A friend asked for help in critiquing a novel she’s reading in a book group. I shared this with her: a glossary I pulled together and gave out in creative writing and literature classes at Kalamazoo College. I list full sources at the end.
Aesthetics/Esthetics. Philosophical investigation into the nature of beauty and the perception of beauty, especially in the arts; the theory of art or of artistic taste (Oxford).
Allegory. A sustained and circumscribed analogy between a subject and an image to which it is compared (Hamilton).
Analogy. The comparison of a subject to something similar in order to clarify the subject’s nature, purpose or function (Hamilton).
Atmosphere. The “predominant mood or tone in all or part of a literary work, which may, for example, be joyous, tranquil, melancholy, eerie, tense, or ominous. The atmosphere, which may be suggested by such factors as the setting, dialogue, diction, and selection or details in the narrative, usually foreshadows expectations about the outcome of the events” (Hamilton).
Backstory. Past events that are necessary to understand a narrative or its significance (Burroway).
Chapters. “We tend to take the division of novels into chapters for granted, as if it were as natural and inevitable as the division of the discourse into sentences and paragraphs. But of course it is not. […] Breaking up a long text into smaller units has several possible effects. It gives the narrative, and the reader, time to take a breath, as it were, in the intervening pauses. For this reason chapter breaks are useful for marking transitions between different times or places in the action. […] Beginning a new chapter can also have a useful expressive or rhetorical effect, especially if it has a textual heading, in the form of a title, quotation or summary of contents. […] It is generally true to say that the more realistic a novelist is trying to be, the less likely he or she is to draw attention to this aspect of a novel’s textual organization. Conversely, it is flaunted by self-consciously literary novelists. The very mention of the word ‘chapter’ draws attention to the novel’s compositional processes. […]” (Lodge)
Character. An actor in a fictional narrative—a personage invented by the writer (Bell). A character is someone who wants, desires, yearns for something (Burroway). Since E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) a distinction has often been made between “flat” and “two-dimensional” characters, which are simple and unchanging, and “round” characters, which are complex, “dynamic” (i.e. subject to development), and less predictable […] (Oxford). See also Motivation.
Characterization. The representation of persons in narrative and dramatic works. Direct methods include appearance, action, dialogue, and thought. Indirect methods include authorial interpretation and interpretation by another character. (Burroway)
Defamiliarization. English translation of a Russian critical term, ostranenie (literally, “making strange”). In 1917, the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky argued: “[A]rt exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.” (Lodge; emphasis mine)
Dialog is what characters say. Direct dialog is dialog that’s verbatim. For example, from “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates:
“How do you know what my name is?” she said suspiciously.
“Maybe and maybe not.”
“I know my Connie,” he said, wagging his finger.
Indirect dialog summarizes speech while giving us some of the speaker’s flavor, usually by incorporating some of the words that a character is supposed to have used. Summary dialog maximally condenses what a character is supposed to have said, for instance when the speech is not distinctive or revealing of character: He said hi. Writers use indirect and summary dialogue to, among other things, control pacing and emphasize certain lines of direct dialogue.
Diction. A combination of vocabulary, the words chosen, and syntax, the order in which they are used. Diction will convey not only the facts but also the tone and attitude of the person whose voice speaks to us from the page (Burroway). A writer’s diction may be formal, colloquial, abstract, concrete, literal, figurative, etc. The voice of the speaker, whether autobiographical, narrator, or character, always involves POV issues. See Point of View.
Distance. The position, close or far, of the author in relation to the characters or narrator, often implying the degree to which we are intended to identify with or trust them. Distance will be affected first of all by the diction and tone, and may involve a literal distance in time or space (the narrator, for example, is telling a story about himself as a child) or a psychic distance (the author is describing the exploits of a psychopath) (Burroway).
Dramatic irony. The reader knows something the character doesn’t know.
Epiphany (eh-PIH-fanee). Derived from Christian theology, where it means a manifestation of God’s presence in the world, the literary meaning was introduced by James Joyce, who defined an epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation” of the significance of a commonplace object or scene.
