English 10: literary terms—prose allegory



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ENGLISH 10: LITERARY TERMS—PROSE

ALLEGORY An allegory is a story or tale with two or more levels of meaning—a literal level and one or more symbolic levels. The events, setting, and characters in an allegory are symbols for ideas or qualities.

ALLUSION An allusion is a reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, or work of art. Writers often make allusions to famous works such as the Bible and William Shakespeare’s plays. They also make allusions to mythology, politics, and current events. For example, the title of Stephen Vincent Benet’s story “By the Waters of Babylon,” p. 576, is an allusion to Psalm 137 in the Bible.

ANECDOTE An anecdote is a brief story about an interesting, amusing, or strange event. Anecdotes are told to entertain or to make a point.

ANTAGONIST The antagonist of a work is the character who opposes the protagonist (the character whom readers want to see succeed).

ANTICLIMAX Like a climax, an anticlimax is the turning point in a story. However, an anticlimax is always a letdown. It is the point at which you learn that the story will not turn out the way you had expected.

APHORISM An aphorism is a brief, memorable saying that expresses a basic truth. Many cultures pass on wisdom in the form of aphorisms, such as those from Confucius’ The Analects, p. 220.

ASIDE An aside is a short speech delivered by an actor in a play, which expresses the character’s thoughts. Traditionally, the aside is directed to the audience and is presumed to be inaudible to the other actors.

ATMOSPHERE Atmosphere, or mood, is the feeling created in a reader by a literary work or passage. The following lines from “The Stolen Child,” p. 928, create a mysterious, mystical atmosphere in which a meeting takes place between fairies and a human child:

      Where the wave of moonlight glosses

      The dim grey sands with light

AUTOBIOGRAPHY An autobiography is a form of nonfiction in which a person tells his or her own life story.

BIOGRAPHY A biography is a form of nonfiction in which a writer tells the life story of another person. “Marian Anderson: Famous Concert Singer,” p. 702, is a brief biography by Langston Hughes.

CHARACTER A character is a person, an animal, or a thing that takes part in the action of a literary work. The main character, or protagonist, is the most important character in a story.

      The antagonist opposes the main character. Round characters show many traits—faults as well as virtues. Flat characters demonstrate a single trait. Dynamic characters develop and grow during the course of the story. Static characters do not change.



CHARACTERIZATION Characterization is the act of creating and developing a character. In direct characterization, the author directly states a character’s traits. A writer uses indirect characterization when showing a character’s personality through his or her actions, thoughts, feelings, words, and appearance or through another character’s observations and reactions.

CLIMAX The climax of a story, novel, or play is the high point of interest or suspense. The events that make up the rising action lead to the climax. The events that make up the falling action follow the climax.

CONFLICT A conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. Characters in conflict form the basis of stories, novels, and plays.

      There are two kinds of conflict: external and internal. In an external conflict, the main character struggles against an outside force. An internal conflict involves a character in conflict with himself or herself. A story may have more than one conflict.



CRITICAL REVIEW A critical review offers one person’s judgment of a movie, play, or other performance. In the review, the critic discusses the various elements of the performance and makes a recommendation.

DESCRIPTION A description is a portrait in words of a person, place, or object. Descriptive writing uses sensory details—those that appeal to the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

DIALECT Dialect is the form of language spoken by people in a particular region or group. Pronunciation, vocabulary, and sentence structure are affected by dialect. Writers use dialect to make their characters sound realistic and to create local color.

DIALOGUE A dialogue is a conversation between characters. Writers use dialogue to reveal character, to present events, and to add variety to a narrative.

DICTION Diction is word choice. To discuss a writer’s diction is to consider the vocabulary used, the appropriateness of the words, and the vividness of the language. Diction can be formal, as in this excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which begins on p. 82:

      It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which       it was held. There were seven—an imperial suite.

Diction can also be informal and conversational, as in these lines from “Flood” by Annie Dillard, on p. 712:

      Women are bringing coffee in mugs to the road crew … Some kid starts doing tricks       on a skateboard; I head home.



DRAMA A drama is a story written to be performed by actors. The script of a drama is made up of dialogue—the words the actors say—and stage directions, which are comments on how and where action occurs.

