8 Literary Elements to Know

Parker Yamasaki

Every piece of literature has certain questions baked into it: Who is the story about? What are they doing? Why does it matter? The answers to these questions help compose a piece of writing’s literary elements.

Here, we’ll share some of the most important literary elements, including their definitions, and give examples of each.

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What are literary elements?

Every story can be broken down into its literary elements. Literary elements are essential components that build a story, such as plot, narrator, point of view, and setting. Think of literary elements as answering the who , what , where , when , why , and how of a story. If the story lacks an answer to one of these questions, it’s an incomplete story.

There are endless variations within each element, and deciding on these variations is where the writer’s work takes place. Below we’ll look at eight of the basic literary elements, but first we have a quick note about the difference between literary elements and literary devices .

Literary elements vs. literary devices

Literary elements and literary devices are both useful storytelling components that guide and shape a story. The difference is that literary elements are essential, while literary devices are optional. Literary elements are the foundation of a story, like plot , setting , and characters . Literary devices are techniques or flourishes that a writer can apply to their writing— imagery , personification , and allusion are all examples of literary devices.

8 literary elements

The plot is what happens in the story. Plot drives the narrative forward. It is what your characters do, what events transpire, and in what order. A plot does not have to be a complicated weave of actions, although that’s an option. As long as a story has a beginning, middle, and end, it has a plot.

Some stories have a single, central plot, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird , which revolves around race and a trial in the rural South. Stories can also have multiple plots, like Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere , which follows the lives of two families in an Ohio suburb.

The narrator is a central figure through which the story is told. A narrator can be a single person, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby , an omniscient entity, or a nonhuman narrator like an insect or animal. An example of the latter is The Art of Racing in the Rain , by Garth Stein, where the narrator is a loyal dog named Enzo.

3 Point of view

An element closely related to narrator is point of view . Point of view is the angle through which a story is told. The difference between narrator and point of view is that a narrator is the entity through which a point of view is told, while point of view is the position from which the narrator sees the story .

There are different points of view that a writer can use. The three broad categories are:

First person: The story is told through the eyes of a main character. You will notice pronouns like I , me , my , and our in writing done in the first-person point of view.

Second person: Second-person point of view uses the pronoun you and makes the reader the main character. You will find second-person point of view in many educational resources (like this blog post), as well as in self-help books and articles.

Third person: Third-person point of view is narrated from a position outside of the characters in the story. While the story may follow a single character, third-person point of view grants readers access to the movements of all of the characters, as well as to their thoughts and feelings, establishing a much wider scope of knowledge. Third-person point of view is sometimes called the “omniscient” or “all-knowing” point of view.

4 Characters

Characters are the population of the story. Every story will have at least one character (the main character). The main character is often known as the protagonist . Those acting against the protagonist are called antagonists , and the interactions between them create conflict or tension in a story’s plot. There are lots of ways characters can join in a story, and they don’t all have to be working with or against a main character. Characters can provide dialogue , create geographic or cultural context, or add a different perspective.

Conflict in literature is the central struggle of the main character. Conflict drives a story forward by providing a sense of purpose or motivation. A story’s conflict can occur between characters or between a main character and a force of nature or a social structure or even within themself. Keep in mind that a conflict doesn’t always mean an overt fight. Sometimes conflict in literature shows up as a subtle tension or point of resistance.

Setting is the time, place, and environment in which a story takes place. A story can have as many settings as the writer chooses. For instance, one novel may cover hundreds of years across multiple continents, while another may take place inside a person’s head or a single room.

As a literary element, language is whichever dialect the writer uses to create their work. A story may use a single language or incorporate multiple languages. The language that a story is written in has an impact on where it is published and who it will reach.

A theme is a central idea, concept, or message that is explored throughout a story. Themes are often a bigger, broader, or deeper message than an author can write about coherently, so they use the other literary elements—like plot, character, and conflict—to guide the reader along. For example, some of the most common themes in literature are love, loss, coming of age, freedom, and power. These are huge concepts that can underpin a story.

Literary element examples

In One Hundred Years of Solitude , writer Gabriel García Márquez weaves multiple timelines together to deliver one central plot with many subplots. The main story plot is about the demise of a family over the course of five generations. In telling this main story, Márquez crafts a narrative structure that jumps back and forth through time, leading the reader through multiple subplots about war, marriage, and politics, among many other things.

In Conversations with Friends , by Sally Rooney, the narrator is twenty-one-year-old Frances, who is also the main character. Frances tells the story through the first-person point of view, giving the reader insights into her thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Alternatively, in Americanah , by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the narrator is an omniscient third party who is able to track the thoughts, feelings, and actions of two different characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, even though they live on different continents.

Point of view

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot is told through the first-person point of view . The novel opens with the line: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.” The use of I indicates to the reader that they are about to experience this story through the eyes of a specific person, rather than through a removed (third-person) perspective.

Sherwood Anderson’s short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio is an example of a story with many equally important characters. The book is based in a fictional small town, and each chapter centers on a resident of the town. True to small town life, the characters frequently cross paths and enter one another’s chapters. By focusing on a different character in every chapter, the author creates a holistic portrait of a small town.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , by Ken Kesey, there exists a central conflict between the patients of a psychiatric ward and Nurse Ratched, who symbolizes the oppressive forces of modern society. Within that central conflict are conflicts between patients and internal conflicts within characters themselves.

Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division takes place in a single, fictional city called Melahatchie. In the novel, Laymon’s main character, a boy named City, finds a portal to different time periods. Throughout the course of the book, City travels forward to 2013 and backward to 1964, creating three different settings: Melahatchie of 2013, 1985, and 1964.

Some writers use language (or languages) to highlight a multicultural experience, as in Elisa Shua Dusapin’s novel Winter in Sokcho . The novel, originally written in French, is set in South Korea. It has been translated into English, but in the translation the writer has chosen to leave certain words in Korean.

The theme of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is about power and surveillance. By writing about a disillusioned citizen named Winston Smith, Orwell is able to explore the dangers of totalitarianism, unchecked government surveillance, and the erosion of individual freedom.

Literary elements FAQs

Literary elements are the essential components that make up a piece of literature, such as plot, setting, and character. Writers have complete creative freedom when it comes to how their literary elements are expressed, but every element must be present in order for a story to exist.

Why are they important?

Literary elements are the foundation of literature. In order to write useful or compelling stories, a writer should understand how to use basic literary elements.

What are eight literary elements?

The eight literary elements in this article are: plot, narrator, point of view, characters, conflict, setting, language, and theme.

what is the 5 elements of literature

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Printable Handouts for ESL Students

Elements of Literature

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Reviewing the essential elements of literature will give you a clear picture as to how to interpret stories that you are reading and also how to implement various elements in your own essays, narratives, and creative works.

Analyzing things like setting, plot, mood, theme, and point of view will allow you to dig deeper to determine the author’s true intention behind his or her writing. You will also learn to consider the type of narrator, their reliability, and whether or not they have objective, limited, or omniscient views.

In addition to the author’s intention for their writing, you will also consider the style within the work. Setting, characterization, and rising action will hold an important role in analyzing any piece of literature.

The activities within this section will give you a solid understanding of what each of the elements of literature mean, how they work within a piece of writing, and questions to ask yourself (while reading or writing) to address each category.

Elements of Literature

How to analyze a short story, what is a short story.

A short story is a work of short, narrative prose that is usually centered around one single event. It is limited in scope and has an introduction, body and conclusion. Although a short story has much in common with a novel (See How to Analyze a Novel), it is written with much greater precision. You will often be asked to write a literary analysis. An analysis of a short story requires basic knowledge of literary elements. The following guide and questions may help you:

Setting is a description of where and when the story takes place. In a short story there are fewer settings compared to a novel. The time is more limited. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is the setting created? Consider geography, weather, time of day, social conditions, etc.
  • What role does setting play in the story? Is it an important part of the plot or theme? Or is it just a backdrop against which the action takes place?

Study the time period, which is also part of the setting, and ask yourself the following:

  • When was the story written?
  • Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
  • How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere or social circumstances of the short story?


Characterization deals with how the characters in the story are described. In short stories there are usually fewer characters compared to a novel. They usually focus on one central character or protagonist. Ask yourself the following:

  • Who is the main character?
  • Are the main character and other characters described through dialogue – by the way they speak (dialect or slang for instance)?
  • Has the author described the characters by physical appearance, thoughts and feelings, and interaction (the way they act towards others)?
  • Are they static/flat characters who do not change?
  • Are they dynamic/round characters who DO change?
  • What type of characters are they? What qualities stand out? Are they stereotypes?
  • Are the characters believable?

Plot and structure

The plot is the main sequence of events that make up the story. In short stories the plot is usually centered around one experience or significant moment. Consider the following questions:

  • What is the most important event?
  • How is the plot structured? Is it linear, chronological or does it move around?
  • Is the plot believable?

Narrator and Point of view

The narrator is the person telling the story. Consider this question: Are the narrator and the main character the same?

By point of view we mean from whose eyes the story is being told. Short stories tend to be told through one character’s point of view. The following are important questions to consider:

  • Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
  • Does the author speak through the main character?
  • Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
  • Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she” point of view?
  • Is there an “all-knowing” third person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?

Elements of Literature with Mr. Taylor (Part 1). Authored by: Kenny Taylor. Located at: https://youtu.be/9E6JJojgCew. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License

How to Analyze a Short Story. Authored by: Carol Dwankowski. Provided by: ndla.no. Located at: http://ndla.no/en/node/9075?fag=42&meny=102113. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the short story and is related to the main character. In a short story there is usually one main struggle.

  • How would you describe the main conflict?
  • Is it an internal conflict within the character?
  • Is it an external conflict caused by the surroundings or environment the main character finds himself/herself in?

The climax is the point of greatest tension or intensity in the short story. It can also be the point where events take a major turn as the story races towards its conclusion. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a turning point in the story?
  • When does the climax take place?

The theme is the main idea, lesson, or message in the short story. It may be an abstract idea about the human condition, society, or life. Ask yourself:

  • How is the theme expressed?
  • Are any elements repeated and therefore suggest a theme?
  • Is there more than one theme?

The author’s style has to do with the his or her vocabulary, use of imagery, tone, or the feeling of the story. It has to do with the author’s attitude toward the subject. In some short stories the tone can be ironic, humorous, cold, or dramatic.

  • Is the author’s language full of figurative language?
  • What images are used?
  • Does the author use a lot of symbolism? Metaphors (comparisons that do not use “as” or “like”) or similes (comparisons that use “as” or “like”)?

Elements of Literature with Mr. Taylor (Part 2). Authored by: Kenny Taylor. Located at: https://youtu.be/O7c_SjKcGbE. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License

To review, considering the various elements of literature is essential while analyzing a work of literature. Things like setting, plot, mood, theme, and point of view could give you a better idea of an author’s intention. The type of narrator, their reliability, and their type of view (objective, limited, or omniscient) will allow you to dive deeper into the trustworthiness of the information they provide.

In addition to the author’s intention for their writing, you will also consider the style within the work. Setting, characterization, and rising action will hold an important role in analyzing literature.

The elements of literature within this section are applicable as you are reading or writing on your own. You should be able to apply the definitions for the elements of literature, describe how they work within a piece of writing, and understand the questions to ask yourself while reading and/or writing.

ENG134 – Literary Genres Copyright © by The American Women's College and Jessica Egan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literary Conventions

Elements of literature.

These are the Elements of Literature, the things that make up every story. This is the first of two videos.

