Literary Terms and Devices


European literary movement, with its roots in France, that was predominant in the 1890’s. It denied that art needed to have any utilitarian purpose and focused on the slogan “art for art’s sake.” The doctrines of aestheticism were introduced to England by Walter Pater and can be found in the plays of Oscar Wilde and the short stories of Arthur Symons. In American literature, the ideas underlying the aesthetic movement can be found in the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.


Literary mode in which characters in a narrative personify abstract ideas or qualities and so give a second level of meaning to the work, in addition to the surface narrative. Two famous examples of allegory are Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, Part I (1678). Modern examples may be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Artist of the Beautiful” and the stories and novels of Franz Kafka.


Reference to a person or event, either historical or from a literary work, which gives another literary work a wider frame of reference and adds depth to its meaning. For example, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “Winter in the Air” gains greater suggestiveness from the frequent allusions to William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610-1611), and her story “Swans on an Autumn River” is enriched by a number of allusions to the poetry of William Butler Yeats.


Capacity of language to suggest two or more levels of meaning within a single expression, thus conveying a rich, concentrated effect. Ambiguity has been defined by William Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) as “any verbal nuance, however, slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” It has been suggested that because of the short story’s highly compressed form, ambiguity may play a more important role in the form than it does in the novel.


Event, person, or thing placed outside—usually earlier than—its proper historical era. Shakespeare uses anachronism in King John (c. 1596-1597), Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1607), and Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600). Mark Twainemployed anachronism to comic effect in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).


Short narration of a single interesting incident or event. An anecdote differs from a short story in that it does not have a plot, relates a single episode, and does not range over different times and places.


Character in fiction who stands in opposition, or rivalry, to the protagonist. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601), for example, King Claudius is the antagonist of Hamlet.


Collection of prose or poetry, usually by various writers. Often serves to introduce the work of little-known authors to a wider audience.


Short, concise statement that states an opinion, precept, or general truth, such as Alexander Pope’s “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”


Direct address to a person (usually absent), inanimate entity, or abstract quality. Examples are the first line of William Wordsworth’s sonnet “London, 1802,” “Milton! Thou should’st be living at this hour,” and King Lear’s speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606), “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!”

Archetypal theme

Recurring thematic patterns in literature. Common archetypal themes include death and rebirth (Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798), paradise-Hades (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”), the fatal woman (Guy de Maupassant’s “Doubtful Happiness”), the earth goddess (“Yanda” by Isaac Bashevis Singer), the scapegoat (D. H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away”), and the return to the womb (Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”).


Term used by psychologist Carl Jung to describe what he called “primordial images,” which exist in the “collective unconscious” of humankind and are manifested in myths, religion, literature, and dreams. Now used broadly in literary criticism to refer to character types, motifs, images, symbols, and plot patterns recurring in many different literary forms and works. The embodiment of archetypes in a work of literature can make a powerful impression on the reader.


Mood or tone of a work; it is often associated with setting but can also be established by action or dialogue. The opening paragraphs of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and James Joyce’s “Araby” provide good examples of atmosphere created early in the works and pervading the remainder of the story.

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Black humor

General term of modern origin that refers to a form of “sick humor” that is intended to produce laughter out of the morbid and the taboo. Examples are the works of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Günter Grass, and Kurt Vonnegut.


Work that, by imitating attitudes, styles, institutions, and people, aims to amuse. Burlesque differs from satire in that it aims to ridicule simply for the sake of amusement rather than for political or social change.


Form of writing that focuses on unique qualities of a person and then exaggerates and distorts those qualities in order to ridicule the person and what he or she represents. Writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, have used caricature for serious and satiric purposes in such stories as “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Character type

Term can refer to the convention of using stock characters, such as the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) of Renaissance and Roman comedy, the figure of vice in medieval morality plays, or the clever servant in Elizabethan comedy. It can also describe “flat” characters (the term was coined by E. M. Forster) in fiction who do not grow or change during the course of the narrative and who can be easily classified.


Similar to crisis, the moment in a work of fiction at which the action reaches a turning point and the plot begins to be resolved. Unlike crisis, the term is also used to refer to the moment in which the reader’s emotional involvement with the work reaches its point of highest intensity.

Comic story

Form encompassing a wide variety of modes and inflections, such as parody, burlesque, satire, irony, and humor. Frequently, the defining quality of comic characters is that they lack self-awareness; the reader tends not to identify with them but perceives them from a detached point of view, more as objects than persons.


