9 Literary Terms You Need To Know


We need to know the basics of literature when we read and write. Literature includes fiction, memoir, drama, and poetry. We use certain terms to describe the structure of literary works.

We have to know these terms if we are studying literary works or writing book reviews. It is good to know them in order to read critically. When we write, it becomes easier to plan and finish a work, if we understand the parts.

The nine terms below are certainly ones you need to know in literature:

1.   Title

The title of the work identifies it. It should summarise, describe, and encapsulate it. A good title resonates with the work, and with the reader.

2.   Characters

We get to know characters in stories through their appearance, their personality, their situation, and the actions they take. Characters drive a story. Readers read to experience things vicariously. Without characters, it would be impossible to create this empathy.

We find out about characters by what the author tells us, what they say in dialogue and what they think, what other characters say about them, the way they move, and ultimately by what they choose to do.

There are four main characters in stories:

  1. Protagonists – ‘The protagonist exists as a sympathetic device to drive a story. To be effective in this role, he or she is usually there from the inciting moment to the end.’
  2. Antagonists – ‘The antagonist exists to put obstacles in your protagonist’s path. He or she is there to create conflict. Without conflict, there is no plot.’
  3. Love Interests – ‘The love interest shows the vulnerabilities and strengths of the protagonist. This allows writers to complicate the main character’s life, and to put stumbling blocks in the way of attaining the story goal. It is the most common sub-plot. ‘
  4. Confidants – ‘The confidant helps the protagonist achieve his or her goal. The confidant’s story goal is to support the protagonist’s story goal.’

Characters can be mirrors or foils. This means they reflect their traits or highlight their differences. There are many other characters in a book.

3.   Setting

The setting is the background for the story. It includes the time in which the story occurs and the physical space it occupies. Setting is important because it gives us a framework for our stories. Readers like to identify with characters and to imagine the world in which they live.

4.   Themes

A theme is the central idea behind the story. It usually makes a statement about the human condition.

A theme can be found by answering this question: What does the protagonist learn about himself or herself in the story?

Themes usually convey a message, which may reveal the beliefs and opinions of the author. The theme is usually revealed through the plot.

5.   Plot

Sometimes referred to as the narrative, the plot in a sequence of events that the author uses to tell the story. Most plots occur chronologically. In fact, readers prefer linear stories.

You have a plot when:

  1. An action (inciting moment) taken by somebody (antagonist) has a negative impact on somebody else (protagonist).
  2. This action creates a problem that must be solved by the protagonist. This becomes the story goal.
  3. The pursuit of this goal leads to confrontations (conflict) with the antagonist, until he or she achieves, or fails to achieve, the story goal.

Plots usually have one or two sub-plots that support and strengthen a story. They add texture by showing different perspectives of the central conflict, test your protagonist’s resolve to achieve their goals, and show different aspects of the protagonist’s personality.

6.   Style

The style of a literary work is the manner in which the author writes the story. Most of us have a style that we develop by writing over time.

Style is the way we use words to tell a story. Generally speaking, an author’s word choice, sentence structures, and figurative language choices, describes their style. In a particular work, the viewpoint they choose, the setting they create, the genre they are writing in, and their intended audience will guide their style.

Together, these choices establish mood, images, and meaning.

7.   Tone

The tone of the work creates the atmosphere of the work. Tone refers to the use of words and writing style to convey an attitude towards a topic. Tone is expressed through word choice, viewpoint, sentence length, and punctuation. Your tone should be clear, concise, and courteous in business. (Read: 155 Words To Describe An Author’s Tone)

8.   Mood

Writers establish a mood to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically. While tone is often said to be what the author feels, what the reader feels is known as the mood.

The author creates the mood through his or her style and tone. The way the author describes a setting is important to the atmosphere. The overarching feeling and atmosphere the reader experiences is the mood of the work.

9.   Intention

Why did the author write the work? What is its purpose? Was it meant to entertain or inform? Its success is often measured by whether or not its intention has been achieved.

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At face value, a literary work tells a story. When we know the the literary terms included above, we are able to appreciate the story on a deeper level.

If you want to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. 9 Quick Fixes For Short Story Writers Who Run Out Of Ideas
  2. 5 Truly Unusual Ways To Round Out Your Characters
  3. First Novel Jitters: 6 Things To Do When You Finish Your Book

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