These are the elements of literature with Mr. Taylor.

  • Elements of Literature with Mr. Taylor (Part 1). Authored by : Kenny Taylor. Located at : https://youtu.be/9E6JJojgCew . License : All Rights Reserved . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
  • Elements of Literature with Mr. Taylor (Part 2). Authored by : Kenny Taylor. Located at : https://youtu.be/O7c_SjKcGbE . License : All Rights Reserved . License Terms : Standard YouTube License

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Literary Elements: A List of 21 Powerful Literary Devices

POSTED ON Oct 25, 2023

Angelica Hartgers

Written by Angelica Hartgers

Literary elements might sound like a scary technical term, but many people are surprised to learn how commonly these devices are found in everyday life. As an author, literary elements are especially beneficial, and it's helpful to have a list of literary elements next to you as you write to maximize the power of your words.

If you’ve read a book or two, or even listened carefully to some song lyrics, it’s highly likely that you've encountered several literary elements without realizing it. But what is a literary element, and how do you use one successfully in your writing?

To improve your writing and make it more powerful , you’ll need to become closely acquainted with these techniques no matter what book genres you are writing, so you can feel comfortable using them in your stories.

Today we will break down what literary elements are, and give you a list of literary elements examples so you know precisely how to use them.

This blog on literary elements will cover:

What is a literary element.

Literary elements, also known as literary devices, are writing techniques used to create artistic special effects that immerse the reader. They are considered the main tools in a writer's toolbox. Popular literary elements examples include allusion, diction, foreshadowing, imagery, metaphors, similes, and personification, which we'll cover more in our list of literary elements below.

What is a literary element used for? You can think of is like adding spice to your writing. Literary elements prevent your book or story from tasting dull and bland to the reader.

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What are some literary elements examples?

Some common examples of literary elements that most people are familiar with are metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, and symbolism . But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more elements to consider, with more advanced or less-known devices such as aphorism, archetype, red herring, mood, and more.

The more literary elements you have to use in your arsenal, the more powerful your writing will be.

This will also prevent you from overusing the same literary elements in your writing. While it's natural that as you practice and develop your writing skills, you'll likely stick to a handful of devices that become part of your style, variety is always beneficial – especially for strengthening your writing craft.

Why use literary elements?

It's important to use literary elements in your storytelling to improve your narrating technique. As you become a strong writer and work to continuously improve your writing development , the use of literary elements and other techniques will make you a prolific writer and storyteller.

Maybe you have a love-hate relationship with writing. Maybe you’re of the mind that the more simplistic writing is, the better it is. Maybe you just don’t want to overcomplicate things. We get it!

But if you take a look at most successful writers, both modern authors and classic authors, you’ll find that remarkable writers use literary elements in their work .

Here are the main reasons to use literary devices in your writing:

  • They add special effects to your writing. Part of showing, and not telling, through your story involves the use of literary elements and other techniques in your storytelling.
  • They help you connect with the reader. You can draw the reader into your story and encourage them to engage with the text. Literary elements can also stimulate the reader's mind, giving them a deeper reading experience.
  • They make your writing more interesting to read. No one likes to read a boring story. By incorporating literary techniques in your writing, you add life to your words.
  • They convey abstract information. More common in fiction stories, literary elements can help the author convey abstract concepts or information to the reader. They can help communicate specific themes in books without the writer having to directly state the purpose.
  • They paint a vivid picture with your words. Literary techniques can help paint a visual picture or image in the reader's imagination. Again, it all comes back to showing the reader what's happening, rather than simply telling.

Authors use literary elements to enhance their creative expression, and to add artistic flair to their writing, which provides an unforgettable reader experience.

Learn how to become an author by studying the greats – the more literature you read, the more you’ll see just how often famous writers rely on literary elements to strengthen their writing.

Common literary elements

The most common literary devices used in literature, art, and everyday language are similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.

However, many people don't know the actual names of literary elements, so they don't realize when they encounter them in everyday situations.

While these literary elements are most commonly used, there are numerous other devices that are alive and used by writers often, which we'll cover in the literary elements list.

Tips to use literary elements

As you become familiar with this literary elements list, you’ll find that using these elements in your own writing will come more natural. With practice, you'll soon be able to identify literary devices in your own work-in-progress, as well as the work of other authors and storytellers.

Even if you’re learning how to become a non-fiction author , you’ll want to use literary elements because they are an effective way to captivate readers on any topic.

Here are some tips to use literary elements in your own writing:

  • Read the work of other writers. Make it a point to study the craft of other authors whose writing you admire. The more you encounter the natural use of literary elements in others' work, the more familiar you will be with identifying them and learning how to use them in your own writing.
  • Don’t overdo it. Remember when we compared literary elements to being a spice? Think of it in terms of how you would use seasoning in an actual recipe. Sprinkle in literary elements – don’t just dump them!
  • Make it seem natural. This is an art in itself. You should be strategic about where and how you use literary devices in your writing.
  • When in doubt, don’t use literary devices. If you don’t understand exactly how a literary element works, don’t use it. Instead, familiarize yourself with each device first.
  • Make it understandable for your readers. Readers shouldn’t have to interrupt their reading to pause and think about what you are trying to say.
  • Look for real-life examples. Pay closer attention to the songs, poetry, screenplays, and books you encounter in everyday life.

Now that you understand what literary elements are, and some tips for using them effectively in your writing, let's dive into the actual list of literary elements.

A list of 21 literary elements to engage readers

From Shakespeare to Kristin Hannah , writers have been using literary elements to write powerful sentences and prose for ages. Here is a list of the 21 most commonly used literary elements:

1. Allusion

An allusion is a literary device that indirectly refers to external people, events, or things .

An easy way to remember the definition of an allusion is to think of the verb “allude.” When you allude to something, you are referencing something else.

An example of allusion: With a deep frown on his face as he stormed through the Christmas market, Johnny looked like a real Scrooge.

2. Alliteration

Alliteration is when words with the same sound or letter appear in a sentence, often consecutively .

Popular uses for alliteration include book titles , business names, nursery rhymes, and tongue twisters. Alliteration is an easy literary element to use because it’s a simple way to enhance phrases.

These classic book titles are great examples of alliteration:

  • Pride and Prejudice
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • Love’s Labor’s Lost

However, alliteration is also used in actual sentences, like the example below in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous Gothic poem, “The Raven.”

Example Of Alliteration

3. Anaphora

Anaphora is similar to alliteration in the sense that it relies on repetition. The difference is that an anaphora repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences.

Used widely in rhetoric , examples of anaphoras can be found in many famous speeches.

In the example of anaphora below , look at the repeated use of “it was” at the beginning of each new concept:

Anaphora Literary Device

Diction is the literary element that’s all about word choice . The specific choice of words used helps determine the style in which the person is speaking or writing.

Diction comes in handy when you’re trying to show the reader a particular situation or encounter between characters . The word choice a certain character uses will indirectly show the reader what a character is like, and what type of social setting the character is in.

There are four different types of diction:

  • Formal diction is when the word choice is considered formal. It’s typically used in situations to convey a sense of social class or education, or in formal situations.
  • Informal diction is when the word choice is informal, more geared towards a casual conversation. It’s typically used to convey a sense of familiarity, such as in a letter to a friend.
  • Colloquial diction is when words are used in everyday situations, and are often different depending on the region or community.
  • Slang diction is when newly created, trendy words, or impolite words are used.

Here are examples of the different types of diction:

Diction Example

5. Euphemism

A euphemism is used to refer to something indirectly, or to describe something in a more pleasant or polite way .

Use euphemisms in your own writing when you want to add in some humor, or when you want to soften the blow or use less harsh imagery or phrasing.

For example, doctors use the euphemism “negative patient outcome.” This is a more polite or “pleasant” way of saying that a patient has died.

6. Epistrophe

The opposite of anaphora, which we covered earlier in this literary elements list, is an epistrophe. It is defined as the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence.

Use an epistrophe in your own writing when you want to add rhythm to a paragraph, or to emphasize a point . Since the reader is drawn to the end of words in a sentence, euphemisms are a strategic way to subtly call attention to something.

Examples of epistrophes can be found in many famous speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” in the lines: “…government of the people , by the people , and for the people , shall not perish from the earth.”

7. Flashbacks

Flashbacks are a popular literary element not only in stories and books, but in films and screenwriting, too. A flashback is exactly what it sounds like; in writing, it’s when a narrator is mentally transported to an event that happened in the past.

Common reasons to use flashbacks in your story are to:

  • Provide the reader with more context about the character, situation, or event.
  • Increase the suspense and tension
  • Clue readers in to an important event that affected the present

Look to any popular movie for flashback examples . In Disney’s Tangled , Rapunzel has an important flashback when she looks up at the ceiling in the tower, and notices the sun symbol. Seeing the sun symbol triggers her to have a flashback in which she remembers who her real parents are.

8. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary element used by writers to hint at what will happen next , or at some point, in the story.

Use this device in your writing when you want to build suspense in the story, and when you want to hint about something that might happen, without being too obvious.

An example of foreshadowing is explained below:

Literary Element Foreshadow

9. Hyperbole

Hyberbole is an extreme exaggeration of a real event or situation .

Use hyberbole in your writing to add a humorous effect or to emphasize a concept . It’s easy to use, and many examples of this literary element can be found in everyday conversation.

Some examples of hyperbole are:

  • I’m so hungry, I can eat a whole cow.
  • It had been forever since they saw each other.
  • She was dying to attend one of the best writers conferences this year.

10. Imagery

Have you ever read a sentence that allowed you to envision exactly what the author was describing? If so, chances are that the writer was using imagery, which appeals to the reader’s physical senses.

A common term for imagery is figurative language, which is how writers show the story, as opposed to telling it.

One of the best places to use imagery is in the setting of a story .

Just like the five senses, there are five types of imagery:

  • Visual imagery is when vivid images are conveyed in the reader’s mind.
  • Olfactory imagery is when smells are described to the reader.
  • Gustatory imagery is when tastes are described to the reader.
  • Tactile imagery is all about the reader’s sense of physical touch.
  • Auditory imagery is when sounds are described to the reader.

These are examples of the five types of imagery:

Imagery Examples

11. Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is when a writer places two contrasting concepts, people, or events directly side-by-side in a sentence or paragraph.

Use this literary element in your own writing when you want to help show the reader the differences or similarities between two things , or when you want to add an element of surprise.

An example of juxtaposition is in the classic movie The Godfather , when baptism scenes were juxtaposed with murder scenes.

A motif in any work of film or literature is when a recurrent element (such as an image, sound, or concept) is found throughout a story to help develop the theme or central message.

A common example of motif in fairy tales, such as Disney adaptations, is the presence of older female villains. For example, in Cinderella and Snow White , there is the presence of the wicked stepmother. In A Little Mermaid , the sea witch is an aging woman who desires youth and beauty.

13. Metaphor

This literary elements list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning metaphors! Not to be confused with simile, which we cover next, a metaphor is an implicit comparison between two or more things.

When incorporating metaphors in your own writing, be sure to imply a comparison. The key to using metaphors is to not include the words “like” or “as” in your comparison.

An example of a metaphor: “That woman is a devil in disguise.”

While a metaphor is an implicit comparison, a simile is an explicit comparison. A simile directly compares two or more things.

With a simile, it is clear that the author is showing the reader that one thing is similar or different to another. A simile almost always includes the words “like” and “as.”

An example of a simile: “His face was as red as a tomato.”

