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A Writer's Handbook


We read literature for enjoyment and to find meaning:  meaning to us, meaning to our culture, meaning to our way of life.  Even if we are just reading for pleasure, all of the experiences we bring to the table influence how we see a piece of literature.   There is also the author side of things - the author is writing for enjoyment and to create meaning:  meaning to him or her, meaning to his or her own culture, meaning to a way of life he or she wants someone to understand.  And the way both writer and reader interpret this literature is through the elements of these stories.

How to READ literature

Making yourself an active reader is the first step!

  1. Keep an open mind about what is going on in the story; don’t shut yourself off if you don’t understand or disagree with a situation.
  2. Seek out background information including words that are unfamiliar to you as you are reading or even looking at the cultural and historical context of a work.
  3. Read the selection a few times; I know time is of the essence for many people, but reading a work at least twice can help you really get into the full meaning for understanding.
  4. Read with a pencil (or an e-highlighter) in hand to make notes on the text either in physical or electronic format.  The more you mark a text up, the more you will connect with the text.  Circle names, underline words that mean something to your meaning of the text, put stars or boxes around character names, or write yourself small notes as to how you feel about something or what you think about something in the reading.

*Active Reading Makes For Easier Discussion of a Piece of Literature*

Short Story Elements

Using Story Elements to Find Meaning

  1. Plot: the events that happen in a story; usually follows the type of plot diagram as shown in the image below:
  2. Characters: The two main characters are the protagonist and the antagonist (the opposite forces found in the conflict).  Characters can be flat (stock, unchanging throughout the piece) or round (more realistic changing characters).  In looking to see what kind of person a character is, examine his actions, looks, speech, thoughts, and interactions with other characters in the story.  Characters can also be FOIL characters:  FOIL characters are smaller “secondary” characters that are going through a similar, almost identical conflict as the main characters and thus intensify the message about the conflict.

  3. Point of View:  First person narrative is a point of view of someone in the story.  Third person narrative is a point of view from an outsider – like a narrator.  Furthermore, point of view can also be omniscient (where the storyteller knows what is going on inside all the characters’ minds), limited (where the storyteller can only know what is going on in one or two people’s minds), or objective (where the storyteller can only tell facts and not feelings of the characters).  Point of view is important to understanding the reliability of the story.  For example an instructor might tell a story of a class day that was very exciting, while that same day story told by a student might look and sound a little different.  How we see characters and their stories depends heavily on point of view.

  4. Language Use (I use this overall title to combine figurative language, imagery, tone, symbolism):  All language use is crafted to make readers feel certain ways about the characters and their situations.  How an author uses language can certainly create meaning.

         a.  Figurative language:  use of simile and metaphor to create parallels and connections

         b.  Imagery: visual, auditory, tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and kinesthetic

              (physical tension) are all types of images used to produce ideas connections

         c.  Tone:  use of connotative language (words that have an assumed meaning along with a literal

               meaning, or words that color the message sent)

          d.  Symbolism: use of words, ideas, or images to represent another idea giving meaning to the work

  5. Setting:  The setting can be threefold: 

         a.  Actual physical setting – the location of the action

         b.  Time lapse – how long a story goes on from beginning to end and what is able to be accomplished   

               in this amount of time

         c.  Time era – what cultural morals, values, and history are placed on the meaning of the work?

  6. Theme:  Theme is the message an author is conveying about a subject through the use of elements within the story.  People may glean different themes from the same piece, but it is all in how they explain the elements of the story.

