Ever wanted to make your reviews sound just that bit more sophisticated?
Ever want to know the word for some trait you noticed in the book you’re reading, but you have no idea what it could be so you end up describing it in a round-about way?
Ever read someone else’s review of a book and not understood what they mean by “it’s an epistolary novel” or “the author has a great way with literary allusions”? (Nothing to be ashamed of, by the way – you could say “it’s all a load of wank anyway.” )
Well I certainly do, all the time! I have a great deal of trouble remembering the “proper” literary technical term for a literary device, or getting tangled up with allegory and allusion, or trying to remember what the difference between a trope and a metaphor is. Really, do we need to know? Well, sometimes it’s fun to know. Sometimes understanding these technical terms can actually help us read deeper, because it sharpens our minds and makes us more aware of the devices and tricks at play. So, here is a list of such terms, with my no-doubt inadequate definitions.
To be honest I don’t know if this will interest anyone but myself, and it win my blog the title of Most Boring Blog, but I’m a list nerd and a word nerd and it was fun to put together regardless
An allegory or allegoric story is when the characters, setting and events represent characters or events or settings, or a mix of these. One of the best examples of an allegoric story is Animal Farm, in which the animals represent Stalin, Trotsky etc., the farm Russia/the USSR, and the overthrowing of the farmer represents the Russian Revolution, which is itself taken over by the Stalin-pig character. Fairy tales are also allegorical – for example, in “Little Red Riding Hood”, the wolf represents the men of the court who will prey on young, naive ladies new to the court and seduce them (“all the better to eat you with, my dear!”) while pretending to be someone they can trust.
Alliteration is when you have three or more words in a sentence that all begin with the same letter. Tongue twisters tend to be over-the-top alliterations (“she sells sea shells by the sea shore”). The repetition of consonants can be inside words as well; using alliteration can create a rhythm or pattern that captures emotion, if used well.
To allude to something is to refer to it in an indirect way; a “literal allusion” is to refer to classical works or historical events or people. Allusions refer to stories or characters we’re more familiar with in order to conceptualise an obscure idea. Many authors allude to Biblical or historical characters or events like Cain, or the Trojan Horse – with one word, we understand a grander concept the author is trying to get across. Allusions are thick in our cultural understanding as westerners – many things common to our collective understanding are rooted in old texts such as Homer or Shakespeare.
Otherwise commonly known as “the bad guy”, the antagonist works against the protagonist to ruin or frustrate their plans, get in their way etc. Antagonists are as common in a story as a protagonist, though if the protagonist is “the bad guy” (like Dexter in Darkly Dreaming Dexter), the antagonist becomes a positive force for good.
Anthropormiphism is giving animals and other non-human things (like trees) human characteristics. It can be as simple as using words associated with human emotions or motions to the way grass moves in the wind, or bestowing human attributes to animals like in Watership Down .
You’re familiar with the word “thesis”, no doubt; well an “antithesis” (pronounced “an-TITH-esis”) is the anti-thesis, or contrasting, contradicting or countering idea – a juxtaposition. The opposite, in other words. Using an antithesis can make your actual meaning clearer and stronger. Examples of antithesis at work are old; what I like to do is use the word “antithesis” itself – “He’s the antithesis of cruelty” – except that, in my head, “antithesis” starts to mean “pinnacle”, or an extreme example (the opposite of it’s meaning), so I have to be careful of that.
When the world starts falling apart, that’s when you know it’s apocalyptic Seriously, though, it’s a handy word (from Genesis?) with strong religious roots that is very useful in describing books like Life As We Knew It, Blindness and Oryx and Crake. It can take the form of a natural disaster, a plague, a nuclear war, a virus – the possibilities, and the fears, are endless. Apocalyptic stories are survival stories, and the world generally is never the same again even if the human race triumphs.