15. Personification

Personification is another fun device that's worth mentioning on this list of literary elements. As its name implies, personification is a technique used when a writer gives inanimate objects or inhuman beings (like animals) human characteristics or attributes.

You can easily use personification in your own writing draw your reader’s attention and convey a deeper meaning . One of the easier writing tips to implement, personification is a simple, but effective, literary technique.

Some examples of personification are:

  • The trees whispered to one another in the night.
  • Time waits for no one.
  • The snow whirled and danced across the sky.

16. Onomatopoeia

Difficult to say, but easy to understand, onomatopoeia is a word or phrase that conveys the sound of something.

Use this element when you want to show the reader what is happening by stimulating their auditory senses. It's also a great way to incorporate stronger vocabulary!

Common examples of words or phrases that are onomatopoeia:

  • Cock-a-doodle-doo

17. Oxymoron

Oxymoron is a literary element that includes a combination of contrasting, or opposite, words . It’s important to note that an oxymoron is not the same as a paradox – we’ll explain why in the next section.

Use oxymorons in your writing when you want to create a dramatic effect for the reader , especially in poetry.

An example of an oxymoron is found in these sentences:

  • Writers have a love-hate relationship with writing.
  • Saying goodbye is bitter sweet .
  • Well, aren’t you awfully good ?

18. Paradox

A paradox is different from an oxymoron because it is a sentence or a phrase that appears contradictory, but implies some truth. When you want to add a hidden meaning to a concept in your writing, use a paradox. It will engage the reader by subtly adding a sense of mystery to a larger context. Many readers love to read between the lines!

An example of a paradox is found in this quote: “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

19. Symbolism

Symbolism is when something is used to represent something else, such an idea or concept.

Authors commonly use symbols as objects to represent a non-literal meaning . You can use symbols in your own story to make it more powerful.

An example of symbolism is in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Throughout the story, the letter “A” symbolizes adultery and its effects both on an individual basis, and within society.

Tone is defined as a speaker or narrator’s attitude about a subject. It is different from the mood a reader gets during a scene in the story.

Set the narrator’s tone in your writing through choosing words that fit the tone you're trying to convey , and by having the character take a certain stance or position on a topic.

Tone Literary Elements List

21. Nostalgia

Nostalgic writing serves as a powerful literary element by evoking deep emotions and fostering a sense of connection between the readers and the past . It can create an atmosphere of longing and wistfulness, drawing the audience into a world tinged with fond memories and bittersweet reflections.

By skillfully incorporating nostalgia, authors can enrich their narratives, add complexity to characters, and transport readers to different eras, making the storytelling experience more immersive and resonant.

Literary Devices: Quick Guide

Now that you have a thorough understanding of powerful literary elements to use in your own writing, it’s time to put your skills to the test!

Set a writing goal to use at least one different literary element in your work each day to help you practice.

Need some inspiration? Use our writing prompt generator to get started! The only way to improve your writing, and ultimately your reader’s experience, is to practice.

Start engaging your readers with literary elements today!

Literary Device Infographic

Ready to improve your book with literary elements?

Learn more about who you are as an author and how you can use literary techniques to enhance your work.

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2.3: How to Analyze Fiction - Elements of Literature

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  • Heather Ringo & Athena Kashyap
  • City College of San Francisco via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative

Elements of Literature

Before you dive straight into your analysis of symbolism, diction, imagery, or any other rhetorical device, you need to have a grasp of the basic elements of what you're reading. When we read critically or analytically, we might disregard character, plot, setting, and theme as surface elements of a text. Aside from noting what they are and how they drive a story, we sometimes don't pay much attention to these elements. However, characters and their interactions can reveal a great deal about human nature. Plot can act as a stand-in for real-world events just as setting can represent our world or an allegorical one. Theme is the heart of literature, exploring everything from love and war to childhood and aging.

With this in mind, you can begin your examination of literature with a “who, what, when, where, how?” approach. Ask yourself “Who are the characters?” “What is happening?” “When and where is it happening?” and “How does it happen?” The answers will give you character (who), plot (what and how), and setting (when and where). When you put these answers together, you can begin to figure out theme, and you will have a solid foundation on which to base your analysis.

We will be exploring several of the following literary elements in the following pages so that we can have a common vocabulary to talk about fiction:

  • Rhetorical Devices

Here are a few questions to ask when looking at some of the main elements of fiction. We will be looking at each of these in more detail in the following pages.

Setting is a description of where and when the story takes place.

  • Geography, weather, time of day, social conditions?
  • What role does setting play in the story? Is it an important part of the plot or theme? Or is it just a backdrop against which the action takes place?
  • Study the time period which is also part of the setting
  • Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
  • How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere, or social circumstances of the novel?


Characterization deals with how the characters are described.

  • through dialogue?
  • by the way they speak?
  • physical appearance? thoughts and feelings?
  • interaction – the way they act towards other characters?
  • Are they static characters who do not change?
  • Do they develop by the end of the story?
  • What type of characters are they?
  • What qualities stand out?
  • Are they stereotypes?
  • Are the characters believable?

Plot and structure

The plot is the main sequence of events that make up the story.

  • What are the most important events?
  • How is the plot structured? Is it linear and chronological or does it move back and forth?
  • Are there turning points, a climax, and/or an anticlimax?
  • Is the plot believable?

Narrator and Point of View

The narrator is the person telling the story. Point of view : whose eyes the story is being told through.

  • Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
  • Is the narrator the main character?
  • Does the author speak through one of the characters?
  • Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
  • Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she/they” point of view?
  • Is the story written in an “all-knowing” third person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?

Conflict or tension is usually the heart of the novel and is related to the main character.

  • Is it internal where the character suffers inwardly?
  • Is it external, caused by the surroundings or environment the main character finds themself in?

The theme is the main idea, lesson, or message in the novel. It is usually an abstract, universal idea about the human condition, society or life, to name a few.

  • How does the theme shine through in the story?
  • Are any elements repeated that may suggest a theme?
  • What other themes are there?

The author’s style has to do with the author’s vocabulary, use of imagery, tone, or feeling of the story. It has to do with his attitude towards the subject. In some novels the tone can be ironic, humorous, cold, or dramatic.

  • Is the text full of figurative language?
  • Does the author use a lot of symbolism? Metaphors, similes? An example of a metaphor is when someone says, "My love, you are a rose." An example of a simile is "My darling, you are like a rose."
  • What images are used?

Your literary analysis of a novel will often be in the form of an essay or book report where you will be asked to give your opinions of the novel at the end. To conclude, choose the elements that made the greatest impression on you. Point out which characters you liked best or least and always support your arguments. Try to view the novel as a whole and try to give a balanced analysis.

These are the Elements of Literature, the things that make up every story. This is the first of two videos.

Video 4.5.1 : Elements of literature with Mr. Taylor: Part I

Video 4.5.2 Elements of literature with Mr. Taylor: Part II

Contributors and Attributions

  • Adapted from Writing About Literature: The Basics by CK-12, license CC-BY-NC
  • Adapted from How to Analyze a Novel by Carol Dwankowski, provided by NDLA, license CC-BY-SA
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An Explanation of the Key Elements of Literature

A writer appeals to our feelings and emotions through various elements of literature, such as the plot, character, theme, etc. The article below elaborates on the different elements of literature.

Elements of Literature

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. ― Virginia Wolf

This quote most certainly echoes the hidden beauty of literature. The adventurous “Robinson Crusoe” or the heart-touching “Great Expectations” are some of the brilliant works that will give you a taste of literature. In other words, we can summarize this discipline in the words of Ezra Pound – Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree . Literature finds its recognition in stories, novels, and drama. The theme is of prime importance. An author depicts the ups and downs of the protagonist with the help of characterization. The story progresses through various plots. There are prologues and epilogues and a myriad other entities. The paragraphs below will tell you more about the elements of literature.

The Different Elements

There are different ways in which literature can be portrayed – a novel, drama, poetry, biography, non-fictional prose, an essay, an epic, or short stories. All these entities have elements. To complete a piece, a writer, dramatist, or a novelist needs to use certain elements, like a plot, character, theme, etc. However, elements of fiction and elements of drama differ from elements of poetry. These elements are discussed below:

Elements of Fiction and Drama

Point of view


A plot is the sequential arrangement of incidents, ideas, or events. In literature, the plot encompasses all the incidents and provides aesthetic pleasure. The story of the novel progresses through various plots and conflicts. Plots of dramas are divided into “Acts” and “Scenes”. Drama has five essential parts. These are:

  • Introduction of the story – where the characters and setting are introduced
  • Rising action
  • Falling action

Playwrights use dialog to develop their plots. They reveal information about their characters such as their background and personality.

Character plays a pivotal role in a drama, novel, short story, and all kinds of narratives. In drama, the character reflects the personality of the protagonist and other related characters. The method of conveying information about characters in art is called characterization. Characters can be fictional or based on real, historical entities. They can be human, supernatural, mythical, divine, animalistic, or personifications of an abstraction. There are round characters, flat characters, stereotypical stock characters, etc. In Marlowe’s drama “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus” , Faustus is the main character of the play.

It refers to geographical location of the story, time period, daily lifestyle of the characters, and climate of the story. In a novel, the setting plays an important role. It is alternatively significant and non-significant in short stories. Settings of literary forms have been changing according to theme of the literary piece; for example, Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies have the setting of palaces and castles, whereas modern and post-modern dramas have setting of houses of the common public. Supernatural elements were abundant in earlier literature, while absurdity rules the roost as of today. Setting can take place in a house, school, castle, forest, hospital, or anywhere that the writers may want to extend their scenes.

Theme is a prime element of literature, which contains the central idea of all literary forms. It reflects innocence, experience, life, death, reality, fate, madness, sanity, love, society, individual, etc. Thus, it reflects the society as a whole, for example, the theme of Hardy’s novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge” reflects the role of fate in our life. Likewise, in a drama, theme represents the brief idea of the drama.

Structure is another important element of a drama, novel, or short story. In dramas, there are plots and subplots. These also are divided into acts and scenes. Here, the contrasting subplots give the main plot an additional perspective. Likewise, novels have different chapters and scenes.

Point of view is another element of the narrative, through which a writer tells the story. Authors use the first-person or the third-person point of view. The former indicates that the main character is telling the story, whereas the latter directs that the narrator is telling the story. A novel can be written in the first-person narrative, third-person narrative, an omniscient point of view, a limited omniscient point of view, a stream of consciousness, and an objective point of view. These points of view play an important role in the distinct structure of the story or a play.

Be it a short story, drama or novel, conflict is the essential element of all these literary forms. A plot becomes interesting and intriguing when it has its share of inbuilt conflict and twists. Conflict can be internal conflict or external. It can take place between two men, between the character and his psychology, between the character and circumstances, or between character and society.

Use of language or diction

Diction is another essential element of drama. A playwright exhibits the thoughts of characters through dialog. The word “Dialogue” has come from the Greek word “dialogosa”, which means “conversation”. Shakespeare used this element to portray the thoughts, emotions, and feelings of the character. This also provides clues to their background and personalities. Diction also helps in advancing the plot. Greek philosophers like Aristotle used dialogue as the best way to instruct their students.

Foreshadowing is another important element of literature that is applied as hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in the story. It creates suspense and encourages the reader to go on and find out more about the event that is being foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is used to make a narrative more authentic.

Elements of Poetry

Poetry is literature in a metrical form. However, free-verse became the popular style towards the modern and post modern age. Like fiction, it may not have plots, setting, etc.; yet, it has a structured method of writing. There are various kinds of poetry , such as a ballad, sonnet, etc. All these forms have some elements, such as style, theme, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, etc.

