COMMON LITERARY TERMS
Absurd, Theatre of the Absurd-A style of writing that mirrors the confusion, illogicality, inharmony of the 21st Century world as reflected on the stage with caricature-like characters and disjointed plot.E.g, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot .
Accent-The effect of the emphasis placed on a syllable in a word.
Auditory imagery- Figurative way of appealing to one’s sense of hearing in a poem.Eg. The voice like the rough flow of huge waterfalls.
Aesthetics-The philosophy of taste or appreciation of beauty.
Alienation Effect-Is the effect in a play intended to remind the spectators that what being watched on stage is not real.
Allegory-is a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. A reason for this is that allegory has an immense power of illustrating complex ideas and concepts in a practical and concrete way. This device is common in Christian religious literature where Satan symbolizes evil and God symbolizes good.E.g Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Alliteration-Repetition of the same initial consonant sound.E.g. Around the house the flakes fly faster.
Allusion-Referring to characters and events in mythology (classical allusion), history (classical allusion), bible (biblical allusion).Eg.Bowing ‘New Sabbath’ or ‘Mount Ephraim’. (Biblical allusion)
Alternate rhyme-When the end of two lines are alternated, usually in abab, rhyme scheme pattern.
Ambiguity-A style of giving double interpretation to a word.
Anachronism-A mistake in dating or timing or placing an event in wrong historical setting.Eg.Imagine a reference to a computer in a Shakespearean play!
Analogy-A comparison not necessarily using simile or metaphor.Eg.There is an analogy of the morally loose lifestyle of the Romans and Americans of today.
Anti climax-A false climax or weak repetition with the objective of extending or stretching excitement.
Antagonist-character in conflict with hero: a major character in a book, play, or movie whose values or behaviour are in conflict with those of the protagonist or hero.
Aphorism-A solemn, concise observation or statement.Eg power is mightier than the sword.
Apostrophe –An address or appeal to a person or inanimate object that is incapable of replying.E.g.Thou sun, why thou smite me?
Art for Art’s sake-The belief that a work of art be judged solely for its aesthetic value rather than for any economic interest.
Aside-A long speech where a character expresses his thoughts aloud on stage with other characters present, but could not hear him.
Autobiography-An account of one’s life written by oneself as distinct from Biography (written by another person).
Assonance-Repetition of vowel sounds, especially when found between words and syllables.Eg. Wet is the pet of the rent.
Augustan-Having to do with the period, early part of 19th century, when writers attempt to copy and imitate the grandeur associated with the reign of Augustus Ceasar.
Ballad-A narrative poem, folk in origin, anonymous, simple and direct with historical, romantic, tragic or supernatural setting.
Bathos-A writing that descends from being serious to something, funny or anti-climatic.
Blank verse-An unrhymed verse in English.
Biography-An account of somebody’s life story written by another person.
Burlesque-A form of mocking or satirizing of a serious matter or style by imitating in an incongruous or odd way.
Caesura-A pause usually marked by a comma, semi-colon, colon,hyphen or dash in the middle of a line in of verse.
Cast-The actors or other performers in a drama, dance or other artistic production.
Caricature-An exaggerated or unrealistic portrayal of a character that is easily recognizable.
Catastrophe-The change producing the final event in a play, usually the decisive misfortune in a tragedy.
Catharsis-Based on the principle that a play is an imitation of real life and as such the audience should be purged of some feelings (usually defined as pity and fear) that takes place at the end of a tragedy.
Characterization-The way or manner of portraying characters.
Chorus-An innovation of the Greek drama, where a body of performers recite or chant verses commenting on events as they unfold. In modern drama, the chorus is often represented as a narrator.
Chanson-a poem of varied metrical forms or a French satirical cabaret song of the 20th century or song
Comedy of Manners-Another name for Comedy of Errors.A satiric play which mirrors the lifestyle of some Victorian personalities.
Comic Relief-An interlude in the midst of a serious play meant to make the audience laugh or feel relaxed.
Cliché-An over-used phrase mostly found in verbal communication.Eg.At the same time, last but not the least.
Climax-The peak or turning point in a story.