A bildungsroman is a German term – it’s a literary genre that describes a life, a life story, a person’s journey through life. If you want to get fancy, instead of saying “this is a coming-of-age novel” you could say “this is a bilgungsroman”. It’s one of the few literary terms I remembered from my uni degree! I guess I liked it
A phrase, expression, theme, saying, idea etc. that has been used so many times it’s lost meaning and depth – has become “old hat” or cheesy. They tend to be over-used precisely because they’re so perfect, and resonate so well, or say it so well, but they don’t engage the mind anymore because we’ve heard them so many times, they don’t even register anymore. It’s a shame really.
The ideas or qualities associated with a word, rather than a literal meaning of the word. Connotations work similarly to allusions – the difference is that the latter refers to history or other literary works, while connotations refer us to associations. Describing a character as a snake, for instance, brings forth several connotations: the character is sly, creepy, cold etc.
The opposite of “connotation” in that with denotation, words have only one plain meaning and don’t come with any connotations, allusions etc. in the way it is used. For example, “toothbrush” – the stick with bristle you use to brush your teeth.
You know when you watch a movie and there’s the big climax (or anti-climax, depending on the story), but it’s not the end of the film – there’s still five-ten minutes left in which all the loose ends need to be tied up? That’s the denouement, the tying-up of whatever’s left. A relationship is resolved, a last puzzle is understood, etc. Books have them too – characters have their final say, not related to the Big Plot but a smaller, side plot that needs resolution. To end a story at the thrust of the climax is like having an orgasm with no snuggling afterwards.
When you get a lot of instruction or information in a text, the text is didactic. A lot of hard sci-fi is didactic, when the author pauses the action to explain the technology behind a concept etc. You could argue that the Bible is didactic, because it contains moral etc. teachings (personally, it’s more like The Odyssey to me – a very early Fantasy/Quest narrative with a bit of Historical Fiction thrown in).
Hamlet is famous for its dramatic monologues, as anyone who’s sat through Kenneth Branagh’s uncut film version can attest to. In fact, plays are where you’ll commonly see dramatic monologues, because they serve the function of telling the audience what’s going on, what the character is thinking etc. They don’t tend to pop up in fiction because it’s a dull, clumsy way to narrate a story.
Another one of my favourite genres! A dystopian world isn’t exactly the opposite of a utopian, or ideal, perfect, world. It is a world where a society or civilisation has been established that pretends to be perfect and ideal, but that in fact disguises, hides, represses less desirable aspects of society or individuals. FFahrenheit 451 is dystopian, as is Brave New World, We and The Handmaid’s Tale, as just a few examples of many – the world is meant to be a better world, the people have been convinced it is a better world, but the people have also had to sacrifice something that we, the reader, feel defines us as human beings and individuals. It’s become a popular YA genre too – the Uglies series, for example.
Quite simply, an epistolary novel is one told in the form of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, other documents or a blend of them all. Letters is the most commonly used.
When something has been named after someone. Usually used in reference to a place or building that has been named after its founder, or a style that refers to a person – for example, a Victorian house or a Georgian house refers to the British monarch who ruled at the time the style was popular (yes, the Georgian style is named after the era of four King Georges, not the American state!).
A euphemism is using an innocent word or expression in place of one that might be offensive, or sacred (but in our society, it’s usually something naughty!). For example, people often use the expression “Number One” (or Two) in place of all the other choices for urination.
In short, background information. You might have read reviews where the reviewer has complained about “info dumping” – a more colloquial way of saying that there was too much exposition all at once. When reading a book in a series, especially an epic Fantasy series, there is often a lot of exposition at the beginning, or what you could call “recapping”.
This is usually a mathematical term, but can also be used to describe human experience – to expand the human experience. I’m not very confident with this one; I don’t really feel like I would know how to use “extrapolate” properly when talking about someone’s book!
The opposite of “literal”. Figurative language is “ornamental”, or pretty. Meaning is not straight-forward; it instead forces you to use your imagination to arrive at meaning, usually by way of a comparison or simile.
