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Rutherford High School RWC

Literary Primer

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General Glossary of Literary Terms


This is by no means the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for it does not give various formal definitions. However, I have used my own words—definitions I use in the classroom. The examples included are those my students can understand and are familiar with. Other glossaries in the following respective sections include a poetic glossary, a glossary or rhetorical terms, and dramatic terminology.


Abstract-a non-concrete concept; something that cannot be touched, smelled, heard, or seen; for example happiness, beauty, fear, peace, sadness, freedom, love, wisdom, or hate.




Active voice- (ant. passive voice)


Allegory- A literary device ….an extended metaphor in fiction, often using animals as characters to represent abstract ideas; more commonly recognized as a parable; ex. Aesop’s Fables, Animal Farm


Allusion- A literary device … a piece of literature, a reference to another piece of art (literature, music, art, or history); to “allude to” something is to hint or suggest something without stating it directly; (see pg. X for lists of biblical, mythological and other allusions)




Analogy-a rhetorical device . . . a parallel or comparison of two alike things; similar to the simile and the metaphor, but it is a kind of metaphor that reasons; often used to explain a complex idea using a less complex idea;


Analogy (Extended)-a rhetorical device . . . . an analogy that explains an abstract idea;


Analysis-an examination and presentation of the outcome


Anecdote- A literary device …..a brief entertaining story recalling an interesting incident; is used to reveal character;


Antagonist—Character opposing the protagonist; the “villain” or adversary; they may deceive or battle with the main character; ex. Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird, Claudius in Hamlet, The Riddler in Batman;


Anti-hero-a hero lacking traditional hero qualities such as strength or courage; similar to the tragic hero in that the character may have some villainous qualities; reader would not expect them to “save the day”; ex.  The Peter Parker character (who transforms in Spiderman).




Article- a piece of writing commenting on a person, place, thing, or idea; ex. a sports article, a news article, an editorial, a commentary on a political matter;


Atmosphere -the emotions a text makes you feel (as opposed to the mood, which is essentially the author’s “tone” of voice) both on a micro (word) and a macro (content) level; a synonym is mood.


Audience-the reader, viewer, or listener; authors consider social and economic class.


Author-the writer.


Author’s purpose-(see pg. X for complete list of purposes) writers may write to inform, entertain, persuade or other possible reasons. This purpose drives their piece.


Authorial choices-author’s choices. The author makes choices about content (how much to reveal?) and style (how will I present this?). These choices ultimately should make the text more readable, more interesting, or more effective.


Back story- A literary device … contrast to the front story, the back story is the les important story; it may mirror the front story or, more dramatically, contrast to the front story to emphasize the importance of the front story.


Balance-literally, to be level or stable;


Bathos-anticlimax or disappointment;


Bildungsroman A literary form…..Coming of age novel; ex. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Secret Life of Bees;


Bilingual-able to speak two languages fluently;


Biography- A literary genre….a story of someone’s life told by someone else; see autobiography.




Bricolage (?)-


Burlesque (mock heroic or mock epic)-


Canon-the literary canon is like a “great books” and “great authors” list; works from the literary canon appear over and over again in anthologies, literature courses, etc.




Carpe Diem-literally “seize the day”; and often referred to expression in Romantic texts




Character-(see pg. X for complete listing of types and pg. X for stock characters)


Characterization A literary device ….Development of physical and emotional characteristics of a character (see pg. X)


Chronicle-as a noun, a diary-type text narrating series of events; as a verb, the act of recording a series of events; ex. A ship’s chronicle, or the Star Log from Star Trek.


Chronological order- in real time order; in order sequentially, or in the authentic order as the events occurred.


Citation-a reference to indicate information has been borrowed from another text


Clarity-writing with clarity is not clouded with unclear statements, confusing sentence structures, or incorrect syntax; more specifically, the content is easily absorbed because of the precise and understandable quality.


