Go to Literary Terms A - E
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F - R

  1. Fable
  2. Falling Action
  3. Farce
  4. Figurative Language
  5. Figure of Speech
  6. Flashback
  7. Foil
  8. Foot
  9. Foreshadowing
  10. Free Verse
  11. Genre
  12. Haiku
  13. Hyperbole
  14. Iamb
  15. Imagery
  16. Inference
  17. Irony
  18. Local Color
  19. Lyric Poem
  20. Metaphor
  21. Meter
  22. Metonymy
  23. Mood
  24. Myth
  25. Narrative Poem
  26. Novel
  27. Ode
  28. Onomatopoeia
  29. Oxymoron
  30. Parable
  31. Paradox
  32. Parallel Structure
  33. Parody
  34. Pastoral
  35. Pathetic Fallacy
  36. Personification
  37. Plot
  38. Point of View
  39. Protagonist
  40. Pun
  41. Quatrain
  42. Resolution
  43. Rhyme
  44. Rhyme Scheme
  45. Rhythm
  46. Rising Action
  47. Romance
A brief tale designed to illustrate a moral lesson. Often the characters are animals as in the fables of Aesop. Return to Menu

Falling Action
The falling action is the series of events which take place after the climax. In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Cinna, the poet, is mistaken for Cinna, the conspirator, and killed; Antony and Octavius argue, Brutus and Cassius argue, the battle at Philippi is agreed upon, and the ghost of Caeser appears to Brutus. In Ibsen's, "An Enemy of the People," Dr. Thomas Stockmann has been declared an enemy of the people and he and his family and supporters are harrassed by the townspeople. The Stockmanns decide to leave the town. However, events occur which change Dr. Stockmann's mind about leaving. The falling action of a drama leads to the conclusion
See Plot for more information.
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A type of comedy based on a humorous situation such as a bank robber who mistakenly wanders into a police station to hide. It is the situation here which provides the humor, not the cleverness of plot or lines, nor the absurdities of the character, as in situational comedy. Eugene Ionesco's "Les Chaises" (The Chairs), a one-act drama in which two old people, isolated on an island prepare for visitors, is an example. The visitors are invisible, but the stage fills with chairs to accommodate them. In the end, a deaf-mute narrator "addresses" the couple. Return to Menu

Figurative Language
In literature, a way of saying one thing and meaning something else. Take, for example, this line by Robert Burns, My luv is a red, red rose. Clearly Mr. Burns does not really mean that he has fallen in love with a red, aromatic, many-petalled, long, thorny-stemmed plant. He means that his love is as sweet and as delicate as a rose. While, figurative language provides a writer with the opportunity to write imaginatively, it also tests the imagination of the reader, forcing the reader to go below the surface of a literary work into deep, hidden meanings. Return to Menu

Figure of Speech
An example of figurative language that states something that is not literally true in order to create an effect. Similes, metaphors and personification are figures of speech which are based on comparisons. Metonymy, synecdoche, synesthesia, apostrophe, oxymoron, and hyperbole are other figures of speech. Return to Menu

A reference to an event which took place prior to the beginning of a story or play. In Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilamanjaro," the protagonist, Harry Street, has been injured on a hunt in Africa. Dying, his mind becomes preoccupied with incidents in his past. In a flashback Street remembers one of his wartime comrades dying painfully on barbed wire on a battlefield in Spain. Return to Menu

A character in a play who sets off the main character or other characters by comparison. In Shakespeare's "Hamlet" Hamlet and Laertes are young men who behave very differently. While Hamlet delays in carrying out his mission to avenge the death of his father, Laertes is quick and bold in his challenge of the king over the death of his father. Much can be learned about each by comparing and contrasting the actions of the two. Return to Menu

The basic unit of measurement in a line of poetry. In scansion, a foot represents one instance of a metrical pattern and is shown either between or to the right or left of vertical lines, as in the following:

The meter in a poem is classified according both to its pattern and the number of feet to the line. Below is a list of classifications:

monometer = one foot to a line
Dimeter = two feet to a line
Trimeter = three feet to a line
Tetrameter = four feet to a line
Pentameter = five feet to a line

Since the line above is written in iambic meter, four feet to the line, the line would be referred to as iambic tetrameter.
See Meter for more information.
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In drama, a method used to build suspense by providing hints of what is to come. In Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," Romeo's expression of fear in Act 1, scene 4 foreshadows the catastrophe to come:
      I fear too early; for my mind misgives
      Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
      Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
      With this night's revels and expire the term
      Of a despised life closed in my breast
      By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
      But He that hath the steerage of my course,
      Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.
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Free Verse
Unrhymed Poetry with lines of varying lengths, and containing no specific metrical pattern. The poetry of Walt Whitman provides us with many examples. Consider the following lines from "Song of Myself."
      I celebrate myself and sing myself,
      And what I assume you shall assume,
      For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

