A Writer’s Lexicon

A lexicon is a dictionary of specialized terms. The terms defined in the following lexicon should be known by writers and editors.

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absurd, theater of the - Absurdist dramas present characters struggling to find order and purpose in irrational incomprehensible situations.

accent - In poetry, the vocal force or emphasis placed on a syllable or word.

act - One of the primary divisions in a script. Acts may be divided into scenes.

action - The internal or external activity by which a character attempts to achieve his or her goals.

adaptation - A work based on another. Frequently scripts are adapted from short stories or novels.

adventure story - A type of popular literature that centers on exciting action and danger, heroic derring-do, and happy endings, often to the detriment of solid characterization.

aesthetic distance - Standing apart from a work of art as a reader or viewer; recognizing that it is art and not real life.

aestheticism - Reverence for beauty; nineteenth century movement in art and literature that held that beautiful form is more to be valued than morally instructive contend, and even that morality is irrelevant to art.

aesthetics - The philosophy of art; the study of the nature of beauty in literature and the arts, and the development of criteria for judging beauty.

affective fallacy - The critical approach of evaluating a work of literature by the emotional effect if produces in the reader.

age of sensibility - The period in the history of English literature roughly between 1744 and 1798; also called the Age of Johnson.

alexandrine - A twelve-syllable poetic line.

allegory - A story with hidden or symbolic meaning. These stories are often used to teach philosophical ideals. Many allegories feature plants or animals in place of humans.

alliteration - Repetition of a sound, usually a consonant in two or more words.

allusion - An indirect reference or casual mention to well-known historical or fictional events or characters. Allusions should be written with an audience in mind. For example, children might not understand “Beware the Ides of March.”

ambiguity - The intentional use of words or events communicating multiple and paradoxical meanings. Some passages are unintentionally ambiguous.

amplification - To increase a statement’s power through repetition or via a theatrical device.

anachronism - An event, object, custom, person, or thing that is out of its natural order in time.

anacoluthon - A change from one grammar structure to another within the same sentence. Shakespeare used this frequently as an ironic device.

anadiplosis - The repetition of a word. Frequently the word ends one sentence and begins the next.

analytical criticism - A type of objective criticism that employs detailed verbal analysis of a work, its elements, and their relationship, in order to clarify the author’s meaning.

analogy - To explain a concept by comparing it to a similar concept. Analogies are most effective in explaining unfamiliar concepts.

anapest - A metrical foot consisting of three syllables: two unaccented syllables followed by one accented syllable.

anastrophe - A rhetorical term for the inversion of the normal order of the parts of a sentence. Most used to place emphasis on a word or idea to create or accommodate a certain rhyme, rhythm, or euphony.

anecdote - A brief story often within another work used to emphasize the theme.

antagonist - The person or dramatic element opposing or competing with the primary character within the plot. Antagonists present resistance but are not necessarily evil.

antecedent - The word phrase or clause to which a pronoun refers. In fiction, the events leading up to the current scene. See Grammar Guide

anticlimax - An effect that spoils a climax. A stylistic device involving a witty descent from something serious or lofty to something frivolous or trivial.

antihero - A protagonist who lacks the virtues of a traditional hero.

antiphrasis - The use of words in an opposite sense for ironic effect.

antithesis - A contrast or opposition in thought.

anxiety of influence - Phrase used by Harold Bloom to identify his theory that a poet, in attempting to preserve a sense of artistic autonomy and originality, “misreads” the work of a predecessor to avoid being influenced by it.

aphorism - A terse statement of principle or truth, usually an observation about life; a maxim.

apologue - A short allegory. Synonymous with fable.

apology - A written defense of an idea. An inferior substitute for what was wanted or requested.

apophasis - The artful mention of something via denying that it will be mentioned in future scenes.

aposiopesis - A sudden break of thought in the middle of a sentence often expressed via a dash or ellipses.

apostrophe - Words addressed to a person or thing whether present or absent, especially in a stage play. Monologues often feature apostrophes. Also see Grammar Guide

applied criticism - The analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of particular works of literature, also called practical criticism.

appositive - A descriptive comment inserted into a sentence or dialogue. See Grammar Guide

archetypal criticism - A critical approach that describes, interprets, or evaluates a work in terms, of its relationship to all other works centered on a basic situation, character type, plot pattern, image, or theme that recurs consistently enough to be considered universal.

archetype - A pattern or model of an action, a character type, or an image that recurs consistently enough in life and literature to be considered universal.

arena stage - 1) In drama, a theater in which the audience surrounds the stage. “Theatre in the Round” is a form of arena staging. 2) Drama written from multiple perspectives.

argument - 1. Discourse intended to convince or persuade through appeals to reason or to the emotions, the objective being to influence belief or to motivate action. 2. A prose summary of the plot or idea of a work.

argumentation - A model of writing, the purpose of which is to prove a point or to persuade the reader to accept a proposal; one of the four major types of discourse.

argumentative essay - An essay form sometimes known as rhetorical that is meant to alter opinions.

aristotelian criticism - Consists of three key ideas: 1. Literature is an imitation of life, combining universal psychological truths with probable events, not a literal account of actual events; 2. The beginning-middle-ending structure of a literary work engages and satisfies the mind; and 3. rather than exciting people’s emotions, experiencing literature offers people a therapeutic release of emotion.

aristotelian theatre - The theories of drama attributed to Aristotle. Elements include:

  • simple and clear plots,
  • strong characters,
  • minimal spectacle, and
  • relevant morals.

During the Renaissance, additional criteria were added. Many texts attribute these to Aristotle though there is no evidence he thought plays and stories must follow strict rules. The introduced criteria include:

  • stories are composed of three movements,
  • scripts should be five acts,
  • violence should not appear on stage, and
  • comedy and tragedy do not mix.

art ballad - Another term for literary ballad, a form of narrative poetry that imitates the general rhythm and stanza patterns of traditional folk ballads.

article - A short work of nonfiction usually less than 1500 words.

aside - Provide information to the audience about a character’s thoughts, inner feelings, and private interpretations of ongoing action.

assonance - A partial rhyme in which the stressed vowel sounds are alike but the consonants are not.

asyndeton - The practice of leaving out conjunctions between sentence elements.

atmosphere - The pervasive mood or tone of a literary work-gloom, foreboding, joyful expectation often created and sustained by the author’s treatment of landscape or setting and use of symbolism.

attitude - Attitude may refer to an author’s, narrator’s, or character’s disposition toward a subject. Readers often confuse narrator’s attitudes with those of authors.

autobiography - Traditionally, an author’s account of his or her own life. In modern literature, coauthors contribute to autobiographies.

autotelic - Literature that is significant in and of itself. An autotelic work is one whose purpose and meaning lie wholly within itself.

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ballade - A story of adventure and love told in song or long poetic form.

ballad stanza - The stanza form of the ballad, usually four lines rhyming abcb.

baroque - Possessing a grand and exuberantly ornamented style.

bathos - Excessive sentimentality or ludicrousness. Bathos is produced by an unsuccessful attempt to elicit pity or sorrow from the reader.

beat generation - A group of poets and other writers of the 1950s and early 1960s, who expressed their alienation from society by rebelling against both social and literary conventions.

belief, problem of - The question of to what degree a reader’s response to a literary work is affected by that reader’s belief or disbelief in the version of “truth” set forth in the work.

bildungsroman - A German word that, translated literally, means “development novel.” The term bildungsroman is applied to a novel that traces the early education of its hero from youth to experiences.

biographical fallacy - The error of relying on an understanding of an author’s life as the chief means of analyzing and interpreting his or her work.

biography - The story of a person’s life as written by another.

black humor - Humorous effects resulting largely from grotesque, morbid, or macabre situations dealing with a horrifying and disoriented world.

blank verse - Unrhymed verse having five iambic feet per line as in Elizabethan drama.

blend - A word formed by combining two or more words, for example, brunch (breakfast + lunch)

block - Deciding upon a movement of actors upon the stage; blocking is the assignment of physical locations. Many directors use masking tape to block. The blocked locations are referred to as “marks.”

bluestocking - A nickname for intellectual and literary women in eighteenth-century English society, especially those who gathered for conversation with literary men instead of for the more usual card playing.

bourgeois tragedy - Another term for domestic tragedy; a tragedy concerning a middle- or lowerclass protagonist who suffers a personal disaster.

bowdlerize - To remove immoral or indecent passages from a novel, play, or other piece of writing.

brainstorming - A step in the prewriting process during which you list random thoughts.