It refers to the way the poem is written. Poems are written in various styles, such as free verse, ballad, sonnet, etc., which have different meters and number of stanzas.

Symbol represents the idea and thought of the poem. It can be an object, person, situation, or action. For example, a national flag is the symbol of that nation.

Like other forms of literature, poetry has a theme of its own. Theme contains the message, point of view, and idea of the poem.

Imagery is another important element that a poet often uses in poems that appeal to our senses. In the age of modernism, T.S. Eliot used images of urban life in his poems. Wordsworth used nature as poetic images in his poems.

Rhyme and rhythm

Rhyme is an element that is often used in poetry. It’s a recurrence of an accented sound or sounds in a piece of literature. Poets and lyricists use this device in various ways to rhyme within a verse. There is internal rhyme, cross rhyme, random rhyme, and mixed rhyme. It gives the poem a flow and rhythm. It contains the syllables in a poem. Every poem has a rhythm in it. It’s about how the words resonate with each other and how the words flow when they are linked with one another in a poem.

This is an important rhythmic structure of poetry. It is described as sequence of feet, each foot being a specific series of syllable types – such as ‘stressed’ or ‘unstressed’. It makes the poetry more melodious.


Alliteration is another element used in poetry for the sound effect. It indicates two or more words with same repetition of initial letter, for example, “dressy daffodils”. Here, the sound of the letter ‘d’ is repeated.

A simile is a figure of speech used for comparison in the poetry with the words ‘like’ or ‘as’. For example, “as black as coal”.

Metaphor is used in poetry to make an implicit comparison. Unlike simile, here the comparison is implied, for example, ‘Her laughter, a babbling brook’.


This is one important element of poetry, which refers to words that sound like their meaning, for example, buzz , moo , and paw .

Element of literature includes all the elements that are essential to create a piece. These elements help a writer to create splendid poetry, superb drama, and a soul-touching novel. They are used to form the structure of a literary piece.

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The 7 Most Common Literary Elements Explained

While literary devices include a number of methods used to tell a story, literary elements are the pieces that make up the structure of the story itself.

When you’re studying a piece of literature , understanding what makes up a story can help you discuss and analyze it more effectively. By learning the literary terms for the elements you’d like to discuss, you can communicate more clearly, while garnering a better understanding yourself. 

These are elements that are intrinsic parts of nearly every story. Once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be better able to analyze and understand any literature you read.

1. Language

5. point of view, 7. characters, the final word on literary elements, why do you need to learn about literary elements, which literary elements are found in a poem, which literary elements are present in folk tales.

The most common literary elements explained

Speaking broadly, this refers to the language a book is written in. Some books will use slang, dialect or other languages as part of the characterization of players in the novel. Their diction tells you about where they are from, their educational background and how the character wants to be perceived by others. 

“Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.” – Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .

Mark Twain spent hours listening to the accents and dialects of enslaved people to properly capture their speech. His word choices help us form a stronger picture of his characters.

Figurative language is also part of the literary element of language. Simile, metaphor and even devices like onomatopoeia all affect the mood of the writing and how the reader perceives it.

Speaking of mood, this is another important literary element. The mood of a piece of literature refers to the general feelings and emotions that the writer seeks to invoke. A story’s mood can be humorous, dramatic, frightening or sad. 

SO STRANGE an accident has happened to us that I cannot forbear recording it, although it is very probable that you will see me before these papers can come into your possession.

– Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

These words that begin the second chapter of Shelley’s book bring tension to the mood. They are foreshadowing that allows the reader to begin to anticipate the frightening things to come.

Literary Elements: Plot

The plot of a work is the sequence of events that occur in a story. Most stories follow a plot structure that includes a beginning, conflict, rising action and eventually a climax, falling action and resolution.

As an example, the plot of Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be summarized like this:

A couple of has escaped from slavery and become prosperous is found by their former master. Desperate to avoid her family returning to enslavement, the mother kills her youngest daughter. Years later, she is visited by a woman who she is sure is the avenging ghost of her dead child.

The setting is simply the place and time period where a story occurs. Vividly drawn settings bring a literary work to life and help the reader become more engaged with the story. A short story may have only one setting. Longer works will typically have several.

As an example, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time begins in the prosaic setting of the family farmhouse in New England, then moves through fantastical settings on near and faraway planets.

This is the narrator’s perspective on the story. A story can be first person, where the person telling the story is also a character in it, telling from their perspective.

It can, less commonly, be second person, such as is used in the Tom Robbins novel Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas . It can be third person limited, where we see from an outside perspective without insight into all characters’ thoughts and motivations.

Or, it can be told in third person omniscient, where we learn what’s happening with all the characters at all times. Some works of literature may use multiple points of view.

The theme is the central message that the author wishes to convey. When looking for a story’s theme, try to figure out what the author is trying to teach or show through their writing. Many works have multiple themes.

The overarching theme of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the brutality of war. The novel also explores the dangers of blind patriotism, the bonds that trauma will build between people, and the difficulty soldiers have going back to civilian life.

All literary works have at least one character. This character can be a person, an animal, or even an object or an abstract idea that has been personified. In Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens, War, Famine, Pollution, and Death all appear as living characters.

The main character is also known as the protagonist. This character is the central character in the story. A story will often also have an antagonist, who is in opposition to the main character.

Supporting characters will also often appear to interact with the main character and move along the plot. Characters are often archetypes, such as the hero, innocent, explorer, or outlaw.

Literary elements can be thought of as the materials that construct a story. By understanding what they are, you can get a better understanding of the author’s intent and gain a deeper understanding of the work. 

FAQ About Literary Elements

Learning about literary elements helps us understand stories more thoroughly. It can also help people interested in creative writing construct their works.

There is no one set answer. A short poem may use devices like hyperbole or alliteration to evoke a mood or setting. A long epic poem may use as many elements as a modern novel.

Folk tales and fairy tales often include archetypical characters, fanciful settings and colorful figures of speech.

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7 Elements of Fiction

The formal elements of fiction.

Active reading involves reading a text and analyzing its features to determine its potential meanings. A common approach to analyzing short fiction is to focus on five basic elements:  plot  ,  character  ,  setting  , conflict  , and  theme  .

The  plot  of a work of fiction is the series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict. A  character  is a person, or perhaps an animal, who participates in the action of the story. The  setting of a piece of fiction is the time and place in which the events happen, including the landscape, scenery, buildings, seasons, or weather. The  conflict  is a struggle between two people or things in a short story. The main character is usually on one side of the central conflict. The  theme  is the central idea or issue conveyed by the story. These five basic elements combine to form what might be called the overall narrative  of story. In the next section, we will discuss the narrative arc of fiction in more detail.

Below are the formal elements of fiction and questions that will help you to read texts actively.

Questions for Active Reading:

  • How does the text present the passing of time?
  • Does it present time in a chronological way?
  • Or does it present the event in a non-chronological way?
  • What verb tenses are used? (i.e. past, present, future)
  • How are the characters described?
  • Do the characters talk in unique or peculiar ways?
  • Are the names of the characters important or meaningful?
  • What kind of conflicts emerge between the characters?
  • When and where does the story seem to take place?
  • Is there anything important or meaningful in regards to the time of day or time of year the story seems to take place?
  • Is there any significance to the atmospheric, environmental, or weather events that take place?
  • What problem or issue serves as the story’s focus?
  • Is the conflict an explicit one between the story’s characters?
  • Or is there a larger question or concern that is implied through the story’s narration?
  • What is the relationship between the title of the story and the text?
  • What main issue or idea does the story address?  (1)

Narrative Arc

The narrative arc — or dramatic structure — of a story may be divided into several phases of development. One traditional method of the analysis of fiction involves identifying five major stages of the development of the plot. The five major stages are known as the  exposition  (or introduction),  the rising action  (sometimes referred to as complicating action),  the climax  (or turning point),  the falling action  , and  the denouement  (or resolution).

The  exposition  of a story introduces characters’ backstory and key information about the setting. With this foundation laid, the dramatic tension then builds, thus creating the  rising action  of the story through a series of related events that complicate and exacerbate the major conflicts of the story. The turning point of the story occurs at the  climax  that typically changes the main character’s fate or reveals how the conflict will move toward resolution, either favorably or perhaps tragically. The  falling action  works to unravel the tension at the core of the major conflict or conflicts in the story and between the characters, although it may include one last twist that impacts the resolution of events.  Denouement  is derived from the Old French word  desnouer  (“to untie”); the term suggests that the knot of conflict generating the tension in the story at last is loosened. Of course, not every aspect of the conflict may be resolved or may be resolved to the satisfaction of the reader. Indeed, in some stories, the author may intend that the reader should be left to weigh the validity or even the morality of further outcomes.

While these five stages of dramatic structure are very helpful in analyzing fiction, they can be applied too strictly making a story seem like one linear series of events in straight chronological order. Some of the most engaging and well-crafted works of fiction break or interrupt the linear structure of events, perhaps through the manipulation of time (as in the use of  flashback  or  flash forward  ) or through the inclusion of an extended  interior monologue  (a digression into the interior thoughts, memories, and/or feelings of a particular character). Therefore, readers should be careful not to simplify the plot of a story into an ordered, numerical list of events.

The terms  protagonist  (main character, or hero/heroine) and  antagonist  (anti-hero/ine) can be helpful in highlighting the roles of the major characters in a story. The story also may unfold through a particular point-of-view  , or even through alternating points-of-view. The two most utilized narrative perspectives to consider are  first-person point-of-view  where the protagonist narrates the story from the voice of “I,” and  third-person point-of-view  , or  omniscient  point-of-view, where the narrative refers to each character as “he,” “she,” or “it” thus offering a more distanced perspective on events.

Readers may be persuaded, or not, of a narrative’s  credibility  through point-of-view(s) and/or the presentation of the  persona  of the narrator (if there is one). A persona is the role that one assumes or displays in public; in literature, it is the presented face or speaking voice of a character. Credibility is the quality of being believed, convincing, or trustworthy. When the credibility of a text is called into question, perhaps as a result of conflicting accounts of events, or detected bias in a point-of-view, the text is said to have an  unreliable narrator  . Sometimes authors choose to intentionally create an unreliable narrator either to raise suspense, obscure their own position on a subject, or as a means of critiquing a particular cultural or social perspective.

Additionally, to analyze a short story more closely, as in poetry, students may also pay attention to the use of  figurative language  . Figurative language, such as the use of  imagery  and  symbol  can be especially significant in fiction. What brings value to one’s analysis is the critical thought that prioritizes which of these many formal elements is most significant to communicating the meaning of the story and connects how these formal elements work together to form the unique whole of a given fictional work.  (1)

Literature for the Humanities Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the 31 literary devices you must know.

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General Education


Need to analyze The Scarlet Letter or To Kill a Mockingbird for English class, but fumbling for the right vocabulary and concepts for literary devices? You've come to the right place. To successfully interpret and analyze literary texts, you'll first need to have a solid foundation in literary terms and their definitions.

In this article, we'll help you get familiar with most commonly used literary devices in prose and poetry. We'll give you a clear definition of each of the terms we discuss along with examples of literary elements and the context in which they most often appear (comedic writing, drama, or other).

Before we get to the list of literary devices, however, we have a quick refresher on what literary devices are and how understanding them will help you analyze works of literature.

What Are Literary Devices and Why Should You Know Them?

Literary devices are techniques that writers use to create a special and pointed effect in their writing, to convey information, or to help readers understand their writing on a deeper level.