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A literary type or form. Drama is a genre of literature. Within drama, genre include tragedy, comedy and other forms. Return to Menu

A Japanese poetic form which originated in the sixteenth century. A haiku in its Japanese language form consists of three lines: five syllables in the first and third lines, and seven syllables in the second line. A haiku translated may not contain the same syllabication. Designed to capture a moment in time, the haiku creates images. Consider the following by the seventeenth-century poet, Basho. Note the bringing together of the images of the clouds and the moon.
      Clouds come from time to time-
            and bring to men a chance to rest
               from looking at the moon.

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A figure of speech in which an overstatement or exaggeration occurs as in the following lines from Act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." In this scene, Macbeth has murdered King Duncan. Horrified at the blood on his hands, he asks:
      Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
      Clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather
      The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
      Making the green one red.
Literally, it does not require an ocean to wash blood from one's hand. Nor can the blood on one's hand turn the green ocean red. The hyperbole works to illustrate the guilt Macbeth feels at the brutal murder of his king and kinsman.
See Understatement to study the opposite of hyperbole.
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A metrical pattern of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The following is an example:

See Meter for more information.
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A word or group of words in a literary work which appeal to one or more of the senses: sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell. The use of images serves to intensify the impact of the work. The following example of imagery in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"
      When the evening is spread out against the sky
      Like a patient etherized upon a table.
uses images of pain and sickness to describe the evening, which as an image itself represents society and the psychology of Prufrock, himself. Return to Menu

A judgement based on reasoning rather than on direct or explicit statement. A conclusion based on facts or circumstances. For example, advised not to travel alone in temperatures exceeding fifty degrees below zero, the man in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" sets out anyway. One may infer arrogance from such an action.
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Irony takes many forms. In irony of situation, the result of an action is the reverse of what the actor expected. Macbeth murders his king hoping that in becoming king he will achieve great happiness. Actually, Macbeth never knows another moment of peace, and finally is beheaded for his murderous act. In dramatic irony, the audience knows something that the characters in the drama do not. For example, the identity of the murderer in a crime thriller may be known to the audience long before the mystery is solved. In verbal irony, the contrast is between the literal meaning of what is said and what is meant. A character may refer to a plan as brilliant, while actually meaning that (s)he thinks the plan is foolish. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. Return to Menu

Local Color
A detailed setting forth of the characteristics of a particular locality, enabling the reader to "see" the setting. Return to Menu

Lyric Poem
A short poem wherein the poet expresses an emotion or illuminates some life principle. Emily Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz-When I Died" is a lyric poem wherein the speaker, on a deathbed expecting death to appear in all its grandeur, encounters a common housefly instead. Return to Menu

A figure of speech wherein a comparison is made between two unlike quantities without the use of the words "like" or "as." Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," has this to say about the moral condition of his parishoners:
There are the black clouds of God's wrath now hanging directly over your heads, full of the dreadful storm and big with thunder;
The comparison here is between God's anger and a storm. Note that there is no use of "like" or "as" as would be the case in a simile
See Simile for more information.
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A regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables in a line or lines of poetry. Below is an illustration of some commonly used metrical patterns:

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A figure of speech in which a word represents something else which it suggests. For example in a herd of fifty cows, the herd might be referred to as fifty head of cattle. The word "head" is the word representing the herd. Return to Menu

The atmosphere or feeling created by a literary work, partly by a description of the objects or by the style of the descriptions. A work may contain a mood of horror, mystery, holiness, or childlike simplicity, to name a few, depending on the author's treatment of the work. Return to Menu

An unverifiable story based on a religious belief. The characters of myths are gods and goddesses, or the offspring of the mating of gods or godesses and humans. Some myths detail the creation of the earth, while others may be about love, adventure, trickery, or revenge. In all cases, it is the gods and goddesses who control events, while humans may be aided or victimized. It is said that the creation of myths were the method by which ancient, superstitious humans attempted to account for natural or historical phenomena. In Homer's, "The Odyssey," the Greek hero, Odysseus, is thwarted in his attempt to reach home by an angry Poseidon, god of the sea and patron of Troy. the Trojan horse, the trick the Greeks used to gain entrance into the city of Troy when a ten-year siege had failed, was the plan of Odysseus' creation. Poseidon, in his anger, kept Odysseus from reaching home for ten years after the war ended. Return to Menu

