33 High School English Literary Terms to Know

, Staff Writer
Updated August 30, 2021
english literary terms
    english literary terms
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Teachers introduce many literary terms to high school students early in their English classes. Many of these terms are repeated through each successive year. Students benefit by applying what they have learned about these terms when interpreting novels they read for school, as well as other reading materials and even movies. Discover 33 must-know high school literary terms.

Genre refers to the overall type or category into which a work of literature fits. Genre can refer to high-level distinctions like fiction and nonfiction or to much more specific categories. Having these categories for literature makes it easier and more instructive to analyze literary works. There are many genre examples.

  • Biography is a nonfiction genre that focuses on telling the story of a particular person. A biography is written by someone other than the subject of the book. (When a person writes a book about their own life experiences, that would be an autobiography or a memoir.)
  • Free verse is a genre of poetry that follows no set meter or rhyme structure. Classic works of free verse include W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" and Allen Ginsburg's "Howl."
  • Mystery novels focus on solving crimes. The mystery genre often features police officers, detectives, spies, or government agents as main characters. A crime has been threatened or committed, and the story focuses on solving the mystery and bringing the perpetrator to justice.
  • Realistic fiction is a story that is not true, but that could have actually occurred in real life. Books like The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher are examples of this genre.
  • Satire is a fiction genre in which the author mocks aspects of their own society. A Modest Proposal by the Irish author Jonathan Swift is an example of satire. Swift satirizes British oppression of Ireland by recommending they literally eat Irish children, as they have already taken everything else from Ireland.
  • Speculative fiction presents events that could not occur in reality but could occur according to the rules set forth in the written work. This is a broad genre that encompasses fantasy, science fiction and supernatural horror, allowing the similarities of these genres to be explored.
  • Subgenre refers to a category within a larger genre. Horror is a genre that has several subgenres within it. Cosmic horror, psychological horror and survival horror are all subgenres of the more broad horror genre.
  • Western novels focus on stories set in the frontier of the United States during or before the early 20th Century. This genre usually features cowboys or outlaws as main characters. They typically involve horses, gunfights and the hardship of life in the old West.

Structure refers to the distinct components of the literary work. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, all literature has some structure by which it conveys meaning to the reader. Many literary devices affect a work's structure.

  • Denouement, literally "the untying," is the resolution or revelation that follows the climax of a story. This is not necessarily the end of a story, but it does represent the conclusion of the story's primary narrative.
  • Falling action refers to the events that take place after the climax of a plot is revealed. The purpose of the falling action is to allow the suspense and tension that built up prior to the climax to taper off so that the story's final resolution can be conveyed and the story drawn to an end.
  • Flashbacks show the audience or reader events that occurred in the past that have an important bearing on the story. Often, flashbacks give important insights into the characters or events happening in the later timeline. Flashbacks can be achieved through dream sequences, recollection of memories or stories told by other characters.
  • Plot is a structural element unique to fiction, representing the primary story the fictional work wishes to tell. A plot is fundamental to most forms of prose fiction and often follows a narrative arc.
  • Rising action is the build-up in a story to the climax of the action. The rising action keeps readers interested and creates a sense of suspense, tension and excitement as the various elements of the plot are revealed.
  • Subplot is the story within the story. When a given work has an overarching narrative, it will often also tell smaller stories that prove to have large significance. Shakespeare's works often have subplots running parallel to the main story. For example, Ophelia's descent into madness throughout Hamlet is a subplot to the main story of Hamlet trying to expose his uncle as his father's murderer.
  • Theme is critical to the structure of a novel, as it involves the overall message (or messages) the author wants readers to take away from reading the work. Theme isn't always overtly stated, so it must be conveyed as the events of the story unfold.
  • A thesis is most common in nonfiction works, but can occur in some forms of fiction. A thesis is the overall argument of a written work, the assertion the rest of the text exists to support. Thesis statements are required in most academic papers. They frequently occur in works of fiction with particular political, religious or social goals.

Tone is the overall sense the author seeks to induce in the reader. Fundamentally, using tone in literature is no different than using tone in speech. By changing emphasis, structure or context, a literary work can change not just what the reader is reading, but what impression the reader receives. There are many examples of how tone functions as a literary device.

