Literary Term Definitions

A definition is an explanation of a word’s meaning, in this case, in regard to how it’s used in literature. With each of the terms defined, you can find detailed information regarding it, as well as examples in literature.

Home » Glossary of Literary Terms » Literary Term Definitions
AJAX progress indicator
Clear Search
  • a

  • AbjectionAbjection is a literary term that refers to subjective horror, or someone’s reaction to physically or emotionally disturbing subject matter.
  • AbridgmentAn abridgment is a condensed or shortened version of a book. It contains the most important details and removes any digressions.
  • AcatalecticAcatalectic refers to a line of poetry that has a complete number of syllables in the final foot.
  • Act (drama)An act is a primary division of a dramatic work, like a play, film, opera, or other performance. The act is made up of shorter scenes.
  • ActantThe word “actant” is used in relation to the actantial model. This is a model that defines the roles of characters and objects.
  • AffectiveThe word “affective” is used to refer to the emotional qualities of a literary work.
  • AfflatusThe word afflatus is defined as a burst of sudden inspiration. A writer, artist, musician, or other creator is powerfully inspired.
  • AgonThe word “agon” refers to the conflict between two characters in a literary work. It is used to describe the protagonist and antagonist.
  • AlazonThe alazon is one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
  • AleatoryAleatory refers to art that’s created through random chance. This kind of writing involves the author making random choices in regard to style, content, and characters.
  • AlterityAlterity is a term used to refer to anything that’s different or “other.” It’s often used today to describe something, someone, or a group that does not conform to expected or traditional norms.
  • Amoebean VerseAmoebean verse is poetry that uses alternating speakers. The writer creates two distinct voices that alternate speaking on a regular basis.
  • Anagogical Anagogical is a term used to describe a spiritual interpretation of ideas, statements, literature, events, and more. It is most commonly used when describing the scriptures. 
  • AnagramAn anagram is a rearrangement of the letters in a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase.
  • AnaptyxisAnaptyxis is the inclusion of one or more vowel sounds, especially at the beginning or the end of a word for the ease of pronunciation.
  • AnatomyIn literature, anatomies are the division of a literary work or idea into parts. This is done so that a reader might better analyze the individual pieces.
  • AngstThe term “angst” is usually described as a feeling of apprehension or anxiety about anything. It was first used by Kierkegaard in the 1800s.
  • AnthologyAn anthology is a collection of literary works that were chosen by a single compiler, a group of people, or an institution of some kind.
  • Anti-Stratfordian“Anti-Stratfordian” is a blanket term given to all those who subscribe to a theory of alternative authorship in regard to the works ascribed to William Shakespeare.
  • AntimasqueThe antimasque is a type of masque that occurs before the main masque and is usually presented to great contrast. 
  • AntiphonAn antiphon is a short chant that is usually used as part of a Christian ritual. These chants are sung as refrains, or repeated sections of verse. 
  • AntonomasiaAntonomasia is the practice of replacing a proper name with a word or phrase. This is usually something that describes the person or type of person. 
  • AppositiveAn appositive occurs when a word, sometimes a noun, is followed by another noun or phrase that names or changes it in some way.
  • ArcadiaArcadia, in poetry, is a term that refers to an idealized, unspoiled natural landscape. It is a utopia and perfect in every way.
  • Art for Art’s SakeThe phrase “Art for Art’s Sake” dates back to the early 19th century. It’s used to describe an approach to literature, visual arts, music, and more. 
  • AsclepiadAn asclepiad is a line of poetry that is built around a choriamb and that dates back to Ancient Greece. In Latin, it is written as “Asclepiadeus.” 
  • Automatic WritingAutomatic writing occurs when someone with a claimed psychic ability writes without consciously deciding which words to put down on paper.
  • Avant-gardeIn literature, the term avant-garde refers to poetry or prose that pushes the boundaries and is experimental.
  • b

  • BardThe term “bard” is used to describe a professional story teller. They could also be a musician, oral historian, genealogist, or another writer. 
  • BestiaryA bestiary is a compendium of beasts that originated in the ancient world.
  • BiasBias is undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
  • BibliographyA bibliography is a list of books an author has consulted in their creation of a novel, essay, short story, or any other written work that required research.
  • BibliomancyBibliomancy is a literary divination practice. It uses a sacred text, such as the Bible, as a method to predict the future.
  • BrechtianThe term “Brechtian” is used to describe literature that relates to the work of Bertolt Brecht, a famed German playwright and poet during the early 1900s.
  • Broken RhymeBroken rhyme is an interesting type of rhyme that occurs when a poet cuts a word in half to create rhyme. 
  • ByronicThe term “Byronic” is used to describe anything that exhibits the characteristics of Lord Byron’s writing or evokes the type of life he led.
  • Byronic HeroThe Byronic hero is a type of character inspired by the life and work of George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron.
  • c

