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
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  • a

  • Abjection
    Abjection is a literary term that refers to subjective horror, or someone’s reaction to physically or emotionally disturbing subject matter.
  • Abridgment
    An abridgment is a condensed or shortened version of a book. It contains the most important details and removes any digressions.
  • Acatalectic
    Acatalectic refers to a line of poetry that has a complete number of syllables in the final foot.
  • Act
    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.
  • Actant
    The word “actant” is used in relation to the actantial model. This is a model that defines the roles of characters and objects.
  • Affective
    The word “affective” is used to refer to the emotional qualities of a literary work.
  • Afflatus
    The word afflatus is defined as a burst of sudden inspiration. A writer, artist, musician, or other creator is powerfully inspired.
  • Agon
    The word “agon” refers to the conflict between two characters in a literary work. It is used to describe the protagonist and antagonist.
  • Alazon
    The alazon is one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
  • Aleatory
    Aleatory 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.
  • Alterity
    Alterity 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 Verse
    Amoebean 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. 
  • Anagram
    An anagram is a rearrangement of the letters in a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase.
  • Anaptyxis
    Anaptyxis is the inclusion of one or more vowel sounds, especially at the beginning or the end of a word for the ease of pronunciation.
  • Anatomy
    In 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.
  • Angst
    The term “angst” is usually described as a feeling of apprehension or anxiety about anything. It was first used by Kierkegaard in the 1800s.
  • Anthology
    An 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.
  • Antimasque
    The antimasque is a type of masque that occurs before the main masque and is usually presented to great contrast. 
  • Antiphon
    An 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. 
  • Antonomasia
    Antonomasia 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. 
  • Appositive
    An appositive occurs when a word, sometimes a noun, is followed by another noun or phrase that names or changes it in some way.
  • Arcadia
    Arcadia, 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 Sake
    The 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. 
  • Asclepiad
    An 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 Writing
    Automatic writing occurs when someone with a claimed psychic ability writes without consciously deciding which words to put down on paper.
  • Avant-garde
    In literature, the term avant-garde refers to poetry or prose that pushes the boundaries and is experimental.
  • b

  • Bard
    The term “bard” is used to describe a professional story teller. They could also be a musician, oral historian, genealogist, or another writer. 
  • Bestiary
    A bestiary is a compendium of beasts that originated in the ancient world.
  • Bias
    Bias is undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
  • Bibliography
    A 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.
  • Bibliomancy
    Bibliomancy is a literary divination practice. It uses a sacred text, such as the Bible, as a method to predict the future.
  • Brechtian
    The 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 Rhyme
    Broken rhyme is an interesting type of rhyme that occurs when a poet cuts a word in half to create rhyme. 
  • Byronic
    The 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 Hero
    The Byronic hero is a type of character inspired by the life and work of George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron.
  • c

  • Canon
    A literary canon is a collection of materials that are considered to represent a specific period or genre.
  • Chapbook
    A 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 Literature
    The 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. 
  • Cliché
    A cliché is a trite, overused expression that can be found in writing and everyday life.
  • Climax
    The climax is the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
  • Close Reading
    Close 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 Couplet
    A closed couplet is a pair of lines that are grammatically complete, or at least logically complete, on their own. They also usually rhyme.
  • Closure
    In 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. 
  • Coda
    A coda is an epilogue that concludes a story. This could be an entire chapter, a few paragraphs, lines, or a single sentence. 
  • Commonplace Book
    A 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.
  • Connotation
    A connotation is the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
  • Contemporary Period
    The term “contemporary literature” refers to written works that were created after World War II. Prior to this, was the modernist period. 
  • Context
    The context is the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
  • Convention in Literature
    A convention in literature is a genre’s defining characteristics. Every genre has its go-to ideas, images, and characters. 
  • Critique
    A critique is defined as an evaluation of something, whether that be visual or literary arts. It analyzes all of the writer's choices.
  • d

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

  • Early Modern Period
    The Early Modern Period is a period in European literature that came before the development of the novel in the 18th century. 
  • Ekphrastic
    Ekphrastic is a type of poem that explores art. The poet engages with any type of visual art within their writing.
  • Epilogue
    An epilogue is an extra chapter at the end of a literary work. 
  • Erotic Literature
    Erotic literature refers to accounts of passionate and sexual relationships. These could be fiction or non-fiction. 
  • Ethos
    Ethos 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.
  • Eulogy
    A eulogy is a speech, or short piece of writing, created in honor of someone who has recently died.
  • Existentialism
    In its simplest form, existentialism is the exploration of the nature of existence with emphasis on the experiences of humanity.
  • Experimentalism
    Experimentalism 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. 
  • Explication
    An 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 Action
    The falling action occurs near the end of the story, following the climax and before the resolution.
  • Faulty Parallelism
    Faulty 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 Language
    Figurative language refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Foreword
    A 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 Style
    Free 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