  • Characterization involves the processes the author uses to communicate the personality of various characters to readers. Characterization is based on the overall impression of the character, including how the character is described and what he or she says or does.
  • Figure of speech is commonly used in literature, especially when the author doesn't want the tone to be too literal. Figures of speech can be used for dramatic effect or to draw interesting comparisons that can help readers understand or visualize complicated concepts.
  • Formal tone is conveyed through the use of precisely accurate terminology and impeccable grammar. The dialogue's diction is very structured. Characters will address one another using courtesy titles (Mr. Mrs., Dr.) and full names.
  • Informal tone involves a conversational approach to diction. The work might feature abbreviated terminology and slang, presented in short sentences that may not be 100 percent correct per formal rules of grammar. Characters will call one another by first names or even nicknames.
  • Irony is often used as a literary device. When something occurs in a story that directly contradicts what is expected, that is an example of irony. Several types of irony are used in literature. Verbal irony is saying one thing but meaning another. Situational irony is when the opposite of what was supposed to happen occurs. Dramatic irony is when the audience knows more than the characters.
  • Motif refers to a central element woven throughout a story by the repeated use of tangible references. Motifs can be words or phrases used multiple times, or symbols that recur throughout a work. Motifs in literature help convey the tone of a story.
  • Pastoral works use the imagery of agriculture and nature to convey a tone of peace and oneness with the land. The use of pastoral imagery to set a peaceful tone goes back to ancient Greek works, but is best known in English through British romantics like William Wordsworth and American balladeers like Henry Longfellow.
  • Setting is the physical or emotional place of a story, which directly impacts its tone. Settings can be physical places, such as buildings or locations, or they can be abstract, such as a time period or historical social setting.
  • Symbols are physical objects in a story that represent abstract concepts. For example, a flag can represent freedom. Some symbols are universal, like a skull and crossbones symbolizing danger. Some writers construct their own symbols. In Moby Dick, Melville uses the color white to symbolize the coldness of nature.

Voice is one of the most important literary devices in making a work unique. Voice can overlap with tone, but it represents a fundamentally different concept. While tone comes down to what is conveyed to the reader, voice is a question of how the writer "sounds" throughout the work. No two writers "sound" exactly alike, just as no two speakers sound exactly alike. Note that literary voice goes beyond grammatical voice. The "voice" of a piece of literature refers to the unique tonal and creative elements that make it what it is, not just verb tenses.

  • Dialect is the way a person speaks, reflecting a particular region or other culture's way of pronouncing certain words. By foregoing "proper" English in favor of the dialect spoken by a particular culture or in a particular place, authors can convey meaning in ways scrupulously correct grammar cannot.
  • Dialogue refers to the conversations that take place between multiple characters in a work of writing. Skilled writers are able to develop strong characters by crafting dialogue appropriate for each one's unique characteristics.
  • First-person singular is more than a grammatical term in literary analysis. It also refers to books written as if the author is also the character telling the story. Many classic works of American literature were written in the first person, including To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Multiple narrators is a literary technique in which the narrator changes throughout a story. This technique has its roots in classic Greek plays, where a masked chorus counterpointed the dialogue with their observations.
  • Parody is sometimes treated as a genre unto itself, but it is in fact an approach to the voice of a work. Parodic voice is when a work deliberately mimics the voice of something else in order to mock or criticize it. Parody is used in many ways in literary works.
  • Semantics plays a key role in voice, as it refers to word selection and how words are interpreted. The types of words a writer selects to convey meaning can be definitive of a writer's overall voice, as well as the voice of a particular piece of writing.
  • Syntax is an important aspect of a writer's voice. Syntax is the way that words are put together in order to craft a sentence. Some writers use a simple, straightforward approach to syntax while others prefer a more complex syntax.
  • Unreliable narrators are storytellers that may not be telling the truth, or may not even know the truth. Twentieth-century greats like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov made extensive use of unreliable narrators, and the device has persisted in 21st-century classics like Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Build a Solid Vocabulary of Literary Terms

The study of literature can be daunting. In a category that contains literally everything ever written down, it can be hard to know where to start or what matters. These terms represent starting points for literary terms and literary devices high school students need to know. You may find it helpful to review some basic types of literary devices in addition to the terminology shared here. To go even deeper into literature, consider testing your knowledge with this literary terms worksheet.