Breton lay - A narrative adventure poem written in fourteenth-century England that imitated the Lais of Marie de France.

broadside - A large sheet of paper printed on one side only and means for distribution or posting.

Broadway - The best known street within the New York theater district. Broadway refers to profit-making theaters in which shares of a production are sold to investors. After meeting expenses, profits are split among those with shares in the production.

burlesque - A satirical imitation or derisive caricature. Can refer to an imitation of a writer’s style.

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cacophony - Harsh, clashing, or dissonant sounds, often produced by combinations of words that require a clipped, explosive delivery, or words that contain a number of plosive consonants such as, b, d, g, k, p, and t; the opposite of euphony.

caesura - A break of pause in verse.

canon - A list of genuine works by one author or group of authors. A composition in which there are exact repetitions.

canto - A subdivision of an epic or other long narrative poem.

caricature - Descriptive writing that exaggerates specific features of appearance or personality, usually for comic effect; also, a character developed in such a manner.

Caroline - From Carolus, the Latin form of Charles, the term refers to the reign of Charles I of England (1625-1649).

carpe diem - A Latin phrase meaning “seize the day,” used to designate a theme or motif, especially in lyric poetry, that warns about the brevity of life and the finality of death.

catachresis - Incorrect use of a word by misapplication of terminology. A change in the form of a word due to a misunderstanding of its etymology.

catalog - A long list of anything; an inventory used to emphasize quantity or inclusiveness.

catalog technique - A poetic list frequently itemizing one’s reasons for love.

catastrophe - The final action that brings a play, particularly a tragedy, to its conclusion. The catastrophe presents the tragic downfall-usually the death- of the hero as a natural consequence of the preceding action.

catharsis - The sense of awe and deep satisfaction, even exaltation, that the audience feels at the tremendous force of the conflict, at the hero’s recognition of tragic waste, and at the return to order in the tragic universe.

causal analysis - Organizing a work to examine the causes of an event or the results of an event. Also known as cause-effect analysis.

cavalier - Soldiers and courtiers who wrote lighthearted lyric poetry that celebrated love, loyalty; chivalry, and bravery.

center stage - The exact center of the stage floor, front to back and left to right.

censorship - Suppressing or deleting portions of books, plays, films, newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs, and other art forms or communications media that are considered irreligious, immoral, or politically dangerous.

character - A person in a play, story, novel, or other work of fiction.

characterization - The method by which an author creates the appearance and personality of a character. Some characterization is realistic, while many authors prefer exaggerated characters.

character sketch - A theatrical portrayal of a highly individualized character. A list of traits associated with an individual.

chiasmus - The inversion of two parallel statements. Example: She went shopping; golfing went he.

chivalric romance - An episodic adventure story of the middle ages, usually in verse, in which the main character is a chevalier, or knight on horseback, who fights monsters, dragons, and evil knights and saves damsels in distress.

chivalry - The code of conduct of the feudal court, especially of the medieval knight.

choral character - A character whose role is to comment on the actions of the main characters; derived from the chorus in Greek drama.

chorus - In Greek drama, a group of characters who comment on the action. These characters spoke as a collective. As Roman theatre evolved, the chorus more actively participated. In modern drama, the equivalent is a narrator or primary character acting as an observer.

chronicle play - Generally, a play having a historical theme, with scenes loosely connected by the chronology of historical events.

chronological primitivism - An attitude or belief that values the past over the present.

chronological time - Most literature and dramatic works are presented in a “compressed” format with events depicted based upon importance. Chronological works reflect the natural scale of time.

classicism (in criticism) - Discussing and ultimately judging a literary work in terms of principles derived from admired qualities in the classics of Greek and Roman literature.

cliche - Any expression that has been used so often it has lost its freshness and precision.

climax - The moment of highest intensity and interest in a drama or story. The climax is usually also the crisis or turning point of the fortunes of the protagonist, the peak of the rising action. The decisive turning point in a plot. Resolution of the plot begins at the climax.

climax order - Arranging a story from least important or dramatic event to the most dramatic event. The story ends with the climax and without resolution.

closed couplet - A pair of rhymed lines of poetry in which thought and grammatical structure are complete; called a heroic couplet when the lines are in iambic pentameter.

coherence - A quality of composition in which the parts or ideas of a piece of writing are so logically and clearly arranged and presented that the reader can follow the progression from one part or idea to the next without difficulty.

collaboration - Two or more people involved in the writing of a script or other work. In television and film, collaboration is often dictated by producers, directors, or other individuals.

collogue - An intrigue or conspiracy conducted privately between two characters, a frequent stage technique.

colloquialism - A word or phrase in everyday use in conversation and informal writing, but sometimes inappropriate in a formal essay.

comedy - In Greek tradition, comedies amuse an audience and end happily. Greek comedy does not necessarily contain humor. In modern language, comedy refers to novels, films, and television featuring a light and humorous tone.

comedy of humors - A form of comedy in which each character’s actions are dictated by some exaggerated trait, or humor.

comedy of intrigue - A form of comedy in which plot is more important than characterization.

comedy of manners - A form of comedy set in sophisticated society, where wit and polished behavior are valued over morality.

coming-of-age story - A plot emphasizing the emotional growth of the protagonists.

comparative literature - A field of literacy study that explores the relationships between the literatures of different national cultures or languages.

complication - An entangling of affairs early in the development of the plot of a play of narrative that must be unraveled in the resolution at the end.

compression - The altering of time for dramatic effect. Normally the first movement of a work covers a greater period of time than the last movement. For example, movies generally depict years or months during the first hour but only a week or day during the last third.

computational stylistics - The analysis of measurable aspects of an author’s style-such as sentence length and structure, or the frequency of use of certain words or phrases-usually with the goal of revealing the unconscious stylistic choices and preoccupations of the author.

conceit - Witty expression or notion, often a strained or bizarre figure of speech.

concrete poetry - Poetry in which the visual arrangement of words or letters suggests something about the subject of the poem.

confessional literature - A type of autobiographical writing in which the author discusses highly personal and private experiences normally withheld.

confidant/confidante - In drama and other fiction, someone that the hero talks to, enabling the audience or reader to become aware of the hero’s motivation.

conflict - A struggle, either emotional or physical, within a literary plot. A good work generally features both internal and external conflicts as the primary character faces antagonistic developments.

connotation - The implied meaning of a word or phrase as opposed to its dictionary meaning (denotation).

consonance - The close repetition of identical consonant sounds before and after differing vowel sounds; leave / love, short / shirt.

content - What is portrayed within a work. How one or more characters interact with other characters or the setting. Live theatre is limited to character-character content.

context - The part of a work of literature that precedes or follows a given word, phrase, or passage. Context is important in clarifying, specifying, extending, or changing meaning.

convention - A literary devise used enough to become established with readers. Literary conventions include doomed love, corrupt power, and saintly poverty.

counterplot - A subplot that presents a contrast to the main story in a play, short story, or novel.

couplet - Two lines of poetry often ending a poem.

courtly love - In the literature of the middle ages, the emotion that a knight was expected to feel toward a noble lady.

creative drama - An exercise during which writers or actors improvise scenes to develop a play.

crisis - The point at which the action turns and the fortune of the protagonist changes for better or worse; a structural element of plot.

criticism - The classification, interpretation, analysis, and evaluation of works of literature.

cubist poetry - Poetry that presents an experience as fragmented elements rearranged to form a new synthesis, or whole.

cultural primitivism - The belief that the natural, the simple, the spontaneous and free is superior to the artificial, the sophisticated, the consciously crafted and controlled.