      Dramas are divided into large units called acts and into smaller units called scenes. A long play may include many sets that change with the scenes or a change of scene may be indicated with lighting.



DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE A dramatic monologue is a poem or speech in which a fictional character addresses a silent listener.

EPIC An epic is a long narrative or narrative poem about the deeds of gods or heroes. Ancient folk epics like the Ramayana and Syndicate were recited aloud as entertainment at feasts and were not written down until long after they were composed.

ESSAY An essay is a short nonfiction work about a particular subject. In an analytical essay, the author breaks down a large idea into parts. By explaining how the parts of a concept or an object fit together, the essay helps readers understand the whole idea or thing.

      A descriptive essay seeks to convey an impression about a person, place, or object. An expository essay gives information, discusses ideas, or explains a process. A humorous essay presents the author’s thoughts on a subject in an amusing way. A narrative essay tells a true story. In a reflective essay, a writer shares his or her thoughts about and impressions of an idea or experience. A persuasive essay attempts to convince readers to adopt a particular opinion or course of action. A visual essay presents information or makes a point about a subject through photographs and other visual forms as well as through text.

      This classification of essays is loose at best. Most essays contain passages that could be classified differently from the essay as a whole.

EXPOSITION Exposition is writing or speech that explains a process or presents information. In the plot of a story or drama, the exposition is the part of the work that introduces the characters, setting, and situation.

FANTASY A fantasy is highly imaginative writing that contains elements not found in real life. Examples of fantasy include stories that involve supernatural elements, stories that resemble fairy tales, and stories that deal with imaginary places and creatures.

FICTION Fiction is prose writing that tells about imaginary characters and events. The term is usually used for novels and short stories, but it also applies to dramas and narrative poetry. Some writers rely on their imaginations alone to create their works of fiction. Others base their fiction on actual events and people to which they add invented characters, dialogue, and plot situations.

FOIL A foil is a character who provides a contrast to another character. In Julius Caesar, on p. 822, the jealousy of Cassius serves as a foil to the good intentions of Brutus.

FORESHADOWING Foreshadowing is the use in a literary work of clues that suggest events that have yet to occur. This technique helps to create suspense, keeping readers wondering what will happen next.

GENRE A genre is a category or type of literature. Literature is commonly divided into three major genres: poetry, prose, and drama. Each major genre is in turn divided into smaller genres, as follows:

1.       Poetry: Lyric Poetry, Concrete Poetry, Dramatic Poetry, Narrative Poetry, and Epic Poetry

2.       Prose: Fiction (Novels and Short Stories) and Nonfiction (Biography, Autobiography, Letters, and Essays)

3.       Drama: Serious Drama and Tragedy, Comic Drama, Melodrama, and Farce



HYPERBOLE Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration or overstatement. In Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the claim that Jim Smiley would follow a bug as far as Mexico to win a bet is hyperbole. Hyperboles are often used for comic effect.

IRONY Irony is the general term for literary techniques that portray differences between appearance and reality, expectation and result, or meaning and intention. In verbal irony, words are used to suggest the opposite of what is meant. In dramatic irony, there is a contradiction between what a character thinks and what the reader or audience knows to be true. In irony of situation, an event occurs that directly contradicts the expectations of the characters, the readers, or the audience.

      During his monologue in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, p. 822, Antony calls Brutus “an honorable man” when, in fact, he wants the people to think just the opposite. This is an example of verbal irony.

      In the same play, dramatic irony occurs when the audience, knowing that Caesar will be assassinated, watches him set out on the ides of March.

      In W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” p. 50, the Whites expect the paw to bring them happiness. Instead, the paw brings them nothing but grief. This is an example of irony of situation.



LEGEND A legend is a widely told story about the past that mayor may not have a foundation in fact. A legend generally has more historical truth and less emphasis on the supernatural than does a myth.

LITERAL LANGUAGE Literal language uses words in their ordinary senses. It is the opposite of figurative language. If you tell someone standing on a diving board to jump in, you are speaking literally. If you tell someone standing on a street corner to go jump in a lake, you are speaking figuratively.

