Key Terms for Literary Analysis

Terms Important for Discussing Fiction, but especially Short Fiction:

Protagonist- The main or central character in a narrative. The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story, often in conflict with the antagonist.

Conflict- The central struggle between two or more forces in a story. Conflict generally occurs when some person or thing prevents the protagonist from achieving his or her goals.

Rising Action— The narrative "arc" of a story includes a series of conflicts and complications that continue to "rise" until the climactic moment.

Crisis—The point in a narration when the crucial action, decision, or realization must take place.

Climatic Moment—The moment of greatest intensity in the story, which almost inevitably occurs toward the end of the work. 

Resolution—In plotting, the logical end or outcome of a unified plot, shortly following the climax.

Narrative Techniques
Foreshadowing—An indication of events to come in the narrative. The author may introduce specific words, images, or actions in order to suggest significant later events.

Flashback—A scene relived in a character's memory. Flashback allows the author to include significant events that occurred before the opening of the story.

Epiphany— A moment of profound insight or revelation by which a character's life is greatly altered.

In Medias Res— a Latin phrase meaning "in the midst of things"; refers to the narrative device of beginning a story midway in the events it depicts (usually an  exciting or significant moment) before explaining the context or preceding actions.  

Pattern—Repetition of symbols (a symbol is an object that gives a sensory impression. See definition below);in recognizing and analyzing a pattern, the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the work.

Here are some terms we will use in this first unit:

Point of View: The vantage point from which a narrative is told. A narrative is typically told from a first-person or third-person point of view; the second person point of view is extremely rare.
First-Person uses the "I"
Third-Person uses "He/she and they"
Second-Person uses "You" and addresses the reader directly.

Tone: The attitude of the author toward the subject matter of a literary work. An author's tone may be serious, playful, mocking, angry, commanding, apologetic, and so forth. A device through which writers reveal a range of attitudes. 

Plot: The action that takes place; what literally happens.

Theme: Not simply the subject of a literary work, but rather a statement that the text seems to be making about that subject. The statement can be moral or may emanate from an unmoralized, or less obviously moral, perspective. (Source: The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, Click the link to view more terms)

Symbol: anything that represents or stands for something else. Often a symbol is something concrete that stands for something abstract. For example, a butterfly might represent both fragility, transcendence, and potential transformation. A symbol may be said to embody an idea. There are two general types of symbols: universal symbols that embody universally recognizable meanings, such as light to symbolize knowledge. 

Ambiguity: If something is ambiguous, it is unclear. Often this is because information is simply left out and therefore the reader must make inferences (draw their own conclusions) or there is an intentional duality to the interpretation. Narrative gaps (information the author purposely leaves out) often cause ambiguity in a text.

Setting: That combination of place, historical time, and social milieu that provides the general background. 

Style: Used generally, the way in which a literary work is written, the devices the author uses to express his or her thoughts and convey the work's subject matter.
Diction: A speaker's or author's word choice. The term may also refer to general type or character of language used in speech or a work of literature. In the broader sense, diction is divided into two components: vocabulary and syntax.

Figurative Language: Language that employs one or more figures of speech to supplement and even modify literal, denotative meanings of words with additional connotations and richness.

Types of Figurative Language:

  • Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to achieve an effect, whether serious or comic. An overstatement.
  • Metonymy is from Greek "change of name," a figure of speech in which one thing is represented by another that is commonly and often physically associated with the thing, such as calling a monarch "the crown."
  • Metaphor: A figure of speech that associates two distinct things; the representation of one thing by another.
  • Simile: A figure of speech that compares two distinct things by using words such as like or as.

Verbal Irony: a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant or between what is said and what the reader knows to be true.

Terms Applicable to Fiction, But Especially Relevant to Poetry:

Syntax: the way words are arranged in phrases or sentences and the way phrases or sentences are arranged in paragraphs (fiction), speeches (plays), or lines and stanzas (poetry).

Rhythm: pattern of sound. Some writers use the rhythm of ordinary speech, while others use a regular pattern of beats.

Rhyme: the matching of final sounds in two or more words. Rhyming can be used to create emphasis or patterns pleasing to the ear.

Alliteration: the repetition the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables. This poetic device is used to create harmony, unity, and musicality.

Assonance: the repetition of similar vowel sounds. Like alliteration, assonance is often intended to create or reinforce a sense of harmony, unity, and musicality.

Allusion: a reference to a person, place, object, or event outside the work itself.

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