Literary Terms Prologue

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Literary Terms


  • An introduction most frequently associated with drama. Prologues were frequently written by the author of a play and delivered by one of the chief actors


  • Often recited by a single actor
  • Foreshadows & comments on future/past events
  • Background information


  • Word play that suggests two or more meanings for the same word
  • Homonyms/homophones are commonly used as puns
  • Or
  • A figure of speech demonstrating a deliberate confusion of similar words or phrases for rhetorical effect
  • Examples: There was once a cross-eyed teacher who couldn’t control his pupils.
  • Police were called to a day-care where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.
  • I couldn’t quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.
  • When the boss sold the carnival, he said it was a fair deal.
  • “A trade sire, which is… indeed… a mender of bad soles.”

Stage Directions

  • Material that an author adds to a text to indicate movement, attitude, manner, style, or quality of speech, character, or action


  • type/category of literary works based on form, technique or subject matter.


  • the realistic portrayal of serious events; a story told in action by actors who impersonate the characters. (play)


  • a lighter, with humor, form of drama that aims primarily to amuse (tells anecdotes/stories), and usually is marked by a happy ending. (marriages)


  • a type of play that ends/results in an unfavorable and unhappy ending/catastrophe and is treated with seriousness and dignity
  • A play about a character’s downfall
  • Main character(s) may end up dead or defeated
  • Catastrophe/suffering awaits many of the characters, especially the hero

Connotation vs. Denotation

  • Connotation: the emotional association of a word (negative or positive)
  • Denotation: the definition/meaning of the word, without emotional associations


  • not literal (i.e. metaphors)


  • attitude of the speaker/author towards the subject, characters, or audience


  • the emotion a text evokes in the reader


  • interplay between two opposing forces.
  • Two types:
  • 1) internal- a struggle between two elements within one character
  • Ex. man vs self (mental/emotional/psychological/spiritual)
  • 2) external- a struggle between a character and an outside force
  • Ex. man vs man
  • man vs nature
  • man vs society
  • man vs. Fate


  • An extended speech delivered while the speaker is alone, in order to inform the audience of what is passing in the character’s mind (his/her inner thoughts or what the speaker is thinking inwardly, with the audience as listeners)


  • An extended speech delivered by a single speaker to listeners (another character or crowd) onstage, but the listeners do not speak


  • A conversation between two or more characters
  • Often serves to advance the action, give the impression of naturalness, present the interplay of ideas and personalities among those conversing, and/or give relief from descriptive/expository passages


  • when an actor directly addresses the audience, or another character, but is not supposed to be heard by other actors onstage (usually shorter than a monologue/soliloquy)

Dramatic Irony

  • the words or acts of a character carry meaning unperceived by the character or other characters but are understood by the audience (the audience/reader knows something that some of the characters are blind to)


  • Portrays the difference between appearance & reality, expectation & result, or meaning & intention
  • Verbal irony: words are used to convey the opposite of what is meant
  • Situational irony: an action or event directly contradicts the expectations of the characters, the reader, or the audience
  • Dramatic irony: a contradiction between what a character thinks and what the reader/audience knows to be true (when the reader/audience knows something that the character does not)


  • a self-contradictory combination/pair of words
  • Ex. jumbo shrimp


  • A comparison without the use of the words “like” or “as”
  • Example: She is a rose.


  • A comparison using the word “like” or “as”
  • Example: She is as beautiful as a rose.


  • An object/animal is given human qualities, such as human thoughts, feelings, attitudes, & characteristics/personalities
  • From the Latin root “per” = through
  • Example: The sun smiled down on us.


  • Extreme exaggeration for effect (not to be taken literally)
  • Example: I am so hungry, I could eat a cow!


  • Someone (absent, dead, nonexistent/ imaginary, or unspecified), some abstract quality/idea, or some personified thing is addressed (spoken to) as though actually present
  • Examples: “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” “Oh Sinner!”