Poetic Elements

Although there may be several more devices, these are the main poetic elements we will look at:

Allegory -  a narrative or description that has a second meaning beneath the surface 

Alliteration – repeated beginning sounds with several words in a row

Allusion – a reference, generally brief, to a person, place, thing, or event with which the reader is presumably familiar, compressing a great deal of information into a very few words 

Assonance – repeated vowel sounds

Consonance – repeated consonant sounds

Connotation – what a word suggests beyond its basic definition, word’s overtone

Denotation – the basic definition or dictionary meaning of a word 

Diction – the choice of words

Imagery (Figurative language) – the representation through language of sense experience; refers to some contrast or discrepancy between appearances and reality  (All senses can be revealed through imagery: auditory-sound, tactile – touch, gustatory – taste, visual-sight, olfactory-smell, kinesthetic-tension)

Irony – use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning

      Verbal Irony – contrast between what is literally said and what is actually meant 

      Dramatic Irony – state of affairs known to reader is opposite what participants know

      Situational Irony – set of circumstances turns out to be the reverse of what is expected

Overstatement (hyperbole) – a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used in the service of truth

Paradox – statement or situation containing apparently contradictory or opposed to common sense and is perhaps true (or seems to be)

Personification – a figure of speech in which human attributes are given to an animal, object, or concept

Pun – the humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or another word

Repetition – the act or an instance of repeating or being repeated

Rhyme -   way of creating sound patterns

            Eye rhyme – Words that look the same but sound different (EX.  Rough and through)

            End rhyme – Use of rhyme at the end of poetry lines

            Internal rhyme – Rhyme that occurs within the same line of poetry

            Masculine and Feminine rhyme – Masculine is end rhyme of only one syllable and Feminine rhyme is

end rhyme where two syllables together rhyme with the other end rhyme two syllables

Rhythm – recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds – the pattern of which becomes a lined meter

            Iamb ^ ‘                                    monometer – one foot                           dimeter – two feet

            Trochee ‘ ^                               trimester – three feet                             tetrameter – four feet

            Anapest  ^ ^ ’                            pentameter – five feet                           hexameter – six feet

            Dactyl  ‘ ^ ^                              heptameter – seven feet                         octameter – eight feet

            Spondee  ‘ ‘

                                / ^   ‘/ ^    ‘ /    ^    ‘/   ^    ‘ / ^     ‘

Iambic pentameter:   I didn’t want the boy to hit the dog.

Structure – the setup of a poem: two lines of poetry together is called a couplet; three lines together is a tercet; four lines together is a quatrain; five lines together is a quintet; six lines together is a sestet; and eight lines together is an octave.  Some poetry has structure; whereas, other poetry especially free verse does not fit into specific structure models

Symbol – something that means more than what it is; an object, person, situation, or action that in addition to it literal meaning suggest other meanings as well

Synechdoche – figure of speech where a part is made to represent the whole

Tone – the writer’s or speaker’s attitude toward the subject, the audience, or him/herself; the emotional meaning of a work (mostly using connotation or imagery and other figurative language)

Simile – comparison between two things that are unlike using like, as, than, similar to, etc.

Metaphor – an implicit comparison made between two unlike things; takes one of four forms:

  1. literal term and figurative term are both named

(My paycheck is the icing on the cake today)

  1. literal term is named and the figurative term is implied

 (The leaves curled and hissed around the poles [snake])

  1. literal term is implied and the figurative term is named

 (It [the flu] is an enemy ready to pounce) – Part of an extended metaphor where “the flu” would have already been alluded to

  1. literal term and figurative term are both implied

 (It [the thunder] moans and groans in its old age [old person]) - Part of an extended metaphor where “the thunder” would have already been alluded to

Ballads- type of story that is exposed – usually discussing a dramatic idea and usually in quatrains and usually with a rhyme scheme of AABB or ABAB…

English (Shakespearean) Sonnets -  3 quatrains and a couplet: “The variation of the sonnet form that Shakespeare used—comprised of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg—is called the English or Shakespearean sonnet form, although others had used it before him. This different sonnet structure allows for more space to be devoted to the buildup of a subject or problem than the Italian/Petrarchan form and is followed by just two lines to conclude or resolve the poem in a rhyming couplet. ” (Poetry Foundation).