Cliché- a worn-out expression, overused to the point of becoming stale; also, difficult for ESL speakers to learn because they are usually idioms;  ex. Dirt cheap, talk turkey, eat crow, cat got your tongue, and skin a horse. Also, the expressions may have been around so long that their meaning is skewed and their origin is a mystery. Many believe that the expression “going Dutch” stems from a socially acceptable Dutch custom to pay separately. However, the derogatory term was used by the English implying the Dutch were penny-pinching.


Climax-the pivotal and most intense moment in a text and is directly followed by the resolution of the conflict;


Closure-the closing, usually referring to poetry; usually has some twist or change in perspective; used effectively, closure ties up all loose ends then giving finality to the reader and providing a satisfying ending. A rushed or unfulfilling ending closure leaves questions in the reader’s mind.


Co-authoring-when one author helps another author write a text, or they may both collaborate and write with one voice;




Colloquial-informal, everyday spoken language.


Colloquialisms-informal, everyday expressions;


Comedy-a type of writing light in topic, amusing; comedic plays usually end in marriage with all conflicts happily solved—see Shakespeare notes; (see pg. X for list of types of comedy); dark comedy???


Comic Relief A literary device ……short comedic event taking place just before or during a serious moment in a tragedy, providing the audience with “comic relief” to remind them that the story will end up ok;


Conclusion-the ending of a piece of writing; wraps up the author’s message; see closure


Concrete (language)-solid ideas or images; an argument that is unyielding to rebuttal;


Concrete (imagery)-imagery describing something that can be held physically, seen, heard, or smelled unlike abstract ideas like happiness or truth.


Conflict- A literary device …..a disagreement, quarrel, dispute or tension between two contrasting forces;


Conflict (External)-problem with a person mentally or emotionally; a battle with the self


Conflict (Internal)-a person’s mental dilemma; for example, a character who is torn between to choices.  


Contrast-to differ; when a bad sister has a good sister in a text, the bad sister seems even worse because the good sister becomes a foil; ex. when white fabric is placed against the black fabric, the white fabric appears whiter and the black fabric appears darker.


Conventions (devices)-traditions, standard, or custom; conventions of grammar, for example.


Credibility-whether the author is convincing; has to do with writer’s knowledge


Criticism-(see pg. X for prompts toward a critical analysis)


Dada-movement that rejects form, lack of order, and supports chaos


Denouement-the conclusion, usually of a short story, novel, or play




Details-specifics; in good writing, important detail is given to reveal information to the reader; this information helps develop a plot, build a character, reinforce the theme, and so on. When details are left out, the reader is left to visualize for themselves or left without answers; god writers anticipate the reader’s questions.


Development-mature writing with depth of thought, complexity of ideas, insightful observations, arguments considering various angles, informative explanations, and abundant and purposeful details; shows rather than tells; writing that digs deeper than surface level; writing that anticipates the reader’s questions; well developed writing does not contain vague, abstract, or trite language, and avoids generalities.


Dialect-a variation in verbal language due to the speaker’s region; Social class may determine dialect; dialect is affected by alterations in grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and idioms; different distinct dialects include: cockney, Jersey


Dialogue- A literary device …..a conversation between two or more people; lines spoken in a play; used to give information to the reader, whether is be directed toward the plot or revealing character, allowing the reader to see rather than be told by the narrator;


Dialogue (indirect)-


Dialogue (direct)-


Diction-word choice and arrangement of words; word choice=style


Diction (Formal)-language used in a proper, serious, or official situation.


Diction (Informal)-language used in a relaxed situation.


Diction (Jargon)-words used in a particular hobby, sport, or profession.


Diction (Slang)- informal everyday language; words are sometimes invented or given new meanings; gangster slang, street slang, give examples of diction (gams, etc.)