  • A reference to a historical or literary figure, text, event, object, work of art, etc. outside of the literary work
  • Often well known (something the author assumes the reader is likely to be familiar with)
  • It is up to the reader to make the connection
  • Common allusions are to the Bible, Shakespeare, mythology, politics, or current events


  • Omitting a syllable or sound in a word to make it easier to say or pronounce or to ensure rhythm/maintain meter in poetry/create pleasant sounds
  • From the Latin “elidere” = to strike out
  • Usually runs two words together by the omission of the final or initial sounds
  • Common uses: laboratory, temperature, vegetable
  • Shortened syllable count for poetry: ‘tis (instead of it is) ‘twas (instead of it was)
  • Slang: gonna, dunno


  • Omitting letters within a word (the interior of a word) to omit sounds/syllables
  • Examples: o’er=over, n’er=never


  • Omitting the end of a word to make it easier to say
  • Examples: abs=abdominal muscles, ad=advertisement, bio=biology, decaf=decaffeinated, demo=demonstrated, limo=limousine


  • From the Greek “prosa,” meaning straightforward
  • Ordinary speech (not poetic)
  • Paragraph form
  • No formal meter/rhyme


  • Poetic
  • Meter & rhyme


  • A close, critical reading of a poem, examining the work for its meter & the relevance of its meter


  • Natural rhythm of a poem
  • Syllabic pattern (arrangement of syllables in repeated patterns)
  • Basic unit in the description of the underlying rhythm of a poem
  • unit=metrical foot (measured by syllables, not words; a foot can consist of multiple words, & a word can consist of multiple feet)

Blank Verse

  • Shakespeare’s poetry in unrhymed iambic pentameter
  • Same letters/end rhyme
  • plays

Iambic Pentameter

  • A line of poetry that has 10 syllables (5 metric feet)
  • 2 syllables = 1 foot
  • Iamb = a metric foot with two syllables, first unstressed & second stressed (most natural form of rhythm in the English language, usually producing a subtle but stable verse)


  • Emphasizing a point by seeming to skip over it, which brings what’s being omitted to the forefront of people’s consciousness
  • Example: “Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it. / It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.”


  • A dignified, formal speech or writing that praises a person/thing that is typically deceased


  • Substitution of the name of an object closely associated with a word for the word itself
  • Example: crown = monarchy
  • Example: suits = FBI/CIA agents
  • Example: force = police


  • Using a part to represent the whole
  • Examples: a new set of wheels, “lend me your ears,” mouths to feed, give me a hand
  • A specific kind used to refer to a more general kind
  • Examples: Kleenex, Coke
  • A material used to refer to an object composed of that material
  • Examples: plastic, pigskin, threads


  • The main idea/central concept/topic/message of a literary work
  • Usually requires a subject & a predicate
  • Example: “the vanity of human wishes” instead of “human wishes”


  • Something that is itself & also represents something else (suggests another level of meaning)


  • The process by which an author reveals information about a character; methods the author uses to develop the personality of a character;
  • - what the narrator/other characters say/think about (or respond to) the character
  • - what the character says/thinks
  • - what the character does
  • - what the character looks like
  • Direct: often a sign of poor writing, telling (not showing, e.g. He was a dimwitted man.)
  • Indirect: showing (not telling) often inferred through action

Types of Characters

  • Round=complex (not always the good guy), fully developed both physically & emotionally, usually the main character that develops over the course of the story
  • Flat=one-dimensional, undeveloped, often unrealistic, lack complexity (not necessarily a sign of poor writing)
  • Dynamic=round, continuously change & evolve, often grows significantly & learns to be a better person (but can go the other way)
  • Static=can be round or flat, does not change, essentially remains the same over the course of the story
  • Protagonist=the main character/hero, the character the reader is supposed to root for, can be more than one character
  • Antagonist=character that is in opposition to & works against the protagonist, doesn’t have to be a person (e.g. setting or situation)


  • An image, descriptive detail, plot pattern, situation, symbol, or character type that occurs frequently in literature, myth, religion, folklore, etc.
  • Examples: the hero, the quest, the journey, the task, the fall, the flood, death & rebirth, the devil figure, he unfaithful wife, the scapegoat (death in public ceremony expiates community’s sin), the outcast (banished from social group for some crime), the temptress (sensuous & beautiful, attracts protagonist & brings about his downfall), the earth mother (symbol of fruition/abundance/fertility, offering spiritual/emotional nourishment), the Platonic ideal (spiritual ideal, source of inspiration, idealized by protagonist who has intellectual attachment to her), the sorrowing mother (loses children, intense grief), light-darkness (light=hope/renewal/spiritual illumination, darkness=unknown/ignorance/despair), water-desert (water=birth/rebirth/regeneration, desert=spiritual sterility), heaven-hell (skies & mountains=gods, bowels of earth=diabolical forces)


  • The location, time, social circumstances in which story takes place
  • Often contributes to the mood of the story
  • General setting: overall location & time period
  • Immediate setting: particular time & place within a story (similar to scene)