Comedy-A play of entertaining kind representing persons or situations in real life presented in a comical manner.
Conceit-Elaborate, extended comparison between apparently unrelated objects particularly in Metaphysical Poetry.
Context-The background or setting from which a story is told.
Couplet-The matching of same sound at the end of the last two lines of a poem.
Dactyll-A foot containing one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed.
Diction-The study of the choice and arrangement of words in a work of art.
Denouement-The unraveling or resolution of the plot of play or novel at the end.
Deus Ex Machina-A practice in some classical plays, where a god is let down on to the stage to bring about resolution at the end of a play.
Dialect-The form of a major language, could be a substandard one spoken in a particular region.
Didactic-Having to do with the moral lesson found in a work of art.
Dialogue-The words spoken by characters in a book, movie,or play or a section of a work that contains spoken words.
Dirge-A song of mourning or lamentation, especially one about death or intended for a funeral.
Dramatic Irony-A situation where the audience know more than the characters on stage.
Elegy-A mournful song sung during burial or composed in memory of somebody.
Elements-The four elements which are adjudged to affect the affairs of men namely earth, air, fire and water.
End-Stop-An abrupt stop or pause at the end of a line of a verse.
Enjambement-Continuation of the sense or meaning from one line of verse to the next without pause.
Epic-A long, narrative poem, rendered in elevated language chronicling the heroic exploits of heroes.
Epigram-A brief, pointed and often witty statement, found in all forms of literature.Eg. "No one is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend."(Groucho Marx)
Epitaph- A writing on a tombstone.
Epistle-A long letter didactic in purpose.
Epilogue-Short section at the end of a book or a literary work, sometimes detailing the fate of its characters or a concluding speech in a theatre that an actor addresses to the audience.
Eulogy-A composition written in praise of a person or thing.
Euphemism-Saying something harsh in a pleasant manner.E.g He was given the order to erase the criminal (Erase means to kill).
Evocative-Calling out or invoking certain feelings and memories.
Exposition-The unraveling of the plot .
Fable-A short story devised to convey a useful moral lesson, often using animals that act symbolically like human beings.
Farce-A play that sets out to provoke laughter by employing funny characters in absurd situations.
Feminist criticism-The literary and critical theory that explores the bias in favour of the male gender in literature and which approaches all literature from a feminist viewpoint.
Figures of speech-Expressions which have deeper meaning than their literal sense.
Foot-A unit usually marked as a syllable in a poem.
Folktale-A story or legend passed down orally from one generation to the next, thus becoming part of a community’s tradition or oral history.
Free verse-A poem with no regular rhyme or rhythm.
Flashback-A scene or event from the past that appears in a narrative out of chronological order ,to fill information or explain something in the present.
Foreshadowing-An event, situation or information which gives a hint about a later event.
Genre-The three main divisions of English literature, namely prose, prose and drama.
Gothic-A style of writing that explores horrific, ghostly setting and situations. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte employs gothic literature for example.
Grotesque-A form of art that mixes the realistic and the one that appeals to fantasy.
Hero/heroine-The principal person in a literary work
Heroic couplet-A kind of poem, usually mock-heroic with two ends of verses rhyming sound-wise.
Humour- An element of something or content meant to cause amusement and excitement in a work of art.
Hyperbole-Exaggeration in art to create an effect.
Hubris-A flaw in character that would eventually lead to the downfall of a character.
Imagery-Literary comparison of using something concrete to explain an abstract idea.
Intrigue-Sometimes used in reference to the plot of a play or novel.
Irony-A form of satire or ridicule where the opposite meaning is implied.
Interlude-A short play, piece of music or other entertainment during a break in the performance of a long work.
Litotes-Saying something unpleasant in a mild manner.Eg.She is on the big side (When you mean ,she is a fat person.)
Legend-A story passed one from time immemorial, which is supposed to be a history of a people, but with whose historical validity could not be proven.
Lyric-A verse meant to be sung as a song especially with a lyre. A short poem with personal, passionate feelings, and song-like.
Lullaby-A kind of soothing song meant to make a baby sleep.
Lineation-arrangement of lines in verse form.