Struggle that develops as a result of the opposition between the protagonist and another person, the natural world, society, or some force within the self. In short fiction, the conflict is most often between the protagonist and some strong force either within the protagonist or within the given state of the human condition.


French for tale, a conte was originally a short adventure tale. In the nineteenth century, the term was used to describe a tightly constructed short story. In England, the term is used to describe a work longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.


Turning point in the plot, at which the opposing forces reach the point that a resolution must take place.


Study and evaluation of works of literature. Theoretical criticism, as for example in Aristotle’s De poetica, c. 334-323 b.c.e. (Poetics, 1705), sets out general principles for interpretation. Practical criticism (Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare, for example) offers interpretations of particular works or authors.


Literary theory, primarily attributed to French critic Jacques Derrida, which has spawned a wide variety of practical applications, the most prominent being the critical tactic of laying bare a text’s self-reflexivity, that is, showing how it continually refers to and subverts its own way of meaning.


Term coined by the Russian Formalists to indicate a process by which the writer makes the reader perceive the concrete uniqueness of an object, event, or idea that has been generalized by routine and habit.


Literally, “unknotting”; the conclusion of a drama or fiction, when the plot is unraveled and the mystery solved.

Detective story

A “classic” detective story (or “mystery”) is a highly formalized and logically structured mode of fiction in which the focus is on a crime solved by a detective through interpretation of evidence and clever reasoning. Many modern practitioners of the genre, however, such as Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Ross Macdonald, have placed less emphasis on the puzzle-like qualities of the detective story and have focused instead on characterization, theme, and other elements of mainstream fiction. The form was first developed in short fiction by Edgar Allan Poe; Jorge Luis Borges has also used the convention in short stories.

Deus ex machina

Latin, meaning “god out of the machine.” In the Greek theater, it referred to the use of a god lowered out of a mechanism onto the stage to untangle the plot or save the hero. It has come to signify any artificial device for the easy resolution of dramatic difficulties.


Any technique used in literature in order to gain a specific effect. Poets use the device of figurative language, for example, while novelists may use foreshadowing, flashback, and so on, in order to create desired effects.


Theory that fiction is a dialogic genre in which many different voices are held in suspension without becoming merged into a single authoritative voice. Developed by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

Didactic literature

Literature that seeks to instruct, give guidance, or teach a lesson. Didactic literature normally has a moral, religious, or philosophical purpose, or it will expound a branch of knowledge (as in Virgil’s Georgics, c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589). It is distinguished from imaginative works, in which the aesthetic product takes precedence over any moral intent.


Hypothetical world of a story, as if it actually existed in real space and time. It is the illusory universe of the story created by its linguistic structure.


Double or counterpart of a person, sometimes endowed with ghostly qualities. A fictional doppelgänger often reflects a suppressed side of his or her personality, as in Fyodor Dostoevski’s novella Dvoynik (1846; The Double, 1917) and the short stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jorge Luis Borges, among other modern writers, have also employed the doppelgänger with striking effect.

Dream vision

Allegorical form common in the Middle Ages, in which the narrator or a character falls asleep and dreams a dream that becomes the actual framed story. Subtle variations of the form have been used by Hawthorne in “Young Goodman Brown” and by Poe in “The Pit and the Pendulum.”


Theory that the universe is explicable in terms of two basic, conflicting entities, such as good and evil, mind and matter, or the physical and the spiritual.


Total, unified impression, or impact, made upon the reader by a literary work. Every aspect of the work—plot, characterization, style, and so on—is seen to directly contribute to this overall impression.


A literary application of this religious term was popularized byJames Joycein his book Stephen Hero (1944): “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Many short stories since Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) have been analyzed as epiphanic stories in which a character or the reader experiences a sudden revelation of meaning.


Brief prose work, usually on a single topic, that expresses the personal point of view of the author. The essay is usually addressed to a general audience and attempts to persuade the reader to accept the author’s ideas.

Essay-sketch tradition

The earliest sketches can be traced to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus in 300 b.c.e., whose character sketches influenced seventeenth and eighteenth century writers in England, who developed the form into something close to the idea of character in fiction. The essay has an equally venerable history, and, like the sketch, had an impact on the development of the modern short story.