Free Verse – free form writing; some rhyme, but others follow no rhyme pattern

Italian Sonnets – An octave and a sestet: “has the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE…The first eight lines, which all end in either rhyme A or B, form the octave. The last six lines, which end in C, D, or E, form the sestet. Variant rhyme schemes for the sestet also include CDCDCD and CDEDCE. There is usually a pause or break in thought between the octave and sestet called the volta, or turn. Traditionally, one main thought or problem is set out in the octave and brought to a resolution in the sestet” ( RCOldSite/www/rchs/sonnet.htm).

Sestina – “The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

Villanelle – 5 tercets and a quatrain * Repetition with first and third line of the first tercet

Drama Elements

Unless otherwise stated the entries are taken from and adapted from the following web site:


A major division in a play. An act can be sub-divided into scenes. (See scene). Greek plays were not divided into acts. The five act structure was originally introduced in Roman times and became the convention in Shakespeare’s period. In the 19th century this was reduced to four acts and 20th century drama tends to favour three acts.

Antagonist: A character or force against which another character struggles.

Examples: Creon is Antigone's antagonist in Sophocles' play Antigone; Tiresias is the antagonist of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus the King.1

Apron: The part of a proscenium stage that sticks out into the audience in front of the proscenium arch.

Aside: Words spoken by an actor directly to the audience, but not "heard" by the other characters on stage during a play.

Example: In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago voices his inner thoughts a number of times as "asides" for the audience.

Blocking: Movement patterns of actors on the stage. Usually planned by the director to create meaningful stage pictures.

Box set: A set built behind a proscenium arch to represent three walls of a room. The absent fourth wall on the proscenium line allows spectators to witness the domestic scene. First used in the early nineteenth century.

Catharsis: The purging of the feelings of pity and fear. According to Aristotle the audience should experiences catharsis at the end of a tragedy.

Character: An imaginary person that inhabits a literary work. Dramatic characters may be major or minor, static (unchanging) or dynamic (capable of change).

Example: In Shakespeare's Othello, Desdemona is a major character, but one who is static. Othello is a major character who is dynamic, exhibiting an ability to change.

Chorus: A traditional chorus in Greek tragedy is a group of characters who comment on the action of a play without participating in it. A modern chorus (any time after the Greek period) serves a similar function but has taken a different form; it consists of a character/narrator coming on stage and giving a prologue or explicit background information or themes.

Climax: The turning point of the action in the plot of a play and the point of greatest tension in the work.

Example: The final duel between Laertes and Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


A dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Taken from: Comedy can be divided into visual comedy or verbal comedy. Within these 2 divisions there are further sub-divisions. For example visual comedy includes farce and slapstick. Verbal Comedy includes satire, black comedy and comedy of manners.

Comic Relief:

Comic relief does not relate to the genre of comedy. Comic relief serves a specific purpose: it gives the spectator a moment of “relief” with a light-hearted scene, after a succession of intensely tragic dramatic moments. Typically these scenes parallel the tragic action that they interrupt. Comic relief is lacking in Greek tragedy, but occurs regularly in Shakespeare's tragedies.

Example: The opening scene of Act V of Hamlet, in which a gravedigger banters with Hamlet.

Conflict: There is no drama without conflict. The conflict between opposing forces in a play can be external (between characters) or internal (within a character) and is usually resolved by the end of the play.

Example: Lady Gregory's one-act play The Rising of the Moon exemplifies both types of conflict as the Policeman wrestles with his conscience in an inner conflict and confronts an antagonist in the person of the ballad singer.

Complication: An intensification of the conflict in a play

Convention: Literary conventions are defining features or common agreement upon strategies and/or attributes of a particular literary genres.

Examples: The use of a chorus was a convention in Greek tragedy. Soliloquies, (which are not realistic) are accepted as part of the dramatic convention.

Denouement / Resolution:

Literally the action of untying. A denouement (or resolution) is the final outcome of the main complication in a play. Usually the denouement occurs AFTER the climax (the turning point or "crisis"). It is sometimes referred to as the explanation or outcome of a drama that reveals all the secrets and misunderstandings connected to the plot.