MONOLOGUE A monologue is a speech by one character in a play, story, or poem. A monologue may be addressed to another character or to the audience, or it may be a soliloquy—a speech that presents the character’s thoughts as though the character were overheard when alone.

MORAL A moral is a lesson taught by a literary work. A fable usually ends with a moral that is directly stated.

MOTIVATION Motivation is a reason that explains or partially explains a character’s thoughts or actions.

MYTH A myth is a fictional tale that explains the actions of gods or the causes of natural phenomena. Unlike legends, myths have little historical truth and involve supernatural elements. Every culture has its collection of myths. Among the most familiar are the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

NARRATION Narration is writing that tells a story. The act of telling a story in speech is also called narration. Novels and short stories are fictional narratives. Nonfiction works such as news stories, biographies, and autobiographies are also narratives. A narrative poem tells a story in verse.

NARRATIVE A narrative is a story told in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or drama.

NARRATOR A narrator is a speaker or character who tells a story. The narrator may be either a character in the story or an outside observer. The writer’s choice of narrator determines the story’s point of view, which in turn determines the information the writer can reveal.

NONFICTION Nonfiction is prose writing that presents and explains ideas or that tells about real people, places, objects, or events. To be classed as nonfiction, a work must be true. Among nonfiction forms are essays, newspaper and magazine articles, journals, travelogues, biographies, and autobiographies. Historical, scientific, technical. political, and philosophical writings are also nonfiction.

NOVEL A novel is a long work of fiction. Like a short story, a novel has a plot that explores characters in conflict. However, a novel is much longer than a short story and may have one or more subplots, or minor stories, and several themes.

ORAL TRADITION The oral tradition is the passing of songs, stories, and poems from generation to generation by word of mouth. Many folk songs, ballads, fairy tales, legends, and myths originated in the oral tradition.

PARABLE A parable is a simple, brief narrative that teaches a lesson by using characters and events to stand for abstract ideas. The parable “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” p. 137, teaches a lesson about greed.

PARODY A parody is a comical piece of writing that mocks the characteristics of a specific literary form. Through exaggeration of the types of ideas, language, tone, or action in a type of literature or a specific work, a parody calls attenuation to the ridiculous aspects of its subject. The excerpt from Don Quixote, p. 1006, is a parody of the sixteenth-century romantic literature.

PERSUASION Persuasion is writing or speech that attempts to convince the reader to adopt a particular opinion or course of action. A newspaper editorial that says a city council decision was wrong is an example of persuasive writing attempting to mold opinion. Critical reviews, such as the reviews of the movie Star Wars, pp. 734 and 737, are a form of persuasive writing.

PLOT Plot is the sequence of events in a literary work. In most novels, dramas, short stories, and narrative poems, the plot involves both characters and a central conflict. The plot usually begins with an exposition that introduces the setting, the characters, and the basic situation. This is followed by the inciting incident, which introduces the central conflict. The conflict then increases during the development until it reaches a high point of interest or suspense, the climax. All the events leading up to the climax make up the rising action. The climax is followed by the falling action, or denouement. The resolution is the end of the story, in which an insight or a change as a result of the conflict is shown.

POINT OF VIEW The point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. If the narrator is part of the action, the story is told from the first-person point of view. We see and know only what the character telling the story sees and knows. In a story told by a third person, the narrator is someone outside the action. An omniscient third-person narrator is all-knowing; the narrator knows more about the characters and events than anyone character can know. A limited third-person narrator tells only the thoughts and feelings of one character.

PROSE Prose is the ordinary form of written language. Most writing that is not poetry, drama, or song is considered prose. One of the major genres of literature, prose occurs in two forms: fiction and nonfiction.

PROTAGONIST The main character in a work of fiction—the character readers would like to see succeed—is the protagonist. Antigone is the protagonist in Sophocles’ play Antigone.

SCIENCE FICTION Science fiction is writing that tells about imaginary events that involve science or technology. The setting can be on Earth, in space, on other planets, or in a totally imaginary place. Many science-fiction stories are set in the future.