Brief anecdote or tale introduced to illustrate a moral point in medieval sermons. By the fourteenth century these exempla had expanded into exemplary narratives. Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” are exempla.


Philosophy and attitude of mind that gained wide currency in religious and artistic thought after the end of World War II. Typical concerns of existential writers are human beings’ estrangement from society, their awareness that the world is meaningless, and their recognition that one must turn from external props to the self. The writings of Albert Camus and Franz Kafka provide examples of existentialist beliefs.


Part or parts of a work of fiction that provide necessary background information. Exposition not only provides the time and place of the action but also introduces readers to the fictive world of the story, acquainting them with the ground rules of the work. In the short story, exposition is usually elliptical.


One of the oldest narrative forms. Usually takes the form of an analogy in which animals or inanimate objects speak to illustrate a moral lesson. The most famous examples are the fables of Aesop, a Greek who used the form orally around 600 b.c.e.


Term coined by Robert Scholes and used in contemporary literary criticism to describe novels radically experimental in subject matter, style, and form. Like the Magical Realists, fabulators mix realism with fantasy. The works of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass provide examples.

Fairy tale

Form of folktale in which supernatural events or characters are prominent. Fairy tales usually depict realms of reality beyond those of the natural world and in which the laws of the natural world are suspended. Among the most famous creators of fairy tales are Germany’s Brothers Grimm.


The Bulgarian Critic Tzvetan Todorov defines the fantastic as a genre that lies between the uncanny and the marvelous. Whereas the marvelous presents an event that cannot be explained by the laws of the natural world and the uncanny presents an event that is the result of hallucination or illusion, the fantastic exists as long as the reader cannot decide which of these two applies. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is an example of the fantastic.

Figurative language

Any use of language that departs from the usual or ordinary meaning to gain a poetic or otherwise special effect. Figurative language embodies various figures of speech, such as irony, metaphor, simile, and many others.


Scene that depicts an earlier event; it can be presented as a reminiscence by a character in a story, or it can simply be inserted into the narrative.


Short prose narrative, usually handed down orally, found in all cultures of the world. The termis often used interchangeably with myth, fable, and fairy tale.


Organizing principle in a work of literature, the manner in which its elements are put together in relation to its total effect. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with structure and is often contrasted with content. If form is the building, content is what is in the building and what the building is specifically designed to express.

Frame story

Story that provides a framework for another story (or stories) told within it. The form is ancient and is used by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). In modern literature, the technique has been used by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw (1898), Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (1902), and John Barth in Lost in the Funhouse (1968).


When used in connection with a frame story, the framework is the narrative setting, within which other stories are told. The framework may also have a plot of its own. More generally, the framework is similar to structure, referring to the general outline of a work.


When a work is approached as thematically or stylistically specific to male or female characteristics or concerns, it is said to be “gendered.”

Genre study

Concept of studying literature by classification and definition of types or kinds, such as tragedy, comedy, epic, lyrical, and pastoral. First introduced by Aristotle in Poetics, the genre principle has been an essential concomitant to the basic proposition that literature can be studied scientifically.

Gothic genre

Form of fiction developed in the late eighteenth century which focuses on horror and the supernatural. Examples include the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. In modern literature, the gothic genre can be found in the fiction of Truman Capote.


Characterized by a breakup of the everyday world by mysterious forces, the form differs from fantasy in that the reader is not sure whether to react with humor or horror. Examples include the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Franz Kafka.


Greek term for “overshooting” that refers to the use of gross exaggeration for rhetorical effect, based on the assumption that the reader will not be persuaded of the literal truth of the overstatement. Can be used for serious or comic effect.


Often defined as the verbal stimulation of sensory perception. Although the word betrays a visual bias, imagery, in fact, calls on all five senses. In its simplest form, imagery re-creates a physical sensation in a clear, literal manner; it becomes more complex when a writer employs metaphor and other figures of speech to recreate experience.

In medias res

Latin phrase used by Horace, meaning literally “into the midst of things” that refers to a literary technique of beginning the narrative when the action has already begun. The term is used particularly in connection with the epic, which traditionally begins in medias res.

Initiation story

Story in which protagonists, usually children or young persons, go through an experience, sometimes painful or disconcerting, that carries them from innocence to some new form of knowledge and maturity. William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Alice Walker’s “To Hell with Dying,” and Robert Penn Warren’s “Blackberry Winter” are examples of the form.

