Important Literary Terms
The methods and techniques by which the author reveals and presents his or her characters in a work
of fiction, or in a drama, or in a poetic monologue. Characters can be flat (caricatured) or multi-
dimensional (fully-rounded). Characterization is said to be of utmost importance to dramatists and
novelists especially. Imagine the world without Hamlet, Don Quixote, Oliver Twist, Juliet. Sometimes a
character may seem more real than the author (as in the case of Shakespeare), sometimes the author’s
personality may overwhelm his characters (this has been said of Margaret Atwood, and of Normal
The class or species, as it were, to which a particular work of literary art belongs. Examples: gothic
horror, the epic, sonnet, pastoral, ode, pastoral elegy, biography, essay, autobiography, novel, drama.
There are said to be four renegade or outsider genres: science-fiction, detective fiction, the western,
and pornographic or erotic fiction. (Think of what Willliam Gibson, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy,
Kathy Acker, and Anais Nin, have done with these genres).
Representation of experience or sensation. Imagery refers to the degree of intense visualization of
experiences or sensations in a work. Thus images may be sensual, relating to touch or hearing, for
example; and they may relate to what you see. Imagism refers to a modernist literary movement, led
by Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), which sought to make poetry more concrete and direct,
immediate and sensual, and less dependent on long syntactic lines of abstraction.
Narrative Point of View:
The angle of perspective from which a story is told. Angle is everything in fiction and poetry. The point
of view may be: first person (a character in the work speaks); third person omniscient; sometimes,
though rarely, second person- the accusatory “you”, it is sometimes called. We find second person
used in non-fiction essays. A first person narrator may be “unreliable” (to some extent all narrators are
this- though there are degrees of unreliability). A work may have multiple narrators, as in Wuthering
Heights, all of them suspect in their ability to discern what is truly going on. Or there may be one more
or less steady third person narrator, as in Song of Solomon, where the narrator is quite detached from
all judgment of her characters.
A speaker or narrator who communicates the poetic script or the fictitious story. Not to be confused
with the author, though many readers always identify the speaker of a book with the author. Cardinal
rule in interpreting fiction or poetry: allow the personal or personae their liberty from the author.
The sequence of events in a narrative. “This happened, and then this happened; and then guess what,
the is happened… and then!... this happened.” And so on. A novel or play may have a story, or relate a
series of stories or anecdotes, but have no plot.
The tight narrative structuring of a story, in which there is clearly established a sequence of causes and
effects. “This happened to her, and then she plotted her revenge on him. His family in turn planned to
get even with her family. The murders multiplied. The police were powerless, it seemed, to stop the
family slaughter. Until a stranger came to town – the strange who resembled… members of both
families. Then it was revealed that the stranger was…” And so forth.
Genre fiction depends on the pleasures of satisfying plotlines (see detective fiction especially).
Modernist fiction, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, may depend on subtle irresolutions,
narrative instabilities, open-ended stories, ambiguities of storylines. Genres tend to thrive on closure;
other kinds of fiction, such as Wuthering Heights may give a semblance of closure, but in fact nothing is
resolved or finished at all: mysteries abound, intact.
Refers to the shape or design of the literary work. Sometimes referred to as “architectonics”, the
pattern or arrangement of parts to the whole. Sometimes authors think carefully about the structure
of their work: Joyce, Beckett and Don DeLillo, are obvious examples. Sometimes considerable meaning
is invested in the structure itself, form and content becoming one. Some authors are looser, more
The texture and tonalities and use of language and structure in a specific work of art. Style refers to
diction (word choice), sentence structure (syntax), paragraphing, prose or poetic rhythms. The swing
or beat of an author is part of a style.
It has been said that a novice writer loves words, a mature writer loves the rhythm of words. Much of
a writer’s individuality comes from his or her style. The more force there is in the writing, the more
persuasive a writer tends to be.
The dominant or recurring idea or subject of a novel, poem, play, or essay. Most great works have
more than one theme. Some authors are obsessive around one or two grand themes.
A pivotal importance with great works of literature. The ability to interpret literature in a metaphoric
way distinguishes a sophisticated and insightful reading from one-dimensional reading. Refers to the
multi-dimensional aspect of art, our ability to discern many levels working at once. One could say that
the entire thrust of our initiation into deep reading is toward the state of what Blake called “double
vision”- being capable of seeing all stories and narratives and expositions as having many dimensions.
Here are the four levels of interpretation, according to Dante:
Literal: the immediate pleasure of the story or narrative, what you encounter directly, the literal,
Moral: the social or psychological implications of the story, the characters’ actions- this level refers to
the political and social dimensions of the work of art;
Allegorical: the sub-textual narrative, reference to the outside narratives, the secondary or deep plot or
story that accompanies the main thrust of the narrative. Specific Biblical narratives frequently haunt
many of the western literature’s greatest stories;
Mythic or Analogical Level: realm of the forest of correspondences (Baudelaire’s phrase) where the
story or narrative opens up to the universal relations or clusters of associations; level of symbolic
reading, where we apprehend intimations of larger themes and patterns; reverberations of meaning,
the word behind the words.
Metaphoric reading is often referred to as a microcosmic/macrocosmic reading: seeing the whole
through the minutest parts.
The hermetic philosophers said, “As Below, So Above”. In short, all is inter-related, intertwined,
constantly influencing and transforming.
Other Important Literary Terms (Fill In Definitions):