Explication. The attempt to analyse a literary work thoroughly, giving full attention to its complexities of form and meaning. […] Explication in this sense is normally a detailed explanation of the manner in which the language and formal structure of a short poem work to achieve a unity of form and content; such analysis tends to emphasize ambiguities and complexities of the text while putting aside questions of historical or biographical context. […] A less thorough form of analysis is the French school exercise known as explication de texte, in which students give an account of a work’s meaning and its stylistic features. Adjective: explicatory or explicative. (Oxford)
Exposition. Essential background information imparted to the reader to provide context for the present action of the story. Exposition allows the reader to understand the characters and the events that have been introduced, for instance, when the story starts in media res. Exposition can take the form of a flashback. Another means of providing exposition is to have either the narrator or a character summarize necessary background information. The process of exposition can be awkward if it holds up the action for too long and depends too much on the process of telling. (Hamilton)
Figurative language. Inclusive term for words used in ways that depart conspicuously from their literal applications, so as to achieve special meanings or effects (Hamilton). See also Trope.
Flashback. A dramatized scene set earlier in a story.
Free indirect style or free indirect discourse. A manner of presenting the thoughts or utterances of a fictional character as if from that character’s point of view by combining grammatical and other features of the character’s “direct speech” with features of the narrator’s “indirect” report. Direct discourse is used in the sentence She thought, “I will stay here tomorrow,” while the equivalent in indirect discourse would be She thought that she would stay there the next day. Free indirect style, however, combines the person and tense of indirect discourse (“she would stay”) with the indications of time and place appropriate to direct discourse (“here tomorrow”), to form a different kind of sentence: She would stay here tomorrow. This form of statement allows a third-person narrative to exploit a first-person point of view, often with a subtle effect of irony, as in the novels of Jane Austen. Since Flaubert’s celebrated use of this technique (known in French as le style indirect libre) in his novel Madame Bovary (1857), it has been widely adopted in modern fiction. (Oxford)
Hyperbole (hi-PER-boh-lee) is a trope in which a point is stated in a way that is greatly exaggerated to imply intensity of feelings or convictions.
Idiom. An expression that is grammatically peculiar to itself and can’t be understood by understanding its separate elements (Burroway).
Image. Image and imagination have same root: Latin imago, a picture or portrayal. All imaginative writing calls up pictures in the mind—people, places, objects, actions—as if they were physically present.
A thought without an image: It is best to consider consequences before proceeding. An image that contains the thought: Look before you leap. (Burroway)
Imagery. A widely used term with several distinctive meanings, all of which refer to the concrete as opposed to the abstract aspects of a literary work. Narrowly, imagery means a visual description of an object or a scene—an image or picture of it, especially one that is particularly detailed and vivid. (Hamilton) “Imagery” sometimes is used to refer to figurative language or figures of speech—mainly, the metaphors and similes— in a literary work. In this example of both simile and metaphor from “Pet Milk,” by Stuart Dybek, notice how the author elevates the language:
And I remember, much later, seeing the same swirling sky in tiny liqueur glasses containing a drink called a King Alphonse: the crème de cacao rising like smoke in repeated explosions, blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream.
Implied author. A term coined by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) to designate that source of a work’s design and meaning which is inferred by readers from the text, and imagined as a personality standing behind the work. As an imaginary entity, it is to be distinguished clearly from the real author, who may well have written other works implying a different kind of persona or implied author behind them. The implied author is also to be distinguished from the narrator, since the implied author stands at a remove from the narrative voice, as the personage assumed to be responsible for deciding what kind of narrator will be presented to the reader: in many works this distinction produces an effect of irony at the narrator’s expense (Oxford).
Implied reader. [Denotes] the hypothetical figure of the reader to whom a given work is designed to address itself. Any text may be said to presuppose an “ideal” reader who has the particular attitudes (moral, cultural, etc.) appropriate to that text in order for it to achieve its full effect. This implied reader is to be distinguished from actual readers, who may be unable or unwilling to occupy the position of the implied reader [….] (Oxford).
