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Literary Terms

This resource was written by Purdue OWL.
Last full revision by Sean M. Conrey.
Last edited by Karl Stolley on February 5th 2006 at 1:18PM

Summary: This handout gives a quick rundown of some important terms used when talking and writing about literature.

Literary Terms

Many literary terms describe how an author communicates his or her ideas. Look through the text and try to identify some of methods he or she uses to convey the patterns of ideas you are most interested in. The following terms will help you express the methods you see:

  • characterization: the author's expression of a character's personality through the use of action, dialogue, thought, or commentary by the author or another character.
  • conflict: the struggle within the story. Character divided against self, character against character, character against society, character against nature, character against God. Without it, there is no story.
  • dialogue: vocal exchange between two or more characters. One of the ways in which plot, character, action, etc. are developed.
  • imagery: the collection of images within a literary work. Used to evoke atmosphere, mood, tension. For example, images of crowded, steaming sidewalks flanking streets choked with lines of shimmering, smoking cars suggests oppressive heat and all the psychological tensions that go with it.
  • point of view: the vantage point from which the author presents action of the story. Who is telling the story? An all-knowing author? A voice limited to the views of one character? The voice and thoughts of one character? Does the author change point of view in the story? Why? Point of view is often considered the technical aspect of fiction which leads the critic most readily into the problems and meanings of the story.
  • symbol: related to imagery. It is something which is itself yet stands for or means something else. It tends to be more singular, a bit more fixed than imagery. For example, in Lessing's "A Woman on a Roof," the brief red sun suit seems to symbolize the woman's freedom and independence from externally imposed standards of behavior.
  • tone: suggests an attitude toward the subject which is communicated by the words the author chooses. Part of the range of tone includes playful, somber, serious, casual, formal, ironic. Important because it designates the mood and effect of a work.
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