A type of literature. Typical genres are Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction and Murder Mystery. The word “generic” can be synonymous with “formulaic” in the sense that something that’s generic is too “samey” – the formula for Romance novels, or Fantasy etc., is “generic” – thankfully, we are seeing more and more authors break the formula and get creative with genres.
A genre, popular in the 18th-19th century, that captures a certain style and atmosphere. Gothic architecture is also medieval architecture and contrary to how we think of the word now, “gothic” architecture was an architectural style that captured light with high vaulted ceilings and glass – gothic cathedrals is where you will see this. Because of its association with the Dark Ages (medieval period), “gothic” came to mean something more akin to horror, or oppression of your spirits, as well as feeding on our imagination of what “dark” things happened during the period of gothic architecture. Gothic stories are usually romances (for their love of the imaginary over the realistic), and were told from several points of view.
An extravagant exaggeration, or conscious overstatement. A hyperbole increases the effect of a description, as exaggerations are meant to.
Irony refers to when something is not as it seems, in fact, is usually the opposite of what it seems – inherent in that is a kind of sophisticated humour that is felt rather than described. It is not the same as sarcasm, being more subtle, and can be bleak just as much as it can be sharp and witty.
Another word for “juxtapose” is “contrast”. It’s used more for ideas than to describe someone – you don’t really see “the light colour of her hair juxtaposed with her dark eyes”, it sounds pretty silly (you’d probably say “contrast” instead); but when talking of ideas, themes, concepts, that sort of thing, it’s a handy word.
Not to be confused with simile (though we all get them confused at times!), a metaphor is an analogy – while a simile says “his body was tall and thin like a bean stalk”, a metaphor says “his body was a bean stalk”.
A recurring object, concept, or structure in a work of literature. When authors use motifs, their overall point, message or theme comes across more strongly.
A story that explains how the world came to be, or why it is the way it is. We can describe something as being “mythological” for its attempt to get to the root of the world’s creation or purpose. Myths commonly occur in fairy tales, Fantasy books etc.
Those events that, put together, make a story.
The person telling the story, usually in first-person point-of-view (see below). Narrators can be unnamed, and a story can also be told by an omniscient narrator or “voice” – in other words, by a god-like nobody who can see everything and knows everything.
A short story that conveys a moral or religious message.
This is one I’m never comfortable using – a pastiche is an imitation, or “hodgepodge” – if it combines many different works. One example of this are the spoof movies, like Date Movie (I haven’t seen it, but it was the first one that popped into my head) that cobble together bits of other stories to tell a new one. For movies, we call them “spoofs”. For books, we’re supposed to call them “pastiches”.
View-point, or point-of-view. Whose eyes are you seeing events or people through? What bias are you getting because of whose perspective it is? Some readers don’t like it when the perspective shifts between characters, and other people complain about the first-person point-of-view for being too limiting. I don’t have a problem with either; how successful it is depends on which way the author has chosen to tell a particular story. See “Point-of-View”, below.
There are three types of POV: first person, second person and third person. Third person point-of-view is the most common – that’s when you get “she”, “he” etc. First person is also common: that’s when the story is personally narrated by a character who refers to themselves as “I”. Second person is the least common, and when in unskilled hands it can be downright aggravating: it’s when the story is told from the perspective of “you” (doesn’t make much sense, I know, but some people feel it puts the reader in the story and can be powerful if used well).
After the world went to crap, a post-apocalyptic story is set a time when things have settled down and some new kind of civilisation has arisen. This may be a dystopian society, but it doesn’t have to be. The after-effects of whatever form the apocalypse took are usually still being felt, but one after-affect is that often the people don’t know about what happened in the past. It’s a clean slate, but without history, they’re doomed to repeat mistakes – which creates fertile ground for a story!