SETTING The setting of a literary work is the time and place of the action. Time can include not only the historical period—past, present, or future—but also a specific year, season, or time of day. Place may involve not only the geographical place—a country, state, or town—but also the social or cultural environment.

      In some stories, setting serves merely as a backdrop for action, a context in which the characters move and speak. In others, however, setting is a crucial element.

      Description of the setting often helps establish the mood of a story. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” on p. 82, the setting contributes to the growing horror.

SHORT STORY A short story is a brief work of fiction. The short story resembles the longer novel but generally has a simpler plot and setting. In addition, the short story tends to reveal character at a crucial moment rather than to develop it through many incidents.

SOLILOQUY A soliloquy is a long speech expressing the thoughts of a character alone on stage. In William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, p. 822, Brutus begins a soliloquy while he is alone in his orchard. This soliloquy reveals Brutus’ fears about how Caesar might change were he to be crowned king.

SPEAKER The speaker is the imaginary voice assumed by the writer of a poem. In many poems, the speaker is not identified by name. The speaker within the poem may be a person, an animal, a thing, or an abstraction. The speaker in Gabriela Mistral’s “Fear,” on p. 95, is a woman who fears for her daughter’s future.

STAGE DIRECTIONS Stage directions are notes included in a drama to describe how the work is to be performed or staged. These instructions are printed in italics and are not spoken aloud. They are used to describe sets, lighting, sound effects, and the appearance, personalities, and movements of characters.

SURPRISE ENDING A surprise ending is a conclusion that violates the expectations of the reader but in a way that is both logical and believable. O. Henry’s “Hearts and Hands,” on p. 290, and Saki’s “The Open Window,” on p. 540, have surprise endings. Both authors were masters of this form.

SUSPENSE Suspense is the feeling of curiosity or uncertainty about the outcome of events in a literary work. Writers create suspense by raising questions in the minds of their readers.

SYMBOL A symbol is anything that stands for, or represents, something else. An object that serves as a symbol has its own meaning, but it also represents abstract ideas. Marks on paper can symbolize spoken words. A flag symbolizes a country. A flashy car may symbolize wealth. Writers sometimes use such conventional symbols in their work, but sometimes they also create symbols of their own through emphasis or repetition.

      In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” on p. 82, the masked figure symbolizes death and the clock symbolizes the passage of time.



TECHNICAL ARTICLE A technical article is a type of expository writing that explains a procedure, provides instructions, or represents specialized information. Often, specialized vocabulary is used. Sometimes, diagrams or charts illustrate complicated structures or steps. The technical article “Imitating Nature’s Mineral Artistry,” p. 748, explains how technology is used to create synthetic gems.

THEME A theme is a central message or insight revealed through a literary work. It is a generalization about people or about life that is communicated through the literary work.

      The theme of a literary work may be stated directly or implied. When the theme of a work is implied, readers think about what the work seems to say about the nature of people or about life. The story or poem can be viewed as a specific example of the generalization the writer is trying to communicate.

      Note that there is usually no single correct statement of a work’s theme, though there can be incorrect ones. Also, a long work, like a novel or a full-length play, may have several themes. Finally, not all literary works have themes. A work meant only to entertain may have no theme at all.

TONE The tone of a literary work is the writer’s attitude toward his or her audience and subject. The tone can often be described by a single adjective, such as formal or informal, serious or playful. Rachel Carson uses a respectful tone in “The Marginal World,” on p. 660, as she seeks the meaning behind the beauty of the natural world.

TRAGEDY A tragedy is a work of literature, especially a play, that results in a catastrophe for the main character. In ancient Greek drama, the main character was always a significant person, a king or a hero, and the cause of the tragedy was a tragic flaw, or weakness, in his or her character. The purpose of tragedy is not only to arouse fear and pity in the audience, but also, in some cases, to convey a sense of the grandeur and nobility of the human spirit.

      In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, on p. 822, Brutus is a noble figure whose tragic flaw is assuming that honorable ends justify dishonorable means.



UNIVERSAL THEME A universal theme is a message about life that can be understood by most cultures. Many folk tales and examples of classic literature address universal themes such as the importance of courage, the effects of honesty, or the dangers of greed.


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