Literary Elements

If you look at a house, you can imagine it as the sum of many things: bricks, wood, glass, stone, and so much more. But, what about a literary text, such as a novel, a fairy tale, or even a film? A text is also made up of building blocks, which an author, poet, or scriptwriter, for example, puts together to give us an exciting, entertaining whole. These building blocks, especially in literary texts, are known as literary elements. Here, we will look more closely at some of the most common literary elements.

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    Literary Elements, a woman hunched over a typewriter with a lightbulb above her head, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Typing a story (with great ideas!).

    Literary elements meaning

    A literary element refers to a specific component or technique used by an author in a work of literature to enhance the overall meaning and impact of the text. These elements may include plot, character, setting, theme, symbolism, imagery, figurative language, and tone.

    By utilizing these elements effectively, authors can create rich, complex narratives that resonate with readers on multiple levels. The understanding and analysis of literary elements is an essential part of literary criticism and can provide insight into an author's intentions, the historical and cultural context of a work, and the ways in which literature reflects and shapes the world around us.

    Literary elements: list and definitions

    Below is a list of the most common literary elements. We will examine some of the key literary elements in greater detail below.

    Literary elementsDefinition
    ActionAny kind of physical change pertaining to characters or objects in a story.
    AntagonistSomeone who or something that creates conflict in the story.
    CharacterAny (not necessarily human) being in a narrative.
    ConflictA challenge faced by the main character(s) of the story casts doubt on whether things will end well for them or not. Conflicts need to be resolved for the character(s) to achieve their goals.
    DialogueA direct exchange between characters.
    GenreA set of conventions that inform the reader of the general attributes of a story.
    MoodThe overall tone of the story that evokes a certain response from the reader.
    NarratorThe voice that conveys the story to the reader or audience.
    PlotThe sequence of events in a story.
    ProtagonistThe main character in a work of literature.
    SettingThe place in which a story takes place.
    ThemeThe overarching idea of the text. For example, maturity and growth is the central theme in bildungsroman narratives.

    Literary elements of a story or folktale

    Let's see a brief explanation of the elements involved in a story or Folktale with examples of the elements mentioned above.

    Action

    If we think about it, we all understand what is meant by the word 'action'. But what does the term mean in a novel, folktale, or drama? How is action different from, for example, background or expressions of feelings? Let's find out!

    In the simplest terms, action refers to any physical change pertaining to characters or objects in a story. Does a character leave a room? Action. Bar fight? Action. Fierce three-headed dog attacks three meddling students in a school of magic? AAAAACTION.

    Action, dialogue, background/summary/exposition and thoughts/feelings/expression are generally considered to be the most prominent elements of a narrative.

    A writer weaves all of these different elements together in order to deliver the story to a reader in a way that makes them want to continue reading, watching, or listening, and the action within the story is often one of a its main driving forces.

    'His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner. Then he stood before the fire and looked me over in his singular introspective fashion' (Arthur Conan Doyle, chapter 1, 'A Scandal in Bohemia', 1891).

    The quote above is taken from one of the Sherlock Holmes adventures in which Holmes' sidekick, Dr Watson, is the narrator. Now, Dr Watson could very well simply write, 'I think Sherlock was happy to see me, but he didn't really show it', however, this would be rather dull.

    Instead, the passage is full of action, showing us Sherlock's mannerisms and reaction upon seeing Watson. These details add atmosphere, helping us paint a mental image of Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes, their poses, the room they are in, and the awareness they show of their surroundings. Isn't it amazing what some well-constructed sentences can do?

    Character

    If there were no characters, every book, film, video game would be a total drag. Imagine The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) without... Dorian Gray, or Super Mario Bros without Mario and Luigi. Unthinkable, right?

    A character refers to a being in a narrative. Note how we say 'being' and not 'person.' Animals, Artificial Intelligence, Cyborgs also are characters in a narrative. They drive forward the narrative and its action, and it is their struggles, thoughts, and motivations that the readers follow.