Often, literary devices are used in writing for emphasis or clarity. Authors will also use literary devices to get readers to connect more strongly with either a story as a whole or specific characters or themes.

So why is it important to know different literary devices and terms? Aside from helping you get good grades on your literary analysis homework, there are several benefits to knowing the techniques authors commonly use.

Being able to identify when different literary techniques are being used helps you understand the motivation behind the author's choices. For example, being able to identify symbols in a story can help you figure out why the author might have chosen to insert these focal points and what these might suggest in regard to her attitude toward certain characters, plot points, and events.

In addition, being able to identify literary devices can make a written work's overall meaning or purpose clearer to you. For instance, let's say you're planning to read (or re-read) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. By knowing that this particular book is a religious allegory with references to Christ (represented by the character Aslan) and Judas (represented by Edmund), it will be clearer to you why Lewis uses certain language to describe certain characters and why certain events happen the way they do.

Finally, literary techniques are important to know because they make texts more interesting and more fun to read. If you were to read a novel without knowing any literary devices, chances are you wouldn't be able to detect many of the layers of meaning interwoven into the story via different techniques.

Now that we've gone over why you should spend some time learning literary devices, let's take a look at some of the most important literary elements to know.

List of Literary Devices: 31 Literary Terms You Should Know

Below is a list of literary devices, most of which you'll often come across in both prose and poetry. We explain what each literary term is and give you an example of how it's used. This literary elements list is arranged in alphabetical order.

An allegory is a story that is used to represent a more general message about real-life (historical) issues and/or events. It is typically an entire book, novel, play, etc.

Example: George Orwell's dystopian book Animal Farm is an allegory for the events preceding the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era in early 20th century Russia. In the story, animals on a farm practice animalism, which is essentially communism. Many characters correspond to actual historical figures: Old Major represents both the founder of communism Karl Marx and the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin; the farmer, Mr. Jones, is the Russian Czar; the boar Napoleon stands for Joseph Stalin; and the pig Snowball represents Leon Trotsky.


Alliteration is a series of words or phrases that all (or almost all) start with the same sound. These sounds are typically consonants to give more stress to that syllable. You'll often come across alliteration in poetry, titles of books and poems ( Jane Austen is a fan of this device, for example—just look at Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility ), and tongue twisters.

Example: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." In this tongue twister, the "p" sound is repeated at the beginning of all major words.

Allusion is when an author makes an indirect reference to a figure, place, event, or idea originating from outside the text. Many allusions make reference to previous works of literature or art.

Example: "Stop acting so smart—it's not like you're Einstein or something." This is an allusion to the famous real-life theoretical physicist Albert Einstein.


An anachronism occurs when there is an (intentional) error in the chronology or timeline of a text. This could be a character who appears in a different time period than when he actually lived, or a technology that appears before it was invented. Anachronisms are often used for comedic effect.

Example: A Renaissance king who says, "That's dope, dude!" would be an anachronism, since this type of language is very modern and not actually from the Renaissance period.

Anaphora is when a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple sentences throughout a piece of writing. It's used to emphasize the repeated phrase and evoke strong feelings in the audience.

Example: A famous example of anaphora is Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech. Throughout this speech, he repeats the phrase "we shall fight" while listing numerous places where the British army will continue battling during WWII. He did this to rally both troops and the British people and to give them confidence that they would still win the war.


An anthropomorphism occurs when something nonhuman, such as an animal, place, or inanimate object, behaves in a human-like way.

Example: Children's cartoons have many examples of anthropomorphism. For example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse can speak, wear clothes, sing, dance, drive cars, etc. Real mice can't do any of these things, but the two mouse characters behave much more like humans than mice.

Asyndeton is when the writer leaves out conjunctions (such as "and," "or," "but," and "for") in a group of words or phrases so that the meaning of the phrase or sentence is emphasized. It is often used for speeches since sentences containing asyndeton can have a powerful, memorable rhythm.

Example: Abraham Lincoln ends the Gettysburg Address with the phrase "...and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth." By leaving out certain conjunctions, he ends the speech on a more powerful, melodic note.


Colloquialism is the use of informal language and slang. It's often used by authors to lend a sense of realism to their characters and dialogue. Forms of colloquialism include words, phrases, and contractions that aren't real words (such as "gonna" and "ain't").

Example: "Hey, what's up, man?" This piece of dialogue is an example of a colloquialism, since it uses common everyday words and phrases, namely "what's up" and "man."

An epigraph is when an author inserts a famous quotation, poem, song, or other short passage or text at the beginning of a larger text (e.g., a book, chapter, etc.). An epigraph is typically written by a different writer (with credit given) and used as a way to introduce overarching themes or messages in the work. Some pieces of literature, such as Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick , incorporate multiple epigraphs throughout.

Example: At the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's book The Sun Also Rises is an epigraph that consists of a quotation from poet Gertrude Stein, which reads, "You are all a lost generation," and a passage from the Bible.

Epistrophe is similar to anaphora, but in this case, the repeated word or phrase appears at the end of successive statements. Like anaphora, it is used to evoke an emotional response from the audience.

Example: In Lyndon B. Johnson's speech, "The American Promise," he repeats the word "problem" in a use of epistrophe: "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."


A euphemism is when a more mild or indirect word or expression is used in place of another word or phrase that is considered harsh, blunt, vulgar, or unpleasant.

Example: "I'm so sorry, but he didn't make it." The phrase "didn't make it" is a more polite and less blunt way of saying that someone has died.

A flashback is an interruption in a narrative that depicts events that have already occurred, either before the present time or before the time at which the narration takes place. This device is often used to give the reader more background information and details about specific characters, events, plot points, and so on.

Example: Most of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is a flashback from the point of view of the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, as she engages in a conversation with a visitor named Lockwood. In this story, Nelly narrates Catherine Earnshaw's and Heathcliff's childhoods, the pair's budding romance, and their tragic demise.


Foreshadowing is when an author indirectly hints at—through things such as dialogue, description, or characters' actions—what's to come later on in the story. This device is often used to introduce tension to a narrative.

Example: Say you're reading a fictionalized account of Amelia Earhart. Before she embarks on her (what we know to be unfortunate) plane ride, a friend says to her, "Be safe. Wouldn't want you getting lost—or worse." This line would be an example of foreshadowing because it implies that something bad ("or worse") will happen to Earhart.

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that's not meant to be taken literally by the reader. It is often used for comedic effect and/or emphasis.

Example: "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." The speaker will not literally eat an entire horse (and most likely couldn't ), but this hyperbole emphasizes how starved the speaker feels.

Imagery is when an author describes a scene, thing, or idea so that it appeals to our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, or hearing). This device is often used to help the reader clearly visualize parts of the story by creating a strong mental picture.

Example: Here's an example of imagery taken from William Wordsworth's famous poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud":

When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden Daffodils; Beside the Lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Irony is when a statement is used to express an opposite meaning than the one literally expressed by it. There are three types of irony in literature:

  • Verbal irony: When someone says something but means the opposite (similar to sarcasm).
  • Situational irony: When something happens that's the opposite of what was expected or intended to happen.
  • Dramatic irony: When the audience is aware of the true intentions or outcomes, while the characters are not . As a result, certain actions and/or events take on different meanings for the audience than they do for the characters involved.
  • Verbal irony: One example of this type of irony can be found in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." In this short story, a man named Montresor plans to get revenge on another man named Fortunato. As they toast, Montresor says, "And I, Fortunato—I drink to your long life." This statement is ironic because we the readers already know by this point that Montresor plans to kill Fortunato.
  • Situational irony: A girl wakes up late for school and quickly rushes to get there. As soon as she arrives, though, she realizes that it's Saturday and there is no school.
  • Dramatic irony: In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , Romeo commits suicide in order to be with Juliet; however, the audience (unlike poor Romeo) knows that Juliet is not actually dead—just asleep.



Juxtaposition is the comparing and contrasting of two or more different (usually opposite) ideas, characters, objects, etc. This literary device is often used to help create a clearer picture of the characteristics of one object or idea by comparing it with those of another.

Example: One of the most famous literary examples of juxtaposition is the opening passage from Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities :

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …"


Malapropism happens when an incorrect word is used in place of a word that has a similar sound. This misuse of the word typically results in a statement that is both nonsensical and humorous; as a result, this device is commonly used in comedic writing.

Example: "I just can't wait to dance the flamingo!" Here, a character has accidentally called the flamenco (a type of dance) the flamingo (an animal).


Metaphors are when ideas, actions, or objects are described in non-literal terms. In short, it's when an author compares one thing to another. The two things being described usually share something in common but are unalike in all other respects.

A simile is a type of metaphor in which an object, idea, character, action, etc., is compared to another thing using the words "as" or "like."

Both metaphors and similes are often used in writing for clarity or emphasis.

"What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." In this line from Romeo and Juliet , Romeo compares Juliet to the sun. However, because Romeo doesn't use the words "as" or "like," it is not a simile—just a metaphor.

"She is as vicious as a lion." Since this statement uses the word "as" to make a comparison between "she" and "a lion," it is a simile.

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A metonym is when a related word or phrase is substituted for the actual thing to which it's referring. This device is usually used for poetic or rhetorical effect .

Example: "The pen is mightier than the sword." This statement, which was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839, contains two examples of metonymy: "the pen" refers to "the written word," and "the sword" refers to "military force/violence."

Mood is the general feeling the writer wants the audience to have. The writer can achieve this through description, setting, dialogue, and word choice .

Example: Here's a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: "It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats -- the hobbit was fond of visitors." In this passage, Tolkien uses detailed description to set create a cozy, comforting mood. From the writing, you can see that the hobbit's home is well-cared for and designed to provide comfort.


Onomatopoeia is a word (or group of words) that represents a sound and actually resembles or imitates the sound it stands for. It is often used for dramatic, realistic, or poetic effect.

Examples: Buzz, boom, chirp, creak, sizzle, zoom, etc.

An oxymoron is a combination of two words that, together, express a contradictory meaning. This device is often used for emphasis, for humor, to create tension, or to illustrate a paradox (see next entry for more information on paradoxes).

Examples: Deafening silence, organized chaos, cruelly kind, insanely logical, etc.


A paradox is a statement that appears illogical or self-contradictory but, upon investigation, might actually be true or plausible.

Note that a paradox is different from an oxymoron: a paradox is an entire phrase or sentence, whereas an oxymoron is a combination of just two words.

Example: Here's a famous paradoxical sentence: "This statement is false." If the statement is true, then it isn't actually false (as it suggests). But if it's false, then the statement is true! Thus, this statement is a paradox because it is both true and false at the same time.


Personification is when a nonhuman figure or other abstract concept or element is described as having human-like qualities or characteristics. (Unlike anthropomorphism where non-human figures become human-like characters, with personification, the object/figure is simply described as being human-like.) Personification is used to help the reader create a clearer mental picture of the scene or object being described.

Example: "The wind moaned, beckoning me to come outside." In this example, the wind—a nonhuman element—is being described as if it is human (it "moans" and "beckons").

Repetition is when a word or phrase is written multiple times, usually for the purpose of emphasis. It is often used in poetry (for purposes of rhythm as well).

Example: When Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the score for the hit musical Hamilton, gave his speech at the 2016 Tony's, he recited a poem he'd written that included the following line:

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

Satire is genre of writing that criticizes something , such as a person, behavior, belief, government, or society. Satire often employs irony, humor, and hyperbole to make its point.

