Definition: An object, character, figure, or color that is used to represent an abstract idea or concept. Example: Dumbo’s “magic” feather represents courage and self-confidence. Once he truly believes in himself, he no longer needs it as a psychological crutch.
Definition: Irony that occurs when the meaning of the situation is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the literary work. Example: Throughout most of The Lion King, Simba mopes around feeling guilty for his father’s death, unaware (as the audience is) that Scar actually killed Mufasa.
Definition: A constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology. Example: Alice must pass a series of tests as she makes her way through Wonderland. This kind of journey is a common archetype in Western literature and is best epitomized by Homer’s The Odyssey.
Definition: A character who illuminates the qualities of another character by means of contrast. Example: Gaston’s combination of good looks and terrible personality emphasizes Beast’s tragic situation. The former is a monster trapped inside a man; the latter a man trapped inside a monster.
Definition: A brief reference in a literary work to a person, place, thing, or passage in another literary work, usually for the purpose of associating the tone or theme of the one work with the other. Example: In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gargoyle Laverne tells a flock of pigeons to “Fly my pretties! Fly, Fly!” à la the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
Definition: A warning or indication of a future event. Example: Before she’s fatally shot by a hunter (and millions of childhoods are scarred), Bambi’s mother gives Bambi a stern lecture on the dangers of man.
Definition: The atmosphere that pervades a literary work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the audience. Example: Fantasia frequently uses music and setting to drastically shift the mood from light and playful to dark and foreboding.
Definition: Speaking directly to or acknowledging the audience. The “fourth wall” refers to the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theater. Example: Timon acknowledges the audience when he cuts off Pumbaa midsong: “Pumbaa, not in front of the kids!”
Definition: The portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience — for example, information about the setting, events occurring before the main plot, characters’ backstories, etc. Example: At the beginning of Robin Hood, the rooster Alan-a-Dale describes how Robin Hood has been robbing from the rich to give to Nottingham’s poor.
Definition: An inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Example: When Shere Khan the man-eating tiger returns to the jungle, Mowgli must flee to the safety of human civilization.
Definition: The turning point in the action (also known as the “crisis”) and/or the highest point of interest or excitement. Example: Pinocchio is transformed into a donkey and sold into labor before he saves Geppetto and proves himself worthy of being a real boy.
Definition: The recognition or discovery by the protagonist of the identity of some character or the nature of his own predicament, which leads to the resolution of the plot. Example: Arthur, thinking he’s just a lowly squire, has no idea he’s the rightful heir to the throne until he pulls the sword from the stone.
Definition: A device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character’s own conduct. Example: Jafar is so power hungry he fails to realize that becoming a genie will cost him his freedom.
Definition: An unexpected power or event saving a hopeless situation, especially as a plot device in a play or novel, from the Latin “a god from a machine.” Example: In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Evil Queen is about to kill the dwarfs when a bolt of lightning comes out of nowhere, knocking her off the mountain to her death.
Definition: The final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved. Example: At the end of The Little Mermaid, Ursula is killed, King Triton turns Ariel into a human, and Ariel marries Prince Eric. Then Sebastian sings over the closing credits. WIN.