Literary analysis: elements of a story


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1. GENRE – kind or type of art or literature

  • FICTION – written from the imagination; not true

  • NONFICTION – true; based upon actual fact

2. SETTING – the time and place of the action in a story

Setting refers to the time and place in which a story takes place. It includes scenery, weather, clothing, furniture, and other elements associated with the period of time and geographical location. It also includes the social and political environment. Some settings are general and some are specific. Settings can help set the mood or atmosphere of a story. It can also provide important background. (This is especially important in historical fiction.) Occasionally a setting is used to symbolize an important theme of the story. In some works of literature, the setting is an integral part of the story; in others, it is not as important.
Questions to ask yourself about setting:

  • During what time period did this novel take place?

  • Where did the story take place?

  • Was the setting important to the story? Why?

  • Did the author do a good job describing the setting?

  • Were you able to visualize the story as it unfolded?

  • How much time does the story cover?

3. POINT OF VIEW – the position from which the story is told (as seen through

whose eyes?)

Point of view has to do with who tells the story; in other words, who is the


First-person narrator: one of the characters is telling the story. The

author uses the word “I” or “we” and their forms to refer to that character. The

first-person narrator can be the protagonist, someone who is close to the

protagonist, or a relatively unimportant character in the story.

THIRD-PERSON NARRATOR: None of the characters is telling the story.

The author uses the words “he,” “she,” “it,” or “they” and their forms to refer to

all of the characters. The third-person narrator can be either omniscient or

limited. If the narrator tells you everything about the story, we say that it is

an omniscient or all-knowing narrator.

  1. THIRD-PERSON OMNICISCIENT: tells about the feelings, thoughts, and motives of all the characters. The author stands outside of the story and knows what each of the characters is doing or thinking at any given moment.

  2. THIRD PERSON LIMITED: tells the story from the perspective of one of

the characters.

4. TONE – the attitude of the author toward the subject or toward the reader

(think of “tone of voice” when someone is speaking).

5. MOOD – the feeling or state of mind that predominates in a story creating a

certain atmosphere
Tone and mood are similar, but they are not the same. The tone is the

author’s attitude toward the writing and the readers. A book can have more

than one tone. For example, the tone might be both serious and humorous.

Setting, choice of vocabulary, and other details help set the tone.

The mood is the general atmosphere created by the author’s words. It is the

feeling the reader gets from reading those words. It may stay the same, or it

may change from situation to situation.

Words that may be used to describe the tone of a book: amused, angry,

cheerful, horror, clear, formal, gloomy, humorous, informal, ironic, light,

matter-of-fact, resigned, optimistic, pessimistic, playful, pompous, sad,

serious, suspicious, witty

Some words that may be used to describe the mood of a book: fanciful,

frightening, frustrating, gloomy, happy, joyful, melancholy, mysterious,

romantic, sentimental, sorrowful, suspenseful


Theme is the general idea or point of a story. It provides a basic message about life. The theme is different from the subject of a story. The subject is the topic on which the story is based. The theme is the author’s expressed or implied opinion about that subject. For example, suppose an author writes about a family stranded on a desert island. The family is the subject of the story. The theme, however, might be the importance of family. Most works of fiction have at least one theme and may have more than one. An author can express his or her views in several ways. When trying to determine the theme of a story, think about other elements, such as character, plot, setting, and mood.
Questions to ask yourself to help you determine the theme:

  1. How does the character change?

  2. What makes the character change?

  3. What lessons does the character learn?

  4. What are the character’s feelings about things that happen?

  5. What kinds of conflicts are described?

  6. How are the conflicts resolved?

  7. Does any of the dialogue help convey theme?

  8. What mood does the author create?


  • the main idea or message of the story

  • its generalized meaning

  • a statement about life or human nature which the author seeks to prove through specific developments in the story

A theme cannot be described in one word. For example, suppose you were told that the theme of a particular book was “friendship.” There are many different themes that could be based upon friendship---some of them, such as the following two examples are contradictory:

You can always count on your friends for emotional support.

The idea of having friends is overvalued.\

Common subjects for themes: (Remember, however, that a theme should always be expressed in a complete sentence that expresses the author’s point of view!)
friendship education survival motherhood

fatherhood family poverty wealth

love hate prejudice life/death

laws/justice freedom honesty war/peace

homelessness patriotism land maturity/growing up

7. SYMBOLISM- Symbolism is the practice of using an object or a word to represent an abstract idea. An action, a person, a place, a word, or an object can all be symbols. When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion, he can use symbolism to hint at it, rather than just saying it. Symbolism is often used by writers to enhance their writing,. Symbolism can give a literary work more richness, color, and depth.

Symbolic Colors:

black can symbolize death or evil

white can stand for purity

red can symbolize danger or passion

purple can symbolize royalty

blue can stand for peace or calm

Symbolic Objects

a chain can symbolize unity or coming together

a ladder can represent the relationship between heaven and earth

a broken mirror can symbolize a separation or unhappy relationship

a rose can symbolize love or romance

8. CHARACTER – person portraying himself or another

Character us a very important literary element. A character is an imaginary

person (or animal or fantasy being) created by the author. There are two

main types of characters: protagonists and antagonists. The main

character is called the protagonist. The character or force that opposes the

protagonist is called the antagonist. Some stories also have a character,

called a foil, who has traits that are opposite those of the protagonist. Usually

the foil is a minor character.