In medias res (in meed-ee-ahs rays). Latin for “in the middle of things.” The classical epic—e.g., the Odyssey—began in medias res, influencing the handling of chronology in narrative writing ever since. See also Time-shift.
Irony presents a “deliberate contrast between two levels of meaning” (Hamilton). A subtly humorous perception of inconsistency, in which an apparently straightforward statement or event is undermined by its context as to give it a very different significance. In various forms, irony appears in many kinds of literature [….] At its simplest, in verbal irony, it involves a discrepancy between what is said and what is really meant [….] The more sustained structural irony in literature involves the use of a naïve or deluded hero or unreliable narrator, whose view of the world differs widely from the true circumstances recognized by the author and readers: literary irony thus flatters its readers’ intelligence at the expense of a character (or fictional narrator). A similar sense of detached superiority is achieved by dramatic irony, in which the audience knows more about a character’s situation than the character does, foreseeing an outcome contrary to the character’s expectations, and thus ascribing a sharply different sense to some of the character’s own statements [….] (Oxford). “Unlike other figures of speech—metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, etc.— irony is not distinguished from literal statement by any peculiarity of verbal form. An ironic statement is recognized as such in the act of interpretation” (Lodge).
Metaphor. Figure of speech in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two. In metaphor, this resemblance is assumed as an imaginary identity rather than directly stated as a comparison: referring to a man as that pig, or saying he is a pig is metaphorical, whereas he is like a pig is a simile. Metaphors may also appear as verbs (a talent may blossom) or as adjectives (a novice may be green), or in longer idiomatic phrases, e.g. to throw the baby out with the bathwater. […] Much of our everyday language is also made up of metaphorical words and phrases that pass unnoticed as “dead” metaphors, like the branch of an organization […] (Oxford). Metaphor brings special intensity to imagery by asking the mind to compare and find similar two unlike things (Burroway). “A metaphor goes out and comes back: it is a fetching motion of the imagination” (Tony Hoagland). A metaphor “offers an indirect commentary on the literal action, a subtle second perspective. It is more engaging than simple direct statement because it invites a silent dialogue with the audience, a partnership between author and reader […]” (Hamilton).
Metonymy (meh-TAHN-ah-mee). Figure of speech that replaces the name of one thing with the name of something else closely associated with it. Examples of metonymic synonyms: the bottle for alcoholic drink, the press for journalism, Mozart for Mozart’s music, Shakespeare for the works of the playwright; the Oval Office for the US presidency, the throne for the king. A well-known metonymic saying is the pen is mightier than the sword (i.e., writing is more powerful than warfare). (Oxford, Hamilton)
Motif. A situation, incident, idea, image, or character-type that is found in many different literary works, folktales, or myths; or any element of a work that is elaborated into a more general theme. The fever that purges away a character’s false identity is a recurrent motif in Victorian fiction […]. Where an image, incident, or other element is repeated significantly within a single work, it is more commonly referred to as a leitmotif (or leitmotiv): A frequently repeated phrase, image, symbol, or situation in a literary work, the recurrence of which usually indicates or supports a theme. […] (Oxford)
Motivation. Fiction traditionally offers a more or less convincing model of “how and why people act as they do.” The project of the novel, in particular, is based on “Christian or liberal humanist ideas of the self”: that “the unique, autonomous individual [is] responsible for his or her own acts. We continue to value novels, especially novels in the classical realist tradition, for the light they throw on human motivation” (Lodge). See also Character.
Narratee. The imagined person whom the narrator is assumed to be addressing in a given narrative. The narratee is a notional figure within the “space” of the text itself, and is thus not to be confused either with the real reader or with the implied reader […] (Oxford)
Narration. Mode of telling a story. In first-person narration, the story is directly related to the reader by a speaker called I. In third-person narration, the reader experiences a story about Bob or Susan; he or she. Second-person narration, the sort of story where some kind of you is specified as the protagonist or as a character, usually amounts to nothing more than a programmatic substitution of this you for the third- or first-person pronoun; sometimes, however, one finds a second-person narration which is in act faithful to the mode of direct address (Bell).
