Literary elements: the basic six


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Literary elements are the elements (pieces or ingredients) of which literature is made.
All good literature contains these elements. There are many possible ones, which an author may pick and choose from to enhance his or her story. However, there are basic elements that all stories should have.



1. Plot – the sequence of events that shape a story

A. Slow Plot – a slow, dragging plot pace that is created when author uses difficult
vocabulary, complex/lengthy sentence structure and less action; very detailed

B. Quick Plot – a quick, fast-paced plot that is usually action-oriented with
simpler vocabulary and sentence structures


1. Exposition – the portion of a story in which character, setting and conflict
are introduced or established

2. Rising Action – the part of a story where the conflict builds; the events

leading up to the climax

3. Climax – the point of maximum tension or turning point in a work of

4. Falling Action – the part of a story following the climax where the conflict
begins to be solved

5. Resolution – a return to equilibrium in a story; the conflict is resolved

2. Setting – the time and place of a story or poem

  • The setting is usually dictated by genre and impacts plot events and characterization.

  • The setting is created through vivid description, and should involve as many of the five senses as possible (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste); the setting should be real in the mind of the reader.

On a rainy November morning in 1776, a soldier trod a solitary path along a road in western
Virginia. His gait was slow, and his face—barely visible beneath untold layers of grime—displayed an
anguished, exhausted expression.

3. Characterization – how a character is revealed to the reader through
the course of a story

  1. There are two ways a character can be revealed:

    • Direct – the author tells the reader exactly what the character is like

    • I
      What is dialogue? Dialogue is a conversation between characters. It adds to character development by showing character nervousness, intelligence, emotions, hesitations (etc.)

      • A well-developed character makes the story believable. The reader must care about the characters to care about what happens to them. That is what draws a reader in and makes them connect with a story.

      • Even though a character may be fantastic (an alien or a rabbit), if their personality is believable, then the characters will be believable.


      – the author develops the character through the 3D’s - detail,
      (of what the character does and how he/she does it) and



1. Round/Three-Dimensional– a character which receives full development of their
; readers can understand the character’s actions as being consistent with
their personality
2. Flat/One-Dimensional- a character that receives little personality development;
tends to be a supporting character
3. Dynamica character who changes, learns or grows due to the action or conflict of
the story
4. Static character who does not change or learn from the action or conflict of the
5. Protagonistthe main character of a story who must deal with the conflict
6. Antagonist – the character or force which causes conflict
7. Hero (heroine) – a character admired for his or her achievements or noble

-hero – a character whose actions may not seem noble and whose background may even be criminal, but they are the main character and their actions ultimately serve a good
epic hero – a character whose actions determine the fate of an entire people
tragic hero – the main character of a tragedy that comes to a bad end due to a flaw, whose downfall or death serves a greater purpose

(tragic flaw – the character trait that brings about a generally noble character’s own downfall)
8. Foil a character that is opposite in nature of the protagonist but is equal in abilities
9. Ambiguous Character – a character whose motivations or affiliations are unclear


4. Conflictthe struggle of opposing forces – the problem in a story which the

protagonist must deal with

  • Internal – a problem that occurs within the mind or body of the protagonist

  • External – a problem that occurs between the protagonist and an outside


  • Person vs. Person (society)

  • Person vs. Self

  • Person vs. Nature

  • Person vs. Fate (destiny)

  • Person vs. Technology

  • Person vs. Supernatural


5. POINT OF VIEW- the angle from which the story is told; who is telling
the story

  • Point of view is determined by looking at the narration (never look at dialogue to determine p.o.v.)

– the ‘speaker’ in a literary work, who seems to be telling the story


  • 1st person – when a character in a literary work relates the events from his or
    her perspective; uses the first-person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ in narration

I was standing alone at the corner of First and Main streets, simply minding my own
business. Suddenly,
I saw something which made me instantly suspicious…

  • 2nd person – when a story is narrated using the ‘you’ informal pronoun

You never knew what would happen when you stepped into the black hole, as it was called.

Would you fall into another world, to be met by another destiny far different from the one you
currently knew? Or, would
you disappear forever, never to be seen again by anyone or
anything, anywhere?
You simply did not know…

  • 3rd person – when an outside narrator relates the events of the story

Omniscient – when an outside narrator knows what all characters know
and think; an ‘all-knowing’ narrator
George preferred butter and grape jam on his toast, and his eggs cooked sunny-side
up, just right.
Lenny didn’t quite care what his breakfast was, just as long as he had
some, and fast. Little
Albert— all he wanted was his orange juice in his Mickey
Mouse cup and his animal crackers. The easiest things satisfied him…

Limited – when an outside narrator tells a story from one character’s
Jenny peered through her binoculars at the seagulls parading in the distance. She
was lost in her thoughts; captivated by the salty-sweet air surrounding
her on this sandy
rim of the Pacific Ocean…


6. Theme – the central meaning in a literary work; the message the author wants to
get across which is universal (true at all times and places)

  • The theme can be expressed by a one or two sentence statement about human beings or about life (themes should be applied beyond the text to life or people in general – themes are universal)

  • Some literary works may have more than theme.