Distance (vs. Involvement)-


Drama-literary form written with the purpose of being performed in real time; the meaning has changed over time, also referring to a serious and highly emotional genre of television and cinematic writings (dramatic); 


Dramatic Irony- A literary device occuring when the reader or the audience are made aware of something while a character remain unaware; for example, dramatic irony occurs when the audience see the killer behind the unsuspecting woman; the reader then has privledged knowledge and (explain how this gives the reader an upper hand or some bit of power over the story)


Dramatic Monologue-


Dramatic Voice-


Dream Vision- A literary device ….a sequence in fiction when the storyline moves into a dream; ex Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Rip Van Winkle, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Pearl.


Empathy-to understand the way another person feels; different from sympathy which is to share another person’s feelings.


Emphasis-a stress to indicate something important. Many rhetorical devices serve to emphasize words, ideas, or etc.


Epigram-a witty expression.


Epigraph-a quote at the beginning of a book or chapter that deals directly with the text; also, an inscription on a memorial or headstone;


Epiphany-a sudden fantastic realization; in literature, an epiphany made by a character may be spiritual, religious, or having to do with a solution to a deeply personal problem.


Epistle-a letter.


Epistolary novel- A literary form, a novel in to form of a letter or in the form of a correspondence consisting of many letters.




Essay-an informative or personal nonfiction writing with a beginning, middle and end;




Ethos- when studying speech and persuasive techniques, think “ethics.” Ethos refers to a person’s credibility, their character and values; for example, a presidential campaign focusing on ethos, will continue to stress the candidate’s integrity and their past successes that support their character in a positive manner; see pathos.


Euphony-harmonious sounds; when a poem’s words have a musical quality it is said to have euphony; probably from a similar word as euphoria


Euphemism- A literary device . . . .any word or phrase that reduces or diminishes any negative connotations of another word or phrase; for example, in Victorian England, it was improper to use the word “thigh” or “breast” when referring to chicken, so they used the euphemisms “white meat” and “dark meat.” “Pass away” substitutes for “die.” Others include: darn, gosh, Sam Hill, derriere, visually impaired, mentally handicapped, and unmentionables.


Exposition- A literary device in fiction, revealing early information to setup the conflict, characters, setting, etc.


Falling Action- A literary device


Farce-a comic drama in which common people are caught up in ridiculous and uncommon events in which order and decency go out the window; a farce may be very short and frenzied--get the quote “storm in a tea cup.” Ex. Saturday Night Live, Monty Python skits, Mad TV. A farcical poem based on Robert Frost’s poem is “Stopping By Woods To Find My Golf Ball,” by James Brooks.




First Person Point of View-occurs when the speaker makes observations and includes their own thoughts; in fiction, the speaker is part of the story; in articles and essays, the writer refers to themselves.


Flashback- A literary device breaking the chronological plot structure and inserting an earlier event; flashback is used to give the reader information they did not have previously; the earlier scene is used in flashback form usually because either the character is remembering the event and the reader is privy to the information, or the writer felt placing all information in chronological order would have lacked a smooth or purposeful structure;


Flash forward- A literary device






Foreshadowing- A literary device








Frame story- A literary form


Framing device- A literary device




Genre-categories of writing; for example, the major genres include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and the subcategories include fantast, mystery, or suspense; (see pg. X for complete list of genres)




Ghost text-




Great Chain of Being-in central message in early literature; developed by Plato, a “chain,” “ladder,” or “links” ranking of all life starting in the heavens and ending in the earth; the basic order, from top to bottom is as follows: God, angel, heaven, human (king, lords, peasants), beast, plant, flame, stone. It serves as the underlying image of many philosophies; the belief states humans were born into their place on the chain, and trying to alter their place on the chain was to go against God’s will;  so readers may identity this theme in literature such as Dante’s Inferno.




High Style-


Historical Fiction- A literary genre of fiction utilizing true historical events, places, or people.