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dactyl - A metrical foot consisting of three syllables, one accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables.

dead metaphor - A metaphor that, through repeated and customary use, has lost its figurativeness and is taken literally, like “the heart of the matter.”

decadence - A term used in literary criticism to indicate the decline of quality that often accompanies the end of a great period of literature or art; a lowering of values, moral tone, and poetic power.

deconstruction - A mode of analytical reading based on the radically skeptical assumption that the language of written discourse is inherently unreliable.

deconstructive criticism - Utilizes reader-centered theories of meaning that ignore reference to the author’s intention and deny the possibility of a determinate meaning or “correct” interpretation for any text.

decorum - The principle of literary propriety, of suiting style to character, situation, subject, or genre; of making all the elements in a written work or speech appropriate to each other.

definition - Providing an example or contrast to clarify a story element or character.

denotation - The dictionary or accepted meaning of a word.

dénouement - The outcome or solution of a plot in a drama. Any final revelation or outcome.

description - Prose presenting details of any kind to readers.

details - Words that are important to the meaning or effect of a passage.

detective story - A short story or novel in which a mystery or crime (usually a theft or murder) is solved by a detective who cleverly gathers and interprets clues. A basic rule of detective stories is that the reader be presented clues that lead to a solution at the same time the detective uncovers them, and that the detective use only such shared evidence in solving the crime.

determinism - A persistent philosophy that people’s actions and all other events are determined, or set in motion, by forces over which human beings have no control.

deus ex machina - Any forced or artificial device introduced by an author to solve some difficult problem with the resolution of a plot.

dialect - The local characteristics of speech as deviating from any standard. Writers sometimes use nonstandard spellings to express dialects.

dialogue - Any conversation between characters in a work of fiction.

diary - A writer’s record of his or her experiences and thoughts.

diction - The word choice of a writer. Different writers prefer different styles or sets of words.

didactic - Words or phrases chosen to convey a lesson are didactic.

digression - In literature, the use of material seemingly unrelated to the subject of a work, but later linked to the plot or theme.

dilemma - Any situation in which a character must choose between unpleasant alternatives. Frequently used in epic forms.

dimeter - A line of poetry consisting of two metrical feet.

dirge - A funeral song of lamentation; a short lyric of mourning.

discourse - 1. Spoken or written language, including literary works. 2. A treatise or dissertation or other learned, formal written work or lecture.

discovery - That moment, near the end of a play, when the protagonist finally realizes a truth or gains an understanding previously unrecognized or disregarded; also called recognition.

distance - The “standing apart” of a reader or viewer from a work of art by being aware that it is a work or art and not actual life.

documentary fiction - Fiction built around current news events, such as sensational trials, acts of heroism, disasters, serial murders, and the like.

doggerel - Rhyming verse that is trite, sentimental, and not quite funny.

domestic tragedy - A tragedy of domestic life concerning a middle or lower-class protagonist who suffers a personal disaster.

donnée - The main premise used as the basis for plot development in fiction.

doppelganger - The ghostly double of a living person. In fiction, a character’s introspection.

double rhyme - A rhyme consisting of two syllables, the first accented and the second unaccented.

downstage - The area of the stage closest to the audience.

drama - 1) Relating to the theatre arts. 2) A script written for stage or film. 3) The tension created by events in the plotline of a story.

dramatic irony - A situation in a play or other fiction in which a character unwittingly makes a remark that the audience is intended to understand as ironic, or in contradiction to the full truth.

dramatic monologue - A poem in which a single character, overheard speaking to a silent listener, reveals a dramatic situation.

dramatic question - The conflict as stated by a question.

dramatic poem - A play written in poetic form.

dramatism - The system for analyzing literature. All works of literature are made up of five elements: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose.

dramatis personae - The characters in a play; also the list of characters printed at the beginning of a published play or in the program for a life production, often with brief descriptions of the characters and their relationships.

dramaturgy - The study of the composition and performance of drama.

dynamic character - A dynamic character drives events within the plot; dynamic characters tend to change.

dystopia - A hypothetical place or situation in which conditions and life are dreadful. Frequently used in Gothic fiction, fantasy, and dark drama.

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eclogue - A short pastoral poem, usually in the form of a dialogue or; sometimes, a soliloquy.

edwardian - An age of prosperity-even opulence-and stability, marked by stylish elegance.

effect - The impression made by a work of literature-either on its actual audience or, as its author imagines the effect, on an ideal audience.

elegiac stanza - A stanza of four lines in iambic pentameter, rhyming abab; also called the heroic quatrain.

Elizabethan - Referring to the period of the reign of Elizabeth I of England. An era of nationalism, colonial expansion, and commercial growth, as well as religious controversy.

emphasis - The stress placed on words or passages by highlighting their importance in some manner.

encomium - A warm, enthusiastic expression of praise for a person or thing.

end rhyme - Poetry in which stanzas rely upon the words at the end of verses to establish rhyming patterns.

end-stopped lines - Lines of poetry in which the grammatical structure, the sense, and the meter are completed at the end of each line. The completion may be signaled by a pause or by a complete stop.

English sonnet - Another term for the Shakespearean sonnet, a sonnet arranged into three quatrains, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a concluding couplet, rhyming gg. The couplet is often an epigram, summing up the problem or concern developed in the quatrains.

enjambed - The running on of a sentence from one line to the next in poetry.

enthymeme - An argument based upon probability. An argument in which the conclusion is not expressed, but implied.

environmental staging - Theatre in which the audience and performers occupy shared space. The relationship between stage and seating is blurred.

envoy - A concluding stanza of a poem, shorter than the other stanzas, that serves as a postscript, dedicating the poem to a patron, summarizing the poem, or repeating the refrain.

epic - A long narrative about the deeds of a traditional hero or heroes. Epic poems include the Iliad and Odyssey.

epigram - A pithy statement often used to illustrate a contrast. In poetry epigrams are brief and pointed.

epic simile - A lengthy, extensively elaborated simile, often beginning with “as” or “as when”; also called Homeric simile.

epic theater - Episodic, narrative theater; an approach to writing and presenting plays initiated in Germany in the late nineteenth century. The form was used by activist theatre companies.

epigraph - A quotation motto at the beginning of a book or chapter. An epigraph relates to the content of the work in which it is quoted.

epilogue - A concluding section added to a novel, play, or long poem. In drama, the epilogue is usually a plea by one of the actors for the goodwill of the audience and the indulgence of the critics.

epiphany - A moment of revelation or profound insight.

episode - An incident or event that is presented as singe, unified action but that is also part of a longer narrative.

epistolary - A long letter or collection of letters presented as a book.

epithet - An adjective, noun, or phrase used to characterize a person or thing, usually in a disparaging manner. The phrase attached to any leader or national identity, not always in a disparaging manner. Examples: Richard the Lionhearted, America the Beautiful

eponym - A real or mythical person from whose name the name of a nation, group, institution, et cetera is derived.

equality by association - When a character is perceived as equal to another.

essay - A brief rhetorical article addressing a concept. Essays take four forms: argumentative, expository, narrative, and speculative/theoretical.

etymology - The study of word origins. The origins of a specific word.

euphemism - The use of a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct but less distasteful and less offensive than another. Example: He passed away. (Died!)

euphuism - An artificial, affected style of speaking or writing.

equivoque - A type of pun in which a word is used so that it means two different things at the same time.

eulogy - A formal composition of speech in high praise of someone (living or dead) or something.

euphony - A succession of sweetly melodious sounds; the opposite of cacophony. The term is applied to smoothly flowing poetry or prose.

exact rhyme - Also called true rhyme, rhyme in which the accented syllables and all succeeding sounds are identical between two words. Rhyme that is not exact is called slant rhyme.

exaggeration - Overstatement or stretching of the truth, as in a tall tale or fish story or in common expressions, such as “I cried my eyes out” or “I laughed my head off.”

exegesis - Originally, the detailed analysis, explanation, and interpretation of passages in the Bible, or by extension, of any literary or intellectual text.

exemplum - A moralized tale or anecdote, often included in a medieval text or sermon.

existential criticism - A modern school of literary criticism that rejects traditional critical questions and concerns and instead examines literature in the light of existentialism, a philosophical theory that emphasizes existence over essence, free will and the attendant responsibility for making choices, and anxiety in the face of a meaningless world.

existentialism - A philosophy that focuses on the individual’s experience of, recognition of, and triumph over the meaninglessness of existence.

existentialist novel - A novel that explores a character’s sense of isolation and personal responsibility.

expletive - A profane or distasteful word, usually an interjection. See Grammar Guide

explication de texte - The detailed analysis or “close reading,” of a passage of verse or prose, derived from a method of teaching to make meaning clear through a painstaking examination and explanation of style, language, relationship of part to whole, and use of symbolism.

exposition - Providing information to the reader or audience about preceding or unseen events. Exposition is common in theatre and short story.

expository essay - An essay meant to explain conditions or concepts. Scientific essays are expository.

expressionism - A short-lived early 20th-century movement characterized by the distortion of reality and the use of symbolism.

expressive criticism - An approach to literary criticism that focuses on a literary work as an expressing of the individuality of the writer, rather than focusing on the work as an art object or on its effect on a reader.

extended metaphor - Comparing two things at length using several techniques.

external conflict - A character’s struggle against nature or against another character.

eye rhyme - Rhyme based on spelling rather than sound.

