WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE PHRASE ‘ELEMENTS OF LITERATURE?
The phrase ‘elements of literature’ refers to the constituent parts of a work of literature in whatever form it takes: poetry, prose, or drama.
Why are they important?
It’s important students understand these common elements if they are to competently read or write a piece of literature.
Understanding the various elements is particularly useful when studying longer works. It enables students to examine specific aspects of the work in isolation, before piecing these separate aspects back together to display an understanding of the work as a whole.
Having a firm grasp on how the different elements work can also be very useful when comparing and contrasting two or more texts.
Not only does understanding the various elements of literature help us to answer literature analysis questions in exam situations, but it also helps us develop a deeper appreciation of literature in general.
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF LITERATURE?
This article will examine the following elements: plot, setting, character, point-of-view, theme, and tone.
Each of these broad elements has many possible subcategories and there is, of course, some crossover between some of the elements – this isn’t Math, after all!
There are hundreds of terms associated with literature as a whole, and I would recommend viewing this glossary for a complete breakdown of these.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ELEMENT OF LITERATURE AND A LITERARY DEVICE?
Elements of literature are present in every literary text. They are the essential ingredients required to create any piece of literature, including poems, plays, novels, short stories, feature articles, nonfiction books, etc.
Literary devices, on the other hand, are tools and techniques that are used to create specific effects within a work. Think metaphor, simile, hyperbole, foreshadowing, etc. We examine literary devices in detail in other articles on this site.
While the elements of literature will appear in every literary text, not every literary device will.
Now, let’s look at each of these oh-so-crucial elements of literature.
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Plot refers to all related things that happen in sequence in a story. The shape of the plot comes from the order of these events and consists of several distinct aspects that we’ll look at in turn.
The plot is made up of a series of cause and effect events that lead the reader from the beginning of the story, through the middle, to the story’s ending (though sometimes the chronological order is played with for dramatic effect).
Exposition: This is the introduction of the story. Usually, it will be where the reader acquires the necessary background information they’ll need to follow the various threads of the plot through to the end. This is also where the setting of the story is established, the main characters are introduced to the reader, and the central conflict begins to emerge.
Conflict: The conflict of the story serves as the focus and driving force of most of the story’s action. Essentially, conflict consists of a central (and sometimes secondary) problem. Without a problem or conflict, there is no story. Conflict usually takes the form of two opposing forces. These can be external forces or, sometimes, these opposing forces can take the form of an internal struggle within the protagonist or main character.
Rising Action: The rising action of the narrative begins at the end of the exposition. It usually forms most of the plot and begins with an inciting incident that kick-starts a series of cause and effect events. The rising action builds on tension and culminates in the climax.
Climax: After the introduction of the problem or central conflict of the story, the action rises as the drama of the story unfolds in a series of causes and effects. These events culminate in the story’s dramatic high point, known as the climax. This is when the tension finally reaches its breaking point
Falling Action: This part of the narrative is made up of the events that happen after the climax. Things begin to slow down and work their way towards the story’s end, tying up loose ends on the way. We can think of the falling action as a de-escalation of the story’s drama.
Resolution: This is the final part of the plot arc and represents the closing of the conflict and the return of normality – or a new normality – in the wake of the story’s events. Often, this takes the form of a significant change within the main character. A resolution restores balance and order to the world or it brings about a new balance and order.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: PLOT
Discuss a well-known story in class. Fairytales are an excellent resource for this activity. Students must name a scene from each story that corresponds to each of the sections of the plot as listed above: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Setting consists of two key elements: space and time. Space refers to the where of the story; most often the geographical location where the action of the story takes place. Time refers to the when of the story. This could be a historical period, the present, or the future.
The setting has some other aspects for the reader or writer to consider too. For example, drilling down from the broader time and place, elements such as the weather, cultural context, and physical surroundings, etc can be important.
The setting is a crucial part of a story’s exposition and is often used to establish the mood of the story. A carefully crafted setting can be used to skillfully hint at the story’s theme and to reveal some aspects of the various characters.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: SETTING
Gather up a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts. Students should go through the selected texts and write two sentences about each that identify the settings of each. The sentences should make clear where and when the stories take place.
A story’s characters are the doers of the actions. Characters most often take human form but, on occasion, a story can employ animals, fantastical creatures, and even inanimate objects as characters.
Some characters are dynamic and change over the course of a story, while others are static and do not grow or change as a result of the action of the story.
There are many different types of characters to be found in works of literature and each serves a different function.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the most important of these.
The protagonist is the story’s main character. The story’s plot centers around these characters and they are usually sympathetic and likable to the reader, that is, they are most often the ‘hero’ of the story.
The antagonist is the bad guy or girl of the piece. Most of the action of the plot is borne of the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Flat characters are one-dimensional characters that are purely functional in the story. They are more a sketch than a detailed portrait and they help move the action along by serving a simple purpose. We aren’t afforded much of an insight into the interior lives of such characters.
Unlike flat characters, rounded characters are more complex and drawn in more detail by the writer. As well as being described in comprehensive physical detail, we will gain an insight into the character’s interior life, their hopes, fears, dreams, and desires, etc.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: SETTING
Choose a play that has been studied in class. Students should look at the character list and then categorize each of the characters according to the types listed above: protagonist, antagonist, flat character, or rounded character. As an extension, can the students identify whether each character is dynamic or static by the end of the tale?
4: POINT OF VIEW
Point of view in literature refers to the perspective through which you experience the events of the story.