  • CanonA literary canon is a collection of materials that are considered to represent a specific period or genre.
  • ChapbookA chapbook is a small book that’s published with around 40 pages. The tradition arose in 16th century Europe, and it's still popular today.
  • Chorus in LiteratureThe term “chorus” refers to a group of performers responsible for summarizing (sometimes through song and/or dance) the events of a play. The term is also used to describe the section of text they read/sang. 
  • ClichéA cliché is a trite, overused expression that can be found in writing and everyday life.
  • ClimaxThe climax is the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Close ReadingClose reading is a style of analysis that is commonly used in schools and among lovers of literature around the world. There are five steps to close readings that you can explore below. 
  • Closed CoupletA closed couplet is a pair of lines that are grammatically complete, or at least logically complete, on their own. They also usually rhyme.
  • ClosureIn literature, closer is defined as a feeling of resolution that a reader may or may not experience at the end of a story, poem, novel, etc. 
  • CodaA coda is an epilogue that concludes a story. This could be an entire chapter, a few paragraphs, lines, or a single sentence. 
  • Commonplace BookA commonplace book is an informal collection of notes, information, recipes, aphorisms, facts, and more. These books are personal and kept by individuals for their own purposes.
  • ConnotationA connotation is the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
  • Contemporary PeriodThe term “contemporary literature” refers to written works that were created after World War II. Prior to this, was the modernist period. 
  • ContextThe context is the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
  • Convention in LiteratureA convention in literature is a genre’s defining characteristics. Every genre has its go-to ideas, images, and characters. 
  • CritiqueA critique is defined as an evaluation of something, whether that be visual or literary arts. It analyzes all of the writer's choices.
  • d

  • DenotationDenotation is the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
  • DenouementThe denouement is at the end of a story, where the plotlines are tied up and resolved.
  • DialectA dialect is a form of a language spoken by a group of people.
  • DidacticismDidacticism refers to a type of literature that’s mean to convey instructions or very specific pieces of information.
  • DiscourseDiscourse is written or spoken words. It is communication that describes thought through language in everyday life and literature.
  • DoppelgängerA doppelgänger is a person who looks like someone else but doesn't necessarily act like that person.
  • DramatizationThe term “dramatization” is used to describe a play or film that’s adapted from a novel or a real event.
  • e

  • Early Modern PeriodThe Early Modern Period is a period in European literature that came before the development of the novel in the 18th century. 
  • EkphrasticEkphrastic is a type of poem that explores art. The poet engages with any type of visual art within their writing.
  • EpilogueAn epilogue is an extra chapter at the end of a literary work. 
  • Erotic LiteratureErotic literature refers to accounts of passionate and sexual relationships. These could be fiction or non-fiction. 
  • EthosEthos is one of the three modes of persuasion, along with logos and pathos. In rhetoric, it refers to an argument that appeals to the audience through empathizing with the speaker’s credibility.
  • EulogyA eulogy is a speech, or short piece of writing, created in honor of someone who has recently died.
  • ExistentialismIn its simplest form, existentialism is the exploration of the nature of existence with emphasis on the experiences of humanity.
  • ExperimentalismExperimentalism is one part of modernism and postmodernist literature. Writers take risks, try strange new techniques, and attempt to create something that’s never been seen before. 
  • ExplicationAn explication is a literary technique that's used to create a close analysis. Usually, it’s related to the analysis of a portion of a text.
  • f

  • Falling ActionThe falling action occurs near the end of the story, following the climax and before the resolution.
  • Faulty ParallelismFaulty parallelism is the use of incorrect structures. It occurs when parts of a sentence mean the same thing but don't use the same form.
  • Figurative LanguageFigurative language refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • ForewordA foreword is a brief piece of writing that appears at the beginning of a book or a longer short story, that is usually written by someone other than the author.
  • Free Indirect StyleFree indirect style, speech, or discourse, is a type of third-person narrative perspective that includes the thoughts of a character while maintaining the narrator’s control over the story.
  • g