Interior monologue

Defined as the speech of a character designed to introduce the reader directly to the character’s internal life, the form differs from other monologues in that it attempts to reproduce thought before any logical organization is imposed upon it. An example is Molly Bloom’s long interior monologue at the conclusion of James Joyce’s Ulysses.


Termoften used to refer to modern or postmodern fiction that is presented self-consciously as a fiction or fabulation rather than a mimesis of external reality. The best-known practitioners of irrealism are John Barth, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme.


From the German, meaning “leading motif.” Any repetition—of a word, phrase, situation, or idea—that occurs within a single work or group of related works.

Literary short story

Term that was current in American criticism in the 1940’s to distinguish the short fiction of Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Sherwood Anderson, and others from the popular pulp and slick fiction of the day.

Local color

Term that usually refers to a movement in literature, especially in the United States, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The focus was on the environment, atmosphere, and milieu of a particular region. For example, Mark Twainwrote about the Mississippi region; Sarah Orne Jewettwrote about New England. The term can also be used to refer to any work that represents the characteristics of a particular region.

Lyric short story

Form in which the emphasis is on internal changes, moods, and feelings. The lyric story is usually open-ended and depends on the figurative language generally associated with poetry. Examples of lyric stories are the works of Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield,Sherwood Anderson, Conrad Aiken, and John Updike.


Malapropism occurs when one word is confused with another because of a similarity in sound between them. The term is derived from the character Mistress Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), who, for example, uses the word “illiterate” when she really means “obliterate” and mistakes “progeny” for “prodigy.”


German fairy tales, as collected in the works of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm or in the works of nineteenth century writers such as Novalis and E. T. A. Hoffmann.


Refers to fiction that manifests a reflexive tendency, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The emphasis is on the loosening of the work’s illusion of reality to expose the reality of its illusion. Such terms as “irrealism,” “postmodernist fiction,” and “antifiction” are also used to refer to this type of fiction.


Figure of speech in which two dissimilar objects are imaginatively identified (rather than merely compared) on the assumption that they share one or more qualities: “She is the rose, the glory of the day” (Edmund Spenser). The term is often used in modern criticism in a wider sense to identify analogies of all kinds in literature, painting, and film.


Figure of speech in which an object that is closely related to a word comes to stand for the word itself, such as when one says “the White House” when meaning the “president.”

Minimalist movement

School of fiction writing that developed in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and that John Barth has characterized as the “less is more school.” Minimalism attempts to convey much by saying little, to render contemporary reality in precise, pared-down prose that suggests more than it directly states. Leading minimalist writers are Raymond Carverand Ann Beattie. A character in Beattie’s short story “Snow” (in Where You’ll Find Me, 1986) seems to sum up minimalism: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”

Mise en abème

Small story inside a larger narrative that echoes or mirrors the larger narrative, thus containing the larger within the smaller.

Modern short story

Literary formthat dates from the nineteenth century and is associated with Edgar Allan Poe (who is often credited with inventing the form) and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the United States, Honoré de Balzac in France, and E. T. A. Hoffmann in Germany. In his influential critical writings, Poe defined the short story as being limited to “a certain unique or single effect,” to which every detail in the story should contribute.


Any speech or narrative presented by one person. It can sometimes be used to refer to any lengthy speech, in which one person monopolizes the conversation.


Incident or situation in a story that serves as the basis of its structure, creating by repetition and variation a patterned recurrence and consequently a general theme. Russian Formalist critics distinguish between bound motifs, which cannot be omitted without disturbing the thematic structure of the story, and unbound motifs, which serve merely to create the illusion of external reality. In this sense, motif is the same as leitmotif.


Anonymous traditional story, often involving supernatural beings or the interaction between gods and human beings and dealing with the basic questions of how the world and human society came to be as they are. Myth is an important termin contemporary literary criticism. Northrop Frye, for example, has said that “the typical forms of myth become the conventions and genres of literature.” By this, he means that the genres of comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony (satire) correspond to seasonal myths of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.


Account in prose or verse of an event or series of events, whether real or imagined.

Narrative persona

“Persona” means literally “mask”: It is the self created by the author and through whom the narrative is told. The persona is not to be identified with the author, even when the two may seem to resemble each other. The narrative persona in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), for example, may express many sentiments of which Byron would have approved, but he is nevertheless a fictional creation who is distinct from the author.