Homage- paying respect to someone through a text; reverence through a line or phrase








Imagery- A literary device used to provide the reader with visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile descriptions; imagery is not solely concerned with visual images but all five senses; imagery may be concrete, describing something that can seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted, however, imagery may take the form of a simile (Love is like a rose for it may have thorns but it also blooms.), a metaphor (My dog is a sack of potatoes in the middle of the kitchen floor.), or other rhetorical devices. In short, imagery is how a writer shows rather than tells. 


Imagery (Abstract)-See abstract


Imagery (Concrete)-See concrete


Imagery (Auditory)- Sound descriptions; ex. lion’s roar, bird’s cackle, clap of thunder;  (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Gustatory)-Taste descriptions; ex. buttery corn, salty oysters;  (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Kinetic, or Kinesthetic)-Motion descriptions; ex. Muscles flexed, blood pumping;  (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Olfactory)- Smell descriptions; ex. beach smelled of ripened salty and greasy corndogs; (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Tactile)- Touch descriptions; ex. The dog’s ears felt like velvet; (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Organic)-feelings of the internal body like hunger, fear, fatigue, thirst, doubt, ache, dizziness, add more;  ex. I felt a pang in my stomach, and suddenly I could not breath.


Imagery (Visual)- Sight descriptions; ex. Eyes of sapphire, lips of cherry.  (see section I, Writing with the Five Senses)


Imagery (Synaesthesia)-a mixed metaphor, describing with one sense but evoking another sensation in the read; ex. A warm smile, cold shoulder; 




Improvisation, or Improv- to perform without preparation or a script; ex. Thank God You’re Here, Whose Line Is It Anyway? Do you underline titles of shows?


In media res-


Inciting Action-the initial action in a text that propels (initiates) the conflict












Interpreting narrator-








Intonation-accent, inflection or tempo in the spoken word.


Irony- A literary device which contradicts; one example is saying one thing but meaning another; another example is predicting one result but encountering an unexpected result; Alanis Morrissette’s song “Isn’t It Ironic” describes different everyday ironies such as winning the lottery and dying the next day.


Irony (Dramatic irony)- A literary device used to give the reader or the audience information that a main character does not have. Ex. A scary movies revealing a killer walking up to a cabin in the woods with unsuspecting teenagers;


Irony (Situational irony)- A literary device may be used to keep your readers on their toes, for they may anticipate one result but find they an unexpected result. Ex. telling your boss you are sick and going to see a movie only to find your boss is taking a half day to see the same movie. Ex. “Gift of the Magi by ?, Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King (check on Khay Rahnajat’s bomb stamp) (Exxon Valdez oil spill) a vegetarian working at a steak house;


Irony (Verbal irony)- when the literary device of verbal irony is used, someone says one thing but means something else; sarcasm is verbal irony; ex. “you’re so graceful,” when what is meant is “you’re such a klutz.”




Jargon- similar to slang, but a more specialized vocabulary used in businesses, hobbies, or in a sub-culture. Ex. Tennis uses words not used in everyday language and you must know them to comprehend the sport (lob, volley, groundstroke, overhead smash).




Key phrases-


Key words-


Limited omniscient-


Local Color-






Low style-






Magical Realism- A literary genre of fiction treating magical, fantastic, or supernatural situations realistically; ex. writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez utilizes magical realism in many of his works;


Main idea-




Master narratives-




Melodrama-a play or performance with exaggerated actions and feelings;


Memoir-a first-person narrative similar to a journal or a diary reflecting on one’s life; may range in length from short essays to book-length;










Mood-the emotions a text makes you feel (as opposed to the mood, which is essentially the author’s “tone” of voice) both on a micro (word) and a macro (content) level; a synonym is atmosphere.


Moral-in literature, a moral is a lesson about what is right and wrong; explained usually through a short story in which characters undergo a downfall in order to learn the lesson; a moral may be stated directly or implied; ex. Aesop’s Fables.


Motif-a reoccurring feature in a text such as an object, theme, or an idea used to unify the work; it is also used to help the reader interpret the work.














