Thursday, November 8, 2007

Literary Glossary


the time and place of the action in a story, poem, or play.

(authorial time is distinct from plot time and reader time, authorial time denotes the influence that the time in which the author was writing had upon the conception and style of the text.)

in medias res

"in the midst of things"; refers to opening a story in the middle of the action, necessitating filling in past details by exposition or flashback.

a plot-structuring device whereby a scene from the fictional past is inserted into the fictional present or dramatized out of order.


plot/plot structure
the arrangement of the action.

plot summary
a description of the arrangement of the action in the order in which it actually appears in a story. The term is popularly used to mean the description of the history, or chronological order, of the action as it would have appeared in reality. It is important to indicate exactly in which sense you are using the term.

plot time
the temporal setting in which the action takes place in a story or play.


that part of the structure that sets the scene, introduces and identifies characters, and establishes the situation at the beginning of a story or play. Additional exposition is often scattered throughout the work.
rising action
the second of the five parts of plot structure, in which events complicate the situation that existed at the beginning of a work, intensifying the conflict or introducing new conflict.
falling action
the fourth part of plot structure, in which the complications of the rising action are untangled.
turning point
the third part of plot structure, the point at which the action stops rising and begins falling or reversing. Also called climax.
the fifth part of plot structure, the point at which the situation that was destabilized at the beginning of the story becomes stable once more.


(1) a fictional personage who acts, appears, or is referred to in a work;
(2) a combination of a person’s qualities, especially moral qualities, so that such terms as "good" and "bad," "strong" and "weak," often apply.

major (main) characters those characters whom we see and learn about the most.

minor characters those figures who fill out the story but who do not figure prominently in it.

hero/heroine the leading male/female character, usually larger than life, sometimes almost godlike.

protagonist the main character in a work, who may be male or female, heroic or not heroic. Protagonist is the most neutral term.

antagonist a neutral term for a character who opposes the leading male or female character. Also the villain.

characterization the fictional or artistic presentation of a fictional personage. A term like "a good character" can, then, be ambig-uous—it may mean that the personage is virtuous or that he or she is well presented regardless of his or her characteristics or moral qualities.

flat character a fictional character, often but not always a minor character, who is relatively simple; who is presented as having few, though sometimes dominant, traits; and who thus does not change much in the course of a story.

round characters complex characters, often major characters, who can grow and change and "surprise convincingly"—that is, act in a way that you did not expect from what had gone before but now accept as possible, even probable, and "realistic."
more on characterization

stereotype a characterization based on conscious or unconscious assumptions that some one aspect—such as gender, age, ethnic or national identity, religion, occupation, marital status, and so on—is predictably accompanied by certain character traits, actions, even values.
persona and personality

persona the voice or figure of the author who tells and structures the story and who may or may not share the values of the actual author.

personality that which distinguishes or individualizes a person; its qualities are judged not so much in terms of their moral value, as in "character," but as to whether they are "pleasing" or "unpleasing."

the character who "tells" the story.

first-person narrator a character, "I," who tells the story and necessarily has a limited point of view; may also be an unreliable narrator.

second-person narrator a character, "you," who tells the story and necessarily has a limited point of view; may be seen as an extension of the reader, an external figure acting out a story, or an auditor; may also be an unreliable narrator.

third-person narrator a character, "he" or "she," who "tells" the story; may have either a limited point of view or an omniscient point of view; may also be an unreliable narrator.

The unreliable narrator

unreliable narrator
a speaker or voice whose vision or version of the details of a story are consciously or unconsciously deceiving; such a narrator’s version is usually subtly undermined by details in the story or the reader’s general knowledge of facts outside the story. If, for example, the narrator were to tell you that Magellan was Spanish (not Portugese) and that he discovered the Philippines in the fourteenth century when his ship the Victoria landed on the coast of Palawan near present-day Boracay, you might not trust other things he tells you.

implied author
the guiding personality or value system behind a text; the implied author is not necessarily synonymous with the actual author

voice the acknowledged or unacknowledged source of a story’s words; the speaker; the "person" telling the story.

Focus and point of view

the point from which people, events, and other details in a story are viewed. This term is sometimes used to include both focus and voice.

point of view also called focus; the point from which people, events, and other details in a story are viewed.

point of view variations

omniscient point of view also called unlimited point of view; a perspective that can be seen from one character’s view, then another’s, then another’s, or can be moved in or out of any character’s mind at any time. Organization in which the reader has access to the perceptions and thoughts of all the characters in the story.

limited point of view or limited focus a perspective pinned to a single character, whether a first-person-or a third-person-centered consciousness, so that we cannot know for sure what is going on in the minds of other characters; thus, when the focal character leaves the room in a story we must go, too, and cannot know what is going on while our "eyes" or "camera" is gone. A variation on this, which generally has no name and is often lumped with the omniscient point of view, is the point of view that can wander like a camera from one character to another and close in or move back but cannot (or at least does not) get inside anyone’s head and does not present from the inside any character’s thoughts.

unlimited point of view also called omniscient point of view; a perspective that can be seen from one character’s view, then another’s, then another’s, or can be moved in or out of any character’s mind at any time. Organization in which the reader has access to the perceptions and thoughts of all the characters in the story.
centered (central) consciousness a limited third-person point of view, one tied to a single character throughout the story; this character often reveals his or her inner thoughts but is unable to read the thoughts of others.

theme (1) a generalized, abstract paraphrase of the inferred central or dominant idea or concern of a work; (2) the statement a poem makes about its subject.

subject (1) the concrete and literal description of what a story is about; (2) the general or specific area of concern of a poem—also called topic; (3) also used in fiction commentary to denote a character whose inner thoughts and feelings are recounted

genre the largest category for classifying literature—fiction, poetry, drama.
motif a recurrent device, formula, or situation that deliberately connects a poem with common patterns of existing thought.

canon when applied to an individual author, canon (like oeuvre) means the sum total of works written by that author. When used generally, it means the range of works that a consensus of scholars, teachers, and readers of a particular time and culture consider "great" or "major." This second sense of the word is a matter of debate since the literary canon in Europe and America has long been dominated by the works of white men. During the last several decades, the canon in the United States has expanded considerably to include more works by women and writers from various ethnic and racial backgrounds.

tragedy a drama in which a character (usually a good and noble person of high rank) is brought to a disastrous end in his or her confrontation with a superior force (fortune, the gods, social forces, universal values), but also comes to understand the meaning of his or her deeds and to accept an appropriate punishment. Often the protagonist’s downfall is a direct result of a fatal flaw in his or her character.

high (verbal) comedy
humor that employs subtlety, wit, or the representation of refined life.

low (physical) comedy
humor that employs burlesque, horseplay, or the representation of unrefined life.

memory devices also called mnemonic devices; these devices—including rhyme, repetitive phrasing, and meter—when part of the structure of a longer work, make that work easier to memorize.

broadly defined, any sensory detail or evocation in a work; more narrowly, the use of figurative language to evoke a feeling, to call to mind an idea, or to describe an object.

a situation or statement characterized by a significant difference between what is expected or understood and what actually happens or is meant. See cosmic irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.

Glossary Courtesy of W. W. NORTON & COMPANY, INC

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