Literary Terms and Definitions
What is a literary term? These are the words and descriptors that help us to talk about literature and poetry and articulate a work’s characteristics, meaning and broader significance. Literature can be much more than a good story. Often an author is writing to express ideas, opinions and greater truths about the world and human nature. Literary devices help authors express their ideas and intentions in a meaningful, purposed way. These are some of the most common literary devices and terms for describing literature.
An allegory is a work of literature, in which the surface narrative is the vehicle for a deeper, symbolic or metaphorical meaning or intent. An entire work may be allegory or merely parts of it. The story, which may be very simple and entertaining, is used to communicate a more profound, sometimes even hidden, meaning.
When sounds are repeated in succession within a sentence you have an example of alliteration. Alliteration may refer to words that rhyme with each other, such as “how now brown cow,” or it may describe a succession of words that begin with the same letter or sound, such as “Sally sold seashells by the seashore.”
An allusion is made when an author mentions or refers to a person, event, or well-known idea. Allusions are often made to famous works of literature or literary characters.
Anthropomorphism is the practice of giving human characteristics to a deity. This is a device commonly seen in Greek and Roman mythology where the gods make assume any number of human characteristics and emotions. It sometimes refers to giving human characteristics to animals as well.
When an author wants to express a word or an idea that may be offensive or too explicit, they may use a euphemism, which is a milder word or way of expressing an idea. Instead of saying, “Grandma is dead,” which can sound harsh to some, a writer may use the euphemism “passed away.” Euphemisms are frequently used to stand in for swear words or sexual terms.
A foil is a character that an author uses to highlight or demonstrate essential qualities in another character. Rather than explicitly describe the protagonist, or main character, the author may use secondary characters to set up contrasts, which will reveal the true nature of the primary character.
Genres are categories for different types of literature. Drama, detective fiction, fantasy, Young Adult (YA) and romance are examples of literary genres. Genre tells you what type of book or work it is.
Hyperbole is another word for exaggeration. This literary device can help an author convey a point by overstating it. “We were dying of hunger,” may be used to express that the characters were indeed very hungry, but not actually in danger of perishing for lack of food.
When an author employs irony in his or her writing, he or she is using words or events to say one thing while actually meaning another.
A metaphor expresses a comparison by calling one thing another. Unlike simile, there is no use of the words “like” or “as.” An expression like, “That exam was a beast,” is an example of metaphor. Metaphor can also be used in a broader sense to express larger concepts and ideas about life in general.
A story, poem, or play’s motif is the theme or idea that recurs throughout the work and often dominates the plot. A literary work may have more than one motif. Common examples of motifs are justice, love or redemption.
This type of word, when pronounced verbally creates the sound it is describing. “Swoosh,” “slurp,” “quack,” and “clunk,” are examples of onomatopoeia.
An oxymoron is a paradox or contradiction in two words. The two words, when put together, actually contradict each other. Popular examples include “jumbo shrimp” or “modest wealth.” The effect is often humorous, satirical and witty.
Personification endows non-human entities with human traits and emotions. An author may personify animals, plants or other inanimate objects. For example, “The wind fought against the runners coming up the hill.” This is bestowing the human characteristic of being able to fight upon wind, an inanimate entity.
The plot of a work is its storyline; the sequence of events that take place. In their most simplified form, plots contain rising action, climax, and falling action. This is also referred to as the story’s narrative arc.
Every written work has a point of view. Who is telling the story? Through whose eyes do we understand what is happening? Who is the narrator? Does the narrator know everything or only some of what is going on? When a story is told from the perspective of “I,” it is in first-person point-of-view. If an outside narrator is telling the story for characters which are referred to as “he” or “she,” then this describes third-person point-of-view.
Satire is the device of looking at or conveying a serious situation or event in a humorous way. With wit and even sarcasm, the author brings a light-hearted or amusing spin on something grave and seeks to elicit the same response in their reader. Satire may also be used to point out hypocrisy or moral failing by revealing the ridiculousness of their subject.
Setting refers to the world in which the story takes place. It includes the physical location, but also the time period, the people that inhabit the world in which the story takes place and the prevailing customs and beliefs. The setting may be entirely fictional and fantastical or may contain elements of real world settings, events and environmental characteristics..
A simile is used to make a comparison and it involves the use of the words “like” or “as.” For example, “Her eyes were like shining stars,” is an example of the use of simile.
A symbol is a real-life object that an author uses to represent another deeper meaning or idea. The symbol will often recur throughout the work to emphasize its meaning and significance. For example, a literal object like a dove or an olive branch may be used to represent peace.
Learn more about literary terms and rhetorical devices: