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Literary Elements: Definition, Types & Examples

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Instructor: Joseph Vigil

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.

Literary elements are the essential components of any fictional literature and can greatly impact the story if any are altered. Explore more about literary elements, including the five types of literary elements and examples of each one. Updated: 08/29/2022

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.

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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.

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