Handbook of Literary Terms

Handbook of Literary Terms


  • ACTION: any literary narrative which is created in the author’s mind
  • PROSE: It is often used as an inclusive term for all discourse, spoken or written, which is not patterned into the lines and rhythms either of metric verse or of free verse.
  • SHORT STORY: A short piece of prose fiction (generally 1-50 pages) which is unified around a single effect; each element of the story-character, plot, theme, setting, tone, imagery, etc.–contributes to that effect.
  • NOVELLA (NOVELETTE): a prose fiction story of medium length (generally 50-125 pages)
  • NOVEL: an extended piece of prose fiction (generally 125+ pages) which usually has many characters and develops complex plot
  • CHAPTER: a major division of the novel
  • ALLEGORY: It is a story in which people, things, and actions represent an idea or generalization about life; allegories often have a strong moral or lesson.
  • PARABLE: a short, descriptive story which illustrate a particular belief or moral.  Such a story is called a “didactic” story because it teaches a moral or lesson.
  • ARCHETYPE: a story that is universally recognized and forms a kind of template for future stories.  In archetypes, there are easily recognized patterns–like the steps involved in “The Hero’s Journey” or “The Flood”.


  • UNITY OF ACTION: The plot has unity if it is a single, complete, and ordered action in which none of the parts is unnecessary. The parts are so closely connected that without one of the parts the work would be disjointed.
  • PLOT is a system of actions in a purposeful sequence represented in a work. Aristotle defines plot as that which has a beginning, middle, and an end.
  • EXPOSITION: background information on the characters, setting, and situation, usually found at the beginning of a story
  • RISING ACTION: begins when the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is set in motion and ends with the climax
  • CLIMAX: the turning point or moment of highest intensity in the work when either the protagonist or antagonist must succeed
  • FALLING ACTION (DENOUEMENT): the action which works out the decision made in the climax–the story unravels
  • RESOLUTION: the portion of the play or story where the problem is solved, providing closure
  • SUSPENSE: an anxious uncertainty about what is going to happen to characters with whom the reader has established bonds of sympathy
  • SURPRISE: Surprise occurs when the events that occur in a literary work violate the expectations we have formed. The interplay between suspense and surprise is a prime source of the power of plot
  • FLASHBACK; The writer interrupts the chronological sequence of a story to relate an incident which occurred prior to the beginning of the story.
  • FORESHADOWING: A writer’s use of hints or clues to indicate events that will occur later in the story. The use of this technique both creates suspense and prepares the reader for what is to come.
  • ANTECEDENT ACTION: The action that occurs before the story officially begins.  Essentially the “story before the story”
  • DEUS EX MACHINA: Translated literally from the Greek as “God from the machine”, this term relates to an improbable or unlikely resolution to a conflict in the story.
  • IN MEDIAS RES: Literally “in the middle of things”, stories which begin in this manner start with immediate action.  An example would be the opening sequence of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,with an Imperial cruiser blasting a smaller rebel ship.


  • CHARACTER: A person (sometimes a group of people, an animal, or a physical force) invented by an author who has an impact on the outcome of the story. Character motivation must be consistent; the character must be convincing and lifelike.
  • STATIC/DYNAMIC: Characters who change in some meaningful way in the course of a story are called “dynamic” characters, while those who remain fixed in their outlook or relationships with other characters are called “static”.
  • FLAT/ROUND: A flat character is one who is developed with only a few character traits, producing a “two-dimensional” persona.  A round character, conversely, is fully developed and complex.  Traditionally short fiction contains flat characters, while novels, because of their length, showcase round characters.
  • PROTAGONIST: the hero, chief character, or force in the work which the reader wants to succeed
  • ANTAGONIST: a force or character opposing the protagonist who tries to stop the protagonist from reaching his desired goal
  • FOIL: a character who serves by contrast to emphasize the qualities of another character
  • STOCK CHARACTER / STEREOTYPE: an easily recognizable character such as the villain with the mustache or the evil stepmother.


  • CONFLICT: The relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. The conflict can be threefold: 1) conflict between individuals, 2) between the character and circumstances intervening between him and a goal he has set himself, and 3) conflict of opposing tendencies within a single individual’s mind.
  • There are five basic types of conflict:
  1. MAN vs. MAN: One character in the story has a problem with one or more of the other characters.
  2. MAN vs. SOCIETY: A character has a conflict or problem with some element of society–the school, the law, the accepted way of doing things, and so on.
  3. MAN vs. HIMSELF: A character has trouble deciding what to do in a particular situation.
  4. MAN vs. NATURE: A character has a problem with some natural happening: a snowstorm, an avalanche, the bitter cold, or any of the other elements common to nature.
  5. MAN vs. FATE: A character has to battle what seems to be an uncontrollable problem. Whenever the problem seems to be a strange or unbelievable coincidence, fate can be considered the cause of the conflict.


  • POINT OF VIEW is the outlook from which the events in a work are told.
  • The methods of narration are:
  1. OMNISCIENT NARRATOR: The third person narrator is all-knowing and relates the thoughts, feelings and motivations of all the characters.
  2. LIMITED OMNISCIENT NARRATOR: The third person narrator relates the thoughts and feelings of only one character.
  3. FIRST PERSON NARRATOR: A character, often the protagonist, narrates the story in the first person.
  4. OBJECTIVE NARRATOR (detached observer): The third person narrator sees and records the information from a neutral or unemotional viewpoint.


  • SETTING: the time and place in which the action of a literary work occurs
  • MANNERS/LOCAL COLOR: the use of details which are characteristic of a certain region or section of the country.  The customs or mores of a culture can affect the reader’s understanding of a story.
  • MOOD: the emotional atmosphere of a story, created through the description of setting.


Irony, of any type, always involves some sort of discrepancy or incongruity between what is said and what is meant.

NOTE: Irony is sometimes misunderstood, with the result that the reader goes away with the wrong idea from what the writer meant to convey.

Be alert to recognize the subtle signs!

  1. Verbal Irony:  Saying the opposite of what is meant.  This is not necessarily sarcasm or satire, although irony can be either.  E.g.,  “Good hunting!” – General Zaroff says this to Rainsford,a man trapped on his island.  Zaroff is planning on hunting him as human prey.
  2. Situational Irony:  Involves a discrepancy between the actual circumstances and those that would seem appropriate, or between what is anticipated and what actually happens. E.g.,  In the television show Murphy Brown, Murphy hires a secretary to help her keep up with her work.  The new secretary continually asks Murphy to bring her coffee.
  3. Dramatic Irony:  The audience is aware of something of which the character is not. E.g.,  In Macbeth, King Duncan praises Macbeth as a “peerless kinsman”.  The audience knows that Macbeth is really plotting to kill the king.


  • THEME: It is a statement about life or universal truth that a particular work is trying to get across to the reader. In stories written for children, the theme is often spelled out clearly at the end when the author says “…and so, the moral of the story is “
  • In more complex literature, the theme may not be so moralistic in tone, or at least not so clearly spelled out.  The reader must “read in” to what the author is attempting to imply through his or her story.
  • MOTIF: It is a term for an often-repeated character, incident, idea or image in literature that is used to convey themes.
  • AMBIGUITY: the deliberate use of a word or expression to convey two or more diverse attitudes or feelings

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