Example: The Onion is a satirical newspaper and digital media company. It uses satire to parody common news features such as opinion columns, editorial cartoons, and click bait headlines.

A type of monologue that's often used in dramas, a soliloquy is when a character speaks aloud to himself (and to the audience), thereby revealing his inner thoughts and feelings.

Example: In Romeo and Juliet , Juliet's speech on the balcony that begins with, "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is a soliloquy, as she is speaking aloud to herself (remember that she doesn't realize Romeo's there listening!).

Symbolism refers to the use of an object, figure, event, situation, or other idea in a written work to represent something else— typically a broader message or deeper meaning that differs from its literal meaning.

The things used for symbolism are called "symbols," and they'll often appear multiple times throughout a text, sometimes changing in meaning as the plot progresses.

Example: In F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby , the green light that sits across from Gatsby's mansion symbolizes Gatsby's hopes and dreams .

A synecdoche is a literary device in which part of something is used to represent the whole, or vice versa. It's similar to a metonym (see above); however, a metonym doesn't have to represent the whole—just something associated with the word used.

Example: "Help me out, I need some hands!" In this case, "hands" is being used to refer to people (the whole human, essentially).

While mood is what the audience is supposed to feel, tone is the writer or narrator's attitude towards a subject . A good writer will always want the audience to feel the mood they're trying to evoke, but the audience may not always agree with the narrator's tone, especially if the narrator is an unsympathetic character or has viewpoints that differ from those of the reader.

Example: In an essay disdaining Americans and some of the sites they visit as tourists, Rudyard Kipling begins with the line, "Today I am in the Yellowstone Park, and I wish I were dead." If you enjoy Yellowstone and/or national parks, you may not agree with the author's tone in this piece.


How to Identify and Analyze Literary Devices: 4 Tips

In order to fully interpret pieces of literature, you have to understand a lot about literary devices in the texts you read. Here are our top tips for identifying and analyzing different literary techniques:

Tip 1: Read Closely and Carefully

First off, you'll need to make sure that you're reading very carefully. Resist the temptation to skim or skip any sections of the text. If you do this, you might miss some literary devices being used and, as a result, will be unable to accurately interpret the text.

If there are any passages in the work that make you feel especially emotional, curious, intrigued, or just plain interested, check that area again for any literary devices at play.

It's also a good idea to reread any parts you thought were confusing or that you didn't totally understand on a first read-through. Doing this ensures that you have a solid grasp of the passage (and text as a whole) and will be able to analyze it appropriately.

Tip 2: Memorize Common Literary Terms

You won't be able to identify literary elements in texts if you don't know what they are or how they're used, so spend some time memorizing the literary elements list above. Knowing these (and how they look in writing) will allow you to more easily pinpoint these techniques in various types of written works.

Tip 3: Know the Author's Intended Audience

Knowing what kind of audience an author intended her work to have can help you figure out what types of literary devices might be at play.

For example, if you were trying to analyze a children's book, you'd want to be on the lookout for child-appropriate devices, such as repetition and alliteration.

Tip 4: Take Notes and Bookmark Key Passages and Pages

This is one of the most important tips to know, especially if you're reading and analyzing works for English class. As you read, take notes on the work in a notebook or on a computer. Write down any passages, paragraphs, conversations, descriptions, etc., that jump out at you or that contain a literary device you were able to identify.

You can also take notes directly in the book, if possible (but don't do this if you're borrowing a book from the library!). I recommend circling keywords and important phrases, as well as starring interesting or particularly effective passages and paragraphs.

Lastly, use sticky notes or post-its to bookmark pages that are interesting to you or that have some kind of notable literary device. This will help you go back to them later should you need to revisit some of what you've found for a paper you plan to write.

What's Next?

Looking for more in-depth explorations and examples of literary devices? Join us as we delve into imagery , personification , rhetorical devices , tone words and mood , and different points of view in literature, as well as some more poetry-specific terms like assonance and iambic pentameter .

Reading The Great Gatsby for class or even just for fun? Then you'll definitely want to check out our expert guides on the biggest themes in this classic book, from love and relationships to money and materialism .

Got questions about Arthur Miller's The Crucible ? Read our in-depth articles to learn about the most important themes in this play and get a complete rundown of all the characters .

For more information on your favorite works of literature, take a look at our collection of high-quality book guides and our guide to the 9 literary elements that appear in every story !

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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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Write Great Stories With 8 Literary Elements & 9 Literary Devices

  • March 7, 2022

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, you must practice and cultivate your own writing skill as often as you 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 reader’s sense of 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

Literary Elements

The sequence of events helps the story progress. A crucial literary element complete a story is the plot which 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.

A good example of is found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth wherein the first rising action is when the main 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 and in turn, grabs a reader’s attention.

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.

Falling Action

This plot element takes 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. It 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 and the time period when it is unfolding.

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, geographical location, and culture.

3. Language

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 arc and character development .

Literary Elements

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 short story or novel 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 story’s 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.

6. Narrative

The narrative is an important literary element because it 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. A first person perspective is like reading a friend’s diary or a person telling you about his or her day.

The second person point of view involves you as the reader in the story. It is much less common than a first person point of view or third person narrative. 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 view point.

Omniscient third-person narratives provides an outside perspective which lets the reader in on all characters’ thoughts and beliefs and confines the reader’s understanding of a character’s inner world to the protagonist.

8. Character

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 character types: the protagonist , the hero or main character, and the antagonist, the opposition, enemy, or source of conflict for the protagonist.

If you have clear character profiles , you can give your readers a deeper understanding of the characters in your literary piece. You can reveal a character’s internal struggle, motivations, and other traits that can connect with your readers.

Literary Devices

A literary device, or literary technique, is an approach to writing that helps the writer convey their message using words with a deeper meaning.

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 the popular literary devices being used include:

Literary Elements

1. Metaphor

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.

When metaphors are used in a literary text, objects are compared to other inanimate objects, but without using the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. There is no literal meaning one can draw from the words used.

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.

Simile is a widely-used figurative language. 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.

4. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary device in which the author prepares the reader for what will occur in the plot. They may use imagery or symbolism to instill a sense of danger, such as the cawing of crows to symbolize looming death. Using this literary device fires up a reader’s imagination.

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 may 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.

5. Symbolism

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.

6. Juxtaposition

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.

Literary Elements

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 may 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.

8. Allusion

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 may reference Kryptonite—a fictional crystalline material that weakens Superman. Another character may stumble across a fortunate opportunity and refer to it as their ‘golden ticket’, an allusion to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

9. Allegory

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 literary elements such as plot, setting, character, and theme are found in almost any text, literary devices come down to the author’s style. Many authors take inspiration from older renowned authors by using their literary devices and applying them to their writing.

If you read through the literary elements list because you want to get started on your own story, you will benefit greatly from adopting the literary elements and devices into your own writing process.

It is wise to experiment with common literary devices and even multiple themes until you find your natural flow if you are a beginner in the literary world.

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 novels, short stories, and other literary works you love to see them used in action.

2 thoughts on “Write Great Stories With 8 Literary Elements & 9 Literary Devices”

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Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students

A complete guide to story elements

What Are Story Elements? 

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Developing a solid understanding of the elements of a story is essential for our students to follow and fully comprehend the stories they read. However, before students can understand how these elements contribute to a story’s overall meaning and effect, they must first be able to identify the component parts confidently.  

So, what are the elements of a story, then? For the purpose of teaching our students, we can usefully divide these elements into two groups.

The first group comprises the basic components of a story and is generally taught to elementary and middle school students, while the second group consists of more complex elements taught to more advanced students.

Though the elements identified below provide a comprehensive overview, they are not an exhaustive analysis of every possible element of a story.


Story Elements,teaching | Story Elements Teaching Unit | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com

☀️This HUGE resource provides you with all the TOOLS, RESOURCES , and CONTENT to teach students about characters and story elements.



these are the five key elements of a story

  • Character: Depending on the nature of the story, characters are most often people or animals. Writers use characters to perform the actions and speak the dialogue of a story. They move a story’s plot forward. They are the who of a story. Be sure to read our complete guide to writing great characters here.
  • Setting: A story’s setting refers to the physical location and the time the action takes place. It is the where and the when of a story.
  • Plot: The plot relates to the events that happen in a story. The plot can be further divided into sub-elements: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. It is the what of the story. The plot usually begins with a problem and ends in the story’s resolution. Be sure to read our complete guide to writing a great plot here.
  • Conflict: Every story worth its salt requires conflict. This conflict can be considered a challenge or problem that drives the story’s action. No conflict, no story. Setting up a series of cause and effect events, conflict gives these events their why.
  • Theme: a little more abstract than the previous elements, the theme refers to the underlying insight, moral or idea the writer expresses through the story. It is often thought of as the ‘message’ of the story.


Story Elements,teaching | STORY ELEMENTS 1920 x 1080 | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com

More Advanced Elements

When students have gained sufficient experience in recognizing these essential story elements, they can then begin work on the story elements that are more advanced, regardless of their age.

Let’s take a brief look at four of these more advanced story elements.

  • Point of View: To identify the POV in a story, students must ask, “who is telling the story?” Is it a first, third, or even second (rare!) person narrator? Are they omniscient or limited in their perspective? Does the perspective shift between different characters?
  • Tone: A writer’s tone is established through word choices, use of literary devices , grammar, rhythm, rhyme etc. The tone is the overall ‘flavour’ of the story that is created by using all of these combined techniques. It is the attitude the writer displays towards their subject or theme.
  • Style: Related to tone in many regards, style is the individual author’s unique voice, which is again evidenced in their word choices, plot patterns, sentence structures etc. The writer’s personal style is a strong contributor to a writer’s tone.
  • Mood: This is about the effect the writer creates in the reader and how they evoke it through their use of language.

These more advanced elements are a little more difficult to define than those on the basic list and, therefore can be confusing for students who are new to them. All these elements pertain to how words are used, but style also pertains to the purpose of the text, tone to the author’s attitude to the subject, with the mood being concerned with the reader’s attitude to the subject.

Why Are Story Elements Important?

There are many reasons students need to be well-versed in identifying the elements of a story, not least of which is the deeper levels of comprehension and enhanced appreciation this brings. Understanding how a story is organized is necessary for students to access the highest levels of comprehension of that story. Understanding how a story is organized also provides students with a frame of reference that significantly assists with recall. Often necessary, especially where exams are concerned, the implications here for subjects outside the English classroom are apparent too. 

Being familiar with the various elements that combine together in good storytelling also helps students in their own writing. It helps students to organise their thoughts and competently weave together the various threads of their own stories. No small feat for an experienced writer, let alone a novice!


Getting to grips with the various elements of a story begins very early on with the first stories children hear. Often even before they begin elementary school. Students will have learned to identify the essential elements in stories by answering simple questions about the people in the story and the events that happened.  

As students grow confident in identifying the key elements in their favorite stories, they begin to move on to more complex stories. They begin to recognize the more complex elements that require more advanced critical thinking skills .  

In their simplest forms, activities to aid students in identifying story elements start with answering basic guided questions before students begin to move on to more focused reading activities, a few of which we will look at here.

Story Elements,teaching | Story2BMap2BImage | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com


Graphic organizers are a great way to assist students in extracting the elements of a story and organizing them in a visual way that helps them to comprehend the story better. They can further assist students in recalling, retelling, and summarizing. One of the best-suited graphic organizers for identifying story elements is the story map.

Story maps help students to organize the elements of the story in a visual manner that assists in gaining that fuller comprehension. Students examine the assigned text and extract the information related to each element. They can then record this information on their copy of the story map.