  • The presentation of material in a text in such a way that later events are prepared for (prepares the reader for future action)
  • Establishment of mood/atmosphere
  • Appearance of objects/facts as clues
  • The revelation of a fundamental character


  • The use of a word that suggests its meaning (sounds like what it means)
  • Examples: buzz, clang


  • A recurring image, word, object, phrase, or action that unifies the text


Literal Language

  • Exact in meaning
  • Not exaggerated

Figurative Language

  • Language that is not exact in meaning
  • Not to be taken literally
  • Means more than what it says on the surface
  • Gives a feeling about a subject
  • Makes meaning fresh/clearer
  • Expresses complexity
  • Extends meaning
  • Captures physical or sensory effect

Concrete Language

  • Sensory words
  • Objects/events available to the five senses

Abstract Language

  • Ideas
  • Concepts
  • Not physical
  • Can’t be perceived via 5 senses
  • Examples: war, love, freedom, success


  • Part of an effective description
  • Breaks down elements of description to elaborate on each part


  • The placing of two things close together or side by side for the sake of comparison/contrast

Point of View

  • The related experience of the narrator (not the author!)
  • Texts often encourage the reader to identify with the narrator, not the author
  • Can occur in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person
  • 1st person: narrator is a character that is part of the story, & narrative is limited by what the narrator knows/experiences/infers/discovers, used frequently, sacrifices omniscience for greater intimacy with one character, uses “I”/”We,” narrator can be the protagonist or someone close to the protagonist who is privy to the protagonist’s thoughts/actions or an ancillary character who has little to do with the action of the stpry
  • 2nd person: main character is referred to with 2nd person personal pronouns (such as “you”), rare, difficult to take seriously, usually paired with present tense
  • 3rd person: narrator is outside the action
  • Omniscient: narrator is all-knowing, knows everything that needs to be known including all characters’ thoughts/feelings/motives
  • Limited: narrator stays within the confines of what one knows/sees (only a part of the whole story), reader only gets the narrator’s biased perspective
  • 3rd person omniscient: most common prior to 20th century
  • 3rd person limited: most common during 20th & 21st centuries


  • A statement/idea that appears false/contradictory/absurd but actually is true


  • Descriptive language that evokes a sensory experience (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound); visual is most common
  • Visual imagery = sight is most common (Example: The crimson liquid spilled from the container and onto the white page.)
  • Auditory imagery = sound (Example: The bells chimed.)
  • Olfactory imagery = smell (Example: His socks, still soaked with sweat from Tuesday’s P.E. class, filled the classroom with an aroma akin to salty, rotting fish.)
  • Gustatory imagery = taste (Example: When I was swimming in the ocean, I accidentally took a gulp of briny, bitter liquid, causing me to cough and gag.)
  • Tactile imagery = touch (Example: The soft play-dough oozed between Connor’s fingers.)


  • Emotional relief/purification/purging /clarification that an audience was supposed to experience upon viewing a Greek tragedy
  • In drama, refers to a sudden emotional climax that evokes overwhelming sorrow, pity, laughter, or any other extreme change in emotion, resulting in restoration, renewal, and revitalization in audience members


  • A combination of harsh & unpleasant sounds
  • Often caused by consonance
  • Used in both poetry & prose to convey angry/discordant tone/feeling


  • A combination of pleasant sounds
  • Often created through assonance
  • Used in both poetry & prose
  • Common in love poems or pieces that want to convey soft & pleasant feelings


  • Repetition of initial consonant sounds or any vowel sounds in successive or closely associated syllables
  • Example: “fiery flood of fierceness”
  • Example: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
  • Example: killer cat


  • Repetition of vowel sounds within successive or closely associated words
  • Does not need to happen at the beginning of words
  • Can create a soft fluency in sound and internal rhyme
  • Example: “on a proud round cloud in a white high night”


  • Repetition of consonant sounds within words, rather than at the beginning
  • Example: All mammals named Pam are clammy.


  • Repetition of words/phrases/clauses at the beginning of successive or closely associated lines/sentences
  • Common in speeches
  • Used for emphasis


  • Repetition of words/phrases/clauses at the end of successive or closely associated lines/sentences


  • When several elements of equal importance are expressed in a sentence
  • The same pattern of words show two or more clauses/ideas have the same level of importance; the repetition of words/grammatical structures/phrases, etc.
  • Parallel sentence constructions


  • Words placed out of normal English order, often to accommodate the metrical pattern & maintain the regular meter/rhythm/rhyme; the placing of sentence elements out of their normal positions
  • Think Yoda!
  • Example: “Worried, I am. Afraid, is he.”

