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Literary Terms Cheat Sheet by

Cheat sheet of some basic literary terms to keep in mind while reading literature. All of this was taken from the Purdue OWL for personal use.

The Basics

The ways individual characters are repres­ented by the narrator or author of a text. This includes descri­ptions of the charac­ters’ physical appear­ances, person­ali­ties, actions, intera­ctions, and dialogue.
Spoken exchanges between characters in a dramatic or literary work, usually between two or more speakers.
A kind of litera­ture. For instance, comedy, mystery, tragedy, satire, elegy, romance, and epic are all genres.
A term used to describe an author’s use of vivid descri­ptions “that evoke sense-­imp­res­sions by literal or figurative reference to percep­tible or ‘concrete’ objects, scenes, actions, or states."
The sequence of events that occur through a work to produce a coherent narrative or story.
Point of View
The perspe­ctive (visual, interp­retive, bias, etc.) a text takes when presenting its plot and narrative. For instance, an author might write a narrative from a specific charac­ter’s point of view, which means that that character is our narrative and readers experience events through his or her eyes.
Comprising an author’s diction, syntax, tone, charac­ters, and other narrative techni­ques, “style” is used to describe the way an author uses language to convey his or her ideas and purpose in writing. An author’s style can also be associated to the genre or mode of writing the author adopts, such as in the case of a satire or elegy with would adopt a satirical or elegiac style of writing.
An object or element incorp­orated into a narrative to represent another concept or concern. Broadly, repres­enting one thing with another. Symbols typically recur throughout a narrative and offer critical, though often overlo­oked, inform­ation about events, charac­ters, and the author’s primary concerns in telling the story.
A theme may be defined as “a salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subjec­t-m­atter; or a topic recurring in a number or literary works."­ Themes in literature tend to differ depending on author, time period, genre, style, purpose, etc.
A way of commun­icating inform­ation (in writing, images, or sound) that conveys an attitude. Authors convey tone through a combin­ation of word-c­hoice, imagery, perspe­ctive, style, and subject matter. By adopting a specific tone, authors can help readers accurately interpret meaning in a text.

Terms for Interp­reting Authorial Voice

Often at the beginning or conclusion of a text, the term “apology” refers to an instance in which the author or narrator justifies his or her goals in producing the text.
ypically refers to saying one thing and meaning the opposite, often to shock audiences and emphasize the importance of the truth.
A style of writing that mocks, ridicules, or pokes fun at a person, belief, or group of people in order to challenge them. Often, texts employing satire use sarcasm, irony, or exagge­ration to assert their perspe­ctive.
Stream of consci­ousness
A mode of writing in which the author traces his or her thoughts verbatim into the text. Typically, this style offers a repres­ent­ation of the author’s exact thoughts throughout the writing process and can be used to convey a variety of different emotions or as a form of pre-wr­iting.

Terms for Interp­reting Layers of Meaning

A literary mode that attempts to convert abstract concepts, values, beliefs, or historical events into characters or other tangible elements in a narrative.
When a text refere­nces, incorp­orates, or responds to an earlier piece (including litera­ture, art, music, film, event, etc).
exagge­rated language, descri­ption, or speech that is not meant to be taken literally, but is used for emphasis.
a figure of speech that refers to one thing by another in order to identify simila­rities between the two (and therefore define each in relation to one another).
a figure of speech that substi­tutes a quality, idea, or object associated with a certain thing for the thing itself. For instance, referring to a woman as “a skirt” or the sea as “the deep” are examples of metonymy.
a narrative work or writing style that mocks or mimics another genre or work. Typically, parodies exaggerate and emphasize elements from the original work in order to ridicule, comment on, or criticize their message.
a figure of speech that compares two people, objects, elements, or concepts using “like” or “as.”

Interp­reting Word Choice, Dialogue, and Speech

The repetition of the same sounds­—us­ually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllab­us—in any sequence of neighb­oring words.
This figure of speech refers to an address to “a dead or absent person, or an abstra­ction or inanimate object” and is “usually employed for emotional emphasis, can become ridiculous [or humorous] when misapp­lied.”
Word choice, or the specific language an author, narrator, or speaker uses to describe events and interact with other charac­ters.

Terms for Interp­reting Characters

A character in a text who the protag­onist opposes. The antagonist is often (though not always) the villain of a story.
A protag­onist of a story who embodies none of the qualities typically assigned to tradit­ional heroes and heroines. Not to be confused with the antagonist of a story, the anti-hero is a protag­onist whose failings are typically used to humanize him or her and convey a message about the reality of human existence.
“An adjective, noun, or phase expressing some charac­ter­istic quality of a thing or person or a descri­ptive name applied to a person, as Richard the Lion-H­ear­ted." An epithet usually indicates some notable quality about the individual with whom it addresses, but it can also be used ironically to emphasize qualities that individual might actually lack.
The artistic repres­ent­ation of a concept, quality, or idea in the form of a person. Person­ifi­cation can also refer to “a person who is considered a repres­ent­ative type of a particular quality or concep­t." Many classical deities are good examples of person­ifi­cat­ions. For instance, the Greek god Ares is a person­ifi­cation of war.
The primary character in a text, often positioned as “good” or the character with whom readers are expected to identify. Protag­onists usually oppose an antago­nist.

Terms for Interp­reting Plot

he height of conflict and intrigue in a narrative. This is when events in the narrative and charac­ters’ destinies are most unclear; the climax often appears as a decision the protag­onist must make or a challenge he or she must overcome in order for the narrative to obtain resolu­tion.
The “falling action” of a narrative, when the climax and central conflicts are resolved and a resolution is found. In a play, this is typically the last act and in a novel it might include the final chapters.
Deus Ex Machina
Literally, in Latin, the ‘god from the machine’; a deity in Greek and Roman drama who was brought in by stage machinery to intervene in the action; hence, any character, event, or device suddenly introduced to resolve the conflict.”
Usually located at the beginning of a text, this is a detailed discussion introd­ucing charac­ters, setting, background inform­ation, etc. readers might need to know in order to understand the text that follows. This section is partic­ularly rich for analysis because it contains a lot of important inform­ation in a relatively small space.
Frame Narrative
a story that an author encloses around the central narrative in order to provide background inform­ation and context. This is typically referred to as a “story within a story” or a “tale within a tale.”


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