Story maps easily lend themselves to being differentiated, as the teacher can select the elements most appropriate for the age and ability of the students. In the beginning, students should gain experience identifying the basic elements in simple stories – fairy tales for example – before moving on to more sophisticated stories employing a wider range of elements.

Practice in the use of story maps will see students developing the ability to efficiently summarize the characters, setting, theme etc., of any reading material instinctively. Story maps can also be used as a valuable prewriting planning exercise.

Eventually, in regards to reading , students will be able to identify a story’s elements naturally, without the aid of a story map or graphic organizer of any sort – though this option will always remain for those who require the additional support a story map offers.


Story Elements,teaching | story tellers bundle 1 | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com

A MASSIVE COLLECTION of resources for narratives and story writing in the classroom covering all elements of crafting amazing stories. MONTHS WORTH OF WRITING LESSONS AND RESOURCES, including:


As we have noted, for the advanced student, there are a lot of different component parts of a story to identify and work with. We could isolate each element and build a series of discrete lessons around each. The possibilities are endless, and it is obviously impossible to cover every possibility here. However, it is worth looking at three more general activities to ensure students understand story elements and how they work.

Activity 1: Read, Roll, and Retell

Story Elements,teaching | writing dice task | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com

This simple activity is a fun way for students in a group to review material they have recently read. It begins with a student rolling a die or dice. The number they roll corresponds to a list of questions on each story element.

For example, the student rolls a three, which corresponds to a question on the setting, such as Where and when did this story take place? The student then answers in as much detail as possible regarding the text.

This activity can easily be differentiated by increasing the number and complexity of the questions and broadening the range of elements included. More than one question about each element can be included too.

Activity 2: Pick a Part

This activity works well with students working in pairs. Each student has a copy of the story. The various story elements are written on pieces of card: character, setting, mood, tone etc. Students take turns picking out a piece of card, ensuring their partner does not know which element they selected. They must then read a brief extract from the story corresponding to that element. Their partner must attempt to identify the element. When their partner has successfully identified the story element, it is their turn to pick a card.

Activity 3: Story graph 

Story Elements,teaching | story graphs | Teaching The 5 Story Elements: A Complete Guide for Teachers & Students | literacyideas.com

This activity works best for recording the sub-elements of the plot, such as exposition, rising action, conflict, falling action, climax and resolution. The storygraph works as a straightforward graph with the various elements above listed on the x-axis, according to their chronological appearance in the text. The y-axis represents excitement, with the most dramatic points plotted higher. Students plot these points for each element. For example, the exposition of the story (usually corresponding to the setting of the scene, the introduction of the characters etc.) will be plotted relatively low in the excitement stakes, with the excitement gradually rising to the crescendo of the climax before dipping slightly for the resolution.  

Students can further label these points on the graph with details of the corresponding events in the story.


And so our story draws to a close, but let’s review the takeaways so that our students can live happily ever after – at least as far as story elements are concerned!

Many elements are at play when we drill down into how stories work. To comprehend a story, students must understand how the major elements interact. To do this, they will need to first be able to identify these elements accurately. This will require practice in the form of discrete lessons on story elements that are progressive in difficulty. 

The ideas on story maps and other activities above represent a good starting point for these discrete lessons. But, it is crucial to reinforce this learning through reference and repetition in other lessons, where the main focus is not on the elements of a story themselves.

No magic is at play here; just practice, practice, practice. All very element -ary, my dear teacher!

Download our FREE Character Trait Lists now


These lists are excellent for helping students to describe characters and objects when writing and help students get to know and understand different character traits.

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Once you have developed a strong understanding of story elements, it’s time for your students to use them to become story creators and write grand narratives .

Ensure your students invest time in planning the essential elements (Setting, Character, Plot, Conflict and Theme) of a narrative and really flesh those elements out before chasing down a single idea they may have had, such as a story about a cowboy in space.

You can find our complete guide to narrative and story writing here , which is a must-read before you, and your students consider writing their next bestseller.

Be sure to flip many of the activities in this article around story elements so that they come at them from the author’s perspective more than the audience’s.


Story Elements,teaching | Writing great characters and setting 1 | 7 ways to write great Characters and Settings | Story Elements | literacyideas.com

7 ways to write great Characters and Settings | Story Elements

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Elements of Literature

Story Elements,teaching | the writing process | The Writing Process | literacyideas.com

The Writing Process

Story Elements,teaching | 0001 How to Write | Short Story Writing for Students and Teachers | literacyideas.com

Short Story Writing for Students and Teachers

Story Elements,teaching | how to write a scary horror story | How to Write a Scary Story | literacyideas.com

How to Write a Scary Story

Story Elements,teaching | how to write a narrative 1 | Narrative Writing: A Complete Guide for Teachers and Students | literacyideas.com

Narrative Writing: A Complete Guide for Teachers and Students

Story Elements,teaching | narrative writing lessons | 7 Great Narrative Lesson Plans Students and Teachers Love | literacyideas.com

7 Great Narrative Lesson Plans Students and Teachers Love

Story Elements,teaching | Narrative2BWriting2BStrategies2Bfor2Bjuniors2B28129 | Narrative Writing for Kids: Essential Skills and Strategies | literacyideas.com

Narrative Writing for Kids: Essential Skills and Strategies

Story Elements,teaching | Top narrative writing skills for students | Top 7 Narrative Writing Exercises for Students | literacyideas.com

Top 7 Narrative Writing Exercises for Students

Story Elements,teaching | HOW TO WRITE A GREAT PLOT 2 | How to Write a Great Plot | literacyideas.com

How to Write a Great Plot

The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh.  A former principal of an international school and English university 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.

what is the 5 elements of literature

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What are the Elements of a Story? 12 Central Elements of Storytelling

what is the 5 elements of literature

by Fija Callaghan

Stories are gloriously, beautifully unique; there are as many of them in our world as there have been storytellers. Although many stories follow classic story archetypes , each one is its own distinctive act of creation.

But even though every tale is one of a kind, we can still see patterns in what makes our favorite stories engaging and memorable. These patterns are where we find our essential story elements.

What are the elements of a story?

The elements of a story are the core building blocks that almost any narrative will have, whether it’s a short story or a series of novels, a literary coming-of-age saga or a science fiction epic. These include: a protagonist, an antagonist, setting, perspective, an objective, stakes, rising action, falling action, symbolism, language, theme, and verisimilitude.

It’s these key elements that make us care deeply for the characters, their journey, and the lessons they learn along the way. They’re what make us take the journey and learn those lessons right beside them.

Let’s take a look at the basic story elements you’ll see again and again in the stories we love, and how to use all these elements when writing your own original tales.

The 12 essential elements of every great story

All great stories can be broken down into twelve basic elements. Here’s a closer look at each one and at why they’re so integral to crafting a good story.

The elements of a story are the foundational building blocks that almost any story needs.

1. A protagonist

A protagonist is the central character within a work of literature. A book is always told from this character’s perspective (we’ll look more at perspective down below).

They’re the beating heart to which all roads lead, the one whose choices carry the plot to its conclusion. All other literary elements and devices including the antagonist (which we’ll look at next), environment, and conflicts will in some way support the protagonist’s journey.

These things might help them along their way, become an obstacle that the protagonist needs to overcome, shape who the protagonist is and their relationship with the world around them, or challenge that relationship and teach the protagonist something new. No matter what, everything in your plot structure should in some way be connected to your central guiding character.

A great protagonist is particularly important because they’re the lens through while your reader will see the world of your story. It’s through their triumphs, losses, joys, passions, and agonies that we live within your world and come away from it slightly changed—with a new perspective or a new understanding about what it is to be human.

For tips on how to write a great protagonist, check out our lesson on character !

2. An antagonist

In order for your protagonist to go on a journey—which maybe a physical journey, or an emotional or spiritual one—they need someone or something to challenge them into action. An antagonist is a story element whose goals stand in direct opposition with the goals of the protagonist. They want something, and the protagonist wants something, and those desires cannot exist within the world at the same time.

Most classic villains are antagonists, but an antagonist can also be an otherwise good person whose circumstances have put them in conflict with the central character. They might even be a friend or loved one who has made different choices or has a contrasting view of the world—for example, a parent who can’t agree with their child’s plans for the future, even though the choices they make come from a place of love.

An antagonist can also be more than one person—for instance, a collective group, society, government, or culture. The protagonist’s major conflict may also be something impersonal, such as a force of nature, or it might come from within, like a mental illness or a weakness such as addiction.

Conflict can come in many forms . What matters is that the trajectory of the antagonist or conflicting force forces the protagonist into action and carries the story’s plot forward.

You can find out more about antagonists in literature, and how to craft a dynamic, compelling villain, here .

Setting is the time and place where your story happens. It refers to both the physical location of your narrative and the way your characters are affected by their time and place: their cultural environment, their relationship with the natural world, the way they speak, what sort of social and political events are happening around them.

All of these things are a part of how your characters formed as people.

This can play a major role in the action of the plot. If, for example, your novel is a horror story that takes place in a haunted house, the setting becomes the crux of every choice that your protagonist makes. If your book takes place during the Jazz Age of the American 1920s, the time period and its predominant cultural values will play a huge part in how your characters react to the world around them, what their limitations are, and the way in which they challenge those limitations.

Choosing the right setting and bringing it to life gives your writing a whole new dynamic. It’s where character, choice, and action all begin.

Want to learn more about writing engaging, vivid settings? Check out our lesson on setting .

4. Perspective

Closely tied to setting is perspective, or the way your characters see the world. Every one of us brings our own unique filter to the relationship we have with the world around us, built out of our cultural biases, class, social interactions, level of education, upbringing, belief system, and experiences.

If you’re writing a work of medieval historical fiction, for instance, one character’s perspective can vary enormously from another’s. You could show your reader a single scene from the point of view of a queen, a servant, a young child, a landowner, and a knight and produce a very different story within every single one. Even in modern-day fiction, things such as race and social class still have an impact on how we build the world in our mind.

Perspective can also refer to point of view, or the specific narrative lens you choose for your work. The most common points of view in fiction are third person and first person, but there’s also second person and fourth person point of view to choose from! You can learn more about each of these types of point of view in our writing academy .

When used correctly, perspective is a marvelous literary device for bringing depth and suspense into your writing. It’s through clever use of this story element that we get things like the unreliable narrator, in which the writer deliberately misleads the reader’s expectations by writing from a skewed or uninformed point of view.

Using several third-person limited narrators gives you a range of contrasting perspectives.

5. Something to fight for

When we looked at protagonists and antagonists we saw how these two central characters always have opposing goals. When forming your idea out of these basic elements, it’s essential that your hero has something to work towards. Your characters’ goals are the things that will power your story from beginning to end.

This might be a tangible objective, such as the quest for the holy grail; or it might be something more internal, like repairing a damaged relationship. In a good narrative, every single character should want something or be striving for something all the time—however, it’s the goal of your protagonist that’s going to drive the story forward.

Their choices, the consequences of those choices, and their subsequent reaction to those consequences will all be connected to their primary objective: the thing they have been fighting to reach all along.

6. Something to lose

Here’s where your story begins to develop its layers. Your protagonist needs something to fight for, but they also need something that’s at risk. Something they stand to lose if they fail in reaching their goal.

Let’s say your main character really, really wants a new car. That’s an objective—something to fight for. But what happens if he doesn’t get it? Probably not much. He’ll have to keep taking the bus to work, and he might swoon longingly as he passes by the auto dealer on his way home, but life will more or less go on the way it always has. That’s not enough to create a compelling story.

