Glossary of Literary Terms
Below is a list of terms for discussing literary texts, with some examples. This is not intended to be exhaustive or authoritative, but rather a shared resource for terms that participants might or might not know. You can use this glossary to look up unfamiliar words, brush up on vocabulary you remember from high school, or spark ideas about what you might want to discuss in a particular story.
Note: The precise definitions of many of these terms are hotly debated among specialists! This glossary is intended for casual discussion, not to be cited in a scholarly paper.
Address: a term for when a writer explicitly “speaks to” an audience, including an imagined reader. Also known as apostrophe when the person or thing spoken to cannot respond.
Allegory: a story whose elements stand for something else, offering a hidden meaning.
- Examples: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory for the process of Christian salvation, narrated as a journey from “the City of Destruction” (the sinful world) to “the Celestial City” (Heaven). George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory for the Soviet Union’s abandonment of revolutionary ideals; some characters represent specific historical figures (Napoleon the pig = Joseph Stalin), and others represent more general groups or attitudes (Boxer the horse = workers betrayed by the regime).
Allusion: a reference, usually implied rather than stated, often to another literary work.
Connotation: association called up by a word or phrase that go beyond its literal meaning; the subtle difference between a word and its synonyms, or a phrase and its paraphrase.
Deus ex machina: a force that intervenes unexpectedly to produce some effect in the plot; Latin for “God from the machine.”
Exposition: the part of a story in which the setting and situation are explained.
Fiction: writing that is neither literally true nor meant to deceive; in the words of literary critic Terry Eagleton, “a kind of writing in which you can neither lie, tell the truth, nor make a mistake” (from After Theory).
Foreshadowing: a hint at what will happen later in the story.
Frame narrative: the telling of a story within a story.
Free indirect discourse: when the narrative point-of-view sees the world through the eyes of a character while remaining in the third person, i.e. not using pronouns like “I” or “me” (also known as free indirect style).
- Example: “She looked him up and down. He was annoying, to be sure, but he shouldn’t be too much trouble for her to handle.”
Genre: a conventional group that a literary work can be classified under, like “mystery,” “limerick,” or “love song.”
Imagery: the use of language to bring out a sensory response in the reader.
Metaphor: identifying one thing (the tenor) as something else (the vehicle) in order to point out a similarity (ground). Closely related are simile, in which the tenor and vehicle are compared using “like” or “as” (e.g. “life is like a box of chocolates”); and metonymy, in which the vehicle is something associated with the tenor rather than similar to it (e.g. “lend me your ears” for “give me your attention”).
- Example: “This city (tenor) is a powderkeg (vehicle), ready to blow up (ground).”
Narrator: the person supposedly “telling” the story.
Novel: a long work of fiction, usually too long to read in one sitting.
Parody: an imitation of a literary work or genre, usually humorous; often but not always intended to mock the work or genre that it imitates.
- Examples: Spaceballs is a parody of Star Wars that gently mocks its source material; Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It,” by contrast, is a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” that pokes fun at picky eaters and their parents rather than the original song.
Personification: a device in which something that is not a person takes on the qualities of personhood, such as consciousness, human embodiment, speech, or free will.
Point-of-view: the perspective through which the story is told; at the basic grammatical level, first-person (“I” or “we”) or third-person (“he,” “she,” etc.) or rarely second-person (“you”).
Satire: writing that mocks and/or criticizes people, institutions, and ideas. Satire and parody are related, but distinct: satires will often use parody (imitation of a work or genre) to make a point, but not all satires are parodies and not all parodies are satires.
- Example: The Daily Show is a long-running satire show that mocks public figures and cultural trends, while its spinoff The Colbert Report was a parody that imitated conservative opinion shows like Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor.
Setting: the place or time in which a story occurs.
Tone: the predominant feeling of a literary work.