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fable - A story meant to teach a moral lesson, usually using animals in place of humans.

fabliau - A medieval tale in eight-syllable verse. Humorous, often bawdy, fabliaux frequently satirized women and the clergy.

falling action - That part of a dramatic plot that follows the climax, or point of highest interest, and leads (in tragedy) to the catastrophe.

falling meter - In poetry, meter or rhythm that begins with a strong accent or stress, like trochees and dactyls.

familiar essay - An essay characterized by an intimate or familiar tone and dealing with personal subjects such as impressions, opinions, and prejudices.

fancy - An aspect of imagination that often involves wishful thinking or whim.

fantasy - A work of fiction featuring mythical creatures and locations.

farce - A Greek play featuring humor or satire. Greeks would consider modern sitcoms farcical, not comedies. Farce relies upon stereotypes.

feminine rhyme - Rhyme in which accented syllable in two words are followed by identical unaccented syllables; also called double rhyme.

fiction - Writing that tells an imaginary story or takes liberties with historical events.

figurative language - Traditionally the use of figures of speech including metaphors, similes, and irony. Currently figurative language is associated with hyperbole.

figures of speech - Words used to construct figurative language. Figures of speech include similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and personification.

first-person point of view - The vantage point assumed by a writer from which an “I” narrator experiences (sees, hears, and understands) the story he or she is telling.

flashback - A scene taking place in the past in the form of a memory or recounting.

flat character - In fiction, a two dimensional character lacking the depth or complexity of a real person, one who is built around a single dominant trait or quality and who represents a type; the opposite of a round character.

fly-on-the-wall technique - An objective method of narration, sometimes called the scenic method. The narrator is like a fly on the wall, reporting events as they are observed.

foil - A character created to reveal aspects of another character.

folk ballad - Narrative poetry, usually composed anonymously and arising out of an oral tradition, that tells a story of common people, often through the use of dialogue.

folk epic - An epic of communal, unknown, or uncertain origin.

folklore - The traditional songs, legends, beliefs, crafts, and customs of a people that are passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth and usually not written down until they are collected by scholars.

foot / feet - A group of syllables serving as a unit of meter in verse. A foot has a specified placement of the stressed syllable or syllables.

foregrounding - Calling attention to something-a word, a rhythm, a character, an idea, a viewpoint-by placing it in the foreground against a background.

form - Similar to genre, form refers to an ideal construct for conveying a type of plot. A romantic novel take a specific form: man likes woman, woman rejects man, event brings two together. Forms lead to conventions.

formal criticism - An approach to literary criticism that attempts to explain or evaluate the way in which the content of a work is structured, or given form, but does not evaluate the content of the work against standards of truth or morality.

formal essay - An objective, serious, carefully organized, and logically developed prose composition written to inform or to persuade.

formal satire - The type of satire, sometimes called direct satire, in which the author, or a narrator created by the author, speaks in the first person directly to the reader, or sometimes. to a character within the work.

foreshadowing - Providing clues to readers or an audience as to what will happen later in the story.

frame - To put into words or utter. To place an event within a plot in context.

frame story - A short story contained within a larger story.

free verse - Unrhymed poetry.

freewriting - A stream-of-conscious writing exercise in which one does not worry about grammar, spelling, or organization.

Freytag’s pyramid - The stages of a five-act drama: exposition/introduction, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement/conclusion. The complication can be introduced within the exposition or at the beginning of plot action.

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gallery - Alcoves surrounding the interior of a theater up to and sometimes including balconies. In Elizabethan theatre, characters frequently addressed the galleries during monologues.

generative poetics - A theory of literature that seeks to describe and explain the “literary competence” that experienced readers apply in order to understand how literary texts are constructed and what they mean.

genre - 1) A literary form. The three primary genres are prose, drama, and poetry. Secondary genres include essay, sitcom, and sonnet. Genre refers to the technical form of a work not its specific content. 2) Modern bookstores and libraries use genre to refer to the content of works.

gestalt - A unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

gloss - An explanation, definition, or interpretation of a difficult, foreign, or technical word or passage. Glosses take the form of notes that appear between lines, in margins, or at the foot of a page.

gothic - Barbaric; from the middle ages.

gothic novel - A novel set between the 12th and 16th centuries. A style of literature using a medieval setting to suggest horror or mystery.

graveyard school - A group of pre romantic English poets who wrote meditative poems on death and immortality, partly in rebellion against a tendency in their time to avoid mentioning the subject of death.

grotesque - A work characterized by distortions and incongruities. Grotesque works include many gothic novels.

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haiku - Japanese poetic form using three lines and a total of 17 syllables.

half rhyme - Another term for slant rhyme, an approximate rhyme.

hamartia - The error, misstep, frailty, or flaw that causes the downfall of a tragic hero.

Harlem Renaissance - The flourishing of black creativity in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s.

hedonism - The pursuit of pleasure above all else.

heptameter - A line of poetry consisting of seven metrical feet.

hermeneutics - The theory and practice of interpreting sacred and literary texts.

hero / heroine - A character of great strength and courage admired for virtues and other qualities.

heroic couplet - A pair of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter as first used by Chaucer.

heroic quatrain - A four-line stanza in iambic pentameter, rhyming abab; also called the heroic stanza or elegaic stanza.

heroic verse - The verse form in which epics are traditionally written.

hexameter - A line of poetry consisting of six metrical feet.

historical fiction - Fiction that attempts to re-create past events, events that occurred before the author’s time.

historical novel - A novel that attempts to re-create an historically significant personage or series of events.

history play - A play centered on historical events; the name often given the ten plays in William Shakespeare’s First Folio that are labeled as histories rather than as comedies or tragedies.

homeric epithet - A hyphenated adjective used repeatedly in conjunction with the same noun, so as to form a unit of expression.

homeric simile - Another term for epic simile, a lengthy, very elaborate simile.

Horatian satire - Satire that is gentle, amused, witty, and mildly corrective; a direct contrast to juvenalian satire. Humorous or satirical poem written in the form of Roman poet Horace.

humors / humours - 1) A character’s disposition or temperament. This refers to the belief four liquids were responsible for one’s disposition: blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy. 2) The quality that makes a scene funny, amusing, or ludicrous.

hubris - The Greek word for pride or insolence.

humanism - In the broadest sense, any system of thought or action devoted to human interests rather than to religious ideals or to the animal world.

humoresque - A light or playful composition for stage.

humors, theory of - According to ancient and medieval medicine, the four basic fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy).

hyperbole - An exaggeration for effect.

hypotaxis - The relationship between clauses.

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iambic - A metrical foot of two syllables, the first unaccented and the second accented.

iambic meter - Meter composed of iambic feet, or iambs.

iambic pentameter - A poetic line of five iambic feet.

identical rhyme - Rhyme in which the same word or a homonym of the word is repeated.

idyll - A short descriptive and narrative piece, usually a poem, about picturesque country life, an idealized story of happy innocence.

illumination - 1) Revealing a previously undisclosed character trait. 2) Casting light upon a specific area of a stage or set.

image - Language referring to something that can be perceived through one or more of the senses.

imagery - The figurative language of a work or sensory details given to readers to heighten a scene.

imagination - The image-making and synthesizing power of the human mind; the source of creative thinking.

imitation - A copy, facsimile or representation.

implied author - Not the author directly, but a persona created by the author to represent a literary work to the reader, an assumed voice through which the author speaks.

impressionism - In literature, symbolic poetry or dialogue meant to capture a moment in time.

impressionistic criticism - A type of literary criticism that centers on the personal sensitivities of the critic.

inciting incident / moment - The first event in the dramatic plotline. The inciting incident should be obvious to readers or an audience.

incongruity - The quality of being incongruous, in any of a number of ways.

incremental repetition - In poetry, the repetition of a previous line or lines, with a slight variation that adds to or advances the story by increments.

indirect satire - A type of satire in which the author does not address the reader directly.

inference - A general conclusion drawn from particulars.

informal essay - A prose composition, usually brief and without formal structure, written to amuse or to entertain.

in medias res - From Latin meaning, “in the middle of things.” The term describes the narrative practice of starting a story in the middle of the action to involve the reader, and then using one of more flashbacks to fill in what led up to that point.

