Literary Terms and Definitions Made Easy for Middle and High School Students

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The Big Picture

Genre: The category a particular literary work belongs to. Genres can be broad, as in prose, poetry, and nonfiction, or can be narrower categories like novels, short stories, and essays. Even more specifically, genre can also refer to types of fiction or nonfiction, such as romance and science fiction. So a fantasy book belongs to at least three genres: prose, novels, and fantasy.

Theme: This is what the writer wants to convey about life through the literary work. The theme is the ‘big idea’ that expresses what the work is actually about. Themes might involve issues like love, friendship, or racism, and can generally be expressed in a sentence such as “Obligation to your family is more important than romantic love.”

Motif: A motif is a recurring element or device that expresses a literary work’s theme. In a story where the main character is trying to figure out her true identity, she may frequently encounter mirrors. These mirrors would represent her search for identity, and would therefore be a motif.

Tone: The writer’s attitude towards the literary work. An writer may use a thoughtful, humorous, or sarcastic tone, for example. This term applies to both the overall work and to particular events and characters within it—a writer might use a serious tone when describing one character but a humorous tone for another.

Mood: Tone and mood are often confused, but tone is how the author writes and mood is the feeling the reader takes away from the piece. You might feel sad, amused, peaceful, or confused after reading a particular work. Often the mood will be similar to the tone, but not always because each reader will interpret and react to the work in his or her own way.

Word Meanings

Denotation: The literal meaning of a word—the meaning you would find in a dictionary.

Connotation: The emotional meaning of a word—the deeper meaning a word is being used to represent. For example, “house” and “home” are literally very similar, but their connotations are very different. A house is just a building, while a home is the place you belong and where your family is. “Home” has a different emotional effect than “house” does, so it has a different connotation.

Literary Comparisons

Simile: Comparing two things using the words “like” or “as.” Examples would be “as busy as a bee” and “school is like a prison.”

Metaphor: Comparing two things without using “like” or “as.” Often metaphors use forms of “to be” such as “is” and “are.” Examples would be “the sky is a vast ocean” and “a book is a window to a new world.”

Symbolism: Representing one person or object or idea by using something else. A bird might be a symbol of freedom, for example, and chains might be a symbol for slavery.

Allusion: An allusion is a reference in a literary text to something else—to a real or fictitious person, place, event, or thing. Many texts contain allusions to the Bible, for example, using quotes or objects like crosses to remind the reader of biblical stories.

Allegory: An extended metaphor, where the entire story or poem has a secondary symbolic meaning. Plato’s “Allegory of a Cave” was a story about people who lived in a cave and saw nothing but shadows, and when they came out of the cave they didn’t think anything they saw was real. But the story is really supposed to be about how education introduces people to new ideas that seem strange and hard to believe.

Other Literary Techniques

Stereotype: A character who looks and behaves not like an individual but like a typical member of a particular group. In prose, such characters are usually minor, and in poetry they are often used ironically. A few examples of stereotypes are the tough cowboy, the drunken sailor, and the computer geek who wears glasses.

Irony: This is when two opposite words or things are compared, usually in a humorous way. An ironic statement might be “he is smart as a rock” because we know that rocks are definitely not smart. A situation is ironic if it involves a contradiction: for example, it is ironic that banned books are usually read more than books that aren’t banned.

Satire: The tone writers use when they are trying to make fun of what they are writing about. A writer might create a character who is very proud, and then make bad things happen to that character to show that pride is dangerous. The Onion is a satirical news outlet that writes stories poking fun at and pointing out the flaws in real life people and situations.

This post is part of the series: Important Eighth Grade Literary Terms Made Easy

English class is full of fancy words that even the best students often find confusing. This series explains the most important literary terms late middle school and early high school students should know, covering general terms and terms related to both prose and poetry.

  1. Important Eighth Grade Literary Terms Made Easy: General Terms
  2. Important Literary Terms Made Easy: Prose
  3. Poetry Terms Made Easy