Joseph has a master's degree in literature as well as alternative teaching and ESL educator certifications. He has worked with middle school, high school, and college students in writing and language arts.
Definition of Literary Elements
Let's say your English teacher wants you to analyze a lengthy novel. You wonder how you can analyze something that's hundreds of pages long. The easiest way to do so is to break the whole text down into its smaller parts, or elements. That way, you have manageable units that you can examine separately and then put back together as a whole.
The parts of a literary text are known as its literary elements. Rather than looking at a whole novel, we can examine its plot, setting, characters, point of view and themes individually. Yes, that's quite a list, but in the spirit of breaking down large tasks, let's break these elements down and view them piece by piece, using the following questions: what, when, where, who and how.
Simply put, plot is what happens in a story. For a simple example, let's consider Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. If someone were to ask us for the book's plot, we can give a basic rundown:
An unnamed character spends most of the book refusing to try green eggs and ham. The book's other character, Sam, constantly asks the unnamed character to try green eggs and ham in various settings. The unnamed character refuses all these possibilities until, near the book's end, he agrees to try them so Sam will leave him alone. He realizes he actually does like green eggs and ham, and he thanks Sam for introducing them to him.
Simple enough! But let's look at how the plot engages us from beginning to end.
Most plots fit into a story arc, which is a visual representation of a story's shape.
A story's beginning is called the exposition, which is a fancy way of saying the set-up to the story. This is where the author introduces the main characters and sets up the story's problem, or conflict. In our example, the exposition consists of the two characters' introductions and Sam initially asking the unnamed character to try green eggs and ham. Now, the real action can begin.
The rising action is all the action that leads up to the climax, or the pivotal part of the story. In our case, all the instances of Sam asking the other character to try green eggs and ham make up the rising action.
All these actions lead up to the story's most important part, which is the aforementioned climax. This is where the story hits its peak, which is why it's also the peak of the story arc diagram. You can think of it as the point at which the story changes and starts heading toward its end. In Green Eggs and Ham, the climax occurs when the unnamed character finally agrees to try green eggs and ham. Once he does, he comes to the startling realization that he loves them! This is the high point of the story, and now it can start heading toward its ending.
The falling action (also known by fancy people as the denoument) is so named because it consists of everything that 'falls' out from the climax. What are the results of the climactic action? Well, after the unnamed character eats the green eggs and ham, he tells Sam that he would eat it anywhere!
And just as the rising action leads to the climax, the falling action leads to the resolution, which is another way of saying how everything ends up. In this example, the reluctant character thanks Sam for convincing him to try green eggs and ham. All is well, and the unnamed character has a new favorite food.
A well-structured plot will keep readers guessing what happens next until they hit the climax. It will also keep the reader's attention until the story's resolution. Ideally, the resolution is in line with everything that came before it, and the end doesn't seem forced or unrealistic for the story.
Setting is the when and where of a literary text. For example, the novel Gone With the Wind takes place in and around Atlanta, Georgia, and the plot - or action - occurs before, during and after the Civil War.
Although it's a simple concept, setting is a vital literary element. Try thinking of all the Southern romanticism of Gone With the Wind in New York City during the same time period. It just wouldn't work.
In some stories, the location itself almost becomes a character. Think, for example, of the importance of New York City in the television series Sex and the City. If you take the city out of it, the title and the show itself become completely different, and probably not as enjoyable.
Characters are the fictional people - the who - in a story. The number of characters is completely up to the author. Think of the movie Castaway, for instance. It involves one character for a majority of the film. On the other hand, Anne Rice's novel The Witching Hour follows tons of characters to weave a complex saga.
Now, there are a few literary terms we have for certain types of characters. The main character, the one we follow most closely in the story, is the protagonist. They're the Harry Potters, the Katniss Everdeens and the Luke Skywalkers of the literary world.
Then there are the antagonists, or the bad guys who work against the protagonists. Enter Voldemort, President Snow and Darth Vader.
We also have foil characters. No, they don't wrap themselves in aluminum foil! This is what we call characters that are opposites. For example, Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are foil characters because they start as Hogwarts students at the same time and have similar potentials, but they end up on opposing sides of the conflict with Voldemort. They're physical opposites as well, since Harry is raven-haired and Draco is blond-haired.
Point of View
Another literary element is point of view. Point of view is how the author chooses to tell the story. Think of it as where the camera is throughout the story. There are three basic camera positions: first person, second person and third person.
In a first person story, a character tells his or her own story. A dead giveaway that a story is written in first person is the frequent use of the word 'I.' A good example of this point of view is The Hunger Games, which opens with, 'When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.' Katniss, the book's protagonist, is the one telling her own story, so she's the 'I' here.
In a third person story, meanwhile, a narrator is telling someone else's story. This is probably the most common point of view. Instead of using 'I,' the narrator will use 'he' or 'she.' For example, George Orwell's classic book 1984 opens with, 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled. . . slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions. . .' Unlike Katniss, Winston doesn't tell his own story. Rather, a narrator tells his story for him.
Second person is rarely used in literature. It occurs when the person telling the story refers to either the reader or other characters as you. It's not a commonly used point of view because it cuts the reader out of the book if characters are talking only to each other. And if the narrator is constantly addressing the reader, the story can get awkward if not expertly handled. There are only a few books that have ever been written in second person.
Point of view has a huge effect on the story. Of course, the advantage of first-person stories is that the reader gets to know protagonists intimately because they can reveal their thoughts while telling their own stories. It is a limited camera position, however, because we're dependent on what the protagonist sees and thinks. This is where third person becomes advantageous. Because a narrator is telling the story, he can tell the reader what any character is doing and thinking. In effect, since the camera is no longer stuck with the protagonist, it can expand to show multiple characters and events.
All of the above mentioned literary elements affect the story's theme, or the story's overarching concern(s). For example, several major themes of The Hunger Games are personal and civil freedoms, the consequences of a dictatorial government, family obligations and loyalty to loved ones versus survival of the self. These concerns are themes because they show up repeatedly throughout the book in different situations.
Similarly, some themes of the classic novel 1984 are personal and civil freedoms, the danger of dictatorial governments and love versus oppression. They show up again and again in different situations throughout the book.
Some stories give their themes away more readily than others. Generally speaking, more serious stories will carry clearer, more obvious themes. It would be easier, after all, to extract clear themes from the novel 1984 than from the children's book Green Eggs and Ham.
Literary elements are the building blocks of any literary piece of fiction, no matter how simple or complex. And they're all decisions authors have to make while they construct those pieces of fiction. By changing any of these elements, the author changes the story. Imagine The Hunger Games told through Peeta's point of view rather than Katniss's, or an episode of Sex and the City set in Houston rather than Manhattan. These seemingly small changes would have huge repercussions.
While these elements may seem like a lot to keep in mind, it's easier to manage them when we align them with common 'wh-' questions. Plot is what happens, setting is where and when it happens, characters are who the story is about and point of view is how the author tells the story. We can think of theme as the reasons why the author tells the story. What concerns is he or she pushing within the fictional story? This often reveals the most important reasons that the author has chosen to tell a story.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- List and describe the literary elements
- Explain what a story arc is and name its components
- Name the types of characters in a story
- Recall the different points of view that can be used to narrate a story
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