In Memoriam stanza - A stanza of four lines in iambi tetrameter, rhyming abba.

internal conflict - A character’s struggle against himself or herself.

internal rhyme - The rhyming of two or more words in the same line of poetry, most often in the middle and at the end of the line.

interpretation - The attempt to understand both the verbal meaning of a literary work and the work’s significance through an intuitive grasp of the work as a whole, balanced against and supported by analysis of the work’s elements, structure, and effects.

introduction - A statement before the text of a book contributed by someone other than the author.

invective - A violent verbal attack, or verbal abuse.

invention - In Literature, originally in creating style, plot, diction, or form.

inversion - Reversing the normal order of sentence parts. Inversion is commonly and effectively used to ask a question.

invocation - At the beginning of an epic, an appeal to a god or goddess for inspiration.

irony - 1) A combination of circumstances resulting in the opposite of what might be expected. 2) A method of satire featuring subtly sarcastic expressions.

Italian sonnet - A sonnet that is organized into two parts- an octave, consisting of the first eight lines and rhyming abba, abba.

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jargon - The language or accepted lexicon of a group. Jargon implies words are tedious or not understood by outsiders.

jeremiad - A prophecy that evildoing will bring on destruction; a lament.

jongleur - A wandering entertainer in France and Norman England during the middle ages who sang and recited poems and stories and sometimes performed juggling and tumbling acts.

journal - 1. A diary; a personal record of experiences, ideas, and reflections kept regularly. 2. A scholarly periodical, such as the English Journal.

judicial criticism - A form of literary criticism that evaluates the content, organization, and style of an individual novel, play, short story, or poem against some general standard of literary excellence.

juvenalian satire - Writings done in the style of a child but written by an adult allowing for direct social commentary with impunity.

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kenning - A metaphoric compound word or phrase used as a synonym for a common noun.

Künstlerroman - “Artist-novel,” a type of bildungsroman, or developmental novel, that tells the story of an artist’s development.

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lai - Broadly, a lai is a poem of adventure or romance intended to be sung.

lampoon - A piece of strongly satirical writing, usually ridiculing someone.

legend - A story, part fact and part fiction, about the life and deeds of a saint, folk hero, or historical figure, that is handed down from generation to generation and is popularly accepted as true.

leitmotif/leitmotiv - The repetition of 6 significant word, phrase, theme, or image throughout a novel or play, which functions as a unifying element.

leonine rhyme - Another term for internal rhyme; the rhyming of two or more words in the same line of poetry, usually in the middle and at the end of the line.

libretto - The text of words of the dialogue and songs of an opera, oratorio, cantata, musical comedy, or other similar musical work; also called the book.

light verse - Verse written to amuse. Witty, nonsensical, or playful, light verse is usually characterized by technical brilliance and grace.

limerick - A light poem of supposedly Celtic roots. Limericks have five lines, a strong rhyme and a set rhythm. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme with each other and the third and forth rhyme together.

limited omniscience - The point of view assumed by an author who reveals the thoughts of a single character but presents all other characters only externally.

linguistics - The study of languages as systems.

literal language - Words and phrases accurate beyond question.

literal translation - A translation from one language to another that renders the text of a work word for word, without regard for differences in idiom and imagery between the two languages.

literary ballad - Narrative poetry written by known authors that imitates the general rhythm and stanza patterns of folk ballads.

literary criticism - The practice of describing, interpreting, and evaluating literature.

literary epic - An epic written by a known author employing the themes and conventions of the folk epic.

literature - Writings in poetry and prose of recognized excellence, valued for their intense, personal, and imaginative expression of life.

litotes - Understatement for effect. Something expressed by a negation. Example: He had not a few regrets after burning his painting.

local color - The use in writing of the physical setting, dialect, customs, and attitudes that typify a particular region.

logical positivism - A philosophical movement, at its height from the 1920s to about 1940, that emphasized applying scientific empiricism to philosophy.

loose translation - A translation from one language to another that attempts to preserve the tone, spirit, and effect of a work, rather than to produce an exact or precisely parallel version of the original.

low comedy - Crude, boisterous comedy characterized by slapstick humor and crude jokes, more physical than intellectual; the opposite of high comedy.

lyrical - Written in a song-like manner. Lyrical dialogue is characterized by strong emotions.

lyric poem - A brief song-like poem of strong emotion.

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macaronic - A term applied to verse in which foreign words and phrases are inserted, usually for humorous effect.

main character - See protagonist.

malapropism - The comic substitution of one word for another similar in sound but quite different in meaning.

Marxist criticism - A type of historical criticism of literature, based on the economic theory of Karl Marx, that interprets a literary work as both a reflection and a product of economic conflict, between social classes.

masculine rhyme - The rhyming of single accented syllables, as in park/dark or define/align. Masculine rhymes are the most common rhyme in English.

masque - An elaborate form of entertainment popular with the royal courts in Italy, England, and France during the renaissance. Light on plot and lavish in costumes, stage sets, music, dance, and other elements of spectacle, masques were pageants of allegorical and mythological figures.

medieval - Of or relating to the middle ages, a period in European history lasting from roughly A.D. 500 to 1500.

meiosis - A type of understatement used for ironic effect.

melodrama - 1) Theatrical genre traditionally between tragedy and drama. Serious in tone, the protagonist is spared in the end. 2) In modern writing and theatre, a farce presented as drama or drama in which characters are entirely good and entirely evil and therefore unbelievable.

memoir - An autobiography covering a specific time period.

Menippean satire - A form of indirect satire that ridicules such things as pretentious erudition, bigotry, and overweening professionalism.

metaphor - A figure of speech containing an implied comparison. Metaphors do not rely upon as, like, or than.

metaphysical conceit - Highly ingenious and startling analogies used as controlling images in metaphysical poetry.

meter - The fixed (or nearly fixed) pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in the lines of a poem that produces its pervasive rhythm. Rhythm and verse measured by a given pattern of syllables.

metonymy - A word or phrase used as a substitute for another. A common example is, you can’t fight city hall.

Middle Ages - The period in European history, the early part of which is sometimes called the Dark Ages, lasting from roughly A.D. 500 to 1500.

middle rhyme - Another term for internal rhyme; the rhyming of two or more words in the same line of poetry, usually in the middle and at the end of the line.

mimesis - The Greek word for imitation.

mimetic criticism - An approach to literary criticism that views an individual work in terms of the “truth” of its representation of reality-the reality of the world and human life and character.

minimalism - A term that came into use in the 1960s to describe a form of modem art, that avoiding any embellishment or dramatization, employs geometric shapes and primary colors to achieve extreme simplicity of form and impersonal objectivity.

minor / secondary character - A character used as a contrast to the main character or to advance the plot.

minstrel - A professional musician of medieval times, often attached to a particular court as the official entertainer.

miracle play - A medieval religious drama based on a miraculous event in a saint’s life or on a story from the Bible.

mixed metaphor - A metaphor that combines two incompatible images in a single expression.

mock epic - A literary work that comically or satirically imitates the form and style of the epic, treating a trivial subject in a lofty manner.

mode - The selection and arrangement of words to convey an attitude. Modes include: satire, realism, romanticism, impressionism, expressionism, naturalism, and neo-classicism. Some consider mode a reference to an element of style.

monody - A lament in which the mourner expresses grief for the death of a loved one, usually in a soliloquy.

monologue - A relatively extended speech in a drama or a narrative that is presented by one character.

mood - 1) The aspect of verbs indicating a speaker’s attitude toward an action. The pervading feeling within a story. 2) The range from drama to farce a script occupies.

moral criticism - A type of literary criticism that evaluates a work on the basis of the moral elements it contains and their correspondence to the accepted moral standards of the time or to those ethical principles that the critic feels should govern human life.

