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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. . . .

--Alexander Pope

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.