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Uncovering the Essentials: An Exploration of Key Literary Terms

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Words. Words. Words. The Tools of the Writer. But Do You Know Your Literary Terms and Devices?

I’ve been writing for a long time. Decades. I’ve gone to college and earned three degrees—one in Literature in English, another in English Literature, another in Creative Writing-Fiction. And yet, if you ask me the last book I read, I can’t remember. It may be me—but I have a decent amount of writer friends, and they seem to suffer the same malady. The same happens to me when it comes to literary terms and devices. I don’t know what it is—I know what I’m trying to say or use in my fiction, I just don’t always remember what the term is for what I’m doing. I figured I’d throw up Uncovering the Essentials: An Exploration of Key Literary Terms as a quick reminder of some of the words/tools us writers use when diving into the world of our characters.

Some of these may be obscure to some, and obvious to others. I’ve tried to include a little bit of both. For this week’s post, I’ve only taken one term from half of the alphabet. I’ll have another post for the second thirteen letters at a later date.

Aphorism - An aphorism is a concise, terse, laconic, or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. Aphorisms are often handed down by tradition from generation to generation. – Wikipedia.

I love aphorisms. I try not to overdo my work with them, but in a 300-page novel I’ll try to have five or six strong ones. I don’t always succeed—it’s difficult to come up with something I think is worthy of putting down on paper. But I try to take known aphorisms and change them completely so the gist is there without the known, cliché version.

Bathos - an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous. – Oxford Languages.

Ex: “Her hair was finely curled, her cheeks were lined with rouge, and her dress was a flowing green and blue which made her look rather like a tired, old peacock.”

I tend to use bathos for the musicality in my writing, and the “quirkiness” I feel is often needed in fiction to distinguish it from other similar fiction. –

Catharsis – means “cleansing” in Greek [and] refers to a literary theory first developed by the philosopher Aristotle, who believed that cleansing our emotions was the purpose of a good story, especially a tragedy. Catharsis applies to any form of art or media that makes us feel strong negative emotions, but that we are nonetheless drawn to – we may seek out art that creates these emotions because the experience purges the emotions from our system. –

I think that’s what literature is for most of us—a work that “makes us feel strong negative emotions” that allows us to purge those emotions at the end. All happy families are alike, right? But we don’t read fiction to learn about the happy ones.

Two surfers out in the water
Lucky This Surfer Found Someone to Reach Out to Him. But if it Was a UFO Beaming Him Up? Deus ex Machina.

Deus ex Machina - Latin for “a god from the machine.” It’s when some new character, force, or event suddenly shows up to solve a seemingly hopeless situation. The effect is usually unexpected, and it’s often disappointing for audiences. –

Deus ex Machina happens more often than not with newer writers. When you write a character into a hole and they don’t know how to get out, suddenly a magical rope falls into the hole or there’s an earthquake and your character is miraculously freed. It’s a giant turnoff to readers. You may write it in a draft, but you better cut it out and put the work in in later drafts so that the resolution if plausible to readers. Kids may go for it; adults will throw your book against the wall.

Euphemism - Euphemisms are polite, mild phrases which substitute unpleasant ways of saying something sad or uncomfortable.

Euphemism (pronounced yoo-fuh-miz-uhm) is derived from the Greek phrase euphēmismos, meaning “to sound good.” –

When your boss tells you the company has to “let you go,” he’s telling you you’re fired. No one likes being fired, and no one (that isn’t mean or a psychopath) enjoys firing someone. Letting them go eases the tension.

Foreshadowing - gives the audience hints or signs about the future. It suggests what is to come through imagery, language, and/or symbolism. It does not directly give away the outcome, but rather, suggests it. –

I LOVE foreshadowing. I tend to write a draft or two before I focus on including foreshadowing into my novels. It’s not until I know what the novel is about and what the beginning of the novel leads to that it makes sense for me to drop in whatever it is—a look by a character to another; someone finding a business card; one character having another character create a piece of fake news.