Narrative collage-


Narration- a type of writing telling a story through a narrator who may or may not be involved in the story;








Non-fiction- A literary genre


Novel- A literary genre






Objective Correlative-


Objective narrative-


Omniscient narrator-






Opinion-one’s personal view on a matter;


Oral culture-


Oral presentation-




Pantomime (or Mime)-performance absent of speech, sounds, and props; performance with body movement only.


Parable- A literary device


Paradox- A literary device


Parallel structure- A literary structure








Pathos- when studying speech and persuasive techniques, think “pity” or “grief.” Pathos refers to the reader’s or audience’s emotions, needs, or ethics; for example, a presidential campaign with an appeal to pathos will stress the candidate’s ability to sympathize with their constituents and appeal to them by promoting how they will give them what they need, or they will appeal emotionally to the audience through a touching speech or causing them to feel sympathy and sorrow ; see ethos.


Periodic sentence-


Persona-the assumed speaker in a poem or fiction other than the writer themselves;








Plain style-




Plot twist-an unexpected turn of events in fiction;


Point of view-the perspective the author takes


Point of View (First-person)-the narrator in involved in the story and only reports from their own thoughts and what they see; narrator references themselves using the personal “I”;


Point of View (Second-person plural)- narrator does not make use of the personal “I” but rather uses “we.”  ex.  In “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner, the town tells in the story in one collective voice.  In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, characters take turns telling the story from their point of view in an unaware narrator way, but this plural narrative is not second-person plural but first-person …..


Point of View (Third-person omniscient)-the narrator is distanced from the story but can report on what any character is doing or thinking; narrator does not make use of the personal “I” or the “we,”  rather the narrator uses “he” and “she” and “they.”


Point of View (Third-person limited)-


Prepositions-the words or phrases used to make a shift from one topic to another














Protagonist- the main character






Questions (Rhetorical)-








Resolution-closing of a fictional piece; usually brings closure for characters; 


Rising Action –series of actions and conflicts that lead up to the climax of a story;








Self expression-




Sequence-order, for example, of events;


Setting-location of a story; time of day, year, or time period in history;


Sexist language-


Side story-a second story usually complementing the core story;




Situational Irony-


Slang-language other than formal; diction and expressions are socially created;


Snapshot-a passage, usually short, describing a still moment as if describing a photo;


Social realism-








Speculative fiction-




Stream of consciousness-




Style-the manner in which a writer writers rather than what they write.




Subjective narrator-






Suspension of disbelief-


Sympathy- to share another person’s feelings; different from empathy which is to understand the way another person feels.




Tableau- a highly visual 2-D or 3-D depiction or representation; the product of a motionless, silent person or group of people in a stage “freeze”; also called a “living picture.”










Titles-the heading given to a text; the title of a text may give an overview of the subject matter, the style of writing, or provide foreshadowing.




Tragedy-a serious literary text centered on the agony and eventual collapse of the main character; the main character is one who may be classified as a hero for their significance in society and their physical, mental, or spiritual characteristics; their own tragic flaw or another source may cause their downfall; their downfall may lead to death, a loss of status, money, or respect; in traditional texts, the hero may recognize their fault, ask forgiveness, gain sympathy from other characters and/or the reader, and finally accept their fate dignity;   ex. Oedipus the King by Sophocles, King Lear by William Shakespeare. See Tragic Flaw, Hero.


Tragic Flaw-a weakness causing their collapse or ruin of the main character; see tragedy.


Transitions-words or phrases that move the reader from one idea to the next gradually




Trustworthiness-referring to a speaker in fiction, the quality that allows the reader to believe or trust them; in nonfiction, a quality writers must have to persuade;




Ubi Sunt-


Unauthorized biography-


Unreliable narrator-one readers do not trust usually due to the mental state of speaker




Verbal Irony-




Video poem-






Voice over-




Word-word choice is diction; writers consider appropriate diction






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