Narrative structure. “The structure of a narrative is like the framework of girders that holds up a modern high-rise building: you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character. The effects of a novel’s structure, however, are experienced not in space but over time—often quite a long time” (Lodge).
Narrator. One who tells, or is assumed to be telling, the story in a given narrative. In modern analysis of fictional narratives, the narrator is the imagined “voice” transmitting the story, and is distinguished both from the real author (who may have written other tales with very different narrators) and from the implied author (who does not recount the story, but is inferred as the authority responsible for selecting it and inventing a narrator for it). Narrators vary according to their degree of participation in the story: in first-person narratives they are involved either as witnesses or as participants in the events of the story, whereas in third-person narratives they stand outside those events; an omniscient narrator stands outside the events but has special privileges such as access to characters’ unspoken thoughts, and knowledge of events happening simultaneously in different places. Narrators also differ in the degree of their overtness: some are given noticeable characteristics and personalities (as in first-person narratives and in some third-person narratives […]), whereas “covert” narrators are identified by no more than a “voice” (as in most third-person narratives). Further distinctions are made between reliable narrators, whose accounts of events we are obliged to trust, and unreliable narrators, whose accounts may be partial, ill-informed, or otherwise misleading: most third-person narrators are reliable, but some first-person narrators are unreliable. In a dramatic work, a narrator is a performer who recounts directly to the audience a summary of events preceding or during a scene or act (Oxford).
Pathetic fallacy. A special type of personification in which inanimate aspects of nature, such as the landscape or weather, are represented as having human qualities or feelings. The term, coined as derogatory, derives from the logical absurdity (“fallacy”) of supposing nature can sympathize with (feel pathos for) human moods and concerns. Now the term is merely descriptive. The pathetic fallacy usually reflects or foreshadows some aspect of a literary work, such as the plot, theme, or characterization, and so intensifies the tone. At times, writers reverse the usual use of the pathetic fallacy for the purposes of irony. (Hamilton)
Person. In narrative (and grammar), any of three groups of pronouns identifying the subject. FIRST PERSON: I drive a Jetta. SECOND PERSON: You drive a Jetta. THIRD PERSON: He drives a Jetta.
Personification. Trope in which an abstract concept, animal, or inanimate object is treated as though it were alive and had human attributes. (Hamilton)
Plot. What happens in a narrative. A series of events arranged so as to reveal their significance. “Plot has been defined by a modern disciple of Aristotle (R.S. Crane) as ‘a completed process of change.’ A good deal of modern fiction has, however, avoided the kind of closure implied in the word ‘completed’ and has focused on stages of being in which change is minimal” (Lodge).
Point of view (POV). A complex technique of narrative involving who tells the story, to whom, in what form. Importantly, the “person” in which the story is told, and the vantage point from which the story is told, contribute to the ultimate meaning of events (Burroway). “[A] fictional story is unlikely to engage our interest unless we know whose story it is. The choice of the point(s) of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that [the fiction writer] has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions.” (Lodge). Third-person points of view include omniscient (God-like authorial stance); limited or close, where the consciousness is that of a single character (or sometimes several); and objective (sometimes called camera- eye), which discerns only what an observer or a movie camera would (i.e., no interior thought). “The third- person limited has the advantages of both the immediacy of the first person and the authority and range of the third-person omniscient. Perhaps for those reasons, it is the most frequently used point of view in all three of the fictional genres—the novel, the short story, and the novella [short novel]” (Hamilton). A first-person narrator, the “I” telling a story, may be a central or minor character or witness to events; first-person POV normally lacks access to other characters’ internal thoughts. In the third major POV, the second-person, the narrator addresses the audience directly using the pronoun “you,” and assumes the audience is experiencing the events along with the narrator. “That implied audience may be the reader, a character who appears later in the story, or a listener who is never identified, such as a therapist in whom the narrator is confiding. The second person occurs most frequently as a temporary departure from one of the other points of view” (Hamilton). A POV character is the consciousness character, the one whose consciousness filters perceptions or information for us.