Example: In Shakespeare’s Othello, the climax occurs when Othello kills his wife. The denouement occurs when Emilia, proves to Othello that his wife was in fact honest, true, and faithful to him. (Taken from and

Deus Ex Machina:

When an external source resolves the entanglements of a play by supernatural intervention. The Latin phrase means, literally, "a god from the machine." The phrase refers to the use of artificial means to resolve the plot of a play.

Examples: Many of Euripides’ plays have gods coming to rescue the day. In Medea a dragon-drawn chariot is sent by Apollo, the Sun-God, to rescue Medea who has just murdered her children. In Joe Orton’s classic play, What the Butler Saw (1969) the deus ex machina comes in the form not of a god but of a policeman who saves the day.

Dialogue: The conversation of characters in a literary work. In plays, characters' speech is preceded by their names.


According to the Cambridge Dictionary, diction is “the manner in which words are pronounced.” Diction, however, is more than that: it is a style of speaking. In drama diction can (1) reveal character, (2) imply attitudes, (3) convey action, (4) identify themes, and (5) suggest values. We can speak of the diction particular to a character.

Example: Iago's and Desdemona's very different ways of speaking in Othello.

Dramatic Irony:

A device in which a character holds a position or has an expectation reversed or fulfilled in a way that the character did not expect but that the audience or readers have anticipated because their knowledge of events or individuals is more complete than the character’s. (Taken from and adapted:

Example: In Shakespeare’s Othello Othello blames Desdemona for cheating on him. The audience knows that she is faithful and Iago deceives him.

Dynamic Character: Undergoes an important change in the course of the play- not changes in circumstances, but changes in some sense within the character in question -- changes in insight or understanding or changes in commitment, or values.

Exodos: The final scene and exit of the characters and chorus in a classical Greek play.

Exposition: “The first stage of a fictional or dramatic plot, in which necessary background information is provided” ( (See Appendix 1: Freytag’s Pyramid). In most drama the characters have to expose the background to the action indirectly while talking in the most natural way. What any person says must be consistent with his character and what he knows generally. Exposition frequently employs devices such as gestures, glances, “asides” etc. (See Prologue for explicit exposition).

Example: Ibsen's A Doll's House, begins with a conversation between the two central characters. This dialogue gives the audience details (in the most natural way) of what has occurred before the play began, details, of importance to the development of the plot.

Falling Action:

This is when the events and complications begin to resolve themselves and tension is released. We learn whether the conflict has or been resolved or not.

Flashback: An interruption of a play's chronology (timeline) to describe or present an incident that occurred prior to the main time-frame of the play's action.

Examples: In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello recalls how he courted Desdemona.

Flat Characters:

Flat characters in a play are often, but not always, relatively simple minor characters. They tend to be presented though particular and limited traits; hence they become stereotypes. For example, the selfish son, the pure woman, the lazy child, the dumb blonde, etc. These characters do not change in the course of a play. (Taken from and adapted:

Foil: A secondary character whose situation often parallels that of the main character while his behavior or response or character contrasts with that of the main character, throwing light on that particular character’s specific temperament.

Examples: In Hamlet, Laertes’, father is murdered. His situation parallels Hamlet’s situation but his response is very different. In Othello, Emilia and Bianca are foils for Desdemona.

Foreshadowing: A literary technique which uses a seemingly unimportant idea or object during the play which later becomes apparent as a hint to the action later in the play.

Examples: At the beginning of the Ibsen's A Doll's House, the protagonist Nora goes against the wishes of her husband in a very minor way. This action foreshadows her later significant rebellion and total rejection of her husband. In Synge's Riders to the Sea the mother’s vision of her recently drowned son foreshadows the death of her remaining son.

Fourth Wall:

The imaginary wall that separates the spectator/audience from the action taking place on stage. In a traditional theatre setting (as opposed to a theatre in the round) this imaginary wall has been removed so that the spectator can “peep” into the fictional world and see what is going on. If the audience is addressed directly, this is referred to as “breaking the fourth wall.”