  • The theme may be revealed in two ways:

Directly Stated – the theme is made clear by a specific sentence

(most often in essays/non-fiction)

Implied – other elements – the plot, tone/mood, characterization, conflict – suggest the theme; careful examination of these elements will reveal the theme (most often in poetry/fiction)

THEME: “Good is more than the absence of bad” (directly stated).


Others of importance, group a
simile, metaphor, personification, flashback, foreshadowing

1. simile – an indirect comparison between two objects using like or as

  • We use similes in our everyday speech (sly like a fox, crazy as a loon, dumb as a box of rocks, run like the wind, busy as a bee, slippery as an eel, and many more!)

  • Similes are used to create vivid descriptions

Her hair was like a ________________________, cascading over her shoulders.

The football player was huge. His arms were like ________________________.


2. Metaphor – a direct comparison between unrelated objects in which one
object is identified with the qualities of another

Because of the drought, the field was a checkerboard of green and brown.


The guitar was as loud as a jackhammer.

She was beautiful, like the golden sun.


The guitar was a jackhammer.

She was the golden sun.

That guy is a _______________________; he never gets tired.

3. personification- The giving of human qualities to non-human things.

The stars winked at us, one by one. (winking is a human quality given to the stars)
Our old car died in the dead of winter. (dying is a human quality given to the car)


4. flashback- when an author goes back in time to reveal important

  • A flashback gives the reader important information from the characters’ pasts that

has a direct impact on the current events in the story.


5. FORESHADOWING- hints in the story which suggest what will happen later
in the plot

  • Foreshadowing is used to create suspense

  • Will connect seemingly minor details with important events later; therefore, sometimes a foreshadowed clue is not obvious until later (when the reader’s knowledge of events is more complete)

I. Fill in the blanks in order to create similes of your own.

hard as ______________________

funny as ______________________

fly like _______________________

sweet as ________________________

eat like ________________________

swim like ________________________

II. Creating metaphors:

1. Think of an object: umbrella

2. To what will you compare it? a roof
3. Write your metaphor: The umbrella was a roof over my head.









III. Read the story below and circle the flashback.

Stephanie sat quietly, watching as the car pulled away from the old house one last time. All of her memories, and all of her childhood to that point, were moving forward now toward a new beginning in faraway California. This Oklahoma sunset, silhouetted by the lazy trees as they swayed in the breeze, would be the last she would see until the rural fields were replaced by bustling highways through the window of her father’s jeep.

Her 10th birthday party had been the best time of all. Wearing her brand new blue and white dress which she had been given by her grandmother, Stephanie ran through the yard with her friends, laughing and skipping until she could hardly stand up. There was too much fun to spoil it even a little by stopping. The birthday cake was huge, chocolate, and delicious—an instant energizer for even the most tired child. Her first double-digit birthday, with double-digit trick candles to mark the occasion. “I can’t --- whoosh--- blow---whoosh--- these out!” she had complained. Nevertheless, the ingenuity of her double-digit brain found a way to extinguish the flames.

Trick candles can teach such lessons, she thought, as the Jeep slowly made its way onto the main road. Six birthdays later, life was on fast-forward in more ways than one. California could be the biggest trick candle of all, as far as Stephanie knew. Yet, the little girl who wanted to run and never stop did not want to stop now, either—did not want to stop and rest. If California wanted to play tricks, she would be alert and learn them all. The Jeep obliged, rolling on through the afternoon and into the ever-changing night.

IV. Read the following story. Circle the details which foreshadow the ending.
About noon, Tom and Huck arrived at the haunted house, as previously arranged, to search for Murrell’s infamous buried treasure. They began to dig in the yard with their picks and shovels, but had no luck. They decided to explore inside the house for a clue. Tossing their tools to the side, they walked to the door and slowly went in.

“It sure is creepy, aint it?” remarked Huck.

“I’ll bet it is,” replied Tom, “but you want that money, now, don’t you?”
The house was of the old-fashioned kind, with a sunken roof, rotting floors, and a rickety old staircase which led to the second floor. It was a wonder it didn’t all fall down at any moment. Instantly, the wish to be an explorer seized Tom, and he wanted to go upstairs. Huck held back.
“I don’t want to, that’s all,” he said. “There’s old ghosts up there, sure.”
“Ghosts in the day time? Let’s go.”
Huck reluctantly agreed, and the two ascended, an eerie creak mocking their every step.

The upstairs was as broken-down as the bottom floor. There was a single window, and a closet which Tom ventured to see. Just as he was about the open the door, a voice was heard:

“WHAT! YOU come ON! This is a big job, and I’ll need your help in it!!”

Injun Joe! The boys instantly recognized the wicked villain’s voice and were gripped by terror. They didn’t dare move a muscle. “So much for our money, Hucky,” whispered Tom. “They’ll get it for sure.”

“Oh, lordy, lordy, I wish I was out of this,” replied Huck.

Injun Joe’s iron footsteps were approaching the house as he continued to speak. “That’s what it says! Right here…. now, get diggin’!”

