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Coherence refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.

A piece of writing has coherence if the parts have logical connections and flow together well. The poem, play, novel, or short story has to make sense and be coherent. The term is also used to apply to arguments or parts of arguments. When they are coherent, they are well-reasoned and should be convincing. Unlike some literary terms, coherence is one that is very often a matter of perception. One argument, poem, play, etc., might seem coherent to one reader and not to the next.

Coherence pronunciation: koh-hear-unce

Coherence definition


Definition of Coherence 

The word “coherent” comes from the Latin meaning “to stick together,” a definition that makes sense when one considers what it refers to in regard to literature.

It’s important to consider coherence in every part of writing, from word order in a sentence to the way that chapters are arranged in a novel. This means that grammar, word choice, sentence structure, and more are crucial. With coherent parts, one should end up with a coherent argument that makes sense to readers.

Coherence is used in everything from novels, plays, essays to narrative poems. But, it is not necessary to create a good piece of literature. In contemporary poetry and prose, writers experiment with the structures more freely. By moving from one topic to the next, without providing a transition or explanation can provide the reader with a different but interesting experience. Additionally, a writer might choose to make a section of their work more complex or harder to understand on purpose in order to create a contrast. 


Types of Coherence 

  • Local: this level of coherence is concerned with what happens in smaller portions of a literary work. It focuses on individual chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. 
  • Global: this level of coherent text takes place within the entire literary work, whether that be a play, short story, novel, or other. It is concerned with how all the pieces fit together. 


Examples of Coherence in Literature 

Emma by Jane Austen 

In the following lines from Emma, the author, Jane Austen, uses coherent dialogue when attempting to describe the nature of luck. 

And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess? I pity you. I thought you cleverer; for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it.

These lines ask a question, answer it, explore that question further and draw conclusions from it. Luck, the speaker decides, is not something that just happens. It’s something that reunites some “talent.” This suggests that one makes their own luck and that it’s a waste of time sitting around waiting for lucky things to happen. The argument makes a great deal of sense due to Austen’s use of coherence.

Explore Jane Austen poems.


Macbeth by William Shakespeare 

In Macbeth, there are several great examples of coherence. Shakespeare included a scene in which the witches alluded to Macbeth’s fate and other sins, which the characters seemed to foreshadow exactly what was going to happen to them. This technique allows the reader to stay in line with the plot while also encouraging them to keep reading. In Act I Scene 3, the witches prophesize the Macbeth will be king. Then later, in Act 4, Scene I the Second Witch uses the following famous lines: 

By the pricking of my thumbs, 

Something wicked this way comes.

By using lines like these to allude to what’s coming next in the play and then following through with those foreshadowed events, Shakespeare creates a feeling of coherence. 

Discover William Shakespeare’s poems.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

In Brontë’s classic novel, Wuthering Heights, she had to use coherence in order to make the frame narrator make sense. Brontë juggles two different storylines throughout the book as she takes the reader through Cathy and Heathcliff’s history. Here are a few lines from one of the most famous passages of the novel: 

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.

Cathy is speaking to Nelly, telling her about the difference in her feelings for Heathcliff versus Edgar. She knows the latter would grow and shrink. Her love for Heathcliff, though, is long-lasting. Her world would change irrevocably if he died. She argues her feelings well in this passage and helps the reader better understand the choice she faces between the two men. Despite the fact that Brontë wrote coherently, the characters don’t always act coherently. This creates an interesting contrast that can be frustrating for readers who don’t understand why a character like Cathy makes the decisions she does. 

Read Emily Brontë’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Use Coherence? 

Coherence is a necessary part of fluid, narrative writing. It is required to connect plot points, ideas, emotions, and more.

If a writer wants to have a well-organized piece of writing, then they need to consider the way that sentences and paragraphs flow together. If this literary term is well-applied, then whatever kind of writing is created should be engaging and logical. If not, then one might find themselves getting distracted easily or having a hard time trying to follow what the writer wants to say. It might even result in the reader putting down the piece of writing in favor of one with more coherence. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Plot: a connected sequence of events that make up a novel, poem, play, film, television show, and other narrative works.
  • Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
  • Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
  • Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
  • Literary Argument: the argument of a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.


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