Unless… unless he lives in a rural area where there’s no public transportation, and he’s looking to buy a new car because his has broken down. If he can’t replace his car quickly he won’t be able to keep his job. If he loses his job, he probably won’t be able to keep supporting his family and he might even lose his home. Suddenly wanting a new car is a much more urgent and complex issue.

Your protagonist needs a reason to want the things they do, and to be aware of consequences (real or imagined) if they aren’t able to get them in time.

7. Rising action

When we get into the structure of our plot, the rising action is the escalating cause and effect that comes from the characters’ choices. Every time your protagonist does something in pursuit of their goal, their action will trigger effects in the world around them—some anticipated, some not. At the same time, your antagonist or antagonists will also be pursuing their own, conflicting goals, making their own choices, and sending even more effects out into the world. It’s this interplay of choices, consequences, and reactions, growing greater in urgency and intensity, that builds the narrative arc as the plot unfolds.

To learn more about how to structure your plot from inciting incident to epic conclusion, check out our detailed lesson on plot .

8. Falling action

Once your plot has reached its climax, and your protagonist has finally obtained their goal (or not), and the antagonist has been defeated (or not), and the world as it was has crumbled and then been rebuilt into something new, it’s time for your falling action. Many writers make the mistake of ending their story too quickly, but your readers need time to see the new landscape as it comes together and to say goodbye to your characters after the story’s resolution.

This section won’t take up a huge amount of real estate—usually about ten percent of the book at most. This is where you take a little bit of time to explore what it means to your protagonist to have reached this place in their journey, how those around them are affected by it, and—this is important—where they’re heading next. This gives your reader time to absorb the messages in your story and the lessons they have learned.

9. Symbolism

Symbolism is using an object, place, person, or element to represent something other than its literal meaning. Even a small thing can represent a big idea. In a story, symbolism can be a recognizable universal symbol or it can be a symbol that’s developed within the context of your world.

You can use symbolism to communicate a deeper meaning below the surface.

Symbolism gives depth to your story and helps support the theme (we’ll talk about theme a little farther below). Contextual symbols, in particular, help convey the message that you’re trying to send through your writing. For instance, if you’re exploring the idea of enduring love through times of great hardship, you could work symbolism into your story by using a fragile object such as a teacup, a vase, or a figurine which manages to stay intact despite being dropped or knocked around. This then becomes a symbol of a relationship that is more durable than it would appear in spite of the dangers it might face.

Very often readers will absorb symbolism in your writing without consciously realizing it. They may not see that the object was a cleverly placed literary device, but they’ll feel the tension and tone it creates in parallel with the plot.

We’ve got lots more detail on how to incorporate rich symbolism into your story here !

10. Language

In writing, language is the tone, mood, word choices, sentence structure, and unique author’s voice that pulls the story together. Some authors, like Ernest Hemingway, are famous for short, clean lines with simple words and no ornamentation. Others, like Joanne Harris, favour more languid sentences full of delicate flowering words and sensual imagery. Edgar Allen Poe is famous for his dark, velvety vocabulary that brings to mind gothic castles and stormy nights, while writers like Jane Austen use light, approachable sentences peppered with sardonic undertones that go on for half a page.

While many writers will grow to develop a distinctive voice of their own, they may also adjust their rhythm and tone to fit the mood of the type of book they’re writing. In general, shorter, more monosyllabic sentences will speed up the pacing while longer sentences slow it down. Beach reads and thrillers tend to rely more on the former, while historical and literary fiction often use more long sentences. A mix of both is best—too much of either one gets difficult to read for very long.

When exploring language, think about the mood and images you want to convey with each scene. Then see if you can choose the lengths of your sentences and the types of words to match.

To learn more about using unique, beautiful language in your writing, have a look at our lesson on developing your writer’s voice .

Theme is the point of your story. It’s the central idea or message that you’re trying to send your readers through the filter of a fictional world. This can be something like the unbreakable bonds of family, the ravaging landscape of social media, or the seductive destruction of avarice. You may think of a message that you want to explore and build a plot around it, or you may begin writing a story and uncover its true meaning as you go along.

Once you know what the theme of your story is, you can emphasize it further using a range of literary devices including symbolism, metaphors, and allegory as well as your cast of characters and the types of conflicts that they face. Each element of your story should support this central message in some way. By showing the power of this message and the effect it has on the characters and the world, you can make the reader understand its importance and inspire a very real change. That’s the power of storytelling.

Think about the central message of your own story. What do you want to teach the reader that they didn’t know before?

You can find out more about how to develop your own themes in our lesson here .

12. Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude comes from a word that means “truth,” and it means the truth within a fictional context. All powerful stories come from a true place—from real human needs, strengths, weaknesses, and experiences. This is equally true, if not more so, in fantastical work. If you’re writing about a man who gets exposed to gamma radiation and becomes a big green smashing machine, you’re then asking your reader to accept that this is the truth of your story: stay away from gamma radiation. It’ll Jekyll-and-Hyde you up. Even when you and your reader both know, deep down, that this isn’t actually what gamma radiation is in the slightest, they accept it as the basis of this particular reality.

This comes down to verisimilitude. Even though you’re showing the character in a fantastical and frankly ridiculous context, what stays with us as readers are the deep, sometimes uncomfortable truths: don’t we all have polarities inside of us that make us question who we are? Does Bruce Banner secretly want to be a stronger, braver, more unfeeling version of himself? Wouldn’t you? It’s these intimately resonant connections, more than an iconic pair of tattered purple shorts, that form the heart of this narrative.

When telling a story, no matter how absurdist or unrealistic or removed from our world it may be— especially then—figure out how to offer it to your readers from a place of honesty and truth.

Elements of a story in literature: examples from 5 enduring stories

All the tools we’ve looked at are present in every great story that has been handed down to us through the years, as well as inspiring new works of art that are still being produced today. The ones that stay with us most are the ones that use these elements in surprising new ways. Let’s look at how these patterns function in our best-loved works of classic literature.

You’ll find these main elements all across literature, including novels, stage plays, and short stories.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s renowned novel is set in a fictional American town in the 1930s, though it could easily be in any of a hundred very real places in just about any time period—even today. In this story a black man is falsely accused of rape, and the consequences of that accusation radiate outwards to affect the lives of the people in the story. The novel’s powerful conflict—which was very much influenced by its setting, and its innate prejudices and limitations—communicated a theme which encouraged readers to look at their own history, their ideas, and their future in a new way.

The novel both makes use of and challenges the perspectives of the time. The first-person narrator of this novel is a young child who struggles with her own prejudices and expectations of cultural norms. Through the narrative we see her perspective change as she grows to understand the battles faced by other people and the need to look at every human being as an individual. This juxtaposition of a young central character with a very grownup central conflict creates a powerful theme that has stayed with us for decades.

2. The Maltese Falcon , by Dashiell Hammett

Like many noir thrillers of its time, this classic novel by Dashiell Hammett is heavily driven by the surprising twists and turns that make up its rising action. It’s told through a third-person narration that follows an array of people, many with questionable moralities, who are fighting for their claim to a mythical lost statue. The Maltese Falcon also gives us some of the thriller’s signature character archetypes: the protagonist Sam Spade, the jaded, smooth-talking private eye that would go on to influence the staple hero of the genre. We also have the femme Brigid O’Shaughnessy, one of the novel’s central antagonists, who gave birth to an archetype of seductive, deceitful fatales .

The plot is propelled forward by one mounting conflict after another, set against the backdrop of its distinctive setting: a dark, gritty San Francisco in the late 1920s, in the decade’s height of roaring decadence just before its fall into the great depression. The iconic characters combined with the vivid backdrop have given us a formula that has engaged readers for generations, and will continue to do so for generations more.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s , by Truman Capote

Now inextricably associated with Audrey Hepburn’s trademark black dress, Truman Capote’s 1958 novel is built strongly out of setting and character. The central character, Holly Golightly, comes from a modest and scattered upbringing to explode onto the social season of New York’s glittering upper east side. Holly is at odds with her time and place, a city and a decade in which women were expected to conform to patriarchal expectation. Nearly everyone she interacts with attempts to curtail her freedom and independence, which causes that freedom to become something of a contrarian obsession.

It’s this series of small, mounting interpersonal conflicts that support the real conflict of the plot: the main character’s fight for independence to the point of self destruction, and her need to express herself in a larger society that represses expression of the self. This is a perfect example of the power of verisimilitude in a novel: every one of us has fought a similar internal battle at some point during our lives, and we can identify with her struggles to unite her opposing needs and desires.

4. The Lord of the Rings , by J.R.R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus has all the elements of a story sprawled across an epic, magnificent canvas: a varied and expressive cast of large and small heroes; an entirely new, unique world; terrifying antagonists; a rich tapestry of symbolism and themes; and an ambitious use of multilayered language that hasn’t been matched since.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings uses five key elements: A varied cast, a unique world, terrifying antagonists, symbolism, multilayered language

While every one of these story elements plays an important part in this saga, the one that probably stays with readers the most is its setting—a multifaceted landscape of Tolkien’s creation with its own histories, languages, cultures, traditions, and races of people. The author accomplished the extraordinary feat of creating an environment that felt like home for generations of readers. It also went on to inspire a myriad of other stories in the modern fairy tale genre.

It’s worth mentioning how well this series utilizes its falling action, the events following the enormous conflict that has powered the events of the plot. Tolkien takes time to show us who these characters are outside of the battles they’ve faced, and where their path is going to lead them next. It’s arguable that seeing how these characters return home, changed by their experiences and embracing a new beginning, has endeared them to their readers most of all.

5. A Christmas Carol , by Charles Dickens

One of the most famous character-driven novels of all time, this story centers on an irascible protagonist who faces the most complex antagonist of all: his own mistakes. Set in Dickensian London, this novel takes the protagonist through several powerful settings, each with a strong personal connection. Through these settings we get to see the supporting characters, people in the protagonist’s life who show him his comfortably embraced weaknesses and his uneasily discarded strengths.

Although the main character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, is a personality so powerful he borders on caricature, he shows us what we could become if we allowed fear and avarice to devour us. The novel shows us what the protagonist is fighting for—a second chance to be a better man—and what he has to lose if he fails: his immortal soul. This story uses symbolism and strong thematic elements as the story unfolds to send a powerful message of redemption and free will to the reader. This is a good example of how the conflict your protagonist faces directly supports the theme that you’re trying to convey.

Mastering story elements can be a turning point in your growth as a writer—so start writing that first draft!

Using the elements of a story to strengthen your writing

Your own work in progress might have some of these important elements already, and you can emphasize them even further to connect more deeply with your reader. Consider your main characters, location, and the conflict or conflicts that drive the plot forward. Explore your story’s perspective by looking at the way the setting have informed your protagonist’s view of the world. What sort of prejudices, theologies, and values have they absorbed as they grew into the person they are today?

Once you uncover these you’ll start to see glimmers of your theme hiding underneath the surface.

When you begin to understand the theme of your story, you can then begin forming more layers with symbolism, unique settings, and relationships between characters to heighten this theme. Remember that what your characters have to fight for and what they stand to lose will be directly tied to the message you’re sending your readers. This will make the reader re-examine the things they’re fighting for in their own lives, in their society, and in the larger world around them.

Lastly, always write from a place of verisimilitude—from a place of true feelings, real questions, and human values, no matter how far-fetched the context of your world might be. When your readers are able to see themselves and their hopes reflected in your writing, that’s when it will stay with them forever.

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