  • GenreGenre is a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Greater Romantic LyricGreater Romantic Lyric refers to a particular type of Romantic poem in which the author spends an extended period of time contemplating a particular subject.
  • GrotesqueGrotesque is an adjective used to describe something that’s at once mysterious, ugly, hard to understand, and distorted.
  • h

  • HeroIn literature, a hero is the principal or primary character of a work.
  • HeroineThe term “heroine” is used to describe a female hero in literature. It is also used to describe characters in film, television, and in real life. 
  • HomericThe term “Homeric” is used to describe the poetry of Homer and any later works written in the same style or form. These poems use heroic characters, themes, and often include elements of Greek mythology.
  • HubrisHubris is a classical term used to refer to excessive pride in a story’s characters.
  • i

  • Imperfect RhymeAn imperfect rhyme is the opposite of a perfect rhyme. It refers to two words that rhyme in part, but not perfectly.
  • Implied ReaderThe implied reader of a poem, short story, novel, or play is the person the author directs their writing toward. It is usually the person, or type of person, they believe would most enjoy or benefit from their literature. 
  • ImpressionismImpressionism in literature refers to stories dependent on a character’s subjective point of view. These stories are based around that character’s impressions of their experiences.
  • Interior MonologueAn interior monologue is used in all forms of fiction and even in some forms of nonfiction. It is an expression of the character's thoughts and impressions.
  • IntertextualityIntertextuality is a feature of a text that references another text. It reflects upon the latter and uses it as a reference for the new written work.
  • k

  • KenningA kenning is a figure of speech in which two words are combined to form a new expression.
  • l

  • Leonine RhymeLeonine rhymes utilize internal rhyme and a natural pause in the middle of a line. These rhymes were most common in the Middle Ages. Specifically, in Latin poetry.
  • Literary AdaptationAn adaptation occurs when a literary work, such as a poem or novel, is made into a new genre, such as a film or musical.
  • Literary ContentThe content of a poem, or of any novel, short story, essay, etc., is what it is about. It is the message, theme, moral, or other purpose of the written work. 
  • Literary CriticismCriticism in literature is the study/evaluation of literary works, including but not limited to plays, poems, novels, and essays. 
  • Literary MovementIn literature, the term “movement” refers to a division of written works. They are separated out into their similarities and aesthetic features and topics. That is, in contrast to divisions of time or location.
  • LogosLogos is the use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.
  • m

  • Macaronic VerseMacaronic verse is poetry written in more than one language. It refers to instances in which writers compose their work using bilingual puns and other clever combinations of words and languages. 
  • MonorhymeMonorhyme refers to the use of the same end-sound within multiple lines of a poem. Usually, the term describes poems that only use one end sound. 
  • MoodMood is the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
  • MoralA moral is the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • MorphemeA morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of any language. It might be a word, or it might be part of a word.
  • MuseThe “muse” in literature is a source of inspiration for the writer. This could be someone they know or a direct reference to the traditional Greek muses.
  • n

  • NarratorThe narrator is the voice that tells the story, whether that story is in the form of a poem or novel. 
  • o

  • OeuvreAn oeuvre is a writer’s body of work. It includes everything they wrote and published throughout their life. 
  • Old EnglishOld English is the earliest recorded version of the English language spoken in England and Scotland during the Middle ages.
  • Omniscient NarratorAn omniscient narrator knows what’s happening at all times, and all points, of the story.
  • Oral TraditionThe phrase “oral tradition” is associated with oral lore, or the telling of stories orally rather than writing them down.
  • Ordinal NumberOrdinal numbers are used in linguistics to represent the position or ranking of something, such as first and 1st.
  • p