  • Genre
    Genre 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 Lyric
    Greater Romantic Lyric refers to a particular type of Romantic poem in which the author spends an extended period of time contemplating a particular subject.
  • Grotesque
    Grotesque is an adjective used to describe something that’s at once mysterious, ugly, hard to understand, and distorted.
  • h

  • Hero
    In literature, a hero is the principal or primary character of a work.
  • Heroine
    The 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. 
  • Homeric
    The 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.
  • Hubris
    Hubris is a classical term used to refer to excessive pride in a story’s characters.
  • i

  • Imperfect Rhyme
    An imperfect rhyme is the opposite of a perfect rhyme. It refers to two words that rhyme in part, but not perfectly.
  • Implied Reader
    The 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. 
  • Impressionism
    Impressionism 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 Monologue
    An 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.
  • Intertextuality
    Intertextuality 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

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

  • Leonine Rhyme
    Leonine 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 Adaptation
    An 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 Content
    The 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 Criticism
    Criticism in literature is the study/evaluation of literary works, including but not limited to plays, poems, novels, and essays. 
  • Literary Movement
    In 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.
  • Logos
    Logos is the use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.
  • m

  • Macaronic Verse
    Macaronic 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. 
  • Monorhyme
    Monorhyme 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. 
  • Mood
    Mood 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.
  • Moral
    A moral is the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Morpheme
    A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of any language. It might be a word, or it might be part of a word.
  • Muse
    The “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

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

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

  • Paleography
    Paleography is the study of historic writing systems and handwriting. The process dates documents and traces the evolution of various alphabets.
  • Paraliterature
    Paraliterature is written work that is not defined as “literature.” It is dismissed as lesser for one reason or another.
  • Paraphrasing
    Paraphrasing a poem means to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way and choosing less complicated language.
  • Passus
    A passus is a division in a short story, novel, or long poem, usually medieval in nature. It is comparable to a canto.
  • Pedantic
    A pedant, or someone who exhibits pedantic behavior, will correct small mistakes that are not necessarily important in the broader scheme of things.
  • Periodic Structure
    Periodic structure is form of writing in which the main clause of the sentence, or its predicate, are held till the end of the sentence.
  • Periodical
    A periodical is a series of publications that appear at a regular schedule. Magazines are a common example.
  • Plot
    The plot is a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Poem Form
    A 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 Subject
    The subject of a poem might also be called the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned.
  • Poetic License
    The 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.
  • Poeticism
    The 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.
  • Proem
    A proem is an introduction to a literary work. It is a preface to what’s to come after. 
  • r

  • Rhyme Scheme
    The 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.
  • Riddle
    Riddles are tricky phrases or questions that have double meanings and are usually challenging to solve or answer.
  • Rising Action
    The rising action comes after the exposition and before the climax. It includes the complicating or inciting incident.
  • Run-On Sentence
    A run-on sentence is a long sentence that is made up of two independent clauses joined together.
  • s

  • Scansion
    Scansion is the analysis of a poem’s metrical patterns. It organizes the lines, metrical feet, and individual syllables into groups.
  • Semantics
    Semantics is the study of the meanings of words, symbols, and various other signs.
  • Serendipity
    Serendipity is the experience of finding something joyful in that which came unexpectedly.
  • Sesquipedalian
    Sesquipedalian is defined as the use of words that are overly long and have multiple syllables. Sometimes, they are neologisms.
  • Snark
    Snark refers to a sarcastic comment. It is a combination the words “snide” and “remark.”
  • Subjective
    The word “subjective” refers to a particular point of view. It is based on someone’s personal opinions and beliefs.
  • Sublime
    The word “sublime” is used in literature to describe writing that excites the reader beyond one’s normal experience.
  • Superlative
    A superlative is one degree of adverb and adjective. It refers to the adverb or adjective to the greatest degree.
  • Syllabic Verse
    The 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.
  • Syllogism
    A syllogism is a three-part argument. It is based in logic and on deductive reasoning.
  • Syndeton
    Syndeton 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.
  • Syntax
    Syntax is the rules that govern language. It is concerned with various parts of speech and the way that words are used together.
  • t

  • Thesis Statement
    A thesis statement is the main argument of a piece of writing. It can be found in academic/formal writing novel writing.
  • Third Person Objective
    Third 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 Omniscient
    With 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.
  • Tone
    Tone 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.
  • Tuffet
    A tuffet is “a tuft or clump of something” or "a footstool or low seat”.
  • u

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

  • Verisimilitude
    Verisimilitude is a concept that’s concerned with uncovering how truthful an assertion is.
  • Verse
    Verse is a term that refers to various parts of poetry, such as a single line of poetry, a stanza, or the entire poem.
  • Verse Form
    The 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 Paragraph
    A verse paragraph is a section of poetry that resembles a prose paragraph, that which is found in novel writing and short stories.
  • Villain
    A 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.
  • Wit
    When a writer uses wit in their work they’re attempting to provoke laughter by mocking someone or something.