Theoretical study of narrative structures and ways of meaning. Most all major literary theories have a branch of study known as narratology.


Character who recounts the narrative. There are many different types of narrators: The first-person narrator is a character in the story and can be recognized by his or her use of “I”; third-person narrators may be limited or omniscient. In the former, the narrator is confined to knowledge of the minds and emotions of one or, at most, a few characters. In the latter, the narrator knows everything, seeing into the minds of all the characters. Rarely, second-person narration may be used. (An example can be found in Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place, 1973.)


Fictional prose form, longer than a short story or novelette. The term embraces a wide range of types, but the novel usually includes a more complicated plot and a wider cast of characters than the short story. The focus is often on the development of individual characterization and the presentation of a social world and a detailed environment.

Novella, Novelette, Novelle, Nouvelle

These terms all refer to the form of fiction that is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Novella, the Italian term, is the term usually used to refer to English-language works in this genre, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). Novelle is the German term; nouvelle the French; “novelette” the British. The term “novel” derives from these terms.

Oral tale

Wide-ranging term that can include everything from gossip to myths, legends, folktales, and jokes. Among the terms used by Stith Thompson to classify oral tales (The Folktale, 1951) are Märchen, fairy tale, household tale, conte populaire, novella, hero tale, local tradition, migratory legend, explanatory tale, humorous anecdote, and merry tale.

Oral tradition

Material that is transmitted by word of mouth, often through chants or songs, from generation to generation. Homer’s epics, for example, were originally passed down orally and employ formulas to make memorization easier. Often, ballads, folklore, and proverbs are also passed down in this way.


Short, simple, and usually allegorical story that teaches a moral lesson. In the West, the most famous parables are those told in the Gospels by Jesus Christ.


Statement that initially seems to be illogical or self-contradictory yet eventually proves to embody a complex truth. In New Criticism, the term is used to embrace any complexity of language that sustains multiple meanings and deviates from the norms of ordinary language usage.


Literary work that imitates or burlesques another work or author for the purpose of ridicule. Twentieth century parodists include E. B. White and James Thurber.

Periodical essay/sketch

Informal in tone and style and applied to a wide range of topics, the periodical essay originated in the early eighteenth century. It is associated in particular with Joseph Addison and Richard Steele and their informal periodical, The Spectator.


Figure of speech which ascribes human qualities to abstractions or inanimate objects, as in these lines by W. H. Auden: “There’s Wrath who has learnt every trick of guerrilla warfare,/ The shamming dead, the night-raid, the feinted retreat.” Richard Crashaw’s “Hope, thou bold taster of delight” is another example.


Way in which authors arrange their material not only to create the sequence of events in a play or story but also to suggest how those events are connected in a cause-and-effect relationship. There is a great variety of plot patterns, each of which is designed to create a particular effect.

Point of view

Perspective from which a story is presented to the reader. In simplest terms, it refers to whether narration is first person (directly addressed to the reader as if told by one involved in the narrative) or third person (usually a more objective, distanced perspective).


Literary approach that focuses on English-language texts from countries and cultures formerly colonized or dominated by the United States or the British Empire, and other European countries. Postcolonialists focus on the literature of such regions as Australia, New Zealand, Africa, or South America, and such cultural groups as African Americans and Native Americans.


Although this term is so broad it is interpreted differently by many different critics, it basically refers to a trend by which the literary work calls attention to itself as an artifice rather than a mirror held up to external reality.


Originally, in the Greek drama, the “first actor,” who played the leading role. The term has come to signify the most important character in a drama or story. It is not unusual for a work to contain more than one protagonist.


Puns occur when words that have similar pronunciations have entirely different meanings. The results may be surprise recognition of unusual or striking connections, or, more often, humorously accidental connections.


Literary technique in which the primary convention is to render an illusion of fidelity to external reality. Realism is often identified as the primary method of the novel form; the realist movement in the late nineteenth century coincided with the full development of the novel form.

Rhetorical device

Rhetoric is the art of using words clearly and effectively, in speech or writing, in order to influence or persuade. A rhetorical device is a figure of speech, or way of using language, employed to this end. It can include such elements as choice of words, rhythms, repetition, apostrophe, invocation, chiasmus, zeugma, antithesis, and the rhetorical question (a question to which no answer is expected).

