Elements of Literature: What Are the Parts that Make a Story?

elements of literatureA term like “Elements of Literature” might seem kind of imposing.  In reality, you were exposed to each and every element of literature before you could even read.  Every story you have ever experienced has, in fact, contained all of these elements.  You may not have realized it at the time, but something as simple as “Green Eggs and Ham” has the same core structure, and same basic components as “King Lear”.

Narrative fiction, that is, the telling of a story, must follow certain patterns.  These patterns can be chopped up, rearranged, and sometimes purposefully hidden by the storyteller, but all the necessary elements are there.  No matter how complex or sprawling a story may be, it has a beginning, an end, a setting, a cast of characters, and a plot.  Being able to property identify those elements, and parse them out in an academic way does require a little literary direction, and a little practice.  That’s where this list comes in so you can write your book today.

Plot

Simply put, the plot is the sequence of events which make up a story.  It is everything that happens from the beginning to the end.  Crafting a good plot is essential to a story being understood.  Even though the story itself might be mysterious, or purposefully written out of order, at the end of the story, the readers and listeners should be able to grasp everything that happened.   As the story unfolds, the audience should experience emotional reactions, curiosity, and even an artistic appreciation for the story.  Plot is the most basic, but also the largest and most all-encompassing of the literary elements.

Typically, plots follow a specific pattern called an arc.  Beginning with “Exposition” wherein the stage is set, and characters are introduced, it next moves onto  a “Catalyst”.  Sometimes also referred to as the “Inciting Incident”, the Catalyst is the event which sets the story in motion.  The story then goes on to experience “Rising Action”, or the mounting of events leading up to the “Climax”, or turning point of the story.  The climax is often the most exciting or emotional part of the story.  Afterwards, the plot begins to descend into “Falling Action” which is where the characters hurtle towards the ending.  This phase of the story may be brief, but also tense, as the ending is still uncertain.  Finally, the plot ends in the “Denouement”, or the final resolution of the story.

Setting

The setting of the story is the location in which the events take place.  This backdrop could be in any geographic location, and in any time period (real or imagined).  Writing a compelling setting is one of the main elements of literature, and the sign of a talented author.  The setting helps to accent the mood and context of the story.  It helps the audience to understand the surrounding culture, landscape, and moment in time.  A story set in a speculative, totalitarian future will feel significantly different than a story set in rural America during the 1930s.

Character

A character is a person, animal, or any other being of significance in a story.  Characters are the vehicles by which the audience is able to travel through the plot and setting.  Whatever the characters experience is made known to the audience, and they are therefore able to feel and interpret the various situations in the story.

Characters can be numerous, or sparse.  There are several stories with only one character, while others have casts of hundreds -each given a unique voice.  If an author wants the audience to understand something important, or react to something in a certain way, they accomplish this through the thoughts, words and emotions attributed to the characters.

Characters will often include familiar archetypes like a hero, a villain, a fiend, a love interest, a rival, a mentor, and so on.  Characters can be “round”, meaning they have a lot of complexity and depth – or they can be “flat” meaning they are somewhat one-note and do not change much throughout the story.  It’s all a matter of what the story calls for in order for the author to get his or her point across.

Theme

Theme may be one of the more subtle elements of literature.  The theme of the story is different from the plot, because whereas the plot tells you what happened in the story, the theme tells you what the story was really about.  This is usually in terms of a single word or short phrase such as “Love”, “Jealousy”, “One person can make a difference”, or “The dangers of greed”.  Stories often have more than one theme.  Themes are central to the story, but often not explicitly stated by any of the characters.  Rather, theme becomes apparent by observing what the characters do, and how it effects them.

For instance, a novel such as “The Joy Luck Club” has themes of “Family”, “Tradition”, “Loss”, “Mothers and Daughters”, and “Immigration”.  All of these are concepts that are visible throughout the story, even if the characters never stop to specifically point them out.

A compelling theme can be a great start.  Begin writing your story today.

Mood

Mood is an overall feeling your audience can pick up from experiencing the story.  It is usually influenced greatly by the setting.  If a story were to be set in a boardwalk dance hall during the 1920s, the mood of that story might be raucous, frivolous, and perhaps a little seedy or dangerous.  Meanwhile, a story set at the peak of an uninhabited mountain might promote moods of loneliness, physical endurance, and isolation.

Audiences can also take a lot of cues from the narrator’s attitude.  Since the reader depends on the narrator to feed them the story, the way that character feels about the story, is often how the audience feels about the story.  The mood is presented via a characters actions and reactions.  Also related is the manner in which the story is written – sometimes called “diction“.  If a narrator’s diction is loose and unpolished, that creates an informal mood.  Likewise, if the narrator’s diction is gruff and profane, that gives the reader a pretty good feel for what the mood of the story will be.

Conflict

To put it simply, conflict is the “problem” present in every story.  It could manifest very literally as two characters physically fighting with one another, or it could be a little more abstract, like an unreasonable deadline on an important project.  Characters in a story are going to have different objectives and goals.  These are likely to clash and become incompatible at some point in the story.  When that incompatibility is brought up, that is when you will find the conflict in the story.

There are four basic types of conflict in the elements of literature.  They are:

Man against man:  Meaning one character in the story is up against another character.
Man against nature:  A character is at the mercy of the weather, the elements, the local fauna, or any other aspect of nature.  The character must overcome it in order to succeed.
Man against society:  Rather than one enemy, the character is at odds with the entire social and/or governmental structure of the story.
Man against self:  Something in the characters tendencies or actions are thwarting the chances of success.  The character is either literally or figuratively self destructive.

Besides just being present in familiar fiction stories, the elements of literature can be found in memoirs, and non fiction too.  Find the elements in your story by trying out “How to Write Your Life Story” at Udemy.