Rhetorical Question

  • A question asked for effect
  • Does not require a reply
  • From the root “retro” = backwards

End Rhyme

  • Rhyming words at the end of lines
  • Example: been & sin

Internal Rhyme

  • Rhyme occurs at some place before the last syllable in a line
  • Example: Here I am, an old man in a dry…

Slant/Half Rhyme

  • Near rhyme
  • Partial rhyme
  • Imperfect rhyme
  • Examples: Dry & died, devil & evil, grown & moon

Plot: sequence of events in a text


  • Part of the work that introduces the characters, setting, events, basic situation, background information, etc.
  • The “set up”
  • Provides clarity for future plot
  • Usually best when done indirectly

Inciting Action

  • The introduction of the central conflict
  • Lets readers know what the protagonist is up against
  • Hints at circumstances of climax

Development/Rising Action

  • Development: conflict increases
  • Rising action: events that lead up to the climax, complication of the action, begins with exciting force (which starts the conflict), gains interest & power as oppositions come into conflict, proceeds to climax
  • Events that push the story forward
  • Adds tension to the plot


  • The height of suspense/interest
  • Turning point
  • Point at which conflict reaches its highest point
  • The “big battle” (can be external or internal)

Falling Action

  • Events after the climax that lead to the resolution
  • Not always necessary/apparent



  • Any events that occur after the resolution
  • May tie up loose ends
  • Not always happy


  • Word choice
  • Formal diction: elevated & dignified, often complex & impersonal, follows grammar rules
  • Middle diction: maintains correct language but less elevated, reflects how most educated people speak
  • Informal Diction: plain language of everyday use, includes slang, idioms, & common words


  • Sentence structure; arrangement of words
  • Even with formal diction, a lack of variety or overly simplistic syntax can lower the level of language in an essay (compound, complex sentences vs. short, choppy sentences)


  • Philosophical belief began 3rd century B.C. by founder Zeno & lasted for 500 years
  • Belief in self-control, little expression of emotion, & a denial of passion
  • From Greek for "painted portico" in Athens where the group met and talked
  • Zeno: one's duty was to behave in a rational & calm manner and not let emotion cloud thinking
  • Acceptance of what happened as part of the law of nature.
  • Seems bleak & rigid today but popular in Greece
  • During the Roman Empire, emphasis on social duty, the importance of the law, & equal rights for all
  • Brutus


  • Epicurus=Greek philosopher who lived from 341 B.C. to 270 B.C.; believed life best understood by awareness of sensory perceptions
  • Belief that the most important goal was to seek pleasure & avoid pain.
  • Did not believe in fearing gods because there was no life after death
  • Epicurus didn’t acknowledge power of supernatural - omens, dreams, & other portents so would not have assigned much importance to Calpurnia's dream
  • Influenced modern hedonism (some same tenets)


  • Emotional, exclamatory phrase; call out/express sudden emotion
  • In drama, poetry, song
  • Rhetorical device in ancient literature
  • Greek in origin
  • “O” often used but not necessary
  • - To Renaissance audience, “O” literally meant one’s heart was bleeding
  • - “O” sounds = distraught emotional state & serious health concern
  • Examples: “O, the times!”


  • “Doubling back”
  • Repetition of last word of a preceding clause
  • Word used at end of sentence & used again at beginning of next sentence
  • Example: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”


  • From the Greek “unconnected”
  • Deliberate omission of conjunctions from a series of related clauses
  • Speeds up the rhythm to make more memorable
  • Examples: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” “government of the people, by the people, for the people” “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”


  • “to shape like the letter x”
  • Two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point
  • Criss-cross structure
  • Inverted parallelism
  • Popular in Greek & Roman texts
  • Example: “He knowingly led, and we followed blindly.”
  • A B A B
  • subject, adverb, verb, conjunction (cross) subject, verb, adverb


  • From Greek for “setting opposition”
  • A counter proposition
  • Denotes a direct contrast to the original proposition
  • Setting the opposite brings out a contrast in meaning by obvious contrast in expression
  • Examples: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
  • “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice.”
  • “Man proposes, God disposes.”
  • In literary fiction, can describe a character who presents the exact opposite (personality type/moral outlook) to another character, e.g. Voldemort & Dumbledore

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