morality play - A type of allegory in dramatic form, popular in the later middle ages and early renaissance.

morphology - The study of the forms of words and word parts, such a prefixes and suffixes; a branch of linguistics.

motif - A detail or element which is repeated to unify the plot. Crime stories often feature the police station and the crime scene. Some motifs are “historical” and occur a single time within a story, yet convey an entire thought.

motivation - The psychological and moral impulses and external circumstances that cause a literary character to act, think, or feel a certain way.

multiple plots - Presenting major and minor story lines simultaneously. In many cases, plots are kept separate until late in the work, at which point they intersect. In theatre, each plot is traditionally presented in a similar manner.

mystery play - A medieval religious drama based on an event in the Bible; more commonly known as miracle play.

myth - 1. An anonymous narrative, originating in the primitive folklore of a race or a nation, that explains the origin of life, religious beliefs, and the forces of nature as some kind of supernatural occurrence, or that recounts the deeds of traditional super heroes. 2. Any unsubstantiated belief that is accepted uncritically.

mythic criticism - An approach to literary criticism, also known as archetypal criticism, that sees literary genres and plot patterns of individual literary works as recurrences of the archetypal patternslife and death, the cycle of seasons, spiritual journeys, children rebelling against their elders.

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naive narrator - An uncomprehending character in a work of fiction who narrates the story without realizing its true implications.

narration - Any story told in chronological order building to a climax that ends the story.

narrative - A recounting of a series of actual or fictional events in which some connection between the events is established or implied.

narrative essay - A short, nonfiction work recounting an event.

narrative perspective - The vantage point or stance from which a story is told; a synonym for point of view.

narrative poem - A poem that tells a story.

narrative technique - The method used by an author to tell a story. Some works mix techniques.

narrator - The person or character telling a story.

naturalism - The mode of a set of 19th century writers including Zola, Flaubert, and others who applied scientific precision and observation to writing. Naturalists did not impose moral judgment while writing in the realistic mode might include moral judgments.

near rhyme - Unlike end rhyme, which is based on repeated vowel and consonant sounds, near rhyme is based only on repeated middle vowel sounds between different consonant sounds.

negative capability - A term used by John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, to characterize a quality he admired in William Shakespeare and found lacking in Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

neoclassic drama - A period during which Renaissance writers attempted to emulate the styles of ancient Greece.

neo-classicism - A mode of writing popular in England from 1660 to 1740 that attempted a revival of classical styles.

nom de plume - A fictitious name assumed by a writer. See also pseudonym.

nonfiction - An essay, biography, autobiography, article, or text detailing actual people and events. In film nonfiction is referred to as documentary form.

nonsense verse - A type of verse in which meaning or sense is subordinate to sound.

novel - A relatively long fictional story with a complex plot and several subplots. Novels generally exceed 200 pages or 100,000 words. Paperback romances and some series novels are traditionally 128 pages, but still considered novels.

novella - A short story with a moral ranging from 50 to 150 pages.

novelette - Prose fictions that is build on one incident and is shorter than a novel but has more development of character and theme than a short story.

novel of manners - A term adapted from comedy of manners for a type of novel, usually comical and satirical, whose characters and plot emerge from, exemplify, and are limited by the social customs, values, habits, and other idiosyncrasies of a particular social class in a particular time and place.

novel of sensibility - A novel reflecting the cult of sensibility that was pervasive during the last half of the eighteenth century.

novel of the soil - A type of sociological novel that focuses on the hardships of those who struggle to wrest a living from the land.

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objective correlative - The image of an object, situation, or event that communicates an emotion without an explanation.

objective criticism - An approach to literary criticism that focuses on the intrinsic qualities of a work, rather than on the work’s relationship to the life of its author, to the time in which it was written, or to its effect on a reader.

object point of view - A method of narration in which a story is told in a completely objective manner, the author avoiding any expression of personal opinions, attitudes, or emotions.

objective theory of art - In literary criticism, a term applied to the idea that a work of literature is most significant as an object in itself, independent of any goal outside itself.

objectivity - In a literary work, the detached, impersonal presentation of situations and of characters and their thoughts and feelings.

occasional verse - Poetry written for a particular occasion, usually in commemoration of a social, literary, or historical event.

octameter - A poetic line containing eight metrical feet.

octave - The first eight lines, or octet, of the Italian sonnet.

ode - A long and elaborate lyric poem, usually dignified or exalted in tone and often written to praise someone or something or to mark and important occasion.

oeuvre - All the works of a particular writer.

Off Broadway - Plays produced outside the main theatrical district in New York. These theaters present productions that are unconventional, experimental, or in development.

omniscient - “All seeing or all knowing” narrators used in novels and short stories. Omniscient narrators are said to exist in the “third person.”

one-act play - A play in one act, presenting a simple incident involving two or three characters and running for fifteen to forty minutes.

onomatopoeia - The formation of a word by imitating a natural sound.

oral literature - The ballads, folktale, and proverbs of preliterate or nonliterate cultures that are sung or recited to audiences and are passed with changes from generation to generation through memory rather than by being written down.

orchestra - The lowest and most expansive array of seats directly in front of a stage. Orchestra seats should not be confused with where musicians sit.

ottava rima - An eight-line stanza of iambic pentameter rhyming abababcc.

oxymoron - A figure of speech in which opposite or contradictory ideas are combined.

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panegyric - Elaborate praise, often poetical in form.

parable - Short allegorical stories used to illustrate a moral position.

paradox - A seemingly contradictory literary passage or statement. In many forms paradoxes are true.

parallelism - A comparison showing similarities between two characters or two events.

paraphrase - Restating a work or quote as opposed to direction plagiarizing.

parataxis - The placing of related clauses in a series without the use of a conjunction. Example: I came, I saw, I conquered.

parody - 1) A composition imitating the style of another work or of a specific writer. 2) Treating a serious subject in a ridiculous manner.

passive voice - In grammar, a sentence in which the object of an action precedes the verb phrase.

pastoral play - Particularly popular during the Italian Renaissance, pastoral plays featured nymphs, satyrs, and knights.

pathetic fallacy - A term coined by John Ruskin to criticize the use of personification, in which human emotions are attributed to nature.

pathos - The quality in a work of art or literature that arouses feelings of sympathy, pity, or sorrow in the viewer or reader.

pen name - A fictitious name assumed by an author to conceal his or her true identity.

pentameter - A line of verse containing five feet or measures.

peripeteia - In Greek drama, the sudden and dramatic change or fortune for the protagonist.

persona - A characters of a drama, novel, or other work of fiction.

personal essay - A brief prose composition expressing personal opinions, impressions, and biases in a familiar, whimsical, or humorous tone.

personification - The giving of human characteristics to other living creatures or things.

persuasion - A form of essay meant to change opinions.

Petrarchan conceit - The type of conceit, first employed by Petrarch in his love sonnets and later imitated by Elizabethan sonneteers, that consists of elaborate and exaggerated comparisons, or analogies, and often, oxymora.

petrarchan sonnet - A sonnet composed of a group of eight lines (octave) with two rhymes and a group of six lines (sextet) with two or three rhymes.

phonology - The study of basic speech sounds; a branch of linguistics.

picaresque novel - A kind of fiction originating in Spain dealing with the adventures of a rogue or sharp-witted vagabond.

plagiarize - Directly taking the words of another writer or speaker as your own; a form of intellectual theft.