Gesture: The physical movement of a character during a play. Gesture is used to reveal character, and may include facial expressions as well as movements of other parts of an actor's body.

Example: Most modern playwrights explicitly mention both bodily and facial gestures, providing detailed instructions in the play's stage directions.


The Greek term hubris is difficult to translate directly into English. This negative term implies both arrogant, excessive self-pride or self-confidence, and a lack of some important perception or insight due to pride in one's abilities. This overwhelming pride inevitably leads to a downfall. (Taken from

Example: In Sophocles Oedipus, Oedipus’ refusal to listen to anyone illustrates hubris. He believes he knows best – even better than the prophet Tiresias – and his refusal to listen leads to his downfall.

Linear Plot:

A traditional plot sequence in which the incidents in the drama progress chronologically; in other words, all of the events build upon one another and there are no flashbacks. Linear plots are usually based on causality (that is, one event "causes" another to happen) occur more commonly in comedy than in other forms. (Taken from and adapted:

Monologue: A speech by a single character without another character's response. The character however, is speaking to someone else or even a group of people. (see soliloquy below)

Examples: Shakespeare’s plays abound with characters talking with no one responding. A clear example of how a monologue addresses someone occurs when Henry V delivers his speech to the English camp in the Saint Crispin's Day speech. He wants to inspire the soldiers to fight even though they are outnumbered. This is a monologue because (a) he alone speaks (b) he is addressing other characters.


The thought(s) or desire(s) that drives a character to actively pursue a want or need. This want or need is called the objective . A character generally has an overall objective or long-term goal in a drama but may change his or her objective, and hence motivation, from scene to scene when confronted with various obstacles. (Taken from and adapted:

Example: In the play Othello, Iago’s objective is Othello’s downfall.

Point of attack: The point in the story at which the playwright chooses to start dramatizing the action.

Plot: The sequence of events that make up a story. According to Aristotle, “The plot must be ‘a whole’ with a beginning, middle, and end” (Poetics, Part VII). A plot needs a motivating purpose to drive the story to its resolution, and a connection between these events.

Example: “The king died and then the queen died.” Here there is no plot. Although there are two events – one followed by the other – there is nothing to tie them together. In contrast, “The king died and then the queen died of grief,” is an example of a plot because it shows one event (the king’s death) being the cause of the next event (the queen’s death). The plot draws the reader into the character’s lives and helps the reader understand the choices that the characters make. (Taken from and adapted:

Point of attack: The point in the story of a play where the plot begins. This may occur in the first scene, or it may occur after several scenes of exposition. The point of attack is the main action by which all others will arise. It is the point at which the main complication is introduced. Point of attack can sometimes work hand in hand with a play’s inciting incident, which is the first incident leading to the rising action of the play. Sometimes the inciting incident is an event that occurred somewhere in the character’s past and is revealed to the audience through exposition.

Proscenium Arch: An architectural element separating the performance area from the auditorium in a theatre. The arch functions to mask stage machinery and helps create a “frame” for the stage action. First used in Europe during the Renaissance, the arch developed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries into the “picture frame” stage of the late 19th century.

Prologue: (1) In original Greek tragedy, the prologue is either the action or a set of introductory speeches before the first entry of the chorus. Here, a single actor's monologue or a dialogue between two actors would establish the play's background events. (2) In later literature, the prologue serves as explicit exposition introducing material before the first scene begins. (Taken from and adapted: The prologue is performed/delivered by the chorus. (See Chorus)

Examples: A chorus gives a prologue with the background information as to the feud between the families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tom, one of the protagonists in William’s A Glass Menagerie gives a prologue both of the background of the play and the character’s philosophy.

Props: Articles or objects that appear on stage during a play. Props can also take on a significant or even symbolic meaning.

Examples: The Christmas tree in Ibsen’s A Doll's House and Laura's collection of glass animals in Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie.