Narrative Poem
A poem which tells a story. Usually a long poem, sometimes even book length, the narrative may take the form of a plotless dialogue as in Robert Frost's "The Death of the Hired Man." In other instances the narrative may consist of a series of incidents, as in Homer's "The Ilaid" and "The Odyssey," John Milton's "Paradise Lost." Return to Menu

A fictional prose work of substantial length. The novel narrates the actions of characters who are entirely the invention of the author and who are placed in an imaginary setting. The fact that a so-called historical or biographical novel uses historically real characters in real geographical locations doing historically verifiable things does not alter the fictional quality of the work. Nor does it qualify a work labeled a novel by the author as a historical text. Return to Menu

A poem in praise of something divine or expressing some noble idea. In' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," English poet John Keats expresses his appreciation of the beauty and agelessness of a work by a Grecian artisan:
      Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
            Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
      Sylvan historian who canst thus express
            A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
      What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
            Of deities or mortals, or of both
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
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A literary device wherein the sound of a word echoes the sound it represents. The words "splash." "knock," and "roar" are examples. The following lines end Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill:"
      Out of the whinnying green stable
            On to the fields of praise.
The word "whinnying" is onomatopoetic. "Whinny" is the sound usually selected to represent that made by a horse. Return to Menu

A combination of contradictory terms, such as used by Romeo in Act 1, scene 1 of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet:"
      Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
      O heavy lightness, serious vanity;
      Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
      Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! 
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A brief story, told or written in order to teach a moral lesson. Christ's tale of the Good Smamritan (Luke 10: 30-7) is an example. Return to Menu

A situation or a statement that seems to contradict itself, but on closer inspection, does not. This line from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14" provides an example:
      That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me,
The poet paradoxically asks God to knock him down so that he may stand. What he means by this is for God to destroy his present self and remake him as a holier person.
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Parallel Structure
A repetition of sentences using the same structure. This line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address provides an example:
      The world will little not nor long remember what we say here,
      but it can never forget what they did here.
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A literary work that imitates the style of another literary work. A parody can be simply amusing or it can be mocking in tone, such as a poem which exaggerates the use of alliteration in order to show the ridiculous effect of overuse of alliteration. (See Satire for related information.
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A literary work that has to do with shephards and rustic settings. Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shephard to His Love" and Robert Burns' "Sweet Afton" are examples. Return to Menu

Pathetic Fallacy
A fallacy of reason in suggesting that nonhuman phenomena act from human feelings, as suggested by the word "pathetic" from the Greek pathos; a literary device wherein something nonhuman found in nature-a beast, plant, stream, natural force, etc.-performs as though from human feeling or motivation. In Jack London's To Build a Fire, "The cold of space," London writes, "smote the unprotected tip of the planet, . . ." The word "smote" suggests nature deliberately striking the northern tip of the earth with severe cold.
The poetry of William Wordsworth is replete with instances of pathetic fallacy-weeping streams, etc.
Suggested by Richard Battin, Managing Editor - The News-Sentinel - Fort Wayne, Indiana. Definition agonized over by Sam McClintic and Tom Campbell, Bell High School.
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A figure of speech in which something nonhuman is given human characteristics. Consider the following lines from Carl Sandburg's "Chicago:"
      Stormy, husky, brawling,
      City of the big shoulders:
Carl Sandburg description of Chicago includes shoulders. Cities do not have shoulders, people do. Sandburg personifies the city by ascribing to it something human, shoulders. "Justice is blind." is another example. Return to Menu

The structure of a story. The sequence in which the author arranges events in a story. The structure of a five-act play often includes the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution. The plot may have a protagonist who is opposed by antagonist, creating what is called, conflict. A plot may include flashback or it may include a subplot which is a mirror image of the main plot. For example, in Shakespeare's, "King Lear," the relationship between the Earl of Gloucester and his sons mirrors the relationship between Lear and his daughters. Return to Menu

Point of View
A piece of literature contains a speaker who is speaking either in the first person, telling things from his or her own perspective, or in the third person, telling things from the perspective of an onlooker. The perspective used is called the Point of View, and is referred to either as first person or third person. If the speaker knows everything including the actions, motives, and thoughts of all the characters, the speaker is referred to as omniscient (all-knowing). If the speaker is unable to know what is in any character's mind but his or her own, this is called limited omniscience. Return to Menu

