the vowel "e:"
Hear the mellow wedding bells. 
Assonance of the vowel "u" used by Robert Louis Stevenson:
The crumbling thunder of seas 
Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within words. Consonance is very similar to alliteration, but the distinction between the two lies in the placement of the sounds. If the repeated sound is at the start of the words, it is alliteration. If it is anywhere else, it is consonance. In most cases, consonance refers to the end sound (like “nk” in blank and think
Consonance in "The Silken Tent" by Robert Frost: 
"So that in guys it gently sways at ease"
Comparing Alliteration, Assonance and Consonance:
There is an example of all three of these terms in one line of the poem, “The Raven,” written by Edgar Allan Poe:
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
This line clearly contains all three, and can show the difference between assonance, consonance and alliteration.
Assonance is the repetition of the ur sound in "purple" and "curtain."
Consonance is the repetition of the s sound within "uncertain" and "rustling."
Alliteration is the repetition of the s sound at the start of "silked" and "sad."
These terms are very closely related, though the distinction between them comes in determining vowels versus consonants, and then placement within the words.

Couplet - two lines of poetry which are a self-contained unit, often rhyming and often one sentence (but not always).


Techniques of the Writer or Story Teller

The Rule of 3 - Things happen in 3's. You should be on the lookout for: 3 related events, 3 connected characters, 3 rules, 3 punishments, 3 objects, 3 relationships which are compared and contrasted. 

Types of characters:

Major or Minor:

Major characters appear throughout the novel, or in a major section of it - they are involved in the important actions and conflicts.

Minor characters enter the novel for a specific reason and may then not be heard of again - or they may exist throughout the novel "in the shadow" of the major character - they may be involved in a conflict with a major character and are essential to the plot, but only so that something can be learned or shown about the major character. 

Round or Flat: 

Round Characters have many sides - they grow or change in several ways - they think and react on many levels - they are central to the story, its conflicts, and its final message - we care about them and tend to react along with them to the things that happen.

Flat Characters have only one side - they may be major characters, but they do not change - flat characters are important to a story because the round character(s) interact with them - we often see them only as the round characters see them and care about them because a round character does - we may feel strongly about a flat character because he/she is a strong and consistent representative of Good or of Evil.

Narrative Focus - The character around whom the story moves - we often see only those events which this character witnesses - if we see events which do not involve the narrative focus, we are anxious about how the events will impact upon this character. 

Narration - There are 3 ways of telling a story:

1st person - "I" tells the story and is a character in the story; this can be present tense or past tense.

2nd person - "You" is used to tell the story; these tend to be like Choose Your Own Adventure stories or computer games and are usually in the present tense.

3rd person - "He, she, it, they" - the story is told by someone, usually not identified by name, who knows it. Usually in the past tense.

Types of Narration - An author has to decide how much the narrator knows about the people and events in the story. A narrator, 1st or 3rd person, can be:

Limited - The narrator only knows what he/she experiences or learns about in some way- the narrator's knowledge grows as the story unfolds; at times, the reader may know more than the narrator.

Omniscient - The "all knowing" narrator knows all of the details about events, characters, etc. and reveals them to the reader as the story unfolds. 

Literary Forms (fiction) - many novels are written in more than one form. This is a beginner's sampling.

1.Historical fiction - a "made up" story which has as setting a specific and recognizable historical time period which could not have been during the author's lifetime. These novels and stories often include characters and places which are historically accurate, and many include historical documents as well. Examples of historical fiction are: Dragonwings, The Whipping Boy, Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.

2.Documentary fiction - a "made up" story which uses a collage of documents, in addition to dialogue and narration, to help to tell the story. Some documentary fiction you will read as an adult uses actual news stories, letters, diaries, etc., but the story is the author's invention. Example: Nothing But the Truth.

3.Science fiction - originally, a story which used the science of the future as a major element of plot or setting. This meaning has been stretched to include all future or utopian, time travel, space, alien contact, and dimension travel stories, as well as to include some elements of fantasy. Examples: A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, many stories by author Ray Bradbury.

4.Folklore, folk tale, fairy tale - originally "oral tradition stories," memorized and passed from person to person through the telling, these tend to have messages for the listener to decipher and definite similarities in plot, characters, and settings. You study these stories in Lower School. In Middle School, you need to remember them and watch for "folklore" elements to appear in your reading. Examples of books rich in folklore references: The 13 Clocks, The Magic Circle, Haroun, The Other Side of Silence.

5.Realistic Fiction - novels and stories which are "real" in that they take place in a time and place like a present, or recent past, time and place, have plots which are possible, and have characters which are believable as real people. Examples: Hatchet, Shabanu.

6.Fantasy - fantasy novels and stories cover a wide range of "real-unreal" plots, characters and settings. Some identifying characteristics are: animals as characters, magical events, imaginary beings as characters. Fantasies often involve a search or quest of some type and ask the reader to temporarily believe in the possibility of events and characters. Examples: Alice in Wonderland, The Story of the Amulet, The Wizard of Earthsea, The Hobbit, Watership Down.

7.Mystery - a mystery novel contains a puzzle and challenges the reader to join the detective character who eventually solves the puzzle. Collecting clues is a vital skill for mystery readers. Examples: The House of Dies Drear, The Westing Game, The Hound of the Baskervilles.