    Characters can be further sub-divided in literary works depending on their function. They can be protagonists or antagonists, sidekicks or archetypical. One could argue that creating the character is perhaps the most exciting part of writing a story, reflected in the many, many people who also enjoy engaging in activities like cosplay, roleplay, fan fiction, and fan art.

    'Artis Corbin was two things: a talented algaeist and a complete asshole. The former trait was crucial on a long-haul ship like the Wayfarer. A batch of fuel going brown could be the difference between arriving at port and going adrift. Half of one of the Wayfarer’s lower decks was filled with nothing but algae vats, all of which needed someone to obsessively adjust their nutrient content and salinity. This was one area in which Corbin’s lack of social graces was actually a benefit. The man preferred to stay cooped up in the algae bay all day, muttering over readouts, working in pursuit of what he called ‘optimal conditions.’ Conditions always seemed optimal enough to Ashby, but he wasn’t going to get in Corbin’s way where algae was concerned' (Becky Chambers, chapter 1, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, 2014).

    The above quote describes a character – Artis Corbin. Based on the descriptions of what he does and what others think of him, we can form an impression of Corbin and then determine how he influences the narrative. He's described as introverted and rather stubborn, which could be deemed as negative qualities but are seemingly perfect for his job with algae.

    Authors tend to write characters that can be both loved and hated, as this is what keeps the readers hooked. They also write characters to serve different functions, as Corbin does here. Characters, in line with their personality, react to various situations differently and drive the story forward.

    Genre

    We speak of genres intuitively, for example, when we say, 'I love watching sci-fi shows' or 'I am craving a detective story.' But have you ever wondered how genres are formally understood in literary studies?

    A genre refers to a set of conventions that informs your reader of the general attributes of your story.

    Broadly speaking, a genre makes a promise to a reader which it must then live up to. How, you ask? Well, imagine you are picking up a book from the 'romance' section. You would likely expect the book to involve characters falling in love.

    You might also expect some common romance tropes such as fake dating (when a couple fakes a relationship but falls in love in the end) or enemies-to-lovers (when characters who hate each other end up being lovers). The tropes that are included within a text are often determined by the genre in which the author is writing.

    The genre also influences the characters, themes, tones, settings, and action of a story. It would be unusual, for example, for a Romance novel to have a foreboding, dark setting such as an old, decrepit, haunted manor house in which a murder was committed. On the other hand, some authors may choose to purposefully defy these tropes.

    Here's a list of some of the common genres:

    Narrator

    The story that is told to you is hardly ever objective. The author's own biases and opinions can also find a way into the narrative. Often, an author who is hyper-aware of their biases would be careful to exclude them from the narrative. These techniques are commonly realised through the narrator.

    The narrator could be a character within a story, an unnamed figure, or simply a voice whose presence is never explicitly made known.

    The narrator refers to the voice that conveys the story to the reader or audience. This may or may not be a character in the story. The 'narrative voice' is developed by the author to serve a purpose. For example, a humorous narrator might narrate a grim story in a way that makes you laugh out loud.

    A narrator is a stylistic element that significantly influences the reading of a story. Narrators can be funny, depressed, unreliable, and they can even voice their innermost thoughts without a filter as one would in a stream-of-consciousness text.

    'He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey' (F. Scott Fitzgerald, chapter 3, The Great Gatsby, 1925).

    In the quote above from The Great Gatsby, we've got ourselves a first-person narrator – Nick Carraway. If you read this quote, you can get a lot of information, not only about Gatsby, but also about the kind of person Nick is. Here, Nick sees the man up close for the first time and is seemingly entranced by him. Although he feels confident in Gatsby's presence, he remains aware of the fact that his impression of Gatsby is only the impression that Gatsby wants him to have.

    As an exercise, try figuring out what else you could tell about Nick through his narrative voice.

    Plot

    The plot refers to the sequence of events in a story. Usually, the plot tends to follow the cause-and-effect principle that unfolds as the reader continues reading.

    It would be a massive 'spoiler' if you were given a plot of a book or a movie here, wouldn't it? Here's a fun fact instead: a board game genre called 'Dungeon Crawler' (including the famous Dungeons and Dragons) consists of all the above-mentioned elements: character, genre, action, narrator, and.... you guessed it – a plot! The plot drives the events of the game and encourages the characters (played by the players) to take certain actions.

    Think about how much of the 'plot' you would give away when you want to convince a friend to read a book or watch a movie. What are the most interesting parts of a plot that would give just enough information to persuade someone to read or watch something without spoiling them?

    Setting

    Let's do an exercise together. Think about a Victorian lady who also works as a private investigator as a side hustle. With those two statements, you are likely able to pinpoint the geographical location, time period, costumes, and aesthetics of where the story is set. This is the setting.

    The setting is, quite literally, the time and place (or space) where the story is set. It layers the story with the conventions of the time period and location, adding cultural aspects, aesthetics, language, and character types that would influence the story.

    'The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea' (Daphne du Maurier, chapter 27, Rebecca, 1938).

    In the quote above, the narrator describes the estate of Manderley towards the end of the novel, when is up in flames. The fire lends a sense of finality and destruction to the once imposing estate. Interestingly, Manderley is closely associated with the titular character, Rebecca, whose death the many characters seem to be dealing with, and whose presence (or absence) is keenly felt at Manderley, showing you just how important the setting is.

    While the setting is important in all texts, this is particularly the case for Gothic novels, as the setting influences the plot significantly, with the castle, manor, or estate often taking a life of its own and framing the atmosphere for the action.

    Literary elements and techniques

    So, what can you do with all of these literary elements? Glad you asked! Once you have an understanding of the many types of literary elements, you are equipped to deconstruct a story. This means that you can identify specific aspects of a story that appeal to readers, and why these aspects may have been chosen by an author over others when composing the story. The literary elements add literary value to the book and are often the difference between understanding what makes a good or bad story.

    There are many techniques that an author can use to enhance the literary elements in their writing. Here are some examples which you can identify in some authors' works:

    1. Foreshadowing: hinting at events that will happen later in the story
    2. Flashback: a scene or event from the past that is inserted into the present narrative
    3. Symbolism: the use of objects, colours, or characters to represent abstract ideas or concepts
    4. Metaphor: a figure of speech that compares two seemingly unrelated things
    5. Imagery: using descriptive language to create vivid sensory experiences for the reader
    6. Irony: a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens
    7. Allusion: a reference to a well-known person, place, or event in literature or history
    8. Personification: giving human qualities to non-human entities such as animals or objects
    9. Dialogue: the spoken words of characters that reveal their personalities and relationships
    10. Point of view: the perspective from which the story is told, such as the first-person, third person limited, or omniscient.

    These techniques, when used effectively, can add depth, complexity, and richness to a work of literature.

    Literary Elements - Key takeaways

    • Literary elements are the building blocks of a story.
    • There are numerous literary elements such as action, character, genre, narrator, plot, and setting.
    • There are different types of characters that make up a story, including the antagonist and the protagonist.
    • Genres refer to the conventions that a story may adhere to so that it can meet the expectations of the reader.
    • The plot refers to the sequence of events in a story and the setting is the time and place where the events of the story take place.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Elements

    What are the literary elements in the folktale?

    The literary elements present in a folktale are, like most other tales, action, characters, setting, plot, themes, and anything that follows the genre conventions of a folktale.

    What are the 7 literary elements?

    The most common 7 literary elements include: action, character, genre, plot, setting, narrator, and themes.

    What are the 10 elements of literature?

    Literature, or literary texts, includes literary elements. Some of the 10 most common elements are action, antagonist, character, conflict, genre, mood, narrator, plot, protagonist, setting.

    Is dialogue a literary element?

    Yes, dialogue is a literary element. It can be used as a stylistic device that adds immediacy to the text, and immerses the reader into the conversation and the scene. The dialogue also helps the reader follow the communication between two characters, which may influence the story.

    What are literary elements?

    Literary elements are the building blocks of a story. A writer must consider the various literary elements and weave them together to form an interesting, appealing narrative.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are the 3 main types of setting?

    What type of setting does this quote show?'Finally, in October 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair, and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop.'

    An example of a place in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is...

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