The hero or central character of a literary work. In accomplishing his or her objective, the protagonist is hindered by some opposing force either human (one of Batman's antagonists is The Joker), animal (Moby Dick is Captain Ahab's antagonist in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"), or natural (the sea is the antagonist which must be overcome by Captain Bligh in Nordhoff and Hall's "Men Against the Sea," the second book in the trilogy which includes "Mutiny on the Bounty").
See Antagonist for more information.
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A play on words wherein a word is used to convey two meanings at the same time. The line below, spoken by Mercutio in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," is an example of a pun. Mercutio has just been stabbed, knows he is dying and says:
Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.
Mercutio's use of the word "grave' renders it capable of two meanings: a serious person or a corpse in his grave. Return to Menu

A four-line stanza which may be rhymed or unrhymed. A heroic quatrain is a four line stanza rhymed abab. John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" is a poem of nine heroic quatrains: The following is the first stanza of the poem:
      As virtuous men pass mildly away
            And whisper to their souls, to go,
      Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
            The breath goes now, and some say, no:
See Stanza for more information.
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The part of a story or drama which occurs after the climax and which establishes a new norm, a new state of affairs-the way things are going to be from then on. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" climaxes with the death of the two lovers. Their deaths resolve the feud between the two families. In the play's resolution, Lords Capulet and Montague swear to end their feud and build golden monuments to each other's dead child.
In the resolution of the film "Star Wars," Luke Skywalke, Han Solo, and Chewbacca are given medals by Princess Lea for destroying the death star and defeating the empire. See Plot for more information.
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In poetry, a pattern of repeated sounds. In end rhyme, the rhyme is at the end of the line, as in these lines from "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish:
      A poem should be palpable and mute
      As a globed fruit
Dumb As old medallions to the thumb
When one of the rhyming words occurs in a place in the line other than at the end, it is called Internal rhyme.

Eye rhyme is a form of rhyme wherein the look rather than the sound is important. "Cough" and "tough" do not sound enough alike to constitute a rhyme. However, if these two words appeared at the ends of successive lines of poetry, they would be considered eye rhyme.

Half rhymeoccurs when the final consonants rhyme, but the vowel sounds do not (chill-Tulle; Day-Eternity).
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Rhyme Scheme
The pattern of rhymed words in a stanza or generalized throughout a poem, expressed in alphabetic terms. Consider the following lines from Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening:
        Whose woods these are I think I know. - A
        His house is in the village, though; - A
        He will not see me stopping here - B
        To watch his woods fill up with snow. - A
        My little horse must think it queer - B
        To stop without a farmhouse near - B
        Between the woods and frozen lake - C
        The darkest evening of the year. - B
        He gives his harness bells a shake - C
        To ask if there is some mistake. - C
        The only other sound's the sweep - D
        Of easy wind and downy flake. - C
        The woods are lovely, dark and deep. - D 
        But I have promises to keep, - D
        And miles to go before I sleep, - D
        And miles to go before I sleep. - D 
In an analysis of the poem, the rhyme scheme above would be expressed as AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD.
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Recurrences of stressed and unstressed syllables at equal intervals, similar to meter. However, though two lines may be of the same meter, the rhythms of the lines may be different. For example, if one were to read the last two lines of Robert Frost's, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" with equal speed, the lines would be the same in meter and rhythm. However, if one were to read the last line more slowly (as it should be read), the meter would be the same but the rhythm different. This is because while the meter of a line is identified by the pattern within each foot, the rhythm is accounted for by larger units than individual feet. Return to Menu

Rising Action
The part of a drama which begins with the exposition and sets the stage for the climax. In a five-act play, the exposition provides information about the characters and the events which occurred before the action of the play began. A conflict often develops between the protagonist and an antagonist. The action reaches a high point and results in a climax, the turning point in the play. We discover in the exposition of Shakespeare's "Othello" that the Moor, Othello, has married the Venetian maid, Desdamona. Her father objects strenuously to the marriage. However, during those objections, a messenger informs the Venetian council that the Turks are on their way to invade the island of Cypress. Othello, who is sent with troops to defend the island, brings Desdamona with him, planning a honeymoon to coincide with his military mission.
One of Othello's officers, Iago, plants a seed of doubt about Desdamona's faithfulness in Othello's ear. This seed grows to the point where Othello becomes convinced that his wife is having an affair with his lieutenant, Michael Cassio. The play climaxes with the murder of Desdamona by Othello in a jealous rage. See Plot for more information.
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In the Middle Ages, tales of exciting adventures written in the vernacular (French) instead of Latin. The medieval romances were tales of chivalry or amorous adventure occurring in King Arthur's court. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is an example of a medieval romance. Return to Menu

Email: Joel Sommer Littauer