Literati-A body of imaginative men and women of letters.
Limerick-A five –line humorous poem, with a peculiar rhythm and lewd subject.
Malapropism-A derivation from Mrs.Malaprop,a character from Sheridan’s The Rivals.
There is muddled use of long or complex words in the wrong place or context.
Medieval-Another name for the period, the Middle Ages or a period between Dark Ages and the Renaissance,10th-15th century.
Meiosis-Understatement-A kind of irony in which a negative understatement is employed for emphasis.
Melodrama-A play written to appeal to popular taste, marked by exciting incidents, with definable characters and a happy ending.
Metaphor-A kind of imagery where direct comparison is made.Eg. She is the pillar of the class.
Metaphysics-The study of the world beyond the physical or terrestrial.
Metaplesis-a figurative expression in which a statement is made and then withdrawn.
Metre-The poetic rhythm division into regular feet.
Metonymy-A figure of speech, which is a form of symbolism where an attribute of something is used to represent for the thing itself.
Mimetic-Imitation of sort.
Mime-Use of gestures to communicate in drama.
Muses-The goddesses often ascribed as the inspiration for writers.
Myth-A traditional story expressing the religious beliefs of a people especially its origin. The Greek mythology of stories of Hercules, Zeus is very common.
Mythology-A group of myths that belong to a particular people or culture and deals with ancestors ,heroes, gods ,history and other supernatural beings and happenings.
Motivation-Explanation of the behaviour of characters especially the motive for their actions.
Monologue-The words spoken by an a actor, usually spoken to oneself.
Motif-A theme in a story, especially one that can be represented by a visible object.
Narrative Poem-A poem that is long and usually tells a story.
Narrative Technique-The approach a narrator decides to tell his story
Nemesis-Is the Greek goddess of revenge or retribution .In literature generally, the word refers to the principle of poetic justice where evil is justly rewarded.
Neologism-A word uniquely coined by a writer to create an effect. The word may negate the principle of grammar etc.
Novel-A prose fiction with substantial length, which elaborately explores various themes.
Novella-A fictional prose work that is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel.
Opera-A dramatic work, where music is a dominant part of performance, with actors singing rather than reciting their lines.
Olfactory imagery-An appeal to readers’ sense of smell in a literary work.
Omniscient narrator-A narrator in a novel who knows and sees all that is happening in the plot of the novel.
Ode-A lyric poem, long poem, expressing exalted emotion usually celebrating a thing.
Onomatopoeia-Poetic imitation of the actual sound of an object in a poem.Eg.bang,bang,bang.
Oxymoron-Words of opposite meanings are yoked or joined together to create an effect.Eg. agony favour.
Panegyric-Usually a kind of poetry composed to eulogize or praise a personality.
Pantheism-The belief that God is everything and that God and the universe are one. A belief popularized by Romantic poets which often associates the attribute of God with that of nature.
Pantheon-The whole body of gods considered as a unit.
Parable-Usually an allegory in form of a short narrative through which a moral lesson is conveyed.Eg the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible.
Paradox-A statement contrary to general opinion which on a first look appears foolish, but which when given a second look contains some truth.E.g Child is the father of man.
Parody-A humorous imitation of a serious work.
Paralellism-Juxtapostions of words or phrases in a poem to create an effect of contrast.
Pastoral-Literature that deals with country life, usually describing the idyllic life of shepherds who fall in love and pass time singing and playing songs. As You Like it by Shakespeare is based on this kind of life.
Pathos-Moments in literature when a strong feeling of pity and sorrow is invoked.
Periphrasis-An elegant way of calling a word by another name. This is often found in the Mock Heroic poems.
Persona-A character in a poem especially his voice as distinct from that of the poet.
Personification-Giving human attributes to inanimate objects.E.g .Be happy when fortune smiles on you.
Picaresque-A type of prose fiction with a simple plot divided into separate episodes that features the adventures of a roguish hero.
Plot-The manner in which events are arranged in a story.
Poetic licence-The right of poets to manipulate language and established truths for the sake of art. For example, there is an instance where Shakespeare ascribes coastline to a country that is landlocked.