This is a big chunky literary theory that became the bane of my existence at uni. You learn to quickly hate anything post-modern! Era-wise, it’s post WWII, and that’s about all anyone can agree on. In fact, I’m borrowing this from Wikipedia: “… instead of the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern author eschews, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this quest.”
The nice word for “straight-forward writing” or simply “writing”. All fiction is prose, just as all poetry is “verse”. That’s your two choices: prose or verse. To go a bit further, an author’s “prose style” is their stylistic voice, their style of writing, the way they use words.
Otherwise known as the main character. Some books are sly, and the main character is more of a shy observer than a true protagonist – a protagonist keeps the action moving, gives momentum to a book, does things. They are usually the hero, the character whose journey or story you are following.
This used to be one of the main subjects taught in universities, alongside mathematics. It is the art of using language effectively (i.e., to write, to argue a point!), though the word has taken on the stain of bullshit and so we tend to avoid it unless we’re being clever or disparaging. Another use is “rhetorical argument” or “rhetorical question”, to which there is no answer.
The study of meaning. The meaning of words. When someone says, “It’s just semantics”, it’s a dismissive way of saying “get to the point” or “you’re wasting your time focusing on the words rather than the real meaning of what’s going on here.”
Location. Where something takes place.
When one thing is “like” another. A simile should have the word “like” in it, as part of its structure. E.g. “her hair was like silk” is a simile; whereas “her hair was a waterfall, cascading down her back” is a metaphor (and truly cheesy to boot!).
A symbol is a word or object that represents something else. Rings or other jewellery are often used, especially in Fantasy. The dove is the symbol for peace; the rainbow the symbol for gay pride. When something is “symbolic”, it represents something bigger, grander than itself.
This is the grammar for time. There are three main tenses and a few other, less used ones. The main ones are of course present tense and past tense. There is also future tense, past perfect/participle, present perfect/participle and others I’ve forgotten just now. Like POV (first-person, third etc.), the choice of tense the author uses can break a novel. That is, the choice to use present or past tense can have a huge impact on the story, and our engagement and enjoyment of it.
Think of it like a thread, running all the way through the story. It’s an overall, recurring motif, bigger than a symbol – it’s a thought, an idea, that can’t be expressed fully in a single descriptive sentence but needs to be conveyed through larger actions, the story as a whole. Not every book has or has to have a theme, but it’s always satisfying to realise what a book’s theme is, like you’ve communicated with the author and experienced more than just the surface layer of a story.
A trope is a figure of speech, a way of shifting the meaning of words. As Wikipedia puts it, a figure of speech:
“is a use of a word that diverges from its normal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words in it such as a metaphor, simile, or personification. However, clarity may also suffer from their use, as any figure of speech introduces an ambiguity between literal and figurative interpretation.”
Clear? Didn’t think so. “Figure of speech” is one of those phrases that I’ve never really stopped and tried to explain. It just is. It’s really another way of saying “metaphor”, isn’t it – so what’s the difference? An example of a metaphor is “drowning in debt”; this is also considered a trope, or “figure of speech” – you don’t mean that a person is literally drowning, only trying to capture the sense of how much debt they are in, and how much they are struggling. Ask me when I would use the word “trope”, though, and I couldn’t honestly tell you.
Oh we love an unreliable narrator, don’t we? This is a narrator who isn’t trustworthy, who may be telling the truth or may not be, who we can’t rely on. A great modern example is the narrator of the YA novel Liar, who admits she lies but tells one version after another, adding and subtracting from her story – a character who you want to believe, but since she’s already lied to you (and admitted it), how can you be sure? Another type of less obvious unreliable narrator is someone who is prejudiced, blind to a truth, fixated, obsessed, mad, even idiotic. These are often, if well written, very engaging narrators and protagonists because they keep us guessing, and because we get to know them so deeply yet at the same time are on our guard, and unsure whether we can or should trust them.
Do you have any favourite words among these that you find yourself often using in your reviews?
Are there any words I missed that you’d like to see included? Any examples or clearer definitions you’d like to add?