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Cheat Sheet: Dictionary of Literary Terms

written by: Terry Ligard • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/24/2015

English has it's own specific terminology to describe plots, themes, forms and structures, whether it be a novel, short story, poem or play. This guide provides a cheat sheet to important literary terms you need to know.

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    There are many literary terms in English, and the more English classes you take, the more you will encounter. Below I will outline the The World of Literature most common ones in alphabetical order.

    Acronym: words that are made shorter. Example: NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

    Alliteration: a repetition of the same consonant sound in consecutive words. Example: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought...."-Sonnet XYZ. Another great example of alliteration can be found here.

    Allusion: casual reference to work, person, place, event assumed familiar to enhance meaning. Example: Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice alludes to the Greek mythological character Cupid: “Come, come, Nerissa; for I long to see quick Cupid’s post that comes so mannerly."

    Anachronism: misplacement of object, person in time. Example: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in 44AD Rome, Cassius says "The clock hath stricken three" when in fact the mechanical clock had not yet been invented.

    Antagonist: a character or force who presents the greatest opposition. Example: Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello.

    Aside: a brief and often sarcastic comment made to the audience, but not meant to be heard on the stage by others. Example: Act I Scene III of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth speaks of his intrigue about the witches' message.


    • Flat: one or two traits.
    • Round: complex, many sided.
    • Stock: easily recognizable characters.
    • Static: unchanged.
    • Dynamic: goes through a physical or mental change.

    Click here to learn more about character types and how to implement them into you writing.

    Climax: the highest point of action. Example: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet stabs Polonius.

    Dramatic irony: audience knows more than the characters on stage. Example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda does not know that Gonzalo is on the island but her father Prospero, and the audience, does.

    Exposition: writing meant to convey information in the opening chapters. Example: settings, characters.

    Falling action: letdown after dramatic crisis. Example: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet returns to Denmark where he encounters Laertes and has a fencing match with him.

    Foreshadowing: a hint or clue for a later event to occur. Example: The witches in the opening scene of Shakespeare's Macbeth foreshadow evil that will follow.

    Hyperbole: deliberate exaggeration. Example: the path went on forever.

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    Imagery: collective images of descriptive language. Example: "When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"-Macbeth. This creates an ominous atmosphere in the onset of the play.

    Juxtaposition: usually unassimilated words, phrases, ideas, placed next to each other which give us a sense of irony. Example: "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more."-Julius Caesar.

    Metaphor: one object is directly compared to another object. Example: "Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this son of York."-Richard III.

    Onomatopoeia: sound words. Example: "There be more wasps that buzz about his nose."-Henry VIII.

    Pathetic fallacy: personification of nature. Example: the earth is sensitive to the plight of man.

    Personification: inanimate objects having life-like qualities. Example: "Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat, sighing, through all her works, gave signs of woe"-Paradise Lost.

    Protagonist: the central character. Example: Shakespeare's Othello, Othello is the protagonist.

    Rising action: building up of events to the climax or crisis. Example: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a ghost resembling his father appears to Hamlet and imparts on him to take revenge on his murder.

    Simile: comparison using the words “like" or “as". Example: "Doubtful it stood; As two spent swimmers, that do cling together And choke their art."-Macbeth.

    Situational irony: discrepancy between expectation and realization. Example: Shakespear's Macbeth, Macbeth kills Duncan to gain the throne, and thinks only of the power and wealth he will enjoy as the new King of Scotland.

    Symbolism: concrete idea that stands for some general idea. Example: lily for purity, sunshine for hope, heart for love. You'll find a great discussion about symbolism here.

    Theme: central idea. Example: Shakespeare's Macbeth, the main theme is corruption brought by unchecked ambition. The idea of theme in a novel is further discussed here.

    Tragic flaw: a flaw which eventually leads a character to downfall. Example: Shakespear's Hamlet, Hamlet's tragic flaw is his inability to act, to revenge his father's murder.

    Verbal irony: the opposite of what is said is meant. Example: Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennett refers to Wickham as perhaps his "favorite" son-in-law.

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    Did I miss any you think are important? Let me know in the comments.