Platonic criticism - A type of criticism that stresses the extrinsic rather than the intrinsic values of a work of art.

play - A literary work written in dialogue and intended for performance before an audience by actors on a stage or other performing areas.

pleonasm - The use of more words than are necessary.

plot - The action or series of events within a work of fiction. Plot is not the same as story in that events by themselves do not hold an audience. Generic conflicts are used to describe the basic plot forms.

poetic license - The liberty poets and other literary artists have to depart from normal word order, distort pronunciation or create eye rhymes, use archaic words, or invent new words in order to achieve certain effects.

poetry - A primary genre in which words are selected for their sounds and expressive qualities. Poems feature rhythm and rhyme traditionally, but modern forms lack structure.

point of view - The vantage point from which a story is told. Authors may utilize more than one point of view in a work. The most common points of view are:

  • First person participant: The narrator is a character in the story. Formal language is avoided.
  • Third person omniscient: The narrator is not a character and knows all events and characters.
  • Third person limited: A mix of first person and third person pronouns, the narrator is retelling a story in which he or she was not a participant.

polysyndeton - Using conjunctions in succession.

popular romance - Also known as the love story, one of the forms of the romance in today’s fiction; characterized by strange or exotic settings, mysterious incidents, and passionate love.

pornography - Writing that seems designed solely to arouse sexual excitement in the reader, that lacks any redeeming social value or literary quality.

portmanteau words - Words coined by combining or “telescoping” two or more words in such a way that their meanings are also combined; sometimes called blends.

practical criticism - An objective approach to literary criticism that applies principles of art and theoretical insights when analyzing and evaluating particular works.

pragmatic criticism - An approach to literary criticism that focuses on a work as something designed to produce certain emotional and moral responses in the reader and on how those effects are produced.

preface - A statement written by the author. It appears before the text of a work and places the book in context.

prewriting - Jargon for thinking about a writing assignment before writing any of the work. Educators now stress prewriting and creativity before form and mechanics.

problem novel - A type of realistic novel that presents a social problem as its central conflict.

process analysis - Any writing explaining how to accomplish a task or how a device works. Technical manuals are process analysis documents.

proletarian novel - A type of sociological novel that concerns the problems of the working class.

prologue - An introduction or preface, especially to a play.

propaganda literature - Literature designed to influence public opinion on a social or a political issue, often by appealing to people’s fears and prejudices.

proscenium - The arch in theaters separating the stagehouse from the auditorium. The proscenium arch in many Western theaters is elaborate. Early movie theaters featured similar arches around their screens.

proscenium staging - The physical arrangement of modern theaters, with the audience clearly separated from the action.

prose - All works that cannot be classified as poetry, drama, or song. Prose is a major genre.

prose poem - A short composition printed in prose paragraphs, yet containing the striking imagery, calculated rhythmic effects, and other devices of poetry.

protagonist - 1) “The first to enter the contest,” the protagonist is the person around whom action occurs. 2) The primary character in a work of fiction, not necessarily a heroic persona.

protest literature - Poetry, fiction, or drama written in protest of a social or political policy or action.

proverb - A short saying that expresses some commonplace truth or bit of folk wisdom concerning some aspect of practical life.

pseudonym - A fictitious name assumed by a writer. Also nom de plume.

psychic distance - Being aware that a work of art is are and not real life; standing apart from the work as a reader or viewer.

psychological novel - A novel that focuses on the “interior” lives of its characters, their mental states and emotions, and that concentrates more on the psychological motivation of their actions rather than on the actions themselves.

pulp fiction - Originally books printed on inferior paper at a low price. Frequently romance novels, westerns, and crime stories.

pun - A form of wit, not necessarily funny, involving a play on a word with two or more meanings.

purpose - An author’s purpose in writing a work. Common purposes include: entertaining, instruction, and persuading.

- Q -

quantitative verse - Verse based on the duration of the sound of a syllable rather than on a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables.

quatrain - A stanza of four lines, rhymed or unrhymed; also a poem consisting of four lines only.

- R -

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reader-response criticism - A collective term used to describe a number of critical theories that have emerged since the 1960s, all of which focus in some way on the responses of the reader rather than on the text itself as the source of meanings in a literary work.

realism - A mode of writing that depicts people and events as if they are real.

recognition - In tragedy, the moment when a character gains essential knowledge, insight, or understanding that he or she has previously lacked.

refrain - A phrase, line, or group of lines repeated at intervals during a poem, usually at the end of a stanza.

regionalism - The tendency in literature to focus on a specific geographical region or locality, recreating as accurately as possible its unique setting, speech, customs, manners, beliefs, and history.

report - A summary of existing information derived from secondary sources or direct observations.

reported speech - Retelling in the writer’s own words what a speaker said or writer stated. Reported speech is paraphrased.

requiem - The final unwinding, or resolving, of the conflicts and the complications in the plot of fiction or drama.

resolution - Near the end of a story, the moment when all remaining facts are revealed.

restoration comedy - Theatre characteristic of the English Restoration (1660–1700), featuring salacious plots and debauchery.

revenge tragedy - A sensational kind of tragedy, popular during Elizabethan times, that featured murder and revenge.

reversal - A sudden change of fortune for the protagonist in play or other work of fiction.

rhetorical - A question or statement not necessarily meant to be answered or evaluated, often posed to encourage thought.

rhetorical techniques - Devises used in constructing rhetorical, or persuasive, essays. Techniques include: comparisons, repetitions, and paradoxes.

rhetorical criticism - An approach to literary criticism that emphasizes the author’s use of language in communicating with the reader.

rhyme - A regular recurrence of corresponding sounds, especially consonant-vowel combinations at the ends of lines in poetry.

rhyme royal - A stanza pattern of seven lines of iambic pentameter.

rhyme scheme - The pattern of rhymes in a stanza or poem, usually indicated by letters of the alphabet.

rhythm - The flow or movement of elements in a story. The spacing and timing of events in a play. In poetry, the tempo and meter.

rising action - The traditional dramatic structure in which plot events are increasingly exciting. Rising action is used in all genres and forms.

rising meter - A meter that ends with a strong accent, or stress, like iambs and anapests.

roman à clef - A French term, meaning “novel with a key,” referring to novels in which actual persons are presented under fictitious names.

romance - A fictitious tale of wonderful and extraordinary events characterized by idealization. A novel embodying the Romantic Movement.

Romantic Movement - The early 19th-century movement against classical literature and art focusing upon originality and primitive emotions.

romantic novel - A type of novel emphasizing action rather than character, often in the form of a series of episodes involving adventure, love, and combat; a term used interchangeably with romance.

round character - A character in fiction portrayed in detail as a complex, multi faced personality; the opposite of a flat character.

Rubáiyát stanza - A stanza of four lines in iambic pentameter, rhyming aaba.

run-on lines - Verse in which the thought of one lines runs into the next line with no punctuation of grammatical break.

- S -

sarcasm - Writing characterized by a caustic nature. Often a mocking bitterness.

satire - Literature in which stupidities and abuses are held up to ridicule, using a political form of writing.

satyr play - A form of Greek drama known to be a burlesque ridiculing heroic legends.

scansion - Analyzing the meter in lines of poetry by counting and marking the accented and unaccented syllables, dividing the lines into metrical feet, and showing the major pauses, if any, within the line.

scene - The events contained within a single setting and continuous period of time.

scenic method - A method of narration that presents a work of fiction in scenes as if it were a play.

science fiction - Fiction relying upon science and technology for plot development.

scope - The range or extent of events revealed in a work of fiction. Those items actually revealed within the text.

script - A reference to either a playscript or filmscript.

self-effacing author - A writer who presents the actions, thoughts, and dialogue of characters in a work of fiction directly, without personal of subjective commentary; an author who has effectively removed any traces of himself or herself form the narrative.

semantics - The study of meanings in language; a branch of linguistics.

semiotics - The study of signs, or signals of communication, including words, morse code, music, traffic signals, gestures, facial expressions, clothing, or anything that can be said to communicate meaning.

sensibility - The capacity for sensitive feeling and emotional response; a reliance on emotion rather than intellect as a guide to goodness and truth.

sententious - Expressing much in a few words. Pithy. Fond of using maxims in a way that is trite and ponderous.

sentimentalism - Demonstrating or evoking an exaggerated emotional response or an emotional response disproportionate to the situation that prompted it.

sentimental novel - A novel reflecting the cult of sensibility in vogue during the later eighteenth century.

sequel - A work of fiction meant as a continuation of events of a previous work.

series - A collection of fictional works with either common characters, common settings, or common themes.

sestet - A six-line poem or stanza.

setting - 1) The time, place, environment, and surroundings of a work of fiction. 2) The background of a story placing it in context.

seven deadly sins - According to medieval theology, those sins that lead to spiritual death, namely pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust.

Shakespearean sonnet - A sonnet that is arranged into three quatrains, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a concluding couplet.

short story - A work of fiction less than 50 pages in length.

simile - A figure of speech using “like,” “as,” or “than” to compare two things or ideas.

situational irony - The contrast that exists between what is intended and what actually takes place.