  • PaleographyPaleography is the study of historic writing systems and handwriting. The process dates documents and traces the evolution of various alphabets.
  • ParaliteratureParaliterature is written work that is not defined as “literature.” It is dismissed as lesser for one reason or another.
  • ParaphrasingParaphrasing a poem means to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way and choosing less complicated language.
  • PassusA passus is a division in a short story, novel, or long poem, usually medieval in nature. It is comparable to a canto.
  • PedanticA pedant, or someone who exhibits pedantic behavior, will correct small mistakes that are not necessarily important in the broader scheme of things.
  • Periodic StructurePeriodic structure is form of writing in which the main clause of the sentence, or its predicate, are held till the end of the sentence.
  • PeriodicalA periodical is a series of publications that appear at a regular schedule. Magazines are a common example.
  • PlotThe plot is a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Poem FormA form is the way text is arranged in a poem, short story, novel, etc. There are a wide variety of forms in literature that an author might choose to use. 
  • Poem SubjectThe subject of a poem might also be called the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned.
  • Poetic LicenseThe term “poetic license” is used to describe an intentional departure from the facts or traditional structures of language when writing. It is utilized most commonly in poetry but can also be used, in order to create a particular effect, in a short story, novel, play, etc.
  • PoeticismThe term “poeticism” refers to the use of poetic elements in writing. In a literary work, the author focuses on feelings, ideas, and powerful experiences. They often use a particular style, rhythm, and rhyme scheme.
  • ProemA proem is an introduction to a literary work. It is a preface to what’s to come after. 
  • r

  • Rhyme SchemeThe rhyme scheme is the pattern of rhyme that’s used in a poem. It corresponds with the end sounds that feature in lines of verse.
  • RiddleRiddles are tricky phrases or questions that have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer.
  • Rising ActionThe rising action comes after the exposition and before the climax. It includes the complicating or inciting incident.
  • Run-On SentenceA run-on sentence is a long sentence that is made up of two independent clauses joined together.
  • s

  • ScansionScansion is the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
  • SemanticsSemantics is the study of the meanings of words, symbols, and various other signs.
  • SerendipitySerendipity is the experience of finding something joyful in that which came unexpectedly.
  • SesquipedalianSesquipedalian is defined as the use of words that are overly long and have multiple syllables. Sometimes, they are neologisms.
  • SnarkSnark refers to a sarcastic comment. It is a combination the words “snide” and “remark.”
  • SubjectiveThe word “subjective” refers to a particular point of view. It is based on someone’s personal opinions and beliefs.
  • SublimeThe word “sublime” is used in literature to describe writing that excites the reader beyond one’s normal experience.
  • SuperlativeA superlative is one degree of adverb and adjective. It refers to the adverb or adjective to the greatest degree.
  • Syllabic VerseThe term “syllabic verse” is used to describe a poem in which the meter is based on counting syllables. The designation can be used no matter the number of stressed or unstressed feet.
  • SyllogismA syllogism is a three-part argument. It is based in logic and on deductive reasoning.
  • SyndetonSyndeton refers to a sentence that uses conjunctions to join phrases, words, and clauses. It is one of three different ways of using conjunctions, or not, within sentences.
  • SyntaxSyntax is the rules that govern language. It is concerned with various parts of speech and the way that words are used together.
  • t

  • Thesis StatementA thesis statement is the main argument of a piece of writing. It can be found in academic/formal writing novel writing.
  • Third Person ObjectiveThird person objective is a narrative point of view that uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” “they,” “them,” etc. The narrator does not, unlike the other third person perspectives, have any insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Third Person OmniscientWith the third person omniscient point of view, the narrator has access to every character’s thoughts and emotions. They see and know everything that’s happening in a story.
  • Third-Person Limited PerspectiveWriting from the third-person limited perspective is a technique often used in literature and storytelling. It allows the writer to tell a story from the point of view of an observer but to still limit the narrator’s knowledge and understanding to that of one character.
  • ToneTone tells us how the writer feels about the text, at least, to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic, have a tone of some sort.
  • TuffetA tuffet is “a tuft or clump of something” or "a footstool or low seat”.
  • u

  • UndertoneAn undertone is the secondary tone or meaning of a literary work.
  • v

  • VerisimilitudeVerisimilitude is a concept that’s concerned with uncovering how truthful an assertion is.
  • VerseVerse is a term that refers to various parts of poetry, such as a single line of poetry, a stanza, or the entire poem.
  • Verse FormThe term “verse form” is used to describe any structure a poet uses within their work. There are many established verse forms such as the sonnet, haiku, ballad, sestina, and villanelle.
  • Verse ParagraphA verse paragraph is a section of poetry that resembles a prose paragraph, that which is found in novel writing and short stories.
  • VillainA villain in literature is the antagonist, or bad guy, who harms and causes problems for the “good guys,” or heroes. 
  • w

  • Wax Poetic“Wax poetic” is an English phrase that is used to describe someone’s overly flowery and longwinded style of speech.
  • WitWhen a writer uses wit in their work they’re attempting to provoke laughter by mocking someone or something.