There are various advantages and disadvantages to the different points of view available for the writer to choose from, but they can all be usefully categorized according to whether they’re first person, second person, or third-person points of view.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the most common points of view in each of these categories.
The key to recognizing this point of view lies in the use of pronouns such as I, me, my, we, us, our, etc. There are several different variations of the first-person narrative, but they all have a single person narrating the events of the story either as it unfolds, or in the past tense.
When considering a first-person narrative, the first question to ask is who is the person telling the story. Let’s take a look at two main types of the first-person point of view.
First Person Protagonist: This is when the main character of the story relates the action first-hand as he or she experiences or experienced it. As the narrator is also the main character, the reader is placed right at the center of the action and sees events unfold through the main character’s own eyes.
First Person Periphery: In this case, we see the story unfold, not from the main character’s POV, but from the perspective of a secondary character who has limited participation in the story itself.
Second Person: This perspective is uncommon. Though it is hard to pull off without sounding corny, you will find it in some books such as those Choose Your Own Adventure type books. You can recognize this perspective through the use of the 2nd person pronoun ‘you’.
Third Person Limited: From this perspective, we see events unfold from the point of view of one person in the story. As the name suggests, we are limited to seeing things from the perspective of the third person narrator and do not gain insight into the internal life of the other characters, other than through their actions as described by the third-person narrator (he, she, they, etc).
Third Person Omniscient: The great eye in the sky! The 3rd person omniscient narrator, as the name suggests, knows everything about everyone. From this point of view, nothing is off-limits. This allows the reader to peek behind every curtain and into every corner of what is going on as the narrator moves freely through time and space, jumping in and out of the characters’ heads along the way.
Advantages and Disadvantages
As we’ve mentioned there are specific advantages and disadvantages to each of the different points of view. While the third person omniscient point of view allows the reader full access to each character, the third-person limited point of view is great for building tension in a story as the writer can control what the reader knows and when they know it.
The main advantage of the first-person perspective is that it puts the reader into the head of the narrator. This brings a sense of intimacy and personal detail to the story.
We have a complete guide to point of view here for further details.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: POINT OF VIEW
Take a scene from a story or a movie that the student is very familiar with (again, fairytales can serve well here). Students must rewrite the scene from each of the different POV listed above: first-person protagonist, first-person periphery, second-person, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient. Finally, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of writing the scene from each POV. Which works best and why?
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If the plot refers to what happens in a story, then the theme is to do with what these events mean.
The theme is the big ideas that are explored in a work of literature. These are most often universal ideas that transcend the limits of culture, ethnicity, or language. The theme is the deeper meaning behind the events of the story.
Importantly, the theme of a piece of writing is not to be confused with its subject. While the subject of a text is what it is about, the theme is more to do with how the writer feels about that subject as conveyed in the writing.
It is also important to note that while all works of literature have a theme, they never state that theme explicitly. Although many works of literature deal with more than one theme, it’s usually possible to detect a main theme amid the minor ones.
The most commonly asked question about themes from students is ‘How do we work out what the theme is?’
The truth is, how easy or how difficult it will be to detect a work’s theme will vary greatly between different texts. The ease of identification will depend largely on how straightforward or how complex the work is.
To identify the theme, students should look out for symbols and motifs within the text. Especially symbols and motifs that repeat.
Students further need to understand that symbols are when one thing is used to stand for another. While not all symbols are related to the theme of the text, when symbols are used repeatedly or found in a cluster, they usually relate to a motif. This motif will in turn relate to the theme of the work.
Of course, this leads to the question: What exactly is a motif?
A motif is a recurring idea or an element that has symbolic significance. Uncovering this significance will reveal the theme to a careful reader.
We can further understand the themes as concepts and statements. Concepts are the broad categories or issues of the work, while statements are the position the writer takes on those issues as expressed in the text.
Here are some examples of thematic concepts commonly found in literature:
When discussing the theme of a work in any detail, identifying the thematic concept will not be enough. Students will need to explore what the thematic statements are in the text. That is, they need to identify the opinions the writer expresses on the thematic concepts in the text.
For example, we might identify that a story is about forgiveness, that is, that forgiveness is the primary thematic concept. When we identify what the work says about forgiveness, such as forgiveness is necessary for a person to move on with their life, we are identifying a thematic statement.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: THEME
Again, choose familiar stories to work with. For each story identify and write down both the thematic concept and the thematic statement. For more complex stories, there may be multiple themes that need to be identified.
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Tone refers to how the theme is treated in a work. Two works may have the same theme, but each may adopt a different tone in dealing with that theme. For example, the tone of a text can be serious, comical, formal, informal, gloomy, joyful, sarcastic, or sentimental, to name but eight.
The tone that the writer adopts influences how the reader reads that text. It informs how the reader will feel about the characters and events described.
Tone helps to create the mood of the piece and gives life to the story as a whole.
PRACTICE ACTIVITY: TONE
Find examples of texts that convey each of the 8 tones listed above: serious, comical, formal, informal, gloomy, joyful, sarcastic, and sentimental. Give 3 examples from each text that convey that specific tone. The examples can be drawn from direct quotations of the narrative or dialogue, or from a commentary on the structure of the text.
Though the essential elements of literature are few in number, they can take a lifetime to master. The more experience a student gains in creating and analyzing texts with reference to these elements, the more adept they will become in their use.
Time invested in this area will reap rich rewards in terms of the skill with which a student can craft a text and also in the level of enjoyment and meaning they can derive from their reading.
Time well spent, for sure.
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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.