Skeltonics - A form of doggerel named after John Skelton. The short verses usually have irregular meter of two or three stresses per line and are arranged in couplets.

slant rhyme - An approximate rhyme, devised by substituting assonance or consonance for true rhyme.

slice of life - The extremely detailed, unselective, and realistic presentation of a segment of life, without comment or evaluation by the author.

Socratic irony - The device of pretending ignorance in order to draw out another’s opinions or arguments.

soliloquy - Dialogue delivered by a character who is alone while he or she speaks aloud.

sonnet - A poem of fourteen lines in any of several forms, usually in iambic pentameter.

sound devices - Any of the auditory effects employed, especially in poetry, to communicate mood, create feeling, unify ideas, and reinforce meaning.

speaker - The voice of a poem.

speculative essay - A short nonfiction work presenting a theory and proposed proofs.

Spenserian stanza - A stanza pattern, that consists of nine lines in iambic meter rhyming ababbcbcc.

spondee - A poetic foot consisting of two accented syllables.

stage left - The side of a stage to the left of an actor as he or she faces the audience.

stage right - The side of a stage to the right of an actor as he or she faces the audience.

stanza - A group of lines in a poem much like a paragraph in prose.

static character - A character who does not change significantly in the story or does not influence the plot.

stereotype - Characters or plots easily recognized by readers or audiences as conventions frequently overused.

stock character - A character who exists because the plot requires it for consistency. For example, a bank robbery requires nameless customers and tellers. Stock does not imply stereotype.

stock company - A group of actors retained by a theater to perform in several plays.

stock epithet - An epithet that is used repeatedly.

story - How characters react to the events within a plotline. A plot forms the basis for a story, giving characters a context for action.

storyboard - 1) A visual display or outline of a plot. 2) Sketches representing scenes or camera shots in a film arranged on a wall or board to depict the plot.

strategy - The management of words and phrases for a specific effect. Also known as rhetorical strategy. Strategy often involves manipulative dialogue.

stream of consciousness - A method and a subject matter of narrative fiction that attempts to represent the inner workings of a character’s mind at all levels of awareness, to re-create the continuous, chaotic flow of half-formed and discontinuous thoughts, memories, sense impressions, random associations, images, feelings, and reflections that constitute a character’s “consciousness.”

stress - In poetry, the emphasis placed on a word or a syllable.

structuralism - An approach developed from the concepts and methods of structural linguistics and structural anthropology that analyzes language and literature as structures.

structure - The formal or traditional manner of presenting poetry, prose, or a work of fiction. The units of structure are:

  • play: act, scene
  • novel: book / part, chapter
  • poem: stanza, line

style - The distinct vocabulary and syntax of a particular writer.

stylistics - A term currently used to identify any of several analytical studies of literature that apply the techniques and concepts of modem linguistics.

subplot - A minor series of events within a work of fiction meant to illustrate a character’s nature.

subject - The topic or thing described in a work of literature.

subjectivity - Emphasis in writing on the expression of the writer’s feelings and personal opinions.

suspense - Tension or anticipation created via the use of unexpected plot movements. One unexpected twist must be introduced to prepare readers or audiences for further suspense.

syllabic verse - Poetry in which the lines are measured by the total number of syllables in a line, rather than by the number of stressed syllables alone.

syllogism - Reasoning in which two statements are made and a generalized conclusion results. False logic can result. Good example: All dogs are mammals. Mammals have hair. Dogs have hair. Bad example: Mammals give live birth. Platypuses are mammals. The platypus must give live birth.

symbol - A thing within a work of fiction meant to imply a greater concept.

synecdoche - A figure of speech in which a part is used for a whole. Example: She is the bread-winner for the family. (Bread symbolizes food.)

syntax - The arrangement and grammatical relation of words, phrases, and clauses in sentences.

- T -

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taff tale - A humorous account of the impossible exploits of a hero possessing superhuman abilities.

tanka - A form of Japanese poetry consisting of five lines, the first and third with five syllables each, the others with seven syllables.

tempo - The speed at which a plot moves from incident to incident.

tension - The equilibrium achieved in a poem between opposite tendencies-literal versus metaphorical, abstract versus concrete, serious versus ironic.

tercet - A group, often a stanza, of three lines usually having the same rhyme.

terza rima - A form of verse composed of three-line stanzas, or tercets, linked by rhyme.

tetrameter - A line of poetry composed of four metrical feet.

textual criticism - A type of literary criticism that attempts to reconstruct the original manuscript or most authoritative text of a literary work.

theme - The unifying idea or motif in a work of fiction. The “message” within a story or what the story “means” to an audience.

thesis - The position a writer wishes to prove or support.

third-person point of view - A method of telling a story in which a person standing outside the action of the story acts as the narrator of events.

thought - The idea with which an author hopes to leave readers.

threnody - A song of death, a dirge.

thrust staging - A theater in which part of the stage extends into the audience.

tone - Writing to illustrate an attitude on the part of a character or narrator, usually via word choice.

topic - A short phrase used to classify a work. “Man’s inhumanity” is a topic.

topic sentence - A term used in the traditional study of composition that identifies the sentence that states, directly or indirectly, the topic to be developed in further detail in a paragraph or sequence of paragraphs.

tradition - Anything handed down from generation to generation from age to age, the, inherited past.

tragedy - 1) A serious play dealing with the problems of a central character. An unhappy or disastrous ending results due to this character’s flaws. 2) Any work with an unhappy ending.

tragic flaw - Now associated with the “cardinal sins,” tragic flaws are those leading to the downfall of a character.

transferred epithet - An adjective liked to a noun that it would not normally modify.

transition - A word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, or longer passage of writing that serves as a link in writing.

translation - The process of changing the language in which a work was written to another language.

travesty - A grotesque or farcical imitation. In writing, a style of extreme burlesque.

trimeter - A line of poetry consisting of three metrical feet.

triple rhyme - A rhyme of three syllables, the first accented and the following two unaccented.

triplet - A group of three lines of poetry, often having the same rhyme but sometimes unrhymed.

true rhyme - Rhyme in which the accented syllables and all succeeding sounds are identical between two words.

turning point - A term used to describe that point in the plot of a play, novel, or short story when the protagonist’s situation changes for the better or for the worse.

type - A literary character who represents a typical class of persons or type of behavior, rather than being a fully realized individual.

- U -

understatement - Describing an idea, situation, or thing using words with less strength than might be merited. Understatement is often a form of satire.

unities - The three unites of drama-unity of action, unity of time, and unity of place.

unity - That quality of oneness in a literary work, in which all parts are related by some principle of organization so that they form an organic whole, complete and independent in itself.

upstage - The point on a stage at which an actor is farthest from the audience yet still visible. To “upstage” an actor was to attract attention away from the characters in the spotlight.

utopia - An imaginary ideal society or political state.

- V -

verbal irony - A figure of speech in which there is a meaningful contrast between what is said and what is actually meant.

verisimilitude - The appearance of being true.

vernacular - The everyday spoken language of the people in a particular locality; by extension, writing that imitates or suggests that language.

verse - Technically a verse is a single line of poetry, but in common usage verse refers to a complete poem.

versification - The art of poetic composition.

viewpoint - The stance or vantage point from which the action and setting of a work are viewed and commented on by the narrator.

villain - An antagonist that has no admirable qualities; often found in melodramas.

villanelle - A lyric poem made up of five stanzas of three lines, plus a final stanza of four lines.

voice - How readers view an author or playwright through his or her works.

- W -

willing suspension of disbelief - The circumstance in which the reader or viewer of a fiction, such as a novel or a play, temporarily withholds doubt about truth or actuality and willingly accepts the make-believe world invented by the author.

wit - The ability to make brilliant, imaginative, or clever connections between ideas-quickly, and with verbal deftness.

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- Y -

- Z -

zeitgeist - From German, the “spirit of the age”; the moral, emotional, or intellectual climate or tendency characteristic of a period or era.

zeugma - A figure of speech in which a single word is related to two or more. Example: The lighting was soft, but his breathing was not. (Soft refers to the lights and his breathing.)


Morner, Kathleen and Ralph Rousch. NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chicago: NTC, 1998. [Amazon.com]

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 2003. [Amazon.com]


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Writer: M. Toledo (2004);
C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach