Storytelling is a core part of being human. Our ability to share ideas, stories, and concepts make us unique from the rest of the animal kingdom. We tell stories to connect, teach, and gain empathy and compassion for others. Stories bond us, lift us, and enlighten us about what it is to be alive.
This article will explore some popular literary elements, techniques, and devices writers use to make a good story even better. So, whether you are a beginner or professional writer, read on, because just like any other skill, writing is a skill we must practice and cultivate as often as we can.
What Are the Elements of Literature?
The elements of literature, also known as narrative elements or literary elements, are the ‘parts’ or ‘pieces’ of a work of narrative fiction that can be viewed, analyzed, and critiqued separately. Such elements include plot, characters, and setting. They work together to convey the whole story, but each can be broken down as a unit and used to develop a greater understanding of that story.
Below, we have included a simple literary elements list to help you better understand the structure behind a good story. Examples of literary elements include:
- Point of view
The sequence of events helps the story progress. The plot takes the reader from the beginning of the story to the end in whatever narrative form the story takes. The plot typically consists of five main parts: exposition, rising action (conflict), climax, falling action, and resolution.
The exposition is the beginning or introduction to the overall story. Important parts to the story are first introduced to the reader, such as the characters and setting(s). The reader understands what may come from throughout the story from the exposition. It is the background upon which the foreground of the story takes place.
Rising Action (Conflict)
The rising action or conflict is that part of the story that poses a challenge or obstacle to the characters. After their introduction, characters must face a problem that must be overcome. One or multiple characters’ attempts to overcome that conflict drives the story forward.
For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the first rising action is when the titular character meets the three witches who informed him of the prophecy that he would become king. From there, Macbeth is faced with the troublesome path ahead of him.
The plot’s climax is the moment at which tension is highest in the story, and the main characters confront the challenge they face. Let us use another classic Shakespeare text, Romeo and Juliet.
The climax in the play, the highest point of tension, occurs when Romeo, besotted with Juliet, kills Tybalt to avenge the death of his friend Mercutio. Since it turns out that Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin, Romeo is banished from Verona (setting) and now can no longer see his beloved.
The falling action elements of a story take place after the climax but before the resolution. This is where the author ties up loose ends. The climax has already happened, but other story elements do not simply stop. As in real life, life goes on. The falling action follows the characters and other elements of the story in the aftermath of that point of highest tension.
The resolution, also referred to as the denouement, is the story’s ending. The conflicts in the story have been resolved but not necessarily in a happily-ever-after fashion. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the resolution involves the death of both main characters. In Macbeth, the protagonist’s death also resolves the story.
The setting is simply where the story takes place. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the story takes place on picturesque Long Island, New York. Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice takes place in Rural England. The setting is a crucial literary element. Even though a story may contain several settings, they are connected one way or another. The setting of a piece of literature is informative because it helps convey the story’s atmosphere, landscape, and culture.
Simply put, language as an element is a language in which a piece is written. Yes, that means the actual language: English, Spanish, Russian. It also includes how that language is used and whether multiple languages are used. The dialect and colloquialisms of that language are also something an author must consider.
The language of a piece is highly informative regarding the characters, their backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses. For example, in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, a poor Mexican-American man living in California after World War I inherited two houses. The language used by the protagonist, Danny, his friend Pilon, and other characters in the text reflect their cultural identity. They use a mix of English and Spanish freely in their speech.
In literature, the mood involves the feelings, atmosphere, and emotions that a piece evokes in the reader. Anger, calm, fear, sadness, and joy are examples of emotions or moods that authors can cultivate in the reader through their work.
In horror fiction, for example, suspense is a popular literary device that conveys a dark and tense mood in the story. Consider Stephen King’s The Shining. King keeps up suspense for a large part of the novel, which keeps the reader tense and suspenseful and evokes fear as the same feeling arises in the main character’s wife and children.
The mood is a broad concept, and it changes throughout a single piece, which carries the reader through the story as much as the plot and character development.
The theme is the main message or idea that the author wishes to convey through their work. In many works, the theme is the story’s moral lesson or takeaway.
Popular themes include love and loss, good vs. evil, redemption, and coming-of-age. They are the undercurrent to the story and offer readers points to discuss after reading and reflecting on the piece.
Many works of literature convey not only one theme but several, which are often open to interpretation. The theme emerges most clearly when characters enter a conflict, either with an outside force or among each other. Their choices, actions, and attitudes reflect the underlying theme. Varying views on the ‘why’s’ behind certain character decisions and views allow for various interpretations.
The narrative is how the story is told. There is a narrator, someone who conveys the story. Often, the narrator is the author, telling the story of the events of a certain time and the characters’ lives.
7. Point of View
The point of view is the view or perspective from which the story is told. Some works of literature follow one point of view only, while others switch between several. When a story is told from the perspective of ‘I’, it is called the first-person point of view.
The second-person point of view involves you as the reader in the story. It is much less common than first-person and third-person narratives. From a second-person point of view, the text is written to describe the reader’s thoughts and beliefs as the story progresses.
The literature’s most common point of view is in the third person. The author uses ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, and character names to tell the story. The third-person point of view can be limited in that it only follows one character, or omniscient, in which it follows all the characters from that third-person point of view. Omniscient third-person narratives let the reader in on all characters’ thoughts and beliefs, while limited confines the reader’s understanding of a character’s inner world to the protagonist.
The characters are the people who live the story. There is always at least one character, but most stories feature multiple characters who interact, live in the world together, and give substance to the story. Most stories feature two main types of character: the protagonist, the hero or main character, and the antagonist, the opposition, enemy, or source of conflict for the protagonist.
A literary device, or literary technique, is an approach to writing that helps the writer convey their message. While literary elements are universal in all stories, literary devices vary between authors. Different authors and text types: novels, poems, songs, and even news reports, use different literary devices to engage the reader. Examples of popular literary devices include:
Metaphors are among the most common literary devices. You would have a hard time finding a piece of literature that does not contain at least one. In metaphor, one object is compared to another, but without using the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. For example, back to Macbeth, the protagonist proclaims: ‘Life’s but a walking shadow.’ Macbeth compares life to a shadow. Life is not a shadow, but comparing the two reflects how he feels. As such, metaphors are often used to convey the state of mind or attitudes.
As a metaphor, a simile is also a comparison. Unlike metaphors, similes use ‘as’ or ‘like’. Simple examples of similes include:
- Sharp as a razor
- Cute as a fox
- Cold as ice
- As good as gold
Typically, the first object of comparison is unrelated to the second, but the simile offers the reader an understanding of the first. For example, a person described as being ‘cold as ice’ is now understood to be emotionally closed off or lacking empathy.
Imagery is figurative language in poetry or literature to evoke images and feelings in the reader. It helps the author immerse the reader in the world of the piece by offering a memorable sensory experience.
Imagery is a literary device that is not just about the visual. It is the evocation of awareness of all five senses. For example, an author may refer to how a texture feels with a simile ‘as soft as sand’. The texture is conveyed, but an image of sand also arises in the reader’s mind, which helps them connect to the character’s experience.
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the author prepares the reader for what will occur in the plot. They might use imagery or symbolism to instill a sense of danger, such as the cawing of crows to symbolize looming death. The foreshadowing elements appear early and are revived later in the plot to recall the prediction or symbolic prophecy of what will happen next. The narrator of a text may explicitly foreshadow a later plot point. For example, he or she might say, ‘I thought things would go well, but how wrong I was.’ The story continues as normal and builds up the narrator’s mistaken belief.
Symbolism is the use of imagery and metaphor to convey an idea. Symbols are common in all languages and cultures are one of the most common literary techniques writers use to conceptualize and effectively convey the theme, tone, and message. Classic examples of symbolism used in many texts are the white dove as a symbol of peace, roses as a symbol of love, and crows as a symbol of death.
Juxtaposition highlights the contrast between two objects, including characters, settings, and ideas. Examples of juxtaposing ideas and concepts include:
- Black and white
- Light and dark
- Building and walls vs. nature and sky
- Youth and wisdom
- Isolation and community
- Predator and prey
George Orwell’s 1984 juxtaposes the collective mind against the individual. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contrasts land and sea with juxtaposition. Charles Dickens juxtaposes the highs and lows of life in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with the opening lines ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
The juxtaposition does not explicitly refer to the difference between the two people, concepts, or elements, but merely holds them up alongside each other and allows the reader to experience the contrast.
Irony refers to a statement that contrasts with what is expected. Given the context, the reader can discern between reality and what is said by the character. For example, if a character enters his home from a thunderstorm outside, he might ironically say,’ What a lovely day outside!’
There is also situational irony, in which an outcome is unexpected due to the contact it lies within, For example, a police station that gets robbed or a librarian who cannot read.
An allusion refers to an already-existing piece of work, such as a book, a film, or a specific character. For example, a character referring to their weakness might reference Kryptonite—a fictional crystalline material that weakens Superman. Another character might stumble across a fortunate opportunity and refer to it as their ‘golden ticket’, an allusion to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Allegories are whole stories that represent ideas and concepts. George Orwell wrote several famous allegories. Animal Farm, for example, is an allegory of the fall of communism and the Bolshevik Revolution. Another Orwell novel, 1984, explores the concept of a totalitarian system of government and the power of the individual mind to overcome it.
Literary elements, devices, and techniques create structure and meaning in a text. While elements such as plot, setting, character, and theme are found in almost any text, devices come down to the author’s style. Many authors take inspiration from older renowned authors by using their devices and applying them to their writing.
If you read this article because you want to write your own story and create your literary world, you will benefit greatly from adopting the above elements and devices into your work. It is wise to experiment with different literary devices and even themes until you find your natural flow if you are a beginner.
Finally, if you want to become an author and read this article to learn more about what you can do with your work, you have got the right idea. Learning as much as you can about the structure and essentials of literature will most certainly make you a better writer. Still, do not forget about the most important education any writer can get—to become an avid reader. Consider the elements and devices outlined above and identify them in the books and novels you love to see them used in action.