Polysyndeton-Repetition of conjunctions in the use of multiple conjunctions or coordinate clauses in close succession.E.g. The bad news caused her to weep and cry and wail.
Prose-A work distinct from having poetic content, being easy to understand, language wise.
Protagonist-The main hero/character round which the story is built.
Prologue-An opening speech rendered at the beginning of a play to give some direction.
Pun-An act of playing with words.E.g Your sole is as good as your soul.
Premiere-The first public perform or showing of a work usually to sample a selected people’s critical opinion.
Quatrain-A stanza of four lines.
Realism-A philosophy opposed to Idealism. The acceptance or representation of things as they are.
Refrain-Recurring phrase or line, usually at the end of a stanza often found in poems and hymns.
Renaissance-Literally means. ‘rebirth’. The period reckoned as the greatest in history of European art and culture.
Rhetoric-The formal art of speech making.
Rhetorical Question-A question asked for effect that neither expects nor requires an answer.
Romance-A Medieval verse tale of the kind written in a Romance language, recounting the adventures of a knightly hero and expressing the ideals of the Chivalry.
Rounded Character-A character that undergoes changes in the course of the story. Contrast to a flat character.
Romanticism-A kind of poetry that the celebrates nature, passionate feelings, emotion and imagination over reason.
Satire-A work of art that exposes human vice and folly to laughter and ridicule in a light,amusing,savage,bitter tone.E.g. Gulliver Travels by Jonathan Swift and The Beautiful Ones Are not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah.
Sarcasm-A biting statement meant to mock, usually applied in a satiric work.
Simile-Direct comparison of a concrete and abstract object using as or like.E.g my love
like the sweetness of dash rose.
Slapstick-broad, coarse, physical comedy.
Setting-The background, whether physical or abstract through which a work is presented.
Soliloquy-A long speech in which a character expresses his thoughts out loud on stage, usually when alone.
Sonnet-A 14-line poem with a complex rhyme scheme and structure.
Simile-Direct comparison using as or like.
Stanza-A group of lines in a poem divided off from the others. A stanza is the correct term for what is often referred to as a verse of poetry.
Stoicism-A Roman philosophy which preaches calmness, self control in the face of provocation or pain (opposite of Epicureanism).
Symbolism-Use of symbol, similar to an image in that it stands for something else, but unlike an image is not merely descriptive.Universally,colour white could symbolize peace, while black could stand for evil.
Synecdoche-A figure of speech in which part is used to represent the whole.
Sub-plot-A secondary plot or storyline in a book or play, which often provides either comic relief from main plot or a different way of looking at the themes and interests of the main plot.
Stress-An emphasis placed on a particular syllable at the expense of another.
Subject matter-The total sum of what a literary work is about.
Suspense-A feeling of tense excitement, expectation about how the next part of a novel or play would turn out to be.
Stylistics-An approach of poetry employing basic language tools such as grammar etc.
Stream of Consciousness: The attempt in writing to recreate the actual flow ,pattern and sense of thoughts as they pass through a person’s head in real life or to describe experience as it is actually felt by a person as it is taking place. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941),James Joyce(1882-1941)are two well-known exponents of this style.
School-A term that refers to a group of authors who share certain characteristics in their works usually as classified by critics.E.g Romantic writers, Theatre of the Absurd etc.
Spondee-A unit of poetic rhythm measured as a metrical foot of two long or stressed syllables.
Tone-The feeling and attitude of the writer derived from his work.
Theme-The central idea or ideas examined or explored by the writer in the course of a book.
Tragicomedy-A mixture of tragedy and comedy.
Tragedy-A play with the following features: A tragic hero with a flaw who dies at the end of the story, multiple deaths, a play that exhibits pity and agony.
Tragic hero-The protagonist of a story who has a flaw that would eventually lead to his downfall.
Tactile imagery-Figurative expression that relates to touch.
Tragic Flaw-A character fault in the protagonist of a story.
Trilogy-A set or group /series of three related story or poem.
Travelogue-A record of a writer’s experiences during his journeys.
Wit-A clever use of language.
Zeugma-A verb that refers to two part of an expression.