A Useful Glossary of Literary Terms
An incomplete but workable glossary for anyone pursuing an interest in literature:
Adventure novel: A novel where exciting events are more important than character development and sometimes theme. Examples: Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel
Allegory: A fictional work in which a narrative carries a secondary, symbolic or metaphorical meaning. Good examples of fully allegorical works are George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Many works contain allegories or are allegorical in part, but not many are completely allegorical.
Apologue: A moral fable, usually featuring personified animals or inanimate objects which act like people to allow the author to comment on the human condition -for example, Aesop’s fables, or Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
Autobiographical novel: A novel based on the author's own life. Many novelists include in their books people and events from their own lives because remembrance is easier than creation from scratch. For example, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Blank Verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Caesura: A pause, metrical or rhetorical, occurring somewhere in a line of poetry. The pause may or may not be indicated.
Christian novel: A novel either explicitly or implicitly informed by Christian faith and often containing a plot revolving around the Christian life, evangelism, or conversion stories, with plots that are directly religious, or sometimes allegorical or symbolic. For example, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra or G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday.
Coming-of-age story: A novel in which the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, usually through a loss of innocence. For example, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Conceit: An intellectually ingenious poetic comparison or image, such as an analogy or metaphor in which, say a lover is compared to a flower etc. Many examples occur in John Donne's poetry.
Detective novel: A novel which employs mystery and suspense and focuses on the solving of a crime, usually by a brilliant detective. For example, Agatha Christie’s novels or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Dystopian novel: An anti-utopian novel where everything has gone wrong in the attempt to create a perfect society. See utopian novel. Examples include George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Enjambment: The running over of a sentence or thought into the next line without a pause at the end of the line; a run-on line. For example, the first two lines here are enjambed:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove -Shakespeare
Epic: According to How Stories Really Work, an epic is the basic format of 90% of stories and involves a classic protagonist (normally orphaned) who meets a series of stereotypical characters while accomplishing some form of quest. Examples abound, but include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars movie series, and Harry Potter.
Epistolary novel: A novel consisting of letters written by a character or several characters, allowing for the use of multiple points of view toward the story. Examples include Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.
Euphemism: The substitution of a mild or less negative word or phrase for a harsh or blunt one, as in the use of ‘hard of hearing’ instead of ‘deaf’, based on a desire to put something bad or embarrassing in a positive, or at least neutral light.
Existentialist novel: A novel written from an existentialist viewpoint, often pointing out the meaninglessness of existence, for example, Albert Camus, The Stranger.
Fantasy novel: A novel set in a purposefully ‘sub-created’ world with different laws to our own, usually set in a nonexistent zone, such as on another planet, under the earth, in fairyland, etc., often with non-human characters. For example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Flashback: A device that allows the writer to present events that happened before the time of the current narration or the current events in the fiction, using techniques including memories, dreams, stories of the past told by characters, etc.
Foot: The basic unit of meter consisting of a group of two or three syllables. Scanning or scansion is the process of determining the prevailing foot in a line of poetry, of determining the types and sequence of different feet.
Types of feet: U (unstressed); / (stressed syllable)
Iamb: U /
Trochee: / U
Anapest: U U /
Dactyl: / U U
Spondee: / /
Pyrrhic: U U
Frame: A framing structure around a story that provides a setting and exposition for the main narrative in a novel. A frame helps control the reader's perception of the work, and is usually used to give credibility to the main section of the novel. Examples of novels with frames include Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Free verse: Verse with neither regular rhyme nor regular meter.
Gothic novel: A novel in which supernatural horrors and an atmosphere of terror pervades the action, set in a dark, mysterious castle, or other gloomy location and normally including elements such as ancient prophecy, mystery and suspense, anger, surprise, terror, supernatural events, omens and frightened women. Examples include Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Heroic Couplet: Two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. It is the favourite verse form of the eighteenth century. For example:
u / u / u / u / u /
'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
u / u / u / u / u /
Appear in writing or in judging ill. . . .
Historical novel: A novel where fictional characters take part in actual historical events and interact with real people from the past. Examples include Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.
Humanism: An emphasis on human culture, education and reason, sparked by a revival of interest in classical Greek and Roman literature, culture, and language, as opposed to the medieval emphasis on the present life merely as preparation for a future life.
Humours: Four liquids in the human body affecting behaviour. In Mediaeval physiology, each humour was associated with one of the four elements of nature. In a balanced personality, no humour predominated, but when a humour did predominate, it caused a particular personality. Here is a chart of the humours, the corresponding elements and personality characteristics:
blood...air...hot and moist: sanguine, kind, happy, romantic
phlegm...water...cold and moist: phlegmatic, sedentary, sickly, fearful
yellow bile...fire...hot and dry: choleric, ill-tempered, impatient, stubborn
black bile...earth...cold and dry: melancholy, gluttonous, lazy, contemplative
Irony: In How Stories Really Work, a genre of stories which twist the expectations of Epic tales in specific ways. More generally, a mode of expression, through words or events, conveying a reality different from and usually opposite to appearance or expectation. A writer may give the audience knowledge that a character lacks, making the character's words have meaning to the audience not perceived by the character, or say the opposite of what he means, create a reversal between expectation and its fulfilment. The surprise recognition by the audience can produce a comic effect but is often introverting and shocking.