 Genre - a category of literature identified by form, content, and style. Genres allow literary critics and students to classify compositions within the larger canon of literature. Genre (pronounced ˈzhän-rə) is derived from the French phrase genre meaning “kind” or “type.” –

I write literary fiction (though I have written an unpublished crime novel). But some of the genres out there are Thriller, Horror, Romance, Speculative Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Memoir, True Crime, and so on.

Man in a mask and hoodie in front of a wall that says No Fear
Genre Fiction is Very Popular. Romance Sells the Most, but There Are Plenty Genres Out There.

Homophone - Homophone (pronounced HAH-muh-fone) is Greek for “same sound.” It’s when two or more words have the same sound, but different meanings. They may be spelled the same or differently. When homophones have the same spelling, they’re also called “homonyms.” Homonym (pronounced HAH-muh-nim) means “same name.” –

I don’t use many homophones in my own writing, but I’ve seen them used more often in the works that my children read. Think “bear/bare,” “rose/rose,” their/there/they’re.”

Innuendo - is when you say something which is polite and innocent on the surface, but indirectly hints at an insult or rude comment, a dirty joke, or even social or political criticism. –

I love innuendo. I use it almost every day in real life, and in literature it’s a fun tool. It adds spice to my characters, and I like spicy characters. I might put quotes around a word or italicize a word to highlight the fact that a character is implying something a little more nefarious than what she’s saying. For example, “Yeah, no. I’m going to help Janine’s husband problem.” If I were Janine’s husband, I’d be a little worried.

Jargon - is the specific type of language used by a particular group or profession. Jargon (pronounced jär-gən) can be used to describe correctly used technical language in a positive way. Or, it can describe language which is overly technical, obscure, and pretentious in a negative way. –

Jargon is important in particular when writing about science or crime or even marketing. The novel I’m working on right now takes place in the world of advertising agencies, which use a lot of jargon. Much of that jargon is related to technical issues (my experience is primarily working with developers and web folks), so it makes sense. To the normal person, however, most of the terms are lost on them.

Künstlerroman ("artist's novel") is a specific sub-genre of Bildungsroman; it is a novel about an artist's growth to maturity. Such novels often depict the struggles of a sensitive youth against the values of a bourgeois society of his or her time. –

I think we’re all more familiar with the term bildungsroman, at least if we’ve studied literature. I know I personally always use the term bildungsroman when describing someone’s growth to maturity. As an artist (in my case a writer), I think Künstlerroman is going to have to join the dictionary I keep in my head, as I often write about writers (sorry, I do, and I know a lot of writers don’t want to write about writers).

Litotes - an understatement in which a positive statement is expressed by negating its opposite. –

An example of litotes is “not the brightest crayon in the box.” Another might be “He’s no Picasso.” I’ll admit, litotes is a new one for me, even though I’ve been using it forever. But it can be something as simple as “not bad,” as well.

Malapropism - incorrect words used in place of correct words; these can be unintentional or intentional, but both cases have a comedic effect. –

I love malapropisms. They can provide humor, but I use them mostly to highlight a character’s education, or lack thereof. For example, if you have a Private, let’s call him, Private Sutton, rush in to the hospital carrying someone who has obviously lost an arm, and the Private Sutton says, “Quick! Help! Private Raines has had his arm decapitated!,” it tells you something about Private Sutton’s grasp of what the term decapitated means. It’s humorous, whatever the setting.

When I’m writing, I always enjoy re-learning the terms and literary devices I’m using, especially when the actual term escapes me. Like I said, I can’t remember the last book I read, so expecting me to remember the name of a literary device is like expecting me to jog ten miles—I’ve done it before, but there ain’t no way I’m going to be able to do it now. At least not when or at the pace I want to. Happy writing. And stay tuned for the follow-up to this post about literary terms and devices we, as writers, should have in our arsenal of writing tools.


Cully Perlman is a novelist and Substantive Editor. He can be reached at

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Apr 01
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Cool reminder

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