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ESL Guide

English Literary Terms

  1. Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially at the beginning of words. Example: “Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.” Hopkins, “In the Valley of the Elwy.”
  2. Allusion: A passing or casual reference; an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication.
  3. Antagonist: A character or force against which another character struggles.
  4. Character: An imaginary person that inhabits a literary work. Literary characters may be major or minor, unchanging or capable of change.
  5. Conflict: A struggle between opposing forces in a story or play, usually resolved by the end of the work. The conflict may occur within a character as well as between characters.
  6. Connotation: The associations called up by a word that go beyond its dictionary meaning. Poets, especially, tend to use words rich in connotation.
  7. Denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word. Writers typically play off a word’s denotative meaning against its connotations, or suggested and implied associational implications.
  8. Dialogue: The conversation of characters in a literary work. In fiction and poetry dialogue is typically enclosed with quotation marks. “……”
  9. Fiction: An imagined story, whether in prose, poetry, or drama, or an imagined character—a “fiction.”
  10. Figurative Language: A form of language in which writers and speakers convey something other than the literal meaning of their words.
  11. Flashback: An interruption of a work’s chronology to describe or present an incident that occurred prior to the main time frame of a work’s action.
  12. Foreshadowing: Hints of what is to come in the action of a play or a story.
  13. Genre: A class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
  14. Imagery: The pattern of related comparative aspects of language, particularly of images, in a literary work.
  15. Irony: A contrast or discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what happens and what is expected to happen in life and in literature.
  16. Juxtaposition: An act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast.
  17. Plot structure: The unified structure of incidents in a literary work.
  18. Point of View: The angle of vision from which a story is narrated. A work’s point of view can be first person, in which the narrator is a character or an observer; objective, in which the narrator knows or appears to know no more than the reader; omniscient, in which the narrator knows everything about the characters; and limited omniscient, which allows the narrator to know some things about the characters but not everything.
  19. Protagonist: The main character of a literary work. Also called the “hero.”
  20. Setting: The time and place of a literary work that establish its context.
  21. Symbolism: The use of objects or actions in a literary work that means more than itself, that stands for something beyond itself.