Metaphysical Poetry: The term metaphysical was applied to a style of 17th Century poetry first by John Dryden and later by Dr. Samuel Johnson because of the highly intellectual and often abstruse imagery involved. Chief among the metaphysical poets are John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan. The metaphysicals were not a ‘school’ as such but had common characteristics: the poem often engages in a debate or persuasive presentation; the poem is an intellectual exercise as well as or instead of an emotional effusion; it often describes a dramatic event rather than being a thought or contemplation. The verse is occasionally rough, like speech, rather than written in perfect meter, resulting in thought dominating form; the poem often reveals a psychological analysis; images advance the argument rather than being ornamental. Often there are unexpected, even striking or shocking analogies, offering elaborate parallels between apparently dissimilar things, with the analogies drawn from widely varied fields of knowledge, including science, mechanics, business, philosophy, astronomy, etc.
Meter: The rhythmic pattern produced when words are arranged so that their stressed and unstressed syllables fall into a more or less regular sequence, resulting in repeated patterns of accent (called feet). See ‘feet’ and ‘versification’.
Novel: An extended prose fiction narrative of 50,000 words or more, broadly realistic--concerning the everyday events of ordinary people--and concerned with characters. Novels normally attempt to represent life, experience, and learning and are concerned usually with the growth, learning and self-discovery of characters.
Novella: A prose fiction longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. Examples include Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Novel of manners: A novel focusing on and describing in detail the social customs and habits of a particular social group, for example Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Persona: A personality different from the author’s whereby the attitudes, beliefs, and degree of understanding expressed by the narrator may not be the same as those of the actual author. Some authors, for example, use narrators who are not very bright in order to create irony. For example, the butler narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.
Petrarchan Conceit: The kind of conceit (see above) used by Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch and popular in Renaissance English sonnets. Common examples, include eyes like stars or the sun, hair like golden wires, lips like cherries, etc.
Pseudonym: A false name used by a writer desiring not to use his or her real name. Examples include: Samuel Clemens using the name Mark Twain and Mary Ann Evans using the name George Eliot
Pulp fiction: Exciting, thrilling novels written for the mass market, historically very popular but critically looked down upon as being of sub-literary quality. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are an example.
Rhyme: The similarity between syllable sounds at the end of two or more lines.
Satire: A literary mode based on criticism of people and society through ridicule aiming to reduce the practices attacked by laughing scornfully at them and encouraging the reader to laugh too, thus pointing out hypocrisy.
Science fiction novel: A novel in which futuristic technology or otherwise altered scientific principles contribute in a significant way to the adventures, often assuming a set of rules or principles or facts and then tracing their logical consequences in some form. For example, H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
Sentimental novel: A novel which overemphasizes emotion and seeks to create emotional responses in the reader, usually featuring an overly optimistic view of the goodness of human nature. Examples include Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield or Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey.
Setting: The place for the action of a fictional work, including the time period and the location, as well as the social, political, and perhaps even spiritual realities, usually established primarily through description.
Sonnet: A fourteen line poem, usually in iambic pentameter, with a varied rhyme scheme. The two main types of sonnet are the Petrarchan (or Italian) and the Shakespearean. The Petrarchan Sonnet is divided into two main sections, the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines). The octave presents a problem or situation which is then resolved or commented on in the sestet. The most common rhyme scheme is A-B-B-A A-B-B-A C¡-D-E C-D-E, though there is flexibility in the sestet, such as C-D-C D-C-D.
Style: The manner of expression of a particular writer, produced by choice of words, grammatical structures, use of literary devices, and so on.
Subplot: A subordinate or minor collection of events in a novel or drama, usually having some connection with the main plot, perhaps commenting on, or supporting or complicating the main plot.
Symbol: Something which also has another meaning or even several meanings. A symbol may be said to embody an idea. Universal symbols embody recognisable meanings wherever used, such as light to symbolize knowledge; constructed symbols are given symbolic meaning by the way an author uses them, as the white whale becomes a symbol of evil in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Tone: The writer's attitude: formal, informal, ironic, optimistic or pessimistic and so on.
Utopian novel: A novel that presents an ideal society where the problems of poverty, greed, crime, and so forth have been eliminated. Examples include Sir Thomas More’s Utopia which gave the genre its name.
Verisimilitude: The degree to which a work of fiction conforms to the reader’s sense of reality.
Versification: Generally, the structural form of a verse, as revealed by scansion. The most common verse in English poetry is iambic pentameter. See foot for more information.