Protagonist. The main character in narrative, though not necessarily the POV character, or even one of the POV characters. A more neutral term than “hero.” The character who provides the major impediment or obstacle to the protagonist’s desire is the antagonist.
Scene and summary. Methods of treating time in a narrative. Scenes deal at length with a relatively short period of time. Scenes include sensory or place details and dialogue or interior thought to create a sensation for the reader of experiencing something. Summary is “an efficient account of events in a narrative that are not given full dramatic rendering. When reading summary, the reader has the sensation of being told something, rather than witnessing it” (Bell). See also Showing and telling.
Sensory writing [judiciously] replaces abstractions, generalizations, and judgments with nouns that call up a sense image and verbs that represent actions we can visualize (Burroway).
Setting. The place and time in which a narrative takes place.
Showing and telling. “Fictional discourse constantly alternates between showing us what happened and telling us what happened. The purest form of showing is the quoted speech of characters, in which language exactly mirrors the event (because the event is linguistic). The purest form of telling is authorial summary, in which the conciseness and abstraction of the narrator’s language effaces the particularity and individuality of the characters and their actions. A novel written entirely in the mode of summary would, for this reason, be almost unreadable. But summary has its uses: it can, for instance, accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through event which would be uninteresting, or too interesting—therefore distracting, if lingered over” (Lodge). See also Scene and summary.
Simile. Trope in which one kind of thing is compared to a markedly different object, concept, or experience; the comparison is made explicit through the use of “like” or “as.” Similes “provide an important indication of an author or speaker’s tone; that is, implied attitude toward the subject” (Hamilton).
Skaz. A Russian word meaning a type of first-person narration that has the characteristics of the spoken rather than the written word. “In this kind of novel or story, the narrator is a character who refers to himself (or herself) as “I,” and addresses the reader as “you.” He or she uses vocabulary and syntax characteristic of colloquial speech, and appears to be relating the story spontaneously rather than delivering a carefully constructed and polished written account. We don’t so much read it as listen to it […]. Needless to say, this is an illusion, the product of much calculated effort and painstaking rewriting by the ‘real’ author. A narrative style that faithfully imitated actual speech would be virtually unintelligible, as are transcripts of recorded conversations. But it is an illusion that can create a powerful effect of authenticity and sincerity, of truth- telling” (Lodge).
Story. A sequence of fictional or remembered events, usually involving a conflict, crisis and resolution. In his commentaries on Aristotle, Humphry House [not to be confused with Humphrey House] defines story as everything the reader needs to know to make coherent sense of the plot, and plot as the particular portion of the story the author chooses to present—the “present tense” of the narrative (Burroway).
Stream of consciousness. Writing designed to imitate the continuous flow of mental thought and sensation.
Style. Any specific way of using language, which is characteristic of an author, school, period, or genre. Particular styles may be defined by their diction, syntax, imagery, rhythm, and use of figures, or by any other linguistic feature. […] (Oxford)
Symbol. Something, usually an object, that stands for something larger, often an interrelated complex of ideas, values, and beliefs (Burroway). An object, action, or event that represents something, or creates a range of associations, beyond itself (Hamilton). In literary usage […], a symbol is a specially evocative kind of image (see imagery); that is, a word or phrase referring to a concrete object, scene, or action which also has some further significance associated with it [….]Verb: symbolize. (Oxford)
Synaesthesia. A blending or confusion of different kinds of sense-impression, in which one type of sensation is referred to in terms more appropriate to another. Common synaesthetic expressions include the descriptions of colours as ‘loud’ or ‘warm’, and of sounds as ‘smooth’ (Oxford). Also spelled synesthesia.
Synecdoche (sin-EK-do-key) is a figure of speech in which the term for part of something is used to represent the whole, or, less commonly, the term for the whole is used to represent a part. Thus, hand for worker … manual laborers as “blue collar” workers … sustenance as “daily bread” (Oxford, Hamilton).
