English Department's Site

Literary Terms

Literary Terms

Essential Literary Terms


As it says, this list is official.  Except for the first five terms, which belong in a group, it is alphabetized.

There is a link to a printable version of this list at the bottom of the page.


Exposition- The essential background information at the beginning of a literary work


Rising action- the development of conflict and complications in a literary work


Climax- the turning point in a literary work


Falling action- results or effects of the climax of a literary work


Resolution/denouement- end of a literary work when loose ends are tied up and questions are answered


Alliteration – repetition of the initial consonant sounds of words: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”


Allusion – a reference to something well-known that exists outside the literary work


Antagonist- character that is the source of conflict in a literary work


Aside – a dramatic device in which a character makes a short speech intended for the audience but not heard by the other characters on stage


Assonance – repetition of vowel sounds followed by different consonant sounds: “Anna’s apples,” “the pond is long gone”


Characterization- The manner in which an author develops characters and their personalities


Conflict -  struggle between two or more opposing forces (person vs.  person; nature; society; self; fate/God)  


Dialogue - direct speech between characters in a literary work


Diction -  word choice to create a specific effect


Figurative Language –language that represents one thing in terms of something dissimilar (non-literal language).  Includes simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, symbol)


Flashback- the method of returning to an earlier point in time for the purpose of making the present clearer


Foreshadowing- hint of what is to come in a literary work


Genre – type or category to which a literary work belongs


Hyperbole – extreme exaggeration to add meaning


Imagery – language that appeals to the five senses


Irony -  Dramatic…  when the reader or audience knows something a character does not

             Situational…   when there is a disparity between what is expected and what actually occurs

             Verbal…   when the speaker says one thing but means the opposite


Metaphor – an implied comparison between dissimilar objects:   “Her talents blossomed” 


Motif- a recurring feature of a literary work that is related to the theme


Onomatopoeia – use of a word whose sound imitates its meaning: “hiss”


Oxymoron – phrase that consists of two words that are contradictory: “living dead” or “Microsoft works”


Personification – figure of speech in which non-human things are given human characteristics


Plot- The sequence of events in a literary work


Point of view- the vantage point or perspective from which a literary work is told…

1st person point of view- the narrator is a character in the story                 (use of ‘I’)

3rd person point of view- the narrator is outside of the story (use of ‘he’ ‘she’ ‘they’)


Protagonist- the main character in a literary work


Rhyme – repetition of similar or identical sounds: “look and crook”


Rhyme Scheme – pattern of rhyme among lines of poetry [denoted using letters, as in ABAB CDCD EE]


Setting- The time and place of a literary work


Simile – a direct comparison of dissimilar objects, usually using like or as:       “I wandered lonely as a cloud”


Soliloquy -  a dramatic device in which a character is alone and speaks his or her thoughts aloud


Speaker – voice in a poem; the person or thing that is speaking


Stanza – group of lines forming a unit in a poem


Stereotype-  standardized, conventional ideas about characters, plots and settings


Suspense – technique that keeps the reader guessing what will happen next  


Symbol/symbolism – one thing (object, person, place) used to represent something else


Theme – the underlying main idea of a literary work.  Theme differs from the subject of a literary work in that it involves a statement or opinion about the subject.


Tone – the author’s attitude toward the subject of a work.


Related Files

    doc doc file: You need the Microsoft Word application to view this file, or a program that can import Word files. To learn more about this software before purchasing it, visit the Microsoft Word website.