10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know

10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know

One of the things I miss most about college is discussing literature in a very academic and structured way. And, sometimes, when I’m reading on my own, I miss things – symbols or themes or the technique that goes into the writing.  Reviewing these ten literary concepts has helped me give structure to the way I think about the books I’m reading.  I hope they’ll help you too.

1. Genre
A French word meaning kind or type. The major genres in literature are poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. Genre can also refer to more specific types of literature such as comedy, tragedy, epic poetry, or science fiction.

2. Plot
An author’s selection and arrangement of incidents in a story to shape the action and give the story a particular focus. Plots are often divided into three sections. The first part is the rising action, in which complication creates some sort of conflict for the protagonist. The second part is the climax, the moment of greatest emotional tension in a narrative, usually marking a turning point in the plot at which the rising action reverses to become the falling action. The third part, the falling action (or resolution) is characterized by diminishing tensions and the resolution of the plot’s conflicts and complications.

Image by Drew Davidson

3. Setting
The physical and social context in which the action of a story occurs. The major elements of setting are the time, the place, and the social environment that frames the characters. Setting can be used to evoke a mood or atmosphere that will prepare the reader for what is to come.

4. Point of View
Refers to who tells us a story and how it is told. The various points of view that writers draw upon can be grouped into two broad categories: (1) the third-person narrator uses he, she, or they to tell the story and does not participate in the action; and (2) the first-person narrator uses I and is a major or minor participant in the action. In addition, a second-person narrator, you, is also possible, but is rarely used because of the awkwardness of thrusting the reader into the story.

5. Narrator
The voice of the person telling the story, not to be confused with the author’s voice. With a first-person narrator, the “I” in the story presents the point of view of only one character. The reader is restricted to the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of that single character. An omniscient narrator is an all-knowing narrator who is not a character in the story and who can move from place to place and pass back and forth through time, slipping into and out of characters as no human being possibly could in real life. Omniscient narrators can report the thoughts and feelings of the characters, as well as their words and actions.

6. Characterization
A character is a person presented in a dramatic or narrative work, and characterization is the process by which a writer makes that character seem real to the reader. A hero or heroine, often called the protagonist, is the central character who engages the reader’s interest and empathy. The antagonist is the character, force, or collection of forces that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story.

7. Tone
The author’s implicit attitude toward the reader or the people, places, and events in a work as revealed by the elements of the author’s style. Tone may be characterized as serious or ironic, sad or happy, private or public, angry or affectionate, bitter or nostalgic, or any other attitudes and feelings that human beings experience.

8. Symbol
A person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significance. Symbols are educational devices for evoking complex ideas without having to resort to painstaking explanations that would make a story more like an essay than an experience. Conventional symbols have meanings that are widely recognized by a society or culture.

9. Metaphor/Simile
A metaphor is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. A simile makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems. Metaphors and similes assert the identity of dissimilar things. Metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech can be subtle and powerful and can transform people, places, objects, and ideas into whatever the writer imagines them to be.

10. Theme
The central meaning or dominant idea in a literary work. A theme provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a work are organized. It is important not to mistake the theme for the actual subject of the work; the theme refers to the abstract concept that is made concrete through the images, characterization, and action of the text. In nonfiction, however, the theme generally refers to the main topic of the discourse.


Each of these terms could be the subject of its own post. So, I’m going to do just that, in a series called LITERATURE 101. Every Wednesday for the next ten weeks, I’ll post a “lecture” about one of the above terms. Each lecture will consist of lengthier definitions and discussion of sub-terms, lots of examples, and maybe a little homework. The above list will serve as the syllabus. I hope you’ll join the class.

This idea is kind of evolving as I go along.  What would you like to see in these mini “courses”?

The definitions in this post were taken from Bedford St. Martin’s Glossary of Literary Terms.