Syntax. The way in which words and clauses are ordered and connected so as to form sentences; or the set of grammatical rules governing such word-order. Syntax is a major determinant of literary style [….] (Oxford)
Theme. A message or meaning embedded in a narrative, or (preferably) evolving naturally out of a narrative (Bell). A salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subject-matter; or a topic recurring in a number of literary works. While the subject of a work is described concretely in terms of its action (e.g. ‘the adventures of a newcomer in the big city’), its theme or themes will be described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.). The theme of a work may be announced explicitly, but more often it emerges indirectly through the recurrence of motifs. Adjective: thematic. (Oxford)
Time-shift. “Through time-shift, narrative avoids presenting life as just one damn thing after another, and allows us to make connections of causality and irony between widely separated events. A shift of narrative focus back in time may change our interpretation of something which happened much later in the chronology of the story, but which we have already experienced as readers of the text […] Time-shift is a very common effect in modern fiction, but usually it is ‘naturalized’ as the operation of memory, either in the representation of a character’s stream of consciousness […] or, more formally, as the memoir or reminiscence of a character-narrator [….]” (Lodge).
Title. The first part of the text we encounter, a title can “attract and condition the reader’s attention.” Early novels were titled for the name of the central character, since fiction initially modeled itself on, or even disguised itself as biography or autobiography. Later novelists titled works to indicate a theme, suggest a mystery, promise a certain kind of setting or atmosphere, or evoke a literary or biblical quotation. “The great modernists were drawn to symbolic or metaphorical titles […] while more recent novelists often favor whimsical, riddling, off-beat titles. […] Novels have always been commodities as well as works of art, and commercial considerations can affect titles, or cause them to be changed” (Lodge).
Tone. A very vague critical term usually designating the mood or atmosphere of a work, although in some more restricted uses it refers to the author’s attitude to the reader (e.g. formal, intimate, pompous) or to the subject-matter (e.g. ironic, light, solemn, satiric, sentimental) (Oxford; emphasis mine). “Tone is expressed in adjectives that express emotion or manner: it may be arrogant or obsequious, serious or ironic, irate or serene confident or timid. It may remain consistent, or it may change markedly at some point. […] In written discourse, tone must be inferred from such factors as the syntax, diction, point of view, and selection of details” (Hamilton).
Trope. Word or phrase used in a way that effects an obvious change or turn (trope is from the Greek word meaning “a turn”) in its standard meaning. Figures of speech or figures of thought such as simile, metaphor, personification, pathetic fallacy, synecdoche, metonymy, irony, understatement, and hyperbole all can be categorized as tropes (Hamilton).
Understatement is a form of irony in which a point is deliberately expressed as less, in magnitude, value, or importance, than it actually is (Hamilton).
Unreliable narrator. Invented character who is part of the story s/he tells. “The point of using an unreliable narrator is […] to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part” (Lodge).
Vivid and continuous dream. John Gardner’s concept that fiction’s job is to create an illusion for the reader in which s/he essentially experiences what s/he is reading. Authorial intrusions, lengthy digressions, large chunks of exposition, etc., break the vivid and continuous dream.
Vivid writing features concrete, significant details. Concrete: there’s an image, something that can be imaginatively seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. Details: they’re focused, specific, significant, not merely ornamental; the specific image suggests an abstraction, generalization, or judgment.
Voice. The recognizable style of a particular writer or character, composed of syntax, vocabulary, attitude and tone (Burroway). Does the narrative feature one voice (monovocal)? Multiple voices (polyvocal)? Conflicting voices? Do other characters have voices in the text? How and where do they emerge? disappear? Do the voices ever blend? come to closure? exist or remain to the end in opposition or tension?
Words are the cells of written meaning (Burroway). Diction (which is a combination of vocabulary, the words chosen, and syntax, which is the order in which they are used) will impart particularity [to writing] just as the nature and arrangement of cells make up a particular self (Burroway).
Bell: Madison Smartt Bell, Narrative Design (Norton, 1997); Burroway: Janet Burroway, Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft (Longman, 2003); Hamilton: Sharon Hamilton, Essential Literary Terms (Norton, 2007); Lodge: David Lodge, The Art of Fiction (Penguin, 1992); Oxford: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).