Protagonist: The main character of a literary work.

Repertory: A system of producing plays in which a company of actors is assembled to stage a number of plays during a specific period of time. The repertory company included actors, each of whom played roles in several plays throughout a theatrical season and who often specialized in a specific type of role

Resolution: The sorting out or unraveling of a plot at the end of a play, novel, or story.

Reversal or Peripeteia: The point at which the action of the plot turns in an unexpected direction for the protagonist- from failure to success or success to failure.

Examples: Oedipus's and Othello's moments of enlightenment are also reversals. They learn what they did not expect to learn.

Rising Action:

An event, conflict or crisis or set of conflicts and crises that constitute the part of a play's plot leading up to the climax.

Example: The result of Othello promoting Cassio rather than Iago sets in motion everything else that follows.

Round Characters:

A round character is depicted with such psychological depth and detail that he or she seems like a "real" person. The round character contrasts with the flat character who serves a specific or minor literary function in a text, and who may be a stock character or simplified stereotype. If the round character changes or evolves over the course of a narrative or appears to have the capacity for such change, the character is also dynamic. In longer plays, there may be several round characters. (

Satire: A literary work that criticizes human misconduct and ridicules vices, stupidities, and follies.

Example: Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War about World War I. Even the title indicates this is a satire.


A traditional segment in a play. Scenes are used to indicate (1) a change in time (2) a change in location, (3) provides a jump from one subplot to another, (4) introduces new characters (5) rearrange the actors on the stage. Traditionally plays are composed of acts, broken down into scenes. (Adapted from:


The physical representation of the play's setting (location and time period). It also emphasizes the aesthetic concept or atmosphere of the play. (Taken from and adapted:

Strophe (& Antistrophe): A portion of a choral ode in Greek tragedy followed by a metrically similar portion, the antistrophe. The words mean “turn” and “counter-turn,” suggesting contrasting movements of the chorus while the ode was being sung. These two parts are sometimes followed by an epode, during which the chorus may have remained stationary

Soliloquy A speech meant to be heard by the audience but not by other characters on the stage (as opposed to a monologue which addresses someone who does not respond). In a soliloquy only the audience can hear the private thoughts of the characters.

Example: Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" speech.

Stage Direction:

A playwright's descriptive or interpretive comments that provide readers (as well as actors and directors) with information about the dialogue, setting, and action of a play. Modern playwrights tend to include substantial stage directions, while earlier playwrights typically use them more sparsely, implicitly, or not at all. (See gesture).

Staging: The spectacle a play presents in performance, including the position of actors on stage, the scenic background, the props and costumes, and the lighting and sound effects.

Static Character: A literary or dramatic character who undergoes little or no inner change; a character who does not grow or develop.

Stock Character:

A recognizable character type found in many plays. Comedies have traditionally relied on such stock characters as the miserly father, the beautiful but naïve girl, the trickster servant. (Taken from and adapted:

Subplot: A subsidiary or subordinate or parallel plot that coexists with the main plot.

Example: The story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern forms a subplot within the overall plot of Hamlet.

Theatre of the Absurd: A type of drama and performance that conveys a sense of life as devoid of meaning and purpose. The term was coined by the critic Martin Esslin, who described and analyzed a group of mid-twentieth-century play in his book, The Theatre of the Absurd, including the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

Tragedy A type of drama in which the characters experience reversal of fortune, usually for the worse. In tragedy, suffering awaits many of the characters, especially the hero.

Tragic flaw:

A weakness or limitation of character, resulting in the fall of the tragic hero.

Example: Othello's jealousy and too trusting nature is his tragic flaw.

Tragic hero:

A privileged, exalted character of high repute, who, by virtue of a tragic flaw and/or fate, suffers a fall from a higher station in life into suffering.

Example: Sophocles' Oedipus.

Unity of time, place, and action ("the unities"): limiting the time, place, and action of a play to a single spot and a single action over the period of 24 hours.