  • PROTAGONIST – the main character (usually the hero of the story)

  • ANTAGONIST – the rival (the bad guy)


A round character is well-developed and show many different traits—both

good and bad. If a round character is well-developed, we almost feel as if

we know the character.

A flat character is not fully developed. We see only one aspect of them.

A stereotype is a flat character with traits associated with a particular

class or group.

A stock character is a flat character meant to represent an entire class of


A dynamic character grows or changes in an important way in the story.

A static character stays pretty much the same throughout the story, and

does not change.

CHARACTERIZATION: Characterization refers to the techniques an author uses to create and reveal the traits of the characters. Sometimes an author tells the readers directly about a character. Often, however, the reader must make inferences. How does the author use characterization to develop a character?
DIRECT: The author tells the reader about a character’s traits directly through the use of a narrative.
INDIRECT: Readers must infer the character’s traits....

    • from what the character says

    • from what the character does

    • from what the character thinks

    • from how the character looks

    • from what other characters say about him or her

    • from how other characters react to him or her
    • from what the narrator tells the reader about the character

Questions to ask yourself about the characters:

  • Were they interesting and believable?

  • Did you have a favorite character?

  • Why was this character special to you?

  • Did the author do a good job of creating the characters in this novel?


  • IRONY – events contrary to what is expected (Two types of irony are situational irony and verbal irony)

  • FORESHADOWING – a hint or clue to future events in the story

An author uses this technique to hint at something that will happen or something you will learn later in the book. The two main reasons to use foreshadowing are to build suspense and to prepare readers for what will happen and to make the story more believable.

  • FLASHBACK – a break in the continuity of the story to introduce an earlier

event. This is a technique an author uses to tell readers about an event

that happened before the current action in the story. The information

should be relevant to the main part of the story.

  • SUSPENSE – anxiety or apprehension resulting from uncertainty. An author creates suspense by putting a sympathetic character in danger. Sometimes the author gives the reader information that character does not have. Techniques an author can use to create suspense include a cliffhanger, foreshadowing, imagery, and careful word choice.

  • FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (simile, metaphor, personification)

10. PLOT– the story line; a unified, progressive pattern of actions or events in a

Beginning of the story:

  • EXPOSITION – At the beginning of the story, the author usually provides important information about the setting and the main characters. This information helps readers understand the story and is called the expos-ition.

Middle of the Story: Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action

The protagonists, or main characters, encounter several conflicts in this section, including a central conflict or problem. Without conflict of some sort, there would be no plot.

  • INCITING CAUSE – the event that begins and motivates the action in a story How does the story get started? What is the initial incident that starts the story?

  • CENTRAL CONFLICT – the main struggle of opposing forces around which the plot revolves

  1. Internal Conflict – occurs when one is confronted with a problem that presents difficult choices involving one’s beliefs and values (Person vs. Self – internal struggle)

  2. External Conflict – occurs when one faces someone else of some situation that is working against one’s own desires or goals (Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Beast, Person vs. The Elements or Forces of Nature, Person vs. Fate or Destiny, Person vs. Machine)

  • RISING ACTION – events that build up the plot and lead to the climax. The rising action comprises all of the events that rise from the conflict. These events describe the roadblocks to the solving of the problem.

  • THE CLIMAX – (the turning point)

- the critical point in the story which changes the course of events

- the point in a story where the main character faces a crisis and must

make a crucial decision that will effect the outcome

- the moment at which the story reaches the greatest conflict.


- events that unwind the plot and lead to resolving the conflict

- the events that follow the conflict

End of the Story:
DENOUEMENT (RESOLUTION) – ties up all the loose ends, answers any lingering questions
Questions to ask yourself about plot:

  • Was the author able to hold your interest throughout the novel?

  • How did he or she manage to do this?

  • Which were your favorite scenes in the novel?

  • What changes, if any, would you have made in the plot?


Conflict is the struggle between two forces. It results when the main character or protagonist encounters a problem --- a force which may prevent him or her from achieving a goal. There are five basic types of conflict, each involving a different type of obstacle or antagonist.

Character vs. Character

The protagonist has a problem with one or more of the other characters.

Character vs. Self

The protagonist must deal with a problem within himself. The character

has conflicting emotions that draw him in different directions.
Character vs. Society

The character has a problem with a particular sector of society: family,

friends, community, rules, government, and so on.
Character vs. Nature

The character must deal with a force of nature.

Character vs. Fate

The character must deal with an illness, a disability, or some other

obstacle that is completely out of his or her control.


  • Which part of the novel made the biggest impression on you? Why?

  • What images came to mind as you read?

  • Which part of the novel was the hardest or the easiest to understand?

  • What does this novel mean to you?

  • How does this novel help you understand people?

  • What were your feelings as you read? Did your feelings change over time? If so, why?

  • What did you learn from reading this novel?

  • Is this a book you would recommend to friends? Why or why not?


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