“In the fireplace?” replied his partner.
“YES! Look here….’X’ marks it! Fireplace!”
They had the map! Tom and Huck’s hearts sank, in spite of their fear. They continued listening. After what seemed like an eternity of grumbling and old bricks hitting the floor, there was a sudden “Thump!”
“Ha, HA! THERE!” shouted Injun Joe, and the two men heaved the chest up onto the floor. It throttled the old boards with a jingle. Injun Joe shattered the lock and opened the lid. “Well, now look at YOU!” Mounds of gold coins ran through his greasy fingers.
“Now, what do we do with it? Bury it with the rest?” asked his partner.
“Yes!” replied Injun Joe, much to the delight of the boys. “Wait… no! NO! Those picks have fresh earth on them! Who brought those tools here?! Have you heard anybody? Seen anybody?!”

“I ain’t heard nothin’ at all,” said his partner.

“Do you reckon they could be upstairs?”
“Well, if they are, they’re in a mighty tight spot, ain’t they?”
“Wait here; I’ll go see. Hand me that knife!”
The boys’ breath completely stopped. Injun Joe was on his way up, and there was nowhere to go! Tom was just about to spring for the closet, when….


“Arghh!” came an angry cry. The staircase had completely collapsed, taking Injun Joe down with it!

“Now, what’s the use of all that? There ain’t nobody up there, anyway!” yelled his partner.
“Let’s go,” said Injun Joe, throwing the splinters. “We’ll take the money to my den. Move, now!”

Tom and Huck watched and waited as the robbers made their way across the field. The boys missed the treasure, at least this time; but they were happy just to reach the ground again without broken necks…


Others of importance, group b
allusion, hyperbole, idiom, irony, mood, tone, symbolism


1. allusion- a reference in a literary work to another literary work, character,
historical event, figure, or object; the reader is expected to understand the implied

  • Writers usually do not explain their allusions, they expect the reader to recognize the allusion and be familiar with its details.

  • The Bible and classical mythology are the two most commonly alluded to sources.

A new horseman of the apocalypse” alludes to the four horsemen who are said to represent the forces

which will cause the end of the world, according to the Bible.

2. HYPERBOLE- intentional overstatement or exaggeration
  • Writers use hyperbole to create humor, emphasize a point, or create dramatic

Ex. We’re swamped! Mr. Struchen assigned us 1,000 essays this week!
Ex. I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.

3. idiom- words or phrases used in different ways than their literal meanings;
an expression

Ex. That’s not the correct answer, but you’re in the ballpark.

(in the ballpark, is an idiom, making a reference to baseball – his answer isn’t actually in a ballpark, it means that his answer is close to being correct)

Ex. The line moved at a snail’s pace.

(snail’s pace is an idiom, making a reference to how slow a snail moves—there isn’t actually a

snail in the line)


4. irony- a reversal of expectation on the part of the characters and/or readers


  • verbal irony – when a character says one things but means the opposite

    Ex. A boy who is very upset yells, “I’m fine!!”

    Obviously, if he is yelling, he is not fine.

Sarcasm – a form of verbal irony; noted by a more obvious or biting tone
Ex. “They had to walk so far! I’ll bet they’re tired!”

  • dramatic irony – when the reader has more information about what is going to
    happen than the characters themselves

  • situational irony – when the reader or character expects one thing to happen, but
    the opposite occurs

    Ex. You stay up late cramming nervously for a test. When you come to class the

    next morning, you realize the test isn’t until the next day.

5. mood- the atmosphere created in a story by the author’s use of words and

  • Writers use many methods to establish a clear mood: setting, description, plot events, characterization.

  • The mood is established early and then sustained throughout the story.

    The policemen on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few. The time was barely ten o'clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had emptied the streets of anyone who might be left wandering…

MOOD: dark, mysterious


6. tone- the attitude the author takes toward the audience, subject, or character.

“don’t use that tone of voice with me.”

  • Tone can change the meaning of what is said. It can turn a statement like, "You're a big
    into either a genuine compliment or a cruel sarcastic remark.

  • Word choice and the pacing of events help to establish tone.

  • Unlike mood, tone can change. Notice the shift in the narrator’s attitude below:

    I would tell you everything from the beginning, but I don’t think you’d understand, and you
    probably don’t want to hear it, anyway. All I know is that it happened, and that’s enough for me.
    None of us who were there even knew what was going on until it was half over, and by then, it
    was far too late. So, how could any fool like you even begin to understand? You just couldn’t,
    that’s all.
    I do need some help, though. I need some answers from someone about all this…


7. SYMBOLISM- an item that is one thing, in and of itself, but that also stands for
or represents some greater meaning

  • Usually a symbol is a concrete (physical) object that represents an abstract idea.

  • Generally the reader must infer what the symbol stands for; the writer may not explicitly make it clear.

EX: eagle = freedom
chains = slavery/oppression

road = life or life’s journey

intersection of roads = a decision in life
dove = peace



  1. They help us analyze and understand the full meaning that the author wanted us to experience, and they give us a key to recognizing the deeper meanings that are present in a piece of literature.

  1. They can help us write our own stories with more detail, meaning, and coherence.

Like ingredients in a cake, literary elements blend together to create a story that is rich and layered in meaning.


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