(gleaned from A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams with Geoffrey Galt Harpham &
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms edited by J. A. Cuddon)
Writing about nonfiction usually entails the examination of facts, opinions, and memories that
try to reveal the “truth” or historical reality. Not all works of nonfiction are equally reliable. It is
important to be aware of prejudices, biases, and perspectives. (Remember, a novel is a work of
fiction, so do not call a nonfiction book a “novel.”) Here are some literary terms for nonfiction:
allusion=an inexplicit reference to a person, place, thing, event, or idea in history or literature
ambiguity=allows for two or more simultaneous interpretations
autobiography=a biography written by the subject about himself or herself
Beat Generation=(c. 1944-c. 1967) characterized by embracing aspects of oral performance,
spirituality, political consciousness, irreverence, and frankness about drug use and sex
biography=a relatively full account of a particular person’s life, attempting to establish
character, temperament, and the settings of the person’s experiences
caricature=a usually comical, exaggerated, and distorted portrait of a person
connotation=associations and implications that go beyond the literal meaning (denotation)
dark comedy=events depicted as comic though they are horrifying or cruel
didactic=intended to give instruction
diary or journal=a day-to-day record of the one’s life, often without thought of publication
digression=a departure from a particular subject during a piece of writing
essay=a short composition in prose that discusses a matter in order to persuade and/or entertain
foreshadowing=hints about future events
Gonzo Journalism=a type of New Journalism created by Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) that
is hypersubjective, emphasizes style rather than accuracy, relies on personal experiences
and emotional responses to often bizarre situations, and uses satire and hyperbole. In
Gonzo Journalism getting the story is the story.
hagiography /hăg’ē-ŏg’rə-fē or hā’jē-ŏg’rə-fē/=biographical writing that glorifies its subject
hyperbole /hī-pûr’bə-lē/=bold overstatement or exaggeration for serious, ironic, or comic effect
iceberg theory=Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) believed that good writing, like an iceberg, has
only one-eighth exposed and the engaged reader will infer the rest
imagery=a word, phrase, or figure of speech that addresses the senses
irony=contradictory statements or situations that reveal a different reality than what appears true
journalism or reportage /rĕp’ər-täzh’/=writing about the news or interesting events, usually
objectively, not subjectively
Lost Generation=(c. 1919-c. 1939) characterized by disillusionment, alienation, and
recklessness that followed World War I and was often captured in the work of expatriate
American authors who found American culture repressive (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald)
memoir /mem wär/=a factual account of significant people and events in the author’s life
metaphor=a comparison between two unlike things without using the words “like” or “as”
le mot juste /lə mō zhüst’/ (French for “the right word”)=search, according to Gustave Flaubert
/güsˈtav floh-bair/ (1821-1880), to find the precise word to express the exact thing
motif /mōˈtēf/=a recurring reference (e.g. the green light in The Great Gatsby)
New Journalism=subjective reporting, often emphasizing the journalist’s involvement in the
Hemmer 2
story and utilizing writing techniques associated with fiction, practiced by Truman
Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion
nonfiction novel=mastered by Truman Capote (1924-1984), it is a work of journalism using
novelistic techniques, such as anachronic /anəˈkronik/ (i.e. not chronological) depiction
of events, descriptions of the participants’ states of mind, graphic renderings of
occurrences that the author did not see, and is often based on personal interviews
portrait=an essay focusing on the description of a person
satire=making a subject appear ridiculous to evoke amusement, contempt, scorn, or anger
setting=place, time, and social circumstance
simile /siməlē/=an explicit comparison using “like,” “as,” “than,” “appears,” and “seems”
sketch=a highly descriptive short piece of prose
stream of consciousness=the flow of perceptions, memories, and feelings in the mind
style=manner in which a writer achieves an effect (e.g. decorative, plain, subtle)
surrealism=depictions that have the images and feelings of dreams or hallucinations
symbolism=people, objects, images, words, events, or gestures that mean more than their surface
theme(s)=the meaning(s) or message(s) of the work, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit,
expressing an idea (e.g. love makes life meaningful), not a single word (e.g. love), which
could be the topic
third person personal=a New Journalism technique used by Norman Mailer (1923-2007) when
he changes “I” to “he” in order to talk about himself as if he were a character
tone=the author’s attitude (e.g. playful, serious, ironic)
trope=a conventional literary theme (e.g. loss of innocence, good vs. evil, fear of the unknown)
true crime=literary genre in which actual crimes are examined
unreliable narrator=the perception, interpretation, and evaluation of events is not accurate
Remember to use the present tense when quoting lines from a nonfiction work. Use the author’s
last name in the citation if the author is not mentioned in the sentence, e.g. (Smith 27). When the
quotation is from someone other than the author use qtd. in, e.g. (qtd. in Smith 27). When
quoting more than four lines in the text of your essay from a nonfiction work, use block format:
indent ½” from the left. When citing two or more paragraphs, always use block quotation format
and indent the first line of all paragraphs an extra ¼” other than the first paragraph.
In Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood (1966), Perry Smith confesses:
Just before I taped him, Mr. Clutter asked me—and these were his last words—wanted to
know how his wife was, if she was all right, and I said she was fine, she was ready to go
to sleep, and I told him it wasn’t long till morning, and how in the morning somebody
would find them, and then all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they
dreamed. I wasn’t kidding him. I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very
nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so up to the moment I cut his throat. (qtd. in
Capote 244)

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