Rogue literature

From Odysseus to Shakespeare’s Autolocus to Huckleberry Finn, the rogue is a common literary type. He is usually a robust and energetic comic or satirical figure whose roguery can be seen as a necessary undermining of the rigid complacency of conventional society. The picaresque novel (pícaro is Spanish for “rogue”), in which the picaro lives by his wits, is perhaps the most common formof rogue literature.


Originally, any work written in Old French. In the Middle Ages, romances were about knights and their adventures. In modern times, the termhas also been used to describe a type of prose fiction in which, unlike the novel, realism plays little part. Prose romances often give expression to the quest for transcendent truths. Examples of the form include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).


Movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which exalted individualism over collectivism, revolution over conservatism, innovation over tradition, imagination over reason, and spontaneity over restraint. Romanticism regarded art as self-expression; it strove to heal the cleavage between object and subject and expressed a longing for the infinite in all things. It stressed the innate goodness of human beings and the evils of the institutions that would stultify human creativity.


Form of literature that employs the comedic devices of wit, irony, and exaggeration to expose, ridicule, and condemn human folly, vice, and stupidity. Justifying satire, Alexander Pope wrote that “nothing moves strongly but satire, and those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous.”


Circumstances and environment, both temporal and spatial, of a narrative. Setting is an important element in the creation of atmosphere.

Short story

Concise work of fiction, shorter than a novella, that is usually more concerned with mood, effect, or a single event than with plot or extensive characterization.


Type of metaphor in which two things are compared. It can usually be recognized by the use of the words “like,” “as,” “appears,” or “seems”: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” (Muhammad Ali); “The holy time is quiet as a nun” (William Wordsworth).


Brief narrative form originating in the eighteenth century, derived from the artist’s sketch. The focus of a sketch is on a single person, place, or incident; it lacks a developed plot, theme, or characterization.

Story line

Differing from plot, a story line is merely the events that happen; plot is how those events are arranged by the author to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship.

Stream of consciousness

Narrative technique used in modern fiction by which an author tries to embody the total range of consciousness of a character, without any authorial comment or explanation. Sensations, thoughts, memories, and associations pour out in an uninterrupted, prerational, and prelogical flow. Examples are James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929).


Structuralism is based on the idea of intrinsic, self-sufficient structures that do not require reference to external elements. A structure is a system of transformations that involves the interplay of laws inherent in the system itself. The structuralist literary critic attempts, by using models derived from modern linguistic theory, to define the structural principles that operate intertextually throughout the whole of literature as well as principles that operate in genres and in individual works.


Style is the manner of expression, or how the writer tells the story. The most appropriate style is that which is perfectly suited to conveying whatever idea, emotion, or other effect that the author wishes to convey. Elements of style include diction, sentence structure, imagery, rhythm, and coherence.


General term for a simple prose or verse narrative. In the context of the short story, a tale is a story in which the emphasis is on the course of the action rather than on the minds of the characters.

Tall tale

Humorous tale popular in the AmericanWest; the story usually makes use of realistic detail and common speech, while telling a tale of impossible events that most often focus on a single legendary, superhuman figure, such as Paul Bunyan or Davy Crockett.


Loosely defined as what a literary work means, theme is the underlying idea, the abstract concept, that the author is trying to convey: “the search for love,” “the growth of wisdom,” or some such formulation. The theme of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” for example, might be interpreted as the failure of the attempt to isolate oneself within the world of art.


Strictly defined, tone is the authors’ attitudes toward their subjects, their personas, themselves, their audiences, or their societies. The tone of a work may be serious, playful, formal, informal, morose, loving, ironic, and so on; it can be thought of as the dominant mood of a work, and it plays a large part in the total effect.


Literally “turn” or “conversion”; a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used in a way that deviates from the normal or literal sense.


When used in literary criticism, verisimilitude refers to the degree to which a literary work gives the appearance of being true or real, even though the events depicted may in fact be far removed from the actual.


Sketch, essay, or brief narrative characterized by precision, economy, and grace. The term can also be applied to brief short stories, less than five hundred words long.


Oral tale or a written transcription of what purports to be an oral tale. The yarn is usually a broadly comic tale, the classic example of which is Mark Twain’s bluejay yarn. The yarn achieves its comic effect by juxtaposing realistic detail and incredible events; tellers of the tale protest that they are telling the truth; listeners know differently.

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